Thursday, April 15, 2010

When HP are not physical damage

Everyone's been there. Your fighter is going toe-to-toe with an orc/ogre/owlbear/whatever. You hack him for 10 HP, he rakes you for 12, you chop at him for 7, he bites you for 3, and on and on. You trade blows back and forth until that magic moment when your hero goes from 1 HP to 0 (or fewer, depending on edition) HP. Last round he was fighting in top physical condition, now he's wormfood.

This rather jarring transition has always bothered me. If HP represents physical integrity or health, then the loss of HP would seem to suggest strongly a concurrent loss of physical capacity of some sort. But that's never the case. Even with systems that use the "death due to massive damage" rule, if you make your save, the character suffers no ill effects. This is unsatisfying to both sides of my brain. The left hemisphere recoils at the idea of a warrior who accumulates vague, unsourced bloodstains on his armor, all the while slashing with gusto, until he just croaks cartoon-style. It's nonsensical. The right hemisphere pipes up that's also booooring.

The problem is that if you get rid of HP, and you go to a more realistic injury system, you're going to be rolling up new characters every other encounter. Not just due to PC death; even relatively minor injuries would realistically sideline an adventurer for days or weeks. It can be fun to play with that level of lethality, and it works well in games such as Call of Cthulhu. In our group's most recent session, an apparition of an elder god clawed at one of our investigators, raking him for 10 of his 12 HP. The guy was able to get off a wild gunshot, but was then down for the count. He survived, but was in the hospital for most of the rest of the game. But usually, particularly for more pulp fantasy games like D&D, I prefer to have more of a chance to know and develop my characters. So we need some kind of buffer between Full Health and Out of Commission.

I've recently been playing Labyrinth Lord using versions of a "Death and Dismemberment" house rule. Other, slightly tweaked variants are here and here. This house rule envisions HP as an abstraction for some combination of stamina, defensive ability, determination, luck etc. When this collective store is exhausted, the character is at 0 HP, and must roll on the table to see what the consequences are:

2 or lowerInstant Death (decapitated or similar death from CtB).
3Fatal Wound (gutted, stabbed through lung, broken back, and the like) die in 1d20 x 10 minutes. A Wish or similar effect would heal wound.
Knocked Out until death unless Save vs Death is made.
4-5Severed Limb use hit location die, if head rolled and no helmet then as '2', if body rolled and no armor then as '3', otherwise will bleed out and die in 1d6 rounds. Magical healing (magic used for this will not restore lost hp), a tourniquet, or cauterization with fire will allow a Save vs Death with bonus equal to lvl of spell cast, if any. Success means character requires 3d4 weeks of healing.
Knocked Out until death unless Save vs Death is made.
6-7Broken Bone use hit location die. 3d4 weeks to heal.
Knocked Out 1d20 rounds unless Save vs Death is made.  If head bone was broke and no helmet and failed save then knocked out, "in coma", until healed instead.
8-9Knocked Out for 1d12 rounds if wearing a helm. If no helmet then as Broken Head Bone.
10-11Stunned for 1d4 rounds and lose helm if wearing helm. Knocked Out for 1d12 rounds if not wearing helm.
12+"Now I'm Mad" a surge of adrenaline returns 1d4 hit points per hit die. At the end of the combat, the adrenaline drains away, hit points are reduced to zero, and the PC faints for 2d6 rounds. If you roll this more than once in a single combat consider yourself a Berserker under the effects of a potion of super-heroism.

Each time character at 0 HP takes "damage", he must roll again on the table. This is the best way I've seen to model the fact that until someone takes actual physical damage, they are more or less at full capacity. But once they are injured, things get bad in a hurry, as each further injury brings a chance of disaster.

If you haven't tried gaming this way before, I'd highly recommend it.


  1. Actually, it's not this house rule that "envisions HP as an abstraction for some combination of stamina, defensive ability, determination, luck etc."

    That has been the written official explanation of hit points going back to 1e AD&D and maybe farther, including some (possible) physical injury. It's only the very end of the scale that is serious wounding.

  2. Oh, and as far as the tables go, they're a good way to do it.

    We just rule that 0 HP is knocked out and less than 0 is save vs. death or die; if the save is successful then go to 0 HP and knocked out. Simple.

    I'm thinking of instituting some penalty for those who have to save vs. death, though. Maybe just a scar or maybe something like this table. I like that it gives a bonus to those who wear helmets, as helmets often don't much in the way of mechanical benefits.

  3. That may have been the official explanation, but I think the rulebooks themselves fatally undercut this with the "Cure Wounds" series of spells. The names of those spells and their references in the spell text to "healing damage" imply quite forcefully that recovering HP means recovering from some physical injury.

    In my (limited) experience, all the players and DMs across all versions of D&D tend to think of HP loss as physical damage. That's the default paradigm, established and reinforced in players' minds by Cure spell after Cure spell in actual play.

    I think for this paradigm to shift, the Cure spells would have to undergo a name change, and the spell text revised... though at that point, you're just substituting in an entirely different spell.

    So what do you call a spell that restores "stamina, defensive ability, determination, and luck etc."? It would have to be a pretty generic name to capture everything. "Bless" and "Restoration" are already taken. Maybe "Divine Favor" would work, with these modifying adjectives: Minor, Moderate, Major, and Miraculous.

  4. Flip, yep, it's rare to find people who think abstractly. That play hitpoints (even the name is suggestive) as luck/fatigue points or understand that a attack roll doesn't represent one "swing" but a series of attacks, feints and skulduggery.

    I didn't want to get into it in the 1 shots but when playing with "don't get hit points" and injury at 0, I don't provide a lot of (magical) healing. Instead hit points are rather easy to recover.

    "Bandage wounds" anyone who states they are binding wounds immediately after combat without doing anything else recovers one hit die. Technically only able to recover what was lost in preceding combat but players won't track/remember that.

    "Liquid Courage" 1/day character can chug a skin of ale, take a swig of rut gut, snuffer of brandy whatever and recover two hit dice.

    With good meal and sound night's rest characters recover hit points = to a roll of all their hit dice. This should pretty much restore people to full. Wilderness camping typically isn't restful enough.

    btw I rate healing by hit dice cause I think it's stupid that the main combatants with large hit die get screwed and the wuss wizards with their piddly hps have it made, healing spell wise.

    Injuries from that chart are the opposite and will take weeks to recover.

  5. I guess we never had any trouble understanding what hit points were or that the "cure light wounds" healed that damage. It never occurred to me that since the spell was called "cure light wounds" that physical injury was implied or that spells to heal hit points as described would need a different name.

    A "wound" does not have to be a physical cut.

  6. I would agree that a "wound" does not necessarily have to be a physical cut (or any other type of physical injury, such as a broken bone or crushed organ). But when a character loses HP because some orc just swung a sword and "hit his Armor Class", and then the party cleric "heals" the PC, allowing him to regain those HP he just lost, physical injury seems the logical interpretation.

  7. I have the switch between "Luck Points" and "Body Points". Body points don't go up with levels and represent physical injuries. Weeks or months are needed to heal and they cause serious penalties. Luck points represent how Stormtroopers just never seem to hit Luke as he stands in the open firing at them with a pistol one handed.

    Why not just use a dismemberment table? Monsters. Monsters should often be able to take a tonne of physical punishment, even if it is a downing spiral as the monster gets weaker and weaker as it bleeds out.

    This keeps the same mechanics through different combats.