A different Approach to Health and Injury

Yesterday I was thinking how the hit point mechanic in basically all CRPGs and really the vast majority of all videogames with a combat component feels really archaic, and how we should consider it hopelessly outdated. If there were any other ideas that had been introduced in games in the last 40 years.

Hit points as a mechanic to track how much a character can endure in a fight before being felled by a mortal injury were fine when Dungeons & Dragons came out in 1977. It's easy to calculate in your head and keep track of with pencil notes while you play. And it made real sense to use the same approach for videogames, back when games were typed by hand and looked like this.

But you'd think with nearly half a century of videogame innovation and the unbelievable increase in processing power, this simplistic and crude mechanic would have become obsolete decades ago. Instead, it's still basically the universal default that nobody even seems to question. That isn't to say that it's a bad mechanic and that all the games that use it should have been using something else instead. But its continuing ubiquity is really quite puzzling to me, now that I started thinking about what kinds of things I could do in a videogame where a computer takes place of all the number crunching, that just never were feasible routes to explore in a dice game.

When I mentioned it on Mastodon, obviously the first replies were "Well, do you have a better solution?" Which of course I hadn't immediately right there. But really just thinking idly about the issue for a few hours did give me at least an idea for a different approach that might be worth doing some experiments with.

The first time I saw an attempt at taking an RPG system beyond just regular hit points was the Star Wars RPG Saga Edition in the mid 2000s. It still does have hit points, but in addition to that it has a condition track. The more you are injured, the greater the penalty you take to most of your dice rolls you use in combat. Which was clunky in its execution, but it was an interesting idea to introduce. Since then, many RPG systems have explored similar approaches. In the Year Zero system, hit point damage really is mostly just like endurance damage and when you run out you are incapacitated for a while but won't suffer any permanent damage. It's the critical injuries, though, where real grievous bodily harm comes into play. You can have limbs broken or completely shot off, or suffer various head injuries. Each of which can give you penalties to your abilities, make certain activities impossible, and put you in need of either emergency treatment or getting into surgery to keep you from dying in the next few hours. And of course getting shot in the head or heart makes you drop dead where you stand. In a pen and paper game, this can be incredibly exciting and fun ways to fight your battles. Because in these games, you are typically with a group of allies who can pull your mangled body to safety and rush you to a doctor. Or they have to leave you behind as you retreat to leave you to the mercy of your enemies, who might save your life to keep you as a prisoner, which then later leads to your friends coming back to break you out of the hospital. In games like these, lying dying on the floor while getting swarmed by overwhelming enemy forces is not the end of the game. With the enemies and the world being controlled by a person who is there to make judgement calls and make up new content on the spot, these games are incredibly flexible and often meander wildly before eventually reaching the conclusion in a way that nobody could have foreseen. And there is no reloading of a previous save. Whatever calamities befall your character, you have to keep playing forward with whatever mess you have on your hands.

But of course, in a videogame an injury system like this really wouldn't work. You just become combat ineffective after getting shot or stabbed and then torn to pieces by the remaining enemies whose AI doesn't know what else to do but attack until everything in sight is dead. And even if you have a party of characters and they can retreat to have everyone's injuries treated, they still have to come back to the same spot where they were last stopped and continue through the level in the state as it was when they left it. That makes the whole trip back to town to heal everyone up just busy work. Boring and annoying. You could program it, but it would suck to play.

But recently I was playing Fallout. And while I wasn't aware of it while I was playing, because it probably is mentioned only in the manual and not in the actual game, I saw in a video that it is possible to specifically aim at an enemies limbs or eyes, and they would be fighting differently if injured in those places. Having an enemy blinded or unable to walk is fun. But when you apply the same to the player in a first-person game, it's basically game over for you. But we've come a lot farther technologically in the last 26 years, and now it doesn't have to be a binary vision on/vision off.

So here is an idea I propose. As an experiment to try out and see how it plays. Which I have come up with for one very specific game style in mind. It really doesn't sound fun when you would mod it into a game like The Witcher 3 or even into Skyrim. But for a game like Thief, where you are supposed to not be noticed by enemies at all and to run away and hide when you are? And embedded into a game structure where you already make a series of trips into each dungeon that gets you deeper down each time, with no hope of doing the entire thing in one go? I think this could be really a lot of fun.

So how this injury mechanics works is that your character and all the enemies in the game have a number of different health bars that relate to different abilities. One health bar for your ability to hit with weapons. One health bar for your ability to run. One health bar for your ability to see, and so on. Any time an enemy lands a hit or you or you get injured by an environmental force, you take damage to one or several of your health bards, that could plausibly be impacted by the damage source. As your health bars decease, your respective abilities deteriorate.

  • Strength damage: Your attacks deal less damage.
  • Movement damage: You run slower.
  • Vision damage: You get tunnel vision and blurry sight.
  • Hearing damage: Sounds get muffled.
  • Stamina damage: Your stamina maximum decreases and it regenerates slower.
  • Reaction damage: You gain an input delay for your controls.

The very important element to this is that the deterioration your character suffers from each hit is very small and barely perceptible. Especially the input delay from from reaction damage can only be very small before the game is probably getting completely unplayable.

As you are taking damage, your ability to fight goes down. So it is quite likely that with each additional fight you get into, you will be doing increasingly poorly and suffering greater injury in the process. In a game where you're supposed to fight your way to the end without dying, this probably wouldn't be fun. In a game where it should be possible to play through the entire game without fighting at all, this is instead an incentive to switch to a more careful approach. Also, as I mentioned above, my context for this system is in a game where you can't complete any dungeon in one go and probably have to return back to the town to recover and resupply at least two or three times. If your injuries in combat make you want to make two additional stops as well, it's not a big deal or a case of having failed. It's merely slightly slower progress.

The part of all this that I find particularly interesting and compelling is that compared to an injury system where each injury is all or nothing, there wouldn't be a clear sense of "this fight went so poorly, I should reload and try it again". If you have either two working arms or one, loosing use of one arm would be a very strong incentive to just give up on the fight and reload the last save. I think few players would feel like continuing to play with an injury like this. But with the deterioration of different abilities being incremental and very gradual, you wouldn't really have that point. So yes, you might have taken another 6% degradation to your vision in this fight. Is that worth doing it over to maybe just get a 2% degradation? And you might also suffer a 1% reaction degradation that you didn't take this time. Is it worth it? When the impairment from each fight is very low individually, I think there would be very little incentive in redoing fights. Surely it will be fine, and you're good enough to deal with at least two or three more fights for now. So you soldier on, knowing that you have a return trip to the town ahead of you anyway.

I can totally understand if anyone think all of this completely sucks. It definitely is not a universal solution that you could just slap on all games that use hit points and expect them to still be fun. But I think for a gritty, high tension sneaking game, this could be really cool.

And it would be quite unique and something that very few games would offer to players interested in this.