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Narrating Hit Points

by | Apr 6, 2018 | GM Tips, Uncategorized

As a Game Master, how you choose to narrate attacks and damage in combat is a key factor in establishing your game’s tone. There are no wrong choices, but knowing how your descriptions impact the perception of your players lets you consistently apply the same method and establish a baseline expectation of how they should view hit points so that you can convey greater information about the state and stakes of combat as it is unfolding.

Starting With Hit Points.

Hit points represent one factor that along with others, like armor class or damage resistance, are abstracted to make combat work in a way that is easy to adjudicate. They are only part of a larger narrative that details how fit a player’s character is for further action and what it will take to get them back into fighting shape. The rules describe hit points as follows:

Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck. Creatures with more hit points are more difficult to kill. Those with fewer hit points are more fragile. OGL SRD version 5.1

The rules are otherwise silent on what hit points fundamentally are and this ambiguity is likely an intentional attempt to make combat less complex and easier to adjudicate than if the system tried to mechanically emulate all of the varied situational influences on combats as the would occur in reality. It is clear that they combine a number of factors to provide an indication of the effort required to kill a creature, but the GM gets to decide the details. The methods of narrating attacks and their resulting hit point loss tend to fall into one of the following two styles, each with their own distinct benefits and weaknesses.

Blood & Guts.

The grizzled dwarven fighter swings his greataxe at the goblin. The hapless goblin never saw the attack coming and the axe hits it in the shoulder, easily rending the creature’s pitiful armor and severing its arm. The goblin goes limp and topples to the stone floor as blood spurts from the wound. The hobgoblin commander fires an arrow at the dwarf in retaliation. It narrowly finds its mark, tracing a line of blood across the dwarf’s cheek as it grazes him.

When you narrate every hit as bodily harm from contact with a weapon, you can encourage some impressively bloody battles. The relative amounts of damage indicate how gruesome a wound is inflicted upon the target of an attack. Matthew Mercer and the cast of Critical Role take this narrative style to grizzly and impressive rhetorical heights. It evokes a morbid satisfaction when you can split your foe in half with a greatsword and can strike terror in your players as you give them every gory detail of their injuries. Saving the reveal of the damage results for after the description is given helps build suspense among your players and is the recommended way of giving this method the greatest narrative impact.

The downside to this approach is that it interacts strangely with the rules for resting and regaining hit points. With an hour of rest, a character can heal from the broken jaw they got in the raucous tavern brawl. During an 8 hour long rest, a character completely recovers from all her wounds, no matter how grevious. Neither of these scenarios requires magic, which can make some players stop and question how healing this rapid can occur naturally. There are a few simple ways to alleviate these concerns.

5th edition assumes to a certain degree that heroes of the calibre of your players are rare and somewhat special. Being touched by fate or the gods, or simply being made of sterner stuff than most, can provide sufficient justification for the remarkable healing of the player’s heroes. It is also reasonable to assume that wounds healed without magic might leave fresh, raw scars. Utilizing optional rules for lingering injuries can help add a dose of realism to alleviate any lingering concerns that might pull players out of immersion.

Simulated Realism.

The alternative is to embrace the abstraction of hit points and carry it into the perspective on attacks. Assume that a single attack and its associated die roll is not one swing of a weapon, but a concentrated series of actions that constitutes an attempt to strike a target once. A miss is an effort that does not come near the target and a hit is an effort that does make some contact with the target. For this paradigm, that contact is not typically injurious. A creature’s hit points are a measure of their ability to prevent those attacks that would strike them from having lethal effect. Losing or expending hit points allows a creature to duck a blow, raise a shield to absorb the impact, or luckily step aside at the last moment. These efforts slowly tire a creature, represented by their diminishing pool of hit points, until eventually they can no longer avoid attacks and a clever blow lays them low.

Making this work at the table can be a daunting task as a GM must describe a different scene with each attack, taking into account how many hit points a creature has and how their equipment enables them to narratively escape the brunt of an attack. The payoff is in the immersion that this brings, how small attributes of a player’s character impact the unfolding story and how slowly fatiguing a fight can end up feeling under the onslaught of attacks.

Making It Your Own.

These methods are not required to make the game operate correctly or have fun. You can directly providing attack and damage numbers to their players if you want. You can move between them, using gruesome details for encounters with your epic villains or weakest minions. These ideas are meant to inspire, so if your group does something special we would love to hear about it in the comments below!

David Adams

Part-time freelancer, full-time wizard. Works for coin or spell scrolls.

David Adams has been pestering Dungeons and Dragons publishers for the past 12 years and managed to collect a myriad of credits in that time. He has had the good fortune of seeing his content published by the likes of Kobold Press and Wizards of the Coast in addition to other recognizable companies.

David started playing D&D when he was 16 and the game has been an amazing outlet for creativity as well as a fascinating space to explore complex social issues while simultaneously slaying dragons in epic combat. The ability of the game, regardless of edition, to transmute his interests into exciting experiences he can share with friends is the key aspect that keeps his interests fixed upon it.


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