Hit Points as a Tension Mechanic

Has anyone here used a character’s hit points to create tension in a fight scene? Particularly when there are no mechanical effects for losing HP until yer dead, it’s something I’m thinking of trying when I run a HP-based game next time.

For example, as a hero loses hit points, they begin to look like shit with blood running down their nose and their armour torn. All purely narrative in approach, but it’s used to create tension for the player as they are receiving these cues from their GM that it’s time to nut up or heal up.

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I’ve used the “bloodied” condition ever since I played D&D 4E, although the name may change depending on the circumstances. I’ve used staggered, slimed, oozing with gore, or whatever narrative fits. My players know when I toss those big descriptors into the mix, the target is below 50% of their hit points. Much like 4E, I occasionally attach abilities to that state as well. Like a critter who does more damage when it is below the bloodied threshold, or one becomes vulnerable to certain types of attacks once they are worn down.


Yeah, the bloodied condition was a nice, subtle, and effective touch. Especially how some powers only worked when your were bloodied.


Narrative approach has always been my go-to. I try and use descriptions for any hit/wound inflicted so that the players get an understanding of how well they are doing in a sort of blow-by-blow narrative.

I don’t like using something as “standard” as “when they are at X HP left they gain a condition.” I say that because my style is such that I don’t want to use that level of meta.

I know some folk use that approach to great effect, but it’s just not my thing.

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I find with OSR fantasy games that HP are low enough in the majority of cases that I don’t have to leverage that to create tension. The players do it themselves.

I will often describe injury on an opponent as they get lower and lower, “He doesn’t look slowed at all by that.” “Or, he’s starting to wobble a little now.” “Or, you’ve hammered him pretty badly.”

I’ve also been verbal about when I’m doing morale checks. The players clue in that things are going badly for an opponent the more frequent the morale checks get. If there are no morale checks coming, they will start to wonder, “Are we even hurting them?”

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“It depends”. I run with 99% of my rolls in the open. When hit points get low there is a tension, I don’t create directly, the dice do. I do like the idea of doing that to a character, but only occasionally, or it might get old. A, “last character standing” situation would be the perfect time to break this out. This

Now I do that for NPC”s. But its less meaningful in Fantasy Grounds because NPC’s have a status light… I really should try and turn that off now that I mention it.

Now in a Fate or PbtA games your descriptions have power. A broken foot might not be codified to do X or Z, but when try to run on it I am going to hamper you because the description / fiction / narrative tells me too. It’s up to me, to decide, not the rules. However, I don’t think this is what you’re talking about.

When a last character standing situation pop up again I will definitely try this idea out.

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