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A Different Way to Think About HP

by Jae

When players think about Hit Points they generally think of it as a physical attribute. They imagine it’s how badly damaged they are or how wounded they appear. But what if we were thinking about HP all wrong this whole time? What if instead of representing your actual health HP represented your endurance? Let’s talk about this alternative representation on HP and how it can change your Dungeons and Dragons gameplay.

Your Luck is a Currency

HP is typically considered a measure of how badly your character is hurt. Full HP means a perfectly healthy individual, but low HP means you’re on death’s door. If we approach things differently, it might be more accurate to look at HP as an amount of luck or stamina that an individual has.

Under this reimagining of HP, taking damage in the game would not actually be getting hit, it would instead represent the energy being expended to not be hit by something that would have otherwise wounded you.

With this take on HP, a miss in combat is still a miss. A hit can instead be thought of as an attack that would wound the target if they didn’t have enough HP to avoid it. In other words, the requisite energy required to defend or dodge the attack is what is lost when a player is hit, not any actual blood. If the hit would lower a player’s HP to 0 or less that is when they take physical damage and would suffer a wound.

Under this interpretation, rolling for death saves happens the first time you are run through with a sword, which honestly seems much more realistic.

Making HP Make Sense

This conceptualization of HP makes sense in a lot of ways. Getting stabbed with a sword is something that you can really only suffer once before collapsing. When your HP is at 0 is when your life is at risk and getting hit by any of the attacks in DnD is likely to put you in a grave.

Where this idea really shines is in how well it works with resting mechanics in DnD. A long rest heals most wounds under the standard logic, but with the revised system your HP is the energy you spent not getting wounded. So a long rest is replenishing the stamina you need to be alert and dodge possibly fatal wounds. This makes way more sense than those wounds closing up overnight because you got some really good shut-eye.

Additionally, this concept of HP as luck or stamina really jives well with lower level healing spells. You can’t restore limbs or serious wounds, but you can invigorate someone and give them the energy they need to keep fighting. This makes far more sense than a low level healing spell being able to patch up a sword stab to the gut.

Changes in Mechanics with Alternate Style HP

Believe it or not, viewing HP as a character’s ability to avoid damage as opposed to the amount of damage a character can take doesn’t change the mechanics of the game at all. The math still works the same way and the game plays the same in and out of combat.

The real change that this makes to the game is in the narration. The descriptions in combat are more about trading blows that glance off of armor or are narrowly dodged until someone is too exhausted to sidestep that fatal stab.

Your player characters might still get roughed up during combat, but the description of this is more about their heroics. Instead of treating the H in HP as Health, you can think of it as Heroic and use that conceptualization to weave a narrative of their epic combat skills and narrow escapes from the jaws of death!

But if You Wanted to Change the Mechanics…

While you can keep the mechanics set with this alternative HP system, you also have a lot of options to change how you handle actual damage. The Dungeon Master’s Guide has several alternatives for restoring HP differently and altering how resting works. Some options make things easier and others make things harder, but you have options on both sides. 

There’s one that is incredibly fun: characters can get a surge of HP using their sheer force of will in battle. While it makes the game much easier, it’s also ridiculous in the same way a bad middle school battle anime would be because your players have the heart required to fight on!

If you wanted to go in the other direction and make things even harder for your players, you can adopt a wound system. Wound systems are essentially repercussions for your players hitting 0 HP and they represent the fact that being stabbed with a sword has lasting consequences.

These mechanics are really best used for things like gritty, intense, and dark games where the players do not expect to win at all, but the journey and hardships are what’s important. These are essentially more of a hardcore mode for DnD.

Contextualization Can Change Things

This reimagining of the HP system is all about how you frame things. It goes against what we’ve been taught, it flies in the face of video game logic, and it’s not common for most TTRPGs. Even so, it can be a really fun way to think about combat and health in your games.

If you’re tired of describing how many times your barbarian has been stabbed in combat, you can instead describe all the times they’ve expertly dodged an attack. The context change here matters for description, story, and feel. Even though it doesn’t really alter the game’s mechanics this might just be the small tweak you’ve been looking for for your game.

Happy DMing!

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