Sunday, November 16, 2014

Oracular dice and the 1-hp orc

Well, here I am back at the ol' Flagon after another unscheduled anxiety and panic disorder-induced hiatus.  Nothing earth-shattering for my first post of November; just some musings on that tired old topic of what hit points mean.

A while back, there was a debate concerning orcs with 1 hit point, and how supposedly no orc warrior should have low hit points, because natural selection will favor the big, tough, 8-hp orcs.  I disagreed, for reasons that I couldn't really articulate, and so I held my silence on the matter, but now...

The assumption lurking in that analysis is that hit points are a permanent feature of a character or monster that describe inherent physical, mental, and spiritual qualities of that particular entity.  But D&D is a game of abstraction, and the dice are oracles that tell us things about the game - not only of the inherent physical qualities of the game world and its inhabitants, but dramatic and narrative properties of the emerging story as well. 

Well, what if hit points only exist when a creature is "on stage," that is, actively involved in an encounter?  That's implicitly the case in most campaigns, I think.  Events happen offstage, before adventures, after adventures, between adventures, and I've never in theory or in practice heard of DMs running these offstage events, rolling dice, tracking hit points, etc.  When the players hear a rumor that orcs decimated a mining village, nobody expects that the DM has previously statted up all the orcs and the villagers and run a combat to determine that this happened and how.  (And if you did: You have way too much time on your hands.) Hit points never even entered the equation.

Obviously, in most games, hit points are a permanent feature of player characters and major NPCs, and in such cases it's natural to expect that they represent inherent physical characteristics and skills, but if we can accept that a fighter's 14 hit points mean something different from a war horse's 14 hit points, then surely we can accept that hit points may have different meanings between the major characters of the campaign world and its no-name mooks?  (I'm given to understand that some DMs have players re-roll their characters' Hit Dice before each adventure, too; thus hit points are not necessarily permanent features of anyone or anything, but can represent all sorts of conditions that are not intrinsic to a character's body or mind.)

So.  Monster hit points may be rolled in advance and written into the dungeon key in anticipation of an encounter, or rolled on the spot as the encounter occurs, but they apply to the encounter at least as much as they do to the creature.  The orc with 1 hit point may be just as big and tough and nasty as any other orc, but by the oracular power of the dice, this orc is fated to make a lethal error the next time someone seriously threatens him in battle.  Maybe he'll zig when he should have zagged, or trip over a fallen weapon, or some other twist of ill fortune that has little to do with his genes or his muscles.  One hit point doesn't mean he's sickly, or that he'll die when he gets a splinter in his finger or turns an ankle.  One hit point means that when someone strikes him with a deadly weapon and intent to kill, it's not going to graze or nick him; it's going to strike true.  Our orc may have kicked all kinds of ass offstage.  He may have a necklace of the teeth of all the dwarves he's gutted, but the Polyhedral Powers of Providence have decreed that this orc's purpose in the game, in the chapter of the PCs' story in which he appears, is to serve as a glorious splatter when somebody hits him.

If the orc bucks the odds and survives his bout of bad luck (i.e. nobody hits him in combat and his side wins or escapes or surrenders) there's no reason why he necessarily has to have 1 hp if he should appear again.  Who's to say that the orc the party encounters later, who has 8 hp, isn't the 1 hp bastard who speared their henchman and bolted two weeks earlier?  (Nobody keeps track of mooks, so it likely doesn't matter anyway, but theoretically, why not?)

Ironically, the point of this post was to show, by completely overthinking things, that it's not necessary to overthink the roll of the dice.  You don't need to analyze what 1 hit point means for the genetic lineage of the orcish race, or try to weight the dice to produce superior orcs, or anything like that.  Just roll the bones, and let the pips tell the story.