Hit points, commonly abbreviated HP, are a number measuring the amount of damage a creature, character, or object can take before being killed, disabled or destroyed.

They can be considered an abstract representation of life-force, health, endurance, luck and the sort of favoritism that follows main protagonists and antagonists in fictional stories.

Mechanics[edit | edit source]

Hit points and damage[edit | edit source]

In Dungeons & Dragons, a character or creature begins play with a hit point total, a number representing the amount of physical damage they can safely sustain. Receiving damage—another number representing an instance of injury or other harmful occurrence, usually a hostile attack of some sort—reduces their hit point total by an amount equal to the damage value.

A character's starting hit point total varies considerably depending on the edition of the D&D game rules used. A character who gains enough experience to increase in level usually increases their maximum hit point total. Physically tough characters, such as fighters and barbarians, usually have more hit points than weaker ones, such as wizards.

Characters who have taken damage are not reduced in effectiveness until they reach zero hit points. For example, a fighter reduced to 1 hit point can still fight just as well as if they were on full hit points.

Zero or negative hit points[edit | edit source]

In the original Dungeons & Dragons rules set, a character or creature reduced to zero hit points is slain outright.

Later editions of Dungeons & Dragons introduced various mechanics to allow a player character to survive at zero hit points to a limited extent, usually while unconscious or unable to take meaningful actions. These are known as death's door rules, and vary by edition. For example, Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition uses a death save, where a character at zero hit points rolls a d20 on their turn for the next three rounds to determine if they survive or die.

Some editions of the game track damage past zero hit points, allowing a player character to be reduced to negative hit points. For example, Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition allows a character to survive until reduced to -10 hit points, but having a negative hit point total causes them to lose one hit point each round.

Recovering hit points[edit | edit source]

Since the original Dungeons & Dragons, various methods have existed to recover hit points lost to damage. In general, these cannot grant characters more hit points than their normal maximum.

Healing spells are commonly used in D&D, whether in combat or between such encounters. The original Dungeons & Dragons included cure light wounds, which heals 1d6+1 damage, and cure serious wounds, which heals 2d6+2. Scrolls, wands and potions of healing spells, as well as other magic items, are commonly used in D&D.

Characters can also heal by taking time to rest. The exact rule for this varies by edition. D&D 4th edition allows a character to spend an abstract resource called a healing surge to recover one-quarter of their hit points, while 5th edition allows characters to spend hit dice.

Temporary hit points[edit | edit source]

Some methods, primarily certain spells, can temporarily grant a character more than their maximum number of hit points. These may expire after a certain amount of time and are usually the first hit points lost when damage is taken.

Nonlethal damage[edit | edit source]

In some editions of the D&D rules, a character can deal a form of damage which renders opponents unconscious but does not kill them, such as punching unarmed or striking with the flat of a blade. This is referred to as subdual damage in D&D 3.0, or nonlethal damage in D&D 3.5.

Bloodied status[edit | edit source]

In D&D 4th edition only, a character reduced to half hit points acquires the "bloodied" status. This has no effect on its own, but can interact with other game elements, such as a magic item or power that works differently when the user or target is bloodied.

Variants and alternatives[edit | edit source]

While the hit point system has been used in every edition of Dungeons & Dragons, various alternatives to the system have been published in optional rules. Unearthed Arcana (3e) (2004) introduced optional hit points rules, including:

  • An injury saving throw based system
  • The vitality and wound points system, first used in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, which separates physical injury points from normal hit points
  • The reserve points system for healing out of combat without magic, which would go on to inspire D&D 4th edition's healing surge and 5th edition's hit dice recovery mechanic

Narrative meaning of hit points[edit | edit source]

The exact definition of what hit points represent has long been a topic of debate within the Dungeons & Dragons community.

At its most basic, hit points represent a character's capacity to survive despite receiving an injury. However, characters who take damage do not normally suffer any debility or reduction in their ability to fight or cast spells, as would normally be expected when a person suffers injury. What's more, a high level character with many hit points will find themself able to reliably survive an unrealistic amount of damage, such as a fall of any height.

TSR editor Tim Kask argues that hit points represent less tangible traits such as luck, divine protection, talent, and stamina; otherwise, a character who survived hundreds of literal attacks would, at minimum, be covered in so many scars that they would be unable to move.

Norse scholar Jackson Crawford compares hit points to a narrative sense of luck or hamingja found in Icelandic sagas. An especially heroic character or a king may succeed or survive better due to this inherent trait. A gift such as a cloak or sword bestowed by a king might increase luck, while a reduction in heroic status, such as by being outlawed, can reduce it.[1]

Development[edit | edit source]

Pre-hitpoint systems[edit | edit source]

Hit point rules were notably absent from the historic wargames which inspired Dungeons & Dragons. At the scale of wargames like Gary Gygax's Chainmail (1971), each player might control 200 miniatures representing 4,000 soldiers, tracking levels of injury of individual men would have been impractical.

