D&D Tips: Describing Combat & Hit Points, Part 2

Back in February, I wrote an article about how to treat combat and hit points as they were designed to be used. It had started as a rant about people’s (mis)use of the Called Shots mechanic from 2nd edition as a means of simply bypassing a creature’s hit points, but expanded into an attempt to demonstrate that there was no need to introduce such mechanics in 5th edition because they were already there, included in the existing mechanics of hit points and attacks, albeit not in a game-breaking way.

I felt my previous article clearly laid out the reasons why nobody ever needs to implement Called Shots (and, in my opinion, never should) and also did a fair job of explaining what hit points represented. Unfortunately, I didn’t really get into what it would look like when the mechanics worked properly in practice. This was echoed in the comments I received back, and so I have decided to write this complimentary article in which I will present a sample combat encounter where the DM uses the game mechanics as they were conceived. In it, I will show some tricks and techniques I have learned as a DM that can allow you to represent combat with a compelling verisimilitude, all by simply using the basic D&D rules.

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Sample Combat Encounter: The Ruined Temple

An adventuring party consisting of Gary (as Arik, fighter 5), Dave (as Mort, rogue 5), Jean (as Selyse, wizard 5), Penny (as Melody, bard 5), and Kim (as Arya, cleric 5) is facing Coram Penderghast, a fallen paladin and his companion Voxiviathan (“Vox”), a young black dragon, in the ruins of an ancient temple. Coram must remain within a magic circle drawn in the blood of sixty-six sacrifices while the ritual completes, and wields a two-handed flamberge (a “flame-bladed sword”) and wears black plate armour. Vox has situated himself along the only sure-footed route to the temple through the surrounding marsh and is intent on buying Coram as much time as he can by blocking the way.

Arik has managed to get past Vox in order to take the fight to Coram, wanting revenge for the murder of his family. The fallen paladin is more than willing to oblige, and on his turn makes two attacks against the fighter. Both hit. The DM rolls 7 and 9 damage for the attacks. After conveying the numbers to Gary, the DM describes the turn.

DM: “The fallen paladin meets your challenge eagerly, and in the first exchange of attacks you find yourself understanding the practical purpose of his sword’s particular blade. It isn’t designed specifically to cut any better or worse than a normal sword, but when he parries with it you get some extremely unpleasant vibrations that slow the contact of the weapons. It catches you unprepared, and you are unable to properly guard against a riposte that strikes your head. It rings your helm like a bell.”

In this exchange, Arik has been hit by two successful attacks. The first “hit” was one that occurred as the combatants traded swings, and managed to break Arik’s guard. The second one was described as a direct physical hit that was deflected by Arik’s armour. The descriptions are interpretations of the methods of attacking and defending employed by the two combatants, and are purely to enrich the encounter. The 9 points of damage from the attack that hit Arik’s head aren’t applied to Arik’s head, they’re applied to Arik’s overall hit points. Had Arik not been wearing a helm, the DM would have had the sword strike another part of the body which was armoured, such as the forearm or the thigh, or even had it force Arik back a pace as the fighter narrowly deflected an attack that would have seriously wounded him.

Following this, Dave decides that Mort is going to break away from fighting Vox in order to support Arik in the more time-sensitive task of defeating Coram and ending the ritual. He decides to save his bonus action rather than using it to Disengage from the dragon, and so Vox gets an attack of opportunity as the rogue moves out of his threatened space. Vox goes to bite him. He rolls 17 to hit against Mort’s AC of 16. Penny, realizing that the attack is going to hit, opts to use Melody’s Cutting Words ability. She rolls a 2, reducing Vox’s attack to 15—not enough to hit. The DM starts to describe what happened.

DM: “Melody, seeing that Mort isn’t going to make a clean escape, shouts out—”
Penny (in her character’s accent): “Hey, Stinktooth! Your mother was so ugly she had to mate with a pile of dung!”
DM: “The magically-empowered aspersions on his parentage distract the dragon just enough that his jaws snap closed a moment too early. Mort feels Vox’s hot breath on the back of his neck as he narrowly escapes his doom.”

Once again, an attack is shown to have ‘narrowly missed’, though this time the attack roll actually missed (thanks to Cutting Words). The DM also describes the dragon’s bite in dire terms. Again, this is the DM building the dramatic tension by presenting the stakes as significant. If the bite attack had hit but not reduced Mort to 0 hit points, the DM would probably have said something similar. However, had Mort been hit and reduced to 0 hit points by the attack, the dragon would have caught the rogue in his jaws, and it would have been very messy. By never letting your players take their hit points for granted (“oh, it’s only 25 points of damage? That’s fine, I have 40 hp; I’m still up, I’m good…”) they will take every fight seriously.

