Sunday, April 18, 2021

Injury and the Abstract Combat Round

 


Let me a natural description of how combat works in D&D. Each person gets to make (at least one) to hit roll against an enemy per round to see if they can damage them. How high they have to roll to hit depends on how well-armored their enemy is, because being well-armored protects one from injury. If they do hit, they get to roll to see how effective their blow was by rolling damage. Different weapons do different damage, since some are more deadly than others. These weapons injure people more seriously in the way that getting hit by a sword (or a chainsaw) is likely to injure you worse than getting sliced by a switchblade. Inexperienced characters are easier to kill because they "can take" or "withstand" less damage than more experienced characters who have many more hit points and "can take" many more blows.  

Here are two common dissatisfactions with D&D style combat. The first is that there's something weird about how you can stab Lancelot with a knife 24 times with no chance of killing him. It suggests video game thinking, as if he had a life bar that could be "full" or "empty", a life bar that grew with each level, and shrunk eat time you got hacked with a sword. (Indeed, it may well have been the source of that video game thinking in part.)

One might object to this on grounds of realism. This might be a big deal for you. It might be hard for you to maintain suspension of disbelief with all these stabbings. Or, you may be into military simulations, and think this is missing out on the fun of simulating combat. Personally, I happen to not need that much realism in combat to sustain my immersion in the fiction of the game, and I'm not into military simulations. My objection to this picture is rather an aesthetic one, both a repulsion to the aesthetic of the life bar, as well as to the associated picture of people taking and dishing out endless beatings, like when the Hulk fights Thor. 

The second objection is to gameplay and the role it grants violence. Standard D&D makes fighting weirdly predictable, even with swingy D&D dice. As a seasoned player, I can weigh the odds, and engage with confidence that I have a big HP cushion to count on, sauntering into a fight with confidence that it'll be four or five or ten rounds before I need to reassess. 

We might want a game where the stakes to violence were potentially higher. Where death or actual injury with consequences were constantly hazarded by fighting. We might want this for a variety of reasons, for example, if we wished violence to play a different role in our game, or if we thought it would be more fun if things stayed on the knife's edge--at least when knives were involved. 


The Old School Fix



One old school reply to at least the first aesthetic objection is to emphasize the abstract combat round. In old editions of D&D (OD&D for example), a combat round lasted one minute. During that one minute all kinds of swashbuckling, ripostes, presses, and close shaves get abstracted down to a couple of rolls. Elaborating on this abstracted round, we might say that hit points and damage are equally abstract, and that they do not consist literal stabbings and such, but represent an abstract combination of luck, grit, pluck, fortitude, situational advantage, and skill that have to be overcome for a side to prevail in the course of a fight. Armor makes it harder to prevail against someone in this way, and being better at fighting makes it easier.

I think this is aesthetically much better than the picture on which every successful roll is a literal blow that lands on your opponent. But in conversation recently, Anne Hunter mentioned that although people say this all the time, no one playing retro-games really thinks about it this way at the table. This struck me as true. I got curious why. Here are some speculations.

(1) The names of things are misleading. You roll "to hit". That sure sounds like a sword swing connecting. Furthermore, only if your blow "hits" do you do "damage". That sure sounds like injuring someone. Spells that give you back hp have names like "cure light wounds" "cure moderate wounds", etc., and are described as "healing". That sure sounds like it's making literal wounds vanish! 

(2) There are mechanics that only make sense on the picture of actual individual swings and actual wounds. For example, for every single shot you fire with a bow you mark off a single arrow. So every shot is literally firing a single arrow. This suggests strongly that a hit really is getting hit by a specific arrow. Or again, in old editions of D&D, i.e. AD&D 1E, if you lose hp then you need to recover it slowly by resting for days (1-2 hp a day) in the way that suggests recovering from actual injuries. 

(3) But I think the biggest culprit here is how as players and DMs we describe combat and enter into it imaginatively. aPhilotomy is a proponent of the abstract combat round solution. Here is a nice quotation from Philotomy's OD&D Musings about the importance of giving the right descriptions of combat in order to support the abstract combat round approach to hp.  

I agree with Philotomy that we need to change our descriptions if we're to have an abstract combat round approach to hp. But I'm skeptical that merely sprinkling in DM narrated description now and again is going to get people out of the concrete headspace. 

The problem is that when I, the DM, ask you at the start of a round, as the rules require, "What are you doing this round?", it's utterly natural for you to say, "I'm going to stab him with my sword." And then you roll to see if your proposed action succeeds, and then if it does succeed, you roll further to see how effective it is. So if you hit, you naturally imagine yourself as in fact stabbing someone, and you imagine them as taking more or less damage from being cut by your weapon. 

Ron Edwards call this sequence of description and dice rolls, "fortune at the end". The idea is that you appeal to fortune after you have fully described what you are doing. The fortune shows you if the described action succeeds, and if it does, how effective that action is. He contrasts this with "fortune in the middle", where you describe a general goal, but then roll and narrate what actions you perform to fit the outcome of the die roll. I'll come back to "fortune in the middle" in a little bit.

