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Archives of Candlekeep: Never Enough, the Story of the Hit Point

This article was first broadcast in Episode Twenty-Nine on 20th June 2018.

LennonHoly mother of Avandra, that stings… Are you nearly done
OstronOh will you quit whining?! And hold still otherwise I can’t stitch it properly
LennonI nearly lost an arm to that allegedly juvenile dragon
RyuIt was so pretty though. The way its scales glistened in the moonlight…
LennonI’ve lost a *lot* of blood
OstronBlood, yes. I’d be more concerned with losing Hit Points.
LennonYeah, though I don’t have a lot of those left either.


But what does it mean to have a lot of hit points? Last time we talked about how Armor Class really only represents a miss chance, though that chance can take different forms.  Hit points represent a character’s ability to survive, say, being stabbed by a sword, so if Person A dies when stabbed through the heart by a sword, does Person B with five times as many HP need to be stabbed through the heart five times?  If so, does that mean Person B can break their neck five times as often? Get their arm almost ripped off by five times as many dragons? Realistically, no, but technically…yeah, kinda. To truly understand the hit point, we need to look at all the factors that have gone into it through the editions, starting with the most basic question, “why would a given creature have a lot of hit points?”

Let’s start with a simple one: an elephant has more hit points than a sheep, which has more hit points than a rabbit.  If we take a dagger as our basic unit of stabbiness, the size of the creature allows a larger creature to absorb more stabs than a smaller one, because the size of the injury is smaller relative to the size of the body. This can be thought of as the “pints of blood” theory of hit points, that a larger creature has more blood it can safely spill.  Now let’s compare two 1st level rogues, one with an 18 Constitution and one with a Con score of 3, giving 12 HP vs 4 HP. Is it because because the one with the 18 Con has three times as much blood or is three times the size of the other? No. In this instance, the difference represents a difference in stamina; the rogue with the higher Constitution is more resilient and better able to fight on despite their wounds.  But size and stamina still don’t cover everything; there’s yet another factor involved.

Consider now a first level wizard vs a first level fighter.  Assuming a Con of 10 for both, they have HP totals of 6 and 10 respectively.  The fighter can survive an extra stab or two compared to the wizard, but why? Is it stamina?  More pints of blood? Maybe. Now, let’s scale them up to level 20. Taking the fixed HP at level up (4/lvl for wizard, 6/lvl for fighter), we have hit point maximums of 82 and 124 respectively.  Clearly, the fighter can be “safely” stabbed far more than the wizard, and both can be stabbed far, far more than either of their first level counterparts, but why? Do they grow in stamina? Do they grow to elephantine size as they gain levels?

The reason for both the differences between classes and levels is due to yet another factor represented by HP: the skill theory of hit points.  Unsurprisingly, the more time you’ve spent fighting, the better you learn to minimize attacks, and a trained fighter will have better honed reflexes than a wizard.  A thrust that would strike a novice square in the chest is one the master is able to deflect to a minor scrape along the arm. By training and skill, every drop of the high-level character’s blood is shed only with the greatest of difficulty.  And with that, we’ve rounded out the hit point triumvirate that served D&D all the way from 1e to 3.5e: size, stamina, and skill.

The problems with how D&D has handled hit points arise when we look at healing. For the most part, it behaves as if HP represents only “pints of blood”, especially magical healing, such as that from Clerics and Paladins.  The biggest difference in hit points over the editions can be seen in how natural healing has progressed.  In first edition, we’re given two conflicting systems (one in the PHB, the other in the DMG) for naturally recovering hit points; and like most things in the early editions, both were excessively harsh: one hp healed per day of complete rest, with possible penalties for low Con or bonuses for high Con.  In what might be considered an homage to first edition, second edition likewise gives conflicting rules for natural healing, with either capping out at 3 HP/day for complete bed rest, with maybe your Con bonus for each full week so spent.  In both editions, however, a low-level character beaten to an inch of their life will still heal faster than a much more experienced character can heal a far lesser injury, thanks to the numerical difference in hit points.  Third edition accounted for the “skill” aspect and increased natural healing to 1 hit point per day per character level while resting, or 1.5 times that for complete bed rest, which 3.5e bumped up to 2 HP per day per level for complete bed rest.  

