The Hit Parade: Connecting Storytelling to Hit Points

The second entry in this series focuses on what happens when a character “hits” another.  A reminder of the four goals I’m trying to achieve:

  1. Make combat a more compelling storytelling experience.
  2. Have combat better reflect player choice in action and equipment selection so that it doesn’t feel disconnected and random.
  3. Make combat gameplay more engaging by expanding tactical outcomes and choices.
  4. Don’t add undue complexity or slow down the game.

I hope it can achieve these goals by applying a philosophy on how hit points are interpreted from both gameplay and storytelling perspectives.

System Summary

Here’s the TL;DR:

  1. A fixed number of a character’s hit points represent their physical fortitude.  We’ll call these “body points” to be distinct from the rest.
  2. The rest of their hit points reflect skill, magical prowess, luck, etc.
  3. Damage is applied to the remainder hit points first i.e., a character is spending their hit points to avoid being hit.  
  4. The character is only physically harmed when damage exceeds the hit points and treads into body points.

The Disconnect

“From your vantage point in the rafters, you can see the sorcerer below conducting the ritual.  A thaumaturgic circle around her shoots sporadic sparks as the summoning begins.”

“I nock an arrow and fire.”

“Roll to hit.”

“A 17!”

“That’s a hit.  You do 4 damage.  The sorcerer looks up at you and curses and begins chanting a new spell.”

“She’s not dead?  I just shot her with an arrow.”

“No, she’s a 16th-level magic-user, so she has a lot of hitpoints.”

Too often we have experiences like this in RPGs where the gameplay mechanics cause a jarring disconnect with an epic storytelling moment.  It deflates the heroism of the player characters and turns combat into a slog as they whomp each other to 0.

Back to Our Father Who Art In Elysium:

Each character has a varying number of hit points, just as monsters do.  These hit points represent how much damage (actual or potential) the character can withstand before being killed.  A certain amount of these hit points represent the actual physical punishment which can be sustained.  The remainder, a significant portion of hit points at higher levels, stands for skill, luck, and/or magical factors…the majority of hit points are symbolic of combat skill, luck (bestowed by supernatural powers), and magical forces.

Gary Gygax, 1st Edition AD&D Player’s Handbook

…and re-emphasized here:

Damage scored to characters or certain monsters is actually not substantially physical–a mere nick or scratch until the last handful of hit points are considered–it is a matter of wearing away the endurance, the luck, the magical protections.

Gary Gygax, 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide

I want to see if I can formalize that guidance into a system so that we don’t get stuck in the war of attrition.

Advanced Heroes & Hit Points:  17th Century Edition

In Edmond Rostand’s adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac’s life, he portrays the French cadet as an expert swordsman with the heart of a poet.  These traits dovetail when Cyrano learns that a fellow poet is to be ambushed by one hundred men.  Cyrano takes on the mob by himself, defeating them with only a scratch, which his unwitting love bandages for him the next morning at the poet bakery.  (That’s a bakery run by poets, not one that bakes poets).

One swordsman alone against a hundred with only a scratch?  Sounds great, but it doesn’t sound compatible with a game.  Or does it?

Cyrano, a high level fighter, enters the fray with a lot of hit points, and he exits with very few.  Each successful “hit” from the mob is one that would have killed a normal person.  It is only due to his skill, experience, and signature panache that he survives.  Cyrano spends his hit points on impossible parries, last-minute blade-binds with his cloak, and preternaturally dodging attacks from behind.

From the dozens of attacks–which probability says many will be hits–Cyrano emerges with only a mild injury.  How can we square that systemically?

Oh God Not Another Statistic to Track

Let’s distinguish the hit points that our heroes spend doing heroic things from those that make their bodies function.  As Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser ascend icy Stardock, they’re suffering successful “to hit” rolls by Prince Faroomfar as he harries their climb, but these hits haven’t actually pierced their skin or made their insides start to become their outsides.

There’s body points and then there’s hit points.  Or rather, body points are a subset of hit points.


