Some one rolls dice, you get hit, you lose hit points. You run out of hit points, you’re dead. That is how D&D works.
What are hit points, though? Most people view it as a relative measure of health. You get stabbed, your health decreases. You get stabbed again, the process repeats itself. Eventually, you just run out of health.
What I’m proposing here isn’t a new concept. I know I got the idea from reading about it somewhere else many years ago. If I could remember where, I’d give it some credit. It was an idea that really stuck with me, though. Hit points actually represents a number of things: health, how tired you are, the strength of your sword arm… hit points ultimately show how close you are to death, but not necessarily health.
I’ll get to examples in a moment, but first I want to discuss the “why” of this. At first level, when a character only takes a hit or two to go down, the idea of hit points directly being equated to health makes perfect sense. One or two successful sword swipes and down you go. But what happens when you start gaining levels? When you have 50 hit points, a bandit with a sword hitting you for 6 isn’t anywhere near as big of a danger. While it makes sense that a higher level character is harder to kill, it doesn’t necessarily make sense that they can be stabbed 10 extra times.
Neither of these options change the mechanics of the game, they only change the flavor. In my previous Crumbling UpKeep, I delved into describing your combat. This plays directly into that. Instead of a hit always being described as some sort of health loss, I like to explore other options. What else could that loss of hit points be?
“The dragons teeth attempt to close upon you. Thankfully, you bring your shield up just in time. You push it with all your might to try and keep it’s mouth from closing, and you succeed. You can feel yourself weakening, however.”
“You duck down just in time to avoid the swords swing, but it’s getting closer. You’re not sure how much longer you can keep this up.”
“The spell impacts your armor, sending you stumbling backwards. You feel exhausted beyond measure and fear the next attack might strike true.”
The common thread between these is that they portray a negative effect that isn’t directly health related. Each gives the players the idea that doom is coming. It’s just as easy to do the same for the monsters and NPCs they are in combat with. You can even give them an idea of the relative health of the combatants in the way you describe the hits. Does the pirate captain barely manage to deflect that last blow as their legs threaten to buckle underneath them? Does the sword actually hit, but the minotaur doesn’t even flinch as it continues its charge? It unlocks a host of fun options.
Even when using this system, you can still certainly describe a loss of hit points as a wound, especially when hit points start to dwindle. When a monster finally draws blood, breaking through the characters defenses, it’ll feel that much more ominous. The end looms that much closer and it feels like hit points are more than just a number.
Personally, if a player rolls really well I like to equate that with a wound. The sword will bite into the monsters side. The magic missiles slam into their chest, leaving a smoldering wound. This opens up all kinds of options further down the road. If the hurt creature in question loses more hit points later, you can describe how the wound worsens from the strain. There is a lot to play with here.
If you do decide to go this route, it’s a good idea to talk to your players first. They might be confused when you describe a hit that doesn’t “hit” them. Getting everyone on the same page is important. It took my players a little bit to adjust, but eventually everyone was getting into it when describing their attacks.
Want to hear some of this in action? Come list to The Isles of Samsarras Podcast. Click the link below.