D&D General D&D as a Game- On the Origin of Hit Points and Start of the Meat Debate

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I haven't done a historical deep dive in many months, so I thought I'd do one for the Holidays! That's right, a special "December Will Be Magic Again" Snarfticle in honor of Kate Bush's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Props to Big Boi for showing some emotional vulnerability and appearing on her behalf!


Ahem. Where was I? Well, one of the evergreen debates in the D&D Extended Cinematic Universe is the ongoing question of hit points- are the meat, or are they grown in a lab to be put in Impossible Whoppers? Wait, no, that's not it. Hit points- meat or not?

Now, while I am not here to answer that question, I am here to tell you that this divide began at the very beginning of the game; in fact, the great hit point schism began with the Gygax/Arneson schism. Understanding the origins of this debate, and what it meant for the game, can help shed light on the popularity of D&D moving forward.


1. Chainmail and Arneson

There are numerous sources (and some debate) over the exact origins of certain things in D&D, so I apologize if I am overly-simplifying here. However, in the mists before time, Dave Arneson began using the rules of fantasy combat rules for Chainmail in the proto-game that we now think of as D&D. Notably, in Chainmail, there were no "hit points." However, there are hints of what "hit points" might be; for example, a "Hero" (or Anti-Hero) would require "four simultaneous kills" scored against them by regular troops. In addition, "Hero Types" would be allowed saving throws for certain types of damage, including the missile fire of a wizard. For saving throws, I go into more detail here-


But as Arneson's game took shape, one thing became clear. Combat wasn't fun. Apparently, using the base rules of Chainmail (however it might have been construed) resulted in player characters getting killed every time they were hit. Which might appeal to some of us grognards (Serves you right for getting into combat, instead of sneaking around and stealing the gold!), but was very unsatisfying.

So whether through the influence of Chainmail, the influence of naval wargames, or some general gestalt and his inspired ability to improv rules, Arneson started using hit points to allow player characters the ability to take multiple hits. But ... Arneson believed that these hit points represented the meat of the character (although he didn't use that exact term); hit points were established at the time of the character's creation, and did not increase.

How did a character, then, become able to take on greater challenges as they "levelled up?" Well, in the Arnesonian conception, the characters would become harder to hit. This was usually represented as a saving throw of some type- depending upon the time of the game, it could be a saving throw against damage, or an armor saving throw, that would negate some or all of the damage. While the system that was eventually published in First Fantasy Campaign uses an armor saving throw method, it does appear that around the time of his interactions with Gygax, he may have been using a saving throw system independent of armor, that increased with levels.

The basic concept would be something like this- you get your hit points at first level. As your level increases, your chance of saving against taking damage would increase as well. As the classes become differentiated, they get different saving throws, and fighters got great saving throws, especially against damage.


2. Enter the Gygax

Arneson and Dave Megarry went to Lake Geneva to show Gygax their games (Blackmoor and Dungeon!). By this point, Arneson had already sent correspondence to Gygax telling him that he had made minor modifications to Chainmail ... specifically hit points. Gygax was blown away, of course. One of the things that he immediately understood, and appreciated, was the idea of advancement. While we talk today about play loops, and the concept that "getting better" and "advancing" seems integral to the appeal of many games, it was a novel concept at the time, but Gygax was quick to latch on to this idea.

From there, D&D was born. Again, not to re-litigate "who did what" or the other things people still argue about today (I recommend the excellent Game Wizards or ... well, when it's re-released, Playing at the World if you're interested in that type of history), but it's clear that Gygax introduced a major alteration into what Arneson showed him.

Arneson introduced the idea of hit points. But Gygax introduced the idea of increasing hit points. On the one hand, it immediately moved the game away from the more grounded and realistic wargaming roots, as well as Arneson's original vision that hit points were something innate and unchangeable ("meat"). On the other hand, this change served two immediate purposes-

A. It reinforced and enhanced the level/reward play loop. You increase level, you increase hit points, you take on more powerful challenges, so that you can increase in level and increase in hit points.

B. It simplified and abstracted the combat system and made it more predictable. Under the Arnesonian system, combat would require a to-hit roll, then a damage roll, then a saving throw, then a calculation for reduction of damage. Under this system, you roll to hit, and then roll to damage. So the system is a lot faster. More importantly, it was more predictable, and allowed for more satisfying combats. Once past the first couple of levels, combats became less "swing-y" as players would know how the fight is going. As hit points began to dwindle, players could expend more of their resources on the fight, or choose to flee. Under the other system, combat was always a matter of "It's going fine, until it isn't, because you're dead." Which is certainly more realistic! But perhaps not as entertaining.

