Reading Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Part 27


Hit points. Our beloved, much-maligned Hit Points. If there are three things I consistently hear "new school" gamers complain about in reference to D&D, it's Classes, Levels, and Hit Points. All of these, they claim, are just "unrealistic."

Let's forget the obvious paradox of realism in fantasy, and the old argument of abstraction where classes and levels are concerned for now. We'll deal with that when we get to the PHB. But Hit Points? The continual complaining and griping about hit points shows a clear lack of comprehension regarding what exactly Hit Points are, and I blame game designers for this, starting with early 80's D&D knockoffs (I'm looking at Palladium Fantasy, here) and made even worse by TSR themselves in D&D second edition, with the spiral growing too deep to ever swim out of when WotC took over and 3.x came out.

"Jason," you say, "What in the Nine Hells are you talking about!?"

Quite simply, I'm talking about this.

Hit Points are not a measure of how much physical damage you can take. Nor is the damage rating of a sword, axe, or morning star a measure of purely the physical damage the weapon inflicts.

A quote from the DMG, if I may. The bolding is mine, for emphasis.

It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability...that a corresponding 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! ...[Hit Points] 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...the "sixth sense" which warns the individual, sheer luck, and the...magical protections and/or divine protection. (DMG, p.82)

Hit points are a measure both of vitality and endurance, as well as combat sense, skill, and luck. Remember that in AD&D melee rounds were 1-minute long and heavily abstracted. An attack roll did not mean you only swung once in that minute. Rather, it represented an entire minute's worth of thrust and riposte, parry and feint, strike and withdrawal. During this time, the opponents clash blades, throw their all into defeating their foes, and both wear out their enemy and get worn down by the enemy. This is what hit points represent. Because you score a "hit" in combat doesn't necessarily mean you've wounded your enemy. It could mean that you came with a vicious overhand chop, and he managed to get his blade in the way, but it took all his strength to fend you off--perhaps you were locked together for a moment before he with a great effort heaved you back. This effort cost him energy, tired him out. The damage he suffered--based on the weight and heft of your weapon as well as the difficulty in keeping it at bay--represented him being just a bit more winded.

Likewise, a fireball cast by a 5th level wizard that deals 5d6 damage doesn't necessarily mean that the victim suffers 5 to 30 points of real, physical damage. Rather, a near miss could occur which still exposes the target to a blast of overwhelming heat, knocking their breath away and soaking them in sweat--which in turn leads to fatigue and exhaustion.

Now a character does get physically tougher as he goes. This is represented by his constitution bonus and a small fraction of his actual hit dice. The book suggests that no mortal can suffer more than perhaps 23 points of actual, physical damage, no matter how high level they may be. Everything else is just luck, skill, and endurance.

"That doesn't jibe with ideas like fatigue and exhaustion in later editions," you'll retort, and to that I say, "Yep, you're right."

That's because later editions, quite simply, forgot or ignored what hit points are supposed to be. The alteration in game system around 2e Combat & Tactics into and through 3.x would have been better served, IMO, through the use of a wound level system to complement detailed rules for exhaustion and fatigue. Compounding such systems with the abstracted hit points only serves to create a valid argument for the idea that if you're a 15th level fighter you might as well jump off that cliff rather than face the enemy--you'll likely survive the damage from the fall because you're just that tough. In first edition, on the other hand, you might survive the damage, but that could just be because you fell through a bunch of brush that broke your fall, and then managed somehow to roll with the impact when you hit the ground.

We'll deal with Falling Damage specifically when we get to the PHB. In short, while the system hasn't changed, the rationale has, and that in some ways makes all the difference in the world.

Another important sideline to this concept: ever wonder what it was in older editions that made fighters better at fighting? It's Hit Points. That d10 hit die means that a fighter isn't just tougher; he's more skilled in the thick of battle.

Recovery of Hit Points: In real life, it takes real time and rest to recover from genuine fatigue and exhaustion. Ever hear the expression "you can't catch up on sleep?" It takes more than just a good night's rest to recover from the kind of battle fatigue--both physical and mental--that adventurers suffer. That's why hit points recover so slowly. This also changes the concept behind healing magics. They don't simply close wounds; they re-invigorate at the same time.

That being said, healing was slooooooowwwwww in AD&D. You got 1 hit point per day for the first week of absolute rest That means no adventuring, bub (though a light walk and a half-day's travel might be appropriate so long as you take it real easy). After a week, you got to add your con bonus (if any) every week (not every day). If you had a con penalty, on the other hand, it subtracted from your weekly healing and delayed healing accordingly. Thus, with a -2 con bonus you only started to heal on the third day of rest.

On the up side, so long as you rested for 4 weeks, you always healed back up to full. 4 weeks was the max down time for injury and healing.

Zero Hit Points: Zero hit points = unconsciousness. -10 hit points = death. Nothing alien there. Something that is oft overlooked, however; healing magic doesn't wake you up. If you go above zero through a cure spell, for example, you're still comatose for 10-60 minutes. Kind of changes the dynamic of "quick! Someone heal the fighter before we all die!"

A Heal spell, however, will instantly restore and awaken a character.

The text also suggests that if a character hits -6 the DM cook up some sort of permanent niggling injury--a negative score from a fireball results in the old Freddy Krueger look. A combat injury results in a maimed (or even lost) limb. It's all left to the DM's twisted imagination.


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