What are Hit Points?

I enjoy tinkering with games. I like borrowing and ideas from other referees to modify and insert into my games. For me, modding games is at least as much of the hobby as playing.

Hit points, damage and healing is one of those areas where I have borrowed from other bloggers and modified the rules.

About 10 years ago, OSR bloggers were posting their own variations of “Death and Dismemberment” tables. I recommend checking out this linked post if you are not familiar with the concept. There were a number of variations on the concept. I experienced these tables both as a player and referee. The way it changes game play is substantial. It is certainly being felt in my Dragon’s Bend game.

A Change With Major Implications

Game masters frequently narrate “hits” as an axe to the chest or an arrow stuck in an arm. I’ve always found that unsatisfying and many others have too. It makes the suspension of disbelief too difficult. Even Conan can’t take that kind of abuse. Using a Death and Dismemberment table does away with that approach. A combatant isn’t necessarily wounded when a hit is scored in this system.

The basic concept is that a combatant doesn’t take real wound until their hit point total goes to zero. At that point, they roll on the table to find out the resulting injury.

If the character isn’t actually injured until they are down to zero hit points then what does a “hit” in combat mean?

Using the D&D table, a “hit” in combat does not represent physical damage but is a proxy for variables that impact the combatant’s ability to avoid physical damage. The variables could include: Luck, stamina, position, rhythm, mental focus/distraction, footing, or having a bad grip on your sword. The variables are indeterminate and change from fight to fight.

I want a certain degree of “realism” in my games without getting bogged down with minutia. I want the game to model a real fight without being tedious. Lots of detail slows the game. If you have to roll on a table every time the combatant hits or is hit to determine the effect of the hit, then the game slows down. A few die rolls is all that is necessary to model combat.

In order to model the variables I mentioned, keep the system fast and easy to track; We need a proxy. Hit points will be our proxy. When the aggregate effect of those variables goes to zero, then bad things happen, and we roll on the D&D table. Using the table just once or twice in the combat isn’t going to bog down the progress of the fight.

The Complexity of Combat

I’ve trained in a few martial arts (wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) and been a dabbler in others (HEMA, boxing). I was also an infantryman in the US Marine Corps. I’m not an expert. I am aware that I am massively ignorant of what a master warrior knows.

That said, hit points as a proxy conceptualization makes sense to me.

My training partner thinks he’s going to pass my guard, but he’s about to get a nasty surprise.

People who have never trained for combat, often, have no idea how complex it is. There is a reason a relatively small number of armed knights could kill hundreds or thousands of rioting peasants. Fighting is a complicated business.

Winning fights is about identifying critical variables, nullifying the ones that benefit your enemy, and taking advantage of the variables that benefit you. There are many variables and they have complex interactions. In games, we model those variables by using modifiers to adjust the probabilities of an outcome when the dice are rolled.

You can pile modifier on top of modifier in trying to model a real fight. What mental state is the warrior in? Did he get enough sleep last night? Has he eaten properly? Did he march all day before he got to the fight? What is the footing? What kind of boots is he wearing? How long is the sword? Is he using half sword method or is he in the Ox stance? Has the archer protected the string of his bow from the rain properly? And on, and on, ad infinitum. This complexity is why serious wargame manuals are huge.

Hit Points as a Proxy

In mixed martial arts, a skilled fighter will maneuver into a dominant position and gradually remove your ability to avoid damage. Once he has your hips trapped, his weight on top you, an arm pinned down with his knee; you are getting punched in the head and there is nothing you can do about it. Khabib Nurmagomedov is a master at this. As the fight progresses you use energy, you lose position, you are trying things that are countered, you get frustrated and off your rhythm. This attrition of “hit points” finally puts you in a position where your opponent can damage you and you can’t damage them, and then you are finished.

The fighter on the bottom is undamaged but in a bad position. If the top fighter breaks that grip around the neck, things will get ugly. Photo by Bruno Bueno on Pexels.com

Hit points as a proxy for both the known and unknown variables of combat.

Emotional and Narrative Considerations

Always, I am focused on the emotional experience. I want the combat mechanisms of my game to produce some anxiety and excitement in my players. I want them a little worried. What I want is a simple metric for “how am I doing,” that will make the players nervous as it ticks down, and allows me some degree of openness when dealing with the complexity of battle.

(hp), the amount of damage
a one can handle before becoming incapacitated.

When a character (or creature) is hit, the amount of damage is deducted from hit points. When total hit points reach 0, the character is unconscious, and if hit points are brought down to -1 or lower, the character dies.

Swords & Wizardry Complete by Matt Finch

Those two quotes define hit points in the Swords & Wizardry Complete rules. Played by the book, the players in my current campaign would have lost two or three PCs each in fewer than six sessions. The first session would have been a TPK or nearly so. I don’t have a problem with this per se. I’ve designed this campaign to be challenging.

I want players to consider the possible consequences to fighting before they pull the trigger on a combat encounter. My NPCs often prefer talking to fighting. Some are maniacs but because combat has real and nasty consequences in my campaign, it is consistent to make NPCs as concerned about being killed and maimed as any player character. Monsters are a different thing.