In a certain way, we can see echoes of the prior combat system in the way that D&D kept the "save or die" effects. Except instead of being for particular circumstances, almost every single combat round would have been a "save or die."


3. Fallout and Aftermath

In addition to all the other rancor between Gygax and Arneson that persisted for some time, the issue of increased hit points was something that Arneson was vocally opposed to. During the "lawsuit years," Arneson would often complain about the changes to his vision of D&D, noting the introduction of "funny dice" and especially the changes to hit points. Gygax, for his part, would go on at length (as he always did) about the purpose of hit points and the game itself; here is the relevant sections from the DMG-

A few brief words are necessary to insure that the reader has actually obtained a game form which he or she desires. Of the two approaches to hobby games today, one is best defined as the realism-simulation school and the other as the game school. AD&D is assuredly an adherent of the latter school. It does not stress any realism (in the author’s opinion an absurd effort at best considering the topic!). It does little to attempt to simulate anything either. ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is first and foremost a game for the fun and enjoyment of those who seek to use imagination and creativity. This is not to say that where it does not interfere with the flow of the game that the highest degree of realism hasn‘t been attempted, but neither is a serious approach to play discouraged. In all cases, however, the reader should understand that AD&D is designed to be an amusing and diverting pastime, something which can fill a few hours or consume endless days, as the participants desire, but in no case something to be taken too seriously. For fun, excitement, and captivating fantasy, AD&D is unsurpassed. As a realistic simulation of things from the realm of make-believe, or even as a reflection of medieval or ancient warfare or culture or society, it can be deemed only a dismal failure. Readers who seek the latter must search elsewhere. Those who desire to create and populate imaginary worlds with larger-than-life heroes and villains, who seek relaxation with a fascinating game, and who generally believe games should be fun, not work, will hopefully find this system to their taste.
Gary Gygax, AD&D (1e) DMG p. 9

It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage - as indicated by constitution bonuses- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the "sixth sense" whith warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection. Therefore, constitution affects both actual ability to withstand physical punishment hit points (physique) and the immeasurable areas which involve the sixth sense and luck (fitness).
Gary Gygax, AD&D (1e) DMG, p. 82

Was he protesting too much? Regardless, this small but significant change had a massive impact, in my opinion. It's the reason that "hit points" spread throughout other games, and into the video game industry. It's the reason that we see various "health" mechanics that allow characters to take many hits. In short, Gygax alighted upon a key feature of D&D success at the beginning- gamifying the combat in way that made it fun and rewarding.

Of course, this also started the continuing "meat" debates that we see to this day, but that's a small price to pay for an innovation that has carried on throughout TTRPGs and videogames, isn't it?
 

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Clint_L

Hero
In my home game, we have a house rule that if you go to 0 HP, you have to roll on a critical hit table. In terms of gameplay, the rationale is to raise the stakes during combat a bit more, to make it more dangerous, which we like. But in terms of hit points, to us it represents the idea that hit points are basically about your skill, luck, experience, and endurance, but not really about physical injuries. So when you run out is when things get lethal.

Edit: Progression and hit points are intertwined - as you gain experience, you get better at your job. And for an adventurer, your main job is surviving.

Thank you for your post - it always feels like a treat when there's a new treatise from Snarff.
 
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Stalker0

Legend
I would argue the crux of the meat debate comes from falling damage. I think most people can go with the notion that the attack from a dragon was "avoided barely with a nasty nick" rather than "hit the fighter clean in the head and they shrugged it off". Even things like fireball, you can argue that its not a solid mass of fire, but a swirling mass of fire that "singed your eyebrows" rather than they "incinerated you".

Its a level of disbelief I think most people can get behind, especially in 4e/5e where healing is so fast. The idea of recovering "meat points" that quickly is really hard to swallow, but the notion of recovering "luck or stamina"...sure.

Falling damage is harder. The idea that a fighter can jump from a 100 foot cliff, land on a hard surface and "be totally fine", really strains the notion. That's the biggest area I see people balking.

I also think the name "Cure Wounds" is a problem thematically.... as both the name and even spell description highlights the idea of.... fixing actual injuries. Really the name should have been the "Lesser Restoration/Restoration" spell name or maybe even a "Restore Vitality" concept. That adds more into the idea that your character is "refreshed" (a stamina concept) rather than "healed" (a wounds concept).
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I would argue the crux of the meat debate comes from falling damage. I think most people can go with the notion that the attack from a dragon was "avoided barely with a nasty nick" rather than "hit the fighter clean in the head and they shrugged it off". Even things like fireball, you can argue that its not a solid mass of fire, but a swirling mass of fire that "singed your eyebrows" rather than they "incinerated you".

