5E The "everyone at full fighting ability at 1 hp" conundrum

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
Some of the discussion from other threads, and my gaming session last Sunday, has had me thinking about this a little more, and why it's problematic.

We all know HP are abstract. And we know that a certain suspense of disbelief has to happen. And when we ask, "Why are you at full fighting power from 100 hp down to 1 hp, but then suddenly lose everything, and if you lose 99% of your hp, it make no sense to heal all of it after 8 hours?" the common response is "because HP aren't meat, and all those hits you took aren't real hits, they are just grazing attacks that might not have hit you directly."

Well, there's another big problem with that. One that I as a player encountered last Sunday, and the sleep thread reminded me of just now. I.e., unless loss of hp actually does have a narrative effect (the DM describing the wounds from each attack), and there is no difference from the PC's perspective to guess how close they are to beating the creature, it has a significant detrimental effect to the players. In the sleep thread, it impacts whether or not the wizard will use that spell slot to end a battle. if they have no idea roughly how worn down the target is, they are more hesitant to use it. In my example last Sunday, I had first used magic missile. The DM pretty much narrated nothing with each attack people did, and when I asked, it was "it hits the creature." I was sure the creature had a resistance to something (it did, it was a gray ooze), but my magic missile, firebolt, and other PCs' attacks were all narrated the same so I had no idea what worked better than another.


So it seems like a paradox of sorts. HP are not just meat or fighting capability, but if you don't act like they are meat in the game, it has a negative affect to game play. 🤷‍♂️
 

LordEntrails

Adventurer
You don't have to have HP act like meat in order to narrate a decreasing amount of HP.

"The orc looks bedraggled, his confidence is almost gone."
"The blow of your great axe lands upon his chest, drawing some blood, but you see his will to live fading to but a glimmer in his eyes."
"You land a solid blow upon the swashbuckler, but she laughs it off and after dancing back for an instance, she comes right back at you."
 

dnd4vr

Adventurer
Every once in a while this comes up. We resolved it by removing "meat" from the equation. IRL, a successful sword hit would take down just about any one, regardless of experience in battle, etc. "Hit points" = "combat effectiveness" at our table. Loss of hp sometimes represents injuries, a loss of energy, your luck running out, your skill tested too far, etc.

We play the "killing blow" which reduces your hp to 0 is the strike, spell, etc. that finally does you in. That's it, you've had too much and simply can't avoid, absorb, dodge, etc. anymore. You are done and drop.

In movies, imagine the flashing exchange of attacks and parries and dodges, until finally one combatant runs the other through! That is the final blow that reduced hp to 0. Some of the earlier attacks "hit" and reduced hp, others missed completely.

It reminds me of when we first started with nearly all new players! One character, a monk, tried an unarmed strike on an ogre and "missed". The player asked, "How could I actually miss?!" We explained there as a good chance you might have made physical contact, but your strike was ineffective in reducing the combat effectiveness of the ogre (i.e. you did no damage).

It works for us and we don't have any confusion about it. I explain the concept to new players and they get it after a bit. Maybe it will help your table? Maybe not?
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
You don't have to have HP act like meat in order to narrate a decreasing amount of HP.

"The orc looks bedraggled, his confidence is almost gone."
"The blow of your great axe lands upon his chest, drawing some blood, but you see his will to live fading to but a glimmer in his eyes."
"You land a solid blow upon the swashbuckler, but she laughs it off and after dancing back for an instance, she comes right back at you."
"meat" was just half of what I had mentioned. I also stated fighting ability, which factors in the other things. You can have 100 hp, and lose 99 of them, but still have the same fighting ability with zero fatigue or loss of ability. I know it wouldn't be fun from a player's perspective to suffer penalties based on how many hp they have. The problem is when you narrate that even after losing 99% of hit points, they still look as effective as when the battle started. And if you do narrate that way, it causes problems for the players as I stated
 
The "everyone at full fighting ability at 1 hp" conundrum

Some of the discussion from other threads, and my gaming session last Sunday, has had me thinking about this a little more, and why it's problematic.
It's one of those bugs that's also a feature.

