Thursday, October 21, 2021

Arneson's Hit Points for Characters


Game Wizards is very decidedly not a book about who invented which system in D&D. But early drafts of the book did track one design choice in D&D that Dave Arneson perennially criticized: the system wherein characters gain more hit points as they go up in level. Arneson held that character hit points should instead be fixed at character creation, and that characters should become harder to hit as they rise in level. While that story thread failed its save against manuscript bloat, restoring it does add context for Gygax and Arneson's subsequent disputes. Probably the most well-known place Arneson mentioned his system was in the introduction to the First Fantasy Campaign (1977), as shown above.

When the ink on OD&D was barely dry in 1974, Arneson was already complaining about the hit point system. Indeed, he asked one person he corresponded with to share a letter about it to the Great Plains Gameplayers Newsletter. That was venue where Gary Gygax then previewed system revisions to D&D leading up to its first supplement Greyhawk, and Arneson's interest in sharing it there is a stark indicator of his willingness to publicly criticize the published D&D rules:

While his description may be a bit difficult to parse, Arneson is apparently saying that starting characters in Blackmoor would fix their hit points from 1-36 hits. His willingness to criticize D&D only increased after his 1976 departure from the company, and in the text at the top above from the First Fantasy Campaign, he was eager to show how TSR had botched his original vision. There he suggested fixed character hit points were rolled with percentile dice --  probably the original d6 system owed to the fact that they had "no funny dice back then," as he says elsewhere on the same page. At a seminar at Origins that year, one participant recorded that Arneson came back to hit points as a talking point:

Looking ahead a bit to Adventures in Fantasy, where Arneson hoped to correct what he deemed "the many errors in the original rules," we find an algorithm for calculating hit points based on starting character statistics (which were rolled with percentile dice) which seems to favor on average characters having a bit more than ten hit points:

The rift over character hit points is symptomatic of something more fundamental: during his development of the first draft of D&D, Gygax wrote the rules as he saw fit. He drew on system Arneson had sent him, and his experiences playing with Arneson and Dave Megarry, but he showed little deference to Arneson. Once the post-TSR feud between Gygax and Arneson had begun, Gygax claimed (in Dragon #7) that "D&D was not Dave's game system by any form or measure" and that Arneson had "complained bitterly that the game wasn't right." Once this had escalated towards a lawsuit, Arneson would in retaliation portray Gygax as a mere editor of the rules, who had used his editorial prerogative to trample on Arneson's vision. Even in the throes of their dispute, Arneson is clear that Gygax was not just transcribing Blackmoor's vision: "It was very much a case of me providing various ideas and concepts but not having any say as to how they were used." 

After the settlement in 1981 cooled the legal flame war, Arneson elaborated that back in 1973 the Lake Geneva crew "came up with their own version of the rules" and sent them to the Twin Cities, where they became integrated into the play of the Blackmoor campaign as Arneson saw fit - Gygax more than once went on record that Greyhawk and Blackmoor used somewhat different rules in the early days. If we look ahead to 1992, to his remarks to The Gamer magazine, Arneson is more explicit in allocating credit for certain system concepts:

Blackmoor had a diverse character skill system, which in Lake Geneva in 1973 would be honed down into the six canonical D&D abilities. It also seems that the idea that a starting character would choose one of three classes was part of Gygax's contribution. And despite the fact that Arneson would later claim to have derived armor class from a naval wargame. here he seems to be attributing that to Lake Geneva as well. But of course, as with the character hit point system, Gygax would never have developed any of this without Blackmoor: as Arneson affirmed, "It was very much a collaboration."  


  1. This is really interesting and quite a shock for me. On the surface, Arneson's approach makes more sense. As you grow in experience you are harder to hit but if you are hit then you are just as vulnerable to damage as anyone else. Eg, being stabbed in the stomach should be just as bad regardless of your experience level.

    Gygax's approach appears to make less literal sense as what are hit points in real life? However, I don't think it really matters much. The way I've always understood hit points is that they are an abstract representation of your health and include things like experience and ability to dodge blows.

    So the important question being, which is easier to incorporate into the game and keep track of? Presumably, Gygax thought his system was easier but I do wonder if he actually tested both?

    In the end, I'm guessing that with enough effort, we could create a 1:1 correspondence between both systems such that the results of all the die rolls in terms of death and relative damage would be the same. The only difference being how easy each system is to use.

    Off the top of my head, I don't really have a good feel for which one would be easier to deal with or if there would be an appreciable difference.

    In the end, it's probably not worth the effort to change, but it is something worth thinking about or at least fun to consider.

  2. Having fixed hit points - but varying probabilties to hit/be hit makes sense from a multi-figure wargaming point of view. In a wargame every player typically has a lot of figures to play with. You don't want to track various hit points for each figure, but want a binary decision for life or death. A few hitpoints is still manageable.

    However, once you make the jump to having one player = one character, a large number of hit points might be the better choice. Every combat round, you want something to happen. It can't be a binary life/death outcome, you want to track a decreasing number.

    Nevertheless, 'hit points' was a poor choice of terminology from the beginning, and came with expectations about what that decreasing number actually meant. Cfr. the zillions of discussions and articles devoted to hitpoints, how to improve the system, explaining what 'hit points really are' etc, etc.

  3. Exactly, Phil. And furthermore, a pool of hit points allows players to make intelligent decisions about fighting or fleeing as those changes occur during the fight. Once your HP are depleted you know you're in danger of dying soon and should consider retreat.

    Whereas in a theoretical system where hit points never accumulate but the character gets harder and harder to hit, even the mightiest heroes are a lucky blow away from defeat, and this precludes much of that decisionmaking.

    HP may be less realistic, but they both simulate the heroic fiction of heroes needing to be worn down before their defenses slip, and provide the gameplay value of giving a changing value based on which you may make different decisions.

    1. Actually Arnesons system would not preclude such decision making at all. It would amplify it.

      Every time a character is faced with the decision for combat the intelligent question would need to be asked if the reward outweighs the risk. More importantly will the encounter help or hinder the parties overall goals. These are really better questions than whether your character can statistically survive.

      Hit point depletion is still a factor, just not one of bean counting. In the original campaigns it's questionable whether they knew their characters hit points anyway.

    2. Theoretical systems like say Runequest where hit points don't increase without increasing attributes which was a difficult and costly in game meta currency. I wish we had the Arneson "cut" of DnD so we could see what it looked like. With skills and limited HP it already sounds like systems that came out later as a reaction to dissatisfaction with DnDs class and level system.

    3. Having run Runequest for many years I have seen the exact problem mentioned. Having characters always a single unlucky roll away from death does have a negative effect on the game. Because characters always have a chance to die, if at all possible they will avoid fair and open fights. Ambushes and murder became the norm. It became so bad that I abandoned that game and went back to hit points.