Hit Points and the merit of abstractions

Someone months ago was trolling me online about how “the OSR does not innovate” and was lamenting that hit points are dumb.

Yeah, hit points are dumb. They are an abstraction and abstractions, as a rule, leak.

The alternative is to assess wounding as things: wounds become first-order concepts and somehow an excess of wounds kills you.

Maybe they kill you because you can take only a limited number of wounds before being incapacitated. And maybe there are various types of wounds, but they have more complex rules on how you can reach the maximum; for example you can take only 4 wounds, but any wound that is more than half of your constitution counts as two wounds. But this approach is simply replacing hit points with different, chunkier hit points, with maybe more interesting interaction. Still hit points.

The other option is to replace hit points with affects (status effects). So, for example, this is an example I just came up with:

  • any wound that is less than 1/4 Con simply gives -2 to hit and AC and +2 to any damage received for 3 rounds. So you can just do full defence for a bit and recover. It’s still a pain to be on the receiving side.
  • any wound that is more than than and less than 2/3 Con gives -2 to hit and +2 to any damage received for 1 week. That’s some interesting damage.
  • any wound that is more than than gives -2 to hit and AC and +2 to any damage received for 1 month, plus save or die.

Or any damage taken causes a roll on the Internal Organs Are Supposed To Be Internal Table table. Or whatever.

This kind of handling has a problem. No, not the Death Spiral. Death Spirals can be fun. The problem is that not only it gives you penalties, but these penalties stack and they increase the cognitive load for the player. Is the purpose to make combat more interesting or to force harder math on players? Granted, it’s slightly harder math, but both it makes for a harder game through modifiers and harder because of the cognitive load. Increasing cognitive load as a mechanical negative consequences in RPGs is not something I’m keen on. I’m only keen on incresing cognitive load if the choices it creates are interesting.

And it’s not just a newbie thing. Image a combat of the PCs against a mage, its fighter pal and 5 ogre flunkies. The NPCs will have a number of stacking affects, and there are 7 of them, and some of those affects will expire, at different times and blargh. You could make it simpler by making all affects lasting at least until the end of the turn or making some bigger and some smaller but then again accounting.

Another option is to use saving throws to avoid dying. But this means that a small wound might kill you, but if it can’t kill you you are immune to small damage unless you use affects and then you are using affects anyway. Mutant & Masterminds IIRC does a smart thing where each wound needs a save, and the first slightly failed save gives you a no-stacking affect that makes subsequent saves harder. But that IIRC wears off.

So I’m happy with hit points for monsters. Stack the damage. No consequences until they run out. Easy to handle. I’m fine with keeping the combat abstract. For players, as always, talk to your players and see if they want to try something, and see what works.