The fighter swings their hammer into the skeleton, shattering it to pieces. From behind another skeleton raises its sword, catching the fighter by surprise and landing a blow. A large gash is cut across their back, similar to the nine other near fatal wounds they received that combat. Later, that night the party rests as they talk about their encounter with the undead. In the morning all their wounds will have been healed and they are ready to clear the next crypt.
I play a lot of video games, watch a lot of anime, and play tabletop games weekly. From all this experience I have had discussions regarding how health, armor, and endurance/stamina should function in games. Arguments are thrown left and right about how to make it more accurate or more believable. It's a constant struggle, but I believe the entire discussion is wrong. The above story might sound absolutely unbelievable but that is how so many D&D games get run. The storyteller might not have the best way to describe how someone would get hit and lose hit points that isn’t fatal to any of us in the real world.
Fantasy vs Realism
This is a point that I often need to reiterate when having discussions about game mechanics. People who get super into world building often fall into this trap as well. I hear, “well that’s how it works in the real world, you need to consider it.” The problem with this statement is that they are assuming that the world they are playing in takes everything from the real world. Yes, many of our fantasy D&D games do have real world mechanics in them, like gravity. Usually, when I hear this they are attempting to use real world logic to achieve something in a fantasy world to benefit them or gain more of an advantage, which isn’t always a bad thing. But just because something has a real world mechanic in it, doesn’t mean that what it comes from is the same.
Let me take an example someone tried arguing with me in my world. When I created it, I made it so my world has two moons. Questions came up “How does that affect the tides?” and when I said “magic” they weren’t happy. Now, some people really don’t like the use of that argument, but it’s an incredibly important one. Yes, I could spend days doing calculations trying to figure out the paths of the moons, their density, and calculate how the tides would be for each day of the year based on this math. Why? Why would I spend all that time working on that when I have so many other things to explore and figure out? I set in my world that the God of Water controlled the tides because it was simpler.
Is that person wrong for wanting to do complex math to figure out their tides? No. They have every right to work out those details. I don’t see the point as most players won’t even pay attention, or even understand how the tides in our world work, let alone see the nuances of changes when the variables are tweaked. For the everyday player/reader they are inconsequential. What matters is that the rules you set up should lead to more interesting stories rather than reflect the real world. This is fantasy and while adding real world elements is important for making the fantastic believable, too much real world drowns out the magic that comes with a fantastic setting.
Health and Damage
If you have played any game in recent history you will be familiar with the concept of hit points or HP and damage, but it’s important for me to state what each stands for. Health represents the amount of damage you can take before you enter a state of death or dying. The amount of health you have can change based on different conditions that are met (i.e. picking up a health kit, not taking damage for X amount of time, taking a long rest, taking damage).
Harking back to the previous section of this article; you can’t make a health system that will perfectly reflect reality. To do so would require you to recreate all of medical sciences or get so complex that the system is too clunky to handle properly or quickly for a game. The standard hit point system is the easiest method for people to understand because it gives a defined amount of damage before you start to kick the bucket. This isn’t the only method. Games like Scion and the Dark Souls board game include different methods of dealing with health. What really matters is how the change in health happens.
When you take damage it does something to the character whether that is losing blood, winding them, or depleting an energy barrier (basically a secondary health pool). Changing how this damage affects the character is one way to alter health, you can impose different bonuses or penalties depending on the amount of damage taken or the amount of remaining health. The same can be said for recovering health. You can alter how quickly something recovers health for your character or create conditions in which regaining health isn’t possible. All of these factors change the way your game feels regardless of how you try to represent it. In a piece of homebrew I started working on for D&D, I altered the way health recovered to give a sense of permanency to damage. This was to attempt to increase the amount of thought put in to long trips, deep dungeon delves, and to force some downtime. Losing twenty health suddenly means a lot more when it takes a few days to fully recover as opposed to sleeping it off the next night. When developing a health system, the choices you make will affect how the players deal with challenges.
Armor and Dodging
Armor is probably the most argued about and the most homebrewed (literally google “homebrewed 5e armor” and you will see what I mean) between health, damage and armor. Armor is a damage avoidance mechanic (both in real and fantasy worlds), as is dodging. If the attack never strikes the squishy bits and your health, then you are fine. How this is executed depends on the system and the feel it is going for. Using D&D as an example, armor class is used to determine how hard it is to damage you. It takes into account both blocking damage and dodging damage. Video games tend to take armor as a sort of secondary health bar, where it soaks damage and doesn’t let it do permanent damage. This is because to hit a character in a video game comes down to player input and not the roll of a die (unless you talk about turn based rpgs like the older Final Fantasy’s).
