Design Conundrums: 1 HP vs 0 HP

The difference between a character with 1 hit point and a character with no hit points remaining is immense. Obviously, right? But as I was musing on the extreme nature of the binary state, I started wondering if there was not some better way to handle the situation.

After some reflection, I am not sure that there is.

First, is there a problem at all with the conventional binary system? I’d suggest there is, at least enough of one to go through the thought exercise. One issue is that there isn’t much of difference between 1 HP and 100,000 HP – you are just as powerful and dangerous at one as the other. Some games might have “Execute” abilities that cause you to care about how many HP you have left, but all that is really doing is making the 1 HP “range” larger or simply making it more ambiguous as to your actual HP state.

The more salient problem with the 1 HP to 0 HP divide is what I’d term the Fail Cascade. Card Hunter (out of beta!) provides an especially stark example of this phenomenon. If one of your characters is reduced to 1 HP, they can still drawn 3 new cards each turn, can still attack at full strength, and can otherwise contribute meaningfully on the battlefield (limiting enemy mobility, being the target of spells, etc). Conversely, a dead character contributes nothing: all their cards are discarded, their body is removed from the battlefield, and you are left with potentially 10 cards to kill the remaining enemies instead of 15 cards. A character’s death is especially brutal in Card Hunter because the abilities you have access to are randomly determined from the cards in your deck. Instead of six chances of drawing an attack card to win the game, you are left with four.

Of course, sometimes the sacrifice of a character can turn out to be a winning strategy. In a 3v3 Arena game in WoW, it might be worth losing a DPS to take out the enemy’s healer in pursuit of an stalling game. In Card Hunter, taking out a Goblin Brute or other dangerous foe is worth it if the enemies remaining aren’t as immediately deadly in comparison. But under most circumstances in just about any other game (including the two mentioned), losing one character is an immediately 33% reduction in fighting capacity, and possibly more painful from a synergy point of view.

Is the alternative really that much better though? We could imagine a game where your health as a percentage is tied to your damage as a percentage; if you are are at 10% HP, your attacks only deal 10% of their normal damage. Personally, I recoiled at the very thought of such a system. Whereas the current design is a hard binary, it at least leaves open the possibility of a come-from-behind victory. If taking damage reduced your ability to deal damage in return, the outcome of most battles would be forgone conclusions within the first minutes of any engagement. Indeed, it is arguable whether we would be trading the binary at 1-to-0 HP for the same binary at the other end of the spectrum (whoever dealt damage first).

Now, I would be remiss if I did not mention the Downed State solution in games like Guild Wars 2 and Borderlands 2. Having played both for a while, I definitely appreciated the extra little window it offered between 1 HP and dead. It is certainly better than the alternatives we have currently.

At the same time though… how different is it really? I can still perform at peak capacity at 1 HP, so my HP totals are 1, 0, and -1 instead of just 1 and 0. The other issue is that I felt as though the Downed state started being an excuse for adding in more “sorta instant death” attacks. If a raid boss in WoW has a mechanic that kills you instantly, it has to give you reasonable warning given how powerful it is. Conversely, an attack that instantly sends you to a Downed State is common in both Borderlands 2 ¹ and GW2. It is a “safe” mechanic to use because it can (usually) be recovered from while still retaining a sense of awe/fear from the player.

Perhaps this isn’t even an issue at all, from a design perspective, as the devs rely on the player to gauge his/her own sense of danger. Personally, I don’t really glance at my HP bar until I start dipping below 80%; once at 50% or so, I start actively playing defensive and looking for ways to replenish HP; at 20% or below, I generally stop caring unless victory is in sight, as I see my demise as inevitable. Thus, my reaction is tailor-made for my play-style, rather than dictated by the devs who might want me to care at X% HP when I don’t, and vice versa.

I dunno. Realism rarely makes for more engaging gameplay, but I sometimes think HP is too abstract.

