Abstracting Hit Points
One of my favorite aspects of 5th Edition D&D is that it explicitly calls out that Hit Points aren’t meat. When you have a 15th level fighter with 80 hit points, he can’t actually absorb 10 times the damage as the first level rogue with 8hp. This has long been the case, but has also been the source of a lot of debates throughout the history of D&D. In Dragon issue 24, Gary Gygax wrote that “Hit points are a combination of actual physical consititution, skill at the avoidance of taking real physical damage, luck and/or magical or divine factors.”
But in 5e, this is explicitly called out. You can reduce someone to zero HP without actually putting a mark on their flesh. According to the 5e PHB, “Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck. Creatures with more hit points are more difficult to kill. Those with fewer hit points are more fragile.” It’s interesting how closely that mirrors the mirrors the Gary Gygax quote. The more thigs change, the more they stay the same I guess.
So, with the history out of the way, how do you actually describe hits if that’s true? If you hit a CR 1/2 human thug for 15 points of damage, and your buddy hits a 8 assassin for 45 points of damage, how do you make it clear that the two hits were roughly the same, even though the assassin took 3 times the numerical hit point damage?
Well, first you need to try and figure out what the players are expecting from the fight. Is this a dirty, bloody fight where the combatants leave deep cuts, and gouges on their opponents, until one will emerge victorious, and the other will leave in a pine box? Is this a swashbuckling fight across the deck of a pitching ship, with the combatants trading witty repartee, and swordplay, until one of them finally strikes home with a deadly blow? Is this a battle to establish superiority, with the two opponents sizing eachother up mentally, subtly shifting position to anticipate the other’s attack, and finally resulting in one laying down his weapons and conceding without ever actually drawing the blade?
All of these fights can be conducted using D&D’s hit point system with appropriate narration, and using the “Abstract” hit points. In general, the “type” of battle you’re having is established by convention for the game, based on either explicit conversations during Session 0, or by implicit social agreement, based on previous battles. Sometimes, for specific encounters, it might be worth while to clarify to the PCs which combat style they’re planning on engaging in, or if you’d like to run a specific encounter a different way, discuss that with the PCs. One fantastic example of this might be when fighting a major villain, where you want to capture the feel of the PCs fighting someone who is closely evenly matched: Luke vs Vader on Cloud City, Inigo Montoya vs the Six Fingered Count Rugen. Even if the “standard” battle in your game is bloody blow traded for bloody blow, it can be fun to switch it up for one or two major combats and trade for combat advantage, positioning, and exhaustion, until finally felling the villain with a single deadly blow.
Once you’ve set the “feel” for the fight, the rules progress as normal, rolling for attack, attempting to overcome armor class, rolling for damage, etc. The only trick comes in describing the damage. D&D has several unique types of damage which can offer guidelines in this regard (Piercing, Slashing and Bludgeoning; along with the more esoteric types such as Force, Poison, Lighting, Thunder and so on). In general, while these damage types have specific mechanical interactions, they may not reflect the actual trauma applied to a person. There’s no rule that says that a successful hit with a weapon that does slashing damage must open up a cut on the skin. You can just as easily say that the 7 slashing damage your attack dealt merely slashed a large hole in the clothing of your opponent, causing it to tangle their arm, and making it harder for them to keep fighting.
A common trick to use as the DM is to encourage the players to describe both the damage that they inflict on an enemy, and the damage that’s inflicted on them. However, it can help keep the feel if you come up with descriptions on your own. Here’s a few that I suggest for non-traditional damage:
- “You feint at them with your sword, and when they dodge and are off balance, sweep their feet, causing them to stumble”
- “They parry your blows consistently at the last moment, but the ringing impact of sword on sword is clearly numbing their sword arm. They can’t stand up to this onslaught much longer.”
- “Your sword impacts hard against the armor over their stomach, driving their breath out, and making them stumble and gasp for air.”
- “They attempt to grab your sword blade in their gauntlet, but you deftly twist the blade around, wrenching the arm in the socket. You remember when your mentor taught you that move, your shoulder was sore for days afterwards.”
- “Your blade doesn’t penetrate the hide of the beast, but it still yelps out in pain and frustration, letting you know that it’s will to fight is wearing down.”
- “The electrical bolt crackles through the air and though it passes through the Orc into the ground leaving only a small scorch mark, his limbs will all continue to twitch randomly for several minutes.”
Now, it could be argued that some of these conditions should make it harder for the opponent to strike back, or make it easier to hit them in the future. And that’s perfectly reasonable, and there’s a fantastic way to model that already in 5e: Advantage and Disadvantage. Sprinkling advantage and disadvantage throughout combat as a result of successful attacks works to keep the fight interesting, but also lets the players build “momentum”. An attack that applies advantage to subsequent attacks, or disadvantage to the opponent’s attacks can make your players feel like they’re making progress, even if their attack only did a small numerical value in hit points. And as they themselves accumulate advantages and disadvantages, it helps make hit points feel like they’re more than just binary indicators of whether you can continue fighting. We’ve all seen characters (both PC and NPC) who fight flawlessly from 150 down to 2 hit points, only to completely be demolished with one further hit. Having the first hits result in lingering effects make the whole combat “feel” more interesting.