Its a level of disbelief I think most people can get behind, especially in 4e/5e where healing is so fast. The idea of recovering "meat points" that quickly is really hard to swallow, but the notion of recovering "luck or stamina"...sure.

Falling damage is harder. The idea that a fighter can jump from a 100 foot cliff, land on a hard surface and "be totally fine", really strains the notion. That's the biggest area I see people balking.

I also think the name "Cure Wounds" is a problem thematically.... as both the name and even spell description highlights the idea of.... fixing actual injuries. Really the name should have been the "Lesser Restoration/Restoration" spell name or maybe even a "Restore Vitality" concept. That adds more into the idea that your character is "refreshed" (a stamina concept) rather than "healed" (a wounds concept).
That's why in my game if you voluntarily jump off that 100 foot cliff, you are giving up your skill, luck, etc. hit point and relying on the few physical hit points you have. So your PC is probably dead.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I would argue the crux of the meat debate comes from falling damage. I think most people can go with the notion that the attack from a dragon was "avoided barely with a nasty nick" rather than "hit the fighter clean in the head and they shrugged it off". Even things like fireball, you can argue that its not a solid mass of fire, but a swirling mass of fire that "singed your eyebrows" rather than they "incinerated you".

Its a level of disbelief I think most people can get behind, especially in 4e/5e where healing is so fast. The idea of recovering "meat points" that quickly is really hard to swallow, but the notion of recovering "luck or stamina"...sure.

Falling damage is harder. The idea that a fighter can jump from a 100 foot cliff, land on a hard surface and "be totally fine", really strains the notion. That's the biggest area I see people balking.

agreed - a 5th level character can jump off a 5th story budling and be 100% fine the following morning... and they can do this every day.

Temp HP also muddles the issue....
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
There’s a few assumptions and blank spots that can be filled in if we remember Strategos.

Here are some articles.



 

Gygax's writing in the AD&D DMG is just so pleasant to read. I know there's many different descriptors given to it, but his writing draws me in, teaches me his view, and then leaves me to make my own decisions on the mechanics. Good article beyond that!
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Gygax's writing in the AD&D DMG is just so pleasant to read. I know there's many different descriptors given to it, but his writing draws me in, teaches me his view, and then leaves me to make my own decisions on the mechanics. Good article beyond that!
Yup. Just the enjoyment I get from reading the 1e DMG would be enough for it to have a special place in my heart, even if didn't have so many other great qualities.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
I would argue the crux of the meat debate comes from falling damage. I think most people can go with the notion that the attack from a dragon was "avoided barely with a nasty nick" rather than "hit the fighter clean in the head and they shrugged it off". Even things like fireball, you can argue that its not a solid mass of fire, but a swirling mass of fire that "singed your eyebrows" rather than they "incinerated you".

Its a level of disbelief I think most people can get behind, especially in 4e/5e where healing is so fast. The idea of recovering "meat points" that quickly is really hard to swallow, but the notion of recovering "luck or stamina"...sure.

Falling damage is harder. The idea that a fighter can jump from a 100 foot cliff, land on a hard surface and "be totally fine", really strains the notion. That's the biggest area I see people balking.

I also think the name "Cure Wounds" is a problem thematically.... as both the name and even spell description highlights the idea of.... fixing actual injuries. Really the name should have been the "Lesser Restoration/Restoration" spell name or maybe even a "Restore Vitality" concept. That adds more into the idea that your character is "refreshed" (a stamina concept) rather than "healed" (a wounds concept).
The thing with falling damage is, normal humans have survived falls from some pretty insane heights (Vesna Vulovic's 33,330 foot drop, though obviously, she was far from "just fine" afterwards; Nicholas Alkemade got off the lightest, with a broken wrist and leg after 18,000 feet), so it's one of those things like being struck by lightning. Some regular humans die. Others don't. So luck, divine providence, training, soft landings, what have you, there's a large chunk of what hit points represent that's obviously not structural integrity.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
Warhammer had sort of a hybrid approach to the gygax/arnesson divide. In 2nd ed, a starting character would have about 8-10 wounds (roughly the equivalent of HP). And a high level fighter-type might have... 6, 8 more wounds than a starting character? But said high level warrior was also harder to hit by being better at parrying and having better damage reduction. So you do get more hp, but only a little bit, and you get better at defenses in other ways.

It's a pretty realistic system. But, as the OP points out, it makes each attack take about 40% longer to resolve. Roll to attack. Deffender rolls to parry/dodge. damage is rolled. Damage is reduced. damage is applied. And that isn't great.
 

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