Saturday, August 16, 2014

On the creation and evolution of Hit Points, Hit Dice, and Experience Points.

 “When we tried to use the old matrix rules (for CHAINMAIL™) only one die decided combat.  So either the player would die or the monster would.  Well, the players didn’t like that, so that’s where I came up with hit points….”  Dave Arneson, Gamespy interview by Andrew S. Bub August 2002.

Dave Arneson was a man who never let careful denotation get in the way of a quick sentence.  Figuring out what lay behind the terms he threw around is one of the challenges of reading the FFC.  Within the pages of Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign one encounters the terms points, hits, hit points, hit point values and values and it’s easy enough to get tripped up on what exactly he had in mind each time.

Amoung the oldest material in the FFC in which points are mentioned is the army stocking list for the great Coot invasion, the dungeon stocking lists of level 7-10 and tunnels of Blackmoor dungeon, Glendower dungeon, and the lake Gloomy notes.

In seeming contradiction to the opening statement, none of the above mention “hit points”.

The army lists uses the “point buy” system as found in CHAINMAIL™.  Various types of troops cost certain points and each player has a bank roll of points to spend on building an army. 

The dungeons and dungeon stocking lists also have a point buy system for monsters.  Arneson used a “protection point” and “magic point” method for stocking dungeons, in which he assigning a randomly determined amount of points to an occupied room.  The points then would be used to “purchase” the monster(s) or magic item(s) placed therein.  The exact method to determine the number of points varied – it was 3d6 * 10 for Lake Gloomy, for example.  The monsters were hand picked, and in the case of the Blackmoor dungeon at least, picked from different groupings based on the strength/cost of the monster.

Comparing the protection point values in the stocking lists shows a few slight inconsistencies, but it’s clear the protection point value used for a monster are the “point cost” for those monsters given in CHAINMAIL™.  True trolls, for example cost 75 “points” and “standard trolls” (77:86) cost 15 points each in Dave's dungeons, just as they do in CHAINMAIL.    

The inconsistencies I mentioned are a few instances of left over or insufficient points for the monsters listed – easily accounted for by Arneson’s statement “When there were not enough protection points within a room to buy a creature I simply rerolled or placed a weaker version of the creature within the room (extremely old or extremely young).” (FFC 1977:45)

So, fine, Dave tells us what it costs to buy a monster and those costs are pretty much as listed in CHAINMAIL, but, how many hits or whatever does it take to kill a creature?  We are repeatedly assured by all involved that they very early abandoned the one hit = one kill method of CHAINMAIL Fantasy table combat, but how then does one handle the monsters?  The dungeons seem silent.  Aside from the available protection points assigned to a room, only the name and numbers of the creature present is ever listed.  Not only is there no mention of hit points in this material, there is no mention of Hit Dice either.   Hit dice, as we know from other discussions, originally meant “damage dice” as perhaps most plainly shown in by "HD = Number of hit dice rolled for victim of breath attack by that type/level dragon." (77:83)  So Captain Krey, for example could roll 4d6+1 when inflicting damage on his enemies. (77:17)

The obvious answer is that the point cost of a creature also serves as its' hit points.  The idea that a weaker creature costs less points, is a strong clue (point value = strength), but it also points to the notion that Arneson was cultivating the idea of variable HP for monsters.  That is indeed just what we see in his monster lists, which predate D&D but build noticeably on CHAINMAIL and thus appear to be midway in the process.  In the slightly later (1973) mini “monster manual” on pages 89-92,  Arneson tells us trolls and ogres “are worth 18 points (or hits) with variations.” (FFC, 1977:91)   Notice in particular that Arneson is telling us that the “worth” in points is also the worth in “hits”, in other words that "points" and "hits" are synonyms in Arneson speak.  That's about as close as we are going to get to Dave telling us that the protection point costs of a monster are also its' hit points. 

Another thing to notice is the change to a d6 friendly value.  Trolls and ogres are “worth” 15 points in CHAINMAIL and as mentioned, cost just that in the stocking tables of Blackmoor dungeon, but the value is slightly increased from 15 to 18.  The hits given for ghouls & wights (1-6), giants (12-72), orc (1-3) and so forth in the monster lists on pages 89-92  also seem to be based on their CHAINMAIL cost,  made d6 friendly, “with variation”.  True Trolls cost 75 points in CHAINMAIL, for example, and Arneson assigns them a 36-72 “hits” range. Similarly, in CHAINMAIL™ Ghouls and wights are 10 points, Giants are 50 points and orcs are 2.  Yet, some of the monsters in this list are assigned no hits value.  For the Balrog, for example we are simply told that they are “all full value” (77:91)

Plainly, Arneson is evolving from using straight up CHAINMAIL point costs for hit points, to using dice to achieve a variable range, with a slightly lower value in most cases.    

It  is a short step for Gygax and Arnesons to have looked at the point variation range and simply specified the number of six sided dice used to generate it.  In other words, to have listed the number of hit dice to get the hit points.

We are not quite at the end of the story and this brings us back to yesterday’s discussion of Greg Svenson’s notes in the back of his 2nd edition CHAINMAIL.  Here is another section of those notes:

“Life and death:
Mortal 7 pt. damage to kill
Hero 14 pt. " " "
Super Hero 28 pt. " " "
Wizard 21 pt. " " "
recover 1 pt./day
Become hero if possess magic equipment or survived several expeditions or become super hero if you kill 1000 points of anything.”

 Again we see "points" for both men and monsters as synonymous with what D&D calls hit points, demonstrating fairly conclusively that Blackmoor monsters had hit points too, but, just as interestingly, we also see them as synonymous with experience points.  It’s beautiful economy really.  There’s no calculating of experience points verses player level and all that jazz.  You simply keep a running tally of the number of hit points a player has “killed” and when they reach 1000 – bam new level.   

So to sum up, any given monster in Blackmoor has a point value which simultaneously represents how much it costs to purchase, how much damage it can take, and how much experience it is worth when killed.


  1. The point values at the end of the FFC bother me.

    If you look at the hit points of the PCs: mortals with 7, heroes 14, and superheroes 28, they line up perfectly with the average die roll of 2, 4 and 8 hit dice respectively, the same as the number of "hits" they need in Chainmail to kill. So it looks like it was a straight hits-to-d6 conversion.

    The Ogre in Chainmail is worth 15 points. That is the average die roll for 4d6+1 so the Ogre ends up in D&D with 4+1 hit dice. So it looks like points->hit points->hit dice straight except for the mention of 18 hits in the FFC monster list.

    1. That's the coolest explanation for the Ogre hit dice I've ever heard. Congrats!

  2. Great observations Hedgehobbit!