Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Ruminations on OD&D: Hit Points
First up: Hit Points
I've blathered about hit points before. Anyone that makes a conscious choice to have D&D in their life has. I'm not going to rehash those previous thoughts; they are easy enough to find. No, this is about the drama inherent in hit points.
Over the course of my gaming travels and experimentations I have run across the notion that hit points aren't dramatic. According to many systems, designers, and players, it isn't realistic nor dramatic to know with absolute certainty how much abuse you can take before being killed. A lot of games trumpet their "fun" and "realism" by pointing out that death is always possible and any blow may kill any character at any time. Each and every creature in the game, from stableboy to the Queen's Champion, from kobold to ancient red dragon, could be killed with a single stroke of a blade.
I have been lured by this temptation myself. I have bought into the idea that it is a bit meta-gamey and jarring to base one's willingness to risk combat on knowing how much more damage on'e character can sustain. It occurred to me yesterday, though, that while ripe with dramatic potential, systems which support this notion of ever-possible character death are better in theory than in fact.
Think of it from the player's perspective. How much fun is it to have a favorite character killed by random chance? Sure, it makes combat more tense, and perhaps causes the player to actually consider the risk/reward every single combat rather than only when hit points are low. Yet, for that threat of imminent death to be real, and not just some sort of boogeyman, it has to actually happen from time to time. I was playing in a sort of mini-campaign with two friends. My friend Rick was DM and he had developed some critical hit charts that included the possibility of instant death. The other player was my friend Todd. He was playing a dwarf. We were about 4th or 5th level and quite attached to our characters. We had a random encounter with a small number of goblins, definitely not enough to pose a real threat. One of them scored a critical hit on Todd's dwarf. Rick rolled on his new chart and ended up with the goblin getting in a one-in-a-million hit that pierced the dwarf's heart, killing him instantly. Todd was devastated.
Granted, with the charts being experimental, Rick could have invoked fiat and ignored such a horrific result, but that's not the point. The point is: the supposed fun brought on by the "dramatic tension" of the dangerous critical hits did not outweigh the let-down as a result of watching a favorite character killed by pure chance. So, ultimately, from the player perspective, I just don't see this type of thing fun. Whether it is through a bolted-on critical hit table, or baked into the health/damage system, it is not an even trade. Furthermore, since we actually play these games for fun, I wouldn't ever, as a referee, allow a player's character to be killed in such a manner. So, the threat of imminent death becomes hollow and meaningless.
From the referee's perspective, and the player's as well, to a degree, this type of system saps the fun from battles which end prematurely in the characters' favor. Who wants to spend months of real time and many sessions to get to the Ultimate Threat only to have him killed by an exploding damage die on the first hit? Again, the point of the exercise is fun, and it is hard to do that when a planned three-hour session ends in 15 minutes because of a lucky roll.
Upon reflection, I have to say that I see a lot of drama in D&D's hit point system. It's all in how it is role played. Hit points, especially in the relatively low amounts as generated in OD&D, really model the ebb and flow of a battle. I have been in countless games where I was sweating bullets because my hit points were at a point where one more really good hit could kill my character and I knew I had my opponent in bad shape (or at least I thought I knew). I was praying to the dice gods that I hit him before he hit me. For me, that is a much more satisfying sort of drama than that offered by random chance death.