Even individual miniatures, such as hero characters, dragons, or soldiers in Chainmail's small-scale "Man-to-Man" variant, did not track individual levels of damage, but instead allowed a saving throw or required a minimum number of simultaneous hits or exceptionally good roll to destroy them. Chainmail's Appendix E included rules for heroes and monsters fighting each other, but these simply killed the target in a successful target and did not track damage otherwise.

These systems were suitable for mass combat, but less satisfactory for games where one player controls a single man, since the defeat of a single man means eliminating the player from the game entirely. This need would later be satisfied by rules allowing a heroic character to survive multiple hits.

Origin in wargaming[edit | edit source]

In Playing at the World, Jon Peterson argues that the concept of hit points ultimately derives from rules in the wargame Kriegsspiel (1824) representing losses taken by a single unit of troops. Earlier games, such as chess, did not track incremental injury state of individual units, but merely removed defeated units from play.

Later, Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game (1933) placed each player in control of a single ship, which could survive despite taking multiple hits, making a damage-tracking system necessary. This both simulated the historically accurate ability of ships to withstand multiple cannon hits, and prevented individual players from being eliminated by a single hit.

In the March 1959 issue of War Game Digest, George Dunlap describes a ship combat system where ships take "points" of "damage". D&D co-creator Dave Arneson would go on to play Pratt's wargame, and would co-author Don't Give Up the Ship! with Gary Gygax in 1972, in which ship's guns deal points of damage and ships track cumulative damage.[2]

The wargame Siege of Bodenburg (1967) included what gamers would now recognize as a hit point system, and one of the earliest known systems for tracking cumulative hits to humans rather than ships. Each man has a "combat value" measuring the number of hits they can take before being killed. Bodenburg was cited as an inspiration by Gary Gygax, who included such a "melee value" system in some early wargames.

An early suggestion of what would become D&D's hit points system appears in Chainmail's original rules for certain large creatures such as giants, who fight at full combat efficacy until they have taken multiple "cumulative hits". Despite this, the feature is not used for Chainmail's dragons and hero characters, which instead appear to be based on Leonard Patt's Rules For Middle Earth (1970).

Hit points in early RPG rules[edit | edit source]

Dave Arneson's first prototypical roleplaying game, inspired in part by Gygax's Chainmail, introduced a hit point system early in development. In a 2004 interview, Arneson said:[3]

"We started out using the Chainmail combat system. They had a fantasy supplement for Chainmail. I think we used that for two games. We quickly discovered it didn't work for what we were doing since they were mass-combat rules, not individual rules. [...] So, I adopted a combat system I used for Civil War Ironclads[4] because they had armor class, hit points, all that stuff."

In a letter from 1974, Dave Arneson describes that characters in his Blackmoor campaign were created with a randomly rolled number of "hits", a term for hit points still used in places in Original D&D. According to Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign (1977), characters in Blackmoor did not gain additional hit points when leveling up, but instead became better at avoiding attacks, which in Arneson's rules were handled by saving throws.[5]

Hit points in D&D[edit | edit source]

The original 1974 release of Dungeons & Dragons described "hit points" as a measurement of the damage a character can take. Characters possessed "Dice for Accmulative Hits", or "Hit Dice", a number of six-sided dice rolled to randomly determine the character's hit point maximum.[6]

Fundamentally, a character is not reduced in strength or efficacy until reduced to zero hit points.

All editions of Dungeons & Dragons to date have included this type of hit points system, with variation in the number of hit points characters and monsters have, damage dealt, ways for the character to survive being reduced to zero hit points or below, and ways to heal damage.

Publication history[edit | edit source]

Blackmoor (1971-1974)[edit | edit source]

The concept of hit points in roleplaying games was pioneered by Dave Arneson in his Blackmoor campaign, which served as a direct inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons. As the rules for Blackmoor changed over time and most were never published in written form, there is some ambiguity in determining the exact rules Arneson used.

In Playing at the World, D&D historian Jon Peterson cites a 1974 letter from Arneson, apparently written shortly after the release of Dungeons & Dragons, describing hit point rules which differ from those appearing in Dungeons & Dragons:[5]

"I gave them all twice the number of hits (one dice roll for the number of dice you roll for the number of damage points that they take) 1st throw is a three meaning that you cast three dice 3,4,2 meaning that you take nine hits (but you could take as many as 36)."