Now, back to magical healing. Magical healing has always invariably relied on the “pints of blood” interpretation.  A single low-level spell can bring a low-level character from the brink of death to full health, but much more powerful spells are required to restore lesser wounds on experienced characters.  It’s reasonable to expect the wounds of a titan to require more effort to heal than those of a mountain goat, but that shouldn’t be the case for two different humans. Another issue with healing up to this point was more of a roleplaying issue: because clerics had a virtual monopoly on effective magical healing, any viable party was forced to include a cleric, and if nobody wanted to play one, well, either someone was going to have to “take one for the team” and play something they didn’t want to, or the party’s chances of survival plummeted.  Fourth edition D&D tackled both these issues quite well with two new tools: healing surges and the morale theory of hit points.

Healing surges were a fairly straightforward fix; they represented a reserve of stamina that a character could draw on to continue fighting despite their injuries, and most healing required a character to spend healing surges to gain the benefits.  Each healing surge was worth one quarter of a character’s maximum HP, rounded down. A character’s number of healing surges did not increase by level, but since the value was always about one quarter the maximum, a person could always be healed from zero to full or nearly full in four surges, thus fixing the problem with higher-level characters needing more healing to fix lesser injuries.  Surges didn’t have to be depleted before a character could die, but a character who had none was utterly exhausted, unable to benefit from most forms of healing, and in a very vulnerable position indeed.

When blending morale as an aspect of HP, 4e likely took inspiration from the MMORPG The Lord of the Rings Online, or LotRO.  Set in Tolkien’s classic Middle Earth, LotRO faced a unique challenge: character death. In order to be true to the lore, the PCs simply couldn’t die, as coming back from death again and again would be breaking the lore almost as much as Runekeepers (a class I am still bitter about 10 years later). To get around the issue of death, the devs used “morale” instead of hit points. When a character ran out of morale, they were defeated, and if not rallied by another player, they were routed and forced to retreat to to a rally point. This mechanic also addressed the lack of magical healing in Middle Earth. Rather than having clerics continually mending gaping wounds, Minstrels provided songs to lift the hearts of warriors so they could fight on, while Captains raised fighting spirit with battle cries and drove away fears with words of courage.  Does it make sense realistically? That’s debatable, but story is also important, and healing by morale can make for a good story…

The sounds of battle echoed as if from a distance; he lay crumpled against the wall where the troll had thrown him.  Everything hurt. Everything hurt so much. Sleep would be so easy. Yes, sleep…

“For Gondor!  For the white city!  For the king!”

Gondor.  Last bastion of the West.  If it fell now, the rest of the lands lay nigh defenseless.  He clung to those words, like a drowning man grips a rope, and pulled his mind back to the screaming world of the battle around him.  Aching, he staggered to his feet; standing up was so very painful.

But staying down would be more painful still.

I think that would be a satisfactory scene for anyone’s campaign.

4e’s warlord class is a good example of hit points as morale, as they’re non-magical warriors who inspire others to carry on fighting — healers without healing magic.  While slightly less effective than clerics at healing, they still provide ample support for the party by themselves, rallying and inspiring the party again and again. With the PHB2 adding the bard and the shaman to the available pool of healing classes, party diversity was practically assured.  Even then, 4e gave the party other tools for non-magical healing. The Second Wind ability allowed any character to spend their action to use a healing surge, once per encounter, giving everyone a last-ditch form of healing themselves. Additionally, characters could spend healing surges outside of combat to restore HP without outside assistance.  The only real flaw with 4e’s healing would be its generosity in natural recovery; a single night’s rest is sufficient to recover all HP and healing surges, bringing everyone back to full health.

5e once again took 4e out back, beat it up and stole its lunch-money; and then promptly went out-front and picked up right where 3rd edition left off.  Morale was removed as an aspect of hit points, and with it went the warlord. Second Wind (that is, healing by stamina) was reserved for the fighter class.  Healing by magic once again only honors the “pints of blood” interpretation and its inherent problems. But not all lessons were forgotten. Healing surges became hit dice, allowing characters a non-magical way to heal themselves between battles, though in a much more limited and randomized fashion.  Also, with the bard becoming a full spellcasting class, the addition of the Divine Soul sorcerer, as well as other lesser healers like the Celestial warlock and to some extent the druid; the cleric has gone from a necessity to merely the preferred healing class. While nothing beats a Healing domain cleric in its specialty, a party can get by without relying continually on their divine services.


LennonSo remind me, Ostron, what class are you again?
OstronI’m a loremaster wizard.
LennonIsn’t that an Unearthed Arcana class?
Lennon… Then why in the Nine Hells are you stitching up my arm?
RyuTo be fair, he said he had a healer’s kit. He never once claimed he was proficient with it.
LennonRyu, can you do me a favor and fetch the Cleric? Because someone who doesn’t know how to use a healer’s kit is about to be missing their kidneys…

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