Friday, November 18, 2011

On hit points

One topic that seems to come up every so often is that hit points/ health/ morale are kind of absurd. Whether or not you agree with Wilhelm that they are especially absurd when using a blaster, I think we can all agree that the ability to withstand multiple lethal attacks is a fairly baldfaced sacrifice of realism in favor of gameplay. It's one of those things like level based combat and the fact that death doesn't actually kill you that we all just kind of accept as necessary evils.

I've always thought the concept of hit points was a bit silly, even back in my PnP RPG days. In D&D, the maximum damage that a longsword can do, barring strength bonuses and such, is eight points. So if you stab someone in the heart or cut their head off with a longsword (i.e., do as much damage as it is possible to do to someone with it), that equals eight points of damage. So how on earth does anyone get to have more than eight hit points? Gary Gygax explained that all the damage that you take until you get down to your last few HP represents your character getting minor wounds or becoming exhausted. Only once you are worn down do you become vulnerable to a fatal blow. However, that always struck me as a pretty weak-sauce attempt to justify a mechanic that existed purely for (perfectly obvious) gameplay reasons. It also fails to explain how a character can end up with enough hit points to stand in lava for a few rounds.

I used to to mess around with the concept of hit points in my campaigns on occasion. For example, I once ran a Dungeons and Dragons campaign where most normal humans couldn't ever have more than nine hit points (1d6+3 for a high con bonus). In order to have so many hit points that a single sword stroke from a strong guy couldn't kill you, you had to either be a lot bigger than a human, a magical being, or a individual with some kind of divine power. Player characters were not normal humans (or elves, or gnomes or whatever), they were "annointed" under the protection of a deity that had some purpose for them. As you went up in levels you became literally harder to kill. If someone hit you with a sword for eight points of damage, it would go right through your chest and you would laugh it off like a vampire in a horror movie. All your wounds would heal nearly instantly, at least until you had regenerated all the damage you could take (i.e., used up your hit points). I'm not aware of too many MMOs that have used this justification for health bars. Rift, at least, does something similar.

For better or worse, virtually every RPG online or off has something like hit points. Both PCs and mobs can generally endure multiple seemingly fatal blows (weapon hits for max damage, grenades, lightening strikes, and the like). Further, I don't really see any good alternatives. When I envision a RPG where everyone and everything can die in a single hit, it doesn't sound like a lot of fun. It sounds like a game where you spend more time in the graveyard than playing, and one where a level 70 character doesn't feel a lot more powerful than a level one character.


  1. I used to disagree with it, but now I actually buy Gary's explanation.

    The difference is Ive now done a couple of years of reasonably serious sword work, and in a lot of fights I literally get worn down as I run out of adrenaline and my fatigue builds up higher and higher, causing my defense to get sloppier and sloppier ...

    Sure, replacing "hit points" with "fatigue" and having critical hits - any hit once you're out of fatigue - go straight off your CON score makes more sense ... but I can deal with hit points.

    But yeah, this is no excuse for the 18th level fighter being able to fall an unlimited distance.

  2. @Anton: I really like the idea of active defenses that start out reliable but get weaker as you use up "fatigue." If I were still running PnP games I'd probably try it out for a session.

  3. I think hit points are one of those things that might possibly never go away. It's become so ingrained in our video games and that sacrifice for realism in favor of fun is in play everywhere, not just in our RPGs but in our fighting games and to an extent even shooters (like, come on, you're being shot at, even a flesh wound should be making you keel over in pain).

    It definitely wouldn't be very fun, playing a game where it's so realistic you are dismembered or are immediately killed from a well swung sword slash. Even Batman wouldn't be able to take that kind of abuse for long!

    Another thing for RPGs...if you want to keep upgrading for nicer weapons and use them, then your enemies better be able to withstand more than a couple slashes too. What fun would wielding an epic sword be, if you poke your enemy once with it and he immediately slumps over and dies? :P

  4. @Mmmogamerchick: That's a good point, actually. I wasn't thinking more broadly than RPGs. Now that you mention it, my guy in Doom had to get gnawed on quite a bit before he went down and it generally takes at least a couple of combos that look like they could flatten a house to take someone down in a fighting game. HPs really are ingrained into our games.

  5. Mmogamerchick,

    Adrenaline is wonderful stuff. There are a bunch of reliable records about people who got seriously shot and didnt realise it till combat was over.


    Yeah. A "real" system will have your active attacks degrade as well, and have you "burn willpower" for just one more good clean shot ...

  6. HP is a mechanical abstraction, sure, but it also serves as a fudge factor, a margin for error. Take Bushido Blade, a game with realistic combat (take a sword to an artery, and you're dead), but a brutal learning curve. If you screw up, you're dead.

    HP allows players to make some bad decisions but still keep playing. Healing mechanics are yet another fudge factor. There's certainly room for hardcore games, but for most of us, most of the time, we like the ability to hang in there with a more forgiving experience.

    ...that's not to say that it couldn't be dressed up better, just that it's not purely mechanical, it's also psychological.

  7. @Tesh: I owned Bushido blade for a while. And honestly it was next to unplayable, which I say with pain because I really found what they were trying to do pretty neat. I agree with you that that fudge factors make games a heck of a lot more fun. There is a very good reason why even modern platformers and rail shooters generally let you mess up a few times before you die.

    Quite honestly, the only games that I can handle "Do perfect or die" without getting pissed in are arcade style games. Games where getting as far as you can without dying is the obvious primary challenge. That's about as far from typical MMO gameplay as I can imagine.