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.


3 thoughts on “Hit Points and the merit of abstractions

  1. I appreciate your points about simplicity, but plain ol’ standard D&D type HPs often ruin my day, or at least my immersion. Here are a couple of examples:

    1. When I was a relatively new player, the DM said something like, “What a hit! Your dagger cuts across his neck, blood spraying everywhere. He’s still standing, but he’s almost down!” Then the villain casts a spell, and I ask the DM, “How can he cast a spell with his throat essentially cut?” And the DM explained that he was just trying to get the idea across that the villain was at 1 HP. As an experienced player, I now know to ignore the flavor, but I still wince when a DM says something like “You stabbed his leg, and blood, and gushing…” and a fellow player, a noob like I once was, tries to run from the monster, who still pursues him at normal speed.

    2. My 1st level PC recently surprised and killed two opponents with one blow each, and I was a bit sad, because I realized that he will never, ever do that again once he reaches higher levels, because hit points. (Well, I could kill two much weaker opponents in the same way, but the two opponents I faced were more or less my equals, or close enough that it felt cool).

    I think that WFRP has an elegant solution: Anything that merely does HP damage doesn’t do serious damage unless it is a crit, and anything that takes you below 0 HP is automatically a crit.

    Anyway, thanks for the column — it was food for thought!

  2. aren’t role-playing games inherently all about abstraction? I think a lot of people’s preferences are influenced by how much abstraction they want to put up with. To say that any fantasy or sci-fi RPG is more or less “realistic” is, you know, a little silly, but still a useful comparison.

    BTW, what is OST? I’ve been seeing it pop up on a lot of RPG blogs. I’m kinda new to the whole thing. Just wondering.

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