Old School Review 3 – A History of Hit Points, Part One

From the Mentzer Basic D&D Red Box (1983): When was the last time we saw a D&D player’s manual showing a PC fleeing?

Today, we will begin trying to quantify that amorphous term “Old School Roleplaying,” insofar as it describes a style of play and a vision of fantasy heroes.

(This is the next installment of what I will now call my “Old School Review” series – an eagle’s-eye view of the evolution of the presumed play style of Dungeons & Dragons over time, often through the lens of particular aspects of the game system.)

As I wrote in a previous post, the primary inventor of the D&D, Gary Gygax, had a much more low-powered view of PCs, at least at lower levels of experience. At first level, not only are the PCs not able to perform superhuman feats, but there is not much separating them from common people, albeit with some specialized training. The typical 1st-level “fighting man” in early D&D was not the soldier, but the plebeian.

Accordingly, in the original AD&D Players Guide, Gygax described dungeon-delving as a sneaky, evasive affair, with combat to be avoided at all costs.

The modern view of fantasy roleplaying has “powered-up” heroes at first-level. Whether this is bane or blessing is not the subject of this post. Rather, today’s subject is quantifying this increase in power of characters, through the lens of D&D’s evolving rules on hit points and on death and dying. We will examine this in mechanical terms, and also in terms of the prevailing assumptions these suggest for the system’s game world.

Before delving into the various editions of D&D, here are the ground rules for this Study (yes, I’m weighty and portentous like that):

1. Criteria
We will look at (1) generation of starting hit points and (2) the rules for death and dying (hit points are only relevant in the context by which they prevent you from dying anywayz). When applicable, we will look at the evolution of other D&D rules when they are relevant.

2. Human fighters only, please.
Any comparative study needs to narrow its focus to limit what you have to compare. Let this be the human fighter: since spellcasting characters are kind of, by definition, extraordinary to begin with, they provide a bit of white noise when we’re trying to examine how the game system envisions typical people, the vast majority of whom we can assume, through practice, can accomplish the basic M.O. of fighters: fight. You may be a weakling, but with practice you can be better, ignorance by the gods and disjunction from the Elemental Forces notwithstanding. And Thieves/Rogues were not a class in original D&D. Humans are the default race in all versions of D&D.

3. First-level characters only.
In all iterations of D&D, all heroes can potentially become heroes about whom legends are written. We are examining instead how each iteration of D&D treated people who aspired to become those mythic heroes.

4. Presume typical 1st-level enemies and encounters.
It’s come to be a cliche that 1st-level characters will encounter monstrous humanoids, weaker undead (skeletons, zombies), and vermin. For good reason: these monsters tend to do less damage and give 1st-level PCs a fighting chance.

OD&D (White Box)

Average starting HP = 4.59

1. Fighting Men start with 1d6+1: after Constitution is considered, an average of 4.59 hit points. A Constitution score of 15 or above grants a +1 bonus to the total. Because ability scores are determined by rolling 3d6 in order, and ability scores are fixed upon generation, this extra HP is not likely (only about a 9% chance). This comes out to a ~0.1 HP bonus to the base 4.5 total.

2. You are dead once you are reduced to 0 hit points.

(It is also important to note that, under OD&D original rules (“white box”), the vast majority of monsters, and all weapons, do 1d6 damage when they hit. Only particularly large or strong monsters do more damage, such as ogres, which do 1d6+2 damage on a hit.)

Verdict: Fighting Men have a somewhat less than a 50-50 chance of being killed by a single monster blow. This is mainly by virtue of the extra hit point they receive at 1st level.

Interestingly, nearly all “hits” in OD&D, whether from a dragon’s bite or from a common rat, did 1d6 in damage. Perhaps this explains the origin of the term “hit die” and “hit points” to describe PC health? I always wondered what the origin of the term “hit point” — strange when you think about it — was. Apparently, the term “hit die” originated, not as a term to describe a creature’s constitution, but rather how much damage a blow would deal. Thus, saying that a character in OD&D had “two hit dice” was shorthand for saying they could approximately withstand “two hits.” Gygax’s original idea of hit points as abstract — encompassing the ability of high-level characters to dodge blows — is seen here quite literally.

