Traditional Hit Point Alternatives
By Scott Gladstein
English 102, Section FA09222
Professor Lynn Gelfand
There are competitive alternatives to the traditional hit point systems in role playing games and should be considered for implementation on a large scale. In a video game, a traditionally accepted hit point (or “HP) system is a numerical value your character has that represents their mortality. The previously mentioned value decreases when you take damage from an enemy and when that value reaches zero you generally die. This antiquated system has its roots at the heart of the role-playing genre of video games, being featured in every popular franchises from World of Warcraft to Dungeons and Dragons, but it’s grown outdated and the stagnant. The motivational speaker Karen Kaiser Clark was quoted many times saying, “Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely.” and I believe that change is essential to maintain a compelling game in this day and age. Games have been using the same system for the last twenty-five years and the gaming culture has grown accustomed to them. In an editorial on TechRadar.com Luis Villazon (2009) asks us, “Why is it that after 25 years, the enduring mechanic for modelling player damage in computer games is the hit point? We have virtually photo-realistic graphics and animation now, but injury or lack of same is always represented as a single number. A homogeneous pool of life or health or hit points where any number greater than zero represents total combat effectiveness and zero means instant death.”Systems like the wound system used in the Warhammer tabletop franchises and the defense pool system from Eldritch RPG are novel concepts that improve gameplay by expedite gameplay and increasing user involvement.
Hit points have their origins tied closely to the history of the genre. The origins of role playing games dates back to at least 1913 when the famous author H. G Wells wrote rules for a game called Little Wars (Well 1913). (The rater satirical full title was, “Little Wars: A game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys' games and books”.) This game laid our rules for armies of toy soldiers to clash on the dressing room floors of gentlemen of the day and inadvertently started the “war-game” (or “table top army”) genre that is popular still to this day. Games like Axis and Allies (Milton Bradley, 1984), Memoir '44 (Days of Wonder, 2004), The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game (Games Workshop 2001) and in the various Warhammer franchises keep alive the genre started in 1913. Wargames developed quietly until the Gen Con gaming convention in 1971 after which Gary Gygax (along with Dave Arneson, Don Kaye, and Brian Blume) created the wargame Chainmail. They made rules for objective other than just straightforward engagements. Dave Arneson (one of the co-creators of Dungeons and Dragons) explained to GameSpy that they “started setting different objectives for the players. It wasn't just about fighting; we started stealing things: bombs, guns, food supplies, that sort of thing. Players could negotiate with each other for who captured the goal, and then had to figure out how they were going to slip the products past a blockade and sell them on the black market. Things like that.” (Dave Arneson 2004) Following along those lines, in an expansion of the rules called Blackmoor there where rules laid out for the use of single miniatures instead of entire armies. Transitioning it to a fantasy setting, the game Dungeons and Dragons was created. The process was described by one of the grandfathers of gaming and designer of both Chainmail and Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax (2001), in an interview with RPG.net and explained that he “… decided to add fantasy elements to the mix, such as a dragon that had a fire-breath weapon, a hero that was worth four normal warriors, a wizard who could cast fireballs, which had the range and hit diameter of a large catapult, and lightning bolts, which had the range and hit area of a cannon, and so forth.” Both Blackmoor and the earliest edition of Dungeons and Dragons used a system where when you where faced with a monster in a dungeon you would simply roll a six sided dice and if you did not roll high enough you would immediately die. While this would later be develop into the “d20” system used by many pen and paper games today it had a long way to go before the new found following would accept it. People running the games began seeing the attachments their players developed with their characters and requested that the designers gave players less severe penalties when they failed. They responded by adding chances to fail and still continue playing. This was described as representing a character’s heroic ability to soldier on even after suffering a wound that would cripple a normal person. That started the use of “hit points”.
