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Take Heart: Health in Games

Being "Heart Healthy" is something I’ve been concerned about in the past few months. It's not just for fun and games - after my incident with emergency gallbladder surgery (see our previous post "To the Pain" for more on that), my doctors have been encouraging me to adopt a heart healthy diet. Why am I talking about this at all though? As you may have realized, this is the season where you tend to see hearts everywhere. Valentine’s Day has snuck up on us once again. (I blame Groundhog’s Day for stealing some of the attention.) We’ve written about the romance aspect of the holiday and how to include them in your games before, but all these hearts around have had me thinking a lot about how we deal with health in our games. Both electronic and our favorite tabletop games have various ways of dealing with characters' health. So for this Valentine’s Day, take heart! And also take a look at health in games with Never Say Dice.

The Valentine's-style heart icon is no stranger to games, and has become a definite trope over the years. At this point, it can actually feel strange when the icon represents something different, like a power gauge or magic meter. The most famous usage to indicate health would probably be the original Legend of Zelda. (Incidentally, our dice affiliate has a d4 that reminds me of Zelda every time I see it.)  Lives themselves may use a similar indicator, although often in games, each “mans” will give you multiple health units before you lose that life. Even in the original Super Mario Bros., you get extra "health" if you use a mushroom. While Zelda games (and a handful of others) still use that singular heart icon today, most have moved to something else to display the stat. Obviously, a single symbol on its own can be fairly limiting in how much it can represent. (Zelda games gets down to at least quarter hearts.) This is likely one reason the health bar was created (and no we, aren’t talking about the place at the buffet where you build your salads). The health bar can be shaped in any number of ways, and represent a much greater number than that limited single heart symbol. Sectioned into increments, curved, bowl shaped, or doubled up, the option has a lot fewer limitations, even if they aren’t as iconic.

Similarly, tabletop roleplaying games typically have their own standards to measure health. Hit Point values have been around since the early beginnings of Dungeons and Dragons. One could consider it akin to the standard of the digital game Health Bar. However, other tabletop RPG systems have come up with their own methods over the years. A favorite of Never Say Dice, the Star Wars D6 system by West End Games used an "Injuries" list with different injury levels and their status effect. For those more familiar with White Wolf systems, it's similar to the Health section on those character sheets. These systems are designed to seem more cinematic and streamline gameplay, although they share a similar limitation to Zelda's Heart: you can only have so many checkboxes before the approach becomes cumbersome. That isn’t to say that this health option is better or worse than Hit Point systems. Each game system has its own style and its own requirements. Even D&D's classic Hit Point system has had variations across games, with some using a separate vitality score and "wound points." To bring Star Wars to the front again, the first D20 edition of this universe used vitality as both your measure of health and your ability to do other things, such as use the Force.

Both electronic games and tabletop RPGs can leave us with a glass half-full/half-empty philosophical debate between  camps of pessimists and optimists. (Hey, I ordered a cheeseburger!)  Would 50% health (whether shown via bar, hearts or other method) be "doing okay," or would you consider that to be dangerous territory? What about only 25% health ? Or 10%? Likewise, how about 75%? It may all just come down to your own worldview (I personally tend to lean toward pessimism, despite my penchant for cheeseburgers.) However, many of these games will impose limitations depending on your health status. Even the earliest Zeldas remove your ability to shoot magic disco swords at foes if you have an injury. Meanwhile, other games might give you possible bonuses, such as increased attack power, when you're down to your last bit of health. There are various powers and abilities in tabletop RPGs that work similarly. The way this plays out with your potential worldview and personality is sure to be unique, whether you're running games or playing them. You might normally be a "50% health is doing okay" kind of person, but if this costs your character some of their abilities (or provides them new ones), you might have a different opinion than if it's merely a health stat.

No matter how you look at health in games, what it really comes down to is numbers: these are all just representations of the numerical mechanics behind the games we love. Because of this, I encourage you to draw inspiration from favorite video and tabletop games at your own tabletops. If you (and your players!) like that West End Star Wars injury system, you can find a way to switch to that or incorporate it into your system's current version of health tracking. If you decide to do this, though, make sure you consider the possible changes this can cause to game balance. A wizard with a fireball sounds a lot more deadly when using an injury status approach instead of  hit points. This could be what you’re going for, but this is just a fair warning that adapting some things may take more work than others. No matter how you track your health in your games, I hope you’re all doing okay. As always, get out there and and break some dice (and maybe some hearts)!

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