Hit Points, Health, and Life Total
What are hit points?
Hit points measure the health and toughness of a character in numbers. Whenever a character takes damage in the story, their hit points are reduced by the amount of damage. For example, if a character with 10 hit points is being bitten by a giant rat which causes 3 points of damage, the character has 7 hit points left. Depending on the system you’re playing, hit points are also called health, health points, life points, or life total. At zero or fewer hit points a character falls unconscious or gets into a critical condition.
How hit points work
Hit points are a benchmark to show how much damage a character or monster can take before falling unconscious. Then they can no longer participate in the story until they are healed. If the number of hit points ever goes below zero, the character enters a dying state. Without immediate help, they might perish and be removed from the story entirely.
A high number of hit points indicates that the character or monster is very experienced and dangerous in combat. In most RPG systems, the hit point total increases with a level-up, which resembles fighting expertise and improved stamina. This explains why a veteran knight has considerably more hit points than his young squire. Similarly, a giant dragon will have a significantly higher number of hit points than a tiny snake or rabbit.
The difference between hit points, life total, and damage points
Hit points, health points, and life total are the most common synonyms for measuring a character’s health. Damage points reflect the amount of harm inflicted on a character by an opponent’s attack, a trap, or any other kind of accident. Damage points are deducted from the hit points. As long as the hit point total is higher than zero, the character can still act.
Armor can protect a character from damage. Armor points are a fixed value which either makes it harder for the opponent to hit a player character or it reduces the damage points by this fixed value. We’ll cover armor in more detail below.
Here is an example:
The valiant Sir Cerwyn (a player character) is facing a wretched ghoul in combat. The ghoul’s claws hit for 5 points of damage. Sir Cerwyn has a total of 18 hit points and is wearing chainmail armor, which provides a protection of 3 points of armor. The armor points reduce the attack’s damage from 5 to 2. Consequently, Sir Cerwyn’s hit points are reduced by 2 points of damage down to 16.
Healing, treating wounds, and resting – regaining hit points
There are different ways to regain lost hit points. Resting is the easiest option. To do so, the players set up camp in a safe spot, eat a meal, and sleep for several hours. Resting only regains a few hit points (usually 10-20%). A more effective way is to have a healer or cleric treat the wounds of your character, either by applying bandages, using healing potions, or casting healing spells.
Some of these methods to heal wounds seem a bit unrealistic. Recovering from deep gashes and broken ribs during a few hours of sleep would never work in reality. But it makes it easy to have a character return from the sidelines into play without having a player wait a long time. That’s why these healing mechanics are widely accepted.
Armor can save lives
When talking about hit points, we also have to mention mechanics for wearing armor. There are two common rule systems for how armor works:
a) Armor points reduce the amount of damage inflicted on a character
The better the armor you’re wearing, the more armor points it has. For example, a shark bite causes 7 points of damage and a character wears chainmail that provides 3 points of armor, so the damage would be reduced from 7 points to 4 points.
b) Armor points reduce the chance of being hit in combat
The better the armor you’re wearing, the harder it is for your opponent to inflict damage to you at all. Let’s say your opponent has a 50% chance of hitting you while you’re not wearing armor. With a coat of chainmail, this percentage would be reduced to a 35% chance.
Heavy armor usually comes with the drawback of limiting a character’s mobility. This results in penalties for the corresponding dice rolls. It’s pretty hard to swim, climb, or run fast while wearing plate armor.
Hit points are commonly used in 95% of all roleplaying games
These hit points mechanics have become so common, nearly all roleplaying games, both tabletop and video games, use them. Their origin dates back to the start of Dungeons & Dragons back in 1974. And they are still the number one rules system for handling health and damage.
The reason why these rules are so popular is that they are super easy to use, both for game designers and players. You don’t have to care about how many times you’ve been hit or which kind of weapon or spell caused the damage. The type of wound, whether it’s broken bones or internal bleeding, also does not matter. It’s just adding and subtracting numbers. The simplicity of this system ensures that the rules are not bogging down the flow of the story.
