Accuracy in Dungeons & Dragons Combat: Hit Points

Feb 7, 2015 | Opinions

Those of you that are familiar with Dungeons & Dragons and real swordplay are probably screaming at me right now. Don’t break out the torches and pitchforks just yet! I’m going somewhere with this, I promise. First of all, let’s have an explanation for the non-roleplayers in the audience.

D&D is a fantasy tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) that’s been around for decades. It’s THE game, in fact – the one that started it all way back in the 1970’s, if I recall right. In D&D, you’ve got a group of players, maybe four to six people, and a gamesmaster (GM) who runs the actual game. Each player has a sheet that describes a character, and during the game, the player pretends to be that character as the GM describes the players’ surroundings and how those surroundings react to their actions. So Dungeons & Dragons, and roleplaying in general, is like collaborative story-telling, which each player playing a character in the story, and the GM providing all the non-character-related stuff. It’s all hilarious fun, especially when the players go completely off-plot and everything gets invariably silly.

Now – D&D has a lot of swordplay in it, seeing as it’s a fantasy game. Due to its collaborative nature, it’s also got rules for combat with different weapons. Some of these make no sense – but some of them do, in rather unusual ways.

Hit Points

Everyone in D&D, from the players to the other characters they encounter during the game, has hit points. These are simply a number of points that relate to their health – once their hit points are reduced to zero, the player falls unconscious and eventually dies unless they get some help. So hit points are very important in combat, because each weapon does a different amount of damage to hit points.

Dungeons & Dragons Weapons

Here’s a photo of a weapons table from my D&D 3rd Edition Player’s Manual, showing a bunch of different weapons, their cost, and their damage. The ‘gp’ column is the cost, in gold pieces, and the column with stuff like 1d10, 2d4, etc is their damage. The ‘d’ refers to the die type, so ‘1d8’ means ‘Roll one eight-sided die to determine the damage of this weapon’. This adds variability – so, for example, a longsword can do between one and eight points of damage on a single hit.

So why is this important? Well, it means that even a weak character can potentially survive a hit from a longsword. Player characters typically become more powerful over the course of the game, because they gain experience and better weapons/armor (and of course there are rules for that as well), but a starting character that’s not all that tough may have, say, six hit points, and a similar character that IS quite tough may have twelve or more. A single hit from a longsword would have to be quite lucky to take down the weaker character, and it would never take down the tougher one unless there were extenuating circumstances.

This is actually quite interesting because of the prevailing myth of the ‘one-hit kill’, especially in stuff like video games and movies. People tend to think that a single strike with a sword means instant death, when historical records show that plenty of people fought duels, were run through several times, and survived. Of course, there are also records of people falling over and dying instantly from blows to the head or the chest, so the ‘one-hit kill’ is certainly possible, if nothing else. But it’s not a guaranteed thing. The human body has a remarkable capacity to just keep going in spite of tremendous injuries.

Funnily enough, this is exactly how it works in D&D – a surprising case of truth in fiction!

This is not to say that all combat in Dungeons & Dragons, or even in RPGs in general, is accurate – by and large, it’s not, and I’ll likely talk about that some more later. But it’s not all completely unrealistic, and it’s certainly not as silly as many examples we see in other mediums. RPGs have a vested interest in keeping the players alive long enough to tell the story, and this naturally means somewhat less silliness is allowed.

More required reading on this: The Dubious Quick Kill, Part 1 & Part 2, which discusses various historical duels and the effects of different wounds.

Skallagrim’s video discussing the one hit kill: