C Series • #2
Hit Points. Wounds. Health. Whatever it is called every gaming system has some sort of trackable means to measure if the characters are alive, their relative health, and when they are dead. The details, of course, vary widely by system. Even systems with prima facia similar health systems sometimes have subtle but meaningfully different applications.
Whatever the rule set, hit points are the score used to determine if the character is alive or dead (or perhaps dying). Another possibility is that accumulated damage done to the character may give penalties to the character’s actions. The penalty is not always applied with a hit point system. Dungeons and Dragons for example does not impose any penalties at all. The character can either fight at full abilities or fall unconscious from the accumulated damage done. There are some additional ways of using hit points, or life force, and I’ll give some examples I have seen from different games.
What I will call ‘traditional’ hit points are they type seen in D&D, Pathfinder, DCC, and other system. The character has a pool of hit points and once that pool reaches 0 the character is dead (or dying). This has the advantage of being straightforward and easy enough to track. With many of these systems there is no penalty for taking hit point until you get to 0 and the character drops. As one might expect, there are several common variation on the hit point system that try and make it a bit more realistic.
One option with this type of system is to have hit points by location. Runequest and the Warhammer RPGs both used location-based systems. In the Runequest system there was a Total Hit Point pool and each location had its own hit points. When an attack was made, a second d20 was rolled to determine the location being struck. Damage was recorded for both the location and from the Total Hit Point pool. At 0 hit points at a location there were injury consequences based on the location (for the head, you would fall unconscious, for the arm there were penalties for attacking). Locations could take negative hit points equal to their positive hit point total with additional consequences. This allowed for a bit more description in your combat (“you are struck in the arm for 6 points of damage”) and builds consequences for damaged body parts relevant to the location.
Another option is to have penalties applied for loss of percentages of hit points. Rolemaster used this approach in applying increasing penalties when characters fell to 75%, 50%, and 25% of their hit point total. As characters took more damage they became less effective in combat.
A third option, used by d20 Modern and the Palladium (Rifts) systems is a dual hit point system — a Vitality and Wound Point system for d20 Modern and an SDC pool and MDC pool for Palladium. Normal hit points are used for tracking most damage, but some damage (critical hit damage as an example) goes directly to a much smaller pool of hit point to represent the increased lethality of this damage. This prevents characters with a large hit point pool from gaining that feeling of invincibility in combat.
Moving away from the Hit Point method of tracking health, there are many systems that have adopted some version of a ‘wound level’ system. Savage Words, Storyteller system games, and even the old West End Games d6 system (for Star Wars) are examples of systems using a wound mechanic for tracking damage. Here, characters have a step-based level of wound damage they take before moving to a ‘mortal’ / ‘dead’ / ‘other really bad consequence’ final level. For these systems characters don’t increase their wound levels, unlike a hit point system that generally sees characters increasing total hit point with experience. Instead, characters usually become better at avoiding taking damage (by ‘soaking’, ‘toughness’, ‘dodge’ or some other method of avoiding damage dealt to them).
Inherent in all of these systems are built-in penalties as characters move up the damage tree, with higher levels of wounds carrying greater penalties that make the character less effective. As with the initial hit point system, there is not built in description of what the wound is but creative GMs and players can make the descriptions up based on the action level of the game.
There are other, less common, approaches out there. The Cypher Rules system, for example, has damage directly reduce a characters ability scores (which are used to fuel character actions). By nature of that rule system, damage taken imposes penalties to the character’s ability to do things without directly have a wound penalty mechanic. Capes, Cowls, and Villians Foul doesn’t even use a damage system, instead using ‘Setback Tokens’ that can represent physical damage or other issues for the character that may inhibit their actions in a scene. In Call of Cthulhu, while there are hit points, the main threat to the characters lies in Sanity rolls rather than damage rolls.
Various systems have made their attempts at creating a method of tracking characters’ relative health and ability to survive dangerous situations based on the nature of the setting and the overall structure of the game. Different approaches give a variance between quick and easy maintenance, which lets games move faster but tends to sacrifice system-based descriptions and specific damage, or those that include game system descriptions of damage and very specific wound types. All systems have unique merits and flaws inherent to them but with a bit of searching you can almost certainly find a system that matches up with your gaming group’s preferences.