Digging into the excellent Emperor’s Notepad blog, I came across this post: You are (probably) doing it wrong: Hit points, literature, and D&D.
Oh, really? You’re going to defend hit points? Bring it on! Good luck, because I have NOT been doing it wrong, and… Oh. Well, you’ve got a pretty good point there.
Well, yes, as it turns out, I have been doing it wrong. I’ve misunderstood hit points almost completely. (The featured image at the top of this post? Yeah, that’s not really how hit points work.) If you’ve ever thought (like me) that hit points were ridiculous and pointless, go read the Emperor’s Notebook and see how hit points actually DO work.
So, knowing now that the HP mechanic actually does make sense and works quite well for its intended purpose — even if we’ve mostly forgotten what that was — what happens to my plan to do away with them entirely?
Not much, honestly. I no longer think hit points belong in the dustbin of gaming history, but I still don’t want to use them in my game system. I’m still going with a wound-based, entirely hit-point-free system.
But before I try to explain why, let me insert a caveat here. I’m glad I found the Emperor’s pondering on the subject; I understand a fundamental element of tabletop RPGs better because of it, and it helped me clarify my thinking. And I’m not pretending I’m better than Gygax or any other maker or student of games. Far from it. I’m just saying that after putting some more thought into it, I still believe going away from hit points is a sound game-making decision — even if I didn’t really know what I was doing when I made it.
So here’s what I think now that I understand hit points better.
The pros and cons of hit points
Hit points mean that heroes can’t be felled by just any adversary. We don’t play roleplaying games so we can be unceremoniously slain by some random mook. The progressive loss of hit points represents skilled, determined adversaries probing, testing, and wearing each other down as they look for that crucial, final opening that ends it all. That’s a cool thought.
They’re easily scaled, which is a big benefit. The more hit points a player character has, the more heroic potential. The bigger/tougher/eviler the adversary, the more HP it has. Simplicity is a virtue.
However, there are balance problems. If applied to non-adversarial parts of the game, for instance fall damage, hit points can yield ridiculous results. A 10th level character is subject to the same laws of physics as a 1st level one…unless you’re applying damage in terms of hit points. And you need special rules to account for helpless adversaries and such.
Also, hit points are a combat-based abstraction. Noncombat actions get short shrift when HP is the measure. Which, if you’re doing classic dungeon crawls or Conan-style game scenarios, is perfectly fine. But sometimes, important, fun game scenarios don’t center on combat. It might be wise to provide for those, too. (And then there are spells, so many of which don’t involve hit points at all…but FAR Western doesn’t have magic, so no need to go there right now.)
And then there’s the part where hit points are such an oblique way of measuring the hero factor that even diehard gaming nerds may fail to grasp what it actually represents, and people who know a lot more about making games than I do routinely fail to make it clear to the players of their games.
The pros and cons of a non-hitpoint system
Although I still plan to use a wound-based system, I realize that it (or any other non-HP system) does have weaknesses and drawbacks.
Wound-based combat on its own can’t simulate the heroic function. PCs, NPCs, heroes, villains, and expendable mooks all get taken out by any given wound the same way. It’s more true to life, but doesn’t intrinsically lend itself to playing a heroic character.
Wound-based combat also isn’t scalable by level, which means it could have less appeal to people who love the advancing-through-experience part of RPGs (which is almost everyone). Also, in game terms, if there’s no wound, then basically nothing happened. That could potentially be less interesting than husbanding your hit points (aka your pool of heroic potential) to keep small wounds and bruises from spiraling into a deadly situation.
However, a wound-based system does have some inherent advantages in simulating combat.
For one thing, it lends itself perfectly to a critical-damage system, which is something Rolemaster got me hooked on. I think there’s more immersion when combat results are expressed directly in terms of blood, broken bones, and torn flesh.
And having specific critical/wound results on hand removes a burden on the GM/DM. I don’t know about anyone else, but I often find it hard to come up with detailed results for successful strikes on the spur of the moment; it’s far too easy to just say “you hit for 8 hp” and leave it at that. But I don’t want to. I want to know (instantly, if possible) what those 8 lost hit points feel like to whoever lost them.
For games that focus on modern weaponry — as FAR Western does with firearms — wound-based systems are a superior way to simulate combat. Hit point systems are unavoidably janky when it comes to weapons that can kill instantly from a distance. They tend to have the same problem as fall-damage, in that once a bullet or laser hits your flesh (or you reach terminal velocity), you’re in the hands of the gods of physics, and they don’t answer prayers for heroes or anyone else. If your character hits what he aimed at, the result is concrete. Having to head-shot a human enemy 3 times is ridiculous.
The bottom line
The whole basis of RPGs is that they quantify literary mechanics; they transform the experience of stories being told to us into heroic deeds done vicariously by us. And since we’re story-based creatures, those imaginary heroic deeds we do at the gaming table inevitably become a new, emergent story of their own. (The circle is thus complete! Bwahahahaha!)
So that’s what hit points were invented to facilitate. They’re a brilliant idea, but not the only way to do it. And maybe not even the best way to do it.
When not defined — and limited — by such a broad numerical abstraction, the heroic aspects of a character become something that players can more actively and purposefully manage in every action and encounter. So you get more engagement and more latitude to play whatever kind of gaming scenario floats your boat. At least, that’s what I hope will happen.
To me, choosing a different way to quantify and simulate the heroic function in tabletop roleplaying is an exciting opportunity to step outside the box a little bit and do things differently. And maybe…I hope…better.
Have I missed anything important? Am I wrong (again, still)? Am I totally brilliant (again, still)? Leave a comment and let me know.