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Wherefore Hit Points?

Hit Points — neither hits nor points…discuss

Hit points can be a controversial subject within RPG circles. At their most basic, hit points are a numeric pool representing a character’s ability to withstand damage. With some subjective and mildly complex interpretation, hit points can represent intangible aspects such as luck, fate, skill, stamina, and sheer force of will. In game terms, though, hit points are supported by one simple fact: when they’re gone, your character is in big trouble.

A Brief History of Hit Points

When I began playing D&D® ages ago (read: early 1980s), hit points were a satisfactory indicator of how much damage a character could take before he died. Easy enough, until I began scrutinising books and movies to fuel my D&D campaigns. There were a lot of scenes in which castle guards, gibbering goblins, and even mighty warriors and kings were dispatched with a single sword thrust, an arrow to the heart, or a lucky blow to the head with a club. Cinematically, it made for a good story. But in (D&D) game terms, there were problems: either the victim had hit points in the single digits or the weapon used caused a lot more damage than the rulebooks said. Or both.

When your D&D characters are low-level and their opponents have few hit dice, it’s possible to kill (or be killed) with a single blow. When your characters are stronger and their foes more powerful, the combination of your target’s hit points and the mathematical damage you can inflict break the cinematic vision, and in many ways, this leads to the ever-popular criticisms of an RPG’s ability to simulate combat: most every fight turns into a (boring) slug-fest of attrition. Put simply: He who has the most hit points wins.

Then there was the realism of hit points. Frankly, they had none. Could a human warrior really withstand being hit with 22 arrows? In game terms, he could, if he had 80 hit points, and each arrow did 3.5 points of damage. Well, there was Boromir, and he took a lot of Uruk-hai arrows to the chest, but he’s an extreme example—no quasi-realistic campaign has more than one or two Boromir’s running about.

A great many mechanical tweaks surfaced to address such issues. Vorpal swords in D&D could decapitate a foe with a lucky die roll. D&D also had arrows of slaying that could dispatch a target with a single hit. ICE’s RoleMaster had intricate damage tables and critical hit results that allowed your character to kill with a single blow (or, more likely, break a bone, make a deep cut, slowly strangle, or otherwise seriously debilitate a foe). Problems arose, however. Vorpal blades and Slaying arrows were supposed to be rare, so they really weren’t viable. RoleMaster tables, while realistic (and amusing) were hardly playable. A bewildering variety of critical hit and critical damage “house rules” were appealing, but rarely balanced (for a lengthy discussion on this, see Deadly Wounds and Balanced Combat by this author in OD&DITIES #11).

As RPGs matured, so too did the concept of hit points and what they were supposed to represent. A growing trend was to link hit points with fatigue, or, in game terms, how a character’s dwindling hit points impacted his ability to do things. Easy enough to rationalise that if full hit points represented full health and zero hit points represented zero health, it must follow that half hit points somehow represented “half-health.” Hard to make it work, though.

The way most games handled hit points, it didn’t matter if your character had 50hp or 1hp—he could still act without penalty. He could fight, move, cast spells, perform thievery, turn undead, or a host of other things at the same level of ability, regardless of his hit point total. Admittedly, this ruling is more in line with that outlined in D&D’s origins, and I suspect that the nuances of connecting current hit points with current performance were simply not part of what the game was all about.

Still, it was an issue because it didn’t matter if the vampire your party was fighting was down to his last hit point—he was still capable of acting like he was at full strength. In this way, foes became somewhat binary in scope—they performed at 100% or not at all. This made it easy when it came to game mechanics, but made it impossible to see the effects of “whittling down” one’s opponent in a fight.

My Feeble Attempts to Fix Hit Points

So, naturally, I had to address this in Chimera. Originally, I got rid of them entirely. Everyone could withstand the same number of wounds, only some creatures and characters were more vulnerable than others. On paper it made sense, but in practice (thanks to my faulty maths) it was actually possible, given the right set of circumstances, for a foe to be completely invulerable after taking a certain amount of damage. Hmmmm.