Its fine for a tabletop RPG to incorporate damage soaking, but you still need to consider how a character hits another character. D&D’s approach is one valid method, even if it doesn’t match completely with how armor works in real life. You can change the feel that different armors have by describing how they avoid damage in different ways. For instance, a character wearing full plate armor is not going to be dodging attacks. The attack may still connect with the character, but the armor might be tough enough to avoid taking damage that strike. Describe them holding up their shield and holding back the opponents massive claws. Sure it’s not realistic, but it’s cool and this fantasy.
Endurance is often portrayed as “Stamina” but I consider endurance to also be considered for magical resources like mana and spell slots. This is because endurance is used more as a resource that you need to manage and being out of it doesn’t result in death (unless its the Dark Souls board game). Managing how this resource is recovered is also crucial to the way your game feels when it plays. A first person shooter is fine having you run out of stamina after sprinting for a while to give the opponents a chance to catch you only for the stamina to reset after a bit.
With spells it is a bit trickier. Anyone who has gotten me into a long D&D rant will know that I think spellcasting is incredibly powerful and ruins the viability of martial characters. Spellcasters essentially have a pool of resources to draw from to cause the largest damage dealing abilities in the game, while martial characters are just given more health. Now I don’t want to reduce the power of spells for spellcasters, because that is a draw to those classes. Instead a way I have seen to help balance spellcasters and martial characters is to make the resource pool spellcasters draw from refresh at a different rate. This forces the spellcaster to play a game of risk vs reward when casting spells. Sure they can blow that 9th level power word: kill, but if the target is above 100 hit points the spell is wasted. Now it takes time to get the resources back to use that, while a 3rd level fireball is more likely to do damage and won’t take as long to get the resources to throw another one. This resource regeneration however fits a specific style of play. Playing the game in a way where the normal resource regeneration (such as the long rest in D&D) is not as frequent could make this very same solution incredibly punishing.
Health, Damage, and Endurance for NPCs and Monsters
Venturing outside the realm of Player Characters you run into monsters and NPCs. While the game system may suggest that you use the same system for them as you use for players, with tabletop games it can sometimes be more beneficial to change the rules a bit. A perfect example of this is the D&D 4e minion system that I have often stolen for my own games. If you want a massive amount of creatures in a horde that are under a Big Bad, then you can set all of the hit points of the horde to 1 hit point a monster even if the creatures would be considered higher level creatures. The idea is to change the sense of scale. Yeah a bunch of 10th level players are going to wipe the floor with CR ½ Orcs, and there might be a chance they don’t do enough damage to kill one but is that really the point of the fight?
When considering the feel you want for your fight, you can choose the system of health, damage, and endurance that certain creatures the party has to combat. Want the fight to get harder the more it goes on? Give the boss stages of health where once they damage them enough they get a new pool of hit points, maybe they become harder to hit and start dealing more damage. Playing a wide range of games, especially video games, can give you fantastic ideas for how to run monsters.
For Game Masters, you don’t even really need to record the amount of hit points a creature has. It may sound like you are sort of cheating the system, but it can be a useful tool when you have to come up with combats on the fly. In reality, what hit points represent in combats is the amount of time it will take for the fight to end in one way or the other. For monsters, the players realistically do not know how much a creature starts with, and since the number changes over the course of a battle they wouldn’t know where that number got to. What I do instead is keep track of how much damage they have done to the creature. If they go over a certain threshold in a round I consider it one round closer to death. For each combat I have an idea about how many rounds I want that combat to last. This lets me more accurately determine the length of a combat with some margin of error (i.e. the players just do not get their sh*t together for a fight) but I also have to boost the damage most creatures do to accommodate for this change and pose actual risk to the players. This also lets you fudge the ending of a fight. If a player gets an epic roll and has an entire description for their wonderfully epic moment, you can choose to give them the win and a really satisfying one at that. Your job as the Game Master is to deliver an experience, that doesn’t mean you have to follow all the same rules as your players. In my opinion, you should almost always break the rules if it gives your players a more enjoyable experience.
Let’s stop any arguments about what makes mechanics more realistic and start focusing on what mechanics make the game fun. Health in reality is super complex and we should should not be trying to replicate it perfectly in a paper-and-pencil type game unless that is the focus of the game (Surgeon Simulator RPG?!). Nobody is arguing over the life count system of Mario and how unrealistic it is. Manipulate the game how you want it.
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