Dungeoneer’s Diary #11 – Hit Points

Posted: February 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

On the subject of heroically surviving grievous injury whether for movies or RPGs, Sergeant Frank Rock will always come up. When discussing the DC war comics character at the store, I said this, “if I had a dollar for every time I read an issue where Sgt. Rock took a sucking chest wound that the medic wrapped up in mummy bandages only to have the Rock check himself out of Battalion Aid 36 hours later to lead Easy to victory, I could pay off your school debt.”

Hyperbole alert, the man behind the second person pronoun owed $100,000 and Sgt. Rock only appeared a total of 339 distinct times before being ported to the regular DC spandex narrative (usually associated with Suicide Squad), or used as a rarely published nostalgia bait for old farts bemoaning that our wars don’t have nearly as much romance to them. Let’s just say Sergeant Rock took a lot of grave chest wounds that were promptly shrugged off enough times for exaggeration to set in.

Now why talk about the Rock in an RPG column? Have you seen the whole bit about Gain a Level Gain Hit Dice and therefore more hit points that has consistently existed in Dungeons & Dragons since the beginning? Depending on rules version, a fighter (assumed to be a trains outdoors sort of person) gets D10 or D8 with each level. Wizards get D4. Thieves get D6. Clerics get either D8 or D6.

Wisdom and experience do count for something, like Mr. Miyagi reminding Daniel, “best defense, don’t get hit.” And willpower and drive might increase with a warrior’s increased experience. This may explain why the Rock had the mummy bandage visuals land on his Script Immunity and not any of the other Combat Happy Joes of Easy Company. He does have the stripes and rockers of a Master Sergeant denoting a presumption of greater experience.

I suppose we need a real world example. In the same conversation where I spooled up the college debt brag, my friend told me that he didn’t read Sgt. Rock because it was too similar to his scary grandfather. This man I never met reportedly said on many occasions, “bullets are merely an impediment to forward progress.” I was later told after the man’s passing that the pathologist opening him up found upwards of 30 bullets or fragments spanning a nearly 40-year career in mostly covert service. In RPG terms this warrior is an upper level fighter that rolled high on hit dice gained and milked every Constitution bonus available.

So the RPG/film trope of the unstoppable tank-man slashing/shooting/scorching his way through armies of bad guys might be thing some of the time. Another way to look at the situation is that at about 4th Level most characters gain the ability to survive a single grave wound of the sort likely to disembowel a rookie, because the damage from the common weapons don’t increase to match. There are a few general and class-specific rules to provide at least some balance upon the tank-man trope in this bloodthirsty arms race being hit points and weapons.

A character or non-player character on the attack that rolls a natural 20 that survives all negative modifiers gets a critical hit where damage is multiplied by a lot. A thief could get similar multipliers using the Thief Backstab rules. An assassin in the early rules could circumvent the regular combat rules rolling a percentile dice for an instant killing, possibly bending all logic of an assassination by using this rule in a regular melee. My characters have helped wipe out several examples of large monsters using both the critical hit rules and backstab (never liked assassins as a class), most vividly a giant pretty much lost his spine under my blade.

When pushed various Dungeons & Dragons authors, playtesters and rules gurus have generally stated their belief that most of an upper level character’s extra hit dice represent a metaphor experience making a character being harder to hit. They asserted extra hit points to be a measure of exhaustion, parrying, blocking with some damage to the body. A 10th Level character might have nine dice of metaphor and one die of potential damage to the meat suit.

Okay, so they’re trying to capture the swirling roil of an Errol Flynn style cinematic fencing match while still having a turn-based combat system, aka “only one good strike per turn, everything else is feint and misdirection to be role-played.” But, even in this system declaring that all hit dice and hit points gained since first level are metaphors of exhaustion and driving through defenses belies the fact that they’re called hit dice in the first place. The complexity increases when you realize that optional rules allow for parrying, blocking, riposte, counterstrike and avoidance that are separate from the roleplaying section of the combat turn. All I know, the giant in the above example bled all over me.

The need for clarification increases when you port the killing machine trope back into the movies whence it spawned. Conan never got hit in any battle taking place past the midpoint in the story, unless the writer decreed a truly inconsequential slash much like a shaving scar. Closer to the end of the story, the Cimmerian doesn’t feel much exhaustion either. All those years in gladiator pits paid off and Arnold Schwarzenegger designed a regimen to match.

Other RPG systems have tackled the tricky balance between the desire to get ripped enough to fight dragons, Vermicious Knids or even the average Klingon and the truth of “don’t get hit” in many different ways. Some average various statistics like Strength and Constitution. Some DM/GMs add bleeding rules intended to keep players in an honest fear of death when slashed across the belly.

For instance, a friend currently experiments with a Marvel characters campaign using the Open Game License D20 (aka Dungeons & Dragons 3.0) rules. His solution is to give only one or two hit points per character development level after the first. He said he wanted to do what he could to convey that the human gains 90-percent of all damage resistance upfront and that all other gains represent small amounts built from experience. One way to go for a meet in the middle compromise between the dream of the tank and something that appears real. I wonder if I should drop an average Sgt. Rock issue on my friend or tell him the story of my other friend’s grandfather.

Regardless, please don’t confuse observation with critique. I can be riding in on the proverbial white horse when it has been some time since I played any serious games. Put me at the table with my blue and green dice and watch me chant, “come on, Baby, gimme at least a seven!” Yeah, I sometimes play RPGs like I did that one time shooting craps…go figure.

Anyway, there isn’t much else to say about the oddity that is hit points…get back to your literary mayhem!

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