So I re-evaluated hit points. In some ways, there were good: they were a good numerical representation of damage resistance, to be sure. And, if they tied into weapon damage, they helped differentiate this weapon from that. OK…hit points could stay, but I was back to the drawing board.

I played around with providing a penalty as hit points dwindled; the penalty applied to movement, AC, and any rolls (like saves or “to-hit”). My first attempt was to base it on percentages, so the penalty was based on what percentage of hit points were left (i.e., at 25% of total, the penalty was -1; at 10% it was -2; at 1% or less, it was -4). But even this wave of my statistical wand didn’t really make sense in game context. For example, a fighter with 100hp would receive a -2 penalty when he was reduced to 10hp; a fighter with 10hp wouldn’t get the same penalty until he got to 1hp. Also, it slowed down game play to determine at what percentage thresholds these penalties applied. Strike one.

Next, I tried to get rid of percentages and apply penalties at static hit point values like -1 at 4hp, -2 at 2hp, or something like that. Problem with this is that low HD characters and monsters would be operating at a penalty without taking damage (e.g., a 1st-level magic-user with 3hp). Another strike.

My third attempt was to add a general condition called “rattled,” which was what happened to someone who’s severely fatigued, in extreme mental or physical duress, or the like. One could get rattled for a number of reasons (possibly avoided with a save), but the penalty was -1 for every two levels of whatever rattled you. Still, it didn’t really address the “fighting ability at low hit points” issue—it was better at simulating the problems of crossing a desert without water, marching all day without rest, or adventuring with lack of sleep. Strike three. I was out.

The Hit Point Solution?

Turns out the Babylonians had discovered the key: the answer was to make zero hit points the threshold from healthy to not-so-healthy and apply performance penalties at negative hit point levels. In Chimera, everyone has a hit die type, so it became a simple matter to integrate hit die value into the negative hit point concept.

In a nutshell, characters and monsters fire on all cylinders until they reach 0hp. At 0hp, they’re “shaken” and operate with a -1 penalty to movement, AC, and all action rolls. Until they reach negative hit points equal to their hit die type, they’re alive, but operate at increasing penalties, passing from shaken to “wounded” (penalty of -2 from -1hp to half their hit die), then to “dying” (-4 penalty from half their hit die to their full hit die), then finally dying when their negative hit point total exceed their hit die type. For example, a human with d6 hit die is shaken at 0hp. From -1hp to -3hp, he’s wounded with a -2 penalty; from -4hp to -6hp, he’s dying with a -4 penalty. At -7hp, he’s dead.

To keep things balanced, characters and monsters in Chimera do not automatically gain hit points when they advance. Instead, they have to buy the Hit Points trait to add another hit die to their hit point total. This prevents characters from running around with a ridiculous 100hp—at least, it prevents them from doing so without spending advancement points to actually earn 100hp. In this way, it’s possible for highly experienced characters to have relatively low hit point totals, or for generally inexperienced characters to have better-than-average hit point totals. Like every other aspect of Chimera, hit point totals are flexible, so you could have two fighters of equal ability, but varied hit point totals. Or you could have strong monsters with low hit points, or vice versa. Coupled with other traits like Unstoppable or Suck it Up, you can play with how hit points are counted or lost, and inject more variation into the game without having to tweak any of the core mechanics. And with certain combat traits that let you deal out extra or above-average damage, your character can still accomplish one-shot kills, which is really what I wanted all along.

In the end, hit points remain a solid indicator for a character’s ability to withstand damage. They’re tried and true, if imperfect. And while Chimera’s use of hit points are based on a long tradition, we hope that our interpretation makes for a more playable (and passably realistic) game.

  1. November 15th, 2009 at 10:58 | #1

    UPDATE - Nov 15 2009

    While I stick by my observations above, Chimera 2.0 does away with hit points entirely. Later, ‘hp’.

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