Hit points, variable damage, and instant death

Hi all!

I was curious on y’all’s opinion for how variable damage (or lack thereof, if you prefer) should interact with hit points. I thought it was sort of weird how Arneson’s solution to prevent instant death was to introduce characters having d6 HP, and weapons dealing d6 damage.

If the intention were to prevent instant death all the time, you’d think a character would start with 6 HP without much if any variability. That way, a weapon only has a 1-in-6 initial chance of killing a character. But if a character has d6 HP, checking on AnyDice (d6 damage >= d6 HP), that initial chance increases to 58.33%.

As pointed out in another thread, the amount of HP for each character has increased over the years. I checked Troika, and on average one-handed weapons can at most cause a character to lose 50% of their HP (aka ‘stamina’). That would be like a D&D character having 12 max HP, and a weapon still dealing d6 damage.

How variable do you think HP should be? And do you think should one blow be enough to kill a character in the worst of cases, or even more common than that?

As for me personally, I feel like rolling d8+bonus for HP (a la Knave, as well as laterish D&D) instead of d6 definitely represents an upgrade over a plain d6.


Chiquitafajita, you ask a profound question. What makes it so, and difficult to answer, is that folks differ in their point of view on what hit points are. Some identify them as a sort of counter of the ability to avoid damage. Others see it as stamina+willpower or the like. There are still other views.

Combined with this is the problem of identifying how “abstract” a combat round is. Most players seem to regard combat rounds as just (necessarily unrealistic) alternating attempts to strike one’s enemy. A few regard the alternating blows themselves already as an abstraction (which they must be), representing just the hits that make it through somehow.

If you decide what hit points represent, and what a successful strike represents, then it becomes easier to decide how to proceed to the mechanics.

I note, though, that most other early role-playing games do not allow hit points or the equivalent to get so inflated as they do in D&D. Most other role-playing games tie the ability to take hits and keep going to a stat that grows much less. D&D is actually not normal but a far-flung outlier when it comes to its hit point mechanics. The most popular game is the weirdest with respect to mechanics, for historical reasons…

The other games, the ones that don’t use hit points/hit dice, continue to work very well for millions of players. What changes with the lack of hit points inflating with each level-up is… the frequency and meaning of combat, how willing players are to send their characters into a fight, and the whole system of rewards for players and for characters. Hit points, in short, make D&D what it is–or so I think.

Troika! is much more like every other fantasy role-playing game out there. In most other games, getting hit means you really got hit. And that hurts. An arrow in the side can kill you, one shot. Armor reduces impact, and doesn’t just make you slippery (as in D&D).

Another solution is that of the ultra-lite Tiny Dungeon D6 system. Every hit does one damage. Characters can typically take four to eight hits.

Some brave game authors do away with hit points and have wound descriptors instead. There are hybrids, too, like the Call of Cthulhu 7th edition, where hit point losses are all flesh wounds or light injuries until you take one blow accounting for half of your total hit points or more. A serious wound like that impedes your ability to do anything and means that you’re going to be more likely to die at 0 HP.

There are lots of ways to do it. It depends on the kind of game you want. :slight_smile:


Thank you for sharing your blog post, and for your insight! HP is definitely a problematic mechanic in how it can’t be squared with the fiction.

I think all those non-D&D games have the better idea (and more sustainable too). Though for sure, like you said, it depends on the game you want. People who like high-lethality games where part of the fun is the hijinks and randomness – besides the actual problem-solving where you make do with the results – I’ve noticed tend to make more disposable characters.


It’s funny, though, because the games in which even an experienced PC can get killed with a couple of hits include some of those in which characters are less disposable than a D&D character. GURPS players (for example) can lovingly customize their characters with a vast array of modular rules, many of which are specifically to develop the character’s personality and background rather than powers. If a GURPS character gets killed right away–a real possibility–it can feel like a big blow because they’re usually so tightly designed. (A problem with GURPS is that after playing it for a while and learning the modular customizability, you lose track of the basic simplicity of the core rules.)

