D&D Tips: Describing Combat & Hit Points

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Combat in D&D is a narrative-driven experience where conceptual differences can easily lead to confusion. In my experience, the core issue of much misunderstanding about the mechanics of combat is a general ignorance over how to handle damage and hit points. This post will cover some of the contentious issues surrounding the mechanics that operate on these two factors, as well as provide recommendations on how to handle these concepts when DMing.

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Now, let’s dive in to it.

What Are Hit Points?

The central issue that must first be addressed is the nature of hit points. Descriptions of hit points range from “how much punishment you can take before dropping” (3E PHB, 136) to “a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck” (5E PHB, 196). These descriptions are deliberately abstract as they allow a DM freedom in how they describe effects that alter hit points. However, as is usually the case, the more vague the description, the more emphatically people cleave to arbitrary elements of the definition, and this has led many people to treat hit points as ‘the number of times I can be stabbed’. This is ironic, because of all the conceptualizations of hit points, this is the only one which is definitively wrong. Gary Gygax himself addressed this misconception, saying:

It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage—as indicated by constitution bonuses—and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the “sixth sense” which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.

Part of the issue is that “hit points” is, in many ways, misleading in its dual interpretation. The term ‘hit points’ refers specifically to the hit/miss game mechanic used to measure the success of an attack, but many people conflate it with the actual definition of hitting. This brings us to the second problem.

What Is A Hit?

In the most basic game terms, a hit represents a successful attack that deals damage. However, from our definition of hit points we can understand that this does not necessarily mean successfully stabbing, slashing, burning, crushing, freezing, poisoning (etc.) your target. In some cases, we must assume that some contact did occur in order for certain game mechanics to function, but generally it can be assumed that, as long as your target has 1 hit point remaining, a hit represents an attack that was turned away, either causing superficial damage or leaving the target more exhausted for having avoided it. Often, the way that we can determine this is based on the damage it dealt.

What Is Damage?

Damage is the third element of the three-part combat system. It is a measure of how effective a successful attack was. Did it force the duellist to reveal his best riposte, or leave him with a scar on his cheek? Did it drive the orc back a pace with the ferocity of the strike, or even knock him to his knees? Did it find a gap in the dragon’s scales, or knock one of its legs out from under it? Did the rogue get caught in the flames of a dragon’s breath, or roll beneath the fire and only suffer some of the searing heat? Did the final blow simply nick an artery, causing death by sudden blood loss, or did the blade slide between the enemy’s ribs and pierce his heart? These are all representations of varying levels of damage.

It is with the damage mechanic especially that it becomes important to recognize the abstract nature of combat in D&D. Since the earliest editions of the game, the rules have been deliberately worded to avoid reducing the chaos and high stakes of combat to a mathematical exercise. The 2nd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide gives as a summary of dealing damage:

To allow characters to be heroic, and for ease of play, damage is handled abstractly in the AD&D game. All characters and monsters have a number of hit points. The more hit points a creature has, the harder it is to defeat. Damage is subtracted from a character’s or creature’s hit points. Should one of the player characters hit an ogre in the side of the head for 8 points of damage, those 8 points are subtracted from the ogre’s total hit points. The damage isn’t applied to the head or divided among different areas of the body. [2E DMG, 99]

This is why the official publications have never provided rules to target specific limbs or sections of your target. In fact, even when they introduced “called shots” in 2nd edition, they specified that “attempts to blind, cripple, or main will not succeed” (2E DMG, 82). Quite simply put: it is always assumed that an attack will be made with the intention of hitting a vital area of the target. For a player to say “I’d like to aim for his heart” is to invite the question “where else have you been aiming this whole time?” The only determining factor in the degree of an attack’s success, therefore, is how much damage it deals.

Where It Gets Confusing

The system of hit points is not perfect, and there are some legitimate points of confusion. For instance, how does a higher-level character survive falling damage that would otherwise kill a normal person? How could a sword coated with poison deal poison damage on a hit if the attack doesn’t necessarily draw blood? How do you justify such things as the Lingering Injury official variant allowing for serious wounds to be sustained on critical hits? For some of these questions we can use common sense—the poisoned sword may only need to make a scratch to introduce the toxin to the enemy’s system, for instance. For others, we can simply recognize that it is impossible to represent reality through the medium of a game system that is designed to be entertaining. While the answer “it’s just a game” is often used as an excuse for poor planning and a lack of understanding (much like “it’s magic”), it has a fundamental truth to it that cannot be wholly discarded. Sometimes you simply have to suspend your disbelief, or come up with a better rule.

