The purpose of health mechanics in storytelling games


There’s also the question of what happens when someone runs out of HP or whatever. Does it mean instant death no backsies? Or that they’re out of action but can be healed later? Or that they come back changed or whatever. Or is there an array of options? In that case, who gets to make the decision about what happens?

All of these options have a huge impact on what the health track actually means in play.


To me the most important role for an health mechanic is giving the players a sense (and measure) of vulnerability. Although players know that there are a ton of ways a character can be “vulnerable” on so many different levels, the health level is the most direct one and the easiest to relate to in a fairly universal way (other ways of being "vulnerable rely a lot more on the sociocultural background of the player and/or the character). And “death” is a pretty straightfoward and easily understandable way to set the “range” of vulnerability of a character.


I think the other way to @bluecrow - having health mechanic makes me feel (at least temporarily) invulnerable. If I have an amount of points I can lose before my character dies, I see it as a buffer, making me more prone to do heroic stuff. While the existence of a system says that combat is a major part of the game, the point amount will signal how heroic the combat is.

Not having a system (but establishing that the character can die from a single blow or shot) makes me more vulnerable. It is like having a 1hp. It would definitely make me be more cautious with my character.


@Von_Bednar I would argue that having 1hp means to still have an health mechanic. It wouldn’t be different than saying you got 2 or 3 hp and any weapon does at least 3 damages (while, say, falling from some height may result in 1 or 2 damages)…


Well, as a counterexample, both Sagas of the Icelanders and the Warren have no wounds, and instead PCs may lose stats or moves due to a single bad roll. When I ran soti, players seemed less inclined to gratuitous violence like in other games, but I don’t think it was exclusively because of the rules.


This is a quite interesting topic - and I think setting stakes as well as pacing tool are valid goals, a narrative driven game might achieve by using HP. Another way that I try to ‘utilize’ HP and the likes is to have them indicate a shift or even change in status of the characters within the scene.
According to Johnstone, the dynamics of status in dramatic realitionships are at the core of a compelling narrative - and I think this is fundamentally true. So if you find a way to have the reduction of HP clearly indicate the decline of status of your character in the fiction, you’ll have your dramatic beats right at hand.
Currently I’m experimenting with relationship scales or seesaws, rather than countdown clocks - and it’s easy to use these as ‘fighting status’. But as of yet, I didn’t manage to model the dramatic impact I’m after.


The comments here have been great. I am starting to think that pacing and stakes may be more intertwined than I initially thought.

For instance, Misspent Youth, which has no health mechanic at all, enforces pacing with a strict story structure. The players get to set what is at stake in each individual scene, but because of the proscriptive nature of what the scene will accomplish the stakes naturally follow what is appropriate for an episode structure.

Over time, player characters may end up sacrificing more, and the mechanic of selling out lets characters develop as the game goes on, but also gives a full shape to the campaign, and modifies the stakes in an overarching way that match the shape and pacing of a multi-episode arc. In a way, you can think of Selling Out as a health mechanic.