Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Nature of Hit Points

The majority of RPGs that I'm familiar with use a hit point based system to keep track of a character's overall health. The common assumption is that hit points represent the amount of punishment a character can absorb before being rendered incapable of further action. It assumes that every loss of hit points represents actual physical harm to the character. The problem with this is that it's very poor at representing both reality and most dramatic situations. Generally, in both life and movies most people are taken out of a fight from a single shot, stab or blow with a heavy object, yet in most RPGs the average character can take multiple blows from a deadly weapon and remain fully functional right up until the point where they fall unconscious or die.

The trick to making a hit point system better fit dramatic tropes, if not actual reality, is to change what they represent. They don't really represent physical damage taken. Instead, they represent a combination of luck, determination and endurance. A shot that "hits" and does damage doesn't really hit, it merely uses up some of the target's luck, or makes the character nervous in such a way as to make him more vulnerable to future attacks (represented by the fact that a loss of hit point makes it so that the next "hit" is more likely to actually drop the character to 0 hit points).

Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition uses a version of this approach as described in the player handbook. They even incorporate it into the mechanics with the bloodied status. At half hit points a character or creature is considered "bloodied." I interpret this as meaning that the character has finally taken some actual physical damage at this point. In dramatic terms, after a flurry of traded blows and blocks, one finally slips through and cuts the opponent. The opponent is still completely capable of fighting back, but it's obvious to all that he's in trouble.

For a more concrete example lets look at some of the action from Star Wars: A New Hope from the point of view of the Star Wars Saga Edition rules. When Luke, Han, and Leia are trying to escape from the Death Star they engage in multiple gun battles, but never take a single hit from a blaster. That's incredibly unlikely using the Saga Edition rules, even if we assume that they were relatively high level characters at the time. So, what really happened in game terms?

Saga Edition uses a hit point system along with a condition track. If you take above a certain level of damage in one blow it knocks you down a level on the condition track. I see the condition track the same way I see bloodied status in D&D. Losing hit points is merely your luck or willpower being eroded by close calls, but losing a step on the condition track represents an actual injury. So, what happens in our example from Star Wars is that our heroes all take multiple "hits" in game terms, but never take enough damage in one blow to force a condition change. The blaster bolts that come close represent those hits, but the heroes' "luck" is never reduced enough to lead to an actual wound. Neither do they ever take enough cumulative damage to their hit points to be taken out by that final hit that comes in after all their luck is gone (in other words, they never drop to zero hit points).

One more example of this in action is the lightsaber duel in Star Wars: A Phantom Menace. Lightsabers only actually hit someone twice during the entire duel. The first time one hits it kills Qui-Gon Jin, and the second time one hits it kills Darth Maul. Of course, in game terms they surely hit each other multiple times over the course of the battle. Most of those "hits" are represented by the flurry of blows, blocks and counterblows exchanged over the course of the fight. Not all the blocks we see in the movie are blocks in game terms. A normal exchange of blows is just that, a normal exchange of blows where both characters lose hit points.

Also, notice that several times during the fight one participant manages to kick or trip another. In game terms they just "hit" their opponent with a lightsaber attack, but in narrative terms that's described as a kick or other blow. Some of those blows probably included some sort of power or tactic that led to the target character being disadvantaged by being knocked down or pushed off a ledge, while others were just normal strikes. In all cases it wasn't that the attacker suddenly decided to make an unarmed attack in the middle of a lightsaber fight. In game terms all those attacks used a lightsaber, but in narrative terms they are described otherwise to explain why the target didn't just die when struck by a deadly weapon.

Now, some people don't care about any of this. They're just fine with describing opponents slowly getting hacked to bits, regardless of whether or not this accurately represents what the game is supposed to be modelling. If that works for everyone in your group, then that's fine and you don't need to reinterpret anything, just describe each hit as a slash, strike, or shot hitting home. For some people such things prevent the suspension of disbelief, and take them out of the game. For groups with such people I think that it's better to reinterpret just what hit points represent so that the game better represents the kind of action it's trying to model.

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