Killing blow

A discussion (in italian) on Fantasika’s facebook page and a Youtube video from Matt Colville intrigued me: the concept of hit points is different from gamer to gamer, as their loss is seen as physical wounds on the body or as the character being progressively more tired or just less able to avoid being killed.

What’s the most effective solution? Let’s proceed on a path!

What do the rules say?

Well, what rules? D&D exixts from a long time.

In the past there was Chainmail and there was no mention of hp: it was a skirmish and hits just removed miniatures.

Straight to BECMI we find an easy definition: hps are the amount of damage a creature can sustain before being killed – the more hps, the harder the kill.

With AD&D there is more specificity – after a while they noticed that being hit by a sword should kill someone, probably, so they wrote something more specific: hit points represent the ability to withstand damage and a mix of luck, skill, magic and supernatural strength that allows heroes to avoid damage. In second edition it’s specified that to let heroes be heroes without complicated rules, hit points are an abstraction that represent the difficulty of being defeated.

With the third edition there are less specifications: they are the ability to sustain and reduce damage.

Fourth edition gives the same descriptio of skill and luck, introducing also a mechanical aspect: the bloodied status, given to any creature with less than half of its hit points, which can trigger other interesting mechanics.

I liked the bloodied concept and I see many DMs use it to send informations to players.

Deborah Ann Wolf using bloodied status in a description
«He looks pretty… bloodied, to use a 4e term»
–D.A.Woll, Relics & Rarities episode 2, The trail of the hidden ones–

Finally, fifth edition goes back to previous editions with the luck&skill definition, underlining that losing hit points doesn’t hinder a character nor reduces effectiveness.

Actually, looking in a tiny little box in the Appendix A, there are special damages that decrease a character’s effectiveness and stack up with more and more penalities: these are the mechanic of exhaustion and they are so similar to wound mechanics of other games like Exalted.

And this thing is, in my opinion, something to use.

How can I display attacks and damage effectively in combat?

A loss of hit points doesn’t maim, so, in theory, it would be wrong to describe a hit in that way: the cut of a sword would debilitate the character, so let’s avoid that thing.

Colville’s idea is good: asking “that blow would have killed an elephant, how did your character survive?” is a good practice, because it gives the player to use a stunt defensively – I wrote an italian article about stunts, if you want a translation feel free to ask.

As a DM I keep using stuff from 4e like the bloodied status: you can use the papercut trope to represent that the characters are overcoming the impenetrable defenses of the villain.

Papercut from TvTropes
That cut means something!

And if I’m looking for a grim and darker mood, I use a little houserule: critical hits, getting to 0hp, or failing a death save inflicts a level of exhaustion and the first successful death save restores the character at 1hp. Exhaustion ramps up and the players can feel a death spiral taking grip over the characters.

The game becomes more lethal and it’s easier, even at high level, to feel that death is just six levels of exhaustion away.

…how about out of combat?

For some non combat encounters, sometimes, hit points represent an obstacle. Even at mid level a good ol’ poisoned meal is not effective, neutralizing a lot of material, scenes and plots from a thousand novels, movies, anime and so on. I mean, the most powerful poison of the DMG inflicts ad average of 42 damage which, at tier 4, are considered a minor setback – it’s just not really interesting.

And here comes a new challenger: exhaustion.

If you are clear with your players about the kind of scene you are playing and that because of that there can be poisons and attacks dealing 1d6/2d4 levels of exhaustion, scenes can become extremely dangerous, with a Game of Thrones twist.

The point of this is not to trivialize combat but to make the story interesting: if it can spice up the scene, you can work on this kind of moments with the right mood&feel.

So, what should I use?

There isn’t a single always good solution: the important thing is learning to ask ourselves the right questions.

If the young assassin gets inside the bedroom of the sleeping tyrant, should he roll damage? He can’t possibly kill the man outright and this wouldn’t be realistic, right?


Nope! That’s the point: don’t ask “would this be realistic?”! Ask “would this keep the story moving?“!

If the killing is important and has meaningful consequences but failure is possible and would lead to an interesting setup, let’s say that the tyrant gets stabbed for 2d4 levels of exhaustion.

If the tyrant is a coldblooded warrior always paranoic and ready and the killing isn’t carefully planned, keep the standard hit points mechanic.

If a possible failure would not be relevant, just go with a stealth check to slice the throat of the tyrant.

I mean, dice should be rolled when result is unknown and there are risks and consequences: the DM should rule out the correct behaviour depending on the story the group is weaving – if you know what you are playing you start playing it right.

What happens to your character when he “loses 18 hps”?