Monday, August 21, 2006

Which is Better: Hit Points or DPS?


Like last week’s, this post may actually be more applicable to playing RPGs than Designing, but I feel there is something to learn on both fronts here. Anyway, I was thinking about RPGs and the RPG market the other day. Depending on who you ask, the market ranges from “Never better!” to “A nuclear wasteland littered with the corpses of dead companies.” Either way you believe, there can be no doubt that RPGs are facing some competition. But this competition comes not from CCGs or Minatures or Boardgames. It comes from MMORPGs (Massive-mulitplayer Online Roleplaying Games). Games like EverQuest, World of Warcraft, and DnD Online. I know Mike Mearls has talked about these things once or twice, but I thought I would add my observations.

To me, there is something very important MMORPGs can teach us. First, people don’t need to be sitting in the same room to enjoy an RPG. I salute Code of Unaris for recognizing this and making that a centerpiece in its design. Second, is that games with a Gamist slant (which include MMOGs), hit points are a character’s key feature. They are far more important than DPS (damage per second or how much damage characters can do per round) and the breadth of his repertoire of spells or abilities. This is true for both online games and for tabletop games.

I generally prefer Gamist style games and really look for the best strategy in situations, especially combat. When I examined all the resources available to me during combat in Gamist-leaning games, I came to a conclusion: Hit Points are the most key resource. Not to my surprise, this was backed up by Jonathan Tweet in this article.

In essence, you can really boil combat down to this statement: “You run out of hit points, you lose; your opponent runs out, you win.” Speaking in absolute terms (ignore retreat, capture, etc) that’s the bottom line for victory in combat- the winner is the guy who ends up not running out of hit points.

Victory does not go to who deals out the most damage. That may seem odd, but you have to take the victory conditions into account. You can dose out insane amounts of damage each round in a game, but if you can’t get your opponent’s hit points to zero, you will lose. If your opponent starts out with more hit points than you, can heal himself, pick up extra hit points, or reduce your net damage, then your DPS won’t matter. He has ways to counter it.

So what does that mean? Well, if you’re designing a game where combat is strategic, violent death is a likely outcome, and hit points or something equivalent is involved, be mindful of how you design other aspects of your game. A lot of things that typically go along with hit points such as healing, damage spells, character enhancements (buffs and enchantments), and equipment can inadvertently and radically affect how victory is decided.

Take for instance healing spells. In my mind, these are very powerful spells. They prolong a fight, in fact they can prove the clincher. Even if you only got 1d8 hit points per spell like back in DnD, it made a major impact on the game. If your opponent doesn’t have access to the same spells, the impact is even greater. This is why, if you ask anyone who has played a game like oh say EverQuest 1, clerics are the most vital class to have. They are not the ones who kill the bad guy, they are just the ones who make sure the good guys don’t lose.

So now what? Heh, if you are playing a game where combat and hit points are important, look for feats, skills, and rules that help you not lose hit points. Things like cover, armor, spells and so forth that grant additional defense or hit points should be high on your tactics list. Things like weapon enhancements, fireball, criticals, and so on should be farther down. From my experience, it is better to have strategies to not lose a fight than it is to have strategies to win a fight.

From a design standpoint, designers should think carefully about how you want combat to begin and end and how long you want it to last. The more hit points (or wounds or whatever) a character can amass, the longer an instance of combat will take. Especially if the characters have access to hit point saving strategies like healing, buffs, armor, etc.




Frank said...

Hmm, isn't really a combination of hps and dps? If you have 100 hp and I have 1000, but you do 12x as much damage as I do, you win. Ok, so you also need to factor in the preventative stuff.

In D&D, mages, who have the least hps dominate the game because of their massive damage output. And the fact that when they run out of spells, the damage output gets so bad, that the players have their characters retreat and rest up.

What I have seen in Cold Iron is that the Constitution attribute, which only governs hps is less important than Dexterity, which helps attack and defense, but not damage, is less important than Strength which helps attack, defense, and damage. Of course Strength thusly advantages both dps and saving you from taking damage in the first place (so your hps don't matter). Interestingly, healing is severely curtailed.


vbwyrde said...