¹ Technically, there is “health gating” in BL2 which prevents any one attack from killing you instantly as long as you have 50% HP + 1. So, I suppose BL2 has both the tri-HP state plus an execute range.

Posted on September 16, 2013, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Is the alternative really that much better though? We could imagine a game where your health as a percentage is tied to your damage as a percentage; if you are are at 10% HP, your attacks only deal 10% of their normal damage.

    It can be tied to health the other way: as you take damage, you become more and more enraged, dealing increased damage and unlocking new abilities.


  2. I’ve always thought of HP like this – it represents your ability to not take a blow that would kill you. As long as you have HP, you can turn that attack that hits you into a minor nick or scrape or whatever. But when your HP drops to 0, you were exhausted/tired/etc enough that you couldn’t block/parry/dodge well enough to turn that solid hit into a minor hit – so you die.

    Basically three states if your enemy tries to hit you with a sword.

    Clean avoid: he misses, you parry, you dodge, you block, etc. Sword doesn’t touch you.

    HP loss: he grazes you because you weren’t able to avoid it entirely but you can turn it into a minor blow

    Death: you can’t avoid it at all and become a shish-kabob.


    • That’s how I’ve always treated it in D&D, and it helps with roleplaying issues arising from sustained combat. Still… full power at 1 HP? I know that we’re assuming that you haven’t been injured yet, but it still feels odd IMO how abstract HP gets when you have to hold both ideas simultaneously.


      • I suppose. On the flip side, I think of the armor system in Mechwarrior 4. Your Battlemech (war robot) has distinct sections (arms, legs, head, torso sections) with their own “armor remaining” (aka HP). If a section takes enough damage, any component there (aka weapons) are rendered non-functional but it still exists to block some more attacks. If it takes further damage, it’s flat out destroyed (and losing center torso or losing both legs will kill you).

        So your weapons go from fully function to being destroyed at the change of 1 damage point. And if you have no weapons on the center torso, you can go from full functionality to a smoking crater in 1 damage point if the enemy keeps hitting your center torso.

        In short, even more “advanced” systems that get parts rendered non-functional with damage zones…still have the issue of the “critical existence failure.”

        But we’ve yet to come up with a better system that plays better (like you said, the combat being determined by the first hit, more or less, is far less fun).


      • Actually, that’s a good point regarding different HP locations. I never played the Mechwarrior series, but something similar was in the Front Mission games. And while the binary issue remains, at least it is a bit more nuanced on both sides: attacking can be more strategic (aiming for legs, powerful weapon, chest, etc) while being damaged actually effects your follow-up moves (play more defensively, rely on different attacks, etc).


  3. You mention “Realism rarely makes for more engaging gameplay”. But what is realism in this case? What is the situation you are trying to simulate?

    In reality, the first person who takes a bad hit first is the person who loses the fight. Is that what you want to simulate?

    Perhaps you should describe how an ideal fight works, before attempting to come up with a mechanism that simulates it.

    In my opinion, hit points are the worst form of health simulation, except for all the others.


    • What I’m trying to simulate is being wounded and the changes to your gameplay as a result. Or promoting the wounding of enemies as a legitimate strategy.

      As I mentioned in the last paragraph, I technically do this on my own already (i.e. play differently at certain HP thresholds), so it is fair to ask whether it matters at all to hard-code this into gameplay. On the other hand, I think we’re all so used to the idea that an enemy is either dead or at 100% power for so long, it has sort of warped how we approach combat generally. Going back to Card Hunter, there is basically no contest between a decision to kill off an enemy vs severely wounding two of them; in the latter case, they can either recover themselves or potentially gang up on one of your guys.

      As far as ideal fights go, it’s pretty simple: the fight changes depending on your HP levels, rather than simply at someone’s death. Whether that means individual limb HP ala Front Mission/Mechwarrior/Fallout 1&2, or simply the loss of certain abilities on your hotbar as you take damage (with new ones possibly opening up), that’s for game design wizards to cook up.

