Hit Points, Our Old Friend
I’ve been hoping for Mike to get to HP for a while now, and this week’s Legends and Lore finally gets there.
As a quick recap, Mike mentions HP standing for three things: physical prowess, skill, and significance. I think HP is a microcosm here, a way of seeing what D&D Next as a whole is all about.
Look at it this way: HP is the biggest factor in which characters stick around and a key indicator of how far a character has advanced. So what HP represents is represented throughout the game. So, how does a higher-level character (i.e. one with more HP) differ from a low level one? Prowess, skill, and significance.
The standout here for me is significance. Mike gives this example:
That gives a really clear idea of what this edition of D&D is. For comparison I did a quick skim of Moldvay and 1st Ed AD&D. Moldvay describes HP completely as a game artifact: the number of “points” (quotes theirs) of damage a character can take. 1st Ed mentions HP as being a factor of physical endurance, “skill, luck (bestowed by supernatural powers), and magical forces.”
The difference between “luck (bestowed by supernatural powers)” and D&D Next’s “luck and cosmic significance” is that Mike’s examples make it sound like luck and significance here are derived from DM and player consideration. Modenkainen’s HP is a reflection of the DM (and maybe the rest of the group) deciding that he is important, “luck” is just a way of justifying that choice in the fiction of the game.
Each one of Mike’s points actually reflects a bit of intention in design. Physical capacity for punishment suggests a design guided by “what makes sense” and a kind of (altered) physical reality. Experience and skill suggest a game played as a game. Luck and cosmic significance suggest a game where someone’s notion of importance and plot guides the action.
So this is a game that attempts to at least pay service to all three. An elephant, despite being untrained (low level) and insignificant, will have a larger amount of HP. A pixie, despite having no interest in combat and being of a size that might lead it to fear a flyswatter, can have larger HP because it’s not just any pixie, it’s Lithari King of the Flower-Dancers. The encounter outside the king’s throneroom can have high-HP guards despite them being human-sized and unimportant.
Ultimately that makes the notion of HP seem kind of meaningless. If I read a description of a creature that notes 102 HP, what does that mean? Does it mean that it’s big? That it’s a threat for high-level characters? That it has some important role to play? By giving the flexibility for HP to mean anything it can also mean nothing.
Several other games have solutions that focus on one or two factors to HP (or similar “how long can you fight?” systems). In Burning Wheel your ability to take damage is mostly physical with some skill that can increase1. 1. Interestingly BW also has some measure of survivability based on significance, but this comes from a system deliberately detached from HP. If you’re dying you may be able to save yourself through points earned from playing a certain way, but that’s only if you have them and if you’re dying. You don’t gain the ability to take more damage because you’re ‘significant.’ In Apocalypse World you never really gain the ability to take more damage, HP is more or less a physical thing. In Fiasco the only thing keeping your character around is their place in the story (which may leave them better off dead).
Of course this ties into what it means to gain HP over the course of play. The traditional D&D model is that as an automatic consequence of play (through the HP and level systems) you gain more HP. In some editions this is paired with an expectation that you then fighter tougher creatures (which may not have been around before).
A poster on the Dungeon World forums called this “the last unnecessary escalation.” The net effect in the encounter-building environment of 3rd and 4th edition is that you have to level up to say in place. It’s the Red Queen Hypothesis of D&D levels.
For a while I studiously avoided thinking of HP as an unnecessary escalation, but after pondering it for too long I finally cracked. Dungeon World eventually lost automatically increasing HP because it led to exactly this “running to stay in place” behavior. Leveling up meant facing monsters that could do about the same percentage of your hitpoints. Even when we tried to make it a game about facing daunting challenges the GM’s instinct (including mine) was to just keep producing threats that were the equal of the players.
For some games automatically increasing HP is completely appropriate. The most obvious choice are games that are more directly about “playing to win” or playing your best. In Moldvay your HP increases because there are fights out there you can’t win without the extra HP. In World of Warcraft your HP increases so that you can enter new areas and face new challenges.
So what is the reason for HP (and HP increase) in D&D Next? The in-game justifications that Mike offers (physicality, skill, significance) suggest such different reasons for existence that I’m not getting a clear picture of how I, as a DM, can use HP to run my game well. Maybe the playtest doc later this week will change that.