There is a line of argument in tabletop RPG-land that merely killing PCs is boring and that you can have consequences for characters losing a fight without killing them. I don’t totally disagree with that line of thought.

However, the inevitable and most stupid suggestion in these conversations is the monsters/NPCs leaving the PCs alive but stripped of equipment. My monsters and villains aren’t going to have this kind of mercy. More likely, they are going to skin the adventurers alive and leave their partially eaten corpses as a warning for others.

In real life, violence is terrible. In the kind of game I want to run, I want to model the consequences of choosing violence. That isn’t for everyone, I know. Some of you prefer the G.I. Joe version of combat where everyone goes home and COBRA commander is foiled in his plots. Gnarly, nasty violence is the feel I’m looking for. If there is going to be a result other than death, I want the consequences to be permanent and significant.

The Death and Dismemberment table is a mechanism that leaves PCs that would have otherwise perished with some interesting and permanent characteristics that are a consequence for losing a fight.

Cullen the Ranger is missing an eye and has a bad knee. His missile fire attack roll is reduced by 1. His movement is reduced and he goes last when it is the PCs turn in combat. Atticus and Akiro were both missing an eye until Akiro set off a trap last session and was buried under a ton of stone. In the Kompanions of Kalador Kampaign, we had several of these incidents and the PCs made deals with unsavory characters such as Zoran the Vivimancer to get themselves fixed up. They had to spend serious coin and do favors to have themselves restored. This is where the D&D table really sings.

Just a few sessions into the Dragon’s Bend campaign, the players were already looking for ways to be made whole. I used that opportunity to drop a hook and some micro-exposition about the Hypogeum of Empress Zelaya. The players are now aware that in the private apartments of Empress Zelaya, there are legends of a healing bath. They also know it is deep within the dungeon because the NPC who told them about it says he never found it and he’s a wizard of some skill.

How it Works

“Hits” in a fight are not physical damage until you get to zero. When I narrate, I will describe “a hit” as a scratch, a push, a near miss on a vital region, getting tired, or a punch to the side of the head with minor effect.

When a character gets to 0 hit points. They roll 2D6 and 1D4. The result determines real damage. I’ve been using this table for years and it has worked well.


Since I can’t leave well enough alone, I’m going to make some changes based on my own observations. I’ll post that next week.

Recovery & Healing

In addition to the various magical means of restoring hit points,
a character recovers naturally at the rate of 1 hit point per day of
uninterrupted rest. Four weeks of rest will return a character to full hit
points regardless of how many hit points may have been lost.

Swords and Wizardry Complete by Matt Finch

I don’t use the standard healing rules S&W when using the Death and Dismemberment table. If hit points are a proxy for a number of different variables in a combat but not actual damage, then it is reasonable to suggest that you should get them back faster. Rather than thinking of regaining hit points as “healing” I prefer to think of it as “recovery.”

In sports (particularly in strength and combat sports) coaches and competitors spend a lot of time on recovery. An athlete is said to have “recovered” from a training bout or event when their body is once again able to train or compete at high intensity. A World’s Strongest Man competitor at the highest level must train at the limits of human potential in order to have a chance at hitting the podium. Managing their “recovery” is critical to training at the highest possible intensity level.

Since hit points are a proxy for the variables that allow an adventurer to resist incapacitation, my approach is to allow them to come back more quickly if characters are focused on recovery.

There are game play factors to consider, we have to balance “realism” with making the game enjoyable to play. Making recovery take too long slows down the progress of play and takes away from the heroic aspect of the characters. I do want them to have some heroic features characteristic of sword and sorcery fiction like stamina and will beyond the ken of normal folk. I don’t want them to be super-heros the way later editions of the game have treated PCs.

Recovery and Healing Rules

Recovery: A character recovers 1 hit point per day if they are active or adventuring. The character requires basic sustenance and a modicum of rest. If the character does not have at least six hours of sleep, food, water and regular breaks, there is no hit point recovery.

If the character spends a full day resting and doing no strenuous activity, the player character can roll 1HD. The result is the number of hit points recovered. A character may walk unencumbered around easy terrain such as a city, perform guard duty where no fighting or stressful situations occur. 1HD means the hit die specific to the character’s class. A magic-user rolls a D4, a fighter D8 and so forth.

The referee may give modifiers if the PC makes use of techniques to enhance their recovery. Examples of such techniques would be massage, bathing in hot mineral springs, and meditation.

Healing: A character who has gained a wound from the Death and Dismemberment table remains at zero or 1 hit point until they have completed a prescribed period of full rest. The result on the D&D table determines how long the PC must rest before hit points will be recovered. When this period is over, the character is “healed.”

A character may have to spend several weeks resting/healing. During that time their hit point total will be “1”. Once the healing period had passed, the character will then recover hit points at the normal rate of 1 per day while adventuring or 1HD per day of rest.

The character may forego the rest period if they receive magical healing such as healing potion or heal wounds spell.*

Next week, I will present the cleaned up text of my house rules for hit points, Death and Dismemberment, recovery and healing all in one neat package.

(Note: heal wounds takes the place of cure light/serious wounds; it is a 1st level spell that heals wounds. I’ll give a full description in my next post with my updated D&D table)

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