On the modeling side, it gives us PC heroes who can consistently do at least one heroic thing: fight on to the last.

On the playability side, we really just have to consider the alternative: The Death Spiral. Once you start modeling wounds, being wounded saps your ability to both eliminate the opposition, and to avoid taking further wounds, and the balance of the combat you're just circling the bowl.

So hps are simulataneous one of the worst and best things about D&D. They're one of the few sacred cows that's actually darn good for balance & playability and help make the game better. They provide a workable way for level scaling to be implemented, even under 5e BA.
Yet, they cause no end of problems with 'verisimilitude,' and, though their abstraction was thoroughly explained in painstaking detail 40 years ago, still somehow 'controversial.'

So, yeah, sorry, just went off based on the title alone...what were you saying...

We all know HP are abstract. And we know that a certain suspense of disbelief has to happen. And when we ask, "Why are you at full fighting power from 100 hp down to 1 hp, but then suddenly lose everything, and if you lose 99% of your hp, it make no sense to heal all of it after 8 hours?" the common response is "because HP aren't meat, and all those hits you took aren't real hits, they are just grazing attacks that might not have hit you directly."
IDK if that's the common response, but it's the one we got when the 1e DMG hit the shelves - that's that 40 years ago I was talking about. And, it has the virtue of working, if you can dare to work with it...

(… OK, mostly working, "Cure Light Wounds" doesn't exactly make a lick of sense when it can bring a dying MU up to full health - obviously a very serious wound indeed - but fail to heal up a high-level fighter who has a tiny scratch....
...but, even that has been solved since 4e, when surges made healing scale with your hp gain, so a Cure Light Wounds was 1/4 your hp, whether that was 5hps or 45, and even 5e has still kinda solved it, by conveniently eliminated the issue with the removal of the word "Light," making all Cure...Wounds spells simply Cure Wounds, scaling with level/slot if not exactly in lockstep with the recipients hps)

Well, there's another big problem with that. One that I as a player encountered last Sunday, and the sleep thread reminded me of just now. I.e., unless loss of hp actually does have a narrative effect (the DM describing the wounds from each attack), and there is no difference from the PC's perspective to guess how close they are to beating the creature, it has a significant detrimental effect to the players.
In the 5e PH sidebar on wounds, you start to show 'signs of wear' (that should be general enough for any creature) at 1/2 hps (in 4e it was formally a condition: "Bloodied' - it was announced by the DM, but then, much of 4e played best above-board), so you can gauge how close you are to finishing a monster pretty readily.

I was sure the creature had a resistance to something (it did, it was a gray ooze), but my magic missile, firebolt, and other PCs' attacks were all narrated the same so I had no idea what worked better than another.
That's a stylistic issue. 5e /does/ play rather well (best IMHO/X) with the DM keeping as much as possible behind the screen, but the DM still could have narrated reactions. If the monster were resistant to fire, for instance, those attacks wouldn't seem to give it pause, whether they were doing visible damage to it yet or not, while if it were vulnerable, it'd be clearly bothered by them (like the Frankenstien monster - "rgggg ahrrr FIRE BAD!" - or something).

So it seems like a paradox of sorts. HP are not just meat or fighting capability, but if you don't act like they are meat in the game, it has a negative affect to game play.
If you ignore the sidebar, and fail to narrate at all, as the only alternative to narrating severe physical wounds with every "hit."
 
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LordEntrails

Adventurer
Playability. It's no different for NPCs as it is for PCs.

It also means that if you had degrading abilities (or damage) then combat would be a slope, once you got advantage (or did the first amount of significant damage), it would almost never change the outcome. Combat would get less dangerous for one side, while becoming nearly impossible for the other.

The other playability aspect is book keeping. Oh, this orc now has a -2 attack and damage while this one has -1, and that one over there can only take a singel action each turn and...
 