      I agree that the normal HP bar is probably the easiest and/or the most fun, but damn does it feel dumb sometimes going from 100% power to dead.


  4. It probably all depends on your type of game. I can’t speak for card games, because I haven’t played any (except for “classic” games played with standard card decks) in probably 20 years.

    For some other games, I think you can work around the problem that “whoever attacks first wins” if you scale attack power with health.

    For a real-time type of game, you need to add abilities that allow you to come back or change the engagement in your favor: stuns that allow you to damage the other player while not taking any (actively applied) damage yourself; increase the range between you and the enemy if you’re ranged; such things.

    (Side thought: how would such a “attack power scales with health” system change the balance between instant-attack classes and those with cast timers? Instant attackers would have some advantage, because by the time the first cast finished, health would already be lowered…)

    However, the first thing that came to my mind when I read your post was, “but there are many games that do exactly that!”. They’re typically turn-based strategy though, so again a different genre. You make that fair by having a damage phase in which damage is first calculated and then applied all at the same time, so there is no “attack first” except on a round granularity. (“Fair” of course is only a relative thing here, because the whole point of the overarching strategies of these games is to choose engagements in your favor.)


  5. The reasoning behind HP having no impact on an actual performance is because of snowball effect in case it was contrary. Being low on HP is detriment enough on its own ( you have less time to do anything as opposed to your opponent).

    It does look a bit silly in turn based games though (particularly card based games) when very often if you dont finish your opponent on your turn he will finish you on his despite being 1 hp to your full hp. BUt that again is positive from game designer perspective because comebacks and turnarounds are fun and satisfying. even for the loser.

    Complete opposite of satisfying is when long games are decided basically in first few minutes/turns because the snowball effect is too strong


  6. I’ve often contemplated this conundrum, usually while whittling away at some MMO world boss with trazillions of HP’s.
    A simple HP% related to Either damage out put or damage soak, or both, would certainly make those fights faster.
    I don’t think I’ve seen an MMO ever that had smething along those lines. I always wonder if someone play-tested it and found it to be horrible, or if no-one bothers to consider it.
    There is a CRPG system that has something a little different. The Drakensang games (not the latterday MMO, the CRPGs) have a Wounds system alongside the regular HP system.
    Drakensang uses the Das Schwarze Auge system which is a German derivative of the original D&D.
    Anyway, Wounds affect your performance, will remain after a fight and actually require different healing from HP’s. Making herbal medicine something more than a gimmick.

    I always liked that system.
    If your Tank get Wounded that means you got to shift strategies quick.
    It’s a system that also allows for more “realistic” Berzerkers. Someone with the ability to ignore otherwise debilitate wounds.


  7. Actually there is a game that I know of that ties HP to damage output: The Banner Saga: Factions. It’s a free to play turn based strategy on Steam with a great art style and engrossing arena style combat. Turns alternate by each player moving one unit at a time, and these units move in a set order unless they are killed and the order is altered.

    Basically all units have a health bar that is directly tied to how much HP damage they can do with regular attacks aimed at HP. All units also have Armor bars that directly reduce damage to the HP bar. If you have 10 armor and 10 HP and get hit for 12 damage, you will end up with 10 armor and 8 hp, which has now reduced your damage to 8. Units can target the armor bar which is more effective if they have a higher “break” stat, which is independent of your hp bar. Some special abilities and the break stat allow units at 1 hp to still be useful because they can (regardless of being at 1 hp) cause aoe damage, flat armor damage, or in the case of the thrasher unit, randomly hit armor and hp several times in one turn.

    Because of the hp/damage system, a common tactic is “maiming” wherein you wound units down to 1 or 2 hp if you know they have a low break stat or no available special abilities, and force your opponent to waste his turns moving this now near useless unit.

    Definitely worth checking out if you were wondering about how that system looks.


%d bloggers like this: