Provide a resource to gauge when a character is incapacitated or dies.
Damage Capacity, Health, Life, Vitality
Role-playing games originally evolved from various war games. As such, many of them deal with combat and death. Such games require some means to determine when a character becomes incapacitated or dies due to injuries. Hit Points are among the earliest techniques devised to accomplish this goal. If a game specifies a resource from which “damage” is subtracted that causes a character to be rendered helpless or dead at pre-specified points, it follows the Hit Points pattern. So, the Hit Points pattern is really just a specialization of the Resource pattern.
A pure Hit Points gauge ignores the realistic incremental effects of various wounds in favor of simplicity. It also avoids the “death spiral” effects that can arise from systems that take these incremental effects into account (see the Trauma Gauge and Wound Trait patterns).
It is very common for games using Hit Points to state that a character is rendered incapacitated when damage lowers the characters Hit Points to 0 and death results when some pre-set negative number is reached. Other games specify that characters die at 0 Hit Points. Some Hit Point based games provide penalties to characters whose Hit Points fall to very low numbers in order to simulate the debilitating effects of pain and injury. (This is really a blending of the Hit Points and Trauma Gauge patterns.)
The Hit Points pattern is appropriate in games where the designer
If you want to simulate the gradual loss of combat proficiency as a character accrues damage, you might want to consider the Trauma Gauge or Wound Trait patterns as alternatives or as supplements to the Hit Points pattern. If you want to guarantee the survival of characters until their roles are fully played out in a storyline, you should consider the Endgame pattern as an alternative.
On the other hand, the nature of your game may have nothing to do with death. If so, you probably want to avoid Hit Points or any of its related patterns altogether. For example, if you are designing a role-playing game where all of the characters are cartoon characters, it would be a logical design goal to ensure that no character can possibly die. You might decide that the worst that can happen to a cartoon character is for it to become a broken and mangled ruin at the bottom of a very deep canyon with the shadow of a falling boulder growing around it. In a subsequent scene, the character might be wrapped in bandages and using crutches, or he might be perfectly healthy based purely on what the players find to be most amusing. Ensuring the impossibility of death can be accomplished by avoiding the introduction of any rules into your game describing death as a possibility. You might even want to mention somewhere that this omission was intentional for players who are oriented toward war gaming.
The primary benefit of the Hit Points pattern is that it provides a simple way for players to track and manage a resource specifying how “close” their character is to death. In its pure form, Hit Points impose no penalties on character actions as damage is accrued. Consequently, characters are as effective when severely damaged as they are when completely healthy up until the critical state where the character suddenly loses all capability. For some players, this aspect of the pattern is highly unrealistic, causing their “suspension of disbelief” to be challenged. Others are willing to ignore this characteristic in favor of the simplicity and prolonged character effectiveness it affords.
If you use the Hit Points pattern in your game, you have several factors to consider:
In many games, Hit Points are generated by having the players roll dice. The number of dice rolled is usually tied to the power or “experience” of the character. Most often, games using this technique also use the Level pattern and have the player roll one (or more) die per character “level.” Sometimes, the size of the die used (d4, d6, d8, etc.) depends on the character’s class or race (see the Class pattern). This “randomized” technique has a number of problems of which you should be aware.
First, newly generated characters usually start out with a very small number of Hit Points, possibly only 1. In games employing a game master, the survivability of new characters largely becomes a matter of how skilled the game master is at keeping characters alive, since a blow that would be considered a very light wound to more powerful characters can easily slay a new character. Games that do not employ a game master would not even have GM fiat as a buffer, and so new characters would naturally suffer from an even higher fatality rate.
Second, the range of possible Hit Point values expands as the game progresses. Consequently, gearing obstacles to a specific power level becomes more and more difficult as power levels increase. The best that can be done is to target the “average” Hit Points value for a given power level. And, if the size of dice used varies from character to character based on race or class constraints, deciding on what “average” means becomes problematic in itself.
Third, Hit Points are generally a crucial characteristic for in-game success. So, groups will often come up with “house rules” to deal with situations where low Hit Point numbers are rolled. For example, a player that rolls a 1 on his Hit Point die will be allowed to re-roll rather than take the minimum. At the very least, these kinds of house rules highlight the weaknesses of allowing pure chance to determine so crucial a characteristic. At worst, they can disrupt your carefully crafted game design by shifting the meaning of “average” in some unanticipated way.
Finally, continually escalating Hit Point values forces the game design into an ever increasing arms race, so that the game challenges powerful characters as well as beginning characters. It is easy to fall into the trap of providing characters with more potent versions of similar abilities to those already possessed. Doing this merely updates character abilities to deal with the ballooning Hit Point values, rather than giving players truly new ways in which to explore their game environment.
All of this is not to say that the Hit Point pattern is invalid for your game design, only that leaving the Hit Point determination to random chance is questionable. All of the aforementioned problems are the direct result of dice rolls and rapidly swelling Hit Point values. The Hit Points pattern requires neither of these characteristics. For example, Hit Points could be “bought” through the expenditure of some resource in a manner similar to what is described in the Point-Spend Attributes pattern. That way, players would be free to set their own Hit Point values, which would be determined from their own ambitions after weighing the importance of Hit Points against other concerns. Alternately, you could have Hit Points be derived from other attributes via some formula that would ensure beginning characters have a reasonable chance at surviving. If the attributes from which Hit Points are derived are Point-Spend Attributes, then players would again have indirect but total control over their characters’ Hit Point values.