(or not really)

Body points are a threshold value within the character’s total hit points.  Treat them as the last resort.  If my character has 16 hit points, of which 6 are body points, any damage from 7 thru 16 is attributed to my character’s heroism.  Those blows never actually struck me, because I spent my hit points to compensate.  It’s only when we get down to values 1 thru 6 that things are getting dicey.  That’s when real injuries are happening.

One thing that’s important to remember:  we’re never tracking body points as a separate tally from hit points.  It’s a threshold within our total hit points.

So how do we know where the threshold between body and hit points are?  Here are a few ideas that I had:

  1. Your 1st level hit points are your body points.  In this system, when you’re starting off, you’re a regular joe.  It’s only after gaining a level that you develop skills that allow you to avoid what would have killed a normal person.  This is pretty simple!  It means recording your initial hit points and saying “that’s the body points threshold.”  At level 2, you begin earning hit points that are spent doing heroic things, but your body points threshold stays the same.
  2. Your body points cap out at your Constitution score.  You develop hit points as normal, but you don’t start to develop superhuman capabilities until you’ve exceeded what your body can sustain.  This method would allow you to get physically tougher as you gain levels, and only earn points once you’ve exceeded that score.  Maybe this would work in a brutal campaign world.  I dunno.  Not a huge fan of this.
  3. At 1st level, your body points are your Constitution score and you roll your class’ hit die for initial hit points.  This is a pretty radical departure.  In a more epic campaign, the characters start off with a huge hit point advantage–their Constitution as body points, plus their normal 1st level hit points.  All of a sudden, being a 1st level wizard doesn’t completely suck.  Those initial adventures can last longer and are less immediately deadly.  You’ve got a little bit of a buffer before attacks start to actually injure you.  Question for the GM:  do NPCs and monsters get this bonus as well, or are the players exceptional?

(food for thought:  should a Constitution bonus add to your body points every level?  I think it makes sense, but it may not be worth the added complexity)

How does this work for monsters?  The GM has to set a threshold for body points, and that’s a judgment call.  Some creatures might be entirely body points–a gelatinous cube is unlikely to dodge a pike thrust–while others may combine skill with physical hardiness.

Correlating with Storytelling

When a character is hit, damage is rolled as appropriate and we have three possibilities:

Case 1:  The new hit point total did not cross into the body point threshold.  This means the character was not physically injured.  This is a great opportunity for roleplaying:  an attack is coming that would fell a normal person.  What is an in-character way to avoid it?  The GM may even hand the reins over to the player:

“The drow rolled a successful hit and its crossbow bolt is coming at you for 5 damage.  You’re still well above your body point threshold.  What happens?”

A player with a magic-user character might say:  “My hands glow blue and the bolt stops in mid-air, before dropping harmlessly to the ground.”

…or a clueless thief:  “Is that what that gust of wind I felt was?  I just remembered a sandwich in my backpack and ducked my head in to find it.  I wonder when my luck is going to run out.”

…or a stalwart fighter:  “I swing around to block it with my shield.  Kinda spooky seeing it punch through, only an inch away from my eye!”

Case 2:  The new hit point total crossed into the body point threshold.  The character took some heroic action to reduce the damage, but wasn’t completely successful.  They’ve taken physical damage from it.  This probably requires more direction from the GM:

“The dragon breathes a stream of acid for 34 damage.  Even with your saving throw, that’s 17 points…14 points go to your quick thinking to raise your shield, blocking most of the spray, but you weren’t able to completely block it all.  It’s burned through your armor and the acid is leaving a terrible and painful wound on your arm!”

Case 3:  The damage was completely within the body point threshold.  Blood!  Violence!  Injury!  The DM needs to set a serious tone here to stress that this hero’s journey is close to coming to an end.  It doesn’t sound very fun to start having broken limbs and eyeballs hanging out, but maybe that’s your campaign’s thing.  I would limit those types of gruesome permanent injuries for when the character is killed.

“The goblin is on top of you before you can respond.  Its dagger plunges into your robes with a deep wound along your ribs, causing 4 damage.  There’s a lot of blood…you only have 3 hit points left.”

