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Combat sans Hit Points

Fast fighting with realistic results

You may be aware of my love/hate relationship with hit points, which motivated me to consider alternatives in Chimera 2.0. My “must-have” features included simulation of wound effects (as opposed to the binary “you’re either healthy or you’re dead” status so common to hit points), and I wanted to decouple damage tolerance from character advancement (i.e., experience should have nothing to do with how much damage you can take). And while I know that hit points are more than than just these two limitations, we’ve broken up, and I’m not taking Hit Point’s calls anymore.

Anyway, the result of my machinations is below. No hit points, but still fast (faster?) and capable of realistic results without a lot of bookkeeping. And, if you’re sporting, you can adapt it to your own RPG system without too much hassle.

Yet Another Combat Variant?

I’m hoping the answer is “no.” Here’s why:

  • No hit points – I sound like a broken record, but it’s important. Instead of chipping away at a foe’s hit point total, damage is represented by wounds of varying severity. When a target is sufficiently wounded, he’s knocked out. But until that happens, each wound reduces his overall performance.
  • Hit Determination – A skill roll made by the attacker, independent of the target’s armour.
  • Armour absorbs damage – Armour prevents damage from reaching the target on a successful hit, though it doesn’t prevent a target from being hit.
  • Variable wound severity – damage that gets past armour is applied as a wound, which penalises subsequent Action Rolls. The deeper the wound, the greater the penalty; the more wounds you take, the worse you perform.
  • Wound limits – You can take only so many wounds (which are not the same as “points of damage”). Wound limit is also the maximum damage a combatant can sustain in a single blow. This allows “death by a thousand cuts” as well as “one-shot kills” (beloved by all roleplayers, everywhere).
  • Healing – Recovery is measured by reducing the severity of a combatant’s wounds, and thus his wound-based Action Roll penalty; getting healthy has an actual game effect.

Combat Sequence

Chimera’s combat system is built on the Action Roll mechanic, so it’s fast and easy to use. Combat time is measured in 10-second rounds, each comprised of the following sequence:

  1. Choose Actions
    Typical combat actions include attacking, moving, readying an item, wielding a power, or using a skill. You are limited to one action each round.
  2. Determine Initiative
    Roll 1d20 to determine Initiative; results are adjusted by your action’s Initiative Modifier (IM).
  3. Resolve Actions
    Actions are resolved in order of highest Initiative to lowest. Resolution is immediate, so it’s possible for a fast attacker to dispatch a slower foe before his turn comes up.

When everyone has resolved their action, the round ends. Unless the fight is over, you rinse and repeat as described above; combat encounters can last any number of rounds.

Attack Resolution

When attacking, make an Action Roll with either your Fight (mêlée) or Shoot (missile) skill. Possible outcomes of the Action roll are:

  • Critical Failure: Attack misses; reduce weapon Penetration (Fight) or force an Ammo Check (Shoot)
  • Normal Failure: Attack misses
  • Normal Success: Attack hits; roll 1 damage die
  • Critical Success: Attack hits; roll 2 damage dice

Damage Determination

When an attack hits, roll for damage and subtract the target’s Damage Resistance. The difference is the Wound Severity (WS; zero or negative values are ignored).

If the Wound Severity is less than the target’s Wound Limit, the target takes a wound, which imposes an Action Roll penalty equal to the amount of damage that got through. Wound severity is cumulative, so the effects of all wounds are applied as a single penalty.

If the total number of wounds, or the severity of any single wound, exceeds the combatant’s Wound Limit (WL), he’s knocked out of the fight and must make a CON check. Subtract the knock-out blow’s damage from the CON roll, and check results below:

  • Natural “1″: Instant death
  • Critical Failure: Barely conscious; death in 1d6 rounds unless healed
  • Normal Failure: Unconscious 1d6 hours, CON check or permanent injury
  • Normal Success: Unconscious 1d6 turns; CON check or temporary injury
  • Critical Success: Unconscious 1d6 rounds

This approach does make it harder to kill an opponent outright, though such can be assumed when an enemy is “left for dead.” More appropriately, though, the system accounts for combat injuries, which are almost always ignored in RPG combat mechanics. When applying injuries, the GM should consider an appropriate physical or mental flaw (or whatever your system’s equivalent is); temporary injuries last 3–8 (1d6+2) game sessions.

Healing

Damage is restored by reducing each wound’s severity. Each point healed reduces the severity of the wound tended; when the wound’s severity reaches zero (0), it is completely healed.

Wounds are best treated via the ministrations of a Healer, though certain technologies and powers may expedite the healing process. Wounds also heal naturally at the rate of 1 point of severity per week of complete rest (i.e., no activity beyond eating, sleeping, and moaning in pain).

Final Words

This system has been designed from the ground up, and it takes a little getting used to if you’re more familiar with hit point-based systems. But for all the detail you can capture, bookkeeping is simple, and combat becomes faster and a bit more interesting. Character death is rarer, but the threat of wound penalties and injury actually deters combat more than the risk of death.

