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Question Keith (Yeah, that Keith) #1: Hidden Hit Points?

Written by Keith Baker - Published on April 8, 2011

We are the knights who say 'knee.'

We’re proud to present the 1st in a series of monthly articles by Keith Baker.  Best known for creating the Eberron Campaign Setting for Dungeons & Dragons and the card game Gloom he’s also worked on at least five games that you’ve never heard of.  Yet.

Question: My DM has decided to implement a house rule, where we don’t know how many hit points our pc’s have at any given time. Instead, he will track them, and describe to us how badly we’re hurt, and how badly we get hit, without using numbers. He believes it will “increase the drama and tension,” which it will. He says he’s doing this because “knowing that the bad guys are hitting you for 15 damage on average, and knowing that, at 38 HP, you can take another hit before you need to heal is meta-gaming,” and he’s on a huge quest to destroy any meta-gaming.

Granted, any meta that goes on is our fault as players, but I cannot accept his argument. Knowing how many HP you have, and how much damage you’re taking, isn’t meta-gaming. It’s a vital part of the tactical aspect of the game.


Just so you know, we’re playing 4e, half of us have played for years together, and the other half are rpg newbies.

-Shawn Klaus from Tacoma, WA

Keith Says…

Hi Shawn.  I can see the argument for adding a little mystery to combat by removing precise hit point values. If I went down this path in my game, I might use a system where I told you your status on the following chart:

Unhurt 100%

Bruised 99% – 76%

Battered 75% – 51%

Bloodied 50% – 26%

Beaten 25% – 6%

Critical 5% – 1%

This provides a range, but still lets you know roughly how hurt you are. If you’re Beaten, you might be at 25%… but you still know that you can use a power that lets you spend two healing surges without wasting effort.

Of course… that last sentence is, itself, may be the metagaming your DM is trying to avoid. You quoted him as saying “knowing that, at 38 HP, you can take another hit before you need to heal is meta-gaming.” So it sounds like he doesn’t want you to know you can use two healing surges without wasted effort.

D&D is designed to be a precise tactical game. From the very beginning, the cleric had to decide whether to use Cure Light Wounds, Cure Serious Wound, or Heal – choosing which limited resources to expend based on his knowledge of the condition of his allies. If you take that information away, you add mystery, but you also add a level of frustration as players feel they don’t have the ability to make sensible choices. You also run the risk that they will be unable to face the challenges the system assigns to them based on level – because the system assumes that they are operating with full tactical knowledge.

Personally, if I was concerned about players getting too confident or metagaming, I’d shake things up in a different way – by having opponents who are difficult to predict. Some enemies might deal more damage based on circumstance: additional damage if you’re prone, if you’re bloodied, if you’re granting combat advantage. Opponents could be given more encounter powers – you think the creature’s average damage is 15, but that’s because he hasn’t used his double-damage mighty thrust yet. If this sort of thing is relatively common, you know you can’t rely on past rounds to predict future damage – but you are also capable of evaluating the injuries that you’ve taken and reacting accordingly.

Ultimately, though, there’s a bigger issue here. It doesn’t matter who you ask: no authority can tell your DM his house rule is wrong. He’s the DM. He gets to make the rules. If your group is unhappy with the rules, you need to sit down as a group and explain that to the DM. He’s trying to wipe out metagaming. If you feel that you need enough knowledge to make solid tactical decisions, and that if this is stripped away you won’t enjoy the game any more, then you need to tell him exactly that. When we game, we all sacrifice our time, player and DM alike. We do it to have fun together. The rules should facilitate that, not get in the way. If a particular rule is making people miserable, it’s worth trying to find a better way.

With that said, sometimes there isn’t a better way. I myself once gave up on a group because their style of play was incompatible with my style of DMing. I could force them to play my way and they wouldn’t enjoy it, or I could give them what they wanted and I wouldn’t enjoy it. Neither of us were doing anything wrong, and we’re still friends outside the table; we simply had different tastes in gaming, and in the end those differences were irreconcilable. I found a different set of players who like the way I run games, and they found another DM; everyone is happier.

Hopefully your situation won’t come to that. Just how set is your DM on abolishing metagaming? Does he understand that he’s making you frustrated as opposed to increasing your enjoyment of the game? Is he willing to work with you? Communication is critical; hopefully once your DM understands your frustration, you can work together to find a mutually satisfying solution.

