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Design Decisions: Hit Points

I considered a lot of things about hit points, including whether or not to even have them in the game. I’ve played and enjoyed games like True20, FATE and The Shadow of Yesterday that do a good job with combat mechanics but don’t use hit points to track damage. Then there’s Hero System that has Stun and Fatigue and Body, which are all used to track the character’s ability to continue on in combat.

In the end I stuck with hit points for two reasons. First, it is familiar. In a game that is supposed to harken back to older games, that’s not an inconsequential issue. Second, I felt that despite the mechanic’s age, it is a fairly elegant and simple way to track fatigue and damage.

The second point deserves a bit more elaboration. Some folks view hit points as physical damage. I’m not part of that camp. Hit points are an abstraction of fatigue, the will to fight and physical damage. If it is a measure of pure physical damage then it is a pretty piss poor one. After all, most fights between people wielding 4 foot long blades and 8 pound bludgeons aren’t going to end through the Death of a Thousand Paper Cuts. The fights will go on for a minute or so with very little actual damage occurring until one combatant gets fatigued or makes a mistake and then takes a mortal wound.

So two fighters (Bob and Fred) are going at each other. Bob rolls a hit and does 10 hit point of damage to Fred. In the fiction (what is described at the table) Fred may not even get hit. He might dodge the blow altogether. However, his expending hit points shows that the effort not get skewered cost him some endurance and his endurance is not inexhaustible. Once Fred has no more hit points to spend, Bob lands that big blow and wins the fight.

Viewing hit points like this allows me to deal with endurance and fatigue in combats without having to come up with additional systems to model them. Since I’m attempting to keep the system as simple as I think I can, this is a win.

Healing potions under this interpretation heal the damage that happens during a fight but also re-energizes the combatant and restores her fighting spirit.

Along with whether to use hit points at all, I had to decide how many hit points characters should have. I was good with the standard fighting classes getting more hit points on average than less fighting oriented classes. What I didn’t like was the complete fragility of everyone at low levels. While I like lots of things about old school games, I hate with a burning passion the whole “have one combat encounter and then have to rest” thing that goes on at first level.

There are several ways to address the problem and I’ve done several of them (I’ll write about them later) but the simplest and most directly effective way seemed to be simply increasing the initial amount of hit points characters started with at 1st level. So FAST characters start with their Constitution score in hit points and then add points based on their class via hit dice. This way an average Mage starts with 13 hit points, a Thief has 14, a Cleric has 15 and a Fighter has 16. This is a bit more durable than standard old school characters but it doesn’t make the characters unstoppable juggernauts of death either.

In practice, I’ve discovered that good Constitution scores can make a character start with 20+ hit points. I decided to roll with that for the time being to see how it played out in practice. So far, it hasn’t been a big issue. Characters with lots of hit points still tend to get hit enough to make the game feel tense. Should anyone else out there give the rules a spin, I’d be interested in hearing how it worked out for someone not named Andrew Cooper.

As always, I’m interested in comments and suggestions.

Published inDesign DecisionsFantasy Adventure StoriesRole-playing

4 Comments

  1. Mythus uses a scale of from 36 at the minimum, to a maximum of 180 for the Physical Trait. Weapons do between 1d3 to 6d6 plus a bonus for stats and experience, and a multiplier for location/quality that ranges from x1 to x4. So a zweihander could do as much as 144 points with a blow (max roll on 6d6 x4 for the location) If I decide to allow double damage for a heavy lance at a charge, that would mean 288 points of physical damage, plus any bonus of experience and stats..

  2. Hey, Alan. Are we talking about Mythus that Mr. Gygax wrote sometime in the 90’s? A quick trip to Google didn’t get me anything else but that game.

    The system you’re describing seems to use “hit points” essentially as physical damage and given the small sampling of weapons looks to do a much better job at modeling that than D&D and most of its clones out there. I think that’s a fine design decision, depending on your goals for the game in question.

    However, I don’t think D&D or any of the OSR games out there do a very good job at justifying their version of hit points being just physical.

    I had played with a more granular approach (like you described) but discarded it pretty quickly for this game. It added too many layers of complexity for the style and feel that I wanted. I have to admit that I do like some of those style games from time to time. I’ve had a blast with Rolemaster and RuneQuest before. It’s a different feel but can be fun.

  3. Yes, Andrew that is the RPG I was referring to. Where physical damage is concerned what I was talking about are hit points, among other things. Body, health, endurance are all part of it. Then you have the Mental and Spiritual Traits, which cover those aspects, and which can suffer from Mental and Spiritual damage. And yes, there are a lot more than just the two I mentioned in my previous comments.

    For example, there is the fist. In untrained hands it does 1d3. Been awhile since I looked, but I think that in the hands of a master a fist can do 4d6 in damage, and being a fast weapon it can strike multiple times in a 3 second round.

    Now my beef with the hit point systems out there is that they make humans much too fragile. We’re actually tough to kill. But modelling that simply can be a pain. So I wish you luck with your project.

  4. I bought that game when it first came out. It’s been a long while since I read it but I remember it being interesting. It certainly showcased Gygax’s personal aesthetics for system.

    You are correct that modelling a “realistic” system would be really tough. Fortunately I’m just modelling a literary, action style. Makes things a little easier in some ways.

    Thanks for the comments, Alan. It has been a while since I perused Mythus. I might have to pick it up again to remind myself how it did things.

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