Hit Points. Life. Soul. HPs. Damage. Shields. Power. Lots of different ways to express the same concept. Every game with combat needs them in some manner or another, and they often serve different purposes even if they’re usually the same at the core. Ultimately, whatever they’re called, they’re the numerical or mechanical (as-in “gameplay mechanic”) representation of a character’s ability to survive damage from an enemy before they suffer a lethal blow. This works great in stuff like video games where your character never really speaks about the numbers representing their bodily health unless they’re scripted to break the fourth wall. However, when it comes to tabletop role playing games, you actually need a way for your characters to discuss a numerical representation of their bodily health without breaking the fourth wall. There have been a lot of attempts, but most fall short or simply break the fourth wall rather than entirely shatter it.
Probably my favorite is to take it humorously. Instead of saying “HP” or “Hit Points” in D&D, my players jokingly have their characters ask each other a question: “If you were to compare your health to a number of tomatoes, how many tomatoes would have left?” It was my own joke, initially, that I made during on session when one of the players struggled to convey his character’s hit point total during a bit of a drawn-out fight. I don’t remember where I got it. I’m not sure if I read it somewhere or just extrapolated it from the popular “D&D Stats Explained with Tomatoes” Reddit post, but it’s something that hung around my head for a while before I stuck it into my players’ heads.
I’m not that much of a role playing stickler that I won’t let my players talk about their skills, abilities, or hit points in concrete terms, but I generally encourage them to get as absorbed into the game as they’re willing to go. It can make it a bit difficult to openly discuss who needs healing the most if no one is allowed to quantify their level of damage, though. Typically, so long as the characters aren’t talking about hit points, I’m fine. The players can talk about them as a concrete concept as much as they’re like since their characters would be able to more easily visually assess the relative health of the other characters around them. It’s really just a way to help the people outside the game bridge the gap between what they know of the game they’re playing and what their characters would just know as a result of being a part of the game.
When it comes to describe hit points and how they work as the Dungeon Master, it can be a little tricky. If your fighter has one hundred hit points and your wizard has forty and your rogue has sixty, then it makes it pretty clear that they can all survive different amounts of punishment. The fight can probably stand to be impaled a few times since being impaled on a spear does around twenty damage. Something much larger, with a horn of some kind, would do much more damage, but the fighter could easily survive one or two hits from even the hardest hitting impaler. Further complicating things is how Armor Class affects the way damage is applied. If your fighter is wearing full-plate and wielding a tower shield but still gets hit, how does that work? Did his opponent find a gap? Did they break through the fighter’s armor? Chop through their shield? Is the fighter’s armor filling up with blood now, or was it just a scratch?
The way I like to think of it, I consider hit points to be a reflection of an individual character’s ability to turn an otherwise lethal or debilitating blow into something minor. Think about a sword-fighting anime. You have two master swordsmen rushing at each other and they swing. These two people were chopping arms off of mooks just five minutes earlier, have both sliced through rocks, and can effortlessly slash down a heavy wooden door. How is it that they only took minor cuts on their arms or cheeks or whatever? They used their skill, gained over the length of their time training and leveling up, to move in such a way that an arm-removing chop just made them bleed a little. The same is true of your fighter and your wizard. They might be the same level, but a fighter is going to be much better at negating the lethality of a hit than a wizard. When they finally run out of hit points, that means they’re cut up and tired enough that they can no longer negate the blows and something that had, seconds before, caused only the smallest red line to appear now removes their hand or arm.
Critical hits are a little more complicated. Generally just walk it up as being a non-lethal hit still, but one that would be severe enough to cause a big scar. Maybe the cut was long but shallow or maybe it was actually a puncture. You can be run-through without damaging anything that’d get you killed. It’s not easy and it’s more likely than not that you’ll get extremely hurt, but a fighter could probably do it a bunch of times in a day.
The one major except to my practices is when a player takes massive damage. In the three point five edition of Dungeons and Dragons, there’s a suggested rule to require a saving throw to avoid death if a player takes massive damage and they define massive damage as something exceeding fifty points in a single attack. Now, there will be characters who go from level one to twenty and never once have fifty hit points. There are characters who, at twentieth level, will be able to laugh off fifty points of damage. Better, in my mind, to make it based on their total hit points. In my campaigns, players can face debilitating injuries if they take half their hit points or more of damage from a single attack. Lost limbs, evisceration, unconsciousness, broken bones, and of those are fair game if they get absolutely wrecked by something. This means that the one hundred hit point fight is much less likely to get a massive damage hit than the wizard, but it makes sense that it’d work that way.
How do you treat hit points in your games? I’d love to hear how you handle the description of losing hit points and accruing damage. Please feel free to comment!
Check out today’s Tabletop Highlight about Hit Points! I cover the roles they play in games and how you can describe your players losing HP in fights! Check it out here!