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I don't like hit points as an abstraction anymore. I'm interested in writing an RPG and I have some ideas for other ways of handling wounds, but I wanted to see what else was out there.

MERP had HP, but it also had critical hits, which were far more interesting and far more likely to kill someone. I think what I'm interested in will end up being closer to a system that just uses critical hits, but I'm open to other ideas.

I'm familiar with the stress tracks from Dresden Files, but I haven't played it enough to tell if it's a different abstraction or just three separate HP tracks.

What major categories of wound mechanics are there besides hit points? Please include a system as an example for each category.

-- edit --

By hit points I mean any system that uses a numerical representation of your current health. Even if those numbers have different names (winded, bloodied, incapacitated, etc) or different penalties at different thresholds, they still act like hit points.

Systems with multiple tracks (Fate, TRoS) seem distinct enough that I am interested in hearing about them.

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Got a flag about this being a list question. It kinda is, possibly grandfathered because it's old. As discussed a couple times we mods don't like doing things directly about this - community, either vote to close or express support (I think there's an argument to be made that since it's not a completely unbounded list it has some value, plus it's very highly rated...) But a better question around this would have a direct design goal so there'd be a best answer. Discuss amongst yourselves! –  mxyzplk Sep 9 '13 at 21:15
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16 Answers 16

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The Riddle of Steel

Though out of print, TRoS is still available in PDFs through some venue or other. But what's relevant to your question is how it handled tracking damage to living creatures.

TRoS injuries consisted of three separately rated components:

  • Shock - A short-term penalty to actions from the initial shock of the injury.
  • Pain - A persistent penalty to actions from the ongoing pain of the injury. I believe pain didn't accumulate, but the current pain penalty was always the highest penalty yet incurred.
  • Blood loss - A cumulative obstacle against which the player would roll the equivalent of Constitution (it's been a while since I dragged out TRoS, edits to fix this are welcome)

In this way, a hit in TRoS would:

A) Make the wounded party's next attack (or other action) significantly more difficult (from Shock).

B) Make the wounded party's further attacks (or other actions) more difficult even once the initial shock subsided (from Pain).

C) Threaten the character's life - even a low obstacle roll can be failed, so any hit is serious in TRoS.

IIRC, the degree of failure in a Blood Loss roll determined whether a PC was unconscious, bleeding out, or dead. There was also a wound system, which use the highest Pain or Shock inflicted during a fight to determine the nature of a lasting injury.

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Would greatly appreciate a link to the "some venue" that sells RoS PDFs. –  Sean McMillan Oct 20 '11 at 18:26
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@Sean It's by email request only, as that's the only way the copyright holder has authorised this 3rd party to offer scans. Email ian.plumb@griffingrove.com.au . The combat system is well worth the unfortunate scan artefacts in the PDF. (I own both a PDF and print copy.) –  SevenSidedDie Oct 20 '11 at 19:01
    
For more on TRoS, I went into details of the system in answer to this question and this one. I can't recommend it enough as a game that makes players take a knife seriously. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 20 '11 at 19:11
    
[Blade of the Iron Throne] (rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/114920/Blade-of-the-Iron-Throne) is effectively the cleaned up modern version of Riddle of Steel, taking 90% of the same mechanics and improving the other 10%. It's available as a PDF. –  Bankuei Dec 30 '13 at 3:28
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I thought about the same problem for some time, and I came up with a quite simple idea: one successful hit and you are down. The bodies are divided in zones, you can either strike an enemy's zone or set a block on a zone on your body. Strikes take time to get through, and if one manages to put a block before the strike hits - it is blocked. If not - it is calculated whether the strike penetrates armour, and if it does - off with the arm, or with the head. If you lose an arm - you have one less arm to strike with, if you lose the head - the result is obvious.

Surely, the system will have much more details in it (like e. g. different weapon types and armor having different protection against each), but the basic idea is that simple.

edit: if it's a tabletop game, there will have to be some kind of a 'timeline', on which the different events that happen in the battle will be placed. It will have a point representing the "present" time, which moves forward along the timeline, and as it encounters the events, they "happen". E. g. if you want to strike the opponent you first calculate how much time it will take you to strike (based on your skill with the weapon etc.). Then you add this to the "present" moment and put some marker on the timeline at the point where the event should happen. The opponent can react, he can put a block - the same procedure, the time needed to perform the block is calculated, and an event marker is put on the timeline. When everybody has done what they wanted to do, the game is "unpaused", the "present" moment moves forward on the timeline until it reaches some event.

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One distinction present in some games (DnD4, Savage Worlds, Fate) may be interesting to you: differentiating between main characters and extras. I think it is present in other games too (maybe 7th Sea?).

Extras are out of the game as soon as they are hit. In DnD4 they have 1hp. In Savage Worlds they are out as soon as they receive any wound. This seems to be similar to what you are thinking about a "a system that just uses critical hits".

