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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The "Real" Meaning of Hit Points?

We've talked about hit points before, many times. Everyone has. I'm not about to go over that ground again, or start (another) debate about which is better, hit points as luck or hit points as damage resistance. Let's just assume that some people treated it one way and some treated it the other way. And Gygax seemed to be more on the luck side from the start, but that means nothing: we all disagree with Gygax on at least one point.

But here's a thought that occurred to me in the middle of a debate about whether a one-minute combat turn should be subdivided into individual rounds or phases. As you may know, the Holmes Basic book uses six-second combat rounds. This seem to be derived from combining the Chainmail one-minute combat turn (which contains a number of mêlée rounds) with the comment in U&WA about "ten rounds of combat per turn", which many other people interpret as ten one-minute rounds per ten-minute exploration turn.

But think about this: we know the one-minute D&D round interpretation is supposed to include multiple attacks, feints, parries, blocks, and maneuvers, resolved with a single die roll (by those of us who are more abstract) or ten die rolls (by those who prefer one roll per action.) We know also that, in Chainmail, one hit equals one kill, in contrast to D&D with its 1d6 damage rolls (later changed to different damage ranges based on weapon.)

Maybe the damage roll is not the strength of the blow, but how many six-second mêlée phases involved actual attacks, as opposed to feints or defensive maneuvers? Assume that in one minute, whoever wins initiative gets one six-second action, then the other side gets a six-second action, and so on, alternating, Thus, the person who goes first gets attacks or feints on odd-numbered phases (1, 3, 5, 7, 9) and the person who goes second gets attacks/feints on even numbered phases. A roll of 1 means only one of your attacks was "real", the rest were feints or were meant to wear down your opponent as you looked for an opening; a 5 means you were ferocious, battering your opponent repeatedly; a 6 means you were so aggressive, you snuck in an extra attack, perhaps as part of a riposte. Hit points would thus be how many last-minute dodges and parries the combatant has in reserve; combatants are assumed to be dodging, blocking, and parrying all the time, but sometimes a defender knows "I almost died just then, but I just barely escaped with a scratch."

The benefit of this interpretation is that it adds more detail to one-roll-per-minute combat without adding extra rolls. The fighter engages in combat with a goblin. The fighter has 4 hp and the goblin has 3 hp. The fighter goes first, succeeds on the attack roll, rolls a 2 on 1d6; this translates into something like "feint, thrust, feint, thrust, feint". The goblin's attack roll also succeeds, but the damage roll is a mere 1, which means mostly feinting or recovering and only one major blow. Neither combatant is dead, so the GM could describe the round this way: "Bob and the goblin exchange a couple swipes, then Bob makes a stab at the goblin's heart, which just misses, grazing its ribs instead. The goblin throws a half-hearted slash at Bob's head to buy some time, but Bob keeps pressing him. Then, the goblin makes an unexpected chop at Bob's head, which Bob just barely blocks with his shield; Bob tries to hack off the goblin's arm for that affront and almost succeeds; they circle each other warily for the rest of the round."

You don't have to literally assign each blow to a specific numbered combat phase, or interleave attacks in such a rigid manner; I just did that for the example, to show how you could describe two good blows by the fighter versus one good blow by the goblin, instead of just describing one blow each.


  1. D&D woolgathering yields lovely sweater-vest. Very nice :)

  2. Nifty for straight-up always-d6 damage, but kind of falls apart with variable damage. What implication beyond just flavor would this have? The more damage you deal the more fatigue you are at risk for?

    1. @Roger: Actually, I think it works OK for variable damage, but the damage roll indicates both the number of hits and relative strength of the blow. Divide any damage greater than 6 by 2, damage greater than 12 by 3, and so on, to get the number of successful strikes; for 2d6 or 3d6, just use the highest individual die as the number of strike. Aplly the full damage agaist hit points in either case.

      It might be worth it to redefine variable weapon damage so that heavier weapons do multiple d4s instead of d6s: change 2d6 to 3d4, for example. That way, heavy weapons strike fewer times, but do more damage. Fast, deadly weapons would do 1d8, 1d10, or 1d12.

  3. This is great! I want a sweater-vest now! Kudos.


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  5. the Holmes Basic book uses six-second combat rounds

    Minor point: Holmes actually uses 10-sec combat rounds (pg 9), though the practical significance of the difference is nil. The 10-sec round may derive from the Warlock (CalTech) D&D Supplement (1975) that Holmes was familiar with, which uses 6 "phases" of 10 sec per turn. Holmes has 10 of these rounds per combat turn, which seems like a hybrid of the Warlock 10 sec phase and the OD&D 10 rounds/turn. Another pre-Holmes use of 10 sec rounds is Metamorphosis Alpha (1976).

    None of this goes against your idea here, which is a very interesting, and ultimately practical, way of describing abstract damage.