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