Friday, June 10, 2011

All things hit points

This post will have to be expanded on as each of these areas probably needs its own article, but what follows is a quick introduction to my ideas around hit points and healing.

Hit points and Bloodied
Hit points should be regarded as the fourth defense and doing so gives each ability a defensive purpose. From a flavor perspective, the loss of hit points can represent a range of different things from getting winded, scrapes, bruises, cuts, or even just the loss of momentum; all very much temporary. When inflicted they certainly matter, but once battle ends, you are most of the way back to full form.

Hit points are equal to vitality score + some amount from race + 5 per level (including first level). If people are inclined to roll for HP, d8 (reroll all 1s) and 2d4 both average to 5. The d8 method introduces more variability with each result 2-8 being equally likely while the 2d4 method has a much tighter variance while still allowing for some differences among characters. Additional variability amongst characters is introduced through stock skills which provide additional hit points in different ways. The Barbarian gets +5 hp (and +10 every time it is subsequently taken), the fighter gets additional HP equal to fighter prowess (so starts slow and builds), the knight gets +2 hp and a surge, etc. Since each class has its own approach and each character will accrue his or her own blend of HP granting stocks (even including foregoing them), there will be a lot of variety in HP.

Characters have a bloodied value equal to one half their hit point total (round down). When hit points are reduced to or below the bloodied value, the character gains the Bloodied condition. Some higher level healing powers are triggered upon becoming Bloodied such that it doesn’t require the expenditure of an action.

Surges and Healing
All characters begin with three surges but there are many ways to gain more through class powers. In addition, each character has a surge value equal to Vitality. There are many ways to increase the surge value through class powers. Many powers allow a character to spend a surge to regain HP equal to the surge value.

This surge value is substantially lower than in 4e and for good purpose. One of the things that bogged 4e down (and, to a lesser extent, 3e) is the abundance of healing. If we look at the history of D&D healing has always been an issue. In 2e, healing is all the cleric did and many saw the class as a punishment. In 3e, clerics could do more, but healing still chewed up a lot of actions during combat and that was seen as boring. In 4e, healing became ancillary to an action; you attack and help an ally heal. A simpler solution is to just reduce the need for healing during combat by (a) making it less attractive by healing smaller amounts, (b) letting important healing trigger when appropriate, and (c) adjusting the math to make it all work. We still want healing. Healing smooths out fluke die rolls that get a character in trouble; we just don’t want it to become a required part of the strategy when it isn’t that fun and causes already long combats to get even longer.

Healing is often triggered but it can also be actively pursued. Some classes are better healers than others and it might be worth spending the action to return, say 2x surge value. Other healing comes in the form of small amounts of temporary hit points gained each turn to offset damage or its equivalent. There will still be healing and different classes will pursue it in different ways.

The second big change is that you only have three surges to start. One of 4e’s design flaws (again, IMO) is that it presumed resource management over unrealistic time scales. The 4e healing surge model intended you to use some surges during combat and more outside of combat to heal back to full. But because you had access to all of your surges during combat, there was incentive to find mechanisms to spend them all in one go. After all, healing surges are a resource and the more resources we can spend in a finite amount of time, the more power we probably manifest during that same span of time. Of course, this also meant that there were no surges left to heal once combat was done, thereby necessitating a rest. Hark, the 15-minute adventuring day is born!

Characters receive only three surges and all HP return to full after the encounter ends (or after a short rest or whatever). This plays how 4e was intended to play. You have a handful of resources to power things during combat and you heal to full when combat is done so that you enter the next combat refreshed. It is just less exploitable.

Wounds and Damage Threshold
Larger injuries are represented by a wound (although the existence of a wound in the game sense doesn’t mandate the existence of an injury in the role play sense). Wounds are a bigger deal and do not heal normally. Wounds heal during downtime (usually longer than can be taken mid-adventure), from magic, or from higher level class powers.

Wounds are intentionally harsh. When a wound is suffered, the character immediately loses a surge. If possible, the surge may be spent instead of being lost, typically through a triggered healing power. Wounds also reduce your maximum surges, so that if you rest you will regain your normal maximum number of surges less your number of wounds. If a wound reduces a character’s maximum surges to zero, the character enters death throes (basically dies next turn unless something big happens).

