This is RPG-ology #3: History of Hit Points, for February 2018.
Some time ago the Christian Gamers Guild republished the excellent article by Charles Franklin, Hitting Them Where It Hurts. Charles Franklin is the nom de plume of a marine who testifies as an expert witness on issues like that, and a long-time gamer. He was not the first to take issue with the notion of “hit points” as a determinant of character survival, but his was the first effort I saw to address it based on real-world combat statistics (back when it was originally published in 1999 in The Way, the Truth, and the Dice). Since that time many systems have devised ways of dealing with damage and death that avoid some of the criticism of hit points, but it is still a popular mechanic used in many games and adopted to computer and console role playing games (properly “CRPGs” but frequently confused as “RPGs”).
The criticism is that it is unrealistic: people do not take so much damage and then die. Some people are killed sometimes instantly by a single hit to a vital organ; others are riddled with bullets or cuts and stabs and bruises but continue fighting or make incredible escapes. The notion that a character can look at the weapon in the hand of an attacker and think, that can’t possibly kill me without him getting several lucky strikes is really not consistent with the reality of mortal combat. It’s only a knife, but in the spleen it will be fatal, and in the jugular very quickly so. Hit points do not represent that at all. Everybody knows it—and indeed, everyone has always known it. So why do we use them?
Part of it is the history of the game.
Role playing games arose out of miniatures combat simulation games. H. G. Wells’ tabletop rules system may have been among the earliest of these, and the point of them was to make it possible to re-enact battles in statistically consistent ways such that making alterations to strategy and tactics could deliver a different outcome. By World War I field commanders appear to have used tabletop miniatures to plan battles in an effort to anticipate and improve outcomes. What is significant in this is that individuals did not matter in the field—only combat units. Thus it did not matter whether Captain Smithers was alive, only whether his infantry unit was still able to perform under the leadership of some present capable officer and how many functional men it had. It thus made sense in such simulations to give each unit a number of “points”, a cold calculating way of determining how many of its fighters were still alive and fighting. In a good miniatures system, that number tells you both how much damage that unit can deliver, and how much more it can survive.
Chainmail™, the precursor to Dungeons & Dragons™, was an effort to expand miniatures combat to include the “hero”, that individual who stood amidst the crowd in the ancient tales as the seemingly unstoppable fighter, who rallied the ordinary troops but who led into battle or fought on his own against incredible odds. This was the one man who was the equal on the battlefield to an entire unit—whether Goliath (or if you prefer Fezzik) who could outfight any dozen ordinary men in hand-to-hand combat, or David (or The Dread Pirate Roberts) whose skill and courage could bring down such a giant.
The point systems for such combats already had nuances. A cavalry soldier did more damage and was harder to kill than an infantryman, so cavalry units had more points per man than infantry units. (There were also mobility factors.) It made some sense to create the hero by giving him more points, because he survives on the battlefield longer.
Even then, though, it was recognized that this was not really the amount of damage such a character could withstand. Dungeons & Dragons™ is heroic fantasy. It’s about becoming Odyseus or Lancelot. Even in the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ rule book it was explained that these points represented something other than physical stamina, that they included luck, the protection of the Fates, the blessings of the gods. We should see the hero standing in the midst of the fray, arrows flying around him, enemies falling to his sword as he advances. The arrow which, according to the dice, would have pierced the heart of a lesser man bruised this man’s shoulder as it nicked his armor. The lost hitpoints are not so much injuries as burning through his luck and wearing down his stamina.
Note, too, that in the science fiction games TSR released in the wake of the growing success of their fantasy juggernaut (e.g., Gamma World, Metamorphosis Alpha, Star Frontiers), it was incredibly difficult to increase your “hit points” and very easy to be killed unexpectedly. They were not designed to encourage heroic play, and players learned caution. For most of us, though, that feeling of invincibility, playing the hero who laughs at death and calmly walks through danger, is more fun than playing the tense game in which the next step might be fatal. If a creature swoops out of the sky and grabs me, I want to be able to draw my sword, slice off its limb, and plummet to the ground needing only the assistance of my companions to bandage my wounds, not say, “Well, I’m dead, but stuff like that happens, let me start another character.”
I don’t watch hero movies, whether Die Hard or Clash of the Titans, to see what would really happen. I watch them to see the hero inexplicably overcome incredible odds and walk out alive with the girl in his arms. I want my games to play that way, because I’m there for the fantasy. As Grig said, “I’ve always wanted to fight a desperate battle against incredible odds”—but I’ve also wanted to do so with minimal pain and the ability to live to tell the tale. That’s what I get from this, and the old hit point system is a significant contributor to its ability to deliver.