It reminds me of when we first started with nearly all new players! One character, a monk, tried an unarmed strike on an ogre and "missed". The player asked, "How could I actually miss?!" We explained there as a good chance you might have made physical contact, but your strike was ineffective in reducing the combat effectiveness of the ogre (i.e. you did no damage).
That also came up in another thread:

The very choice of words used in the game - attack, save, hit, miss, damage*, healing - all write checks that the profound abstraction of hit points declines to cash.

Making it unambiguously clear that they're just jargon might've helped, but it was 34 years before D&D even tried, and that didn't exactly go over well, and 5e has just doubled-down with it's "natural language" mandate, so even when something has a jargon meaning, it's wrapped in as natural-seeming as possible sentences and usage.







* ironically "hit point" is not, in itself, part of that problem, as it carries no particular natural-language implications. Indeed, had other things been phrased a little differently from the beginning, they could be seen as /negating hits/, based on the choice of the "hit point" label.
 
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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
The Basic Rules say this:

Dungeon Masters describe hit point loss in different ways. When your current hit point total is half or more of your hit point maximum, you typically show no signs of injury. When you drop below half your hit point maximum, you show signs of wear, such as cuts and bruises. An attack that reduces you to 0 hit points strikes you directly, leaving a bleeding injury or other trauma, or it simply knocks you unconscious.

So it seems like the DM could probably just point to this part of the rules and then be consistent with descriptions along these lines, effectively communicating through narration the HP status of the monsters. "The orc is cut and bruised, showing signs of wear, but still aggressively in the fight." The player then knows that it's below half its hit points and is still fighting at full strength. To that end, hit points are at least some amount of meat in addition to "mental durability, the will to live, and luck." We just don't necessarily need to decide it's all one thing all the time.

In general, I tend to leave the effect of a monster's attack on a PC somewhat vague, leaving room for the players to describe the fictional impact on the character if they want to. For the other way around, I describe the impact to the monster appropriate to the theme (which tends toward hilariously gory but not always) without describing what the character does (which is the player's role).

For me, I use Roll20 and the HP bar is revealed on the monsters, so it's never a mystery how badly the monster is hurt. I could even show the HP if I wanted to and have no objection to doing that, but the players opted to just see the bar. So players will have a pretty good idea if sleep will be effective, for example.
 

Retreater

Adventurer
This is sort of baked into D&D and has been in every edition I've played (starting with 2nd edition). I guess if you don't like it, try another system? Savage Worlds has wound penalties. Warhammer Fantasy has lingering, lasting injuries.
D&D does what it does. Try to change it too much, and you've broken the system.
 

ninjayeti

Explorer
The answer is that hit points are both "meat" and an abstraction at same time. How they behave in any situation depends on what works in that context.

It is like how light is either a particle or a wave depending on what experiment you run. Yeah, it doesn't make any sense, but that just seems to be how the universe works.
 

3catcircus

Explorer
Like cinematics? Stay with hp.

Want something closer to reality? You'll need to implement some kind of wound level/injury system.

My favorite implementation of such a system is contained in the Twilight: 2013 rules. There are numerous different ways to do an injury system. None are 100% ideal because magic scales so much different than physical attacks.
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
I'm not asking for realism. I'm asking for things like a difference between how a magic missile is causing injury, but a firebolt does not. There's no way of knowing that from a PC's viewpoint, which is the main way PCs learn about various monsters and what works better than others. If you're hitting it with magic missiles, and the narrative is the same as when you hit with a firebolt (that doesn't do anything), how can you as the caster troubleshoot and find out what works better? Just keep with one until all the sudden the enemy drops dead with no clues beforehand?
 
I'm not asking for realism. I'm asking for things like a difference between how a magic missile is causing injury, but a firebolt does not.
It's really up to the DM to narrate in a way that communicates effectively with his players. I don't mean that in the sense of "this is how it should be," just, that's exactly what 5e says: "Dungeon Masters describe hit point loss in different ways. " That's it. You have complete freedom to describe things in a way that makes sense to you and your players, given the "fictional positioning" (pemerton! Campbell! get outta my head!), situation, and interaction of the various applicably systems & sub-systems.