Some thoughts on your post, which by the way I found thought provoking. I'm going to play devil's advocate for the moment, not because I disagree, but just to explore the question from the other side a bit.
Perhaps the issue has to do more with game balence in regards to Hit Points vs. Damage Per Attack (I think Damage Per Second is a bit too specific). If you reduce the game rules down to their base components and play with a simplified rules system you can get a better idea of how this works. I have a mini-system that condenses my RPG rules down to their base components. It's the same system as my large scale RPG, but without any frills, and it uses tiny numbers for everything. That makes it easier to run statistical analysis of base premises. The method might be helpful in this discussion.
Sure, if you reduce a character's Hit Points to zero they are dead. But if you drop a 1 ton rock on them with your attack, it doesn't matter what Hit Points they have (well for mortal humans) - they're still dead. Thus the Damage Per Attack does matter. In the case you're suggesting I think you can make a case if the opponents are relatively equally matched. If both sides have equal Hit Points, and equal Damage Per Attack, then having Healing on one side is definitely a determining factor. But if one side has Healing, and the other side has a Massive Attack, then these two things may cancel each other out. The Massive Attack, doing lots of damage, is Healed, and the fight continues.
What I am alluding to is that it depends on the balance of the system and the properties of the characters in question, and that neither DPA or Hit Points are definitive. The question is, what are the relative strengths and weaknesses of the opponents.
That is where the design should focus - on the question of the Balance of Forces in the game, wether they be offensive or defensive.

Ewen said...

In Japanese-style CRPGs like the earlier Final Fantasy games the primacy of hit points becomes especially apparent. You have almost quite nothing else to work with in those games, so keeping your characters' HP above zero is the single most important task in the game. When combat gets tough it's often because you have to struggle to keep healing your characters enough to keep them alive and able to act, since once on of them dies your start a party death spiral that makes it get harder and harder to recover.

In those kinds of games I'm downrighty anal retentive about keeping my characters' HP as near to full as I can manage, and the games reward that behavior.

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya guys,

Great comments all around. I'll reply to Frank first :)

Frank, if you can show me a game where a character that has accumulated only 100 hit points will have a damage output 12 times that of a character who has accumulated 1000 hit points, I'll give you the "Craziest Thing in Gaming" award. To my knowledge, such a thing does not exist. I don't want to deal in hypotheticals here, I want to deal with actual games we can play right now.

Also, I did factor in the preventitive stuff. Anything that stops you from losing hit points increases your chances of victory 100% of the time. That includes cover, enchantments, armor, and so on. Anything that increases your damage output might help your chances or it might not. It's a crap shoot. So as a player, I have to say, "Why bother." As a designer I have to say, "What am I going to do about that fact?"

RE: Mages dominating a fight. Okay, let's see how important mages are. In DnD or Cold Iron how well can a party get along without a mage/wizard type character? Okay, now how well can a DnD/Cold Iron party get along without a hearler of some kind? Think about it for a minute, then decide which class you would rather have with you in a fight.

My guess is the cleric/healer wins every time.



Troy_Costisick said...


To vbwyrde:

Hey, I totally love it when someone plays the devil's advocate. I appreciate it :)

Ok, to your points. First off, I totally dig Damage Per Attack way better than DPS. It doesn't factor in things like damage shields, but it's good enough for my purposes. Thanks!

Let's talk about your 1 ton rock. I can't argue with the fact that if you drop 2000 pounds on somebody, it'll leave a pretty big mark. But let me ask, when you drop that rock, are you actually using the game's combat rules or are you using the laws of physics? Now granted, half the games out there have rules for drowning and falling, but they are usually subsystems not directly related to combat. My article deals w/ combat systems only. I am talking about tactical, combat situations.

RE: Game Balance. I too would like to see a game where the DPA is equivilant in importance to hit point accumulation. But I have yet to see a roleplaying game that inculded healing of some kind and lethal combat where amassing hit points and healing powers was as legitimate a strategy as amassing damage output. I just don't see it, even in the DnD 3.5.

However, the point of this article is to hopefully encourage the development of such a game.



vbwyrde said...

Let's talk about your 1 ton rock. I can't argue with the fact that if you drop 2000 pounds on somebody, it'll leave a pretty big mark.

Most certainly.

But let me ask, when you drop that rock, are you actually using the game's combat rules or are you using the laws of physics?

Game rules. I have a one ton rock doing somewhere in the vacinity of 2000 points of damage, lets say. That's rough because I just made that number up. But I'll stick with that for now because my point has to do with Balance of Forces in the game, Offensive and Defensive.