A safety net for the player characters
Hit points are a clear signal showing what state the player characters are in and how much damage they could still take before going down. This also helps the GM decide if they should increase the danger and throw in more opponents or not. In some cases, it makes sense to skip a spear trap even though you planned for it, or have the players find a healing potion in a treasure chest. Getting the player characters into serious danger to increase tension is totally ok. But having a player character die by accident can be frustrating to the players. That’s why hit points can be really helpful.
Here’s an idea to increase the tension a bit: Have the GM track the hit points for the player characters secretly without the players knowing the exact numbers. Instead of talking numbers, the GM only narrates the health condition of the characters to the players.
Hit points show how deadly a system is
Compare the hit points of your characters with the average damage dealt by a blow in combat. Then you get a good idea of how deadly an RPG system is. Does it take 10 wounds for a character to fall unconscious or only 2? In epic fantasy systems, the player characters can usually take many blows before going down. In darker settings such as cyberpunk or horror games, it might only take a hit or two until they bite the dust. This affects both the tone of the setting and also the length of combat scenes. If you can take a few blows without dire consequences, you won’t shy away from a fight. If every combat could be your last one, you’d rather avoid fights.
Here are two examples:
a) In Dungeons & Dragons, a Level 3 fighter has approx. 25 hit points and the average damage per hit takes is around 4 points.
b) in Cthulhu any character has around 10 hit points and getting hit by a bullet causes around 8 points of damage.
Some criticism about the hit points system
With the rise of more narration-focused RPGs and indie systems, hit points sometimes seem a bit outdated. They may be very simple to handle, but gaining and losing hit points often has no big impact on the story. Characters who are severely wounded (e.g. 5 out of 100 hit points) are still able to fight and move around just like any unharmed character. Additionally, the wide availability of magical healing takes away a lot of risk and tension from a combat situation.
Both points are signals for combat-heavy roleplaying games, where there are many fight scenes and little risk of losing a character. This can also encourage players to see combat as the preferable solution for most conflicts, leaving less room for alternative story approaches such as diplomacy or stealth.
Hit points might occasionally even hinder immersion. If you see your character and their opponents as a set of figures, you might want to calculate your chance for success, leaning more towards a tactical play style than a narrative one. There’s nothing to be said against having fun with tactical games. But if you’d like to go toward a more narration-focused game, you might want to look for different mechanics than using hit points.
Alternative mechanics for wounds and damage
With the increased popularity of new RPG systems aside from D&D, a lot of new mechanics for handling damage and wounds have been developed over the last few years. Here are a few noteworthy examples.
1. Fate: Stress and consequences
The Fate system uses a stress track for handling physical, mental, and emotional damage to a character. If a certain threshold is reached, too much stress results in consequences. The player and the GM both have a say in what these consequences look like. Whenever the consequences are relevant in the story, the GM gets to use them as a hindrance for the character. For example, nyctophobia (fear of the dark) could be a consequence of suffering too much mental stress. Whenever the character finds themselves in pitch-black darkness, the GM could trigger this aspect of the character. The goal here is not to punish the player with a penalty, but to use these consequences as an additional plot hook.
2. Middle Earth RPG / Warhammer Fantasy RPG: Gory wounds
In these two RPG systems very high attack rolls result in extremely severe wounds coming with very graphic descriptions. This can go from a broken hip to severe organ damage and even cut off limbs resulting in the immediate death of a character. This really increases the tension during combat scenes, knowing that every fight could by the player characters’ last one. The gory description texts are not for the faint of heart. It shows combats as what they really are – brutal and deadly.
3. Indie systems: Wounds as plot hooks
A lot of indie systems don’t track hit points at tall. Instead, the GM and the players just note down that a character has been wounded. And at a later stage of the game, you use this information as a plot hook. Does someone have a sprained ankle? Then they will be in great danger during a chase. Or maybe a compassionate NPC will offer them help. This kind of mechanic for handling damage and health moves the focus from tactical gaming to a more narration-centered play style.
Further reading on hit points
Get rid of hit points?
A critical view on the development and current use of hit point mechanics from the Youtube tabletop RPG channel Dungeon Craft.
Are Hit Points Outdated?
Taking20, a channel focused on D&D, discusses whether using hit points is still state-of-the-art and what drawbacks this mechanic has.