If you opt to incorporate this or poach a few ideas, please post a comment—I’d love to hear if this system gets some play out there.

  1. November 12th, 2009 at 22:59 | #1

    Hello, first comment from a potential rival. I am currently in the midst of writing a generic RPG system that seems to have been based upon a number of the same trains of thought as yourself. Fortunately they appear different enough that I think I can contribute some different ideas.

    My system uses attributes for health. Your attributes have a permanent score and a current value. When you take a wound, your current value decreases which in turn naturally provides a wound penalty. That might be viable in Chimera as well; the attribute score would decrease by one each wound until they become worse then -3 perhaps.

    Just idle musing from a systems geek. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  2. November 13th, 2009 at 20:42 | #2

    Jason – thanks for commenting. Rival or not, glad to see you here. :)

    If nothing else, the variety of RPGs available today (including the so-called retro-clones) tells me that there’s plenty of room for all of us. It’s unlikely that anything will dominate the market like D&D did of yore, so we write what we think is cool, makes our jobs as GMs easier, and gives our players a good time.

    Your use of attributes makes sense – basically, you’re recognising that wounds reduce performance – just use whatever stat or modifier in your game reflects that best. Attributes wouldn’t work for Chimera, which is why it applies a blanket penalty to Action Rolls (alternatively, it could affect movement rate, damage rolls, and damage resistance).

    For this to work, all you need to do is impose some penalty for being wounded (which you’ve covered), assign a maximum amount of wounds before death, and establish a healing system that lets you restore wounds (or reduce the penalty they cause).

    Which is all a better way to handle damage than hit points. It might be too “simulationist,” (?) but that’s what I wanted Chimera to do. Thanks again for posting!

  3. Jake
    November 17th, 2009 at 04:54 | #3

    Sounds alot like the Riddle of Steel wound system. Almost exactly like it, actually, minus all the tables. I’ve adapted something sort of like this to most RPGs I run, since it is indeed a very solid idea. Problem is that SOME games count on the whole “healthy as a hores or dead as a doornail” dichotomy, and messing with it can really make even MORE work for you to do. Which is why some people make their own systems, I guess.

    Anyway, I just came accross this blog from a link at roleplayingtips.com, and was impressed with your articles. I’ll totally be subscribing.

  4. November 17th, 2009 at 21:06 | #4

    I’ll have to check out Riddle of Steel – the tables are probably interesting. Oddly enough, I just started getting familiar with Classic Traveller, and I was surprised/smugly gratified to see that its damage system has some parallels.

    I think my biggest beef with hit points is the binary element – healthy or dead, as you say. Combat gets into boring slugfests and, as often as not, he who has the most hit points wins. Zzzzzzzz.

    I’m interested on how your system works. Glad to see you here – thanks for posting!

  5. November 19th, 2009 at 06:17 | #5

    “When attacking, make an Action Roll with either your Fight (mêlée) or Shoot (missile) skill.”

    How does a defender’s skill at combat affect the probability of a hit?

  6. November 19th, 2009 at 14:46 | #6

    In short, it doesn’t. There are traits that mitigate or nullify the effects of a successful hit, but they don’t affect hit probability. For example, Block improves a shield’s protection, Buttress does the same with armour. Grizzled improves Knock-out rolls, Tough improves damage resistance, and Stalwart lets you ignore a certain amount of wound severity.

    That said, if you want to improve a combatant’s defence, maybe a couple of traits do the job:

    Parry
    Allows you to use hand-held weapons to block incoming melee blows.
    I: Reduce attacker’s Action Roll by 0-2 (1d6-4), plus your Fight SB
    II: Reduce attacker’s Action Roll by 0-4 (1d8-4), plus your Fight SB
    III: Reduce attacker’s Action Roll by 0-8 (1d12-4), plus your Fight SB

    Counterstrike
    Allows you to exploit weaknesses in an attacker’s fighting style.
    I: Make a free strike when foe’s melee attack results in Critical Failure
    II: Make a free strike when foe’s melee attack results in Normal Failure
    III: Make a free strike when foe’s melee attack results in Normal Success

    I suggest traits because then you’re not touching the core mechanics; only characters with the trait get the ability, so it’s easier to retain game balance. Plus it helps differentiate combat encounters, since not all combatants will have these abilities.

  7. Mark
    November 19th, 2009 at 15:24 | #7

    Nice site. I enjoyed what I’ve read, and need to make time to read everything.

    You wrote: “I wanted to decouple damage tolerance from character advancement (i.e., experience should have nothing to do with how much damage you can take).”

    I understand what you mean, but there is a relation between experience and durability, as evidenced by the brutality that professional fighters can withstand. Fight training does increase muscle mass and bone density, which translates into being better able to withstand damage.