Peterson interprets this to mean rolling 1d6, then rolling that many d6s, or (1d6)d6. This gives an average of 12.25 hit points, with a fairly flat distribution between 2% and 5% for most values from 1-23, slightly higher odds of a 5 or 6, and vanishingly small odds of actually getting a 36—one would need to roll seven sixes in a row, with odds of 1/279,936.

Arneson continues that, with the exception of spells and magic, characters in the rules he submitted to Gygax were not meant to gain more hit points as they level up, but instead to become harder to hit. He re-iterates this in his book, First Fantasy Campaign (1977):[7]

"...as the players first rolled for characteristics, the number of Hits a body could take ran from 0 - 100. As the player progressed, he did not receive additional Hit Points, but rather he became harder to Hit."

Peterson suggests it is unlikely that character generation actually filled the full range of zero to one hundred, as the book states polyhedral dice were not available, and even then one cannot roll a zero. However, in a 2004 interview with Gamasutra, Arneson says he had twenty-sided dice in the 1960s and later used them for Blackmoor, which could have been used to roll percentages.[3] TSR's Blackmoor (Supplement 2) (1975), written by Arneson, was also the first D&D book to use 10-sided dice, although Men & Magic (1974) had previously made reference to percentage dice.

In two 2004 interviews, Arneson states that his system of hit points was originally inspired by rules he had written for civil war ship combat, and instituted early on to allow characters to survive more than a single unlucky blow.[8][3]

Original Dungeons & Dragons[edit | edit source]

The original 1974 Dungeons & Dragons box set introduced the world to the concept of "accumulative hits", or "hit points" in roleplaying games. Many of the rules on hit points used throughout the editions of the game were already defined in its initial release.

Page 18 of Men & Magic (1974), the first book of the original box set, describes "Dice for Accumulative Hits (Hit Dice)", defined as:

"This indicates the number of dice which are rolled in order to determine how many hit points a character can take. [...] the number of points of damage the character could sustain before death. Whether sustaining accumulative hits will otherwise affect a character is left to the discretion of the referee."

A Constitution score of 15+ gives a character an additional hit point per die, while a score of 6 or lower reduced hit points by one per die. As ability scores were rolled by straight 3d6 and arranged in order, these results were uncommon, and only 9.26% of characters would have a Constitution score of 15 or higher.

Characters can recover lost hit points at the rate 1 point for every other day of rest.[9]

Only six-sided dice were used for hit dice and weapon damage, until the release of Greyhawk (Supplement 1) (1975). No "death's door" rule exists, meaning that any player character reduced to zero hit points is automatically killed.

Basic D&D[edit | edit source]

The Basic Set (Holmes) (1977) continued to use variable dice for player character hit dice and monster attacks, but retained six-sided dice for player character weapon attacks.

The Basic Set (Moldvay) (1981) used six-sided dice for weapon attacks, but also included variable weapon dice as an option. Likewise, the Basic Rules (BECMI) (1983) introduces beginners to six-sided dice for weapons, but recommends switching to the more complex variable weapon damage dice after a few games.

The Rules Cyclopedia (1991) uses variable weapon damage as a standard feature.

AD&D 1st edition[edit | edit source]

The Players Handbook (1e) (1978), p.34, describes the narrative meaning of hit points as follows:

"A certain amount of these hit points represent the actual physical punishment which can be sustained. The remainder, a significant portion of hit points at higher levels, stands for skill, luck, and/or magical factors. [...] Thus, the majority of hit points are symbolic of combat skill, luck (bestowed by supernatural powers), and magical forces."

In addition to the Constitution bonuses of OD&D, characters now receive even more hit points for exceptionally high Constitution: +2 per hit die for a score of 16, and, for the fighter class only, +3 for a score of 17 and +4 for an 18. An unlucky Constitution of 3 imposes penalty of -2.

The Dungeon Masters Guide (1e) (1979), p.82 introduced the first death's door rule, allowing characters to survive when reduced to zero hit points, losing one hit point per turn thereafter and dying when reduced to -10.

Characters now recover one hit point every day of rest, with high or low Constitution affecting the amount recovered per week. Four weeks of rest will always restore a character to full strength.

AD&D 2nd edition[edit | edit source]

Hit point adjustments for Constitution below 3 or above 18 are now detailed. All warrior-type classes, including paladin and ranger, now gain the fighter's ability to benefit from exceptionally high Constitution. At a Constitution score of 24 or 25, a warrior gains +7 hit points per die, and all 1s, 2s and 3s are automatically rounded up to 4s.

Characters now recover 3 hit points per day of complete bed rest (plus any Constitution modifier per week), and 1 hit point per day of light activity. A character with the Healing non-weapon proficiency can help them to restore additional hit points.

