One of the tropes that is often poorly explained in RPGs is hit points.

One of the tropes that is often poorly explained in RPGs is hit points.

One of the tropes that is often poorly explained in RPGs is hit points. It’s an abstraction that represents how close you are to defeat. But what does it mean in terms of the fiction?

Let’s say you have 20 HP, and an orc stabs you for 5. What does that mean? Have you been deeply stabbed? Mortally wounded? Not really. You have 15 hit points left. So what happened? What did the orc do to you? How have you been brought to 3/4 capacity?

Well, you got hit with a big ol’ sword. So no, you’re not bleeding out. But HP damage is supposed to be relatively easy to heal, right? Instead, HP can be thought of as staying power. HP isn’t actually health. Its an abstraction of fatigue, close calls, and small wounds. Once they hit a certain point you just can’t get out of the way anymore and get a fatal wound.

23 thoughts on “One of the tropes that is often poorly explained in RPGs is hit points.”

  1. HP are binary and ablative – you are either fine with no mechanical penalty or you face the black gates. Its odd to then equate HP with your ‘injury status’. Wounded folks are debilitated instead. Invoke those tags for mechanical effect.

    Thus I encourage you to make the small narrative shift to regard HP as your character’s ‘mistake potential’ in a physically threatening situation. Stress if you will. Fighter’s are naturally having more potential for making mistakes than wizards. Folks with greater endurance and health can suffer more stress before they make a fatal mistake. Monsters swinging swords at you or Evil sorcerers casting spells at you or rocks falling on your head will erode this potential, until the point at which you suffer a deadly blow.

    Add wound debility tags to your character’s injuries to narratively suggest a gradual decline. The system works fine as is, the HP trope is a carry over from D&D as a love letter and works just fine. 

  2. David Guyll Dragonquest had a two pool split. Fatigue which you could recover rather quickly and Endurance which was actual bodily harm. Normally in a fight fatigue would get exhausted and endurance only after fatigue was gone.  Critical hits aka grievous injury would go directly to endurance and would often takes days, week or months to recover. The game used a percentile system and direct endurance damage required the player to roll under 15% or their given base chance and 5% to land a grievous. 

  3. Sure David Guyll  I agree, its not perfect. So folks have come up with really cool ways of doing away with the HP paradigm (including your good self!) since the first iteration of the game.

     Some of the more severe iterations, deal away with HP and have a ‘scale’ of narrative potential.

    I personally REALLY like Vincent’s new game Dark Age, that reflects damage to your ability to leave your mark on the world at large. Awesome!

    Small home rules are in the spirit of the game anyways, as the hacking chapter alludes to. I don’t think you are really mucking with the agenda or principles, though the moves are certainly getting shifted to incorporate whatever flavour of damage condition you have implemented.

    In answer to your questions, um, I was referring to the standard debilities, and sure! I inflict them as a hard move ALL the time, dealing damage as a condition, or in addition to HP damage.

    I ‘double down’ on debilities even though the rules say not to. I write them down as a sticky note with a description that helps in the narrative. Like ‘head injury – Stunned (-1 Int)’.

  4. HP don’t mean anything in regards to the fiction, because they’re a holdover from a period when that wasn’t a thing, when RPGs were only a couple steps removed from their wargaming larval stage. 

    It’s like wondering what the pen you used to fix all your cassettes means in regards to your CD collection.

  5. I struggle with hit points , esp in d and d.

    Being hit with 5 arrows or falling 100 feet and living…

    Prefer runequest 6. Armpit helps but if you take a decent blow to an arm, it is cut off, broken or serious wound.

    Reading a ruleset called trauma at the mo.

  6. Book:

    A character’s health is measured by their hit points (HP).

    A character’s HP is a measure of their stamina, endurance, and health. More HP means the character can fight longer and endure more trauma before facing Death’s cold stare.

  7. I’ve never seen that HP and the associated damage scale for weapons was in any way representative of what weapons can actually do. I can, relatively easily, kill someone with a steak knife or box cutter, or grievously wound them with a sharpened #2 pencil. I’d have a much more difficult time (substantially more than a -3 untrained attack would suggest) killing someone with a great sword.

  8. I played a game with an elf who, whenever he took damage, took it as 100% cosmetic.  A rip in his shirt, a thin cut on the cheek, his hair becoming unravelled, dirt on his face…basically went the Samurai Jack route.  That was just how he took damage, other characters took it in different ways.  

    I think it’s ok to change it up in the fiction on the fly.  The barbarian takes several arrows and knives to the gut and keeps on charging on, then gets healed by the cleric and the wounds magically heal over.  The ranger gets weary and tired and is ready to literally drop dead from exhaustion, the cleric magically renews his energy.  The wizard loses concentration and comes nearer to letting the cosmic power she wields completely overwhelm her, the cleric helps return her focus.

    Thank you, cleric.

  9. I guess I now like the grittiness, it started with merp and the idea that 5 orcs are seriously dangerous… Then into HERO and runequest…

    I like the idea 4 or 5 opponents are dangerous , regardless of size.

    I like the idea the heroes are special but still consider a troll very dangerous.

  10. David Guyll  What would happen in Vigor ran out but Wounds didn’t? Would they just be unconscious? Unable to fight? I like the idea but there are some fiddly elements to it.

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