Game Design

Core Mechanics: Health and Damage

Hit points have long been a core mechanic of Dungeons & Dragons and because of that they have carried over into many other games including both pen & paper and digital games. The mechanic’s simplicity is likely one of the main reasons for its success – each time you take damage, you subtract it from your pool of hit points, and if you hit 0, you’re either dead or unconscious. Even though hp is the most common way to track health, there are a lot of games that offer alternative systems or interesting tweaks on the basic mechanics.

Hit Point Subsystems

Massive Damage

A massive damage rule allows a character to be threatened with death when taking damage above some threshold from a single hit. D&D 3.5 had a massive damage mechanic that required a saving throw to survive any attack dealing 50 or more points of damage. This threshold can be adjusted to make a game either more or less lethal. For example, in d20 modern, the threshold was instead a character’s Constitution score (generally 10-18) which made combat a lot more dangerous.

One potential pitfall of massive damage is that they tend to have more influence in high level games (assuming that hp scales with level). For example, D&D 3.5’s threshold of 50 damage would never affect low-level characters since they won’t have anywhere near 50 hp to begin with.

Condition Track

A condition track mechanic is a set of penalties that are introduced as a character loses hit points. The penalties could be tied to amounts of hp remaining (for example, at 50% or less hp, a character could take a -2 penalty on all rolls). Alternatively, conditions could be applied whenever an attack deals more than a certain amount of damage. The Star Wars Saga Edition game uses the second option with penalties applied each time that a character takes enough damage from a single attack.

Reserve Points

Reserve points, introduced in D&D 3.5’s Unearthed Arcana, are a secondary pool of points that can be used to recover from damage when outside of combat. This reserve keeps a character’s durability in a single combat limited based on their normal hit point pool, but allows them to recover between fights by converting reserve points into hit points. The rules for healing surges in D&D 4E are in many ways an expansion of this idea.

Vitality and Wound Points

The d20 Star Wars RPG released by Wizards of the Coast before Saga Edition used an alternative system where characters had vitality points and wound points. Vitality points were much like hit points in that the number a character had increased with level and they were lost when a character took normal damage. On the other hand, each character had a fixed number of wound points that didn’t scale with level. On a critical hit or if a character was out of vitality points, damage was instead applied to their wound points with death occurring when the character reached 0 wound points.

Hit points have always been an abstraction over both stamina and actual injuries, and the split vitality/wound pools were a nice way to represent those ideas separately while retaining much of the simplicity of hp.


A lot of games with more abstract combat systems, such as Fate games or Technoir, track injuries as negative modifiers. For example, in a game using the Fate system, an attack could cause a character to gain an aspect such as “broken arm” which could later result in a bonus on another attack or a penalty on an action by the injured character. This system seems to work very well for story-focused games since it allows for the narrative of an injury to map well to the game’s fiction.

Damage Checks

In this system, when a character is hit the it makes a roll against a difficulty based on the attack. If the character passes, then the hit has no effect. However, if the character fails, then it takes a negative condition. Depending on the implementation a large failure could result in character death or death might happen after a fixed number of failures. A system like this is used in Mutants & Masterminds where it feels like a great fit for the ability of superheroes to shrug off minor hits or take out one another with a single massive blow. This mechanic is also nice because it doesn’t require tracking points as a character is hit.

What are your favorite health mechanics?

Personally, I like the idea of a damage check system or at least a condition track to make wounds meaningful before a character reaches unconsciousness, but I haven’t had enough chances to play games that use those systems to see if that holds up in actual play. Are there any health and damage systems that you really enjoy?

By Scott Boehmer

A game enthusiast and software engineer.

5 replies on “Core Mechanics: Health and Damage”

I like hitpoints, but I dislike how they’re used. Assuming they mean actual damage or fatigue can lead to a lot of odd & suspension-straining situations. That’s not entirely the fault of the system, but I’d like games that use HP to offer some guidance. My basic approach is that not all injuries cost HP, not all HP loss means physical injury and being at full “health” and under no negative conditions does not mean the character is not injured. 4th Edition has done a lot to help me arrive at that conclusion.

You mention FATE using keywords, but Spirit of the Century (the FATE-based game with which I’m familiar) uses “stress tracks.” Small hits accumulate just as with HP, but a couple of massive hits might be unsustainable & lead directly to keyword conditions that might be temporary or rather permanent. SotC also has tracks for both physical & mental/social stress.

SotC, being a pulp adventure game, uses “taken out” instead of death. I believe Lady Blackbird does this too.

Traveller uses a character’s physical ability scores as hit points. First you lose Endurance, then your choice of Strength or Dexterity. If one of these drops to zero, the character is unconscious. Further damage is applied to the remaining score & if it’s zeroed the character dies.

The stats are rolled, yes rolled, on 2d6. They can increase or decrease, yes decrease, during, yes during, character generation. Restoring lost points can be difficult, time consuming and expensive. Armor can reduce damage but Traveller characters are advised to pick their battles wisely.

I’m not sure what my favorite mechanic is. I like them simple & abstract so I guess I prefer an HP system in which I’m free to describe (within a few loose boundaries) my character’s condition. Keywords are fun, but less definite, so I’d rather not use them with strangers.

Yeah, I did gloss over the stress tracks for the Fate system (I’ve played SotC and Dresden Files which both use them). I feel like the consequence aspects are the more interesting part of the health system since they are the lasting wounds the stress track is really just a per-encounter buffer to avoid them.

My favorite mechanic is 7th Sea. There are two types of damage – flesh wounds and dramatic wounds.

Flesh Wounds are little cuts and bruises, and fatigue. However, they can add up. Each time you take damage you roll your Brawn dice. 7th sea uses d10s, and 10’s explode, so you can roll pretty high if you’re lucky. If you roll lower than your current number of Flesh Wounds (including any you just took) you erase them all (Your Flesh Wound total is now zero) and take a Dramatic Wound. These are the serious wounds that will eventually knock your character out. Heroes can take their Resolve in Dramatic Wounds before being crippled and taking penalties to all their actions. At twice their Resolve they’re knocked out. If you make the wound check, you do not take a Dramatic Wound but carry over the Flesh Wounds until the DM says you are healed. In most cases, taking a few minutes to patch up after the battle takes care of this. But in battles that become chases that lead to other battles doesn’t allow this.

That does sound like a pretty nice system. It’s also the second time that 7th Sea has been brought up as having nice mechanics in comments to these Core Mechanics posts. I should probably find a copy and read through it for ideas.

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