Mort, now away from the dragon, continues on, making it behind Coram. Dave opts to use Mort’s poisoned shortsword on his first attack and his +1 dagger on his off-hand attack, wanting to get some bonus to his off-hand damage from the weapon because Mort doesn’t add his ability modifier damage on off-hand attacks. The DM has opted to use the Flanking variant rule because he feels that it makes melee combat more tactical, and so Dave rolls with advantage. Thanks to this, Mort gets a critical hit. Mort has coated the edges of his sword in Serpent Venom (DMG 258), which deals 3d6 damage on a failed save. As a 5th-level rogue, Mort also deals an additional 3d6 Sneak Attack damage on this attack because there is an ally within 5 feet. Because the poison damage is conditional on Coram’s Constitutional saving throw, the DM tells Dave that the poison dice are not doubled on the critical. Dave proceeds to roll 10 (2d6 + 3) slashing damage for his shortsword attack plus 21 (6d6) additional damage from Sneak Attack plus 10 (3d6) poison damage for the Serpent Venom. The DM rolls a 14 for Coram’s Constitution saving throw against the poison (a success), so he only takes 5 poison damage. Mort does a total of 36 damage to Coram, which the DM describes:

DM: “Slipping in behind the distracted paladin, you look for the weak points of his armour. You find one at the back of the knee, where the metal plates are riveted to leather for easier articulation of the joint. It’s a narrow window, but you make it. The blade penetrates the leather and you hear Coram roar in pain as the metal sinks nearly an inch into his knee before he instinctually twists away and the blade is dislodged.”

Mort has another attack with his off-hand weapon, the magical dagger. Dave rolls for it using Mort’s bonus action. Unfortunately, even with advantage he doesn’t roll high enough.

DM: “Though your dagger strikes dead on, it hits nothing but metal plate and is deflected.”

It bears worth mentioning here that this precise occurrence is exactly what armour is designed for. Whenever I watch a Hollywood movie set in the medieval times, there is invariably a point where I want to tear out my hair and shout “that’s not how armour works!” A person wearing plate armour is pretty much impervious to conventional edged weapons; no mundane sword can cut through solid steel with a simple slash as though it was candle wax. Even a dead-on, two-handed thrust against a prone target would only achieve about an inch or so penetration. That is why people wore armour. A full harness of plate cost more than the average peasant would earn in a lifetime; nobody would bother with it if the armour didn’t require very specific weapons (like pikes or war picks) to be overcome. The legendary blade Excalibur wasn’t a flaming sword, nor did it drain a foe’s vitality; it was so highly-regarded because its magic allowed it to cut through plate armour like butter.

In other words, unless Mort catches Coram at a joint or some other place where the paladin doesn’t have a steel shell around him, the rogue’s non-legendary dagger will just scrape against the plate.

Now it’s Vox’s turn. The dragon has recovered its Acid Breath and manoeuvres to get Selyse and Arya in a line so that he can hit both of them. Arya has the Shield Master feat and gets her shield bonus to the saving throw—fortunate, because without it she would surely have failed. Jean gets lucky and rolls high for Selyse, easily making the save. However, she only has 18 hit points and the DM has rolled 34 (11d8) damage. Even halved, that would almost reduce her to 0. With that in mind, both Jean and Kim burn their characters’ reactions: Kim to use the Shield Master option to take no damage on a successful Dexterity save, and Jean to use the absorb elements spell to gain resistance to acid damage. The DM describes the actions.

DM: “With a flap of his mighty wings, Vox lifts and lands a few feet away in order to line up the wizard and the cleric. A deep inhalation is the only warning you get before a spray of caustic acid jets forth from the creature’s deep throat. Arya throws herself to one side, raising her shield to catch the spray and escapes unscathed. Selyse throws herself the other way, but knows that she can’t fully escape the attack. Making an arcane gesture before her, she closes her eyes as the acid splashes against her skin. It’s hot, but rather than immediately melting away her flesh, it drips off like water.”

This description embraces the full gamut of the D&D experience. The cleric’s escape from a dragon’s acid breath was entirely from physical prowess, while the wizard uses magic to escape. Selyse, though she wasn’t disfigured from taking acid to the face, still took acid damage from the attack.

It is now Penny’s turn. She takes out her wand of magic missiles and uses her action to expend six of the wand’s seven charges, targeting the dragon. Though the rules as written say to roll one die to determine the result of all the spell’s damage dice, the DM has opted to avail himself of the the rules-as-intended option to choose whether to roll once for all the results or roll for each die, and has chosen that each die should be rolled separately to avoid the possibility of the player rolling a 1 and dealing awful damage with the entire spell, because that’s no fun. Therefore, Penny rolls eight d4s and adds 8 (8d4 + 8), for a total of 31 damage. The DM describes the spell.