Putting It All Together

Narrating combat can be tough. The DM has to track various factors ranging from the weapons used to defences employed to the added complexity of how magic affects many situations. DMs should always strive to emphasize how an attack is different from the others. Does the enemy swordsman switch to a different type of stroke to throw the character off balance? Does the dragon surprise the party with its incredible speed as it rotates to sweep at the adventurers with its mighty tail? There are some circumstances which will, of course, be so straightforward that to describe them would seem an exercise in banality, but it is incumbent on a DM to communicate clearly with their players wherever they can. When a DM fails in this capacity, it invites misunderstandings that can cause confusion and arguments which derail a gaming session and the perpetuation of enduring misunderstandings.

That said, it is also important for players to be patient with their DMs and respect their judgement. The DM is responsible for a multitude of factors, some of which may be outside a character’s perception. Sometimes, you need to give them the benefit of the doubt.


Do you have an interesting experience about damage and hit points? Share it in the comments below!

7 thoughts on “D&D Tips: Describing Combat & Hit Points”

  1. You were doing great until you tried to talk about 4th edition. Your assertion that mechanics were thrown out is just wrong. They kept surges, they are the number of hits dice you have, they kept surge value they are your size of your hit die. No other edition has a mechanic even resembling this. Same with the short and long rest mechanics.

    1. Hi and thank you for commenting.

      While you are correct that 4th edition introduced some helpful concepts to the game overall, this article was specifically written about the combat system and so it focuses on combat mechanics.

      When you consider that basic melee attacks no longer cause ongoing bleed; spells no longer cause ongoing burning, freezing (etc.); fireball is a sphere again (not a cube); spellcasters have a full repertoire of spells again; AC is back to being based on armour, dexterity, and spells; shift no longer exists; different attack progressions for different classes have been re-implemented; and many, many more changes, then I feel confident standing by my claim that 4th edition’s combat mechanics have been, “almost universally thrown out”.

      More to the point, people should definitely forget whatever ideas they gleaned from 4th edition about how combat works because the general consensus is that it misrepresented the entire exercise. Combat in D&D is not like in a video game where you visibly hit a thing until it breaks, which is how 4th edition treated it.

      This was the premise of my argument about 4th edition. Again, there are some useful mechanics that it introduced, which you pointed out, but arguing that 4th edition’s combat is closely comparable to other D&D editions is really an untenable position.

  2. I could argue about whether 4th Edition’s mechanics were indeed “horribly flawed,” or whether they merely highlighted contradictions that were already there, and indeed remain (why does it matter whether damage is piercing, bludgeoning or slashing, if many “hits” don’t connect, for just one example?), but more important to me, your article doesn’t help one whit in actually narrating damage. “He hits you for 6 damage” is easy, but not very descriptive. So what should we say?

    As one commenter (from http://monstersandmanuals.blogspot.com/2014/10/describing-hit-point-states.html) put it:

    << “the goblin attacks…18 hits your AC, 5 damage…a near miss! You just manage to dodge his blade!”
    player> “hey cleric, after that last near miss I’m feeling very ‘unlucky’, please cast Cure Light Wounds on me to restore my luck.”

    Fall in a pit trap and get:
    A) less lucky
    B) demoralized
    C) loss of divine favor
    D) tired

    None of it makes sense at all. Wounds are wounds, Hit points are meat. There’s no way around it. No matter what the rule books say.>>

    1. Thank you very much for your comment.

      While Barbara Tuchman’s excerpt is certainly how a fight might occur, there is another one which we might suggest you consider:

      Plutarch’s Parallel Lives include a biography of Marcus Claudius Marcellus, a Roman consul (general) who lived in the 3rd century BC. In Marcellus 29.7-8, we see his death during an ambush by the forces of Hannibal during the Second Punic War:

      This man, then, told those who lay in ambush what was going on, and they, after permitting Marcellus to ride close up to them, rose up on a sudden, and encompassing him on all sides, hurled their javelins, smote with their spears, pursued the fugitives, and grappled with those who made resistance. These were the forty men of Fregellae, who, though the Etruscans at the very outset took to flight, banded themselves together and fought in defence of the consuls, until Crispinus, smitten with two javelins, turned his horse and fled, and Marcellus was run through the side with a broad spear (the Latin name for which is “lancea”). Then the surviving men of Fregellae, few all told, left him where he lay dead, snatched up his son who was wounded, and fled to their camp.

