Tag Archives: RPGs

Q&A: Hit Points

One thing I’ve always used to depict “Hit Points” as is not necessarily damage, but rather, a character’s ability to avoid serious damage. For example, Tanks have a better sense of how to mitigate whatever damage their armor isn’t fully protecting them from. In this sense, 0 HP is more like actually receiving a real wound; a bullet finally hits, the sword goes through your lung, etc, and that’s why your character really goes down; they take a genuine, serious injury. HP is more like stamina.

To be fair, hit points are a somewhat necessary abstraction to begin with. The ability of the human body to survive horrific injuries doesn’t neatly render down into a single statistic. (Nor a discrete collection of numbers.) At the same time, characters aren’t (usually) invulnerable, and you need a system that can quickly approximate combat.

Since, I don’t think I’ve really discussed this in detail recently: at an abstract level, when you’re writing, you’re playing a game. It’s not incredibly dissimilar from a GM running a tabletop RPG session. You set rules to establish a rough illusion of fairness, and sometimes cheat a bit, to push the story in the direction you want.

When you’re actually playing a game, the rules are concrete and there to provide an element of fairness (or a uniformity of unfairness, depending on the game in question.) Within that context, HP serves a vital function, informing the players exactly how badly they were just mauled, without automatically removing a player from the current play session.

That analogy a minute ago, about writing being a lot like being a GM? I stand by it, but this is one very specific point where you might want to seriously consider what rules you’re working under.

Large hitpoint pools (in relation to the damage received) work better when you’re trying to provide a system that draws things out, and slows down combat. For the most part, this is what D&D, and most D20 based games, do. At higher levels, you’re very unlikely to be one-shot from full health (though it can happen.) Which leads to the exact issue you’re describing a workaround for.

You take a character, with a large pool, empty a shotgun in their face, and they keep ticking. Even when the rules are relayed transparently, that’s going to leave a few people scratching their heads. Thing is, you don’t actually need this (for games or writing.)

What you described is one way to reconcile this without altering the rules. As I recall, it was the official interpretation for D&D at one point. Your HP wasn’t your health, but a measure of your character’s ability to avoid life threatening injuries, and trudge on.

If you’re writing a story about fantasy heroes or superheroes, then this approach makes sense. It fits within the genre conventions. To be fair, when we’re talking about D&D, and a lot of heroic fantasy RPGs, that approach is consistent. Improbable health pools strain credibility, but the ability to just keep fighting is part of the genre.

Now, if you want to chalk some of that up to their armor soaking some of the damage, that’s fine. It is consistent with how D&D, and a lot of games, present combat roles, so that abstraction isn’t really that strange.

Thing is, this only really works if you’re aiming for superhuman characters. If you’re wanting something more grounded, you want a much smaller pool of health (again, in relation to the incoming damage.)

At the extreme end of this, you can get stuff like White Wolf’s storyteller system, where you have seven HP. That’s it. Each point lost indicates specific thresholds of increasingly severe wounds.  The game boosts survivability by giving you more opportunities to resist damage, but it creates a situation where any combat encounter has the potential to go horrifically wrong without warning.

When you’re talking about armor, you’re not going to be fully protected. Even if you have a character in full plate, just impacts from combat will still wear on the user. It probably won’t result in critical injuries, but it can be exhausting. Even simply fighting while wearing full plate will be extremely fatiguing. Part of this is because armor will effectively trap body heat, leading to the exhaustion mentioned above. This is part of why you’re less likely to see combatants in full plate wandering around desert environments (if the writers know what they’re doing.)

To a certain extent, it’s more accurate to say impervious armor actually moves damage around, into different kinds. You’re trading blood loss for heat exhaustion, which can be just as lethal. That said, this doesn’t make for entertaining game play. “Fight the guy until he’s too exhausted to move and falls over,” may work as a gimmick, but it’s not a mechanic you’d usually want to build into your core game design. As a result, you’ll almost never see armor in games that will fully mitigate all incoming damage. Usually there’s some upper cap on resistances. Sometimes this is 50%, 80%, at least one point of damage must be inflicted, ect.