Wounds are commonly suffered in two ways:
  • Failing a dying saving throw (unconscious from negative HP)
  • Taking damage from a single source that exceeds your damage threshold

The damage threshold is equal to 5 + Vitality + Character Level + a host of modifiers gained throughout play. As a result, throughout play, the damage threshold is mostly only triggered by big hits from higher level monsters/solos or critical hits. However, when Bloodied, you stop adding character level to your damage threshold. Once this happens, a big hit from a level appropriate monster might trip the damage threshold and deal a wound. The result is that a new point of tension is created not around 0 hp but around ½ hp. Players are incented to get their bloodied character to safety because hits can deal wounds and wounds reduce your effectiveness in subsequent fights. This is better than tension around 0 hp because that tension is swingy—if it goes wrong, suddenly you lost combatants and the only way to save them is to spend *more* actions dragging them to safety. The primary economy of combat is actions and so having to drag a fallen companion to safety (two sets of actions) is just too costly. Moving the tension up to ½ hp means that when things go wrong you are losing much less.

As a double perk, since monsters can also suffer wounds, the tension exists for them as well at ½ HP. Monsters also have fewer wounds in general, which gives players more and more exciting routes to defeat opponents other than the grind of chopping away on the HP of a monster that you know you already defeated. There is actually a lot more to say about wounds with regards to monsters that will have to wait for its own article.


  1. With regards to rolling HP, I have one word: don't. It really adds nothing to the game, other than to make characters unbalanced with one another. It doesn't add realism (since HP is largely a meta game mechanic in D&D), it doesn't add any sort of strategic depth (you take what you get), and it doesn't add fun. The only reason I can legitimately see for rolling for HP is for nostalgia's sake, and I think that is (if you'll excuse my crudity) a piss-poor reason for including anything as a mechanic.

    As far as your wound mechanics go, I like it-it provides impetus to keep people above bloodied without being too punishing. I myself was considering implementing a damage threshold in my game=fortitude defense, with damage above that resulting in wounds that would be treated along the lines of 4e diseases (get better or worse with time based on saves or heal checks).

  2. I agree with regards to hit point rolling but tossed those routes in there because (a) people tend to like nostalgia, (b) its simple enough, and (c) I've been noticing a trend on message boards that people really felt the "customizability" of 2e and earlier was a design feature. When pressed, they point out little things like the HP options I detailed above.

    The reason I dislike rolling is that it mostly serves to disappoint players. If you roll low, you are mad and have an incentive to let your character die because you could recreate the *exact* character, just be slightly better. If you roll high, you are no better off because you already didn't want to die...

    There is some more interesting stuff to come on the wound mechanic, hopefully I can keep vetting it out and show that it does some neat stuff.

  3. What is your target for the frequency of active healing? Meaning how often do you expect a healing character to heal in combat? Once per encounter? More or less?

    Secondly, you mentioned temporary hit points. I just wanted to point out that I really dislike temp. HP that can be easily refreshed. Maybe it is just me, but the flickering up and down drives me crazy. Though I think I may just have to use another way to track it, like using poker chips instead of pencil and eraser.

    Last, I agree that random character generation (such as rolling HP) does not add to the game. You could keep it in as an optional rule for other groups however.

  4. My thoughts on healing are moving around a bit right now. I am leaning towards giving all characters a "second wind" type power useable once per combat and then most having triggered healing available at mid to later levels in the class. By triggered healing, I mean a power that does something like, "Upon becoming bloodied, spend a surge to heal X hit points." It would be quick to apply.

    What I really want, though, is for people to heal less. Being able to heal 1/2 your total HP or more in a round with the help of an ally makes taking damage less... damaging.

    I think there will be access to larger healing but access won't be automatic. What I realized is that some classes need to be able to transfer resources to other classes or else those classes have to step up into melee. Since I want people to be able to play the mage that hides in the background, we need some way for the mage to transfer the HP that ought to be soaking up damage to other characters.

    Finally with regards to temp HP, I agree with your argument. I don't like making people mess around with anything little because there is already a lot going on. What I like about temp HP is that they are a 1/rnd savings. Unlike DR, temp HP basically only help you out against the first hit and then are wasted if you aren't hit (most of the temp HP I've planned so far are small amounts each round).

    I like the math side but I'm still fiddling with how it actually plays. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated.

  5. I believe you mentioned in a previous post that you wanted to have the 4 archetypes.
    Would that make the healer/cleric role more of a buffer (increasing to-hit, defenses, etc)?