Alternative to Traditional Hit Point Systems Literature Review
By Scott Gladstein
English 102, Section FA09222
Professor Lynn Gelfand
On the subject of alternatives to hit points in contemporary games today the girth of information is decidedly small. There are very few academic sources that discuss the matter in any great detail and those sources that that do are very rarely creditable. The majority of the information on the subject is hidden away in the design documents of the games themselves- the exclusive prevue of the designers and their teams. More often than not one will find themselves wading through the games themselves to ascertain the mechanics used do decide mortality.
There are a vide verity of role-playing games on the market today. They range from multi million dollar game titles developed by major studios and sold in stores across the world to home brewed alternative rules written by amateurs and distributed on the internet in a peer-to-peer fashion. To get at the “guts” of a game though, it is easiest to look at pen and paper role-playing games. Their main selling point is normally the creative game mechanics they showcase so they are prime source materials when examining alternative to hit points in contemporary games. Most notable is Dungeons and Dragons. Dungeons and Dragons has been a staple in the pen and paper gaming community since its earliest editions and some credit it with maintaining the genre as a whole. More recently they have moved from their third edition line of rules (Cook, Tweet, & Williams, 2000) to their four edition of rules (Heinsoo, Collins & Wyatt, 2008). Dungeons and Dragons is very reliant on a traditional hit point system and when one talks about an alternative to a traditional hit point system they are generally comparing it to Dungeons and Dragons. The most popular franchise that uses a hit point system that is outside the mainstream is Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 franchise which is now in its fifth edition (Priestley & Chambers 2008). They utilize a distinctive “wound” system in their table top rules and is generally considered to be an effective substitute especially when dealing with a lot of things getting attack simultaneously (such as in a war). Also of note was the Eldritch RPG (Cross & Petras 2008) system which uses a “defense pool” system that unfortunately does not receive a lot of attention in the market because of the small scale distribution of the game.
When looking into a subject like this, the sources are not always recent. Digging in the past presents a good deal of alternatives to contemporary games. Seeing where the mechanics came from is a great place to get ideas about where to go with them in the future. In particular there was an interview with one of the Dungeons and Dragons early mechanical designers, Dave Arneson, conducted by GameSpy (Rausch, 2004) which provided a historical context that framed the development of hit points very well. Likewise there was an RPGNet interview with Gary Gygax (Lynch, 2001) that shed a good deal of light on the subject matter as well. Even though a they didn’t directly address the topic of mechanics design directly, the context of which the design took place was enough to discern information about how they designed it and what they had in mind when they did.
While not on par with an interview with the father of role playing game, several other sources gave interesting viewpoints on the subject of traditional hit points and their alternatives. An article on TechRadar by game critic Luis Villazon (2009) highlighted hit points specifically and described them as “a weird leftover from 80s games”. He is a distinguished critic and has written in several different magazines so it was a rare treat to find a citable critique of contemporary hit points. Another critic, Ben Croshaw (who is made famous by the “Zero Punctuation” web show) constantly stands in opposition of the overuse of traditional mechanics. Particularly in his most recent review of the most recent Wolfenstein game (Croshaw, 2009) he discusses the overuse of the “regenerating health” mechanic that a lot of contemporary designers use in first person shooter games to retain the familiarity that traditional hit points have with their target demographic.
Interestingly enough a lot of factual support for the success of traditional hit point systems comes from the financial records of some of the industry’s top companies. The best example was the financial success of SquareEnix in their first half financial results (Wada, 2009) when you compare it to the annual report by Games Workshop in 2009 (Games Workshop Group PLC, 2009). Despite the economic downturn in the United States Games Workshop has had increasing success across the board while SquareEnix has been impacted negatively over the last few years. Games Workshop is a company who’s mechanics tend to embrace alternative systems for hit points while SquareEnix is another company that is heavily reliant on traditional hit point systems (Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Dragon Quest, ect). While a game company’s choice of hit point mechanics is hardly a major factor in their financial situation, the focal point of Games Workshop (primarily a table top games company) is more reliant on good game mechanics than a company like SquareEnix (primary a merchandising and story based video game company). This is reflected not only in the future plans of the companies as described in the reports mentioned before but in their corporate profiles. (The Thomas International group does a great job showcasing this in their report on Games Workshop)
The best information was obtained through reading and learning different game systems. (Exploring design documents would probably yield similar results.) A lot of information on the subject is not creditable and one should be very careful in respect to that. A good deal of the information compiled could not be cited despite ascertaining that it was in fact true by checking more creditable sources. Using the information I collected, I created a quick, easy, reference guide for designers to utilize when considering using an alternative hit point system for their own game. Because of the prevalence of Dungeons and Dragons and how familiar the average designer is with their system, I framed the options as alternate rules for the Dungeons and Dragons v3.5 rulebook (as the 4th edition rules are still new). Utilizing the rules presented in the reference guide, designers can quickly test alternatives to hit points and start a dialogue about the possible implications of using alternatives to traditional hit point systems.