That said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a character who’s an impervious juggernaut. Either as an ally or enemy of your PoV character. The important thing is to remember that they’re not immortal, just very resistant.

All of this can be pretty useful, if you’re tailoring your story carefully. Rules, under the surface, can help you keep track of how badly someone was just hurt, or how close a character is to keeling over. At the same time, it is very important to match your characters’ durability to the genre you’re working with. Games that tend towards ludicrous amounts of HP (regardless of if that’s their actual health, or some kind of mystical ability to avoid suffering harm) won’t get the results you want from  a horror story. Just like an epic Sword & Sorcery romp will be seriously hampered if everyone goes down after taking a stray hit.


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So, I was reading a story about where characters live in a RPG. The story is founded on each person has a class at birth, that can’t be changed. The main character is a blacksmith, a class that is not “Made” for combat. And on his journey to become a “Hero” he blindly stumbles through the social norms of heroes and a bunch of other things. I was wondering how you think one would go about writing his personality and thought proccess and character growth. Thanks.

Up front, I don’t have an answer. As I’m sure I’ve
said before, I can’t tell you who your character is. What I can do is unpack
this question a little.

The hardest part with writing characters inside a
game is, you need to understand the game’s rules. It’s actually a much more
difficult kind of worldbuilding than simply saying, “I have a setting here.” It
also breaks from how reality functions in a critical way.

Games are, at best, a simulacrum of reality. Details
get sanded over to present the underlying philosophies. Sometimes that’s an
intentional choice by the developers. They want to talk about something
specific. Sometimes it’s an incidental choice that reflects how the developers
view the world. Sometimes it’s a fluke, created by the other systems.

This applies to the rules themselves, and can
reflect a developer’s priorities. A more intricate combat system suggests the
game is focused on players delving in and working through the intricacies of
complex tactical situations. A game with an abstract combat system suggests
that combat is less of a focus, or if it is, that it’s more of a venue for
player expression than the mechanics designed to keep the players engaged.

Roleplaying games aren’t about what’s real, or how
people actually work. It’s about creating a system with a specific goal in
mind. Usually, that goal is populating the world with characters who fit into
it, and allowing the players to experience (and hopefully influence) a story
(or a multitude of stories).

Class systems can serve several distinct purposes. In
games, they can be an attempt to push characters towards certain archetypes
defined by their setting or genre.

This is especially true in something like D&D,
where the player classes are designed to build into the normal fantasy hero
archetypes. You have your Aragorn or Legolas style Rangers. Your Conan inspired
Barbarians. Your academic Wizards who wander the world in search of lore. Your
chaotic and impulsive Sorcerers who cast magic as it flows through them. Your
rogues, freshly escaped from the pages of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. These are
the kinds of characters the game wants available to the players. It doesn’t
mean that every Barbarian will be a shallow imitation of Conan the Chimerian,
but it forms the initial framework of the character. It’s a player aid, saying,
“hey, kid, you wanna be a hero?”

Now, remember what I said above about system focus?
Character creation in an RPG is the same; it informs design goals. An RPG that
simply gives you a non-customizable class is more interested in putting players
into the action. It may also suggest the game is one where individual
characters are expendable. Conversely a game without any class system
whatsoever is probably advocating character creation as an element of personal
expression. A game without a class system, or a more pervasive one will be more
accepting of “special snowflakes,” than a game that hands you your class on a
playing card and says, “it’s this or you could try the Waywatcher.”

When it comes to getting interesting material out of
this kind of a dynamic, your best bet is letting characters play against one
another within the range of who their class expects to be.

Now, here’s where understanding your game becomes
vitally important. If you look at classes as training wheels for building a
character, your next question becomes, “how restrictive is it?”

RPGs can have very open classes or very tightly
restricted ones. D&D’s done both, over the years, and had a lot of
different approaches to class systems over the years.

A restrictive class system is one where you cannot
break out of your class identity at all. An RPG with a strict gear list based
on classes. Where a Wizard can’t even use a sword or any armor, for instance,
would be a highly restrictive one.