I think that what sets the D&D experience apart is that character power gets jacked up so high, corresponding with hit points and level growth. In D&D there is an escalating scale of ever greater, more epic threats required to face the PCs: bigger monsters and bigger magic for high-level characters with too many hit points to be bothered by simple threats. Hence Monster Manuals and vast lists of magic items. I think that’s part of the appeal of D&D for most of its players: the hit point system means you have to have adventures aimed at specific level ranges, to provide enough XP, to provide meaningful threats. Most other systems are “flatter” in the power curve, so that characters of different degrees of experience can do stuff together.

Anyway, as we agree, it’s a matter of play preferences. What are you hoping to create?


Fully agree!

Honestly, although I’m working on my own little project for which I’m thinking about how much HP my friends would like to have, I was more just puzzled by Arneson’s design intent. If he wanted to not have PCs die immediately, why have variable HP alongside variable damage with the same range?

That is, I think HP and variable damage are a really interesting implementation of degradable partial success, but it seems like the way it works (at least at early levels) just seems to defeat the point if that was the actual intention.

As for my project, I thought it would be interesting to have a constant amount of HP but that you get hurt more or less depending on your opponent’s relative ability. That makes it easier to scale up difficulty without the bloat of D&D! And as of right now, the numbers resemble Troika — against an equally powerful opponent, you’ll lose up to 50% of your max HP.

(I am specifically aiming for the experience of bloat one might find in Pokemon games, without the actual numeric bloat. Just for fun!)


Chiquitafajita, the idea that HP stay relatively stable but that the damage you take depends on the relative abilities is exactly produced by Tunnels & Trolls. (In that game, CON = HP.)

Since you know the Troika! system (which is an adapted version of Fighting Fantasy, which derives a lot of mechanics principles from Tunnels & Trolls), I can explain it this way: Imagine that the damage done in Troika! is not based on a secondary roll, but is the difference of the combat totals between the two sides in a fight.

Instead of rolling for damage, you produce a total (in Troika!, 2D+Skill+Special Skill), and the winner inflicts the difference in damage upon the loser.

In Tunnels & Trolls, the number of dice used is based on the weapon, not a fixed 2D. In T&T, you figure “dice + adds,” but each T&T weapon is worth a certain number of dice, heavier weapons doing more (but having STR and DEX minimum requirements–something borrowed in The Fantasy Trip). Your adds are derived by totaling each point of STR, DEX, and LUCK over 12 (on a 3d6 system modeled on OD&D), like stat bonuses in D&D but added up beforehand. So, say, STR 13, DEX 15, LUCK 10 gives +4 adds onto the total from the weapon.

The brilliant thing in this system is that group combat can be handled by everybody’s total from one side versus the grand total from the other. The difference in the collective total is damage done to the losing side that round, divided up between them.

Fighting Fantasy (and hence Troika!) don’t do this because the number scales are smaller, but it’s possible to wiggle things to make it work this way, depending on how much you want the choice of arms and armor to matter in strategic prep for combat-oriented characters.

About hit points, Jon Peterson traces their background to a 1972 Gygax and Arneson collaboration, rules for naval combat called Don’t Give Up the Ship. Ships can take multiple hits before they sink (so have hit points) and damage done varied according to the caliber of the cannons. You roll a die for each “fire factor” calculated on the basis of the caliber of the guns in an inter-ship attack. These principles were transferred to D&D. Why a sword should do variable damage is not clearly stated, but I guess it represents “direct hits” versus glancing blows or scratches. The point in common between ship-to-ship naval warfare and warrior-to-warrior melee combat is that both represent individual units around which the whole game pivots: big ships and big heroes. When one goes down, the game is “over.” For both, “zooming in” to look at damage close-up, and allowing the dice to provide twists of fate, seems to be the common feature.

I agree that it’s a design choice too little examined. Why not have more “saving throws” against fixed damage instead of assailants’ rolls for damage done, to keep characters from dying instantly? You can just say every blow is fatal unless the figure struck makes a roll, with various outcomes as a result (shrug it off > various degrees of wound-induced penalty > permanent injuries > death). Then you get rid of hit points and damage rolls, but figures roll to resist injury. This way lies Ars Magica and its “soak” roll.

