Hit Points – A Good Question

Got some e-mail from one of my players a short time ago. She is relatively new to gaming, and had this question about our Post Tenebras Lux game:

Question re Verisimilitude in our game: when in combat and get chomped or stabbed or whatever, do the healing mechanisms of the game (potion, healing surge, etc.) totally heal such a wound instantaneously, or would my character need some time to fully heal after the initial healing effort (of spell, potion, etc.)? Wondering how to role play that sort of thing. Seems in the geek-type game we were playing, wounds & near death in battle carried no consequences beyond the combat scene.

Most of the players in my group don’t think too much about hit points and what they represent, anymore. Hit points are, we know from our years of experience, how much damage you can take before you die. When an attack hits you, you lose hit points, so you’re getting hacked to pieces, or nibbled to bits, or fried to a crisp.

Except that’s not true. That’s the way we treat it, but that’s not the way they work.

4E went out of its way to emphasize the fact that we have moved beyond that in the game. Hit points represent everything that lets you keep fighting. When you run out of hit points, you don’t necessarily die. You fall down*.

And mostly, you then get back up again**.

Looking at the mechanics of the damage and healing system in 4E, it’s obvious that this is where they want the paradigm to be. And I, like most experienced gamers***, glossed over that and just paid attention to the mechanics.

Until my player reminded me of the other side of things: how does this look in play?

She got me thinking about it, and I sent her an answer, along with a request to post her question here. Because I think it’s a good question, from three different angles:

  1. The actual question itself asks for information that I want the players to have, and to act on.
  2. The fact that she had to ask shows how I’ve overlooked talking about this aspect with my players.
  3. Her perception of the “geek-type” game showed the underlying assumptions that I, and the other players, were working with.

So, I am including my answer to her. This is how it works in my game; I don’t claim that this is the proper way to do it, or the official way to do it. This is the way I do it.

Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Technically, most of the “damage” you take is not, in fact damaging. When you reach half hit points, and become bloodied, you can be assumed to have a cut or two, maybe some bad bruises or broken ribs. When you drop to 0 hit points or below, you are more seriously injured, with a penetrating wound or a cracked skull or serious blood loss or something else that takes you out of the fight. Even this is usually just you getting knocked unconscious or being overcome by pain. You’re really only taking serious physical damage if you run out of healing surges.
Hit points, more than physical damage, represent your ability to continue fighting – things like fatigue, morale, will, a good edge on your weapons, the condition of your armour, etc. When someone “hits” you for 10 damage, that may not break the skin (and probably wouldn’t at high levels), but may cause the grip of your sword to twist, or knock the breath out of you, or numb your arm for a second, or just make you feel totally outclassed. It’s not necessarily actual physical damage until you get bloodied, and then again when you drop to 0 hit points.
Each character has a number of healing surges per day that represent their ability to pick themselves up off the mat and go on. You can think of it as your physical and mental reserves. All – okay, not quite all, but just about – healing effects, whether natural or magical, draw on your reserves as represented by healing surges. When these run out, you can’t recover anymore, because your body and will are at their limits. This is when you take an arrow to the neck and die instead of having it bounce off your metal cap, knocking you unconscious.
So, really, the healing mechanisms generally heal most wounds completely, because they aren’t all that serious. Only when you’re out of healing surges do the wounds become serious enough to warrant time to recover from them. So, if you’re looking at when to play the idea of being wounded and worn out by combat, look to your healing surges. When you only have a couple left, then your character is probably starting to droop physically and to quail mentally. That’s when your armour is looking beat-up and bloodstained, and you may be sporting a bandage or two or limping a little. None of that has any game effect, but does add to the roleplaying.

And there you have it.


*Interestingly (to me, at least), this was how Toon handled running out of hit points.

**Very like a Chumbawumba song.

***Well, the ones I know, anyway.

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3 Responses to Hit Points – A Good Question

  1. Fred Hicks says:

    To look at it another way, every time the tens digit on your hit points goes down by one, you manifest another minor physical sign of the abuse you’ve been taking. 🙂

    I’ll note that the final bit you blockquoted there also makes healers in the Warlord style make a bit more sense — “pep talks” that heal you, etc.

  2. Rick Neal says:

    “To look at it another way, every time the tens digit on your hit points goes down by one, you manifest another minor physical sign of the abuse you’ve been taking.”

    I like that! Thanks!

    “I’ll note that the final bit you blockquoted there also makes healers in the Warlord style make a bit more sense — “pep talks” that heal you, etc.”

    Yeah, and it was healers like the Warlord and the Bard that really drove home for me the difference in how 4E looks at hit points.

  3. Karla says:

    The concept of hit points as morale makes so much sense I can’t believe I didn’t think about it before. I’d been narrating damage as bruises and cuts and so on, this opens up the drama of a fight a lot for me.

    Thanks for this post.

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