Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Hit Points and Verisimilitude

I'm generally flattered when I notice that somebody has commented on old blog post I've made. It's good to know that the "old stuff" is still interesting to people other than me. Most recently, Tripper left a comment on my old "Playing with Hit Points" post from almost two years ago:

I've wondered, while patiently waiting an opportunity to DM, if this exact brand of combat storytelling wouldn't be aided by actually withholding mechanical information from the players.

In other words, don't tell the players anything more than they absolutely need to know to make tactical decisions, eg you lost 4 hp's, or you killed the orc, until the end of the round. They don't need to know, necessarily, what they got hit with or whether they even hit the enemy - only info that affects decisions. But imagine at the end of the round, when the DM can spin the whole round's events into an interrelated summary where Pagor's teammate interrupted an attack Pagor wasn't even aware of, and what Pagor seethingly thought was a spear thrust in his armor turned out to be a crossbow bolt.

This is an idea that gets kicked around a lot. I certainly don't think it's a bad one; truth to tell, I'd love to banish numbers entirely from the mechanics. Discussions of armor class, bonuses, and saving throws don't really add to the verisimilitude of the game. In a very real sense, the verisimilitude turns off as soon as combat begins.

This is, quite honestly, one of those areas where D&D fails me. I endure this, in large part, because combat is one of the least interesting parts of the games that I run. Combat in pre-third edition D&D

is simple and quick. It gets the job done, and then gets out of the way.

Numbers are quick and easy and unambiguous. So I continue to use them. Another virtue of D&D combat is that it gives you lots of chances to see the combat is going poorly before you get into real trouble. Without the death spiral of other games, you could fight on to the last hit point. If you're really stupid. The point, however, of lots of hit points is to give you time to pull out if you get in over your head.

This, of course, assumes a style of play in which combat is not the primary focus. That's perfect for my games, and for games where the focus is on investigation or exploration. The key, however, is to give the players accurate information of what is going on in the fight. This isn't terribly realistic; Tripper's idea of telling players after the fight that what they thought was spear wound actually came from a crossbow more accurately reflects my incredibly limited experience with melee, as well as descriptions we read and hear of real combat.

That said, I'm hesitant to go too far with it. In my experience, players make things more complicated already without any help from the DM. Misleading information in the middle of a combat sounds like a recipe for mass confusion. Again, that's often what combat really is. If I was running a game with stronger combat focus, I'd be really tempted to do something like this. Ditto if one of the primary themes of the game was perception and I was drawing on Philip K. Dick for inspiration.

Has anybody tried something like this? If so, I'd be very curious to hear how it turned out.


Anonymous said...

I like verisimilitude too, but I don't think I'd want it full time. There's got to be some artifacts of the game (numbers) as well, otherwise it won't even seem like a game to me as a player.

Patrick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patrick said...

It's not so much the numbers that get me, it's how they're used. D&D (especially 4th edition) uses numbers very badly. See here for my argument as to how.

Cygnus said...

It's a nice romantic notion to think that players can be "spared" the numerical nuts and bolts and thus become more fully immersed in the imagined world. But, as you hinted in your post, they need SOME kind of concrete (i.e., hard and fast) data so they can figure out what choices to make from round to round.

Also, it's empowering for the players to have this kind of detailed knowledge about their PCs' moment-to-moment status. It's not like they're feeling each wound... :)

Every time I thought about doing something like this, I became certain that my players would mutiny and demand their numbers back!

I plan that the GM's book for my own OSR retro-game (which I'm blogging about) will lay out some of the benefits and drawbacks of these kinds of choices.

Pontifex said...

You inspired me tonight, Brian.


trollsmyth said...

Anon: Yeah, sometime soon I need to throw up a post discussing the G part of RPG, and exactly how it benefits us, how it hinders us, etc. There's a lot to mine in that topic.

ledpup: Yeah, I used to be rather uptight about the numbers. I think if I'd been born later, I'd probably be a free-former. Learning to relax and appreciate the numbers has been a long road for me. ;p

Cygnus: I agree, obviously. Back in the '90s, when damage tracks were all the rage, I tried doing away with numbers, too. But everything else I came up with was just numbers disguised in fancy clothes and far less flexible than D&D's simplicity.

AndreasDavour said...

In Unknown Armies, the players never know their hit points. You as the GM is supposed to keep track of that, and then you give rough "in character" estimates of how hurt people is.

I have wanted to try that game for ages, for many reasons.

Adesazz said...

Well geez, you think YOU'RE flattered... Anyway, your criticism is spot-on. Numbers are a necessary linchpin of the abstraction, and combat is chaotic/deadly/insignificant enough as it is. I'm simply enamored with the idea of each round telling a story - but 10 seconds at a time rather than frame...by...frame. I'll keep you up-to-date on hitpoints, sure, and who's still alive (can't have the next guy beating on a corpse) but I don't see what else can't wait till the end-of-the-round recap.

I will waylay my unsuspecting group with this this weekend, and dutifully report my reality check. Thanks for the shout-out Brian, I'm sure the gf will be so proud.

trollsmyth said...

Tripper: Cool! I'll be looking forward to hearing how it turns out.

Adesazz said...

Well, limited applications, as it turns out. Too small a combat and it's over too quick, too large a combat and there's too many pieces in different areas to keep track of. We didn't have anything in in between, last session, but hey I'll keep it on the shelf.

Adesazz said...

A further problem worth mentioning is how incompatible a recap system is with other worthy ideas, such as cyclic initiative and Alexis' XP system http://tao-dnd.blogspot.com/2009/04/experience-solved.html?showComment=1297297522939#c2860873526829554116. I'm thinking simple initiative might be the answer I'm looking for - capturing some of the chaos and flow of battle without casting the players in ignorance. Old news to true grognards, I'm sure :)