Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Let's Talk Hit Points

Delta's recent post on natural healing through the editions prompted me to look back through my blog for some post or other on the subject, because I was sure I'd addressed this before (possibly more than once). However, I found nothing which means I failed to label the post, it's embedded in the comments somewhere, or else the conversation I've had was done on someone else's blog in years past. So I decided to consolidate my thoughts on the nature of hit points (and how non-magical healing works) in one place: here.

I started my gaming career with the Moldvay basic set about 36 years ago; long before the advent of video games with "health bars" (pools of points that must be depleted before "losing" an avatar), but even so I could grok the concept. Dungeons and Dragons was a game, right? And I'd played games before: different ships in the old Milton Bradley game Battleship could take different numbers of "hits" before being "sunk." A fighter in D&D wasn't much different from a battleship or aircraft carrier, a cleric or elf was more like a cruiser, while thieves and magic-users were the lowly destroyer. Easy enough to grasp.

Hit points in Moldvay are simply defined on page B6 as

...the number of "points" of damage a character or monster can take during battle before dying.

with no additional explanation being given. The reader is told how to calculate the points, how damage interacts with the points, and how they are healed (by natural rest, if not by magic). No other information is provided...but for a nine year old child, what more does one need? The PCs and NPCs are simply playing pieces in a game, no different from the plastic boats in the aforementioned game.

Even at high levels, when a character has scores of hit points, the whys and wherefores matter little, because PCs generally won't be needing to rest in bed for months to recover from injuries...ready access to high level healing magic makes sure characters are up and recovered in very short periods of time. And who cares what happens to the monsters!

But what if you have a game with little access to healing magic (for whatever reason). What if it's important to know and understand why healing takes so long? What if you have players complain that the "normal human" can recover from a near-mortal wound in a day, while the high level character can take weeks (or months!) of bed rest to feel 100%?

Okay, that's enough preamble; let's hash this out once and for all.

I've written before of the origin of hit points, as an evolution of the Chainmail combat system originally used for running Arneson's Blackmoor campaign. Gygax gives the best explanation of what hit points represent "in game" in the text of his (1st edition) AD&D books:
Each character has a varying number of hit points, just as monsters do. These hit points represent how much damage (actual or potential) the character can withstand before being killed. A certain amount of these hit points represent the actual physical punishment which can be sustained. The remainder, a significant portion of hit points at higher levels, stands for skill, luck, and/or magical factors. A typical man-at-arms can take about 5 hit points of damage before being killed. Let us suppose that a 10th level fighter has 55 hit points, plus a bonus of 30 hit points for his constitution, for a total of 85 hit points. This is the equivalent of about 18 hit dice for creatures, about what it would take to kill four huge warhorses. It is ridiculous to assume that even a fantastic fighter can take that much punishment...thus, the majority of hit points are symbolic of combat skill, luck (bestowed by supernatural powers), and magical forces.
Players Handbook, page 34
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 4 points of damage, we must assume that a hero could, on the 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...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).
Dungeon Masters Guide, page 82

One should note the implied difference between player hit points and monster hit points (this is inferred more strongly in the DMG text on combat, page 61): monster hit points represent actual physical damage that can be sustained before expiration; player character hit points represent both that AND "something more."

Leaving out the "magical forces" description which is a bit of a hand wave (oh, it's just magic, let it go), I can totally buy into combat ability and "fitness." It explains why fighters roll more dice for HPs than other classes; it explains why constitution adds to these extra hit points (and in the case of AD&D, add more hit points to fighter types). Assuming that a single successful attack roll delivers an amount of "potential damage" sufficient to slay a normal (non-heroic) human...i.e. one mortal wound...those extra hit points represent the character bobbing and weaving, parrying blows with shields and weapons, expending energy and slowly bleeding away life-force to fatigue. It's not that the constitution bonus implies a character getting beefier over time (with experience)...instead, it's the character's high fitness level acting as a "force multiplier" for the character's skill at defending herself.

[see other posts on D6 damage justification, variable weapon damageshields...even this bit about battleaxes...for earlier discussions on this concept]

[please note (regaring the battleaxe) that I am currently at peace with the weapon as presented in B/X. Apologies for the digression]

So then...back to healing: per the research presented in Delta's post, the human body can take weeks to recover from wounds; up to 12 weeks in the case of broken bones, but even 3 weeks for minor injuries. Presumably, a character with multiple injuries (i.e. a character who has taken damage from multiple sources: traps, falling, combat encounters, etc.) will take longer to heal as the body is forced to divide its recuperative ability amongst many damage spots. This "real world" study compares rather favorably to B/X healing time at high levels; for example:

  • A 36th level fighter with maximum hit points (144 for 18 constitution) would, on average, require 76 days of bed rest (just under eleven weeks) to heal from one hit point.
  • A 36th level fighter with average hit points (94, no constitution bonus) would, on average, require 47 days of bed rest (six and a half weeks) to heal from one hit point.
  • A 14th level fighter (usual B/X max) with average hit points and a 13 constitution (59 hit points total) would require an average of 30 days to recover fully from one hit point (a bit more than four weeks).

