This will the first post in a series where I will address a gaming topic that has intrigued me for a long time, the suspicion that one of the games many people love (Dungeons & Dragons) has been seriously misinterpreted even by some of its most ardent followers. In other words, that you have been playing or -at the very least- interpreting it wrong. If nothing else, that at least there is another, and better, way to play it. As the title says, it’s a probability, not a necessity.
Some of you reading this may be grognards with a lot of practical experience with this stuff, and because I know some of you are also very interested in the literary side of D&D (and, as you will see, this is as much about books as about games,) your opinion and criticism would be greatly appreciated. You may consider many of this stuff “obvious,” but from what I have seen and read, I suspect it’s not for the majority of people.
[In the comments, Douglas Cole has quoted something Gygax wrote in the DM Guide for the first D&D Edition. I think it’s a great summary of what I’m trying to say, so here it goes as a tl;dr version:
“It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage – as indicated by constitution bonuses- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the “sixth sense” which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.”]
Note that I said “misinterpretations,” not necessarily errors as in “you are playing the game wrong because you don’t understand the rules.” What I mean is that you may not understand what they mean or what they represent. Since it’s one of the most obvious features of D&D and D&D-influenced games, I’ll start this series with the issue of Hit Points.
The first things one needs to understand is that D&D appeared as an evolution of wargaming and an attempt to translate into a game a specific kind of literature, the swashbuckling and pulpish tales of heroic adventure and fantasy. That was explicitly and implicitly stated during the whole pre-2nd edition D&D era. And after the third edition, any trace of that influence seems to have been consciously erased. Most of us didn’t see the birth of D&D, so we understand it as people who have already been affected by it and its derivative products in different mediums (mostly video games.) However, you need to understand how it appeared and how the people of that era saw and understood it.
Imagine you are an American teenager during the 70s. You already are a miniature wargamer, and you also enjoy reading Conan comic books or even the sporadic novel. One day, after a wargaming session with one of your friends, you casually comment how cool it would be to play something like that but as the hero in a Conan-like story instead; you know, something more personal and heroic. Your friend looks at you funny and then tells you that there is a game for that. He rummages in his backpack and shows you a thin book titled Dungeons & Dragons, Player’s Handbook.
Now, something along those lines could have been the context for that first generation who played the game. However, since that context was obvious to its designers (and I suspect Gygax wasn’t very good at explaining the function and symbolism of those rules,) many things and references that should have been explained were left unexplained. Then the game expanded, and people who didn’t even know what a “pulp” was or whose only idea of fantasy was a second-hand interpretation of Tolkien started to play, too. For some people, the first time they saw the concept of roleplay and “hit points” was when, playing some video game, their virtual avatar could now withstand five axe blows (and, therefore, lose five times the blood, too!) instead of one.
So, Hit Points, how could anyone misunderstand something as simple as that? It’s just what your character can withstand, isn’t it? In game terms, yes, that is correct, but keep in mind the literary antecedents of D&D, not to mention common sense. Hit points are not necessarily about wounds, and much less about “objective” and always identical cumulative wounds. Hit points, for all its abstraction as a game mechanic, serves a narrative purpose. And contrary to what some people believe, a well-played RPG isn’t difficult to translate into a written story. In fact, some of them are almost asking to be converted into a book. After all, the hit point system was designed to make that possible, so you could play as those badass heroes who wrestled gorillas and survived dozens of cuts without wasting time with “realistic” wound or other combat simulations that aren’t even fun.
You already know the basics and also the problem: You character starts with a somewhat pathetic number of Hit Points and gets a few more each time he levels up. After a few -probably rushed and overpowered- game sessions, your character goes from a squishy adventure who dies at the first hit to a mutant that you could stab twenty times without causing him any permanent injury or damage. If on top of that you add one of those walking bacta dispensers known as clerics, you have created a curious beast.The whole thing becomes even more ridiculous if you imagine the character being hit by ranged weapons, because then your high-level hero ends looks like a pin-cushion.
Of course, none of that is really a “problem” as much as an inconvenience when you try to add a bit of narrative flavor to the game. If you keep you play on the level of reciting bonus and minuses, HPs lost and HPs healed, the game becomes a mathematical abstraction, so who cares about what it “represents.” Then again, that’s one of the reasons the game was created in the first place, and some of us suffer from a very visual mind and we can’t stop visualizing what we play, read, or think.
