30 October 2010

Health and D&D: Part Two

The man on the left is about to suffer 1d6 damage.
Let me lay down some heresy real quick today. 

The problem with hit points isn't that weapons do too much damage, or that regular joes have too few hit points, or even that zero hit points shouldn't equal death because that's not how it works in the real world.

The problem with hit points is that they scale shittily. And here's how.

A level one dude, let's say a Fighting Man rolling a d8, has roughly four hit points. That's enough to take a good whack from a mace or a sword and go down. Much like warriors in real life, he's going to avoid letting his enemy strike a telling blow that will fell him. This man is cunning and clever enough to survive these trials and tribulations and acheives level two. Suddenly, the man has 8 hit points- twice as many as before. In a single level, he's doubled his hit points, and at level three, he gains another roughly 4 hit points, to a total of twelve. By the time he hits level four, a Fighting Man with average constitution and average luck will have managed to attain 16 hit points- he's four times as tough as he was before. His possible range of hit points is between 4 and 32.

That's kind of silly. 

It would be interesting if Fighting Men gained a small bonus to health, similar to the +3 bonus they gain instead of an additional hit die after a certain level- what if the first die were the only one rolled? What if all they ever got was the first hit die, and after that they gained a bonus to armor class, or a flat reduction in damage taken?

Hit points act like a sign, "You must be thiiiiis tough to enter!" And that's not cool. It honestly surprises me that in an old-school revolution where dungeon masters and players alike cry "Challenge the players, and not the characters!", that there would be hubbub about skill systems but none about leaning on stacks of hit points to deal with problems. I exaggerate, of course, but really- it means that certain challenges aren't doable unless you have passed certain in-game requirement.

You must be this tall to hug giraffes.
What if health and level were totally disconnected? What if you never got more health, but instead just gained your other class features? Would you have to continue to play cautiously even when just facing more "boring" foes like other humans, and goblins? Would monsters have to be redesigned and rethought so that a challenging fight consisted less of ever-increasing super powers and more so there's a reason that a stupid race of fat cannibals can exist? 

Would we ever have to make players go in a goblin warren ever again?


  1. I have played a form of old-school D&D with Savage Worlds that I called "Savage Dungeons" (original, I know ;^) and your health question is exactly how it is for Savage Worlds; your ability to take damage doesn't go up much (though it can go up), but your class abilities (skills and edges) do increase with level. It works pretty well as long as the monsters are using the same system.

  2. I think that the reason D&D works the way it works is that as you go up in levels, the game itself is supposed to change. Ordinary men going through a military career will end up as veterans on 2nd, 3rd, or 4th level. Some rare commanders will reach 5th level. But adventurers will want to fight trolls, and giants, and dragons.

    More hitpoints is what allows adventurers to proceed to the next type of D&D game, going toe-to-toe with tough brutes.

    As they gain even more levels, hit-points start to loose in importance as magic items and spells, and the appropriate defenses gain in importance. Now you want to go up against nagas, and mindflayers, and beholders. No problem!

    To me, that's the D&D secret nobody told me about: Every level range has a different "feel" to it, appropriate encounters, strategies, tactics, items, concerns, and so on.

    The mental disconnect only happens, I think, if you take your level 8 fighter and fight bandits, or fight alongside henchmen. If you don't want the level 8 fighter to shine like a madman, like a prince of Amber, like a hairy foot god of war, then it's easy to point your finger at the hit-points. An alternative point of view might suggest that perhaps the adventurers should not gain more than a level or two in the first place. That keeps them within the level range where fighting bandits and goblins and remains a cause for caution.

    I don't think that one way or the other is intrinsically better than the other way of playing the game. I do think, however, that the default rules imply a certain progression through the monster manual, if you like. Conversely, if you limit hit-points, I think you will have to massively change monsters. I'm not sure whether just reducing hit-points is appropriate enough. My guess is that higher level monsters also need to have their melee attacks reduced, otherwise an unarmed mind-flayer isn't just dangerous because of his mind-blasting and his brain-eating, in addition to that he'll also be a fearsome melee fighter (which he is not, with the default rules).

    The entire thing is an interesting thought experiment. I'm not sure I'd want to go there, however, because personally, I like the changing nature of D&D as you go through in levels (and I therefore accept side-effects like knights being infinitely superior fighters to squires and henchmen, etc.).

  3. I've played Holmes D&D where you have 3 levels but the full range of monsters - players do become more cautious, more strategic and employ more henchmen.

  4. @T. Clark: That's kind of the system I've been considering. In the next couple of days, I might see if I can make a sort of basic guideline for that sort of thing. By the way, I've never played Savage Worlds, but I've heard loads about it. I really have got to look into it some time.

    @Alex: Excellent points all around, and before I get around to posting what I think, I'm going to let you know that I certainly respect your position and there's nothing wrong with it in the least. But for the sake of this thought, I'm going to write a little more. Matter of fact, I'm going to use your input as inspiration for my next blog post. :)

  5. I've played mostly in a version of Basic Role-playing and there you don't gain any more hit-points at all. Ever.
    You of course get better equipment and learn to use them better so taking on tougher monsters is mostly about skil and equipment.