Sometimes a Hit Point Is Just a Hit Point

Adarel started a Google Wave about LOTRO’s morale metaphor for hit points last month and paraphrased her resulting academic paper in a blog post on LOTRO Reporter. I’ve been thinking about the larger problem of what hit points really are for a long time as well, and I give Turbine credit for trying to address it head-on. Although I like the morale metaphor and think it’s less immersion-breaking than health–especially around death and defeat, both metaphors fail to completely cover the often-exposed mechanics of hit points.

The Nuts-and-Bolts Problem

The real problem is level-based systems define hit points as a function of level. The underlying mechanics simply don’t mesh with real-life experience: A 60th level character can’t actually survive being stabbed with a dagger 60 more times than a 1st level character nor survive a fall from 60 times as high. No metaphor is going to be able to rationalize such things.

In tabletop games like Call of Cthulhu that aren’t level-based, hit points are a funtion of attributes. That means the character’s maximum hit points don’t change significantly through gameplay. The consequence is that every combat includes a high risk of death; a critical hit could kill a character with a single hit. This works in CoC because combat is infrequent.

Computer RPGs (MMOs particularly) depend on combat much more than table-top games. I kill more mobs in an average LOTRO session than any of my tabletop characters did in a year of gameplay. The statistical consequence of all that combat is defeat goes from a probability (< 1) on the tabletop to a frequency (> 1) in MMOs over a character’s lifetime. Since LOTR lore does not allow any kind of resurrection, the health metaphor ends up being immersion-breaking in a much more fundamental, undeniable way. Hit points cannot be health because defeat cannot be death; the result is more arcade game than role-playing game.

The Hearts-and-Minds Problem

Most computer games use the health metaphor, so most gamers are more comfortable with it by introduction and repetition. Health gets grandfathered under the collective “willing suspension of disbelief” needed to start playing these games in the first place. Morale conflicts with the internally-consistent model everybody’s already accepted. It’s natural on purely cognitive grounds for morale to break immersion for people who have been habituated to health.

Unfortunately Turbine applied the metaphor inconsistently as pointed out in the Wave and blog comments. The developers and writers are products of earlier games too; they are working at odds with their own habituated internal models. Beyond text and labels, the combat animations themselves conspire against the morale metaphor. They show attacks connecting every time, not just for the (ahem) killing blow. In the morale metaphor, all attacks except the last should be near hits, blocks, parries, etc.

Such inconsistencies exacerbate a perception problem around the semantics of morale. Adarel and others liken the effects of defeat to “being sad”, something game mechanics like hope and dread reinforce. My war-gaming history frames (breaking) morale differently; it’s the point where a unit loses cohesion, routs, and flees the battle. After all, few historical battles resulted in the complete destruction of one side. Unfortunately for Turbine, metaphors are creatures of context. They may have chosen one that their audience won’t accept outside of old-timers like me who know if from other contexts.

What Would Yoda Do?

Putting Turbine’s continuity issues aside, I find the morale metaphor much more satisfying because it better explains the vast difference between 1st and 60th level characters without violating my common sense understanding of the real world. It’s not the best one, however. Consider the hybrid route many class/level tabletop games took when moving from the fantasy setting to something more modern (and fatal) like this quote from WotC’s Star Wars RPG core rulebook:

Hit points […] represent two things in the game world: the ability to take physical punishment and keep going, and the ability to turn a serious blow into a graze or near miss. As you become more experienced, you become more adept at parrying strikes, dodging attacks, and rolling with blows […] but all this effort slowly wears you down. Rather than try to keep track of the difference between attacks and how much phsyical injury you take, hit points are an abstract measure of your total ability to survive damage.

This and other d20-based games are the literal descendants of the game where hit points first evolved: Dungeons and Dragons. Tabletop games have struggled with the metaphorical mismatch of health and hit points for years, preferring to hybridize it with combat abstraction. If LOTRO represents a similar evolution in the MMO space, I suspect future ludologists will only study it through the fossil record. Leaving hit points as an abstraction and concentrating more on playing or creating content for games seems a better survival strategy than working to make it really stick.

Links:

LotrO & Tolkien: Morale and the Absence of Death – Good or Bad? — Google Wave

Morale in LOTRO — Anti-immersive? by Adarel on LOTRO Reporter

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