Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Old RPG Words That Make No Sense

Progress in RPG design and play is held back by the words we use that don't make any sense.

Hit Points.

So many RPGs have some version of "hit points" whether it's called hits, hit points, health, vitality, or whatever, it is expressed as a representation of how much damage a character can take. Video games have copied this idea for years, and you see your little digital bonhomme getting wailed on while a bar or a number  of hit points gets smaller. Why not? It's there in the name, right? Hit points, those are points you use up getting hit, right?

Someone is hoping the undead giant is almost out of hit points

Except it's not right. Not really. Hit points have almost always been an abstraction expressing something else entirely. I've talked about the problem of damage before, but in terms of Dungeons & Dragons and many games using hit points, there is no damage until the hit points are gone. Hit points represent the ability of a character to postpone the inevitable through skill, experience, luck, or script immunity. They represent an ability for a hero to keep fighting when everyone else would be done. They are more a measure of endurance than damage capacity.

This idea is further confused by the old-school rates of healing where characters only got one hit point back per day of resting. Something ridiculous when characters can easily get to a place where they have 20 or 30 hit points. If they are healing, then they must have been hurt, right? Except that is not how it works. A character is just as effective at one hit point as they are at full hit points. Because they are not hurt unless they are at zero! In the old days if your character went below zero they were dead! Not just wounded, but killed. Luck finally caught up with them and took her due. It wasn't long before rules developed for going into negatives where a risk was involved, but not immediate death.

Fast forward to the last few years. Two different innovations double down on the idea of hit points as an abstract that expresses endurance. The first is the death and dismemberment tables that came out of the Old School Renaissance (OSR) Blogs. The idea was if your character went below zero hit points they had been wounded and could be badly hurt or even dead. Rolling on the tables got you a result that your character had to live with. Maybe they lost a limb, or an eye, and it had ongoing mechanical effect on the character. After a while they could look pretty rough. Eventually a character could even be forced into retirement by accumulating too many, "old war wounds." I'm a big fan of the death and dismemberment tables. Partially because they reinforce the concept of how things work, but also because they add a real element of risk to fighting to your last. Players with characters who can be brought around in a moment to fighting condition with no consequence are not going to have any good reason to surrender, if there is no consequence to negative hit points. The idea that the table might give them a reason to play as if getting wounded is something to be afraid of encourages more realistic role playing.

Oops! You interrupted her short rest.
What's the worst that could happen?

The other innovation is the idea of short and long rests. I think the first game I saw this idea in was Barbarians of Lemuria, where a few hit points could be recovered by taking a breather and a quick drink and full recovery required night's rest. This same approach made it into a few different small press games, and the latest edition (the so-called 5th edition) of D&D. By explicitly recovering hit points through short and long rests the D&D, and any other RPG, rules are making hit points endurance. There is nothing wrong with this approach. I like it. It's cinematic and makes for high-speed pulp-fiction action! That's all great! It allows players to accomplish more by giving them more significant choices about how they use the two resources they have, time and hit points.

The problem is the thing is still called, "hit points," and we generate them by rolling, "hit dice," when these two things are expressions of endurance. It doesn't really matter where the name hit point came from. It may be a hold-over from the war games the designers of the early versions of D&D were playing and using to inform their first RPGs. Maybe someone thought it sounded cool. The fact is, it doesn't fit and is actually misleading. All the grognards and legacy players are already composing their comments about how wrong I am and how the word doesn't matter because obviously we all know what it means.

Except we don't. Many players think the fast recovery of hit points through rest is unrealistic because you can't walk of a sword thrust to the abdomen. If we expressed it as endurance and described combat with point loss as close calls, bangs, jams, bruises, and numbness in the limbs it would be easier to get more people all in on the concept. The other problem is new players. RPGs have exploded, in no small part to the efforts of Wizards of the Coast to make D&D accessible and easy to grasp. Words like hit points get in the way of that because they suggest the character is getting hit when they lose hit points. Why set them up to fail? Why not call it what it is? Because of tradition? Meh, there are more new players now than ever before. Because someone can tell them? People are learning to play from the books and watching actual play on you tube. Terms matter in both of these cases because that is how the new players will interpret what is happening in the game. I'm not the first to come to this conclusion. The Neo-Classical Geek Revival (NGR) fantasy RPG has used the term "Luck" for these points for years.