There are many different alternatives to using Hit Points in game. Some, like the “Defense Pool” system, offer a new look at the traditional manner in which a character defends in. Used in games like Eldritch RPG (Cross & Pteras 2008), Defense Pools do not necessarily replace hit points entirely but instead augment and them to the point where they are no longer considered traditional. In a system that uses a Defense Pool, players have a certain finite number of opportunities to defend in several different fashions depending on how their character is made. (for example a dexterous fighter might have 3 dodges and only 1 opportunity to have his armor block the blow in a given fight) In system like this suffering an actual hit is represents a grievous and potentially fatal injury. This mechanic facilitates a degree of reality and gives players pause when taking unnecessary risks. In addition to the finality it provides, Defense Pool systems highlights the skill of resource management. When a player is limited in their defensive options they have to conceder who in the group of their friends is taking the brunt of the enemy’s attacks on a turn-to-turn basis. Additionally, this alleviates the need for the “tank” roll. A tank is a character in a game whose role in the party is to take all the damage while he or she is healed by a person who is skilled at doing so. The implementation of defensive resource management generally makes the party work more as a coherent group of equals. Finally, Defense Pools engage the player more by allowing them to control both their offensive actions and defensive actions.
Another popular alternative to traditional Hit Point systems is the “Wound” system. In this system when a player takes damage from an enemy they roll a dice to deterring on a chart (called a “Wound Chart”) what the negative effect is for getting hit. If a player has additional defenses or the blow is not necessarily that strong (called a “glancing blow”) the roll is lowered by a set value. (Alessio 2007) The lower the result, generally the less severe the penalty is. Systems like this generally employ a degree of chance when determining how severe the penalty is for suffering an injury. This has proven to be a very well-liked alternative to traditional hit point systems thanks to the Warhammer franchise. According to a case study done by Thomas International they cite that Games Workshop (the makers of the Warhammer franchise) “…is a global business with more than 250 stores in the Americas, Continental Europe and Asia Pacific but also trades with thousands of other independent retailers worldwide.” With a turnover in November 2000 of £42.7 million (Games Workshop Group PLC, 2000) it’s safe to say that relying on their cornerstone mechanic, wounds, as received a warm welcome by their customers. Growing sales in their 2009 interim report also support these numbers showing steady growth since 1991 (Games Workshop Group PLC, 2009). Wound systems generally have a very low learning curve due to their reliance on a comparatively smaller number or mechanics which allows younger players to enjoy games while still engaging the veteran demographic. Coupled together with the unpredictable nature of exactly when a character will die, it has proven a competitive alternative to hit points.
Some alternatives are an amalgam of traditional ideas and new design concepts. Games like Shadowrun (Weisman, 2005) utilize hit points along with something called a “condition track”. As a character takes damage they drop down to a lower tier on a chart. Progressing to lower ranks on the condition track as gives a character penalties when they try to accomplish tasks, hindering them because of their injuries. A character can’t die until they reach zero hit points but if a character reaches some of the lowest tiers on the condition tract they are essentially useless. In other words the less hit points out of their maximum a character has the less effective they are. Normally, so long as a character has one single hit point they are as strong as they were at their maximum before they got injured at all. Of the systems mentioned this condition tract system most accurately reflects how the human body takes damage and doesn’t have the unfortunate side effect of instant death. The drawback of this system is the complexity. It adds another layer of mathematics for the players to do on a regular basis. That seems to alienate the younger demographics and dissuade them from playing a game using the system despite its attempt to make injuries more realistic.
Going back to the roots of hit points, even early editions of Dungeons and Dragons (Perren & Gygax 1971) provide an interesting alternative design mechanic to hit points. A more story driven game that utilizes instant death for a failure is an intriguing concept from a design perspective. Early video games used “lives” to denote how many chances a player had before a “game over” and they had to restart from the beginning though the mechanic has developed little since “Super Mario Brothers”. In an instant death system it is generally much more difficult to hit and injure an enemy, though when a blow is struck the result has a chance to be fatal. There is generally a percent chance to survive and this is lowered by the severity of the attack. This seems like a step backwards but in some respects it’s continuing with the original concept of hit points. Simple mechanics make the flow of game play unsophisticated but exceedingly manageable even by novice players and in games based on non-fictitious materials the systems used by early editions of Dungeons and Dragons (Arneson 1975) can be the keystone to bringing those realistic repercussions to life in a game. While systems like this trade off detail for ease of use, the trade off is an acceptable one when you conceder the expedience it grants the players in combat while still retaining the overall approach role playing game take. A system like this also highlights the cost of engaging in combat while still allowing the players choices to impact the fate of their characters. Many players consider this a very harsh system, which can be true depending on the mechanics employed. If the system puts the players on the same level statistically as the enemies, the players will die rather quicker than they are accustomed. The balances comes in finding a mechanical middle ground where the players are statistically superior to the average enemy while not reducing the threat the enemies post to the players.