The point for now is that the "fortune at the end" kind of sequential ordering, when combined with the names for the rolls and the variable weapon damage, really pushes players to imagine that their character is trying to stab their opponent all right, but the opponent turns aside the sword (if the player misses), or that the player's character does in fact stab them (if the player hits). I mean, that's what you were trying to do, and you either succeeded or failed with your binary to hit roll followed by a damage roll based on how lethal your weapon is, right? So naturally, that's how you'll be imagining the situation. There's a constant pull away from abstraction if we enter into the situation imaginatively, as we are constantly invited to do by the rules.

The point is that these three things, the language, nuances of the rules, and the structure suggested by the sequences of declaring and then executing actions, and the way this invites us into the shared imaginative space, all work against the abstract combat round type of approach to hit points.


The New School Fix



Suppose we eschew the abstracted combat round and stick with the surface logic of striking blows in D&D. What can we do? John Bell in conversation pointed out to me that Justin Alexander interprets the strange ability of heroes to absorb so many more stabbings in a different way. Individual blows really are individual blows and damage really is damage. But your hit point total represents your general fighting capacity, and damage is indexed to that. It's true a sword is (potentially) twice as effective as a dagger against Conan, but given his honed instincts, training, and the luck he makes for himself, the best you're going to do with the first eight sword blows is scratch him. He's just that good. By contrast, for a 1st level recruit, a sword will still be twice as effective as a dagger, but a single blow from a sword might very well kill them. Here's a nice quote: 


I think this makes a kind of sense, and it's probably about as good as you're going to get while sticking with the logic of individual blows and effects suggested by a straight reading of D&D's mechanics. It's true that it has a couple of problems, like why can the cleric heal a grievous wound for the peasant, but not more than few scratches for Conan? Better fighters need bigger miracles? 

But the real issue for me is that it doesn't address my objections. This is not to say it doesn't work--it basically works, it's just if you want what I want from a game it's not going to satisfy. It leaves the endless pounding aesthetic in place, and leaves combat (starting at mid levels) in that weirdly predictably not-very-scary space. Again, I'm not saying you can't die with this kind of hp inflation, you can, but combat's got a weird "we've got this" type logic most of the time. 

By the way, I facetiously called this a New School fix, but the truth is that this is, arguably, to a certain extent how even OD&D is handling things from Supplement I forward, basically as soon as variable weapon damage gets introduced. Certainly there's a ton of this kind of thinking in AD&D 1E. So it's an especially clear statement of a rationale for something that's not very new after all.


Making it Abstract FOR REAL



My proposal is to fix the problems I mentioned so that we might take the abstract combat round more seriously. I'm going in the "old school fix" direction, although it takes me is to place where we use certain narrative practices that are not very well entrenched in retro play. I'd also like to try to make combat more a space of real injury and also stretch the peril characteristic of low levels to cover a lot more of the progression curve. I'd also like to stay away from the superheroes trading blows upon blows aesthetic. 

Language

Let's start with language. Let's make it more abstract. Instead of calling it "to hit roll" let's call it a "combat roll". Instead of a "hit", let's call it a "success". So you "succeed" or "fail" at your "combat roll". Instead of "rolling damage", let's call it "rolling effectiveness", or "rolling effect". If you succeed at your combat roll, then you roll to see how effective that was success was. 

Grit

Here's a  bit of language that bleeds into more significant rules. Instead of calling them "hit points", let's follow Logan Knight (at one stage of his development) and call the counter ticking towards death "grit". The basic idea is that grit will track some abstract combination of honed instinct, resolve, situational upper hand, minor wounds, and the like. Think about grit as a tracker leading towards actual wounds. (If you are familiar with Apocalypse Worlds and Blades in the dark, think of it as a "clock".) When the grit tracker is depleted then actual wounds and death ensue (knives in bellies). If you haven't read Logan Knight's original post on Flesh and Grit, as well as his more evolved rules here on this I recommend you do so, as my whole approach takes inspiration these, and mechanically speaking, just ring a couple of changes on them. In fact an even better version is in Ava Islam's Errant here and a post where she unpacks her reasoning here.

To make this work, we need to distinguish mechanically bonafide wounds from the kind of thing grit tracks. We can have real recovery rules for wounds, but a different recovery mechanic (more like long rests in later editions of D&D) for grit. I'll present a system below drawing on Knight and Islam's approach. 

Keep Grit Dice Low

We'll need to keep grit low throughout the duration of a campaign if things are to stay on the knife's edge. In Jorune: Evolutions, you can only gain a Grit Die (GD) through what I used to call "Big Ticket Sandbox Advancement", and now call Signature Achievement Advancement (diegetic accomplishment of some task that makes you a badass). Since signature achievements are hard to accomplish, characters will likely remain at 1 GD for a while. Also, the system maxes out at 4 GD as the most a player can ever get. So we'll never get into superhero range, although 4 HD could arguably represent a Conan figure pretty well.

Ditching Variable Weapon Damage

Let's also decouple "effectiveness" from how big a blade a weapon has. In other words, let's ditch variable weapon damage and go back to OD&D pre-supplement 1's flat 1d6 for damage. This will help a lot with abstraction and is exactly what Jorune: Evolutions does. Variable weapon damage probably does more than anything to push us to imagining combat rolls as concrete blows that injure our foes to a greater or lesser degree. (There are other, more interesting, ways to differentiate weapons that I discuss here.) 

