Sixty-Five Million HP

Sunday, April 14th, 2019

The perennial perceptual sticking point for many folks in OSR-type games: how do you imagine hit points as a component of the game’s imagined fiction?

This aged and hoary frustration arises from the increasing number of hit points as characters gain levels and as monsters increase in Hit Dice, since, past a certain point, hit points don’t make sense as a representation of physical damage taken. For if they represent physical damage, the players must imagine as characters increase in level they take less damage from sword thrusts and strikes, and that cure spells become less able to heal even tiny wounds, where once they healed major wounds.

Hit point loss eventually and essentially becomes equivalent to “death by a thousand paper-cuts.”

Many designers go the route of adding layers of complexity to the issue: adding the idea of wounds and injuries to the rules, or so forth, or they toss the hit point system entirely for something else.

But I’m not looking to either add to or change the basic rules, and I want to keep hit points mechanically simple and as written, with no need to track additional elements or effects, nor require the players to deal with such. I want to re-imagine what they represent to avoid the paper-cut problem.

A long time ago, my thinking on this same subject ended with re-branding the idea of hit points as “luck”–a negation of successful strikes/attacks or injurious situations as things that thus didn’t happen. A rogue is clambering up a slick wall and falls? They actually didn’t fall. They slipped, maybe a little, but caught themselves: the lost hit points represent their luck slowly running out. And so on.

It was a neat idea, but it didn’t quite gel entirely in a way I liked. I recently read[1] a somewhat similar idea that clicked better for me, particularly with how combat is imagined: hit points don’t represent physical damage, they represent “hard-to-kill” points.

Traditionally, a to-hit roll is imagined as checking whether or not a weapon strike connects with the target, with a successful roll representing a successful blow that causes injury.

But if we imagine hit points as “hard-to-kill” points instead, and move away from the idea of death-by-a-thousand-cuts, we first accept that the “to-hit” roll is mis-named: a successful blow can not represent an actual successful blow on an opponent.

Imagine instead hit points as a representation of how well a character can dodge, weave, parry, block, is protected by armor, notices a creeping assassin, instinctively throws themselves behind cover, or is saved by lucky coincidence (a stray arrow zips between the combatants, causing the attacker to step back; or etc)…and, yes, perhaps the taking a little bit more punishment in terms of being punched or stabbed or frozen or whatnot–a few bruises, a couple scratches, a shallow gash, getting shoved around (though these such should be downplayed and avoided as described outcomes as much as possible).

In actual melee combat, strikes that land actually cause injury, and are usually the killing stroke (or the strike that otherwise takes the target out of combat). Therefore the successful “to-hit” roll should be considered an unsuccessful strike due to the skill, luck, or power of the opponent. Successful “to-hit” rolls represent wearing away at an opponent’s defenses and stamina and a test of their defenses–they are a movement towards the deciding stroke of the battle.

This means sword thrusts or axe blows or whatnot happen, and those on the receiving end are indeed injured and taken out of the fight…it’s just much more difficult to actually land that final decisive blow. Reaching that point is what hit points represent. Hit points are not physical damage, they “soak up” and turn aside what would otherwise be a deciding stroke.

However, one issue immediately arises with this perceptual shift:

If successful “to-hit” rolls that don’t outright kill or strike down a character now represent successful dodges or parries or etc. on the target’s part, what then do failed “to-hit” rolls represent?

Normally, a failed to-hit roll is imagined to represent a failed attempt to land a blow (and therefore causes no injury), but it seemed odd to have both successful and failed rolls represent unsuccessful attempts to injure an opponent. I felt there should definitely be a narrative difference between the two. I had to take some time to consider this.

Years ago, I read discussions about the mechanics of The Riddle of Steel RPG, and those discussions put the idea of what to do here into my head. As I recall, in TRoS, you roll multiple dice for combat and assign them to either attack or defense. I also seem to recall (perhaps erroneously) defense dice were representative of:

Re-positioning, circling, feints, looking for chinks in armor, taking stock of an opponent’s style, adjusting stance, looking for a way to get the upper hand, catching breath, voicing insults or compliments, and so on…those pauses in the battle while warriors size-up one another or the situation.

Whether or not I am remembering correctly, this gave rise to the idea that a failed to-hit roll, instead of a blocked or dodged strike, represent this same kind of “pause” in the action: feints, aborted attacks, circling, and so on as above. So we imagine a failed to-hit roll is not even an attempt to strike, it’s something else entirely, a pause in the action.

To summarize: a successful to-hit roll that does not take the individual out of the fight is an unsuccessful strike; a failed to-hit roll is a pause in the action.

At higher levels, given the greater amount of hit points of characters and creatures, this can become repetitive, and play out as a game of attrition. Critical hits can help break this up: the way I run criticals is that they shake things up for good or ill, depending.

A critical success badly hurts the target, but instead of simply pushing the battle towards a conclusive strike, the critical forces a shift in tactics: maybe the strike pins the target’s foot in place, or maybe it pierces the target’s shoulder so they can’t use their bow or shield, maybe it knocks them prone. Whatever happens, it significantly changes the tactical situation (or, if the decisive blow, it is a stunning feat and adds some additional narrative oomph).

A critical failure is similar, but they significantly inconvenience the character it was rolled for: the archer’s bowstring snaps, the warrior twists their ankle, their opponent disarms them. But, again, it significantly changes the tactical situation.

Another couple questions that likely occur:

What about hit point damage that doesn’t rely on to-hit rolls?

Well, if hit points are just “hard-to-kill” points, we can imagine that these sorts of damaging effect don’t land or don’t hurt the target for some reason, the target gets out of the way, or saves themselves, or gets lucky, or whatnot.

The hit point “damage”, mechanically, just wears away at how hard to kill that individual is, until at some point, there’s someone or something that gets past all that and they take the full brunt of whatever it is that finally takes them down.

How do we imagine clerical healing?

It is a restoration of a character’s stamina, the blessing of the divine, and the healing of wounds both minor and serious (so that low-level healing spell that used to heal the wound left by a sword through the chest? It still heals the wound left by a sword through the chest, since that isn’t represented by an amount of hit point damage: 0hp is a sword through the chest, or some kind of fatal or near-fatal injury; 1hp is full health and vigor no matter how many hp you have total, but represents a high chance of suffering a fatal injury).

Remember: this is all narrative flavor.

The imagined fiction does not actually change the way hit points are used any more than the traditional “to-hit represents a hit and physical damage” view of the mechanics changes their use. It does not grant bonuses or penalties to combat, create special actions or limit them, or have any effects beyond the normal hit point loss. Combats and other dangerous situations are run exactly as normal.

All this also ties in nicely with my belief that the characters in an OSR role-playing game should be like action movie protagonists: such characters do not “whiff” constantly (and, frankly, simple whiffing is boring).

Whatever characters do should look cool, even if whatever they’re doing doesn’t achieve what they want.

Nor do action movie heroes die by a thousand paper cuts: instead, such characters prove their prowess and staying power, and only fall after one or two good strikes by an opponent. In the meantime it is a lot of “HAH! I spun aside at the last second!” and “I have parried your sword stroke!” and “I’ve batted your arrow from the air!” As is your typical action sequence in a movie. (Which is equally true for their antagonists.)

[1] I believe this was on the now defunct Google+, so there is sadly no way to search for and link to it any longer. If you are this person, let me know so I can credit you!

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