Theory: Implement Hit Points Thematically

I have a confession to make: I like hit points as a mechanic. They’re quick to explain, easy to understand, tracking them is effortless, and–since there’s generally no negative consequence to losing hit points until they run out–there’s no death spiral as the player gets hit. Hit points even provide an easy way to pace combat; with knowledge of how quickly the player can remove them, designers can give the opponent just enough hit points to make the fight a satisfying length without turning it into a grind. Designers looking for simple, readily tunable combat systems can find hit points to be just what they need.

There is, however, a right way and a wrong way to implement them. Ironically, the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series has done both.

Hit points done right: hit points working in tandem with the fiction

Two important things happen in this clip. Keep one eye on the lightsabers, and the other on Juhani’s health bar.

One of the fundamental rules of Star Wars combat, as it’s demonstrated in the films, is that getting cut by a lightsaber is incredibly bad. Just by nicking Darth Vader’s arm, Luke made the Dark Lord of the Sith cry out; whenever someone really got chopped, the fight ended right then and there. Being struck by a lightsaber is devastating.

That creates a problem for game designers trying to fit Star Wars combat into the hit point mold. If any hit from a lightsaber instantly reduces the opponent to zero hit points, fights will be brief and potentially anticlimactic. On the other hand, making lightsaber blows less serious detracts from the game’s immersiveness.

(At this point one might conclude that the solution is “use a combat system not based on hit points.” That would be a reasonable road to go down. Let’s assume, however, that the game’s design is such that the benefits of a hit point system outweigh its flaws.)

KOTOR’s designers escaped their dilemma by making the game’s hit points more about endurance than about health, and then matching the animations to that understanding. Juhani loses hit points in the video as she parries the player’s attacks, but she doesn’t get hit; the player never lands the big chop that every Star Wars fan knows would be instantly fatal. The hit point system is deployed in a way that makes sense within the game’s fiction.

In fact, KOTOR’s designers went beyond merely solving problems with hit points; they used the hit point system enhance the story. Juhani concedes the duel with some hit points left. Since KOTOR players learn early on that zero hit points equals death, stopping the fight before that point clearly signals that this battle has reached an unexpected non-lethal conclusion. The player blinks and has to reorient just like the player’s character has to check his or her lightsaber swing.

This, then, is how hit points are done right. Implemented in accordance with the game’s theme, and used imaginatively to get emotional responses from the player, hit points become a seamless part of KOTOR’s overall Star Wars experience.

Hit points done wrong: a mechanism in a vacuum

Compare the previous clip to this one:

This fight is nothing but big chops, with the occasional tremendous lunge thrown in. Each and every move should instantly fell the opponent . . . but instead the battle goes on and on, the players shrugging off lightsaber blows as though they were hitting each other with foam swords.

Hit points, implemented in this way, are nothing but a technical measure of progress. They add nothing to the immersion; to the contrary, they undermine it by allowing the players to keep fighting long after the rules of the fictional universe would permit. In a role-playing game that’s all about losing oneself in a story, that is a cardinal sin.

Don’t catch yourself on your double-bladed lightsaber

In the end, hit points are like a hammer: useful when employed thoughtfully, damaging when applied incorrectly. When incorporating them into a game, give due consideration to how they can be implemented so that they are both mechanically effective and thematically appropriate. KOTOR proves that it can be done . . . and that it’s important to get it right.

2 thoughts on “Theory: Implement Hit Points Thematically

  1. Good discussion with two easy to understand examples. Though I am not a huge star wars fan, honestly I wouldn’t have been bothered too much if they bent the rules by making someone be able to take a few hits by a saber before falling, but you’re right that ideally following the rules of the game’s universe would be more immersive. Sure, getting hit direct on would likely cause a body part to be cut off, but if it was a glancing blow I don’t think they would necessarily be that harmed.

    Another idea is to have some sort of armor that gets gradually destroyed by the lightsaber, which is could also make things a bit more realistic.

    1. Glancing blows would also have resolved the MMO problem of “what’s happening in the fiction when the character hits zero hit points?” In The Old Republic (the game the second example is drawn from) the character dies and is inexplicably revived elsewhere, which isn’t very satisfactory. A system of glancing blows would allow the character to be injured and retreat, which wouldn’t break suspension of disbelief in the same way.

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