Sundry Rules Modifications

Perhaps we can handle the ammo question the way Gus L does (and many others) with a usage die for ammunition. This will drive us towards abstraction and away from arrow counting. With different healing rules for grit and real injury this will smooth over the "cure light wounds" difficulty. 

Describing Combat

Now for the harder bit: how to describe and imaginatively enter into combat. The most interesting change will be in how we describe and think about combat narratively by replacing "fortune at the end" with "fortune in the middle". 

Players will still be asked what they want to do at the start of the round. They still say what their character is going to be doing in combat that round, like trying to kill someone or attacking with a sword. But combat as it actually unfolds will be described differently. I think we need to bring the players into combat imaginatively in a different way to make this work by asking them the right kinds of questions as DMs. 

I'm thinking of the way even in retro gamist heavy play, DMs will often ask a player to describe how they kill someone, giving narrative control over the moment of victory to the player, asking "What does it look when you take them out?" Here I'm envisioning something similar but re-centered on an abstract understanding of grit. 

Suppose the player succeeds at a combat roll and rolls a 6 (max) on the effectiveness die. The DM might say, "Wow, that was pretty effective. Tell us how you're gaining the upper hand." Or, supposing the grit counter has ticked low for the enemy as a result of the roll, we could go with the more melodramatic: "Tell us how we know that the hour of your enemy's doom is approaching." 

This will encourage players to enter into a space where they think of the struggle of combat as leading up to grievous injury, rather than consisting of a mechanic series of blows. It may also add a bit of (welcome) flavor to what is famously kinda dry combat in OSR games. 

Now, to make this work, the rule will have to be that the player may not describe the opponent as suffering a (real or serious) wound when all we're talking about is the loss of grit, since that hasn't happened yet. Furthermore--and this is the really tricky bit--there needs to be an understanding that what is described doesn't constitute fictional positioning with mechanical benefits. There already are mechanics for combat in place.  

So, for example, the player can't say, "I split his breastplate and give him a gash from shoulder to rib." That would be a wound, so the DM might say, "Well you didn't wound him yet, so let's say you actually dent his breastplate, and you hear him groan and gasp in breath as his ribs bruise." Players will pick up on this soon enough and it will effect how they imaginatively enter the combat space, "I beat him back and the best he can do is frantically parry my blows".

A harder case: what if they say, "I strike him hard, and he tries to parry, but the blow knocks the sword across the room"? The problem is that some weapons and unarmed combat have rules for disarming people, and so this is already covered by the rules elsewhere. They can't get that condition "for free" through narrative control. You don't want players "double dipping", both gaining the benefits of an effective blow that significantly advances the tracker towards wounds and death, and also gives them further mechanical benefits. Trust me, if players have this power in a gamist space where they're required to "try to win" it's not going to work. 

As a DM, I would redirect this description in a "yes and" way, "Amazing. But he's not disarmed per the rules, so he dives for his weapon and retrieves it, sweat forming on his brow."   

Whether as DM you allow the cinematic narration to bleed into tactical advantage via fictional positioning will be delicate. Probably you can't stop it altogether, and you'll just have to use your judgment and not let it get too far. For example, take a still more subtle case. Suppose a player describes bashing against someone and driving them back towards a canyon behind them. It's a judgment call whether you redirect that in a "yes and" sorta way. 

If you allow it, it will have tactical consequences, for example, about the possibility of someone trying to grapple the foe and toss them over the edge in later rounds. But the flip side is that opponents can wriggle out, or gain some fictional positioning, when they score effective attacks too. So it's a two-way street and given the right dynamics at the table, this might be pleasing.  

What I would say is that it's a judgment call, and something to be worked out in practice. Generally speaking, my advice would be that the DM should use the abstraction and narrative flavoring to try to keep separate directly mechanical effects from narrative descriptions via gentle "yes and" redescriptions where necessary. 

This approach will work best with theater of the mind play, where tactical maps are used (if at all) only roughly to indicate where people are at in a fluid situation. This approach requires a degree of abstractness that is a poor fit with five foot squares and the like. The mantra is to make combat mechanically abstract, as a counter towards wounds and death, and then allow narrative descriptions to shape the space of our shared imagination by asking questions that lead away from the concrete narration of trading blows. 


The System 


Here's a first pass at implementing the approach I've been outlining in this post for a particular game, Jorune: Evolutions. A classless OD&D inspired sword and planet game. 

Combat

  • To attack in Jorune: Evolutions make a combat roll, which is 1d20 + Modifier (Strength for Melee, Aim for Missile Weapons) against the target's AC. 
  • If you tie or beat the AC this is a success
  • On a success, you make an effectiveness roll which is always 1d6. 
  • Subtract the effectiveness roll from the opponent's grit, which is a tracker towards wounds and death. 

Wounds and Death

Grit never falls below 0. When it reaches 0, the target makes a Stamina check, which is 2d6 + their stamina modifier. (These are like deathblows in the video game The Darkest Dungeon if that helps you, except that the blow that takes you to 0 also induces one.) Note that starting stamina modifiers range from -1 to +1 and never go higher than +2.

6- Target slain.

7-9 Target wounded.

10+ Only a scratch. 

Wounds

The wounded target receives a -1 for the duration of combat to all rolls (including future stamina checks, effectiveness rolls, etc). 

