Hit Points! Arrgh! Hit Points!

I’ve had a crazy schedule lately and in order to stay sane I’ve started working on a little gaming project in my off-time. Working on this little role-playing project has been fun but I started working on combat, especially damage, and I’ve been considering how I want damage to work.

In my years as a gamer, I’ve played a lot of different systems — with a lot of different health/damage/hit point systems. All-in-all, I’ve come to realize over the years that hit points (or simple variations on the hit point theme) are common for a reason… They’re easy and they work well. Hit Points do a great job of abstracting damage while at the same time tracking combat attrition well. They are also easy to track and easy to adjudicate.

But I want to do something else. I think hit points are a fine system but one thing I’d like to use the damage system to model better is the “attrition” nature of combat. That is to say — I’d like “damage” to do something more than simply take off hit points.

For most games — even games with a lot of maneuvers or combat options — even the stunts in Dragon Age — it is a rare event when inflicting damage is not the best choice. Getting an opponent to the end of their damage capacity is generally the best course. So how can I change that? And why would I want to change that?

In my head I’ve been thinking about a lot of the fight scenes from different stories. It’s always a matter of who gets tired first, or a small thing that changes the momentum of a fight. I’m thinking about the sword fights in the Amber novels, where the fights turned on getting that hint of advantage over an opponent — physical, psychological, whatever that sets a tone for the fight. And then, additionally, I’m thinking about the whole “Rocky” effect. The whole, I get beat on but then I rally to win.

And despite all this thinking, and tinkering, and reading… I keep coming back to a hit point variation and thinking that it might just be the best way to go.

Anyone else just fed up with Hit Points?

Thanks for Reading.


13 responses

  1. Have you looked at how I handle attribute damage in Errant?

    Hit points are just treated as a kind of exhaustion measurement. When exhausted, you actually deal attribute damage to the target.

    I think it creates interesting dynamics on both sides when things get nasty. It encourages surrender as a realistic option to avoid serious injury once you realize you are bested. It does the same for monsters (either to surrender or flee) and so on.

    1. That is one of the things I liked most about the Warhammer Fantasy 2nd Edition damage system. You had a buffer layer of “hit points” and then you were risking a dangerous critical every time you got hit once those were exhausted. It made surrender a real option, and with the potential for exploding damage dice, it solved another problem I have with straight HP systems.

  2. I have no problems with hit points. Combats in literature and media are almost always a whittling down of your opponent’s stamina until at the end they can no longer go on, much the same way hit points work.

    I also have this abiding theory that other damage systems are really nothing but hit points in disguise. Levels of damage in Vampire? Just a system that uses only 7 hit points and everyone has the same amount. Shadowrun has 6 hit points.

    1. Callin, I tend to agree that many variants on Hit Points are similar enough to just be HP in disguise. The problem I have with straight HP the way, say, D&D or Pathfinder do it is that, at a certain point, it becomes negligible to lose hit points.

      I’m talking about a situation like, The Hero steps into the room and is surrounded by four men with crossbows trained on him. In the literature, he’s likely going to give up his sword and let them lead him to their boss — because, that makes sense. Four crossbows will kill him.

      In “D&D” it’s really easy to ignore 4d8 once you’ve reached, say, 12th level. Even when bad guys have you dead to rights. Players start gaming their hit points instead of playing their character.

      1. I tend to view hit points in the 4E way-an abstraction of overall ability to carry on. So 4 guys with crossbows trained at a character is not so much about being hit with 4 bolts but the hit point loss is actually the fatigue incurred as the character dodges the 4 bolts. For me this is simnilar to the movie hero who runs through a hail of bullets without dying.

        However, I understand your point. I myself was working on a “get the drop on” methodology for 4E; basically the situation you described of having overwhelming force on a character such that they are impelled to surrender. I couldnt come up with anything that would work without upsetting the basics of combat (a give and take of attacks and damage).

      2. The thing is though, the 12th level Hero shouldn’t be looking at 4 guys with crossbows trained on him. He should be looking at 4 elite marksmen with enchanted crossbows loaded with Human Slayer Bolts or something. What you’re doing here is presenting a high level hero with a low level threat and then being surprised when the hero just shrugs it off.

        It’s important to remember that your standard hero in movies or literature is, at best, 5th level, and is more likely 3rd or 4th level. It’s very rare to see a ‘d&d equivilant’ character of levels much higher than that.

  3. We’re working with a system which has hit points, but also uses Tags as an option. The idea being that for Big Bads- they have a set of tags, like Superior Weapon Damage, Heightened Speed, Tough Armor, and the like. They may have several levels of those tags, in some cases. Players have to make some choices about how to handle those bad guys- essentially the have to debuff them before they can actually get to inflicting damage. And they have to choose how and what they want to debuff- if they just try to reduce the target’s armor and damage resistance tags, the bad guy might still be throwing around massive damage. Right now it is an experiment and we’ll see how that plays out.

    1. I think this is a mighty clever idea — I’d be interested to know how it works out. I’m working on a similar idea but my thought does what you are doing sorta in reverse. I hope you get your stuff up and running though, it sounds cool.

