Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Ruminations on OD&D: Hit Points

In the pursuit of my job I have a lot of time to think about gaming (and anything else that crosses my mind). However, I have no time whatsoever to write, design, or develop anything I think about. One of the things I've been thinking about lately is OD&D, but I've been thinking about it on a much more philosophical level. I'm a huge fan of Philotomy's OD&D Musings and read and reread them frequently. This will (hopefully) be a series of posts of my personal observations, with the title inspired by those musings.

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.


  1. Well, with poison and such you have the same thing going on. And of course a Goblin could still kill a mid-level character with a few good conventional hits, especially if the mid-level character was already weak. It strikes me that having at least a "one-in-a-million" chance, even of "instant" death is one of the things that gives you the drama in the first place.

    But I've never been a big fan of critical hits for the monsters. But I like having them for the players. I've never understood why people (including Philotomy) are so against that idea. Saying it's not "fair" doesn't work for me. There are lots of things in OD&D that are not fair, and there are many asymmetries already built into the system.

  2. There are indeed several possible "insta-kill" options in OD&D, such as poison, as you mentioned. However, they all allow the potential victim a saving throw, As written, there isn't anything one character can do to instantly kill another without a saving throw being allowed. As far as the goblin felling a mid-level character with conventional hits, that isn't instant death, anyway.

    I agree that the threat of imminent death is highly dramatic, and something I find compelling. In theory. At the table, though, I have come to realize that I do not like it. I prefer the slow-build drama of a fight going from bad to worse for the mid-level character. As the character inexplicably continues to miss his lowly foe, all the while receiving telling blows, round after round, from the goblin. Will the character land that deciding blow before it is too late? That's the drama that is most appealing to me these days.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. As a long time Runequest players, I've seen the long term effects of instant-kills built into a combat system. The players, once they are attached to their characters, will get paranoid. They'll never fight fair. Poison, surprise, are trickery are always used to subdue opponents without giving them a chance. If you think D&D characters are murder-hobos, you haven't seen anything. You end up running a murder simulation.