On his blog today, Coyote discusses the absurdity of hitpoints, while yet finding them worthwhile.

Of course, he’s right that the idea of hitpoints as a life indicator is silly. He’s also right when he details several reasons why they serve a useful purpose, the most important one being: they’re simple.

The concept is easy to understand: more hitpoints is a good thing, fewer is a bad thing. There’s no difficulty in keeping track of your character’s health in a fight. Hitpoints avoid a lot of tedious complication.

Still, they are absurd to many, which brings us to the question: is there a better way to measure life and injury in RPGs? Or is the hitpoint system really the best method overall?

Most of the RPG systems on my shelf use HPs one way or another, but there are some that don’t. For example, the original Star Wars had no hitpoints and, for that matter, no endurance stat.

Damage was calculated against strength in opposed rolls. The shooter rolled damage dice, the target rolled strength dice. The two values were compared and a table consulted for the result, which could be anything from merely stunned to mortally wounded.

A more complex system was used in Shadowrun, with dice rolls for calculating successes, damage staging, and damage resistance. Here, though, characters did have an endurance stat.

Ars Magica was another that compared damage rolls against protection to determine how severe the target was injured. While there was no endurance, characters used stamina as part of their defense.

What these three have in common is the use of an abstract damage monitor that goes from “lightly wounded” to “mortally wounded”, or some variant of this. The important feature is that, however powerful the character, the monitor doesn’t change over time.

So advanced characters are as vulnerable as they were at the start. Naturally, each system has ways of improving protection (or reducing damage), but the fact remains that combat in these games could become lethal quite easily.

Is that desirable, especially in a computer RPG? Would anyone be pleased to know that, however powerful his character was, it still had as good a chance of dying in any fight as a beginner would?

Keep in mind, also, that these systems impose penalties for being wounded. So even a light injury would impair your abilities in combat.

Non-HP systems may be workable in a pen & paper game, because combats usually don’t happen too often, and the DM can always fudge things a bit. However, when we consider the number of fights in a typical RPG, the chance of needing a reload increases enormously when the damage monitor is static.

So yeah, keep the fancy stuff; in a computer RPG, I’ll take hitpoints every time.

RPG Design: In Defense of … Hit Points