DM: “A helix of eight translucent, blue-white bolts streak out of the tip of Melody’s wand, slamming simultaneously into Vox’s armoured hide like hammer strikes. The force of the impacts momentarily forces the dragon off-balance.”

Here, the DM has opted to add visual flare to the spell in order to make it more interesting than simply throwing dice at an enemy’s hit points. This paints a vivid picture in the mind’s eye of the players, keeping them engaged. Your players may prefer to add their own flourishes to their spells, such as a fireball that streaks forward like a dragon in a dive or that their thunderwave spell creates a zone of negative pressure immediately before the blast. I encourage such creativity.

It is now Kim’s turn. Kim asks what Arya can tell about the condition of her allies. The DM mentions that, around the dragon’s bulk, Arya can see that Arik is struggling. He isn’t visibly wounded, but his movements are getting sluggish and he’s having trouble parrying the paladin’s attacks. In other words, he’s low on hit points. Arya is too far away to use cure wounds, so she decides to use a 2nd-level spell slot to cast healing word as a bonus action. Kim rolls 2d4 because the spell is cast using a higher-level spell slot and adds Arya’s Wisdom modifier (+4) to heal Arik for a total of 11 hit points. The DM describes the spell to Gary.

DM: “A warm breeze cuts through the damp chill of the swamp, carrying reassuring words. You can’t quite make out what they say, but you feel your limbs grow lighter and your exhaustion ease. You are able to catch your breath again, and you feel steadier on your feet, ready to fight on longer.”

It is worth it to be explicitly clear in describing what has happened with this spell. Up until this point, the DM had not described any attacks that Arik had suffered as having got past his armour. He wasn’t bleeding, he wasn’t semi-dissolved, he wasn’t physically worse for wear in any way, shape, or form. Arik was simply beginning to exhaust himself from giving his all to the fight. Arya’s spell didn’t knit flesh, mend bones, or reattach severed tendons (though it certainly could in the case of catastrophic injury). Instead, the magic reinvigorated Arik, allowing him to keep fighting.

The fight continues on, with each player and enemy making their attacks and the DM describing what transpires with whatever flourishes and embellishments seem appropriate at the time. The party enjoys the fight, remaining engaged as the DM keeps the tension high and their imaginations running wild. The combat climaxes as Arik lands the killing blow on Coram moments before the ritual would be completed, and Vox flees after being reduced to one quarter of his total hit points. The party is not wholly unscathed, however. Arik suffered a critical hit that broke a few of his ribs, which Melody sets about healing, and Arya, having kept a 3rd-level spell slot, uses revivify to bring back a slain Selyse. The day is won.

Why People Get Confused

Just as hit points are often misconstrued to mean “points taken off when you’re physically hit”, spells like cure wounds lead people to erroneously conclude that damage is always in the form of physical wounds (which are cured). While this can sometimes be the case, a healing spell’s effects are as abstract as the hit points they restore. Damage can be physical wounds, but it more often is forcing the target to make a desperate parry, wearing down the same point on a creature’s natural armour, trying to break their sanity and drive them into shock, or whatever else it takes to reduce them to that last hit point. Losing their last hit point is when an armoured warrior misses an incoming dagger that catches them in a gap in their armour, or when the goblin is caught full blast by the fireball that leaves it dying of third degree burns, or when the wizard not wearing a helm get knocked in the head by a club, cracking open their skull. Until they’re at 0 hit points, there’s no need to have characters sustaining serious physical injury in order to convey that they’ve lost hp.

When To Get Rough

Now, all of that is not to say that your player characters should never get hit. Adventuring is dangerous, and one should never expect to do a dungeon crawl without getting a little dirty. And certainly, some players want to make a D&D version of John McClane (Die Hard), John Rambo (Rambo), John Matrix (Commando), John Wick (John Wick), or John… you get the point. These players fully expect their characters to sustain all manner of physical blows (even intentionally putting themselves in harm’s way), and allowing the characters to brush off what might incapacitate a lesser hero serves to let the players to feel as though they are achieving their character archetype. The danger is that this can easily be overplayed and lead to characters having hyperbolic toughness which they then take for granted, leading to the perception that hit points are a silly fantastic convention to be subverted… like with called shots.

In my game, I reserve meaningful direct hits for three occasions: maximum damage on an attack, a critical hit, and a killing blow. My players derive that much more satisfaction when their critical hit dislocates the big bad’s jaw if their last three attacks didn’t also physically pummel him. Combat feels more visceral this way, as opposed to like a video game where you simply hit the thing in front of you until it breaks. In other words, my players know that if they want to hit the enemy between the eyes with their axe, they will have to be the one dealing the killing blow. Otherwise, the strike lands wherever it does, if it even hits the enemy at all.

