Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What are Hit Points?

In video games, Hit Points (HP) are a pretty static concept. They equal "health" and are an indicator of biological vitality. It's well-accepted that when a character's HP drop to zero, that persona is dead (or possibly comatose until revived via extra lives or a "continue"). But for sake of argument, that character is gone. Game Over.

 It could also mean "energy" though. Whether that's a metabolic quantifier or some other esoteric measure. When the character runs out, HP needs a recharge! Then it's back into the fray. So does that mean HP should be decreasing over time in traditional RPG--like when we need sleep?

 In pen and pencil games, HP can get--let's just say--squishy. It can represent a few things or a combination of things. Some games go for the straight-up health stat, while others make it a loose representation of "life" and uh--how do I put this--resistance to being hit. Yeah, like "something" gets in the way of that well-aimed laser and our hero is hit, but for some reason a blast only does 2d6 damage and our guy has a crazy amount of hit points. How did did get those points anyway? Did he have armor? Of course!

But that was taken into account with armor class (AC). Was it his dexterity/agility that allowed him to dodge? Well if it was--then he'd have escaped being hit--and at least in this example, he took the hit. His constitution/physique? Again, those scores are already taken into account.

Wouldn't make sense to have both HP and constitution (even though in many games HP is determined by constitution or some similar stat)? What's the point of representing a stat made up of other stats? (Don't answer that one--not yet!) In some games (and sometimes its just the GM's preference) rely on XP to be the "x" factor.

The more experience under your belt, the greater your HP to protect yourself. Makes sense in a way, right? Your character has managed to live this long--a little extra "fortitude" (whatever that means) is a reward to help protect yourself as you advance onto tougher challenges and meaner foes. Except that's the exact opposite of how real life--and combat--works. If anything, more injuries will add up over time. And the aging process guarantees greater frailty.

  So what are Hit Points? How are you using them? As proclaimed in "the rules"? Do you let players trade them in order to accomplish difficult or impossible tasks, otherwise beyond their reach? To the comments!


  1. I've come to see hit points as being an abstraction of physical stamina and vitality, luck and experience. I've never used them as a resource for players to accomplish difficult tasks, but that does sound like an intriguing idea.

  2. That's sort of what I'm wondering--if a lot of folks think of it that way. I also wonder if that perception changes as one's gaming experience (read: as the player gets older!) increases. I tend to think that more novice gamers or younger gamers consider it straight-up "health", but I could be wrong.

    Hit points are an abstract measure of how much damage the character can absorb, avoid or shrug off before being injured, maimed or kill. For a character hit points (more is better) measures not only physical toughness and stamina, but also reflects training, experience, confidence and luck.
    . . .
    For every level a character possesses (including 1st) he rolls one hit die and adds his Constitution modifier to the result; this total is then added to the character’s hit points. No character can have less than one hit point per level regardless of subtractions. Type of hit dice rolled is determined by the character’s class (p.7). Because of their increased mass, bigger characters will have more hit points. When generating a character’s hit points, the character may be eligible to reroll low hit die results depending upon his weight in pounds(Table 1.6).
    When a character receives damage, this damage is usually subtracted from the character’s hit points. At zero hit points a character is stunned - roll d12 (instead of d20) for attack, save and skill throws. When a character’s hit point total is reduced to less than zero, he is unconscious and bleeding out. If the absolute value of a character’s negative hit point total exceeds his Constitution score then he is dead. Damage or lost hit points can be restored by rest, medical attention or magical healing.

  4. Excellent summary Clovis. This part intrigues me the most:

    "For a character hit points (more is better) measures not only physical toughness and stamina, but also reflects training, experience, confidence and luck." [Emphasis mine]

    Essentially this is happening without being role-played, yes? It's up to the numbers to account for absorbing damage, but the result is a "miss". Hence my earlier question--are GMs using HP in other ways where luck or confidence or training might be expressed. (Not sure if that makes sense!)

  5. I find that most people treat HP like chunks of meat that get tenderized during combat, but I see it differently. It fact I see it in two ways:

    Seeing as HP and HD started off as a wargaming mechanic, I see them as an abstract measure of a solider to stay on his feet, and once they are depleted, he warrior can no longer fight do to injury, exhaustion and/or drained moral - basically, like "Wounds" in Warhammer FB/40K. As such, I avoid the "0-HP = dead" rule, in favor of "0-HP = knockout" and negative HP.

    On the other hand, I see high HP with high-level character as a means to represent the "Stormtrooper Effect", where despite the fact that the nameless, faceless goons are skilled fighters, they keep wildly missing the heroes (unless the story called for a dramatic injury - typically a superficial flesh wound, or a knockout hit) because they are protected by The Force, the Rule-of-Cool, the Chainmail Bikini Effect, or some other equivalent. That is, a high-level character could move naked through a chaotic battlefield - passing through hails of arrows and cleaving through a mass of enemy troops - while loosing HP that could kill dozens of men, and yet, he only have a few minor cuts and scrapes. Combat-orientated characters could develop some minor scaring over the years, but (unless the GM uses a Critical Hit system) they will never become maimed or crippled in battle.

    All-and-all, Hit Points are an abstract concept for representing "cinematic" adventures. If one want more realism, a system with "Damage Condition" effects (Flesh Wound, Deep Would, etc.) would be a better alternative.

    For example, I once started-up a game of Rocket Rangers, under the Mini-Six rules. Unfortunately, I forgot to adjust the game for Hit Points (weighed towards the heroes' favor) instead of its default Damage Condition effects, and combat quickly derailed because the characters where taking damage like soldiers in a gritty war movie, instead of being the larger-then-life heroes (Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, John Carter, etc.) that the game was based on. Most of them ether died or got incapacitated (which required immediate medical attention) from the first fight, and they were quickly captured, despite the heroes having the drop on the guards. It was a mess!

  6. I can get on board with the idea of simulating for cinematic effect--great analogy Mal!

  7. Thank Jay!

    I was trying not to be so long-winded here, but I had to make my point. But it comes down to telling the players "Its not that your characters can take a lot of hits; its that their enemies suddenly turn into a bunch of cock-eyed Stormtroopers." ;j