As I sit here and prepare for my journey to Gary Con an interesting video has popped up in the Gamer Sphere.
It is a video by none other than RPG Pundit. Pundit and I tend to align very strongly on game design principals and interpretation. We also always have a good time talking about gaming in general too.
Today’s video was on a subject gamers have been arguing and ruminating over since RPGs were invented: What the heck are hit points and what do they represent?
Pundit’s video covers a lot of basic concepts regarding the need for a simplistic and non granular system for gauging when your luck runs out in a battle. I am in complete agreement with his assertions regarding their purpose and relatively abstract function. Yet, I wanted to add in some of my own thoughts on the subject.
Before D&D was published most war games treated men as individual one hit you die units. In some cases for larger scale battles a figure would represent a group of perhaps 20 to 50 men and receiving damage would be measured in groups of soldiers or figures. Chainmail, which had some influence on how D&D is designed though often to a much greater extent than the game deserves, measured hit points in figures and a unit of many men being made up of several figures would thus have a hit point value. This system works great in a massed combat situation and even with the Chainmail man-to-man combat scale where getting a hit means you kill a figure/man.
These ideas about hit points predate Chainmail. One source which we know the Blackmoor Bunch played extensively is a naval war game called, Fletcher Pratt’s Naval War Game. I also happen to be running a demo battle at Gary Con, so if you are at the con - swing by and I might even squeeze more players into the game. ;)
Fletcher Pratt’s rules date from around 1937 and were published in 1940. Pratt combined two elements which Pundit mentions. You have the idea of hit points as actual physical damage. You also have the loss of hit points representing a granular loss of capability. This is not what you get in Dungeons & Dragons. In D&D hit points are abstraction.
Much of the misunderstanding of hit points comes from Arneson himself. He is on record as calling to-hit die attack rolls, chops. People assumed he meant each die roll would be one chop and that melee is like two people standing apart and taking turns hacking at each other. Yet, playing a game of Blackmoor with Bob Meyer is very revealing as he follows Arneson doctrine as much as he can. Bob Meyer uses parallel actions. Combatants do not take turns attacking each other and there is no initiative die roll to determine who attacks first. In a battle both sides get a chance to attack each other in a melee round. Thus the combat is very abstracted and represents each side trying to wear down their opponent and is not a granular system by any means.
That is not to say that Arneson was not also capable of being granular with Hit Points. As Michael Wittig noted in his research, the Strategos ancients warfare variant, Strategos - A (Arneson and Hoffa) has elephants in it. And elephants got Hit Points. This dates back to around 1969 (Too lazy to put in citations and proper dates, feel free to roast me over this.) and reveals that Hit Points were already being used for individual figures long before Chainmail appears. An elephant was treated in somewhat the same manner as a battle ship in this regard.
Useful tip: Hit Points and Battles Ships are a recurring theme in D&D combat,
It was discovered early on that Blackmoor needed a system for taking hits which did not kill a player outright. Players did not appreciate being removed from a game based solely on one die roll. Many different systems were tried and over time Arneson created the system for combat that appears in D&D. Some would attribute this creation to Gygax, yet Arneson clearly states in Space Gamer magazine in 1979 that it was his own invention based on a (Brace Yourselves!) naval war game system he had created for his home games. Gygax never made such a clear claim and assumptions that he invented it are based on very questionable interpretations of what Gygax himself said on the subject.
D&D has a very specific and unique design for combat. You have a randomized chance to hit something and the target value is modified by the defenders armor class. No matter how hard to it, or heavily armored something is, once you hit you always get a chance to do the same quantity of damage. Other systems have a set chance to hit something and then the damage caused by the hit is determined by defensive ratings caused by armor as a damage die modifier.
Arneson would later go on to say that they had tried other ways of handling damage. Most interesting of all is his mention of defensive saving throws when being hit completely negating damage. He said the saving throw system was too cumbersome and required too many die rolls during combat. Yet, this variant on damage which likely comes from early Blackmoor is very revealing.
I mentioned the concept of defensive saving throws in an earlier blog post about how OD&D works. I also always like to cite Ara Winter for leading me to this understanding about die rolls.
Attack die rolls are always attack rolls for hitting and for damage. Yet the fixed values of Armor Class and Hit Points that attackers are trying to beat are actually a form of saving throw. I call them defensive saving throws.
Your Armor Class is a saving throw with a fixed value that your opponents try to beat. And your Hit Points are a saving throw with a randomly generated fixed value.
Thus if you can grasp the idea that D&D combat was devised as an abstract system with Hit Points in particular being a form of luck, or even skill in avoiding a deadly blow, you will have a clearer understanding for how to use Hit Points when you Referee a game.
They were created to give players a few chances to survive deadly blows. This luck point system must of course be fair thus the monsters get luck points too. Yet, since the game is so open to interpretation, a Referee is free to flip flop between seeing Hit Points as an abstraction or as a very granular damage system. It really depends on what is needed by the game play in the moment.
So am I saying that Hit Points can be either abstraction or a granular simulation? Yes, yes I am. But the foremost concept to keep in your mind is that it was designed as an abstract system and that it should be considered as such under most conditions.
Well, I am in a bit of a hurry. Pardon my bad grammar and typos. I really wanted to add some to the discussion the video posed and hopefully give you something to ponder as well.
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