At the same time you are figuring out how Hit Points are calculated, you need to be thinking about how you want them to be lost. Hit Points are fundamentally a resource, which means they can be “spent” in some fashion. Generally, Hit Points are “gambled” by having characters participate in combat where damage can be sustained in various ways. This means that you must also decide how damage is calculated. Some games use dice rolls to calculate the damage values of a weapon strike. For example, a short sword might deliver 1d8 damage whenever it hits a foe. Randomizing weapon damage is far less problematic than randomizing Hit Points, assuming that the upper damage range is unlikely to kill a healthy character, because the effects are presumably temporary in that characters can usually “heal” through rest or medical attention (magical or otherwise depending on genre). Even so, rolling extra dice for damage in a “Roll to Hit / Roll to Damage” fashion is often unnecessary. Some games combine both rolls into a single roll where the degree of success of a weapon strike determines the amount of damage delivered. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t design your game with a separate damage roll, only that you should do so based on your goals and not on some pre-conceived notion that they must be separate actions.
Finally, you need to consider how characters regain lost Hit Points. A story can be brought to a grinding halt because players with badly injured characters don’t want to foolishly risk their lives. So, lacking any viable alternative, the players will simply have their characters “rest,” however dull and dreary that activity proves to be. (This assumes, of course, that “resting” has beneficial effects on Hit Points.) If your game genre allows for it, you can give characters some supernatural means of regaining Hit Points. For example, in a game where all characters are ghouls, you could specify that eating raw flesh invigorates the characters and heals wounds. In a game where characters are werewolves, stating that werewolves regenerate at a rapid rate is reasonable. You must strike a balance between allowing players to quickly resume interesting play after having suffered serious injury and defeating the entire purpose of having Hit Points in the first place. If you give characters a supply of Hit Points that refreshes as quickly as they are lost, then characters will never be in danger of incapacitation or death, which is the whole reason for tracking Hit Points. Of course, games where characters are normal humans have no easy excuse for fast recovery from near-mortal wounds. Even so, artificial means such as magical or “high tech” healing can be used to speed things along.
Note that regaining Hit Points need not be fast in “game” time, only that it should happen quickly in “real” time. Suppose a mountain man character in an Old American West style game is badly mauled while battling a bear and drags himself to his cabin to recuperate. Such a game cannot easily incorporate magical or high tech excuses for speedy recovery and remain in-genre. But, it can encourage the rapid passing of time to maintain dramatic tension. “Okay, three months later your character has a bad scar on his left side but is otherwise none the worse for wear.”
In a game having the attributes of Strength and Constitution (see the Attribute pattern), Hit Points could be determined with a formula such as the following: Hit Points = 50 + 5 x (Strength + Constitution).
Dungeons & Dragons v3.5 determines “Hit Points” randomly. Whenever a character gains a level (see the Level pattern), its player rolls a die, modifies the result by an adjustment based on the character’s Constitution, and adds the result to the character’s Hit Point total. The character’s class (see the Class pattern) determines the size of die rolled (d4, d6, d8, or d10). Weapon damage is calculated by dice rolls and adding adjustments for magic and strength. Hit Points are regained through rest or magical healing.
The Riddle of Steel relies mainly on the Wound Trait pattern for the effects of damage, but it does have an attribute called “Health” that fits the Hit Point pattern for Blood Loss. Wound Traits in The Riddle of Steel sometimes inflict blood loss. Every turn, a conflict resolution roll is made between a wounded character’s current blood loss rating and his Endurance attribute. If the roll fails (i.e., “Blood Loss” wins), the character loses a point of Health. If his Health falls to 0, he dies. Note that Health is an attribute that can be directly used in conflict resolution rolls, but it does not reduce the effectiveness of other attributes, so it doesn’t follow the Trauma Gauge pattern. Blood Loss returns at a rate of one point per day of rest unless magical means are employed to speed recovery.
Rolemaster Fantasy Role Playing sets “Hits” equal to the character’s bonus in the skill of “Body Development” (see the Skill and Rank patterns). Weapon damage is determined by rolling percentile dice and looking up the results on one of various tables, taking into account both weapon and armor types. Hit Points are regained through rest or magical healing. Note that in Rolemaster, it is actually very difficult to die from hit point loss, since a character’s hit points can go down to a large negative value before death results. Consequently, most character death is delivered through Wound Traits (“Crits”).
TORG distinguishes between “Shock Damage,” “Knockout Conditions,” and “Wound Levels.” When Shock Damage exceeds a character’s “Toughness” attribute, he falls unconscious. Characters recover Shock Damage at a fast rate (one point per minute), but Wounds take a long time to heal. “Wound Level” is effectively a separate Hit Point resource having four levels (actually five, if you count “Unwounded”). These are: Wounded, Heavily Wounded, Mortally Wounded, and Dead. TORG’s Knockout conditions are unrelated to Hit Points.