A natural reaction to those apparent limitations or absurdities is to proclaim that the “hit point system” doesn’t make sense. Hence the need for more “realistic” systems like a “wound system” or some house rule system that limits the number of extra hit points you get each time you level up. In fact, if you google “Hit Points,” the first links will talk about “health” as a game mechanic when, in fact, hit points aren’t really health points, life points, or anything like that. They are an abstraction of combat expertise, honed survival instincts, life-saving reflexes, vigor, mental fortitude, protagonist centrality, and hero’s luck.
Although I like wound-based systems, and I think a simple one could be added to D&D to spice it up a bit and to represent critical hits and mortal wounds (those that send you to the 0 and -10 range,) those “better systems” are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. They only exist because many people don’t understand what HPs (an abstraction) actually represent, and they interpret it in a literal, video game manner: If a level 0 peasant can die from just four points of damage, and a high-level warrior has twenty times those hit points, that means he can withstand twenty stab wounds. That’s a video game interpretation of roleplay games, where all attacks are visually represented with the same sprites or animation, usually followed by copious (but always constant) amounts of blood.
But that’s not how it works, that’s not how the stories that Gygax et al. read went. What you need to memorize is this:
[Hit points loss is not an objective scale of physical trauma; it is relative to the level, equipment, and many other conditions of the target who suffers the damage.]
What that means is that something like “6 points of damage” has no universal interpretation by itself (e.g. “an arrow that did its maximum unmodified damage”) but it’s relative to the person who suffers the damage. A level 0 peasant and a level 10 fighter have more or less the same capacity to withstand physical trauma (not much since humans are squishy.) In fact, in terms of narration and the description of what happens during combat (which is always at the discretion of the DM and his imagination,) hit points have more to do with reflexes or even luck than with your depleting blood levels. So, to follow the previous example, imagine that a peasant NPC and your warrior PC are attacked by identical orcs. Both human suffer 6 points of damage, but one dies while the other lives. Does that mean, to use that cliché sentence, that he “survived wounds that would have killed another man.”? Not necessarily, especially if he still has 50 hit points left.
What happened is this: The peasant, and untrained man, is struggling with the orc, who overcomes him and finally thrusts his crude sword into the poor guy’s stomach. For gaming purposes, he is dead (-2 hp.) On the other hand, the PC fighter, a trained and world-renowned fighter, is also struggling with the orc, who manages to overcome him and is going to thrust his crude sword into the fighter’s stomach, BUT his superior reflexes and combat conditioning allow him to twist his body at the last moment, so instead of being impaled he gets a nasty (but certainly not lethal) cut, a sprain, or a similar wound. However, no one’s luck (and combat expertise) is infinite, and there is a limit to the number of times one can avoid death’s touch, especially when one is the character of a story. Therefore, saying that your hit points are going down doesn’t mean “man, your character is starting to look like a shish kebab” but “you are running out of luck and energy, your whole body aches, you have a few broken bones, and the next hit may be fatal.” In fact, some of that damage may actually be better represented as loss vigor, concentration, and other mental faculties which would only be recovered after a long time of R&R. There is also no need to assume that a huge loss of HPs should give you any penalty because the fact that you only have a few HP left is the penalty itself; after all, the next hit may very well be fatal. And perhaps because the gods don’t favor the hero anymore, he is tired, his whole body can’t go on anymore (even if he has no internal injury or serious wounds,) or for any other rationalization you may come up with, when your hit points hover close to 0, then, and only then, the final strike becomes the lethal one, and THEN the fighter gets stabbed in the stomach like that poor peasant.
What that means, and strange as that may sound to some, is that the higher your class level and hit points pool, the weaker the wounds you receive become, relatively speaking. And because that requires extreme levels of fighting expertise, experience, competence, luck, or divine favor, only those with dozens of adventures behind them can do that sort of death-defying stunts. In narrative terms, that means that your 60-hp character who lost 50 hp after battling against a horde of ogres may be perfectly conscious and still able to fight. He probably has a few broken bones, three nasty cuts, or a terrible concussion, but he certainly looks much better that the unfortunate level 1 henchmen whose skull got crushed by an ogre’s club because he didn’t manage to dodge it. A giant club is still a giant club, and it still hurts if it just grazes you, but it’s better than blocking it with your face (which is what low-level characters do.) Unfortunately, for many people, HPs are a video game concept where the loss of HPs is physical trauma, comparable at all levels, and the consequence of a weapon impacting, always with the same strength, intensity, and consequent trauma. But that’s not how books are written or how combat should be described. In fact, there is nothing heroic about that, and D&D should be all about heroics.