It may be the feel of it. People like to be involved in how good their hits were, and that means rolling for the damage they themselves inflict.


I’m really a fan of this and I wish I played a game that worked like that! And, although like you said that Troika! has certain limitations preventing it, I’m surprised it doesn’t work similarly. It seems much more intuitive

Since I’m wanting to emulate certain CRPGs, unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be implementing contests that way in my rulesets, but it works on a similar principle. The goal is to roll a die underneath the opponent’s “Dodge” value (of course I call it DEX), and if you are successful you deal an amount of damage equal to the roll itself. But what’s nice is that it wouldn’t be hard to plug in a contest aspect anyway, since you could just say “If you fail, the enemy deals damage equal to the roll minus what you were supposed to roll under.” Just wordier.

But that’s so elegant how T&T allows players to do a round of combat all at once. And it sounds fun as hell! Rolling a bunch of dice like that.

I forgot about Don’t Give Up the Ship actually originating HP! I read another story which took precedence in my head, about how one of Arneson’s friends rage-quit a game because he died so early on.

You’re totally right that people like rolling for damage, at least from what I’ve seen. No wonder that most solutions that want to ‘fix’ D&D (instead of looking at other systems like T&T) resolve to get rid of to-hit rolls and have only damage rolls instead.


Some people think that T&T involves too many dice. There is a simple elegance to rolling 1d20 and knowing immediate if you hit or not.

But yeah, there are many ways to resolve fights and injury that seem to have been forgotten, waiting to be reinvented or revived. There are a few issues: how many dice rolls are we willing to tolerate to resolve (1) who hit whom and (2) what are the consequences and (3) what factors, like armor, mitigate those consequences, and (4) what lasting effects they have on the fighter. Shift your answer to one and then the answers to the others have to change.

I’m not familiar with CRPGs. How does emulating them make it different?


Basically, I’m looking to double-down on combat as a series of one-sided actions. Certainly that’s something that originates in tabletop games, and not just turn-based digital RPGs, but I’m hoping to evoke those sort of vibes.

We’ll see how it turns out in play, especially because I myself am usually not a combat person, but I thought my friends would like something that calls attention to its own conceit. Like, “Oh, I get it, we’re playing Pokemon but instead of cute little monsters we’re capturing demons in apocalyptic Palestine!”


I wish you luck in this game. How cool that you have a game about demon pets!

Other readers, take a look at Chiquitafajita’s original question and say what you think.


I don’t often use conventional Variable Weapon Damage these days. I use Class HD to determine the damage a character inflicts with the weapon and minimal Weapon Restrictions…so you can have a Wizard with a 2-Handed Sword (d4), or a Fighter with a broken beer bottle (d8) if you’d like. I find qualifying this damage output as Training to be more useful to me than trying to model anything more specific while still keeping things quick and preserving niches. It’s not the size of the weapon that makes it lethal on it’s own, but the hands that know how to use it :slight_smile:.

But I’m also of a pretty strange camp when it comes to HP. I’m definitely more on the abstract side of things (and I appreciate seeing Tunnels & Trolls being brought up…that HP is so wonderfully disassociated from the fiction: when the comparison/split occurs…the Players kind of figure out what happened after the round rather than during battle, because it’s just mountains of d6s). Generally, we don’t have a conventional increasing “HP Total” but instead roll HD anew each day, or at the start of an Encounter that’s turning in a violent direction. This really leans into the abstract nature and we have to figure out what changed (low HP Roll? Perhaps you slept funny, or maybe these Goblins are just really tough!). I find this really informs strategy in an interesting way, and prevent HP from becoming a “Dungeon Exploration Timer.” And I like that an 8th level Fighter could still roll all 1s and get taken out by a double lucky 1st level Fighter with a Dagger (d8!).

But again, I’m using HP less as “meat points” here because it does improve with advancement and I could never really square characters gaining more of this “meat” when they level :slightly_smiling_face:. So definitely more of a “training angle” there too (along with luck, élan, confidence, stamina, strategic advantage, “don’t get hit points,” or whatever suits our fancy for justifying it whatever the current total ends up being). The only Hit Point that really matters is that final, fatal one.