It happens every couple of weeks, it seems. Someone posts somewhere lamenting about hit points in D&D and how they don’t make sense. An argument ensues about what hit points really mean.
These arguments are almost always as poorly informed and poorly thought through as they are passionate.
Here are my thoughts on it, collated into an essay because I like writing essays and I’m getting sick of writing the same stuff over and over.
There are multiple responses in this essay because there are multiple arguments being made. I address them in no particular order of importance.
First, understand and accept that hit points are an abstraction. They do not track anything specific or physical. It’s been that way since E Gary Gygax first developed the rules in his basement in the 1970s. Here’s what he had to say about it in the 1E AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide:
It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage – as indicated by constitution bonuses- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the “sixth sense” which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection. Therefore, constitution affects both actual ability to withstand physical punishment hit points (physique) and the immeasurable areas which involve the sixth sense and luck (fitness).
Consider a character who is a 10th level fighter with an 18 constitution. This character would have an average of 5 hit points per die, plus a constitution bonus of 4 hit points, per level, or 90 hit points! Each hit scored upon the character does only a small amount of actual physical harm – the sword thrust that would have run a 1st level fighter through the heart merely grazes the character due to the fighter’s exceptional skill, luck, and sixth sense ability which caused movement to avoid the attack at just the right moment. However, having sustained 40 or 50 hit points of damage, our lordly fighter will be covered with a number of nicks, scratches, cuts and bruises. It will require a long period of rest and recuperation to regain the physical and metaphysical peak of 95 hit points.
5e shortens that “period of rest and recuperation” to the long rest. That’s it.
EGG also wrote this, in Dragon Magazine #24 (1979):
Sometimes, no degree of luck, skill, ability, or resistance to various attacks can prevent harm from coming to a character. The adventuring life carries with it unavoidable risks. Sooner or later a character is going to be hurt. To allow characters to be heroic (and for ease of play), damage is handled abstractly in the AD&D game. All characters and monsters have a number of hit points. The more hit points a creature has, the harder it is to defeat. Damage is subtracted from a character’s (or creature’s) hit points. Should one of the player characters hit an ogre in the side of the head for 8 points of damage, those 8 points are subtracted from the ogre’s total hit points. The damage isn’t applied to the head, or divided among different areas of the body.
Hit points mean two things in the game world: the ability to take physical punishment and keep going, and the ability to turn a serious blow into a less serious one.
Over the course of a battle, you take damage from attacks. Hit points (hp) measure your ability to stand up to punishment, turn deadly strikes into glancing blows, and stay on your feet throughout a battle. Hit points represent more than physical endurance. They represent your character’s skill, luck, and resolve—all the factors that combine to help you stay alive in a combat situation.
Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.
See? Abstraction. Hit points come back more quickly in 4e and 5e because they’ve become more abstract. They’re less about physical wounds and damage and more about durability, stamina, resilience, luck, and the will to live.
Once you embrace this essential fact — that hit points are an abstraction and you’re not meant to worry about and obsess over how they come off the total — you’ve come almost all the way to solving the problem.
Second, failure to embrace hit points as abstraction leads to erroneous assumptions. Justin Alexander addresses these quite elegantly on his blog, the salient points of which I will paraphrase here lest his wise post disappear into the aether.
There are inevitably two fallacies which crop up when one diverges too far from EGG’s original concept of hit points as abstraction: The Axe to the Face and Death By Dodging fallacies.
In the Axe to the Face fallacy, the PC has 100 hit points; the monster “hit” the PC 10 times for 78 hit points of damage; therefore, the monster has inflicted 78 points worth of wounds on the PC. The fallacy is in the “therefore.” As is seen in the excerpt above, it does not follow that the points equate with actual, physical damage. Further, if you assume that hit points of damage equate literally to physical damage, the system doesn’t make sense, because in that context it is nonsense: No PC, no matter how heroic, can withstand 10 axe blows. Moreover, the more physical damage a character sustains, the less likely that character is to remain fully functional. The game doesn’t accommodate that. Until you fall unconscious because you’ve been reduced to 0 hit points, you have all your powers, actions, skills, and attacks. If you or anyone you know has suffered an injury, for example on the sports field or battlefield, you know that your performance immediately drops to a point somewhere below optimal, no matter how slight the injury.
