How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Love Hit Points

For all the controversy that Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition caused, it is that game that finally made me relax my attitude about hit points. Maybe I just hadn’t ever read any of the other definitions in any of the other games. When I consider all the game books that I’ve owned over the years, that couldn’t be possible…

Alright, it’s possible. I’ve had hundreds of books that I have never even cracked open. As well as hundreds of books that I’ve read with the mentality of “I’m a veteran gamer, I don’t need to read that.” A hit point is a wound level is a vitality point. It’s all the same.

Maybe I also fell victim to video games. When you reach zero hit points in The Bard’s Tale, your character is dead. Each time you get hit in Mortal Combat, the red bar goes down by a certain amount and when it is gone, game over.

If anything, it is a combination of all these things.

I do know that at a certain point I started to become uncomfortable with the ever increasing number that represents hit points in many of the games that I played from D&D to the many homebrews that my first GM ran for us. Why should a person be able to take more injuries as they rise in level? Why should a wizard be afraid of a dagger strike at first level but not at tenth. How does leveling up make injuries less important?

Then D&D 4th Edition came along to explain it to me. Hit points don’t actually represent the health of the character. That it represents being able to deal with dangerous situations. That in many ways, it is a pool of points that allows you to avoid danger. And this pool grows to represent your characters increasing ability to avoid injury, roll with the punches, and buy your way out of injury to stay in the game.

In D&D (and many games based on the same idea), your character’s armor class represents your natural ability to get out of the way as well as your armor’s ability to deflect a blow. When that fails, hit points allow you to buy off the hit. Your natural evasiveness (AC) wasn’t enough to avoid the ogre’s mace but, as a skilled warrior, you expend hit points to actively dodge out of the way or to roll with the blow so that you don’t have your chest caved it.

The rogue that misses the trap and steps on the pressure plate (fails the spot check and the Reflex save) spends hit points to be lucky enough to have the darts miss or to hear the mechanism and duck just in time.

So in 4th Ed., characters really only had 2 hit po…I mean wound levels, or levels of injury, or what have you. When your character had used up half of their hit points, they took their first injury and became bloodied. Then when they used up the rest of it, the character dropped. They were spent. All out of tricks.┬áThat next strike would incapacitate or kill them.

It takes a real shift in perspective to think of hit points this way. I hope I get there some day. Even though D&D 5th Edition defines hit points in the same way, I still describe the loss of hit points in my current campaign this way.