If you were writing an RPG-inspired story, that would mean that you can’t conceive HPs as isolated from other stuff like your base attack (or THAC0,) general combat competence, or even your “Armor Class.” They are separated for gaming reasons, but in the description of the game or in a pulpish story of swashbuckling adventurers, they are all work together to represent how competent and tough the hero (or villain) is. The fact that you get better at fighting is what gives you that survival edge that allows you to fight strange and huge beasts that would surely crush you if they could lay their hands on you (but that’s the point, they can’t because you are not a level 0 noob.) If, on the other hand, your character is a mage or a cowardly thief, don’t expect them to make the same kind of stunts or survive that long. They will fall much earlier even if their bodies can theoretically withstand the same amount of physical trauma.
To understand this, I think it helps to conceptualize hit points as composed of two (or even three) separate quantities, even if then they are all pooled together. The first one is the base hit points pool, which is what most people understand when they hear about “life” or “health.” That is determined mostly by your race or species. In humans, it’s a d4 or d6, depending on who you ask. An ogre, however, because it is a big creature, has 4 HD +1 (in AD&D 2 ed.,) which means his average “base” hit points would be something like 18 or so. We are talking about a big, ugly monster so, in this case, it is reasonable to assume these hit points can represent direct hits, like being repeatedly stabbed by puny humans or being used as a target practice for archers. After all, it’s not unbelievable that such a big creature could survive a few arrows. On the other hand, that logic doesn’t apply to powerful but human-sized creatures like the mind flayers. In such cases, it may be useful to conceptualize them as if they were high-level characters already.
In any event, the extra hit points adventure players (or powerful monsters) get above that basic pool, that range where almost any weapon could become hazardous to your health, is extra time that protects you from dying like most people would die in hectic combat (e.g. an arrow in the face, a lucky strike that cut one your arteries, being eaten by a troll, etc. Typical stuff.) After all, a humble mundane human will probably be incinerated and turned to ashes by a fireball, but a hero who has suffered many assassination attempts and fought hundreds of orcs may survive it, if only because the plot commands it, and not because his body can withstand 300º burns but because he jumped at the last moment, he found cover or any other reason you can imagine depending on the context of the scene.
You may be skeptical about this interpretation, but the truth is that you already have seen it at work. Almost all of the greatest adventure novels and, later, action movies follow this logic. And remember, D&D was trying to simulate those pulpish stories.
I call it the John McClane effect, in honor of Die Hard’s protagonist, who is severely abused (but not killed) in the movie. During the whole movie, there are many moments where he could have died, but being a badass, he survives through a combination of badassery, expertise, luck, and a bit of plot-armor. In the end, however, he looks like crap, still willing to fight, sure, but looking as if he was about to die if someone merely punched him. Well, that’s what happens when you lose almost all your hit points. That is, of course, a different understanding compared to more modern action movies where the heroes always look like models, are too damn clean, and seem to have an invulnerability bubble around them while classic heroes had a protective bubble. Compare old Indiana Jones with nu-Jones: the first one also looked beaten and tired at the end of the movie, and the things he had survived were, more or less, believable. However, in the latest iteration of Doctor Jone’s adventures, the old man survives ridiculous falls, bone-breaking hits, nuclear explosions, and whatnot. Basically, the new heroes behave like superheroes crossed with models, not like normal (but strong) people under uncommon circumstances.
To help you understand D&D combat and hit points I will show you literary examples from D&D literary sources and similar works:
“Kull’s shield and the huge mace were gone, and the great sword in his right hand was dyed crimson. His mail, wrought with a forgotten art, now hung in shreds, and blood streamed from a hundred wounds on limbs, head, and body. But his eyes still blazed with the battle-joy and his wearied arm still draw the mighty blade in strokes of death.
But Cornanc saw that the end would come before they could reach him. Now at the very crest of the steep, a hedge of points menaced the strange king’s life. […] Then, even as a dozen swords rose above the staggering Atlantean for the death stroke, a strange thing happened.
And the great sorcerer smiled and pointed silently at the red, notched sword, and the torn mail and the many wounds that the king carried. And Kull, fully woken from his ‘vision’ and feeling the sting and the weakness of these yet bleeding wounds, fell silent and mazed”
That’s from Kings of the Night (1930), by Robert E. Howard. In the story, that “strange king”, Kull of Atlantis, believes he is dreaming, fighting in a bizarre war against enemies he doesn’t recognize or understand (Roman soldiers.) The parts I quoted are from the end, where Kull is the last surviving warrior fighting against the Roman legionaries. And just when he is about to receive the “death stroke” he goes back to his time, where he awakens, still believing he just had a very odd dream. Then the sorcerer points at his many wounds (hyperbolically described as “a hundred”) and the torn chainmail, and Kull realizes the truth. Well, not exactly the truth, but he nonetheless understands it had not been just a dream but something weirder.
