Hit points have been around since the birth of role playing games. Love or hate the abstract concept it is a staple of the genre and in the 40 years of RPG evolution there has yet to be a system so vastly superior as to kick HP from its vaunted king of the hill position as a mechanic.
Hit points as a system is by its nature granular. In a game you can tress up all the fluff and evocative imagery in the world but 1 point of damage is 1 point of damage and eventually you have to tell the player to mark down 1 point of damage. It can kick immersion to the curb quickly when everyone at the table are calling back and forth numbers.
And as much as we would like to avoid meta-gaming HP is one of the largest perpetrators on both sides of the screen. How much HP a monster or PC has is a major contributor to how we act on our turns. We play the numbers game, gamble on how much damage a monster is dealing as to whether the PC should drink a healing potion or try to slay the monster before it gets the chance to attack. One thing I have toyed with at the table is tracking the PC’s HP behind the screen. This works well in concert with D&D 4e’s Bloodied condition. For those who haven’t played 4e a creature takes on the Bloodied condition when it has ½ or less of its maximum HP. Playing by the stringent rules of the book a player is never to say how many HP his PC has. The only thing other creatures are supposed to know is whether or not it is bloodied. Of course that is disregarded without thought in most games I have seen.
At first tracking the HP for monsters and PCs sounds like it would be a pain in the butt. More stuff for the GM to keep track of right? Actually it’s not bad, after a session or two it falls naturally into the rhythm. You can keep PC HP right next to the monsters. In some ways I actually prefer this method as it gives me better insight to how I should spread punishment. Roughly 50% of the time when I knock a PC unconscious or to the ‘dying’ state it is because I thought the PC had more HP (they may or may not have forgotten to say they were bloodied so I assume they have more than 50% of their HP remaining). Being completely in control of HP for the PCs helps me to minimize accidentally nuking one character with too much damage.
I also like the air of uncertainty it hands the players. The danger seems more real when you cannot differentiate between having 1 HP and 14 HP, all you know is you are conscious and badly banged up. This is even better when most of the party is bloodied and the cleric wants to throw out a heal but must decide who gets it without the concrete knowledge of who is most injured.
How It Works
Obviously you need the max HP of the PCs written down somewhere handy, either in the same spot you track monster HP or nearby. You will also want to have down their bloodied and battered (explained in a moment) values. When they take damage you notate it. I let my players handle healing. They do not need to know their current HP to determine how much HP they get back either from resting, potions, or healing magic. They tell me the HP they get back I make the note.
Normal: 100 – 51% of Max HP
Bloodied: 50 – 25% of Max HP
Battered: 24 – 01% of Max HP
The Battered status operates like Bloodied, it is used to denote a PC who is has a quarter or less of its HP remaining. I added this status because in play Bloodied alone was not informative enough for the players and they needed to know when PCs were approaching death. You can add the Battered status to monsters as well, I don’t as there is no mechanical advantage to doing so.
– Immersion: By removing the necessity to tell players damage the PCs take you can better express with words the scene. It’s no longer 8 points of slashing damage but ‘the orc splinters Therin’s chainmail with a solid slash of his ax and the cleric is now bloodied.’
– Damage Control: Makes it easier to spread damage across the party and not turn a PC into an accidental pincushion.
– Fudging: If you fudge die rolls often tracking the HP will make this much easier and less obvious.
– Numbers: If you are the type of GM who regularly makes mistakes to monster HPs during an encounter doubling that work is probably not going to make a better game for anyone involved and will likely end up with someone (likely the GM) getting frustrated.
– Temp HP: If someone is playing a PC that regularly makes use of Temporary HP like 4e’s Battlerager Fighter it will be a hassle. Either you need to keep another Temp HP total for the PC or you will have to ask the player each turn how much Temp HP the PC has. Steer players away from these types of mechanics. Damage Reduction / Armor Soak is conversely easy to notate next to the PC’s max HP. It is easy to track these effects as their values are not variable like Temp HP.
Try it out see how it plays. I suggest trying it out in a one-shot adventure with a high threat of PCs at least being knocked unconscious if not killed. After the session get feedback from the players about how they feel.