  4. Hit points are just a resource for tracking pacing. They can either be a static resource where the amount as long as !<=0 doesn't matter (generally 1st-3rd D&D); with few breakpoints (4th with Bloodied); or with each level being a break point (Blue Planet, some various of white wolf systems, L5R, etc.).

    It is all about what story you want to tell with the resource. For heroic fiction where the hero gets shot, punch, falls 50 feet and keeps going with minimal hindrances, something along the lines of D&D works better.

    If the tale you want to tell is a tale of panic, where each hit brings you closer to death, not only because you are out of life, but because it makes you weaker, then some sort of death spiral where each hit has a decent chance of weakening you is valuable.

    1. Ultimately, the issue is, I want something in between these two. I want the hero to have to be seriously worried about attacks — but also able to ignore the small stuff — until he can’t anymore…

      It’s proving remarkably hard to achieve.

      1. So you are basically looking for ablative hit points until you get to a smaller core set of hit points?

        Didn’t the WOTC version of Star Wars (which I never played so could be wrong) have something along these lines – Fatigue and Wound Points, or something similar, and crit hits when directly to WP and not Fatigue?

        Exalted tried to do something like this with the Hardness rating on armor – where if the damage potential was low enough you just didn’t bother rolling the dice, or something like that. Basically you had Bashing Soak, Lethal Soak, and Hardness (the last was generally 0 unless you were wearing plate armor or like).

        Problem with Hardness or similar, is that you have the effect of “nothing, nothing, nothing, dead.”

        The more I fiddle with this as I write it, the more it looks like you just need two resource tracks – one without consequences and one with consequences, and the latter only fills in special circumstances or when the former is filled.

        This could be something like 4th editions Bloodied Status (just with more break points for penalties); or a better example would be White Wolf and just have something like -0,-0,-0,-0,-0,-0; -1, -1, -1, -1; -2, -2; -4; Incap Dying [Stamina].

        Even something along the line of Fate’s Stress tracks where if you fill up the stress track you are taken out; but you can reduce damage by taking consequences of progressively strong natures would allow that. In this case the hero would ignore the minor hits to his stress track cause they are in no danger of taking him out; but only take consequences to reduce the severity of the large hits to make them smaller hits.

        It all depends on what sort of numbers you want to be playing with. If small numbers, something along White Wolf or Fate would probably be better suited; however, if you want to be rolling big numbers, then you’ll need multiple large tracks – like a cascade of hit points; I have 30 hit points till I’m blooded (-2 to actions); 20; hit points till I’m battered (-4 to actions); but because I’m a hero 50 hit points till I’m out.

        Or some such. Depends on how many cascading figures you’d like.

  5. @Will

    Well, that’s one of the issues. I’m trying to avoid 4E thinking — that is, I’m not interested in perfectly balanced encounters tailored to character level — and I’m not interested in fantasy (in this case) that trends more toward “epic” heroics over normal heroics.

    Take Star Wars — Han Solo is a high level character at a certain point, but he’s going to stop when a stormtrooper has the drop on him with a blaster rifle.

    Corwin of Amber kills hundreds of men in single combat but will stand down when faced with ranged weapons trained on him.

    The point is — I want characters who are able to fight the big bad but still have to respect the little guy with a gun… that kind of thing.

    And really, I was only using the level thing as one example, not all games are class/level/HD games, but they still use pools of hit points. So, still an issue.


    Yeah, the FATE Stress tracks are similar to what I’m thinking about, but instead of putting the decision in the hands of the person taking the damage it’s in the hands of the person dishing out the damage.

    My original version of the system had the cascade of hit points style found in Shadowrun or the old Unicorn Games version of the Star Trek RPG. You had a set number that everytime you crossed that threshold you took penalties and then when you hit 0 you were out. It’s perfectly serviceable, but I want to move away from that to something that involves more interaction.

    And part of the problem is Armor. I prefer passive defense, but I prefer armor as damage resistance. Either way, armor becomes a necessity unless you go the D&D route and give people “alternate” ways to up AC.

    The design problems are all connected. It’s interesting to work on and frustrating…

  6. cauldronofevil | Reply

    Uh basically. Yeah. There’s no easy fix. And the above posters are right – all other systems wind up being 4 hit point systems. Light Wound, Light Wound, Light Wound, Dead.

    In fact, I’m not even sure hit points are broken. They do what they are suppossed to do and if your players don’t start to panic and consider running when they are down to about half their hit points – you’re not doing it right! Or you playing D&D. šŸ˜‰

    I think the real problem is in the combat system itself. Swing & Hit just isn’t very tactical. But if you go too far, you’re into 4e territory. Also not fun.

    I’m really liking what I see in Barbarians of Lemuria Mythic edtion and some of the optional combat rules in this BOL adventure: http://www.strangestones.com/the-homecoming-of-count-inchiostro-a-bol-adventure/

    They don’t change Hit Points, but they make each swing potentially more interesting.

    I’m just trying to figure out how to add more ‘narrative’ into combat.

    PS: DC Adventures had some really interesting takes on alternative damage statuses, but in the end, the more villians you want your heroes to fight, the better hit points starts to look!

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