Someone is rolling on the death and dismemberment table!

The waters are muddied further by the idea of weapon damage. When D&D was first created, almost everything on two legs had single digit hit points. Humans were all assumed to be zero level with, at most, three hit points. That means that first hit was probably taking them down. A dagger could do it, but a two-handed sword had a better chance of ending a generic cultist or town guard in one shot. Fighting fantastic monsters the assumption was they were magical or huge beasts that could actually be hit more than once with little effect. Calling it hit points under those circumstances could have made sense to the people running and playing those first games. It might even still make sense to call the ability of a dragon to keep fighting hit points now. I'll concede that point. Still, for the sake of having a consistent expression it is better to have magical creatures with endurance than characters with hit points for the reasons I outlined above.

So if a weapon doesn't do damage to a character, what does it do? The way I run it at my table is attacks remove hit points. no one takes damage until they go down. Monsters snarl in pain at flesh wounds, enemy shields buckle under the assault, or they are beaten back as they lose their hit points. I've run it like that for a couple of years now. For example, "Your shield arm is still vibrating from the blow and you lose (rattle-rattle) four hit points." It seems cleaner to move this to something like, "Sparks fly as the bugbear's axe crashes against your sword and you stumble back a step. You lose (rattle-rattle) 7 endurance."

It's visceral, it keeps everyone in the fiction, and it shows the player what they still have in the tank to finish the fight. Then they choose how far to take it. Can they push through and find a place to hole up for long enough to get their wind back? Has the alarm gone up and they are facing a running fight until they can win or get out? Endurance is no less exciting, or dangerous with the addition of a death and dismemberment table. It's also still all close enough that converting old modules and third party adventures on the fly should be no problem for a referee/game master.

I run a hugely modified version of the original Black Hack rules. I call the threat to endurance, "attack dice," and it seems to work well. The attack die represents the combat ability of a given character or monster when they attack. It's logical, accurate, and it works well in play. I like to run for new people and experienced players alike. Everyone seems to like it so far.

Belkar Bitterleaf, of the Order of the Stick

These old words, hit points, have the baggage of old assumptions based on their wargaming routes and new assumptions based on what the words mean. For ease of adoption of current gamers, the words are used. They are a short hand that no one will question. Because no one questions the short hard, the baggage follows us to new games that arguably, would be better off without them. There are a host of D&D clones and D&D-ish games out there thanks to the Open Gaming License. These new and different games all put some kind of a spin on the tabletop RPG experience. The publishers of D&D might fear losing their current base by changing too much, but small press publishers have more freedom to break new ground. That's why most of the best innovations in game mechanics, campaign settings and game art come from the small press publishers.

If we take advantage of this freedom, and we dump hit points, hit dice, and damage, what is next? What other words make no sense? Levels, maybe? There are character class levels, spell levels, dungeon levels... How many different things do we need to describe with the same word?

Character level seems sacrosanct. The concept of leveling up is ingrained in western culture thanks to video games borrowing their framework from D&D.  If characters get levels, then everything else needs to find a better word.

Dungeons could be described in terms of floors: Floor one, two, etc. That makes sense and translates well enough to real experience. I don't go to an office on the fifth level of the building, I go to the fifth floor. This seems easy enough to change and will not make it more confusing, at least.

When we talk about spells, we are talking about power. Each level a magic wielding character ascends gives them access to more spell casting power. If spells were described in terms of power, it would make more sense for a level five wizard to finally gain access to power three spells like fireball! Power one, power two... or is it first power spells, second power spells, etc? Regardless, power is a suitable replacement.

As designers and runners of games, many of us do our best to trim the fat of game mechanics so our games run fast and smooth. We should be doing the same with the terminology. If we don't we are leaving a barrier in place for no reason other than that's the way it has always been done without asking if it's the best way to do it.

I'll be trying these out in in my home game and any D&D type games I run online this summer. I'll see how it works out. If you try it, let me know how it works for you. Does it change anything?

I have the Warrior Princess Prestige Class so these arrows used up temporary hit points.
I'm still at full HP!