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Heroes in Horror: Take Away Their Hit Points

Aside from a lack of fear, one of the biggest problems in having player characters act realistically in a combat situation is the use of hit points (or a similar mechanic). The player knows how much damage her PC can soak before falling and can make tactical decisions based on the amount of damage that a creature/armed villain/martial artist/trap doles out.

Ultimately, this is a matter of security. Players aren’t “afraid” of a frightening monster because they feel secure. After all, they’re just sitting around a table listening to you narrate or, at worst, offer a picture of the “creepy horror of the week.” Similarly, a player is reasonably sure that her PC will survive at least one round with a creature because killing the PCs with a single blow isn’t fair, right? If the creature seems too powerful she’ll have time to retreat and if the creature seems manageable then she’ll switch to tactical mode until the creature is dead.

My solution in this case is a simple one: take away the PCs’ hit points.

Most games give the PCs a measure of how much damage they can take before falling. By handling hit points yourself and not sharing actual damage totals with the players, you rip away that security blanket. The players now have to rely on your narrative descriptions as a general measure and this chips away at their tactical confidence.

There are a couple of issues with this method:

Great, something else for me to keep track of.

Horror adventures generally have a lack of combat encounters (or, more specifically, a lack of combat encounters where the victim is able to survive the initial attack). Thus, keeping score of PC wounds shouldn’t be that much of a problem, especially if you, like me, generally allow the players to keep track of monster damage. If you are running a game with lots of combat scenes, such as a zombie horde overrunning  a small town, then you probably don’t need this method; the players will be wary enough about how much damage they’re taking from multiple attackers as it is.

How do I describe this?

The grandaddy of all RPGs uses hit points in the abstract; it’s a combination of physical health, avoiding getting hit, and fatigue. Other systems make hit points/health/wound points/etc a measure of physical health. In any case, the method is the same: use a list of descriptors that communicates the PC’s overall health. For example, you might decide that a PC is only scratched until 10% of her hit points are gone, lightly injured until 30%, moderately injured until 60%, seriously injured until 90%, and critically injured until she drops. All of these percentages can be quickly worked out in advance (heck, let the players do it for you), and since you’re not being too specific you can always eyeball it.

Similarly, you can describe attack damage as light, solid, or exceptional, especially when using random damage. If you roll close to minimal damage, it’s light; if you roll close to maximum damage, it’s exceptional. Everything else is solid. You can alter your assessment with any damage modifiers (“The mercenary barely scratched you with his vibro-knife, but damn it still hurt like hell coming from him!”).

Now the dirty little secret of this method is that it enables you to fudge a bit in order to squeeze the maximum drama out of a situation. For those of you that don’t mind fudging, this method offers a way to hide it, as the players can’t challenge you with numbers. Did a PC wander head-first into the horror and is now in way over his head? Knock him into serious damage with one swipe and then chip away at him, never passing critical, until he manages to escape for now.

So the next time you want to instill fear and uncertainty into your players, take away their PC’s hit points and see what happens. And please, by all means, share your stories with us here at the Stew (especially if you’re reading this and saying “hey, I already do that!) and with other GMs.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Heroes in Horror: Take Away Their Hit Points"

#1 Comment By Razjah On February 5, 2010 @ 10:40 am

I love this idea. It’s a great way to bring horror, or suspense into games like D&D which have a generally harder time moving out of heroic action and into something a little more gritty. The D&D campaign that I’m planning will be really grim and I was wondering how to make my players less confident in combat. I think that this will be perfect.

Plus it can help foster more role playing. The mage who hates the sight of blood watches the fighter’s arm take a solid strike. “Oh gods save us, we’re all going to die! Rageed [the fighter] has been mortally wounded and he was the toughest among us!”

Mr. Ciechanowski, I tip my hat to you sir, and to any who inspired this idea- credit is due all around. I will now steal this idea and share it at my schools RPG club.

#2 Comment By nolandda On February 5, 2010 @ 10:46 am

I think the lack of hit points is one of the factors that helps to make [1] scary.