Consult the effectiveness roll of the attack that wounded the target. 

(1)-(3) The target gets to describe the wound received.

(4)-(6) The attacker gets to describe the wound dealt.  

Such descriptions can have consequences for healing, and also fictional positioning, although for mechanically speaking, the total effect is -1 to physical rolls. 

Here's a chart:






















Recovery


All GD can be recovered with a full night's sleep. Whatever your grit score upon falling asleep, roll all your GD afresh as you would normally upon wakening.  

Wounds on the other hand heal more slowly and perilously. The penalty to rolls persists until proper healing can take place over downtime. 

During the Adventure

If a party member is wounded, reduce overland travel for the wounded by 1 hex per day for each wound they received. Having to camp in the wilderness with wounded party members is not a good situation. When the party makes camp for the night, the person with the highest medical score must check to treat their wounds:

6-    The wounded must check vs. stamina or acquire an infection
7+   No infection

Infection: Open a three step infection tracker and give it one step. On three steps the character dies. Each night a further stamina check must be made. (There are limilates and the like that can help with recovering from infection.)

6-    Add a step to the tracker
7-9  Remove a step from the tracker
10+ Remove two steps from the tracker


During Downtimes

Resolving Infection

If the party has not yet camped, when the party returns to the village, you should first test for infection by having the member of the cohort with the highest medical skill make a check as above. (The party may also recruit an NPC to treat the wound if someone has a relationship with the NPC.) Resolve the rolls for recovering from the infection all at once using the above rules with one exception. 

Surgery

If the character reaches three steps on the infections tracker while at the village, the player can opt to undergo surgery. The person with the highest medical skill in the cohort then makes a medical check. 

6- Death
7+ Recovery with permanent injury

The player may decide what the permanent injury is. It must have a mechanical effect of some kind, and needs to fit the description of the wound. 

Rest and Recuperation

Once it is determined that the character will live and whether they have suffered permanent injury, the character must rest. They may not go on missions or perform downtime actions for 1 week for each wound received. If they underwent surgery, add 2 additional weeks to their recovery. During this time, the player of this character can play with their alternate character during recovery time. (Here modest troupe play makes these injury rules workable and perhaps even fun as a change of pace).






35 comments:

  1. Video games got video game thinking from D&D, not the other way around. It's D&D thinking.

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  2. I've been doing abstract HP for a while, I like it. No physical injuries until 0 HP when the PC gets a simple d6 roll to see if they get a light would, a serious wound or they're a goner. We dont do that for npcs/monsters though. They take physical damage so calling it a damage roll still makes sense. Even vs the PCs, they might take damage. I have tried to rename attack rolls combat maneuver rolls but its never taken at the game table. I like your notion to call it a combat roll, that has a chance to make it into the vernacular I'd guess.

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    1. That sounds like a neat little system. I like the simple roll for how serious the wound is.

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  3. >why can the cleric heal a grievous wound for the peasant, but not more than few scratches for Conan? Better fighters need bigger miracles?

    I always view it as PCs developing tolerance (of sort) healing magic, i.e. as with adventuring career they are usually subjects to quite a lot of it, it becomes less and less effective. Theoretically, even non-adventurers would get the same effect if they get access to a lot of healing (and not priests themselves) but such situation is quite rare because price of getting magic from NPCs is usually quite steep for people such as farmers and low -wage workers.
    Theologically it can be explained that as gods grant reaffirmation of life, demand for balance claims the future for reaffirmation of death.

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    1. I've always found the way that healing seems less effective as your max HP increases to be somewhat unsatisfying.

      In our game, when we do healing we have a recovery roll. When you sleep or get healing, you recover roughly 1/4 of your max HP (actually a random roll with the same average), so recovery scales with level.

      E.g. a level 3 fighter (3d6=10.5 HP) recovers 10.5/4 = 2.6 = d6-1 (min 1) HP (or maybe a d4).

      At low levels you get something like 1d6-3 (min 1), which is an average 1.5 HP, so maybe slightly favouring lower level characters.

      We also have wounds in our game. When you hit 0 HP, you Save vs Death, and if you pass, you get a wound (which is -2 to all d20 rolls, and you can recover at most 1 wound per night's rest by rolling 6 on a d6).

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  4. If downtime activity serves to better a character, I am not sure if getting penalized with losing a week or two for, basically, just surviving a random event (damage) that a PC couldn't prevent and most likely had no control over is a best solution.

    Eventually, say, dedicated fighters who are regularly subject to damage and thus more often get forced recovery "lost downtime" onto themselves - might fall very behind on whatever benefit the downtime activities might provide, depending on the length of the campaign. Troupe play might be fun, but it is still not very fun to see your main character underdeveloped comparatively to other main characters (who'd have more use of their downtime) just because in the combat this is the character that is doing a lot of work, often to the benefit of other, more battle-fragile party members. It is realistic, yes, but then such fighter could be seen as a sort of scapegoat and is funneled from the start into the role of a person who won't get as far in life as others.

    Do you think such situation might happen?

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    1. I'd say a couple of things.

      (1) It's more merciful than normal first level play in an OD&D or B/X type game, since most people will have a 58% of surviving a drop below 0 HP, and a 17% of doing so even without injury. In those type of games you don't pause your character, you lose it.