That typically Howardian scene follows the hit point logic I described, although there is no need to understand every loss of hit points as some sort of cut or wound. Otherwise, your hero may end up looking like a very old and scarred sparring dummy. Sometimes, no wound at all may be needed, especially if the protagonists are wearing armor. In any event, the point is that the hero survives by converting potentially lethal hits into something more tolerable, at least until the “death stroke” finally comes.
Another great example in the same school of literature, although written by a contemporary author, would be this scene from “The Challenger’s Garland,” a short story by Schuyler Hernstrom which you can read in his anthology, Thune’s Vision (here’s my review, and the book will be the Puppy of the Month this November.) In that story, Molok, Death’s Champion, challenges a knight (Lobon) to a duel:
“The steeds reacted swiftly to their masters’ commands, thundering violently toward each other, nostrils flaring and eyes glazed with animal fear. At the last moment the white stallion reared, throwing Lobon to the ground as Molok’s lance grazed the white champion’s shield. The stallion galloped off in terror. Lobon stood painfully, drawing his sword.”
Now, as you can see, nobody dies or gets impaled, but someone clearly lost that phase of the duel and got hurt. That’s what hit points are for. Most of the damage may have happened because the knight fell from the horse, and you may actually have rules to simulate that, but it doesn’t matter. If that were a game, that description might have been something you made up on the spur of the moment to add a little dramatism to a boring “you lost ten hp.” A minor character may have died from those 10 HPs, his head pierced by the lance, or his neck broken when he fell from the horse, but Lobon is clearly no minor character but a veteran of dozens of battles, so he just fell and hurt himself.
Then the duel continues and Lobon keeps avoiding those killing blows:
“Molok tested his foe with a series of tentative swings, […] When Molok sensed Lobon had established a rhythm the black knight rushed forward, slamming his shoulder into the shield and throwing Lobon off balance. The white champion twisted desperately to avoid the killing blow.”
Remember that a round, in the old D&D, was a whole minute, and the game was not a combat simulator where every strike was represented by a unique attack roll. This last paragraph, from the tentative swings to the almost killing blow, could be just a single round for all we know.
“The two traded blows, increasingly desperate, all the attention to form lost. The duel ranged over a field of wheat and into a marsh. […] Another blow rent the champion’s pauldron and bit deep.”
That is the first blood that appears but, if you were trying to understand this scene as a game or if you were describing the players’ actions in a very literary manner, there is no reason to assume that blow is the first time someone succeeded at an attack roll. The point is that hit points are abstract, like everything else in D&D, and their description and loss depends on the individual characters, but also on the type of equipment they are using and the imagination of the DM. For poor Lobon, the importance of all that mostly bloodless beating was to anticipate his eventual demise, the final strike that would finally defeat him:
“With a yell Lobon closed the gap between the pair, grasping the black knight with his free hand and pushing him back. His arms felt leaden. His legs ached. Was this what his foes had felt before the killing blow fell?”
The power of a hit point system over a wound system is that, if it’s understood and used correctly, it can describe this kind of fights. If you read that story using a wound-based system -since nobody has any serious wound- one could assume both characters should be in top condition, although they clearly are not (one of them is extremely tired and possessed by morbid thoughts.) In fact, we’d have to assume that the page-long description of the duel was, in game terms, nothing more than a long list of attacks missing it target. But that’s not what happened, and it’s not how it ends; and like all great fights, it ends abruptly, when the killing blow finds a crack in the HP armor:
“The blade found the space between helm and gorget. The black knight’s severed head fell into the muck.”
Now that’s a critical hit.
What I’ve been writing here doesn’t really change any game rules, and it’s more an issue of interpretation and roleplay than anything else, especially from the DM’s point of view. In fact, I suspect writers who are clearly inspired by roleplaying games (but sometimes this inspiration hampers them more than helps them) may find it more useful than the players themselves. In any event, this is the first in a long list of rules I believe have been misunderstood, from damage and hit points to initiative, and I believe understanding their real function and purpose, what they represented as abstract numbers, may help some people enjoy the game a little more. Also, it may encourage some to play it a less robotic manner and closer to the literary sources without which the game would never have existed in the first place.
It’s not a perfect interpretation, and some problems arise when magic (especially healing magic) and some ranged weapons enter the game, but those are not unsolvable problems, though. And about that will be the next post: clerics, healing, and nasty medieval surgeries.