Friday 7 May 2021

Hit Points, Saving Throws and all that.

The origins of D&D 

An awful lot has been written about Hit Points over the years. Lots of questions have been asked: What are they really representing? Should a PC die at zero or be just unconscious? How can we make the distribution of them fair? Should PCs begin to lose them as they get old? And... whoever thought it was a good idea to re roll my total every time I level up? So I doubt I'll say anything much new today. However, I have been re-reading early wargame rules sets recently including, of course, Gygax and Perren's Chainmail rules (first published in 1971 by Guidon Games) and the follow-up wargame supplement to Original D&D, Swords & Spells (TSR, 1976) also by Gary Gygax. This got me thinking about Hit Points and Saving Throws.

The pages that started it all.

Hit Points and Saving Throws were a couple of the mainstays of rpgs for thirty or forty years and are still present in a great many games. The concept of hit points has travelled out of Tabletop rpgs and into video and computer gaming and has thereby become part of everyday language, but their origin is in wargaming. Grognards please forgive me if I go over old ground here. In the wargames rule sets of the 60s and 70s, very often when a unit of soldiers receives 'a hit', individual models were removed from the table. Very often, one model per hit. A very practical (visual) way of recording that your company or brigade or whatever, has suffered casualties and may not be as efficient as it was at the start of the battle. This meant that your armies consisted of many individual figures, each representing 10 or 20 or even 50 actual soldiers. Moving all these hundreds of models took ages and issues with scale (does one model elephant actually mean one or five ot ten real ones?) meant that by the mid to late 70s wargamers were beginning to base their figures in groups on bigger 'stands'. But this meant that individual models could no longer be as easily taken off the field of battle. How did you or your opponent now know how relatively strong your units were as the Battle progressed?

Models weren't based in Chainmail

Various systems to indicate casualties were (and still are) used: "roster" lists or cards are kept for each unit and adjusted to show casualties, small caps or coloured rings are physically placed over the heads of model soldiers to indicate they've been taken out, number counters or dice are placed beside the unit to indicate it's condition. There are no doubt more. It's interesting to note that in Chainmail, no basing requirements are suggested at all, but by 1976 when Swords & Spells came out, very precise base sizes (given in eighths of an inch) are provided but models are still individually based and so could be removed when killed.

A Tolkien themed game of Chainmail

So what's this got to do with hit points? When Gygax wrote his fantasy supplement for Chainmail, he needed his heroes and superheros to stand out from the ordinary warriors as they did in the fiction which inspired them. They were to be harder to kill. Each one of these guys could take as many hits as a whole unit of ordinary soldiers. So how to show this in the game? Either Gary didn't want or didn't consider, little plastic cups over his heroes heads, nor did he seem to want (at this point) some kind of roster sheet (or as it was for an individual- a 'character sheet'?). So the solution he came to was that these heroes and superheroes needed several 'hits to kill' BUT, these blows all needed to fall in the same turn. So if Conan needed four hits to kill but only received three this turn, he walked away as if unscathed. 

So when Chainmail morphed into Dungeons and Dragons, Gygax and co-creator Dave Arneson (a fanatical Napoleonic wargamer) this same system was intended to be in place. That is, characters in the dungeon needed to be clobbered by those orcs many times *in one turn* to see if they died.

Now we all know that in D&D, the 'alternative combat system' prevailed, and the core of that now ubiquitous mechanic was that you no longer stomped about the battlefield shugging off wounds until the terrible moment came when four of the buggers got you at once- but that now, damage was a resource. Cumulative wounds eventually finished you off unless you were unfortunate enough to get the full force of a Dragon's breath. Yes, it's true, there were no consequences, mechanically, for how well your character performed as their supply of hit points dwindled. You were just as alive on 1 hit point as you had been when you had 20. But good referees made up for that, descriptively, and with only one hit point left most PCs became mighty cautious! And Gary gave up on his resistance to rosters. As players needed to keep a record of other things, why not keep a record of how wounded they were too?

Hah! I still have one hit point!

But I wonder, how different the game is if you actually play the 'multiple hits at once to kill' or nothing, rule. Although perhaps less realistic, somehow, the concept of your hero battling through hordes of monsters until they pile up on top of him, is more in keeping with the literary source material than the blood accountants we ended up with.

The other thing wargamers did/do, if playing in a campaign (see the previous post) was to figure out exactly how many of the casualties of a battle we really dead and how many were wounded, captured or had just run off. One mechanism for doing this was the 'saving roll'. If the battle was part of a longer campaign, when the fighting was over, you literally gathered up your casualty models and rolled dice to see if this or that figure was really dead and gone. Or had he been 'saved' to fight another day? British wargamer Tony Bath (what, him again?) took this one stage further and used the idea actually during the game, rather than after the battle was over. But only in specific circumstances. That is, when magic had been used to cause casualties. Bath ran a famous and long running Hyborian Campaign based on the Conan stories. Being Sword and Sorcery tales rather than those of High Fantasy, magic wasn't common in Bath's Hyboria, but it did exist (much to the disgust of some of his historical wargaming contemporaries). And magic was a risky and unpredictable business for both the caster and the victim. Thus, the 'saving' roll. I don't think Gygax and Bath ever met but both Perren and Gygax knew and used Bath's wargame rules. Gary 'borrowed' the idea of saving throws and roleplaying games never looked back.

Marc Summerloft took a different approach


It's a long time since I've played a wargame with Swords & Spells and even longer since I played Chainmail. So reading them both again side by side has been an interesting exercise. S&S was a complete redesign and is in many ways a much more sophisticated set of rules. But, strewth, it's complicated! So many factors go into each round of combat, I really cannot imagine how I got my teenage head round it. My maths teacher should have been proud! I couldn't do it now. Chainmail actually reads as more playable.

Judges Guild followed suit a few years later but it is interesting to note that City State Warfare is a wargame using cardboard counters on a hex graphed board/map rather than a game for minis (although it can be played that way). Their solution to the problem is that each 'chit' becomes it's own mini roster/character sheet. Much like in modern computer wargames, the characters and units run around the battlefield displaying their own little sets of data. Nothing is really new is it!

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