Posted by: L1H | July 10, 2008

Hit Points: The True Story

My first experience with hit points was first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Since then hit points have infiltrated, in one way or another, every role playing game since. I don’t care if you’re talking about Wizardry or WoW, hit points are the ultimate resource of any game logic.

What’s always bugged me about hit points is how little game developers have evolved the concept of hit points since the early days of D&D.

For the literal minded, hit points are supposed to be a measure of your character’s health. This definition makes sense considering how many games take attributes such as Constitution and directly or indirectly plug their value into your hit point total. What makes this explanation difficult to swallow is the ridiculous amount of damage your character can absorb yet somehow keep fighting. I remember in the early days of DDO, you could actually swim in lava for a short time if you had enough hit points.

Taking another (read: conceptual) definition in mind: hit points represent your character’s ability to turn a serious blow. A normal person would have been impaled by that spring loaded arrow trap, but our hero manages to dodge at the last second leaving the arrow embedded in his shield. Hit points, therefore represent a heroic pool of luck and/or destiny points that deplete with calamity. Only the last hand full of hit points represent true physical damage.  This definition seems congruent with your hit point total growing with your character as you level up – a feature of many games.

Perhaps technological limitations have discouraged game developers from approaching hit points with more in mind than simply a “health bar”.

There has to be a measure of our heroes – the fact that they have limited resources, hit points especially, make for more interesting story telling than if they were immortal Demigods.  I believe that’s why I identify with Batman more than Superman.  Batman can be hurt, killed, and although he always manages to survive, with every story I am convinced the danger is real.

Superman has too many hit points for me to care.

Looking forward I hope the MMO games of the future evolve our game’s core logic and get beyond the DPS model of combat so ubiquitous today.

Looking back, I owe the creepy college kid living our basement (Circa: 1986) a thanks for “getting” hit points way before I did.  It would be a tragedy if he didn’t grow up to work in game design in some capacity.

“The Kobold swings his little mace at you (DM rolls a twenty sided dice behind his screen); the Kobold’s rusty mace slams against your chest. You feel the wind get knocked out of your lungs and you get staggered back half a foot but your armor seemed to absorb most of the blow. You’re still on your feet; what do you do?” – DM
“Uh, did the Kobold hit me?” – Me
“Yes, with his mace.” – DM
“Uh, okay, how much damage did it do?” – Me
“I told you, you got the wind knocked out you but you’re still alive.” – DM
“How many hit points do I have left then?” – Me
“If I say you’re wounded or bleeding then you’re on your last leg, but until then your hit points will keep you alive; after all: you’re a hero.” – DM
Okay … then I swing my bastard sword at the Kobold with the mace!” – Me
“Okay, roll your attack … “ – DM

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