The title comes from Chrono Trigger, which is, as far as I can tell, the best JRPG ever made. The title came to me while I was thinking about healing in D&D 5e, because it has a very “restore your hp by sleeping at an inn,” JRPG feel to me. Let me explain.
So in D&D 5e you can heal naturally in two ways (not counting magic or items): During a short rest, a period defined as being at least 1 hour of relaxing, you can roll a number of Hit Dice (HD) (up to your character level) to restore hp. So, as a second level wizard, Namfoodle “Nam” Ningle can roll 2d6, and get back that many hp. You can only spend a given HD once in a day, so if I rolled both of those HDs in that one short rest, that’s all I get.
There are also long rests, which are defined as at least 8 hours of downtime and may contain no more than 2 hours of standing watch. During a long rest, you get back any HD you’ve spent to heal during short rests, and, the big win: you get back all your hp, as long as you have at least 1 hp when you start the rest.
So, in a sense, it’s the traditional JRPG model of go to an inn, pay however much gold, and get all your hit points back.
Hit Points as Abstraction
Personally, I really like this model, because it helps to streamline the game and, somewhat more importantly, it helps to abstract hit points. See, while I’ve played D&D or some variation thereof for a long, long time now, and I love those games, I’ve always had issues with a few of the core assumptions those systems make. Hit points, classes, and levels have always caused problems for me. I’ll save classes and levels for another time, but I want to talk about hit points now.
The main problem that I had with hit points is that they weren’t terribly descriptive of a character or monster’s actual health. Once I discovered them, I prefered, at least conceptually, wound systems like you might see in Star Wars D6 or Exalted, which come preloaded with indications of just how wounded a character has become. The other thing that these systems did which D&D did not do was attach penalties to those wound levels: the more hurt you were, the harder it was to do things, which made sense. With hit points, you’re totally fine until you hit 0 and then you’re dead (or dying, depending on the version, the DM, or whether we’re talking about a player character or a monster).
Now there are a number of things this analysis is missing, but understand that this was a much younger me who was missing some important elements. Namely, D&D is heroic fantasy (which Exalted and SWD6 could certainly be classified as) and it trades on heroes being tough and cool and hard to kill. Admittedly, the wound system of Vampire: The Masquerade doesn’t really make all that much sense in Exalted, but it’s there because they’re both Storyteller games, and that’s how White Wolf rolls (namely they don’t often challenge the core assumptions of the system when they create a new setting using it). But this realization isn’t what helped me come to like hit points (at least for some games).
RPG systems are abstractions, of course, and hit points are part of that abstraction, but they aren’t an abstraction of pure damage, they don’t just measure how much blood you’ve got left. They measure how much, for lack of a better term, heroism you have left. Moxy. Gumption. Whatever you want to call it, hp doesn’t track your proximity to death, but your proximity to being out of the fight; whether it’s because you’re dead, unconscious, or simply exhausted. Two games helped me to realize this fact: Star Wars d20, and Fate.
Fate is newer, both as a game system and as one that I’m familiar with, and it helped me realize a lesson that I should have learned with SWd20. Fate uses stress and consequences, which are accrued in lieu of being removed from a conflict. Take enough stress and you’re out of the scene somehow, it might be damage, or you might be driven away from your goal, any number of things. Fate is very narrative focused and less combat driven, so this makes sense.
What SWd20 did was to provide characters with both hit points and wounds. Hit points worked just like other d20 games and you got more of them as you leveled up, but they represented more of your will to fight, your “luck” or the favor of the Force or whatever. Run out, and you were unconscious. Some damage came in the form of wounds though, and you had wounds equal to your Constitution score. If those fell to 0, you were in serious trouble. I really like this system because it allows you to defeat enemies without killing them all the time, which made sense for Star Wars, but maybe not as much sense for typical D&D games.
All of this has been on my mind because, while reading the 5e Player’s Handbook, I realized something about how I’ve been game mastering. I tend to describe violence in loving detail which, is difficult on the narrative because it results in creatures taking some truly grotesque amounts of damage over a combat. It also makes no sense in 5e (which I’m not running but still) because sleeping heals you to full. That’s less a problem in Pathfinder, where natural healing takes much longer, but hp is doing the same job in both games.
The problem with graphic damage descriptions is that it doesn’t gel with the system. D&D doesn’t have complicated systems for hit location, crippling, and the like (unless you add them) so describing combat in this way causes descriptive dissonance: the style of description does not match the style of play. You wouldn’t use D&D to run a tabletop version of the films Hostel or Saw, because the system assumes heroic actions that don’t work with the assumptions of those narratives (namely body horror). Why then, would you use those styles of damage to describe combat in D&D?
The other problem is that I rarely described a strike hitting a target unless it did damage. Rarely were blows deflected or parried; they either missed or they did damage. That’s weird, because it implies that combat is largely just missing wildly or gouging out huge chunks of monster flesh. Not ideal. I want Inigo Montoya versus the Man in Black from The Princess Bride, not Wednesday versus Pugsley from The Addams Family. The former has a ton of interesting footwork and swords clashing but no blood and gore. It’s a fun, epic fight (the best sword fight ever filmed), and it’s basically what I want from my game. The latter is two kids standing in place and doing absurd amounts of damage to each other (via special effects). It’s hilarious and subversive, but not exciting. I want fights to be dynamic, and I want creatures put on the defensive (i.e. being hit with attack roles) to become winded, to make mistakes, and not necessarily bleed all over the place.
At the Table
So hit points in D&D and Pathfinder collapse the role of both hp and wounds from SWd20: they mostly abstract stamina, energy, spirit, but at some point they abstract real, physical damage. The trick here is figuring out where to draw the line between the two (if at all). I think this is what Wizards of the Coast was trying to do in D&D 4e with the “bloodied” status. When a creature was reduced to half their hit points they were “bloodied,” which usually meant that they gained access to an ability they didn’t have before, but also stood as a marker to players that the creature was at half their hit points. I don’t think half hit points is the best point to start describing hit point loss as physical damage, but I like the idea of setting a point to do so.
What I’m suggesting, and plan to do myself, is to describe hit point loss with a two stage method. Starting with descriptions of parries, shield blocks, exhaustion and so forth and then, at a predetermined point, describing the strikes as physical damage like blood loss, gaping wounds and so on. Figuring out what this point should be will require some play-testing, but I do know that these descriptions should not be injuries that are incapable of healing. Only if an attack kills a creature should that hit do some irreparable damage. For ease of inclusion, setting this at something like 25% of the creature’s original hit points makes sense. On the other hand, I feel like this might vary from creature to creature, and so the “real damage” threshold for a dragon might be different than a kobold. The threshold might be determined by creature type, HD, some combination of the two, or whatever other factors a given GM might want to use.