A less restrictive class system might use certain
skills to control progress, and ignore or cap advancement in others. An
unrestrictive class system might let you simply buy out of your class and into
others as you progress.

For example: Third and 3.5 Edition D&D allowed
you flat out choose new classes when you leveled up. You’d start at level one
in those classes, but you’d gain everything associated with being a member of
that class in addition to the old one.

Another example would be White Wolf’s Exalted. Where
characters could buy skills and magical abilities outside of their Caste. In
one specific case, they could also buy skills from other kinds of beings in the
game. There were limits, but those were more about ensuring your character had
a basic core ability set, rather than saying they could not follow their

It’s also probably worth noting that the Exalted
were (explicitly) demigods, so their ability to do whatever they wanted was a deliberate
reflection of that nature.

The philosophy and worldview that underpin class
systems is that people have a specific venue. That may be they have a specific
skill set, and can learn others. Or it could be a far harsher view that “they
have a place in the world,” and cannot deviate from it.

In a very restrictive class system, it may not be
possible to buck the trend. If your character literally can’t equip armor,
because their class doesn’t allow it, they’re going to have a very difficult
time becoming a frontline fighter.

And it gets worse.

In most
games, blacksmith wouldn’t be a player class. Not all, some MMOs will gleefully
allow players to pick non-combat/non-social classes, with the idea that you
want to simply roleplay in the world.

Most class based RPGs maintain a hard line between
playable and non-playable classes. Players stand head and shoulders above the
general populous. Your normal RPG is a power fantasy after all. It’s about
being bigger, stronger, faster, more cunning, or more lethal than you can in
life. You’re creating a character to be (one of) the protagonist(s) in a story.
Not the tavern owner that serves the heroes their beer while they plot to take
down the evil overlord.

For games like D&D, that means that NPC classes
(even combat focused ones) are flat out inferior to player classes. For
example, if you’ve played 3.5 Edition D&D, you’re probably aware of the
Fighter class. Did you know there’s also a Warrior class? It is almost the
same, except it doesn’t have any bonus abilities, fewer hit points, and a much
shorter skill list. It’s a class for NPCs, designed to allow the GM to
introduce professional soldiers, guards, or other combat capable NPCs, who aren’t
as powerful as the party but can fight alongside, or against, them.

If you’re curious, D&D 3.5 has five of these NPC
classes. The Expert (a highly skilled non-combat character), the Adept (a weak
healer), the Warrior, the Aristocrat, and the Commoner.

Now I’m going to go out on a limb. I haven’t done a
full lit review of how RPGs have influenced modern fantasy. I see it frequently
in passing, but it’s a specific interaction that I’ve never really researched,
so take this with a few grains of salt. It’s my opinions, not empirical fact.

The rise of RPGs, particularly D&D, have
influenced how we write “conventional” fantasy. A modern generic fantasy novel’s
setting often owes more to Gygax than to Tolkien. This is a symbiotic
relationship. It’s not that people are “ripping off,” D&D nor the reverse.
Simply that D&D has become a nexus of modern fantasy elements that has superseded

Within post-modern fantasy lit, there’s a
substantial chunk of lit dealing with a very specific paradox of D&D and
RPGs in general. If your character is a normal farm boy (or girl) one day, and
an adventuring hero the next, what the hell just happened? How does a character
go from being a background NPC in their world one moment to becoming a
significantly more powerful player character?

I brought up D&D because it, systemically,
illustrates how strange this paradox really is.

Some of this is because it’s how Campbell’s hero’s
journey works. Your protagonist comes from nothing, and in a moment is revealed
as the protagonist. They were always there, hidden (even from themselves), and
are forced to reveal themselves.

Some of it is supposed to be glossed over. You
rolled up your character to play a hero, not to spend thirty years forging
horseshoes before being killed by a goblin to provide a nearby adventuring
party with an adventure hook.

It’s entirely possible to cheat around this. Your
character finds some magical doohickey that “reveals their inner potential,”
and changes their class. It’s not a satisfying answer, because it doesn’t
actually say anything meaningful, it just levels your character up and pushes
on with the quest, but it’s one that many writers do fall back on.