There are two sides to every coin and this is no exception. Traditional hit point systems have their value and those should be recognized. They have stood the test of time, Villazon suggests at least twenty-five years. Why then should we conceder alternatives to something that has served us faithfully for so long? The nature of progress is change and when something remains unchanged in a rapidly progressing industry like the gaming industry it sticks out like a sore thumb. Players have become too familiar with Hit Points and designers have to reach to the extremes to find something fresh. A good example of this is “regenerative hit points”. When employed in first person shooter games like Halo or Modern Warfare, hit points tend to just not cut it. Players die rather quick to bullets, as very well a human should. Regenerative hit points are exactly what their name suggests. They are hit points that regenerate quickly when that character doesn’t take damage for a certain period of time. As the critic Ben Croshaw once said, “…you don’t need to worry about health, if you’re retarded and lousy at stealth, just get behind cover if you’re in a bother and it will all come back by itself!”While rather impolite, his words are not unwarranted. Many other prominent game critics have called out for the abolishment of this gimmick as they see it as a petty attempt to retain the traditional hit point systems in games it was not meant for. Players are simply not challenged anymore by the same comfortable crutch many games have relied on for decades.
What about franchise success? Games like Final Fantasy (SquareEnix) and Dungeons and Dragons (Wizards of the Coast) certainly have had their share of successes, in recent years their sales have been suffering. According to the “Consolidated Financial Result for the First half Period” of SquareEnix the company’s net income dropped down 55.7 per cent (Wada 2009), continuing a trend that has been happening for some time despite peaks when games are initially released. SquareEnix relies heavily on traditional hit point systems in their games while companies like Games Workshop who showed economic a growth instead rely on alternative systems which expedite game play. While SquareEnix actually made more money than Games Workshop the trend in momentum is slowing and swinging in the favor of the non-traditional supporter.
Traditional hit point systems are not without their value as a mechanic. They are a solid, simple, way to somewhat realistically represent a person sustaining an injury without interfering with gameplay or slowing down the game’s pacing. However there are still some glaring flaws that need to be addressed if we look at it as a game mechanic. A character who sustains an injury in a game with a traditional hit point system generally suffers no adverse effects for their wounds until they are reduced to zero hit points. When someone in the real world gets hurt the pain experienced by someone can be incapacitating if not a little distracting. Allowing a character continue on uninhibited by the injury he or she sustained is unrealistic. Early games could not cope with the inclusion of the mathematics required due to the limited capacity of the consoles of the time but we are under no such limitations in this day and age. Additionally, when it was first conceived hit points where made to give players additional chances to fail but the concept has been exaggerated. Instead of the values in early editions of dungeons and dragons that ranged relatively low (rarely more than one hundred) games today reach anywhere between three thousand and six thousand. This reduces hit points to mere numbers, meaningless except to show if your character is able to act or not. It reduces the impact of a character’s suffering quite significantly when to take five hundred injuries in a single turn only to be restored them by an ally is a walk in the park.
It is unlikely that hit points will ever entirely go away but there are competitive alternatives to the traditionally used hit point systems in role playing games and should be considered for use on a larger scale then they are currently implemented on. Alternatives like defense pools, wound systems, condition tracts, or even instant death can be equally effective mechanics to represent the mortality of a character in a game. While the traditional system has stood the test of time gamers have become too familiar with it. At the same time the financial success of companies who rely heavily upon franchises using traditional hit point systems is falling and giving rise to the financial success of companies who do not. It is true that hit points are a solid game mechanic the faults are equally apparent as it neglects the effects of an injury on the human body when deterring how well a character can perform. The alternatives to traditional hit point systems have the potential to change the way we game, why not explore them?
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