Thursday, January 7, 2010

Abstract Hit Points

It has only been since my return to Ye Auld Game that I realized the abstract nature of combat. OK, that's pretty obvious now, but it wasn't when I started playing in my misbegotten youth. Clearly, that roll you make when fighting doesn't represent just one swing of the sword in a 60-second combat round and having 30 Hit Points doesn't mean that arrows bounce off your chest. This is, incidentally, why I now refer to "the Combat Roll" in my games, rather than "rolling to hit". A failed roll might easily represent a connecting blow that gets parried or glances off a helmet or whatever, while a successful roll needn't spill blood and might represent cowing the enemy or causing them to lose their footing. The point is that D&D combat is actually a helluva lot closer to the indie concept of Conflict Resolution than to the "old-fashioned" Task Resolution.

Possibly I was led astray in my thinking by Dr. Holmes who uniquely and idiosyncratically shortened the round to 10-seconds, but, more likely, it was the fact that the game never came out and explained the concept of abstract combat. It's a bit hard to wrap your head around that notion when you're ten without a little help. Making things even more opaque is that the game itself is a bit confused on the issue. Need a fer instance?

Why does Constitution give you better Hit Points?

Does that seem a silly question? It shouldn't. Because if the combat roll is an abstraction of positioning, feinting, swinging, etc., then Hit Points are an abstraction of dodging, parrying, losing your nerve, slipping, and a whole bunch stuff in addition to actual wounds. And the higher your Hit Point total, the smaller the portion of wounds HP's can represent. In which case, why does Constitution help you parry or keep your cool? Why privilege Constitution? Shouldn't Dexterity help you with dodging? Shouldn't Wisdom help you steel yourself? Shouldn't Intelligence help you find the best position?

One of my favourite things about the old (and now new) Dragon Warriors game is the way it included mental attributes into your attack and defense capabilities. I can't think of why Ye Auld Game shouldn't either, except for this: really, all Abilities ought to count for something in a fight. Yes, even Charisma. But how unwieldy it would be to do that. You either end up with ridiculous HP bonuses (a +2 from this, a +1 from that, and your 1st level character is functioning at 3rd level) OR you have to come up with formulae: Intelligence only adds half it's bonus and Charisma a quarter and so forth. I'm not crazy about either of those options.

So here's what I'm thinking: your Hit Points are your Hit points and Abilities don't affect them one way or the other.

Is that weird? Well, the game has seen a steady progression in the utility of Abilities, from little more than XP gifts in OD&D to the over-blowing of Dexterity in most latter editions (discussed a bit more fully in a previous posting). With Spellcraft & Swordplay as my core, I have a game that gives just about the perfect weight to Abilities by using them to replace Saving Throws without diminishing the importance of Class. All of which supports me in the idea that Abilities don't affect Hit Points, since they do affect the less abstract Saving Throws.

Now, that's nice and simple, which encourages me to seek greater simplicity. One of the most common house-rules in the universe is giving 1st level chappies maximum Hit Points. This for obvious reasons. I don't always do that; indeed, in my current Onderland Campaign, I had the players roll starting HP, which gave us a fairly fragile 3 HP Thief. But, on the design level, is the random determination of Hit Points a good thing?

I know that the old-school movement tends to favour randomness in most cases and in many cases I agree. I think that random determination of Abilities brings a lot to the table. But, as we know, Abilities don't mean all that much, certainly not when compared to Class and Level. True, some iterations of the game have minimum requirements for race and Class, but, all in all, those things are determined by the player, not the dice. Hit Points are extremely important, on the level of Class and Race and not on the level of Abilities. Perhaps my thinking here is slightly heretical, but the more I think about it, the more I'm coming around to the idea that Hit Points are set by your class, just like so many other things.

Let's pretend that we have agreed on that point. How would you do Hit Points in this scheme? Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing was, I think, the first game to use your Constitution score as your starting Hit Points. But BRP is not level-based; those starting Hit Points are pretty much all you get, ever. I don't think that would work well for us since gaining Hit points is part of the general combat improvement that everyone gets with leveling-up.

Then, as is often the case, I thought of Bard Game's The Arcanum, one of my favourite D&D variants. In that game, you also had the Constitution idea, but, more usefully, the idea that gaining Hit Points was non-random and based on Class: warrior-types gain 6 HP per level, rogue-types gain 4 HP per level, and wizardy sorts gain 2 HP per level. I like that idea.

Here's my first take for Under the Dying Sun:

Slayers begin with 8 HP, and gain 4 per level
Survivors begin with 6 HP and gain 3 per level
Sorcerers begin with 4 HP and gain 2 per level.

How does that play out over a campaign? I see 4th level as the point at which we go into the Heroic mode. Under this system, a 4th level Slayer would have 20 Hit Points, which is pretty heroic in a mortal way. The 4th level Survivor would 15 HP's and the Sorcerer 10. I like the look of that. It matches up pretty precisely with the rules as they stand if you use the maximum HP at the 1st level idea (Sorcerers come out 1 point behind in the proposed system).

10th level is as far as my chart goes and pretty much the soft ceiling of any game I run. 10th level characters are pretty much super-heroes and I don't expect anybody to really go any higher than that. The 10th level Slayer would have 44 HP's, the Survivor 33 HP's, and the Sorcerer 22 HP's.

In the current draft, the 4th level Slayer would average 19 HP's (cp. with 20 above), the Survivor 13.5 (cp with 15 above) and the Sorcerer 12.5 (cp with 10 above). That's pretty much in line, with the new system slightly above average for Slayers and Survivors and slightly below for Sorcerers. At 10th level, the Slayer averages 35.5 HP's (cp. 44 above), the Survivor 30 HP's (cp 33 above), and the Sorcerer 27.5 Hp's (cp 22 above). remove the dice or not. This bears more thinking.


  1. If hit points are mostly luck, why have different hit points by class? Why not have eveyone with d6 hit points per level?

  2. Rolling hit points is fun! You get to gloat over your high roll or bemoan your low roll for many sessions. The Absolute Glee of surviving to 2nd level and being able to add a die roll to your pathetic 1 hit point.

    > which encourages me to seek greater simplicity

    There is such a thing as too simple, it's called boring. I agreed up until fixed hit points. If you want less variability have all hit dice be d6 and give a bonus by class fg +4, hybrid +2, non-fg +0.

  3. @Paladin--Hp represent a whole bunch of diverse elements, not just luck anymore than just wounds. But basically, they represent the ability to stay in a fight. So, I can see the logic of having Slayers have more Hit Points (although in earlier stages I was actually thinking of giving Survivors more HP).

    @Norman--Well, at least you agreed for a while. :) The thing you suggest is pretty much what S&S does now.