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March 23, 2008 / jadettman

Hit Points: Why?

I re-read a post over at Ars Ludi (Don’t Roll, Think) the other day that’s been making me think about other parts of games that have been over mechanized. Which led to comparisons between Amber and other RPGs.

My conclusion: much like the Spot roll in D&D, Hit Points are unnecessary.

Hit points are a holdover from Chainmail, the miniatures game D&D is based on. They create a necessary level of abstraction to the combat in what was a large-scale fantasy wargame. When you consider that one figure in Chainmail was intended to represent units of twenty men, well, hit points make fair amount of sense.

With the shift to roleplaying, though, hit points make less sense. You aren’t playing twenty or one-hundred guys fighting a dragon in D&D, you are one guy with a few friends fighting a dragon. So, why did hit points migrate over?

I mean, to a certain extent it make sense: You need some way to know how injured a character gets in combat and they had a simple method available to them. So, migrate hit points over and start playing.

The problem is that from a roleplaying point of view (or, to be particular, a perspective of versimilitude) hit points don’t work. People in combat don’t keep going when they get hit with a sword. They certainly don’t continue fighting without any sign that they’ve been hit. There have been many rationalizations throughout the years for hit points but that doesn’t really change the problem.

Other games have tried to fix the hit point problem by keeping the concept but changing the implementation. So we’ve gotten hit-location charts that tell us where the character has taken damage and systems where the amount of damage a character takes effects his capabilities, generally by inflicting penalties on the character which leads into a whole discussion about death spirals that really isn’t important to this discussion.

So, why don’t we just get rid of hit points entirely?

The only real purpose I can see for them (besides the comfort that they’ve always been there) is to keep the GM honest somehow. And if that’s why you want them in your roleplaying game, well, I think you have other problems that you need to work out.


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