I love hit points mechanics, but I also find it really hard to describe them in the fiction in a satisfying manner. I love them because they are a great way to help players (and GMs) track their characters “capacity to fight without dying” so they can decide what course of action they should pursue (fight, get some healing, flee, etc.) I think that it’s an essential part of any RPG where combat is meant to be an important part of play : this way, a player can take part in it knowing that (unlike in real life) death or maiming is not a possible outcome every time an enemy swing an axe or shoot a gun at her character.
But in my mind, a character stats should represent something about the character. HP is no different. But what, exactly, does it represent? What does it mean, from a character’s point of view, to lose HP? What is the difference between an axe swing that deals 0, 3 and 13 HP damage? Between being at 75% HP and 25% HP? Between a character that has a maximum of 4, 12 or 60 HP? Between a character that can deal 1d6 HP damage and another that can deal 10d6+12?
Since 0 HP usually means “dead” or “knocked out”, we can understand it as a measure of the general health of the character, something like her “capacity to withstand punishment” : the more she has, the more hits she can endure without going down. But unless we are talking about non-lethal combat, describing a success (i.e dealing damage) by describing a solid hit leads to a disconnect between the abstract rule (HP) and the fiction (at least in settings where characters are roughly as resistant as a normal human being, not god-like). I mean, you can’t get three or four solid axe swings in the guts before dying, and a single arrow in a shoulder should severely impede your capacity to use that arm. Correctly representing that (like most systems replacing HP with wounds I know of) by making HP loss mechanically significant makes fights much more deadly, which undercuts the interest and love I have for HP. (Don’t get me wrong : it can be great for some games, but it’s not what I’m looking for.)
I think the “less bad” way to understand HP is to equate it with “capacity to parry and dodge attacks”, taking into account both ability (max HP) and energy (% HP) to do so. So from a character’s point of view, losing HP means getting tired. Every other answers flow from that : an attack that deals more HP damage is harder to evade, so 0 is effortless to evade (a complete miss); 75% HP is a bit tired, 25% is weary; a max HP of 4 is not very good for getting out of harm’s way in a fight while a max HP of 60 is much better; a character dealing 1d6 damage is way easier to evade than one dealing 10d6+12.
With this understanding, describing an attack that depletes HP without dropping it to 0 should basically describe an attack that got dodged, parried, repelled by armor or otherwise evaded, or that does only superficial damage like bruise and scratches.
Here is why I think it’s not great :
- Describing a success (i.e dealing damage) by describing a hit that mostly misses the target is counter-intuitive and anti-climactic at best, and at worse is fictionnally the same as a miss (which is especially true of critical hits…)
- Dodging, evading and armor protection are often (but not always) represented by other mechanics, like AC (in D&D) or soaking (in Savage World), so that makes those description confusing : was that parrying representing a loss of HP or low to-hit roll?
- If HP means “energy to evade attacks”, then any trying action (attacking, for one!) should deplete it, not only defending against attack, which is not how most systems handle it.
I still think it’s less bad than understanding HP as “capacity to withstand punishment”, because it makes more sense in the fiction and because I think that those problems can be solved. I’ll come back to this in a future post.