Now granted, half the games out there have rules for drowning and falling, but they are usually subsystems not directly related to combat. My article deals w/ combat systems only. I am talking about tactical, combat situations.

Ok, me too. The way I see this is that if you drop 2000 hits of damage on my Character, Sir AwsomeShield, who happens to have a magnificent Magical Shield, and three Potions of Healing (1d8 each), and a really nice Cleric named Ralph standing nearby; it won't help. He's just plain dead, my poor Knight. He was good while he lasted, but in the end the overwhelming attack was too much. All his shielding and potions and Clerical aid did not avail him at the siege of Castle Doom. The catapult fired, the rock landed, and Ralph grunted, and after a brief prayer and hand gesture over the bespotted rock went home. Thus, said the devil, the DPA was greater than the defensive capacity of our hero, and he snuffed it.

RE: Game Balance. I too would like to see a game where the DPA is equivilant in importance to hit point accumulation.

Me too. It would represent a balanced system in my book.

But I have yet to see a roleplaying game that inculded healing of some kind and lethal combat where amassing hit points and healing powers was as legitimate a strategy as amassing damage output. I just don't see it, even in the DnD 3.5.

Me neither, but I will try to come up with something. I have some ideas.

However, the point of this article is to hopefully encourage the development of such a game.

Much obliged! And thanks for being there. I'll be lurking around and probably post again if I think I've got something to contribute.

Unquietsoul said...

DPS can be more important in some game systems, and in the 100 vs 1000 12x DPS discussion, I'd point to a system like Hero (a point buy system). Depending on character build, yes a character could have 100 HPS (Body) and do 12x the damage of their opponent, since the opponent would have 10x as many points invested in their 1000 HPS.

(Actually it would cost 200 Character points for 100 Body Points if bought raw, 2000 character points for 1000 Body Points Raw. A character with 1800 Character points difference to spend could buy a 360 die six attack (which would be some 360-750 HP of Damage, ignoring END costs etc. while the character with the 2000 points had an attack that was just a couple of dice if they had no extra points to invest in their attacks).

Unquietsoul said...

There are also game systems where there ways around HPS and DPS. Such as systems that have critical hits, body location strikes and special knockout rules that overide the HP rules.

Guy said...

Ah, but if you have 1 action/round, and you spend it on healing Each and Every Round, you may not lose, but you will also not win.
Once you can heal more than the opponent can dish, so you can for example, in 5 rounds heal 4 times and attack once, you're ahead. But if you must heal 100% of the time, you don't lose, but no one will win either.
This raises the point of introducing "Tie" or "Sudden Death" after a certain combat-length.

There was another point I've forgot, I'll try to remember it.

vbwyrde said...

This raises the point of introducing "Tie" or "Sudden Death" after a certain combat-length.

I also have incorporated a Fatigue element to my game as well as Hits. Fatigue is based on Endurance and determines how long the Character can run/fight for and the points get used up during combat. Taking 1 Hit costs you 2 Fatigue. This is to distinguish for events like Conan running from the wolves. He was able to do so because he has an increadible Endurance (requisite) and rolled his Fatigue Points high. It didn't take Hit points for him to do it. So, this also introduces another potential limiting factor that can account for the Tie Breaker situation.

Guy said...


Look at fight-games, like Mortal Kombat and all the others, where you usually have a time limit(they don't have healing, but still).

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya Guys,

Bah, don't fall into the Fatigue red herring. Fatigue is a smoke screen for another form of hit points. In my experience, you run out of either and you lose. It's just a way for a designer to say, "Hey look guys, my game now has two currecy systems for players to keep up with instead of the borring old fashioned hit-point one."

Also, when it comes to video games, I don't find any kind of game outside of an MMORPG to be helpful when examining tabletop RPG design. Time Limits in Mortal Kombat are totally not what I'm talking about in my article.



vbwyrde said...

Ok, but I've had a Fatigues system since 1978. It works for me.

Frank said...

I've been thinking about this some more. I think we end up putting on blinders to the importance of the cleric, because we see that it's an unfun winning strategy. The cleric is vitally important, but he doesn't get to be cool (he's busy mopping up after the fact and has the lowest DPS of the 4 core classes).

Cold Iron eliminates the unfun cleric in a few ways:

1. The cleric is much closer to a fighter in DPS.

2. The cleric gets to cast more than just healing spells.

3. Cast healing is typically not that important. Instead, healing potions see heavy use, but even then, they have little impact in combat.

