This is going to be a little bit different. I don’t really have a point I want to make, nor am I attempting an exhaustive analysis of the topic. Rather, it’s a bunch of thoughts on it, which may or may not lead somewhere. Expect such posts to be shorter and (more) rambling than usual.
Some of my players have admitted recently that they didn’t enjoy the combat in Fate that much. They felt that often there was little threat to their character, and while the narrative side of it was fun enough, the actual mechanical impact of a turn in which they inflicted one stress upon the enemy, and would need to do so several more times to finish the fight, was lackluster. They had contrasted it with D&D 4e, in which the mechanics were interesting to them (to one more than to another), and so they didn’t mind the long fights.
It makes sense: the fun part of Fate is the narrative, and all its mechanics merely help to move it along. The actual rolling dice and inflicting damage part is plain – it’s how you inflict the damage that’s interesting. And it’s my fault for failing to make all fights exciting in their own right, not just because they’re a fight. 4e had a reverse problem, that I had more or less solved for myself: while the fights were interesting, their outcomes were not. The solution was to offer different outcomes, not just the predetermined victory of PCs.
But back to the topic at hand. A conclusion one can draw for the stated complaint is that hit points (stress boxes, in this case) make a round of combat matter less. Indeed, had each roll posed a risk of inflicting lasting consequences, there would be no boring rounds of hit point attrition. Why do we even have hit points? In a way, hit points are only interesting when they run out – that’s when something changes. Note that when talking about hit points, we also talk about variously varying damage they ablate, so I won’t mention it specifically.
Hit points are a piece of the mechanical puzzle, along with attack and defense skills or parameters, dice sizes and pools, position on the map, etc. By manipulating these elements we play the game. They offer us a chance to demonstrate a mastery of mechanics, take risks for a chance of rewards, make mechanically meaningful decisions.
In games like D&D 4e where mechanics are a source of fun, it is obviously an important role. The more elements there are, the more interactions between them the designers can come up with, the more varied the abilities and resulting experience will be.
In games like Fate where mechanics offer the backbone on which the fun parts rely, this is somewhat less relevant. You may not care about taking some damage as that has no bearing on the plot… unless you take a few more points of damage and receive a consequence, or get defeated, or don’t attempt something dangerous you would have otherwise.
Protection from Goblin Dice
Hit points are a buffer against a random bad roll or three that would cause an unexpected and, presumably, undesirable result. Swingy, dangerous combat could be a goal of the system, of course. In that case the hit points would be set low relative to damage (see low levels of earlier editions of D&D), or there would be some alternative side-effect of fighting, like crippling critical hits. In most modern games, though, it’s unfashionable to have a character die from a stray bullet.
It’s a question of just how much of an impact random chance should have on the game. The more hit points, the more time there is for statistical averages to reassert themselves.
It’s got to feel “right”. A barbarian should have more hit points than a wizard, and a bazooka should do more damage than a rock. Hit points are one of the easy ways to signify and communicate the relative potency of weapons, characters or events. How hot is that fire? 5 damage hot.
Time to be cool
Related to the previous two items, hit points determine how many rounds a fight takes, and that determines how many actions players get to make. Again, it’s got to feel right. It’d likely feel anticlimactic if you were to defeat your archenemy with one punch. You want the time to exchange insults and blows. To use your abilities and prove you are better, not just luckier. Unless, of course, abrupt death is part of your game’s genre.
The reverse is also true: time afforded by hit points becomes unwelcome if there’s not enough interesting stuff to fill it, narrative or mechanical. If your fight is 5 rounds of going “I attack” while standing immobile in front of your enemy, you can probably do with a few less.
The journey, not just the destination
It’s not just who wins, but how they win. By focusing only on the final outcome of a scene, which side runs out of hit points first, you lose what makes the scene interesting. It’s no better than replacing a social encounter with a single Diplomacy check. Yes, the NPC we’re talking to will either agree to help us or not. But ideally we actually enjoy the act of talking to them. Similarly, ideally we enjoy the action not just for its outcome. Ideally, each hit point lost is a single step on a journey. It’s up to us, players and GMs alike, to make that journey exciting.