      (2) There are no dedicated fighters in this game, since there are no classes, although there will be some who choose skills that make them somewhat better at fighting. But it's a MUCH more level playing field without the same degree of role specialization. Especially at the beginning, before people have had a chance to develop their characters (and acquire an additional GD), there are no dedicated front rank characters.

      (3) Since barring very rare occurrences (i.e. both are injured), you can always advance one character during downtime, I'm not sure how much of a cost it really is. The campaign rules already have you playing with the other character from time to time, so it's not like a totally passive backup character.

      But, basically, what I want to say is that I would need to see in play how punishing this is. If it's too punishing then the change I would make would be to allow for downtime actions during recovery periods.

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    2. I wrote 'dedicated fighters' not in the sense of having a specific class "Fighter" but as dedicating choices to have a more combat-oriented characters even in such system.

      As for role specialization, imagine that in this system of many skills and choices I made a character more suitable for fighting more than other characters; i.e. this character can handle any combat to a noticeable degree better comparatively to them; lets imagine this character is not only about combat, and, say, also likes to cook so it is not some min-maxed case. As you think, the ways the party usually acts, would other characters eventually rely more on this battle-oriented character to handle the major adversary on a battlefield for them, while themselves dealing with something less dangerous, or not?

      I don't know if it is better in some situations to pause the character or start from zero; losing, at least, is more direct than to drag behind the rest of the party in this (very) hypothetical case of losing too many downtimes to recovery.
      Troupe play doesn't sit well with me but it is a purely personal preference, and it might be a good solution for those who find more fun with it.

      As for downtime actions during recovery - what about "Receive guests" or "Receive gifts" as it is in some classical romantic-era (?) literature (adjusted for the world, of course), where friends and acquaintances of proper society or circle had to show a bedridden person their care and bring latest news, gifts and such, while the bedridden person gracefully accepts? Could something like that be a social downtime action in this world?

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    3. I love the idea of special downtime actions for recovery periods SO MUCH. There might be all kinds of things you can only do if you're recovering, or some unique downtime actions as you say + a more limited list that included things like building a relationship or spiritual exercise (reflect on mortality) or improving non-physical skills, and so on.

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    4. I should say one more thing that may blunt this issue a bit, although it might not make the game more to your liking. I'm writing these rules for a game with a large player base, say about 15 active players at a time. So there's less of a sense that you're missing out, since you're not guaranteed to play every week, and there's more of a shifting cast than a tight core with people feeling left out when they can't continue their adventure with their dedicated party.

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    5. It makes full sense; I was just thinking how it would apply in games with setup I am more used to.

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  5. (apologies for the multitude of comments, as I want to comment on the different parts of the post)
    The language of 'cure light wounds' curing life-threatening wounds at first level but merely scratches at higher levels makes more sense to me if I am assuming that the whole HP system is written from the point of view of at least mid-level characters, because by this point CLW does indeed cures only light 'wounds'.

    On a different note, Pathfinder (1st edition) might be a strange subversion to "many HP are unrealistic as wounds". Battle-dedicated classes can get 100 HP before getting level 10, but in a way the damage dealt to them and the speed with which it is dealt to them scales up too. At level 10, getting 15-20 hp of damage per hit is very usual and 25-30 is not uncommon, and it is around level 7 is where a lot of combat-dedicated PCs and many monsters gets multiple attacks.

    Without good armour or being very nimble or having some effective magical ways of protection this 100 HP doesn't last long, and such PC can easily go down into a round or two, which, in a roundabout way recreates this illusion of getting actual deep wounds in a very short time (for example, if monster gets 3 hits within a 6-second round, it could be a short but furious flurry of blows just tearing into a warrior, scales of armour and of monster alike flying everywhere). If the character has high defences, it is usually very in-world clear what is defending them, be it an excellent armour, exceptional dexterity, their own abilities (i.e. feats and class features) or magic, so in some way, even with 100 hps, the system remains quite in-world believable. The magic required to knit such damage won't be simple "Cure Light Wounds" either, or, at least, there would be a ton of such spells, again creating the illusion of having actual deep wounds.

    It isn't completely believable because such experienced fighter would laugh (at least for some time) at the attempts of goblins to wound them, but they danced with basilisks and giants at this point - I would describe such situation as their combat training deflecting or mitigating most of the impact blows, not counting the better defenses and experience (class features) they got by this point.

    So in a sense, such combat would be 'in flesh' for encounters of approximately equal power and more abstracted as enemies become weaker; but it is rare in PF that PCs go back to fighting weaker enemies, so the illusion of real-body danger sort of carried by this momentum.

    Not to say there isn't a lot of abstraction in this system, because there is, and the characters in 1 HP are just as battle ready as characters in 100 HP, but overall it was a strange discovery to see how much 100 HP can still represent dangerous wounds.

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    1. Yes, all good points. I view this as a version of Justin Alexander's view. A skilled fighter in pathfinder just isn't going to get anything but superficial injuries from a goblin, because the character is so skilled.

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  6. I think these are smart thoughts. I like "roll for combat" and "roll for effect" and I may institute them. I'm still stuck on the arrow, though, especially when it's a special arrow. Did it hit or not? And why does it hurt experienced fighters so little?

