Potentially one of D&D’s greatest shortcomings is its health system. Now that’s not to say I don’t like HP, I like HP just fine. I think I made that clear when talking about hit points back in the last blog I expounded on health systems.
The shortcoming, the specific failure in this instance is the lack of longterm consequences to poor decisions and/or flubbed actions. When it comes to a scale measure of how much punishment a creature can take in combat before it simply dies hit points are difficult to beat. Hit points have a maximum, a minimum (you are dead at X/-X HP), and it is easily measurable being, you know, uniform points and all.
So what’s the big deal? In theory that sounds pretty great for gauging how much punishment a creature can take in a fight. Hell, in practice it works pretty great and that’s why we’ve been using hit points since pen and paper RPGs have been a thing. Better yet we can empirically tell the difference between a hard hit and a grazing strike just by the data. The DM/GM rolls some dice, calls out a number for damage, and the whole table reacts. Physical wincing, the sucking of teeth, the chortle of inappropriate laughter, and a litany of offhand comments are the reaction of such an event. It’s visceral and it’s a phenomenon that cultivates a true reaction from the participants. That’s a good thing for RPGs.
The difficulty comes with what happens right after the combat ends. The healing process allows creatures to get hit points back by resting, using medical supplies, or by means of magic. They just get better, a 15-minute rest is equivalent of a soft reset after going three rounds with a prizefighter. It unfortunately doesn’t make much good sense. For how good the system is at measuring a creature’s ability to continue fighting while in said fight, it is equally as bad at portraying the fatigue and grinding effect of wounds to a person’s overall health. But perhaps that’s implicit in the name, hit points is a term we regard as an encapsulated idea rather than what the words actually say. Hit points, well it measures how many hits a creature can take. Viewed in that way HP is designed and functions perfectly to suit that specific purpose.
Hit points in this function are limited though. What about all the stuff that happens outside of combat: traps, hazards, accidents, poisons, disease, even falling. As I ran down in a previous post on traps the problems inherent with the system is that if these out of combat problems don’t outright kill a creature they’re of little to no consequence. Sure we can talk about the meta of chipping away at things like healing surges and the bookkeeping aspect of screwing with resource management. I like that stuff, it’s interesting and it adds a deeper, more strategic level to games. Where I see the problem is I shouldn’t have to up to my elbows in the system mechanics to make a trap meaningful. A common bear trap is not going to kill a player character, it just shouldn’t. So why put it in if my only recourse to apply consequences to a creature is take away some of its HP just so it can heal it back arbitrarily?
And that’s likely the exact reason some systems like D&D 4e are almost entirely combat-based and really tone down the dungeon crawl exploration bits with traps and hazards. These things supplement combat, but rarely are notable as obstacles in their own right and often play instead more as a flat-uninspired event at the table and PC resource depletion. One of the options I went over in the trap article was simply making the traps deadly. Traps become a very real threat when (like most traps in the real world) the intent is death for the victim and that is a real possibility. Another possibility is to make the effects of these non-combat engagements and even some combat encounters be something other than straight HP-related damage.
So let’s circle back to the bear trap. This is one of those traps not looking to immediately kill its victim. Because our adventurers possess powerful tools such as articulated, opposable thumbs and the ability to figure out trap mechanics they won’t die of exposure or starvation. Well with HP as is the creature would take X damage and move on to the next scene. But what if there was something other than just some slight damage. Still want to keep that resource management aspect deal the straight damage to HP but let’s add some flair to this trap. Well it’s a bear trap and I think it’s safe to assume the PC tripping it would do so with his leg. So why not add a reduction of the character’s speed. In something like D&D 4e this would be the Slowed condition. Continuing with 4e, this condition should not be an immediate save but should last at least one adventuring day. Why not try having the bear trap impart the Slowed condition with a save at the end of each extended rest. Functionally each day the PC has a chance to recover from his leg injury without it affecting his ability to take hits in combat.
Pro-Tip: Want to make your game feel a little extra gritty? Make critical failure results on initial checks/saves permanent injuries. Maybe the only way to get poor Dave out of the bear trap was to hack off his foot. This can turn your green adventurers into scarred veterans in short order. And no one said Dave couldn’t get a snazzy wooden foot to remove the Slowed condition.
Now I can already hear some of you out there grumbling that this sort of thing is already built into D&D and its kin with the idea of ability damage. I don’t really like ability damage, I think it’s cumbersome and too much long-term bookkeeping. Besides ability damage is regularly imparted by an attack, regardless of the attack’s severity. An attack might only deal one point of HP damage but deals a point of strength damage. A glancing blow hinders a character as much as a critical hit? That seems strange to me. I like my way better as it is variable enough to be tailored to the situation and can be easily explained within the scene’s theatrics.
So, something to think about adding to your games. Try adding it to a standalone trap or other non-combat situation and see if you get better results than you’re used to getting from your games.