      Such a battle, in D&D terms, would be described thus: Many javelins were flung at Marcellus, a veteran warrior, none of which penetrated his armour (or even struck him), but involved him dodging or fortunately escaping, leaving his hit points depleted such that the final thrust from a spear caught him low enough that it was sufficient to find a weak place in his armour when he could not evade the strike from a Carthaginian spear.

      How you narrate combat in your game is up to you. This article was written to emphasize that not all damage need be applied against somebody’s physical health (as determined by your constitution modifier), and to reveal the folly of allowing called shots to turn a creature’s head into a pincushion. If you prefer the grittier possibilities of combat, then providing a litany of superficial wounds may be the way to go; for some characters who have mountains of constitution-based hit points, it may be a great way to emphasize their toughness. Otherwise, characters that do not wear heavy armour to absorb blows will likely be spending their stamina dodging lethal attacks, and that cure wounds spell would be a welcome re-invigoration. Where luck would enter such a situation would be in something like the player having had the fortune to notice movement in the corner of their eye, allowing them to partially avoid or block the full impact of a blow. Or, in the case of your pit trap reference, it is in that the character managed to avoid being impaled through anything too vital.

      At the end of the day, hit points are called ‘hit points’, and not ‘physical toughness and resistance to stabbing, burning, bludgeoning, melting, slashing, and psychic attacks’. Unless, that is, you think that a bard’s words become literal brain-bashing effects when they kill someone with vicious mockery or some other psychic damage effect. Perhaps you have a house rule for that, but we’re talking about the books here, and not your variations on the game.

      Best.

      – the Archmage

  3. As to hit-points, damage, and constitution, it’s difficult to bring a sense of ‘being hurt’ into the game. It usually seems like all the players are the Black Knight (’tis only a flesh wound!). So, as the DM, I added exhaustion effects (as I explained to the players these are simply the effects due to hit point loss, as you regain hit points these go away. If you suffer from actual exhaustion that will be resolved through normal game mechanics).
    A player with 20 hit points will suffer the effects equal to 1 level of exhaustion when they’ve taken enough damage to be at 15 HP (Disadv on skill checks). 2 levels at 10 hp (speed halved), and 3 at 5 (Disadv on Attacks and saves). With this, they can only go down to the third effect because their HP are quartered (rounded off for ease). The more you get hurt, the less your body wants, has the ability to, keep going. This makes getting hurt ‘Feel’ a little different, and getting healed matter a bit more.
    But this is my solution to the ‘Anything above 1 HP and I can fight!’ problem.

  4. One place where describing hitpoints as various abstractions rather than actual damage can run into problems is when it comes to healing spells.

    Like, if you describe a PC getting hit as being forced to retreat, and then later another PC heals the damage with the Cure Wounds spell, that certainly implies there was an actual wound there.

    In general I’ve found the best way to deal with this is to keep hitpoints as actual damage, but always something that a person could theoretically keep fighting through. Like, a cut on the arm or a bruised shin. Painful, and potentially a problem if left alone, but not something that will make a person lose their ability to fight.

    I got nothing for falling damage though, other than to house rule falling damage.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      Just to add to that, we believe that the cure wounds spell’s name is probably one of the most frustrating misnomers in the game, as it convinces people to believe that it only addresses physical injuries. While minor cuts, bruises, and abrasions are not unlikely in combat, hit points are far more complex, and healing magic not only mends flesh, but also reinvigorates. We recommend that DMs try to represent the full effect of hit points rather than treating them as a glorified ‘How Much Does It Hurt?’ scale.

      – the Archmage

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