Hit Point Systems

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The hit point systems in most games are crude, mostly meant to be easily integrated into the rest of the game system. A good hit point system needs to have a balance between what can work with the game system, what feels realistic, and what is fun.

Character hit points simply being portrayed as a number allows for no detailed damage description, makes the interpretation of what those points represent difficult to explain, makes healing easy albeit unrealistic, and doesn’t allow combat attacks to be fun since the attack translates into only a number.

Many video games use a hit point system to manage character health. Once the character’s hit points reach zero, they die, as seen with, for example, Dungeons & Dragons character hit points. Sometimes these hit points are represented with hearts or other art that doesn’t resemble numbers, but these are merely different representations of the same system.

Some games use a life system, giving the character a single hit point, but allowing the player to play the character again after death for a set number of times, as seen in the video game Mario Brothers.

The Mario Brothers life system is an endless battle in Valhalla for the player or a Hades-style punishment for Mario, repeating the same level forever. Life systems never made sense to me in gaming since the whole dread of death, the very power that surrounds it, is its permanence and irreversibility. The origin of the lives hit point system is actually more abstract—it was made to give a player three tries, per quarter spent, to see how far he or she could get in an endless game. The players hoped to get a high enough score to be placed on the arcade game’s top score list. Since arcade games are less popular now and console games don’t require quarters, the life system is used less, replaced by a D&D-style hit point system.

The D&D-style hit point system can often become a battle of number attrition: weapon attacks, magic missiles, and fire balls are all mostly numbered hit point subtractions. Hit point systems lack a description of damage. In video games, there is a health bar that gives the player an indication of health, but in role-playing games there isn’t any indication; usually the monster’s and other character’s hit points remain secret. This can leave players guessing as the status of the combat. Often I have seen players searching their character sheets every round for something to change the flow of combat. The White Wolf system has only a few hit points and a description of each character’s wound state, which could easily indicate the health status of a character. An optional rule for some role-playing games is the use of critical hit cards, only used when an attack is especially great. These cards provide story flavor and damage descriptions for a combat attack.

D&D in its 3rd edition introduced a nonlethal addition to its hit point system. Nonlethal damage accumulates and when the character’s current hit points minus the nonlethal damage equals zero, the character goes unconscious instead of dying. This was probably introduced because Shadowrun’s stun and health systems became popular. This does offer a bit of realism to combat, as there weren’t many rules for knocking someone unconscious or subduing them.

The downside to the Shadowrun and White Wolf health systems is the negative modifiers. Unlike other hit point systems, these games will give a character more negatives to their action rolls with the more damage they take. While this is realistic, it isn’t fun. Many players “accidently” forget to add the negative modifiers to their dice rolls and some groups do a house rule that throws out the negative modifiers all together.

Another problem with hit points is deciphering the mystery of what these points translate to mean in reality. The accepted interpretation is that they are a combination of a character’s ability to evade life-threatening blows and minimize them into smaller wounds, and the combination of wounds eventually kills the character. The older Star Wars role-playing game used a two-hit point system: vitality points acted as the character’s ability to evade significant damage and body wound hit points were received after the vitality points reached zero. The downside to this system is that it doesn’t provide a way to use nonlethal damage.

All of the above hit point systems have unrealistic healing. Magical healing is so widely used now it’s expected by players, mostly because it is more fun to drink something and get back into the action rather than wait for a month of rehabilitation to enter into another life-threatening combat.

Cyber Run Health System

Cyber Run is a table-top science fiction RPG set in the future. We didn’t remove numbers from the health point system, but tried to reinterpret them differently to find a better balance between what is real and fun.

What Hit Points Represent

Character hit points represent how many wounds a location of the body can take before it is unusable and life-threatening.

How Damage is Described

All damage is assigned to a location on the body; critical hits and special damage types add greater detail.

Managing Subdue Damage

Subduing characters is based on their energy, or vitality points. Once the character has reached zero vitality points they no longer receive any combat bonuses. Negative vitality points will eventually make the character pass out.

Slightly More Realistic Healing

Wounds can be treated and healed with futuristic medicine relatively quickly. A disabled body part requires surgery and recuperation time. The character could enter combat again with a limp or an arm in a sling.

The Mental Side of Combat

We provide two measures to represent the mental challenges of combat. Positive Morale points give a character a bonus to combat attacks. Negative Morale points give them an overwhelming compulsion to run. Sanity wounds can occur during combat for someone who is not hardened to violence; enough sanity wounds and a character will break down and run away from combat.

  • 09/04/15

About Atticus Evil

Lead Game Designer for Cyber Run a Science Fiction RPG.
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