Now I understand that, while the numbers seem within the realm of reason for the human body's ability to heal, one might wonder why it takes so much longer for a high level character to recover than a low level character. For that matter, why would it take longer for a fighter to recover than a magic-user (who, of course, has fewer hit points), let alone a normal human (who can recover from one hit point in a single day!)?

The answer lies in the abstract nature of hit points: damage sustained is subjective based on the individual suffering the damage. The simple explanation is that the injuries sustained by the high level fighter are more grievous than the wizard (or lower level character) precisely because the character has the capacity for sustaining more grievous injury!

A normal human in B/X has a range of 1-4 when it comes to hit points. Most one hit dice creatures have a range of 1-8 (implying that monster constitution bonuses and "fight-worthiness" are factored into that range). In heroic fiction...the type on which D&D is based...these creatures are represented of the various mooks dispatched with impunity by the likes of Conan, Sonja, Aragorn, etc. Are they made of glass, shattering into a million pieces at the touch of a war hammer? No, but they might as well be for the gleeful way they seem to throw themselves on the point of a blade.

For such opponents their lack of hit points represents a lack of survivability...a lack of the ability to prevent the mortal blow from landing. They are retired from the fight early...whereas the experienced adventurer has greater skills of self preservation precisely because of their experience the fighter's case...their greater combat ability. The blow that shatters the arm of a high level fighter (necessitating a longer period of rehabilitation) would shatter the skull of the poor wizard, leaving her finely tuned brain slopped on the floor.

Characters of lesser ability suffer lesser wounds...or they suffer mortal ones. There's really no in-between.

And this makes perfect sense, considering the pseudo-medieval setting. Without the presence of clerical magic, the setting of D&D is not one that includes paramedics, ambulance rides, and ER visits. Chiurgy is presumed to be primitive, unsanitary, relying on leeches and superstition. In such a setting, when deprived of magic, characters have no choice but to rely on their own ability to heal and pray their wounds aren't serious (and that they don't become infected).

To me, this makes it crystal clear why Gygax caps natural healing at four weeks, regardless of damage taken (see DMG, page 82, "Recovery of Hit Points"): a character's injuries are moderate enough that they can heal them in a month's time, or they won't be healing at all. Any type of injury that would require more than four weeks of natural healing means the type of wound that killed folks back in the days before modern medicine.

B/X is largely based on OD&D and Supplement I, both for its hit point totals and its healing. As such, it has a bit more "heroic fantasy" and "game" in its system than AD&D (which was written and refined after OD&D and its supplements). It's a bit less crunchy with the unhappy truths of the medieval world (no random disease tables, no aging penalties, no real taxes or tithes) than its Advanced counterpart...and as such I can understand why it allows natural healing that might take up to three months time. However, I find it far from unreasonable to scale healing as it does given the abstract nature of hit points, damage, and combat in its system.

Certainly I find it far more reasonable than the default way health and healing is modeled in 4th and 5th editions.

BY THE WAY (sorry...almost signed off): just a couple more things.

  • On the healing of monsters: as the natural healing of a player character is presumed to be "human scale" (that is D3 hit points per day of bed rest is good for a 1 HD human), my initial thought is that any monster engaged in natural healing should recover a multiple of hit points equal to its hit dice. For example, a hill giant (8 HD) should recover D3 hit points X8 per day of rest. Though I 'd probably want to do some research into whether or not large animals (like elephants) heal wounds and injuries at the same rate as humans. If so, that seems perfectly reasonable to me.
  • On the nature of falling damage: this has long been a sticky subject. While it is possible to die from a short fall (10'-20'), most folks don't, and I've been told by rock-climbing friends that almost all falls 50' or more will kill you dead in our planet's gravity (though there have been some amazing survivals)...and I presume this would be the case even with a large creature, like an elephant. The best I could come up to model "realistic" falling damage is to assign a gradually increasing damage die, again based on "human scale." So:
10' - 1D4 damage (multiplied by hit dice)
20' - 1D6 damage (multiplied by hit dice)
30' - 1D8 damage (multiplied by hit dice)
40' - 1D10 damage (multiplied by hit dice)
50' - 1D12 damage (multiplied by hit dice)
60'+ - 1D20 damage (multiplied by hit dice)

I suppose some DMs might want to ramp the damage dice up to D% for a truly humongous distance but, as it is, a 50'+ distance fall has a good chance of killing even a high level character or monster (*PLEASE NOTE* "hit dice" for adventurers would max out at NINE for 9th (name) level and greater in B/X, providing a slightly higher level of survivability for such characters...even for falls of 60+ feet...because of their bonus HPs. I suppose we can attribute some of their staying power to "magic" after all!).