    I guess the "hit or not" abstraction is an inheritance from the wargames in which figures represented units, so that damage was "distributed" already. When wargamers started to use figurines to represent individual heroes, the rationale of effects of hits started to get fuzzy.

    There are some good old-time systems that run combat as contests of totals, starting with Tunnels & Trolls, a system modified by Fighting Fantasy and its scions. To me, this abstraction works very nicely. It's about a contest of ability, a clash of factors on both sides, not swiping back and forth.

    Still, I am going to emphasize the "roll for combat" idea from now on in the games I run in which "alternate swipes" seems to be simulated by the mechanics.

    Thanks for the good ideas.

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    1. With ammunition types, I think the best you can do is to track regular ammunition abstractly and special ammunition concretely.

      In systems where HP acts as a buffer before some kind of wounding mechanic activates, I’d represent Bard’s Black Arrow as always skipping HP and rolling to wound on a hit (you might also say that the arrow is unbreakable and can be retrieved if the fictional positioning allows it, and that the wounding magic only works if the Black Arrow is the last one in your quiver). Critical hits (in games that have them) can also work this way, bypassing the buffer HP, and making those more likely is one way to differentiate dedicated warriors without inflating your combat modifiers (assuming that’s something you want in a combat system)

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    2. Yes, what Tom says is good. Probably the simplest thing for Bard's arrow is to treat it (or any magical arrow) as a special case. It's not peppering a volley of missile attacks, it's a single zoomed in, special attack for dramatic purposes.

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  7. I forgot to note that HP really seem not to simulate anything at all when it comes to falling damage and similar hazards. I have yet to hear from the "HP abstraction" camp how that should be handled, unless it's cinematic heroism that keeps older fighters intact when they fall great distances.

    If you have thoughts on that kind of thing, I'd be interested!

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  8. There's also something to be said about this concept where the idea is not to be realistic in the slightest. Forgive the shillpost- https://themansegaming.blogspot.com/2020/07/hit-points-as-meat-points.html

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    1. Yes that's a GREAT post and I'm glad you reminded me of it. I love a lot of those explanations, especially the "expelling the elements" one, but really all of them.

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  9. Elsewhere Ian Borchardt said this: "My take on the whole issue (basically it being confusion over the use of the term "hit"):

    One of the big problems is the use of jargon (words used in a non-typical context). A "hit" in Chainmail removed the figure from the tabletop. Exceptional figures required a number of simultaneous "hits" (in the same turn) before they were removed from the tabletop. The Hero (which was the name given to a fourth level fighting man in OD&D) required four simultaneous "hits" to be removed from the tabletop. The superhero (an 8th level fighting man in OD&D) required eight simultaneous "hits."

    Note that this does not represent the figure dying - just the fact that the figure is no longer combat effective. They could just be injured, unconscious, dying, dead, or even fleeing the battle. It was pretty standard in the wargaming campaigns of the time that after a battle was fought both sides would recover a sizable number of these casualties (more so for the side that won the battle and held the battlefield at the end).

    [One of the consequences of this was that armour actually made you harder to be "hit" (removed from the tabletop). Which is quite sensible. Someone in good armour is a lot more difficult to be killed or injured.]

    When Arneson converted the Chainmail rules into OD&D he decided that one "hit" would be represented by 1d6 "hit points." Weapons still did one "hit" and ordinary figures on the tabletop would still take one "hit", although now it was expressed as 1d6 hit points damage and 1HD. In Greyhawk, Gygax fully converted the d6-based OD&D into a polyhedral dice system and varied weapon damage according to the size of the weapon and the ability to take damage according to the combat ability of the class. A sensible decision which made weapon choice more reasonable (since most people didn't use the Man to Man Melee System of Chainmail or the Weapon Mods vs Armour Class that gave each weapon a distinct flavour in the game).

    This split an attack into two die rolls. One which resolved whether the attack "hit" and a damage roll to measure the effectiveness of the "hit." Both dice rolls were required to apply the damage distribution of an attack to the target (one roll could not be divorced from the other)....

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  10. Continued here "The problem with this is that "to hit" has a common meaning as "to strike" so when you split this into a "to hit" roll and a "damage" roll the automatic assumption of most people (who were unfamiliar with the origins of D&D) assumed that the d20 roll meant that you struck the target and the damage roll was the severity of the wound, since obviously a weapon striking the target would have some sort of an effect.

    Now this interpretation has a number of problems. The first is that receiving any sort of solid blow is in reality is going to seriously compromise your combat effectiveness. The second, is that it implies that your physical wound capacity is increasing as your level increases. Simply put, as you reach second level you suddenly can take twice as many wounds as you thought you previously could. And it leads to the strange idea that armour makes you harder to be struck, rather than harder to be killed.

    The other consideration is that as character increases in level they should get better at combat. Offensively this is true - it is easier to hit someone as you increase in level. But defensively the only trait a figure has that can represent defensive ability and that increases with level is the character's hit points. A figure with more hit points is harder to actually remove from the tabletop. It takes more attacks to overwhelm them (which gets back to the original Chainmail idea of needing more "hits" to eliminate a Hero or Superhero, albeit the target doesn't regenerate them each turn any more [which could be sensible given the shorter time span of the skirmish rules compared to the length of the mass battle turn]).