So, if a magic missile is causing injury (to a creature what's showing signs of injury at that point) and the firebolt not, you'd describe them doing something - maybe punching holes in it, maybe scuffing it's carapace, whatever - while the flames wash off it without effect.
If it's /not/ showing physical signs of injury yet, it could still react differently: If it's a tiny/annoying creature, for instance, like a stirge or a gnome paladin, that happens to be immune to fire but not magic missile (because, IDK, it's a magma stirge or a Paladin of Kakatal), you could narrate it reacting to the latter (faltering in it's flight, deflecting them with a sacred sign), but not the former (again, just washes off, it's not even trying to dodge).
You could also get into things like an intelligent foe (so /not/ a magma stirge or a gnome paladin of Kakatal), trying to fool you by faking a wince of concern when subjected to something it resists, while betraying no such fear when taking attacks more dangerous to it. Deceit. Insight. Maybe even a use for a BM ribbon here or there.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I'm not asking for realism. I'm asking for things like a difference between how a magic missile is causing injury, but a firebolt does not. There's no way of knowing that from a PC's viewpoint, which is the main way PCs learn about various monsters and what works better than others. If you're hitting it with magic missiles, and the narrative is the same as when you hit with a firebolt (that doesn't do anything), how can you as the caster troubleshoot and find out what works better? Just keep with one until all the sudden the enemy drops dead with no clues beforehand?
If the caster states they're trying to assess whether a spell had any effect or not, give a check - could be Perception, could be Arcana, could be whatever - to determine whether the caster can correctly assess what's working and what isn't.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I'm not asking for realism. I'm asking for things like a difference between how a magic missile is causing injury, but a firebolt does not. There's no way of knowing that from a PC's viewpoint, which is the main way PCs learn about various monsters and what works better than others. If you're hitting it with magic missiles, and the narrative is the same as when you hit with a firebolt (that doesn't do anything), how can you as the caster troubleshoot and find out what works better? Just keep with one until all the sudden the enemy drops dead with no clues beforehand?
I mean, for me, I take the instruction from the rules of "Narrate the results of the adventurers' actions" and am sure to include the specific impact of the attack the character makes, especially if one method is more efficacious than another. But I gather from your example not everyone does that. It seems reasonable to me that the effect on the monster is noticeable if, say, a magic missile does more damage to it than a firebolt. So that'll be in my narration. And even if I don't want to describe it as a direct hit ("non-meat damage), then I could say something like that monster scrambles to get the heck out of the way of that force missile, expending its reserves in the process, which may be distinct from how I described it reacting to the firebolt.
 

BookBarbarian

Expert Long Rester
I have decided that HP somehow just represent the ability to move and act, and it's binary. You either can or can't.

Then I don't think about it. I will resume stuffing my fingers in my ears and saying "la la la la" now.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The DM could always just tell the players how many HPs each monster has left if they ask, there's no rule that this has to be a secret.
Unlike video games (and, by the sound of it from earlier this thread, at least one online RPG host) monsters in the game world don't run around with little health bars over their heads.

That said, it's on the DM to narrate a monster's general condition, preferably before she's asked to, as in:

It's still in pretty good shape
It's looking a little beat-up but still has more to give
(if using the mechanic) It's bloodied
It's starting to wobble noticeably
It's in bad shape, bleeding all over the place and ready to fall

The actual descriptions and remaining hit-point %-ages at which they're used will, of course, vary from monster to monster. And there's some monsters - e.g. many undead and quite a few oozes-slimes-jellies - where you really can't tell the difference between perfect condition and 1 h.p. left.
 

darjr

I crit!
HP are a paradox. A fine one. You can RP how bad hurt you are when in rules terms HP loss doesn’t hurt your performance. Or the monsters performance.

it’s probably the single best abstract paradox game idea ever.

It’s clear and concise and very simple, yet it’s a hard to grasp thing that can be many things at once, even contradictory things, mostly in the RP of the game.

I wouldn’t trade it for another mechanic.

Bloodied was a great idea and could be applied to PCs in a proverbial game but as a generic default rule for D&D it was to much.
 

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