You’re probably playing D&D wrong: hit points and Armor Class edition. (2/3)

As I mentioned in my last post, you’re probably playing D&D wrong. Let’s talk about what the fuck a hit point is, aside from an abstract unit that measures how close a character is to beating an expeditious retreat and/or rolling 3d6 down the line.

First: hit points are not meat points. They kind of are, but they’re not really. Bigger creatures tend to have more hit points, but that’s because bigger creatures are more dangerous. I’m sure you’ve heard the somewhat worn phrase that “hit points are a combination of stamina, endurance, morale, luck,” and blah-blah-blah. In the end, hit points are not-dying points. From an in-character perspective, hit points are the capacity to defend yourself in combat, turning potentially lethal blows into less-than-lethal blows. Why does 10 damage kill a first level fighter but not an eighth-level fighter? That eighth-level fighter is way good at self-defense, that’s why. (Obligatory THAT’S MY PURSE reference.)

“But wait,” you cry, “isn’t that what his Armor Class is?” No, it’s not. I’ve written before about the Armor Save, but here’s the gist: in Chainmail (and Warhammer Fantasy Battle, and Warhammer 40,000), characters have one hit point. If they are hit, they die in a shower of gore and tragedy. If they are hit, there is a chance their armor might absorb the blow, which delays the inevitable blood spatter. Roll a die and maybe you live another day. In a game with tons of units with one hit point each, this is a good system. If ten units take hits, you roll 10d6 and count up the dice that are 4+ (or 5+ or 6+ or whatever) and those units stay on the board. Anything less gets removed. Easy peasy.

In D&D, it’s messier. There’s an attack roll, then a damage roll, then hit points, and somehow your armor is supposed to factor into that. So where the hell is the armor save? That is folded into Armor Class. Adding an additional roll would be cumbersome, so it’s easier to make it a number that makes it less likely for an attacker to hit. You could do armor as damage reduction, subtracting damage taken, but Armor Class reducing the likelihood of scoring a telling blow works as de facto damage reduction (e.g., if the chance to-hit drops from 60% to 40%, 1d10 damage drops from an average of 3.3 to 2.2 per round).

Telling blows, that’s another thing. When your attack roll pings off of Armor Class, you’re not actually missing your opponent. You could be, and Dexterity modifiers make that more likely, but it’s possible (probable) that your attack connected and the armor deflected/absorbed the intended disembowelment.

Since we’re already on the subject of hit points, let’s talk about healing. Healing is hard in D&D, at least without magic. You get 1 HP per day of rest, maybe twice that depending on your version of the rules. This has always knotted my britches because I loathe the concept of a healer and want to play without magical healing, damnit. That’s because I was playing D&D wrong. As I mentioned in my last mini-essay, everything in D&D is geared toward resource management. Hit points and spells and treasure are all resources in the game. You are frequently trading one resource for another.

Consider the following scenario:

You are missing five hit points. You want to restore these lost HPs. How do you regain them?

    1. The cleric casts a healing spell that heals 1d8+1 damage (costs a spell slot).
    2. You guzzle a healing potion that heals 1d8+1 damage (costs treasure and inventory).
    3. Natural healing (costs time and a teeny bit of money).

With all of these things, you’re making a sacrifice. The cleric will lose a spell slot, which will prevent him from casting a spell later. The healing potion costs treasure (which is XP in OD&D), and it takes up a slot in your inventory (which inadvertently costs treasure and XP because you can carry less out of the dungeon). The natural healing is the cheapest alternative, but you have to leave the dungeon to do it safely, and who knows what might happen while you spend the next week lounging around at the nearest inn (which costs gold, which means it costs XP). Kobolds are tricky buggers, and they might reset all their traps in the downtime, too. The dungeon isn’t going to stand still, waiting for you to loot it.

Some grumble that hit points aren’t realistic. They are correct. If you want realism, I suggest not playing a game designed around descending into dungeons and fighting dragons. In a game with realistic health and injury die when they fight dragons. Chesterton once said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” A fine quote, but a gigantic, fire-breathing, flying, intelligent lizard with a host of magical spells and natural armaments at its disposal does not go quietly into the night. A man stands with sword and shield before a dragon and he doesn’t walk away–not without some sort of supernatural assistance.

I digress slightly. The purpose of hit points is to provide a resource that is expended to avoid death. Think of hit points as a form of currency. The dungeon is a big casino, and you’re putting chips on the table. If you fall into a spike trap, you spend 1d6 chips to continue into the dungeon. If you don’t have the chips to spend, the casino boots you out (and puts you in a bodybag). When you collect your winnings, you cash them in and return to the casino, hoping to leave richer than you entered.