Unfortunately, I don’t really have an answer for you,
just more questions:

How self aware is your setting? There’s an entire
sub-genre of D&D lit where characters are literally discussing how the
rules function in setting. Order of the Stick is probably the best example that
comes to mind. A story where adventuring heroes wander the land is going to be
substantially different if people are actually talking about the result of To Hit
rolls, crit confirmations and hit dice.

Is this something the rules actually allow for?
There are games that will allow you to flat out break class. Hell, one of my favorite
methods for subverting the level scaling in Oblivion was to roll an Acrobat and
then specifically play against class, to artificially deflate the character’s
level in comparison to their skills.

What does being a hero mean? This one probably needs
to be further unpacked, but at a basic level, who does your character want to
be? In many campaigns player characters are little more than exceedingly
homicidal magpies on the prowl for the next loot piñata. That is something he could aspire to. But it’s
a pretty warped definition of, “hero.” It’s fun, and game designers usually
come up with contextual elements to excuse it, but this is a genre that can
become pretty messed up when you step back and ask, “but why am I hitting this
man with a giant club made from the incisor of a petrified dragon?”

How does your character deal with failure? Even
under the best of circumstances, your character isn’t going to get what they
want. How they deal with failure is at least as important with how they deal
with success. This one’s a pretty good question to think about for any
character you’re writing.

Who’s playing this thing? Is your character a player
trapped in the character sheet of an NPC, or are there actually player
characters wandering around adventuring while your character looks on? If it’s
the latter, what is the GM after? This can lead to some incredibly surreal
weirdness. Especially if it’s 3am and everyone’s still laughing about the
butterscotch zombie, while the GM’s trying to get the game back on track, while
your character’s just trying to deal with the insanity unfolding around them.


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Somehow, Discworld seems to be the most appropriate
reading recommendation. It might not make sense immediately, but Terry Prachett’s
approach to messing with fantasy conventions and clichés is on point. I’m linking The Color of Magic, but feel free to poke around and pick other ones from the series, if they catch your attention instead.

focused on one interesting twist on what you’re talking about. Exalts were
superhumanly powerful. For the weakest variety, their powers were usually hereditary,
but in some cases the offspring of Dragon
would fail to Exalt, and remain mortal. It’s part of a larger
setting, but if you’re worried about your fantasy setting being too generic,
then Exalted’s setting might help. It
also spent time talking about characters who went from nobody to demigod in a
moment, and how they dealt with that. More what your character fantasizes about
than their life, but still.

I follow this blog for the obvious reason, and I kinda wonder if I’m on the right track here; I play dungeons and dragons, and I decided I would make stats for my characters similar to that format and “roll” out a fight. Is this a good idea or not?

If you’re honest about the rolls and don’t cheat for your characters (re-rolling to get the desired results) then it can be a really great snapshot of how things can sometimes go wrong even when your characters are perfectly prepared for the situations that they’re facing. It can also be useful for reminding yourself, as the author, that fights involve two people or more, not just one. Which means that you need to be paying attention to what characters other than your protagonist are doing.

The downside to RPG systems is that a character you might use in an RPG with your friends and a character you create for a story are two different things. This is something we plan on talking about in the future. RPGs put the emphasis on the player to create the most overpowered jackasses possible and then reward them for it, but you can’t do that in a novel. If you do, you’ll essentially end up with a Mary Sue and a story that doesn’t work.

So, using an RPG for character creation relies on a certain level of honesty. You can only give stats that are character appropriate, not power gaming ones that will be best for your character in the long run. This means that from a D&D standpoint, the characters for your novel will come out looking subpar. This is fine, because they’re not for a D&D game. However, if you are someone who plays D&D often this may be difficult to look at because it’s all wrong.

The best solution I’ve found to this problem is to create a stat block for the character at the beginning of the story and a stat block for them for where they are at the end of it. And, you know, never use these characters in any D&D game ever.

Other than that, go to town, have fun, see what shakes loose. It’s a great way to help you develop an awareness of the uncertainty that comes with combat and a good reminder that even when your character is overpowered someone could still possibly knife them in the back.

General gaming good. Power gaming no.

I hope that helps!