Why You’re Probably Doing Hit Points Wrong

Hit Points.  Many TTRPGs use this ambiguous number to express “life” or “health” of a character.  But what do they represent, really?  D&D has had Hit Points since the very original version, and they’ve always been called the same thing.  In D&D, they’ve never been called Life Points, Health Points, or anything other than Hit Points.  Why?  Was it a deliberate design choice?  A holdover and case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”   If you dig into the history of D&D, the answer and intention becomes clear.  And once you know what was intended, you’ll see that the way almost every player and DM treats HPs is wrong.

As most longtime players know, D&D evolved from tabletop miniature wargaming.  However, since the this new game focused on single players instead of squads of men as the base unit for the game, a suitable measure of resilience was needed.  In this case, the Hit Point mechanic which, according to Tim Kask, was adapted.  But, as he goes on to say, HP was meant to represent the player’s stamina, strength, skill and tricks that are used by the player to avoid what would be catastrophic damage.  He goes on to point out that if HP were “gobbets of flesh and life”, by the time a player has hit 5th or 6th level, their bodies would be unusable masses of scar tissue and lingering wounds.   In this light, it’s really apparent that, at least from a narrative sense, our job as DMs needs to change.

If we change how players relate to HP from something that they ARE to a RESOURCE that they USE, we can realize a number of benefits.

Consider the following narratives that follow a successful attack against a player.

“The orc swings in with it’s axe, burying the head into your shoulder, shattering the bone and sending blood pouring down your arm. You lose 9 HP.”   In this case, how does a player keep fighting using the shield that they are holding.  If they survive, how does the body ever recover from this kind of catastrophic injury?  Instead, what if you describe the same hit the following way, “The orc bears its fangs and swings its axe at your shoulder in a vicious blow.  Years of experience have honed your reflexes, you raise your shield in just enough time to catch most of the ringing impact of the blow as the axehead glances off and slides up and over your head, narrowly avoiding the side of your head.  Your arm aches and you take a moment to catch your breath.  You spend 9 HP to prevent the crippling blow.”

“Bleeding from the gaping wounds caused by your Magic Missiles, the bugbear steps forward and stabs at you with a wicked hook-bladed sword.  The blade slips through your Mage Armor, easily cutting your robes and sinks into the soft flesh of your stomach.  You take 10 damage.”  OUCH.  Gut wound?  Sounds like an excruciating and almost certainly lethal wound.  How about instead, “The Bugbear staggers forward, the impact of your Magic Missiles evident from several smoking spots on its armor and shield and stabs at you with its blade.  Years of training allow you to predict the point of impact, and you spend 10 HP to reinforce and angle your Mage Armor to deflect as much of the blow as possible.  The impact merely drives the wind from your lungs as opposed to slicing deeply into your stomach.”

OR even …

“The ghoul snarls and rakes out with its claws, one aimed at your face, the other at your stomach.  Having fought these beasts before, you predict the attack and spend 8 hp and avoid the damage by ….”  And then you let the player describe how they back-flip out of range, or they twist in an improbable fashion sidestepping one blow and blocking the other with their forearm.  This draws the player into the combat in a more narrative way, it encourages the shared storytelling experience and deepens the immersion of the combat.

In addition to more engaging narrative, if we consider HP as originally designed, most of the kinds of common healing make much more sense.  When a player reaches 0 HP, it means that they simply can’t stand to fight, they’ve exhausted themselves beyond their physical capacity.  It means that instead of miraculously knitting together shards of bone and shreds of skin and muscle, spontaneously creating missing blood and other such items in the heat of combat, magical healing restores a burst of that core stamina, the players’ wind, their fighting spirit, etc and they can stand and fight again.  It means that spending Hit Die during a short rest seems like a much less artificial construct, as it just represents players catching their wind, working out muscle knots, bruises and sprains.

It also means that when the player levels up, the increase in HP doesn’t mean that suddenly there is more mass to the player, but rather, all that they’ve learned in that last level is represented by an increase in fighting spirit, core stamina and some new tricks learned by experience that can be used.

Mechanically, this requires very few changes, and I am not proposing that every blow should be narratively treated as a near-miss or a blocked blow.  But I like the improvement in storytelling, I like the way that HP feels, when using it this way, and I think it helps maintain the illusion of the game, by abstracting a mechanic behind engaging language.

Thanks for reading!  Feel free to share your comments with me on Twitter @ForgottenLore.