  8. November 19th, 2009 at 15:42 | #8

    I really like those two traits. In fact, I think they’re darn-near mandatory…otherwise, in a Marvel Superhero game, the Green Goblin would find Spider-Man is no harder to hit than Aunt May.

  9. November 19th, 2009 at 19:33 | #9

    Point taken, Mark. My statement was poorly worded. What I should have said was something like, “I wanted to decouple automatic combat benefits from character advancement (i.e., combat ability can be improved by characters as they advance, but only if they deliberately acquire the appropriate traits).”

    In Chimera (which is my favourite example), you can choose a lot of different traits to hone your combat abilities, including resistance to damage or wound effects (see my previous comment to Rich). But they’re not automatic in the way that, for instance, you get hit points every time you gain a level. The deliberate choice part–where you select specific traits for specifically desired characteristics–is what I was aiming for.

  10. November 19th, 2009 at 19:34 | #10

    Rich, I see what you’re saying. I think it boils down to how you envision the fight sequence. In movies, combat survivability seems as much about deflecting or soaking up damage as avoiding blows–perhaps moreso. Spiderman gets hit a lot in the films. In fact, he takes a terrific amount of physical punishment–ripped costume, bloody scratches, messed up hair. But his ability to absorb/ignore the damage makes him hard to put down.

    So (ignoring Spiderman’s ability to completely dodge attacks) I’d say that Green Goblin would hit Spidey and Aunt Mae with equal probability. But Spidey can withstand the damage much, much better that Auntie–he’ll get banged up in the process, and maybe even take an actual wound or two, but it’s very unlikely that he’ll actually succumb to being hit. Aunt Mae, unfortunately, probably won’t make it past the first pumpkin bomb.

    BTW, this is exactly why Chimera uses a modular trait system. If you think a given trait should be applied universally (i.e., it should be part of the core mechanics), you can simply make it so. If you decide that only those who work for it get it, of you want to restrict its distribution to maintain balance, keep it as a trait. It all depends on how you want to run your game.

  11. Jake
    November 20th, 2009 at 13:15 | #11

    @Mark
    Yeah, but that’s just for unarmed fighting. You can train 24/7 and you probably won’t be any better at taking bullets to the chest than a newb.

  12. Jake
    November 20th, 2009 at 13:19 | #12

    @Erin Smale
    Sadly, I think Riddle of Steel is out of print. A real shame. If you see a copy for a reasonable price, snatch it up.

    I don’t think hitpoints are really all that bad providing that damage scaled along with it. Sadly, in most HP games, you gain more hitpoints per level of advancement than you do damage. Tword higher levels, it really DOES become a grind. As you said, zzzzzzz…

  13. November 20th, 2009 at 19:47 | #13

    @Jake
    You stated the point I was trying to make better than I did – automatic hit points for level advancement unbalances the campaign because you need opponents that deal out all sorts of hurt just to keep characters from trouncing everything they encounter. At low levels, there’s better balance, but at higher levels, it really does get harder to suspend disbelief. When beholders and drow pop up from behind every rock – just because they’re the only monsters capable of challenging the party – I think that’s a problem.

  14. November 20th, 2009 at 19:58 | #14

    @Jake
    While I agree that getting shot is a good way to get wounded, I think I understand where Mark is coming from. I read a lot of WWII history, and (with all respect due to servicemen), I’m constantly surprised by how much physical punishment a fit and well-trained GI, Landser, or partisan can take and still survive. That casualties are typically higher than KIA suggests that there’s a physical aspect that lets some absorb damage better than others.

    BTW, Chimera treats unarmed combat damage as fatigue, which can eventually be fatal, but it’s largely non-lethal damage unless you get a serious beat down.

    PS – Unless I’m mistaken, your email address tells me you read a lot of WWII history, too ;)

  15. Balesir
    February 10th, 2010 at 08:38 | #15

    This was done by HârnMaster back in 1985 or so. The latest editions are available here (http://www.kelestia.com/index.php) and here (http://www.columbiagames.com/). Why two? Don’t ask…

    The only dubious point taking into account current research is that it is doubtful that wounds that do not incapacitate should inhibit a combatant any more than the mechanical effects they have on his or her body’s operation. The key here is “wounds that do not incapacitate” – as non-lethal wounds may well do this for physical or psychological reasons.

  16. February 10th, 2010 at 12:44 | #16

    @Balesir : I was just discussing the very complex and colour-coded Hârnmaster combat matrix with a gamer friend last week. I like the outcomes, but found (when I ran a Hârnmaster campaign waaaay back in the day) that I didn’t do well having to refer to it for every attack during a fight.

    From a realism standpoint, it’s debatable that wound penalties (or, at least, the effects of certain wounds) would significantly penalise the target. But from a game mechanics perspective, the method above is simply designed to give wounds more impact than merely losing hit points. That said, the next incarnation of Chimera (hint, hint) will handle wound penalties in a slightly different way.

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