Tactical Impact

I haven’t figured out any hard and fast mechanics for how the battle can change due to being hit.  It comes down to a judgment call from the GM.  However, this should be easier because they are informed by the following:

  1. Attribution of the attack (i.e., which modifier was responsible for the success of this attack, as discussed in the previous post).
  2. Where the damage landed in terms of the victim’s body point threshold.

In general, the outcome of a successful attack shouldn’t penalize the attacker.  How much it benefits the victim is a storytelling call.  Going back to the 1-against-100 scenario of M. de Bergerac, we might say:

“The mob member rolled a 17, which hits, and has 4 damage coming to you.  You’re still well above your body point threshold.  How does it play out?”

“Cyrano turns from his current opponent to kick the attacker away before their sword strikes him.”

“OK, that mob member is knocked back one hex but he’ll be replaced by another in no time.”

Special Attack Caveats and Edge Cases

Special attacks require some special attention with this system.  Spells like Shocking Grasp require a successful to-hit roll, and this can be treated like a normal attack that happens to have some lightning to it.

Attacks with saving throws for reduced or no effect need deeper interpretation.  1st Edition AD&D has some brutal rules for poison:  save or die.  Here, we need to assume that the attack hit the body if the save is failed.  Later editions softened the poisoning rule with saves for half damage:  if the damage didn’t cross the body point threshold, did the poison actually get into them?  I think we should rule that no, the poison didn’t get into them, but this was a higher stakes assault that required them to spend more of their efforts to avoid it.

What does healing mean with this system?  We’ve already established that body points are a threshold at the bottom of the character’s total hit points, so these will already get repaired first by any magical healing.  Anything above that is a restoration of the character’s heroism–perhaps more of a blessing of the gods, or removing fatigue.  You could be a hardass DM and say it only affects physical wounds, but for simplicity I’d keep it as-is.

An Optional Rule for Body Points

In a deadlier or realism-focused campaign, the GM may want to up the ante.  In our earlier example of the player shooting a sorcerer who was otherwise preoccupied in a summoning ritual, we might consider the damage dealt vs. the victim’s body points.  If the 6 damage rolled by the attacker exceeded the sorcerer’s body points, could that be an instant kill?  It’s something that would be very dramatic:  killing the big baddie with one well-placed arrow is a perfect climax to an exciting adventure.

Optional Rule:  If the victim is unaware that they are under attack and the surprise attack damage exceeds the victim’s body points, then it is considered an instant kill.

Obviously this greatly favors ambushes and makes abilities like the thief’s backstab ultra lethal.  It also means a round of surprise can be far more deadly and unpredictable than the normal giving up a round of combat.  On the other hand, it means that player characters are rewarded for planning and stealth.  Silently dispatching guards is now a much more feasible scenario during an infiltration mission.

If the damage dealt doesn’t exceed the body points, I think it’s OK to have the attack physically strike the victim, but don’t bother tracking body points separately from the rest of the hit points. It’s a headache.

Circling Back

Back to our original goals, how are we doing?

Make combat a more compelling storytelling experience.  I feel good about this one.  We’ve better connected the world state and damage to let characters express themselves. We’re leveraging storytelling to fill in where previously a mechanic existed, and we can tailor that storytelling to the character’s class/style/personality.

Have combat better reflect player choice in action and equipment selection so that it doesn’t feel disconnected and random.  I believe this system reduces randomness and makes strides to avoid the disconnect.  There is clearer cause and effect for how damage is treated.

Make combat gameplay more engaging by expanding tactical outcomes and choices.  Still not firing on all cylinders here.  I think I’ll need a deeper look on tactical outcomes.  That said, if the DM can hand the reins over to the players to decide how their character responds to damage, they can explore some tactical advantages.

Don’t add undue complexity or slow down the game.  Not bad.  We’ve only added a threshold value, which is a fixed subset of the total hit points.  DMs are on their own to figure out values for monsters.  There’s some bookkeeping, to be sure, but we’re not fundamentally changing how hit points are calculated, nor are we forcing players to track body points and hit points separately.

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