#3 Comment By drow On February 5, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

as with all tricks, be wary of overusing it. i was in an AD&D campaign where only the DM knew our hit points at all times, and after a couple of sessions it became really hateful.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 5, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

I played in a game where the GM tracked damage, and it both minimizes the mechanical calculations and elevates the perceived risk. The game is more intense because of it.

I’d say that ‘open ended’ dice rolls or other mechanics that increase the variability of damage also make the game more intense. This is another reason I like Savage Worlds.

Downsides: Players have to be willing to embrace the risk, or they tend to play ‘too conservatively’. It’s not for everyone, especially not ‘chess players’. It’s another burden for the GM, although we used a spreadsheet where the GM would input the damage, and it would handle everything else (including the “Healthy, Scratched, Wounded, etc” verbiage).

The unknown scares people. The less absolute knowledge the players have, the less comfortable they are. (Yes, this can definitely go too far.)

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On February 5, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

I agree that this would be too much to track for a long period of time, but it’s great for a creepy scenario without a lot of combat, or for a one-shot.

Similarly, specific damage systems (like Rolemaster or Aces and Eight’s critical hits) mean that you need to fear no matter how many hit points you have. Any blow can result in “Chitinous claw pierces kidney; 3d10 damage and stunned in shock for d3 rounds”… I know that I’d run!

#6 Comment By Spaceman On February 5, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

What a cool idea. While I understand the extra workload, I imagine that it would be a pain.

But I can also imagine just how scary this could be to my very experienced characters, And then there’s the idea of healing and healing resources. No more of that “Oh I’m 15 points down, give me two taps of the CLW wand, that should do it.”

I think this would work well in a regular campaign as well, not just horror. And it wouldn’t be too tough, just a simple spreadsheet or a laminate sheet.

#7 Comment By Bercilac On February 6, 2010 @ 12:00 am

I suppose, alternatively, you could do it the other way around: let the players track their HP, but make monster damage unpredictable. Roll enemy damage rolls behind a screen, so the players don’t know if that 5 damage was a poor roll on 3d6, or a great roll on 1d4+1. Give them special and unpredictable abilities, or weird weapons. Frequent use of poison is good, because it means that a wound that is initially just a scratch can turn into something life-threatening.

I guess these are some very different ways of confronting the same problem: too much certainty breeds complacency in players. Pull the rug out from under their feet occasionally.

#8 Comment By darrell On February 6, 2010 @ 7:29 am

A Forgotten Realms campaign I was co-DMing about ten years ago suddenly veered into the classic Castle Ravenloft adventure in the capable hands of the other DM.

He used this technique for the adventure, and it REALLY worked.

#9 Comment By LordVreeg On February 7, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

This is actually 2 conversations.
1) The rule-mechanic of HP and how it affects the game.
2) The game-mechanic of GM controlled HP.

I’m not going to deal with #2, as I am keeping track of way too much right now already.
I do think #1 is actually really, really important, as well. I personally use a very low HP system with high damage and high crits. Only armor keeps a swordblow or two from killing the toughest warrior.

#10 Comment By MaW On February 8, 2010 @ 5:37 am

This is one of the things I like about Godlike. Damage is done by location (the location determined mostly by dice roll, sometimes the GM can override this in a very plausible manner depending on the situation). Most weaponry actually takes a pretty good chunk out of you, and you have to worry about bleeding to death from wounds pretty much anywhere, but the really scary thing is that there’s always the possibility that anybody shooting at you is going to roll a bunch of tens, at which point you’re dead. No questions, no backing out – for virtually all PCs, four killing damage to the head (not hard to achieve with a rifle) is instantly fatal. The only people who don’t worry so much are the ones who invested in defensive superpowers – and they don’t always work.

Our fight scenes are a bit fraught like that.

Combat has to have serious risks to the characters. I’d rather be in a game where PCs do die from time to time, unless it’s the kind of game where they don’t actually have lethal encounters very often (actually even in that case they should probably still die, because if they don’t have lethal encounters very often it stands to reason they won’t be as good at surviving them).