This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.
For a long time — somewhere around twenty years — I’ve been unsatisfied with the hit point system of Dungeons and Dragons in all its incarnations over the years.
Initially, combat rounds were a minute long, and every attack in melee combat represented a flurry of attacks and defenses, with successful to-hit rolls representing someone pressing an advantage, wearing down the opponent’s reserves, and maneuvering the opponent toward a possible killing blow. Minor lacerations and contusions are assumed to be part of the process, but not really addressed directly. It was a very abstract system, in general, and in some ways very clearly showed D&D’s heritage in tactical wargames where “damage” was done to a unit that may consist of any number of soldiers (depending on the unit type).
In terms of individual combat, however, the abstract model of battle failed when other combat effects than plain vanilla melee weapon conflicts came into play. For instance, it didn’t handle when less lethal (but no less effective) attacks were used, when ranged weapons such as crossbows and spears entered the mix, and when clearly mismatched weapon types such as a halfling’s dagger versus a storm giant’s mattock faced each other. Suddenly that “flurry of blows over the course of a minute” didn’t work so well to suspend disbelief or in some meaningful way represent how battle might actually progress.
Then, of course, the urge for ultra-realism, to varying degrees, started sneaking into the game. Critical hit tables, combat rounds that were a few seconds long at most, and other more fine-grained approaches to combat became en vogue. At that point, the “flurry of blows” approach completely failed, for essentially every type of attack available. In general, everybody just ignored the elephant in the room for decades: the complete divorcement from reality of a hit point system, as it is used in D&D.
Other game systems, with essentially no relation to the D&D system at all, have been created that approach combat damage to the individual in a completely different manner. Some of them even do a very good job of handling wounds and damage, such as the White Wolf multiple-d10 system from the original World of Darkness games (I haven’t bothered to look closely enough at the new system to see if it’s substantially the same), the quite different multiple-d10 system for 7th Sea, and quite a few others — including probably half a dozen different game systems I’ve created myself over the years that use general wound categories, anatomical effect charts, accrued stat or action penalties, and other mechanisms for simulating wounds and damage.
Unfortunately, D&D’s entire high-fantasy flavor is, to some extent, bound up in its hit point system. This seems like it might doom all D&D games — and D&D-like games, such as the upcoming Pathfinder RPG — to an exercise in selective blindness on the part of game participants. You simply have to choose willful ignorance of the unrealism of the hit point system to continue enjoying the game, which can work just fine in general, but once in a while I find that it bothers me on some level. I just have a deep-seated desire for game systems that make sense.
The Unearthed Arcana for D&D 3rd Edition offers some variant damage systems. One of them uses wound categories, which is great except for some “minor” issues that crop up unavoidably:
Your game is no longer compatible with anyone else’s D&D games, at all. This may or may not be a problem for you.
Conversion is ponderous and annoying.
The “feel” of an authentic D&D game is, sadly, gone. You might as well just buy a different game (or create your own) and play that instead — which, I must admit, I’ve done from time to time. In fact, my longest-running game collected so many house rules over the years that it was no longer D&D, having essentially replaced all core rules. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless you actually wanted to play D&D.
Another damage system in Unearthed Arcana (the meat of which is available with some System Reference Document collections online, because UA content was made available under the OGL) is the Wounds and Vitality system. In this system, there are actually two types of damage you take in normal combat — Wounds and Vitality (naturally). Vitality is essentially just your hit points, as normal, but is used to represent minor lacerations and contusions, weariness, increasing distraction and desperation, and other factors that might eventually contribute to making a fatal mistake. It is determined as normal; roll your hit dice, and just call it Vitality instead of HP. Meanwhile, you have a number of Wound Points equal to your Constitution score — and this is the real damage, the stabs and crushing strikes and deep cuts, the broken bones and damaged organs and severed arteries that result from someone fully getting through your guard.
Wounds, under this system, are inflicted in two ways:
If you run out of Vitality points, any further damage goes to your Wounds.
If someone achieves a critical hit, rather than doing extra damage, the normal weapon damage is simply applied to your Wounds total rather than your Vitality total.
There’s a bit more to it, but this is the fundamental essence of the Wounds/Vitality system. This introduces many improvements to the way the damage system works in games like D&D and Pathfinder. Among them:
It’s possible (in a reasonable sense of the word “possible”) for a low-level character to kill a high-level character, though still much more difficult than for the high-level character to kill the low-level character. I’ve always thought it was ridiculous that, in essence, a first-level character sneaking up on a tenth-level character and stabbing him when he’s completely unaware of the attack results in what amounts to a cosmetic scratch in the standard hit point system, and this solves that neatly if you allow for an improved chance of critical hits.
Vitality is a lot more believable than hit points, because Vitality serves as a veneer of sorts over Wounds, whereas with hit points there’s no difference between a critical hit with double max damage resulting in a flesh wound and a minimum-damage hit with a pen knife doing that one final point of damage needed to finish off a character. They all just do damage to hit points — so you fight at full capacity until you suddenly fall over dead (or, using negative hit points, fall over and start bleeding to death — not really an improvement).
Critical hits that might reduce one fighter (at first level) from full health to death and effectively count for nothing against another (at tenth level) are no longer a problem. Instead, critical hits really hurt, no matter who you are, but probably won’t kill you outright (again, no matter who you are), unless it’s a storm giant’s mattock hitting you or you have a Constitution of 3 or so (in which case you should be felled by a stiff wind anyway).
First-level characters no longer fall over dead at the first mosquito bite that comes their way, while twentieth-level characters have reason to think hard before entering combat, even if they have more than a hundred Vitality points. No more immediate death any time your first-level wizard takes a hit no matter how weak, and no more shrugging off unexpected magical battle-axe strikes to the forehead with a laugh.
I’m rather enamored with the concept of the Wounds/Vitality system, in case you couldn’t tell, but it needs some work. As presented in UA, it’s a trifle underdeveloped. I think I’ll address the problems with the Wounds/Vitality system from UA in another SOB entry, along with some ideas about what needs to be changed to address those problems. This entry has already gotten long enough.