Thanks for writing in to ‘Question Keith’ and enjoy your reward of a custom character sketch!

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Written by Keith Baker

Creator of Eberron, Gloom, and awesome snickerdoodles.

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 Comments

8 Responses to “Question Keith (Yeah, that Keith) #1: Hidden Hit Points?”
  1. M. Whelehan says:

    Kieth, there’s wisdom in your words.

    It can be awkward for gamers to sit down and have those frank discussions about style of play and style of DM’ing. But they are critical to the overall success of the group.

  2. Frank says:

    Nice Health Status chart. I may utilize this in my own game.

    I know how this DM feels. Sometimes I feel as though I should hang a banner which reads “please, separate player knowledge from character knowledge” it is an easy concept with a more difficult application. Most players could benefit from a constant 4’x8′ reminder.

  3. iserith says:

    This is another example of a DM who has a certain idea for a game in mind, but who probably hasn’t had a lot of experience with games outside of D&D. I’m certain there is a better game system out there that will easily accomplish what this DM is trying to do. He just lacks the experience or motivation to find out. I had a DM similar to this once, who preferred a story on the rails and little if no combat, and was never satisified with 4e, despite having played D&D for many years. When I showed him a game like Fiasco, it was much more in line with his style – he just never looked outside of D&D for his game system. There is an assumption of tactical combat in 4e… take it away and it’s a different game system. So it’s better to just look outside the system altogether.

  4. Jason says:

    I like Keith’s “charted” damage control. I would hope that any DM wouldn’t be “out to kill” any of his player characters and would let the players know in some way! (Shilo the cleric notices the heavy blood loss from under Draggo the fighter’s leg greave as he shields off the orc’s blows…) As for house rules go; I was always under the impression that the rule books were to be used as “guidlines” and not hard set rules and it was the imagination and or the storytelling ability of the DM that made the game… Rule lawyers have no place at my table! Now don’t get me wrong, the players need to know the rules to some extent, this makes it a player’s game and a DM’s dream! I am new to the 4E system, but already see the pros and cons of it… I myself am more magical then tactical when it comes to roleplaying games… Key word – “Role” playing not “Rule”playing… But your listening to an “ol’ head” who thinks that the Blue Book is the codex and Gygax and Arneson are gods…
    Thanx and I love what your doing…

  5. LordVreeg says:

    “D&D is designed to be a precise tactical game. From the very beginning, the cleric had to decide whether to use Cure Light Wounds, Cure Serious Wound, or Heal – choosing which limited resources to expend based on his knowledge of the condition of his allies. If you take that information away, you add mystery, but you also add a level of frustration as players feel they don’t have the ability to make sensible choices. You also run the risk that they will be unable to face the challenges the system assigns to them based on level – because the system assumes that they are operating with full tactical knowledge.”

    Actually, The esteemed Mr. Gygax actually describes possibly using the ‘blind system’ mentioned above in the original PHB. He mentioned it as a variant, but still, it was on the board from the earliest days. Shawn’s DM might have picked it up right from the source.

    I always like rules that allow for better immersion, but only used this variation a few times, though almost always with guidelines similar to what Keith mentions.

  6. Cyberkyd says:

    Yes, I agree with Keith. He gave a good chart to use, but it is up to your DM ultimately to decide whether to use it or not. He is the leader, after all.

  7. Draygn_Mage says:

    Actually, if you think about, I would say that blind hit points is just about perfect when combined with a little used skill call “Heal.” Building on what Keith proposed (bruised, bloodied, beaten, etc). The fighter who is being hit repeatedly can roll a heal check. Based on how well he rolls, he can determine how badly he’s hurt. Obviously people trained in heal are going to be better at determining the extent of someone’s injuries. So Torloc, the human fighter might make a heal check of 15 and think he’s feeling pretty beaten up and getting weak from loss of blood (he thinks he’s at 10 HP out of 75) and calls the party healer for help. Marilyn, the priestess of Avandra, rolls a 23 and tells him to suck it up and she’ll get to him in a minute because she knows he’s got closer to 30 HP than 10. In these cases, I would make the skill checks minor actions and roll the results behind the screen.

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