Beyond “You Hit”: Describing Damage

Last month’s article discussed hit points from a player character’s perspective. Today we’re taking a further look at hit points and what that number means for creatures in general.

Hit points and you

To summarize our last article, hit points are an abstract number representing how much damage a character or monster can take. That number can represent a great range of things, including injury tolerance, resistance to pain, stamina, morale, luck, discipline, training, magic and even divine protection.

Now as a Dungeon Master, or even as a player who wants some descriptive flair to his actions, deciding just what this means can add realism and common sense to your game. That in turn can make your game more engaging, and more enjoyable. There are many ways you can describe the effects of damage and resisting damage.

By ability score

Pick the monster’s highest ability score. For descriptive purposes, that’s the source of its toughness. Even if, mechanically speaking, the monster only gains hit points from Constitution, that won’t matter: we’re really only using the ability scores for inspiration here.

Strength: Strong creatures resist injury with innate combat prowess and physical control. When an attack hits, describe how the creature attempts to parry, blocks the brunt of attacks with his weapon or other parts of his body, or diverts the attack to less lethal angle. Many high-Strength monsters are also high-Constitution (see below).

Dexterity: The creature is especially nimble. When an attack hits, describe the creature as rolling with the punch, or trying to dodge but not quite succeeding. Be careful not to give the impression that a successful attack missed or dealt less damage than normal.

Constitution: Creatures like this rely on raw guts. When an attack hits, describe the creature as taking the hit full-on and fighting regardless. The creature suffers the wound quite clearly, but doesn’t flinch.

Intelligence: Some creatures are highly intelligent. Describe how the creature watches carefully in combat, executing cautious, well-planned manoevers. When an attack hits, describe how the creature attempting to execute a parry or defensive technique but failing to prevent the full force of the blow. See also magic-users, below.

Wisdom: High-Wisdom creatures take advantage of strong instinct and combat insight. Describe how the creature always seems to place himself in the best stance or spot to defend against your next attack. When an attack hits, describe the creature ducking or dodging but moving too slowly or too little, or making an unlucky move in the wrong direction.

Charisma: Charismatic opponents survive by force of personality. Describe them as having an intimidating presence, physique, or glare, that seems to invoke fear and throw his attackers off their attack. When an attack hits, describe how his intimidating presence seems to psych out the attacker, making even other opponents cringe by exuding a sense of danger. See also magic-users, below.

By monster type

Corporeal undead and regnerating creatures are particularly fun because they often feel no pain and can keep going after a lot of serious physical damage. Feel free to describe a skeleton as its ribs smashing, or its jaw being knocked clean off and continuing to chatter uselessly on the ground. You can go as far as to impose penalties, such as a badly-wounded creature losing an arm (loses an attack or perhaps its shield bonus), a leg (slows the creature and may knock it prone) or its head (creature effectively blinded, head might continue on with one hit point and weak damage).

By character class

Warrior classes (defenders) typically gain hit points from rigorous training and discipline. They parry hits, roll with punches and strike careful defensive stances. Warriors weaken the impact of attacks by taking blows to a different part of the body than the attacker intended. A swordsman might step forward into his opponent’s attack, so that the attack only hits with the haft of the axe and not the blade.

Rogues and similar (strikers/skirmishers) take their hit points mainly from quickness and agility. They lack the training of a fighter, but generally have the advantage of lighter armour, greater mobility, greater flexibility and better cunning.

Magic-users may be considered to draw hit points from magical defences, even if there’s really no such spell. Describe attacks as making dents in a spellcaster’s invisible personal shield, or being absorbed by attending spirits, or deflecting around the wizard as he holds out his staff. Take care not to give the impression that the spellcaster is immune to the attack.

Divine classes (particularly clerics and paladins) benefit from their deity’s protection. Describe these as simply surviving attacks in a surprising manner or due to suspiciously coincidental happenings. Perhaps a crossbow shot deflects from his helmet, an opponent’s sword catches on a low-hanging branch nobody noticed was there, or a fireball leaves him surprisingly unscathed.

Templated characters, including 4E’s “Elite” monsters, often have more hit points than their counterparts. This is especially noticeable in 4E when applying a template to low-hitpoint characters. A low-level wizard with the Death Master template (an elite necromancer) can have around 100 hit points, when the player characters have around 35. Create a concrete reason for the extra hit points. Perhaps the necromancer is surrounded by spirits and wears living bone mail armour, or the tiefling acolyte is protected by a faint spirit in the guise of the demon prince he serves.

This list isn’t absolute. Some classes fall into a mixture of these categories, while others may draw their power from techniques or talents not listed here.

Describing the hit

Be careful not to cause confusion by suggesting that a successful attack was a miss, or that the creature has some damage reduction ability that it doesn’t. Make it clear when an attack misses completely (“You miss: it dodges and your attack swings wide”) or the creature negates some damage (“A hit, but its steel carapace resists your sword: minus five damage”).

Describe a critical hit or final shot as a complete failure of your opponent’s defensive technique. A high-Constitution monster takes the hit in a particularly vital spot, or a super-Intelligent lich curses as your attack slices through a gap in his arcane shield.

Comments (3)

Noumenon (July 20th, 2009)

Awesome idea and well fleshed out with all the examples! I used to try to say “If you missed by 2 and he has +3 Dex, say he dodged, if you missed by 4, say he took it on the armor.” That was too much work. With this I can decide “This is a CON monster” and describe all his hits the same way.

Also it’s a good idea to do what you did and focus on describing the hits. Describing the misses only makes the monster look good, describing the near-misses makes the player look awesome.

botchiball (March 12th, 2010)

Woah, been looking for something like this. So simple anyone can get it, but yet can easily add tons of depth. Thanks : ).

twins00 (January 19th, 2014)

Thanks, I have been having trouble describing combat and damage to my players, so it has ended up being “Why did I take 12 damage from a crossbow bolt, and then 5 damage from a metal post hitting me?”
This will definitely help, now that I can think of describing the post as hitting the wizard’s personal shield.
Thanks for making it so clear and concise.

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