    But if we were to look at what is actually happening, we have a situation where a character is removed from the battle when they run out of hit points and only when they run out of hit points. They do not suffer from any other effects due to the loss of hit points. Whether this is because they are killed outright, or more likely too seriously injured to continue, is irrelevant. [You could also include stunned, captured, or run away in the original mass-battle context.] Such a character is easily dispatched on the next round (whilst helpless), if that is the winner's desire.] Or in other words there is no death spiral as the character loses hit points (as you would expect if the loss of hit points represented actual injury. You are still as capable as you are on 1 HP as you were on a 100 HP (you are just more fragile and more likely to be eventually "hit" and removed from battle).

    On the other hand I think we can all agree that combat is actually very fatiguing, and if you fight for long enough you will become fatigued, and in all likelihood miss that last parry or block, allowing the enemy's attack to land a solid blow. An experienced fighter is able to fight for longer, both because they are fitter, but also because they don't waste as much energy in a fight. Their parries/dodges (and attacks) are more controlled and precise and able to deal with an enemy's attacks more effectively. It takes less proportional effort to turn aside an enemy's attack.

    So this is the interpretation of hit points I actually prefer. That a hit point represents the extra effort required to deal with an attack that would otherwise strike you and injure (or kill) you. This may be by blocking it, dodging it or parrying it. A high level character can deal with this attack more easily (costing a lesser proportion of their total hit points). Loss of hit points representing the accumulating fatigue (and effect of minor bruises and grazes) that slow the character down during a fight, until the character runs out of hit points, is too slow to fully deal with an attack, and the attack finally lands and injures the character."

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  11. And then this: "[It also explains why Constitution (fitness) has such a profound effect on a character's hit points). being fit allows you to fight for longer. Rather than your flesh being physically tougher to cut.]

    Now any serious blow in combat is almost certainly going to be consequential. It will certainly take you out of the fight, at least for the moment (if only to become an easy kill next round), and may well kill you directly. [Given the ready availability of magical healing the historical problem of mortal wounds (with the character succumbing to infection or internal or external bleeding) is less of a possibility, so if a wound does not immediately kill you you are probably going to survive it ... if your side wins.]

    That said people are pretty tough and there are quite a few historical record of people who have continued in combat with quite traumatic wounds that have already killed them, simply on adrenaline. This can be emulated by the ability to take "heroic actions" and continue fighting (which IMG comes from borrowing hit points from the future on a successful CON test (with Injury penalty) - which makes it harder to actually survive the combat when they get paid back).

    [IMG I rate the injury in terms of Injury. A weapon causes its damage in Injury, which then acts as a negative modifier to all rolls (including each and every hit die rolled). First Aid allows a character to reroll their hit points (with the Injury modifier) after the battle. Can't get to positive hit points and you are seriously wounded and need to be hauled out of there. That of course assumes you survive the injury (a Death saving throw, with the Injury as a negative modifier and armour class as a positive modifier - armour is designed to prevent lethal injuries). There are lots of interesting alternatives that arise out of this interpretation, for example if you want wounds to have a greater effect in your game then a character's effective level is equal to the number of hit die that roll a positive total (not something I use myself since it doesn't mesh well with my wuxia-inspired game and I prefer to avoid death spirals). Injury heals a lot more slowly (and magical healing can only heal 1 point of Injury for each die of healing magic used, so cure light wounds heals only 1 Injury, but will give the character 1d8 - current Injury hit points back). It all works quite well in actual play and emulates normal D&D - all the changes/consequences are what happens after you run out of hit points.]

    As for fighting monsters, well Chainmail and D&D are designed around the idea of "men" fighting "men." Using the same system for monsters and creatures (something with more than 1HD) still works, but wasn't the central conceit of the idea. You can interpret that attacks are simply less effective against a larger than human-sized creature (which is what the OD&D HD tended to represent), needing more successful attacks to take one down. And the truly monsterous creatures of The Fantasy Combat Table required magic weapons (or an equivalent HD/level) to attack, making them, as in the original Chainmail, impossible for normal people in OD&D to "hit" them."

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  12. To which I replied, "Yes, my reading of the history is the same as yours, although you develop it more clearly and further than I have, so that was a wonderful comment that has helped solidify my thinking. Thank you! It's the shift from wargames to individual combat that produces the incoherence. Your solution is essentially the one I propose, although I think that to make it work for people's imagination in play you need some support from descriptive practices and the rules. My rules nicely allow that someone can well take a wound and keep fighting, indeed it might not slow them down at all (on a 10+), or it might slow them down but allow them to keep fighting (on a 7-9) at a disadvantage."

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  13. I have responded to your dismissal of endless pounding as a desirable aesthetic here: https://dungeonsofklang.blogspot.com/2021/04/the-sublime-aesthetics-of-endless.html

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    1. Let the battle begin! But in all seriousness, I agree with your central contention that there's something neat in long drawn out fights between serious warrior types.