4. There are lots of damage preventing magics. The most effective ones are usually used as magic items, and the most effective one is really only effective in potion form.

The result is a delicate balance between DPS, raw hit points, drinkable hit points (mostly pre-damage, not post-damage healing), improved damage absorbtion (in a variety of ways).

Sadly, since college, I have not yet found a group of players who are up to the depth of tactics and strategy Cold Iron provides. As a lighter game, it's not very interesting.


vbwyrde said...

Interesting. I've been thinking about the topic of World vs. Game Balance but focused on the topic in terms of magic. The same critique applies though to clerics and is a general critique of a style of world weaving with which I have some reservations. I'm questioning the orientation of Worlds that are forced toward game rules consequences that make DPS and Healing Points, etc, more prevalent, and far more world-determinative than I think can be sustained by truly Literary Quality Worlds (LQW)(hah), ala Tolkien's Middle Earth. If Middle Earth had to suffer a party of 6th Level Adventurer's from Greyhawk, well, you can only imagine what would happen. It would be an utter (and hilarious) travesty. What would the White Council be able to do? The Party has a Teleport Scroll and bigby's Crushing Hand, for criminy's sake! Sauron would be quaking under his bed!

The basic point of my critique is that part of the reason why Worlds like Tolkien's Middle Earth, which is so immersive and so utterly captivating, is that the Power of the Wizards (and clerics if you can stretch the concept that far) is very Subtle, yet conveys a tremendous world-deep strength and cosmic level gravitas. Gandalf didn't bust out with Fire Balls at the rabble of Orcs, or Teleport the party away, or Time Stop the Balrog; why he could't even make himself fly, even when he desperately wanted to, from the top of Orthanc. His Power, even though a Maiar, a veritable demi-god for crying out loud, was extremely circumspect in regards to is actual (as opposed to imagined) magical abilities. This is what I'm thinking of as World Balance. The Power of the Wizards is balanced in the World itself and there is not too much of it all, and in fact its all very subtle.

In RPGs, however, we have just the opposite effect - the game rules foist upon us a Godzillion Powers, Spells, Invocations, Super-Skills, Fantasto-Feats, Miracles, Zesty-Zealiques, Hyper-Googlions, and Ultra-HumongoDongs to the point, well, of absurdity, with characters scrambling to clear the dungeons of goblins and grab the bottom-most +12 Vorple Paddle of Super-Spanking.

Subtlety has not one nano-squeek in which to survive in such an environment. Mystery of magic (and clerisy) is instantly vaporized under an unrelenting barrage of horrendously hyper-powered Super-Spells that would have made poor Tolkien utterly gag.

Er... have I smooshed the topic? Woopsie. No offense to the group here. I just had to get this off my chest. :P

Anyway, my original post is here
blog in case anyone can tolerate to read it.

Nicol Bolas said...

Subtlety is useless in a gamist RPG.

Game rules need to be strictly delinated and rigid in application to avoid breaking the game.

As to the primary thrust of the thread, I think the best way to examine this is to play a bunch of Japanese-style RPGs. Despite Troy's conviction that only MMORPGs are valid for this discussion, JRPGs are the style of RPGs that most closely mimic standard gamist RPG style.

It's all basically combat. Sure, unlike MMO's, it doesn't have the multiplayer factor involved. But if you're testing whether your basic game design rules work, it doesn't matter if it was a 0-player game and just a computer running a probability simulation. What you're interested in is what strategies the rules provide.

I've spent a great deal of time playing JRPGs. And I've come to one conclusion: TIME is the most important factor, not HP.

If a boss is forcing you to use up all your player's actions just to stay alive, it has already won. Eventually, you will run out of resources with which to heal and/or protect yourself and it will kill you.

This is why a Cleric is so important in D&D; he sucks at basically everything else (compared to other classes) to the point where he can devote all his time to healing. For the most part.

However, if you look at JRPGs, note that many of them nowadays have long since abandoned healing-specific classes. Instead, there'll be the one or two guys who can heal through magic or whatever, and everyone else will be force to use potions and stuff. Your healing mage is almost always your attacking mage, so spending a round healing is a round not spent attacking.

If you want to make healing less important, one way to do it is to design your combat such that time is an explicit factor. So that characters can be made faster by various means. When you do that, you will quickly find that how many actions you get per "round" becomes far more crucial than mere HP.