Dungeons & Dragons Online

Hit points and describing failure in combat.

I've been running D&D for a few years now and started a new campaign at the end of last year. In this name I started describing combat differently. I wasn't even really aware of it until I watch a video about failing forwards, in which they mentioned that you should never take a failed roll as the character being incapable.

To give some more context; the cause for me describing combat differently was reading through the section in the PHB about Hit Points:

Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck. Creatures with more hit points are more difficult to kill. Those with fewer hit points are more fragile.

Before this I always took the video game approach, where a successful roll is a hit and takes hit points away, generally describing it as a cut or just a blow to a less vital part of the body. This was one of the reasons that combat felt like a slog to me, since it was always the same and you just have to hit enough times to take something down. It felt very "gamey", just mechanics.

When I looked more at the luck and stamina aspects of Hit Points, I started describing successful blows as near misses, where the enemy had to their utmost to just barely block or dodge an attack and them being more winded or on their back foot. I did have to explain to my players that this did mean they hit, but that this was the way I described it and I haven't heard any complains yet. As extra clarification, this is mainly for humanoids and other smaller and more nimble creatures, that should reasonably go down with one or two good hits. Barbarians and large monsters, generally get the more classic approach of being slowly cut apart.

This also meant that a failure couldn't just be a miss, because for most enemies a hit was also described as "missing". So I took to describing actual failed rolls as the enemies easily blocking the attack or other aspects of the fight causing the attack to miss. For example, by blocking or dodging one attack they also unknowingly dodge a second one, thereby only expending the energy once (one of the attacks hit and the other missed).

Describing and resolving actions in this manner in combat has made me enjoy it more. It feels more dynamic and realistic. It also made me more creative to think of ways my enemies would try to increase their chances to survive. Because the npc doesn't think; "If I'm hit three more times, I'll die", they'll just look for anything to increase their chances to not be hit, because one or two hits takes them down.

As a last addition, that I realized because of watching that video. You can also do this outside of combat, and I think I have been doing that occasionally. Video's that give advice on making failure non-binary are great and I agree with them in most situations, but sometimes the outcome is binary. In that case, I think doing something similar as I described for combat could work very well. Instead of describing the character messing up, describe something in the environment causing the failure. Trying to jump from one roof to the other? Some of the roof tiles fell away, making the jump unsteady. In some cases this might also stop endless retries, like picking a lock. On fail, the look seems to be very old and rusted shut.

I hope this helps someone and can make their game better.


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