"Hovering on Death's Door", where a character reduced to zero hit points can survive until -10, is an optional rule in this edition.[10].

D&D 3rd edition[edit | edit source]

Characters and monsters tend to have more hit points than in previous editions of the game.

All player characters start with the maximum value of their hit die at first level. All characters and creatures can benefit from Constitution modifier to hit points, as all monsters in this edition have ability scores. Characters continue to receive hit dice even at high level, and no longer need to be fighters to benefit from very high. Magic items like the amulet of health, and the ability for spellcasters to learn to reliably craft these magic items for a standard price, can push a character's Constitution score even higher.

In the Player's Handbook (3.0) (2000), characters now recover one hit point per character level per day of light activity, and 1.5 hit points per level per day of complete bed rest. In the revised Player's Handbook (3.5) (2003), p.146, characters only need a full night's eight hours of sleep to recover that 1hp per level, and each full day of bed rest now heals twice the character level in hit points.

The "death's door" rule from AD&D is a standard rule, allowing characters to survive until reduced to -10 HP.

D&D 4th edition[edit | edit source]

Player characters no longer roll for hit points at level up, nor add Constitution modifiers, but receive a fixed value at each level. Characters start with considerably more hit points than usual, with a large starting hit point bonus plus the character's entire Constitution score, ensuring that characters start out survivable.

Characters now have healing surges, an abstract resource which allows them to heal one-quarter of their hit point total per use, and can be spent freely outside of combat. This reduces reliance on the party cleric as a healing battery and frees up players of that class to use other spells.

D&D 4e introduces a new "death's door" rule, allowing a character to survive until reduced to negative half of their hit point maximum. Additionally, they must make a death saving throw each turn, a straight d20 roll with no modifiers, with three cumulative results of 1-9 killing the character, and a natural 20 restoring the character to consciousness.

Creatures reduced to half of their hit point maximum now have a "bloodied" status, which has no inherent effect but can interact with certain spells or monster abilities.

D&D 5th edition[edit | edit source]

D&D 5e introduces a hit dice-based mechanic for recovering hit points between combat. Healing surges from D&D 4th edition are relegated an optional mechanic, and the "bloodied" status no longer exists.

D&D 5e continues to use a 4e-style "death saving throw" mechanic for characters reduced to zero hit points, except that three cumulative rolls of 10-19 or higher now stabilize the character, giving them an extra chance to survive. Hit point values below zero are no longer used, and most monsters simply die when reduced to zero hit points.

Reception and influence[edit | edit source]

Roleplaying games[edit | edit source]

In a 2004 interview, Dave Arneson described the original inclusion of hit points in his roleplaying games circa 1973 to be a popular choice with his players:[8]

"It meant that players had a chance to live longer and do more. They didn't care that they had hit points to keep track of because they were just keeping track of little detailed records for their character and not trying to do it for an entire army. They didn't care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn't want the monster to kill them in one blow."

Video games[edit | edit source]

Hit points quickly became a staple feature of video game RPGs, and from there have become common in other game genres.

First-person shooter games of the 1990s such as Doom and Quake used a hit points system from 0 to 100, allowing players to pick up healing potions or medkits to recover hit points. Some later first-person shooters include a hidden hit point mechanic which is not shown numerically to the player, but represented abstractly, such as by tinting the screen red. Such systems often allow the player character to automatically recover if given a moment to rest, thus allowing the player to return to gameplay without backtracking to hunt for health items.

Computer wargames are able to track individual unit hit points in a manner unavailable to players of traditional wargames, taking advantage of the computer's ability to track large amounts of data accurately. For example, some elite units in Rome: Total War (2004) have two or more hit points per individual soldier.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Interview on Icelandic Sagas, Jackson Crawford, Youtube, 26'14".
  2. Playing at the World, Jon Peterson, chapter 3.2.2.2, "Endurance and Mitigation".
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Dungeons & Dragons' Arneson: The Lost Interview
  4. Some reviewers have interpreted Arneson's reference to "Civil War Ironclads" to mean Ironclad, a 1973 game published by Guidon Games and written by Tom Wham and Don Lowry. However, Blackmoor pre-dates this game, and a 2004 GameSpy interview suggests that the rules in question were some of Arneson's original creation. In 2018, D&D historian Jon Peterson was unable to find any published rules that precisely matched Arneson's description.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Playing at the World, by Jon Peterson. Appendix 550.
  6. Men & Magic (1974), p.18.
  7. First Fantasy Campaign, by Dave Arneson[1]
  8. 8.0 8.1 Dave Arneson Interview, GameSpy, 2004.
  9. The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (1974), p.35.
  10. Dungeon Master Guide (2e revised) (1995), p.104.
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