Hit points have long been a core mechanic of Dungeons & Dragons and because of that they have carried over into many other games including both pen & paper and digital games. The mechanic’s simplicity is likely one of the main reasons for its success – each time you take damage, you subtract it from your pool of hit points, and if you hit 0, you’re either dead or unconscious. Even though hp is the most common way to track health, there are a lot of games that offer alternative systems or interesting tweaks on the basic mechanics.
Hit Point Subsystems
A massive damage rule allows a character to be threatened with death when taking damage above some threshold from a single hit. D&D 3.5 had a massive damage mechanic that required a saving throw to survive any attack dealing 50 or more points of damage. This threshold can be adjusted to make a game either more or less lethal. For example, in d20 modern, the threshold was instead a character’s Constitution score (generally 10-18) which made combat a lot more dangerous.
One potential pitfall of massive damage is that they tend to have more influence in high level games (assuming that hp scales with level). For example, D&D 3.5′s threshold of 50 damage would never affect low-level characters since they won’t have anywhere near 50 hp to begin with.
A condition track mechanic is a set of penalties that are introduced as a character loses hit points. The penalties could be tied to amounts of hp remaining (for example, at 50% or less hp, a character could take a -2 penalty on all rolls). Alternatively, conditions could be applied whenever an attack deals more than a certain amount of damage. The Star Wars Saga Edition game uses the second option with penalties applied each time that a character takes enough damage from a single attack.
Reserve points, introduced in D&D 3.5′s Unearthed Arcana, are a secondary pool of points that can be used to recover from damage when outside of combat. This reserve keeps a character’s durability in a single combat limited based on their normal hit point pool, but allows them to recover between fights by converting reserve points into hit points. The rules for healing surges in D&D 4E are in many ways an expansion of this idea.
Vitality and Wound Points
The d20 Star Wars RPG released by Wizards of the Coast before Saga Edition used an alternative system where characters had vitality points and wound points. Vitality points were much like hit points in that the number a character had increased with level and they were lost when a character took normal damage. On the other hand, each character had a fixed number of wound points that didn’t scale with level. On a critical hit or if a character was out of vitality points, damage was instead applied to their wound points with death occurring when the character reached 0 wound points.
Hit points have always been an abstraction over both stamina and actual injuries, and the split vitality/wound pools were a nice way to represent those ideas separately while retaining much of the simplicity of hp.
A lot of games with more abstract combat systems, such as Fate games or Technoir, track injuries as negative modifiers. For example, in a game using the Fate system, an attack could cause a character to gain an aspect such as “broken arm” which could later result in a bonus on another attack or a penalty on an action by the injured character. This system seems to work very well for story-focused games since it allows for the narrative of an injury to map well to the game’s fiction.
In this system, when a character is hit the it makes a roll against a difficulty based on the attack. If the character passes, then the hit has no effect. However, if the character fails, then it takes a negative condition. Depending on the implementation a large failure could result in character death or death might happen after a fixed number of failures. A system like this is used in Mutants & Masterminds where it feels like a great fit for the ability of superheroes to shrug off minor hits or take out one another with a single massive blow. This mechanic is also nice because it doesn’t require tracking points as a character is hit.
What are your favorite health mechanics?
Personally, I like the idea of a damage check system or at least a condition track to make wounds meaningful before a character reaches unconsciousness, but I haven’t had enough chances to play games that use those systems to see if that holds up in actual play. Are there any health and damage systems that you really enjoy?