What are hit points?

Since recently I’ve been treating hit points more and more abstractly in games, I figured it might be a good idea to hammer out exactly what they mean to me and what players in one of my games can expect.

For the most part, my feelings can be summed up by the following: hit points don’t represent the amount of physical damage a creature can take before dying, but instead are a mixture of luck, karma, skill, foresight, resolve, endurance, and other non-tangible limits.

Gary Gygax has a great explanation of hit points on page 82 of the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide:

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 does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on 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 and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the “sixth sense” which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.

Each hit scored upon the character does only a small amount of actual physical harm—the sword thrust that would have run a 1st level fighter through the heart merely grazes the character due to the fighter’s exceptional skill, luck, and sixth sense ability which caused movement to avoid the attack at just the right moment.

As the various editions came and went, hit points strayed from Gary Gygax’s original intent of being a mixture of luck, skill, and heartiness. Then, as 4th Edition hit the tables, this concept was wholly embraced once again. On page 293 of the 4th Edition Player’s Handbook, we have the following:

Hit points measure your ability to stand up to punishment, turn deadly strikes into glancing blows, and stay on your feet throughout a battle. Hit points represent more than physical endurance. They represent your character’s skill, luck, and resolve—all the factors that combine to help you stay alive in a combat situation.

I sometimes describe “hits” as glancing blows that seem to do no damage. To reduce confusion, I will always say whether an attack hits or misses. This way, no matter the description, the players know they are closer to their goal.

For example, take a creature that has 300 hit points. The first blow of the encounter is a sword thrust that hits the creature for 15 damage. I’ll call out that it’s a hit and describe it as, “You lunge forward with your sword. As you unerringly aim for his heart, he slams your sword away at the last second with his shield. Small beads of sweat develop at his brow as he realizes he’s dealing with no simpleton.”

The attack may not have drawn blood or even connected with skin, but it definitely took hit points away; in this case, it drained the creature’s reserve of energy—he is now 15 hit points more tired that he was before. Or perhaps the hit points represented luck and he now has 15 less hit points of luck. However you look at it, the creature is closer to 0 then when he started and the encounter continues.

Every sword thrust can’t be a slice through the abdomen or the loss of a limb. If every hit point were physical damage, it would strain credulity. After all, how would all that physical damage heal at the end of a single night of rest?

One last great reason to represent hit points as fatigue, luck, skill, karma, or what have you is an oft-overlooked rule on page 295 of the Player’s Handbook:

When you reduce a creature to 0 hit points or fewer, you can choose to knock it unconscious rather than kill it. Until it regains hit points, the creature is unconscious but not dying. Any healing makes the creature conscious. If the creature doesn’t receive any healing, it is restored to 1 hit point and becomes conscious after a short rest.

Some campaigns take place in civilized areas and some encounters are against people you don’t want to kill. If every hit were physical damage, it would be difficult to simulate boxing matches, street brawls, or duels.

A perfect example of the above comes from one of my favorite movies: The Princess Bride. Take a look at the combat between the Man in Black and Inigo Montoya. It may look like the only “hit” is at the end when the Man in Black knocks Inigo unconscious, but that just isn’t so. They’re “hitting” each other the entire encounter, but in the case of this combat, hit points never once represent physical damage.

In the end, the Man in Black decides to knock Inigo unconscious rather than kill him.