Since then, many more factors (such as Strength bonuses to damage, weapon type, etc.) have complicated the situation. But we still use the terms “hit points” and “hit dice” in D&D to describe a creature’s ability to withstand damage, even though the magnitude of these numbers — under the useful idea that hit points are abstract — now vary widely in modern systems.

It is interesting that there are no separate rules for generating stats for NPC characters. (“Only the lowest level of character types can be hired.”) Thus, NPC characters also have 1d6 hit points. This alone tells us that the system presumes that 1st-level Fighting Men are not more likely to survive a goblin’s blow than are commoners. Therefore, your typical Fighting Man is your Average Joe (or Joseph).

OD&D with Supplements

Average starting HP = 4.62

Supplement I: Greyhawk introduced many alternate rules and differentiated further the classes for OD&D. What follows is how hit points are handled under the alternate rules.

1. Fighters start with 1d8: after Constitution bonuses, an average of 4.62 hit points. A Constitution score of 15-16 grants a bonus to this total; a 17 grants a +2 bonus; and an 18 grants a +3 bonus. Ability scores are still determined by rolling 3d6 in order. Once we do the math, our rolled-up Fighter has an average starting HP of 4.62.

2. You are still dead once you are reduced to 0 hit points.

(Also, weapons now do variable amounts of damage, as do monsters. The best one-handed weapons for fighters do 1d8 damage. Some monsters have multiple attacks, and others (especially giants and dragons) can do far greater amounts of damage than 1d6. However, these monsters are not likely encountered by 1st-level PCs.)

Verdict: We see that 1st-level fighters have not increased in survivability at all, at least according to the rules. In fact, when you factor in that strength bonuses to damage have now been added, a 1st-level fighter is more likely to die from a strong fighter’s blow than before.

However, the purpose of variable damage rules was also to allow Dungeon Masters to pit characters against creatures that do less damage. A goblin does 1d4 or “weapon type” in damage. (The strong assumption here is that you would apply the 1d4 die — why else give this option, other than to consign the goblin to “weaker than a human” status?). Conversely, 1st-level characters will wither before the world’s greater creatures: cloud giants, for example, inflict 6-36 points of damage with their blows.

As for how fighters compare to NPCs in the world, we now most consider the fact that magic users, who are considered not to have martial training, now only have a 1d4 hit die. Retainers and hirelings may be presumed to be fighters in their large majority, but the farmers and craftsmen of this fantasy world may be presumed to have a 1d4 hit die, barring bonuses for high Constitution.

Therefore, in theory, fighters are less likely to die in a dungeon, than the peasants of their time–but only so much as to be able to go toe-to-toe with an orc (1d6 damage), who, by their natures, were meant to be a step above commoners to begin with.

In summation, your typical Fighter was a person who was distinguished by a fair amount fighting experience. Perhaps fighting is his or her profession; perhaps he or she has received some formal training, bullied some people, or defended the village in the past. You do not want to get in a brawl with this person. The Fighter has some training with weapons that do more damage as well. At the same time, the Fighter will still have trepidation while plumbing into a dungeon, where a well-aimed sword swing from a skeleton or deviously-hidden pit trap could mean instant death.

It is interesting to see, how the D&D system has evolved, the rules allowed for more variation in the game world. The mechanics now provide more “colors,” by which the DM can paint the creatures in his or game world.

We will look at later editions of D&D in future posts.

Until next time: “May the rot grub not eat you.”

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About ronaldsf

Grandmaster of the Pathfinders' Guild at Martin Luther King Middle School.
This entry was posted in Old School Review, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Old School Review 3 – A History of Hit Points, Part One

  1. Pingback: The Gaping Wound, Part 2 « Jack's Toolbox

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