“Your Fun Is Wrong”

I will close off this article with an important caveat, and one that I occasionally have to remind myself. That is: there is no single way to play D&D. For all that I’ve written here explaining how the rules were designed, the fundamental truth about this game is that the only wrong way to play it is in a way that results in your friends not having fun. I have run D&D games with many different groups over more than 15 years, and my experience is different every time. Some groups enjoy the realism, other groups enjoy the heroism. Ultimately, the rules are only there to provide a framework for the experience, not to prevent you from telling the story you want to tell. As long as everyone enjoys the game, you’re golden.

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Art Credit: “Medieval Skirmish” by Simon Gocal. (Check him out, he is extremely talented.)

8 thoughts on “D&D Tips: Describing Combat & Hit Points, Part 2”

  1. Umm, so I’m super late to this party, and I’d like to say that I love this style of narration. Unfortunately, the groups I’ve been in tend to either treat combat like a numbers game and hitpoints like how you’ve mentioned the Johns, but I have been lucky enough to have a group that at least let us describe our death blows.

    Anyway, I’m wondering how you handle trickier things like a Bear Totem barbarian’s resistance to damage, or a barbarian with the Path of the Zealot in the state of Rage Beyond Death who keeps taking massive amounts of damage when they should already be dead.

    Does the Bear Totem barbarian’s rage basically make his blocks and parries barely drain his stamina? I get that for physical attacks, but I’m not sure how it would help against other elements or attacks such as fireballs or dragon’s breath.

    As for the zealot, since he’s already dead, does he actually keep getting chunks taken out of him, or does he seem to never tire?

  2. Regarding Gygax’s comment about a hero surviving multiple serious wounds, I once read a webcomic called “Order of the Stick”. At several points, characters shrug off being stabbed, which made me think: What if, in a fantasy setting, humans were more durable than in real life?

    1. Thank you for commenting!

      That is a fascinating line of thought, and one that I would embrace if it were taken to its logical conclusions. Namely, that it would have to be made explicitly clear that humans don’t need armour because they are extremely durable, that people rarely die in construction accidents because falling is more of an inconvenience than a danger, that humans don’t need to cook their food because their constitutions are so strong that they can stomach all the harmful bacteria that is killed off by the heat, etc.

      That isn’t D&D. At least, not the basic rules of it. But it could certainly be another fantasy setting if you put your mind to making it.

  3. Good series of articles. I like the way you explore how hit-points are presented in a confusing way to start with. Makes me wonder if Gygax had such a clear vision on the abstaction, why didn’t all revisions of rule books make this clear? It appears a bit like in the community of D&D designers there are two camps in how this is interpretated?
    D&D players are looking for specificity in the abstraction it seems. Other systems have attempted to create more concrete models but I’m not really sure if that translates into a better experience. I’ve explored this subject under my ThinkDifferent indie titles passionately as well.
    As for levelling and HP, I would assume the narration of HP and damage is relative. A 5 HP fighter receiving 25 points of burning damage is burned to a crisp but a 100HP character is able to avoid any serious harm and has only some 1st and 2nd degree burns on his body.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      I would assume that the reason that hit points/damage was never elaborated in the official books is because there are more than 5,000 words between the two articles that I wrote to clarify the rules, culminating in my final caveat that you are totally free to completely ignore all of them and do it however you want. Yes, there have been dozens of rules supplement books released, many of which deal with martial characters, but that’s significant real estate for any book, especially one that players might be encouraged to simply ignore in favour of how they would rather run the game.

      In respect of your example of two fighters taking damage from a fireball, I would probably describe it relating to the forms of the fighters. The one with 100 hp is far more experienced and is able to duck down and cover themselves with their shield faster and more effectively than the 1st-level fighter who’s maybe fought in a shield wall once and otherwise has just practiced in the courtyard or academy and never had to face this kind of magic before. Unlike the fighter with 100 hp, the low-level fighter hasn’t learned to immediately dodge when he sees the glowing bead streaking towards him and doesn’t manage to get his shield up in time. He simply eats the conflagration to the face and is immediately dead, having been reduced beyond his total number of hit points below zero.

      Since he isn’t necessarily reduced to ash, like with the disintegrate spell, I’d say he’d look like the bodies from Pompeii that were hit by the pyroclastic flow; flesh and muscle incinerated. If they were hit by a low-level resurrection spell such as revivify, I’d say they’d come back with no hair and deep emotional scars.

  4. Awesome work Taylor and a beautiful example of how HPs should play! I especially liked your comment about the 3 occasions for a “direct hit”. I am going to try and remember those for my own home games.

  5. Did you actually roll the values for the damage? The d6 numbers appear to be averages, but none of the rest add up properly as averages. Nice article, though.

    1. I used the averages in this case where there were a lot of d6s because I didn’t want to math out the possible ranges. In a real game, I would have someone roll all the dice because rolling dice is fun and makes things less predictable. Your game may differ.

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