Most games use a Hit Point system to keep game play really easy, however a Hit Point system is a very poor reflection for the true dangers of combat. Some systems add back a level of peril by including a critical system that allows for serious damage or even instant death. Others find a medium between the two which leads to a tepid hybrid of both. Let’s look at how systems handle injury and death and discuss the virtues and failings of each.
The Hit Point System
By far the most common method of handling character injury is through a HP system. This started with Dungeons & Dragons and can be found in a great many other systems, including most computer games. The great thing about the HP system is that it’s easy. Everyone is a basic meat bag with X amount of hit points, and every time the meat bag is hit some HP leaks out. The bigger the weapon you hit the meat bag with, the more HP leaks out. What could be easier?
The principle issue with this system is that it is absolutely unrealistic. It also removes any sense of peril from the majority of combats because people know that while their meat bag is full, they have little chance of death. In my experience, people who learn RP with HP based systems tend to be more prone to rash and dangerous actions, because for them, combat is just a matter of slapping meat bags together until one breaks.
Consider this: you’re a first level old school D&D fighter with 8 HP. You are attacked by a farmer with a dagger. You can be 100% certain that no matter what damage that farmer rolls it will take at least two hits to drop you because without Strength bonuses, the maximum damage a dagger can do is 1d4. On the other hand, a wizard with the maximum 4 HP has a 25% change of dying from one hit.
Game systems justify this disparity by suggesting the fighter is simply more deft at evading blows, so he takes less actual damage. If that were true then the wizard should take less damage from spells. Also, if the fighter takes less damage, why don’t healing spells work better on them? You could fly a dragon through the holes in these systems. In the real world, a single dagger strike could kill anyone, if it’s in the right place.
On the other hand we have critical based combat. Criticals are usually paired with HP, but in this case HP represents minor cuts and contusions which are not life threatening. I am excluding from this category systems that just adds bonus damage, like 5th edition D&D where a good die roll can do twice or more damage, because that’s still the meat bag system, just with some hits being harder than others. In this case, I’m talking about systems like Rolemaster where criticals can do anything from minor bleeding through to instant death.
In my experience, any system with genuinely dangerous criticals teach players that all combats are potentially lethal. Therefore, they tend to think more before starting a fight. It tends to lead to more creative play, and greater party cooperation. Combat becomes less about slapping meat bags and more about creating opportunities to cut the whole meat bag down in a single hit, or at least cripple a foe beyond the point they can fight.
Minor criticals can seriously heighten drama in a way HP systems cannot. This can be as simple as a character taking a round of two of Stun which means they cannot contribute to the fight for a few rounds. A more dramatic example is having a fellow character down and bleeding out, forcing the entire party to take greater risks in order to finish the fight in time to rescue their friend, or even being forced to withdraw.
Criticals do have their issues though. Many people feel that having to look up critical tables slows down the action, and that is true to a limited extent. When you get a critical in 5th edition D&D you have to roll high enough to critical, then again to confirm the critical, then that decides how many dice you roll for damage. In Rolemaster (one of the more table heavy systems I know) you have to roll to hit, then reference the weapon table which tells you the damage result plus the critical type. You then roll the critical result and consult the relevant critical table. So, D&D is three rolls and no tables, while Rolemaster is two rolls and two tables. You should already have the relevant tables at your finger tips, so looking up a number really shouldn’t be a time consuming issue.
A more valid criticism of the Critical systems is that it can lead to easy character death. A single nick from a dagger does have the potential to outright kill a high level fighter. A result like this is realistic, because your life is on the line in any and all combats. It’s also numerically very very unlikely. Given the number of violent situations that arise in RPGs, and the sheer weight of dice that are rolled over the course of a campaign, it is inevitable that someone will take an unlucky hit and die. Nobody wants to lose a character they’ve played for ages to a lucky hit from an angry stoat.
The simple way to overcome dumb misfortune is to use some form of Fate Point or Destiny Point system. With this system each character has a very limited pool of points which they can spend to save themselves from the fickle hands of Fate. The key is to balance the number of points against what the points can do. Warhammer Fantasy only grants 1-3 points (or did in the old days I played), but one point can instantly save your life. For Rolemaster, I gave out roughly five points, letting one point force a reroll of a critical result or two points for an auto-save. You want to keep the threat of death ever present, but not have dumb luck be the decider of a character’s fate.
Some systems suggest that everyone is fairly equally susceptible to death. The Storyteller system gives seven levels of health and the more wounds taken, the more it impedes the character. This is really just a HP system with limited HP and a sliding wound state. The system works well enough because everyone starts out bold at first but swiftly become more and more cautious as the very limited pool of wounds are consumed. I find the issue here is that one bad roll can lead to a downward death spiral as the more wounds taken, the less able the character becomes to avoid further wounds.
TORG only gives four wounds, but a Wound is a very serious thing indeed. Characters are more likely to fall unconscious from Shock before they die from Wounds. This creates a clever balance because almost any hit will cause Shock and thus make the combat more desperate, while those taking Wounds immediately have to consider falling back. In most combats, the characters are more likely to fall unconscious rather than die.
Warhammer 40K (early editions) offers a very bizarre twist on the limited HP system by simply saying 0 HP isn’t incapacitated, instead the more negative you go the more chance of suffering severe incapacitates or death. This might have worked if the damage being taken wasn’t so severe. It’s easy for the Ruinous Powers to kill a character in a single hit. While undoubtedly thematically appropriate, it meant the system could never really be played campaign style with the one character. Characters were made to die.
I am not saying there is a right or wrong way to handle character mortality. My advice here is to carefully consider how mortality will directly influence player behaviour. Does your system make mortality a joke? Or does it force people to become over cautious? Maybe they won’t even invest time and effort into their character due to the high mortality rate.
Combat lies at the heart of most RPGs, and how you handle damage and mortality is key to that combat system. Be sure the story you are telling has the kind of combat system that allows for the narrative you need.
I will offer one more example from my own gaming. I am a huge fan of Michael Moorcock so I swiftly purchased the very first version of the system. When running it at the local club I took a stack of 20 spare pre-made characters with me. Before the night ended we had turned the stack over and started through them again. The system was simply too lethal for anything but one shot games. Thematically correct once again, but just not playable. The system was re-released and once again I grabbed it. Things flowed much better on the old Chaosium Cthulhu system which, while still deadly, had ways to survive (having obscene weapon skills helped). We played through the Rogue Mistress module with only a few deaths and then onward to more campaigning. I still love the world, but I’m still waiting for the system that balances the thematic with the playable.
Ultimately my message is this: Just because the system treats characters like meat sacks, it doesn’t mean you should too. Work out how to play the system, don’t let the system play you.