Who wants to bitch and moan about abstract HP? If you’ve played any kind of D&D-style system, you’re probably familiar with the issue. Maybe you sneakily stabbed a guard only to have ’em raise the alarm anyway. Maybe you fell 50 ft. onto an iron spike only to get up and dust yourself off next round. Maybe you’ve been curious why you’re able to keep fighting at 1 hp, but suddenly get TKO’d when you stub your toe a round later. I know that I can’t be alone over here, so let’s dive in.


Hit points nominally represent how tough your are. HP is the measure of at PC’s ability to shrug off wounds before succumbing to unconsciousness and death. As Barbarian so ably demonstrates in today’s comic, however, that mess can strain credulity. In other words, HP often struggles to reflect a believable reality.


  • Magical Resilience: I argued back in “Falling Damage” that nonsensical rules make for world-building opportunities. Anything from “heroic essence” to “destiny protects me” can help HP to make sense.
  • Abstraction: If you decide that HP represents “battle fatigue” or “luck running out before a knock-out blow,” it’s suddenly easier to imagine heroic survival. This is a great strategy for long duels between evenly-matched opponents. Note however that this method works less well when the dragon’s bite hits and deals massive damage, causing you to feel 4d10 + 25 hp “less lucky.”
  • Colorful Description: If you’ve ever seen one of those cool combat description tables, you know how easy it is to describe the same attack in multiple ways. The difference between a thunderwave that “pushes them back with the impact,” causes them to “bleed form the ears,” and “blows their body apart into pieces” is a pretty good indication of health.
  • Vary It Up: No single excuse is going to solve the abstract HP problem. That’s because everything from swords to telepathy to starvation can affect this one overworked score. That means you’ll have to be on your toes as a GM, mixing “narrow dodges” and “great fortitude” with “the protection of the gods” and “only your rage is keeping you upright.”

Systems like Fate and Mouse Guard have true abstract health systems. The swashbuckling 7th Sea has a particularly neat “flesh wounds” vs. “dramatic wounds” system going on, neatly separating bumps and bruises from serious injury. But IMHO, even though it’s easy to look at highly mechanical systems and think that they’re trying too hard to represent health and injury “realistically,” I think that it all comes down to guidelines rather than rules. Ask a dozen gamers what HP represents and you’ll get a dozen different answers. In fact, I’m willing to bet it will vary with the same GM depending on situation.

So what do you say we put that hypothesis to the test in today’s discussion? How do you conceptualize HP? Does it represent the same narrative idea in every situation (e.g. actual bodily injury), or do you like to throw out multiple, sometimes contradictory descriptions? Do you have any favorite ways to describe HP-loss? Sound off with your best creative combat descriptions down in the comments!


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