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  14. I have enjoyed reading all this greatly. It's at this point in the hit-point square dance that I start to wonder again, "Why do we still use hit points and hit dice, when sooo many other successful games with long-term playability have done without hit points per level and hit dice?" T&T, RQ, TFF/GURPS, FF, you name it: D&D is the *outlier*. Why should the game with the core mechanic that causes hobbyists to complain or to scratch their head so regularly, and the geezers to scold ("You guys just don't get the history or the abstraction!"), be the game that is the template for all? Hmm. People just like adding up those hit point, I think! The justification is developed only in hindsight. But with so many creative people in this hobby, who come up with fun rules for all sorts of things, is there a good reason to keep the hit points per level thing, besides compatibility with cool old stuff, or tradition? Genuinely curious.

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  15. Another possibility to make hit points or grit not feel like wound or flesh points: find uses for them other than avoiding serious blows. If they are an expendable resource that can save your skin that increase with fitness and combat ability, it would follow that you should be able to use them for offensive and other uses as well. White Hack uses them for spellcasting, but stopped there. I would like to see a system that expanded on that foundation. I would probably grant a +2 bonus or so per grit spent on attacking. This would also be consistent with a lot of heroic fiction where characters make very aggressive attacks and then open themselves up to attack or tire themselves out if they do not finish off their opponent.

    In regards to your particular system, I think it would be cool if a 12 or other high role on the 2d6 "injurious blow" roll meant that you actually gained some grit back and possibly got a combat bonus ("Now you've made me really mad!").

    All this said, I am curious what your thoughts on are on eliminating the combat role and AC all together, a la Into the Odd, and why you chose not to do it here if abstraction is what your aiming for. These days, I personally find myself drawn to either that level of abstraction, or to trying to make preventing getting hit by armor, parrying, blocking, and dodging feel distinct.

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    1. Good points all! Here are my thoughts on the combat roll. I think AC as a target number for a combat roll is indeed an odd fit with abstract hit points. Why is it the main determining factor in whether you make progress in prevailing against a foe in terms of grit? It seems more relevant to whether or not you can *wound* a foe. A better fit would seem to be by giving you a bonus to resisting wounds, or a separate save against them, or something like that. Perhaps the most elegant way would be to ditch the stamina bonus for wounds and work it like this: light armor +1, medium armor +2, and heavy armor +3. (The 2d6 math works out like this: someone in heavy armor would have a 58% of receiving only a scratch from a blow that reduces them to 0 grit and only a 6% of dying outright.) If we do that however, then if we want to keep a separate combat roll we need a different thing to be setting the target number for making progress against grit. Maybe it would be a combat skill stat or something? But if we don't have anything to be that target number then skipping the combat roll seems to be the thing to do. HOWEVER, I don't love auto-damage systems. They seems both too predictable and too punishing to me, although admittedly, the punishment flows both ways.

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    2. I agree about auto-damage systems. You can finesse that problem, though, by incorporating "0 damage" into the roll. For the sake of illustration, imagine that all the HPs in the game are halved, and then replace the 1d6 damage roll with a custom die, like 1d6-2 or a Fudge die that deals one point of damage per straight line showing (i.e. a die with faces 0, 0, 1, 1, 2, 2).

      Then it's just a matter of seasoning to taste: you can increase or decrease the predictability of doing damage, the average damage and variance per roll, etc. I tested this out with Basic using half HP and a custom damage die instead of my beloved 1d6--I found that the approach does indeed work, and I especially enjoyed the die (0,0,1,2,3,4). (As you note, I used this along with an armor-modified Save vs Death for the final blow--so, incorporating armor elsewhere.)

      I haven't tried some of the more radical damage die schemes that are possible, but the approach seems to have real legs in terms of setting the level of chaos (or predictability/control) that one desires. Imagine auto-damage on this die, for example: 0,0,0,1,2,2,4,7.

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    3. Fascinating! Thank you for sharing this possibility. You're right that it would address the concern.

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  16. I fixed some of these issues by having my players roll to harm instead of to hit. This opens up many narrative posibilities, both offensively and defensively. A couple of examples:

    ATTACK
    Bramal: "I throw my spear at the crimson serpent"

    (Bramal rolls Attack, fails)

    "Your spear cuts the air and is harmlessly deflected by the serpent's scales. It is now laying on the floor right next to it."

    DEFENSE
    "Bramal, the crimson serpent lunges at you, maw wide open, fangs ready to plunge into your soft flesh."

    (Bramal rolls Defense, fails, damage is rolled: 1)

    "You raise your shield just in time, but the force of the impact takes a toll on you."

    This way of narrating takes into account both the attack/defense roll and the damage roll, since they are in the end both part of the same action. So, a hit does not necessarily imply that damage is dealt, and a failed defense roll does not imply that your defenses have been broken, but that you have failed to avoid all harm.

    In order for this to work successfully, one must do away with HP or at least reconsider or reconceptualise them. In my case, I dropped them completely. Characters now accrue Exhaustion with every failed Defense roll and, once a certain threshold has been reached, any overflow becomes an injurie that reduces the characer's core attributes. By calling it Exhaustion I can also use it to offer my players some choices, they could, for example, exhert themselves and suffer 1d6 Exhaustion to gain advantage on a roll to pull/push a big ass door or something like that.

    It's not perfect, but it has proven to be quite useful and intuitive... at least for now.

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    1. That's neat and close to what I'm thinking is a good way to do it. As you say, the mechanics need to mesh with the imagined reality for it to work. I like the way you do it. I see you also have players roll for defense, which is neat.

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