The second fallacy, Death By Dodging, assumes that, as no PC could ever be struck 10 times by an axe and survive, that the PC was never struck by the axe, and therefore is not struck by the axe until a blow drops her hit point total to 0 or below. This is closer to EGG’s original concept of hit points as abstraction, but still doesn’t accommodate it fully, because it fails to account for heroic deaths. By the time the Uruk-Hai captured Merry and Pippin, Boromir was riddled with arrows, but was still alive and fighting.
The problem is that it’s really, really complicated to make a simulation system which encompasses all these criteria. Frankly, I’ve never seen a successful one. Those which do the best at encapsulating combat damage make combat insanely complicated. It can take an entire evening to slog through one combat encounter.
The trouble comes from the terminology EGG unfortunately chose. “Hit” and “damage” are way too easy for players to take literally. No matter how many erudite paragraphs you commit to correcting the misunderstanding in sourcebooks, people latch on to easy-to-understand terms. When you call that roll the “to-hit” roll, to see if your “attack” “hits” the enemy and causes “damage,” is it any wonder that we’ve been having this discussion for nearly four decades? Unfortunately, we can’t change it. Now it’s traditional to use all those words; if we didn’t, it wouldn’t feel like D&D.
Third, but what about Sneak Attack? The Rogue just hit someone for a massive pile of damage dice. How do you account for that in the abstract? Okay, so you just leaped out from behind the curtain and struck subtly and exploited my distraction, landing a sneak attack. That doesn’t mean you buried a rapier in my vitals, unless that makes narrative sense (you’ve reduced me to 0 hit points).
You can narrate it in a number of ways. I was able to turn your blow to a more armored area, or partially block it with my shield. You missed with the point and sliced me with the edge. Or you indeed pierced me but not lethally. People suffer horrible bodily injury all the time without dying instantly.
Hit points are a very dissociated mechanic — it’s up to the players to make the fiction line up with the mechanics, because the mechanics do not concretely represent a particular occurrence.
Fourth, but what about poison, or lycanthropy? If the attack does no physical damage, because there are ways to debuff damage so that a successful attack deals zero damage, how does the poison or were-spittle get in?
The short answer is that it just does. Don’t overthink it. Embrace the abstract.
But if you insist on overthinking it, think of it like this: The breach of the character’s defense by the attack exposes the character to the effect. The bite or stab or slash doesn’t impact the character’s physical and mental durability, her will to live, but it does nick her skin and exposes her to the effect. That ought to be enough to let your rational brain have something to grab on to.
Finally, that lets us talk about “realism” and “making sense.”
Stop. Just…f^@%ing stop. You’re using the words “realism” and “making sense” while talking about a game where a minor magic spell can give you a shave and a haircut, and where dragons and unicorns go mucking about. Just let realism and sense go, fer crissake. The sooner you do that, the happier you’ll be. You can abandon the expectations which create your cognitive dissonance. The first step to that goal is realizing the problem is with you, not with the game.
If you can’t bring yourself to do that, if you’re that set on “realism” and “making sense,” there are better systems than D&D, like Rolemaster. Go play that. It still has abstract hit points, because they’re absolutely necessary, but there’s a ton more realism if that’s what you want. It’s an elegant game engine, too, that only uses d10s.
David Prokopetz of Penguin King Games once wrote:
[A]ll games use abstract damage to some extent, and necessarily so. There isn’t a game on the planet that furnishes a detailed biomechanical simulation of trauma, fatigue and structural compromise to various individual organs and tissues in a comprehensive and realistic fashion, and those few games that have unsuccessfully tried to do so are generally poorly regarded. The question isn’t whether a game’s treatment of injury and fatigue is abstracted, but to what extent a game’s treatment and injury and fatigue is abstracted.
In summary, in D&D hit points “is what it is.” You can either embrace that and play it as it is, or eschew it. If you eschew it, you can fiddle with it and try to “fix” it — that’s one of the wonderful things about D&D, that rules are optional — but you can only screw with the game engine so much before you break it. You’re far better off realizing that the game isn’t broken. Your expectations are.