Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Friday, January 1, 2016

When Is a Hit Really a Hit?

Every now and again, the topic of hits points comes up and, specifically, whether or not this vital metric represents physical toughness, skill, or a mixture of the two.  Admittedly, it's not exactly a heated debate (most, especially in old-school games, are willing to let this remain subjective).  Even so, managing this critical resource is very important to gameplay success and player satisfaction, since we all have cherished characters and take on numerous enemies.  This is our take on the matter:

(1) Check the rules first, as they may have something definitive to say on the matter.  Some do, others don't.

(2) Forget what the book says (unless the game has an extremely detailed mechanic that links hits to physical injuries) and decide what works best for your own game.  Practice makes perfect.

(3) Understand that if you can somehow circumvent Chuck Norris' considerable martial defenses, you can kill him with a paring knife if you stick it in the right spot.  And keep in mind that in most games, such weapons inflict MINIMAL damage...  

Now, assuming hits represent PHYSICAL TOUGHNESS ALONE, an 18 HP fighter is either NEVER HIT in the femoral artery or is IMPERVIOUS to such injury against all evidence to the contrary.

Ouch!  The tremendous ability of
characters to survive injury can't possibly
be ALL physical, now can it?

Of course, the final, killing blow COULD be to the femoral artery, but it takes a LONG time to get there - and probably not because the victim has accumulated too many nicks and scratches...

On the other hand, when we recognize that hit points represent a COMBINATION OF BOTH SKILL AND TOUGHNESS, this makes sense, and gives you some idea of where WE stand.

So, which hits are deftly avoided strikes and which are authentic physical blows?  We use the following:  

(1) Narrate combat and pull creative descriptions of hits and skillfully avoided misses out of your keister!

(2) Let players describe their attacks and make on-the-spot judgments about whether or not a "hit" is a true physical strike or cleverly dodged, etc.  This gets players involved and lets them assist you.  If they mention raising up their shield and the enemy hits them anyway, say the blow glanced off.  Over time, a fun narrative dynamic takes over, and the hard-and-fast rules governing combat will keep things objective... 

(3) Injury taken to the bottom ONE-THIRD of total hits is largely physical, and the FINAL KILLING BLOW IS ALWAYS SO!

Hit points are survival for any cherished character, and the relative strength of enemies is equally so, as physically tough foes are harder to kill and more likely to turn the tables.  That said, objectivity is important, and players are more likely to accept the death of Bjork the Bold when everyone understands the rules and accepts that they died "fair and square".  At the same time, combat can be heroic and exciting without invoking ANY rules.

Understanding hit points as a measure of SURVIVAL ABILITY that sometimes involves skill and luck helps.  So does narrating battles and letting players contribute to the fun through their in-game descriptions.  And don't worry.  By defaulting to the rules for hit resolution, things won't devolve into questionable territory!    


  1. Hit points being a vague system representing wounds, exhaustion, skill, luck etc will always have logical issues. For example, if an enemy has a weapon that does poison damage then every hit logically has to be an actual wound. I use HPs because it's fast, easy and familiar. With experienced players who know the system I like more detailed systems with wounds, exhaustion and skill all being seperate.

    1. Great points! And yes, tailor things to YOUR game...

  2. I made a couple of related posts and points on my own blog.

    One, basically repeating what you noted, and reinventing the wounds and vitality system from 3.5E:

    The other was a more comparative study of how various games handle injury:

    1. Good stuff! And WELL worth a read folks...

    2. Thanks for adding me to ye old blogge roll. :-)

  3. Totally agree on the meaning of HP. I wrote a post on my blog about Arneson's use of HP that basically boiled down to the same thing. You might actually be interested in the critical hit system I worked up for Champions of ZED - I looked at forensic data from the battle of Visby and assigned hit frequencies to the body sections Arneson listed in his hit location system in Supplement II, and then applied his damage effects.