; )


  1. You made me think... Most humans have 1d6(3.5 avg) hit points and take at least 3-4 weeks to recover from most injuries. So for the sake os simplicity, I would rule that a character can recover its level in Hit Points per week of rest.
    With this rule, average characters recovers to 100% roughly in 4 weeks... More weeks if they have have more HP or less weeks if the have less HP.

    1. @ GB:

      Very simple, very elegant. Only two issues:

      1) Some folks want to measure time daily. Would you award a fraction of the weekly allowance every couple days (or something)?

      2) This works much easier for early edition games. Once you start getting into D12 hit dice and large CON bonuses, you could really start pushing recovery time for characters that outstrip the “average human” (despite being human themselves).

    2. Thanks!
      1) I can't find a way to do it nicely daily... Think about the Average Joe and his 4 HPs. How?
      I think it should be a week of treatment, not exactly a week, maybe you could do 1d4+4 or 1d6+3 days if you like to roll dice... Better think of this time not as doing nothing but as treating your wounds, so you also have to spend money in medicine in order to recover HP and avoid festering wounds.
      2) Hum... Add positive CON modifiers to the healing maybe? You could also give Barbarians a bônus to natural healing which is something they have in AD&D Unearthed Arcana. And if you want to use that inflated Hit Dice of 5e (Wizards d6, Rouge d8 and Fighter d10) then you may give +1 to the natural healing of everyone?
      Just brainstorming... But these posts made me add to my house rules the idead is that natural healing from 0% to 100% should take at least 3 or 4 weeks of rest in some way...

  2. "However, I found nothing which means I failed to label the post"

    This is the best I remembered that could be the post you thought of, though it's about shields...
    "Every shot that is not “actively deflected” is a blow that is absorbed, an impact felt through the wrist and arm and shoulder, a little more damage wearing the character down to where that final telling blow causes mortal injury. Because these guys are high level fighters they have scores of HPs to soak punishment…if it was me out there, I’d probably be clubbed senseless by the first blow struck, even if I got my shield up in front of my face!"

    But then, it's seems to be this:

    Anyway, I'll have to get a comment in on this next week (I just KNOW you won't be able to sleep now) and rethink it a bit since I wrote on it myself.

  3. So you're supposing that an ordinary human, or low-level wizard, will never have to cope with a broken arm? That doesn't seem plausible. Broken bones have been slow-healing but survivable injuries for longer than the existence of modern medicine.

  4. @ Warclam:

    Sure...not to mention sprained ankles and concussions. However, D&D doesn’t support support such debilitating injuries, even at high levels, without modification to the basic rules (and per Gygax this is purposeful).

  5. For me, if HP aren't meat points, then they don't recover like meat points. I am happy for someone to recover all their HP in a few days, whether they are a level 1 Mage, or a level 10 Fighter (so maybe 1/4 of your HP per decent rest, 1/2 if resting in a good safe bed with decent food, giving time for all the aches and pains of pushing yourself to recover, but not worrying about breaks and wounds).

    However, I think good use can be made of Negative HP (NHP), which can more easily be interpreted as meat points. Gygax allowed his players' PCs to die at -(level+1) HP, and it works rather nicely if you give PCs who are into NHP without dying a chance to recover them at 1 HP per week with a successful save.

    If you've taken a d6 to the face and have reached -3, then it's going to take you at least 3 weeks to recover that, and probably around 6, which seems about right to me for a potentially lethal wound. Higher level PCs can reach further into NHP, but also have better saves to recover them.

  6. @ spaceLem:

    Some RPGs take this idea to (what I consider) the logical extreme: HPs are absolutely NOT meat points and "real damage" only occurs once they're expended. Consider games like the original Warhammer Fantasy RPG; once your character reaches 0 "wounds," any over-damage is checked against a rather vicious critical damage table. Of course, why then does curing magic restore wound points? Unclear.

    Other games that take this tact include DragonQuest (if I'm remembering correctly), X-Plorers, and my own Five Ancient Kingdoms. It allows for some neat affects (like having a wine flask cure D6 hit points) but leaves you with the troubling complication of broken bones and "chopped" meat.