The problem with doing that with everybody is that it results in a game that is highly volatile. Players are at the receiving end of a lot of attacks, which means that in a game with only critical hits they will be out of the game sooner or later and quite randomly (due to the dice, not their actions). Many players will not like that. Extras may come and go but players usually develop a certain bond with their characters.

Where DnD4 uses hit points to give some resilience to main characters, Savage Worlds uses three wounds and Fate uses the stress tracks.

Wounds in Savage Worlds are different from DnD hit points in three ways:

  1. They affect what you do. A fighter in DnD with 1hp fights as well as one with 100hp, but every wound in Savage Worlds is a -1 to every action (and that is quite a lot in Savage Worlds).
  2. They are easy to count. Every main character (dragons, vampires, whatever) has three wounds. Every extra has one wound. This is miles away from the clerical job of counting hp for every character in the scene.
  3. Wound can only be healed during the first 60mins after they are made (the golden hour rule). This adds a lot on drama, as wounds suffered far from healing sources stay with the character for a long time (i.e. weeks).

They share many similarities with the health levels of the StarWars D6 that others answers have talked about. However, it seems to me from your question that this is still too similar to hit points.

The stress tracks in Fate are different from DnD hit points in three ways:

  1. There are several tracks of stress / damage.
    1. First, there are two parallel tracks: one for physical stress and one for mental stress. Some games (Cthulhy, Weird Wars) have Sanity that can have a similar effect (depending on the game).
    2. These two tracks run in parallel with a third track, that of consequences.
    3. Receiving damage means losing slots from these tracks, until you do not have enough slots left and are out.
  2. They affect what you do. Consequences are aspects that can be compelled to have negative effects, similar to the effect of wounds on Savage Worlds.
  3. They are easy to count.
  4. Stress slots are recovered immediately after a contest (combat). Consequences are recovered at a slower pace (more slowly for more serious consequences).
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Silcore (i.e. Gear Krieg, Heavy Gear, Jovian Chronicles etc.) has a simple over-the-threshold damage system which allows for fast resolution of combat without bogging down things or forcing you to keep track of lots of things.

Basically when a PC or NPC is statted, you calculate 3 damage thresholds: light wound, serious wound, death (let's suppose it's 5, 10, 20 - I don't have the manuals with me...)

If a person gets hit 3-4-20 times for damage between 1 and 5, nothing happens.

If someone gets hit for 6 they will get a wound (and a -1 to all other rolls until healed).

Any damage (in a single hit) over 10 will cause a serious wound (-2, wounds are cumulative so if you already received a light wound you'd be at -3)

If you get 21 or more in one hit, you are dead.

Note that:

  • the base rolls have a limited spread, so even a -1 is something that affects you significantly.
  • a -1 means that you will be easier to hit (to hit someone you roll your offense vs. their defenses, and the light wound make their roll suffering a -1), and damage is based on the difference between attack and defense, so a light wound will increase the chance that if you are hit, you'll get even more damage next time (so it's a sort of death spiral as a side effect of how the basic mechanics work.
  • vehicles, animals and humans follow the same mechanics, so the same effect applies to a vehicle (a "wound" means minor damage that still affects the handling of the vehicle - a kill means the vehicle explodes or is anyway disabled completely).
  • armor increases your threshold. So if you have 5/10/20, and wear a kevlar tactical armor rated +20, your thresholds become 25/30/40.

I always found this a nice compromise between playing speed, "realism", and it still allows you to make "hard to kill" characters without resorting to giving them tons of "hit points" (a "hit" is a function of your attacking vs. their dodging/parrying skill - the delta is multiplied by a weapon damage factor, so someone who is very agile is hard to score a wound against, even if he has average thresholds...)

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A game that uses no life points at all and still has some interesting variation in how much one can be wounded is Dogs in the Vineyard.

In DitV, a conflict is made whenever a player wants to do something that encounters opposition, let's say I'm a dog and I want to convince my cousin, brother Jebediah not to go to the town shooting sister Elizabeth, who dishonored him.

So I want him to give me his rifle and he wants to go shooting her, this is a conflict. Things could start verbal, things could start with me shooting at him or trying to punch him in the nose. The conflict system works more or less this way. We roll some dice, the results both decide who goes first and are saved. The one going first describes his action and puts two dice forward. Then anyone involved in that action must put dice forward, totalling at least the value of the two aforementioned dice. If the "defender" manages to do that with one die only, he describes what he does to retort the strike and can use that die during his next turn, instead of discarding it. Next! If the "defender" parries with two dice, he soaks the hit. Next! But for every dice over the second used to parry, one die of fallout needs to be rolled at the end of the conflict.

The size of the fallout die is different according to how dangerous was, narratively, the action that caused fallout. 1d4 for talking up to 1d10 for using guns.

All fallout dice get rolled at the same time for any player and the highest result has consequences written on a table. The higher the roll, the worse the consequences, including "about to die" (at which point if it's a PC or a NPC the GM would like to keep alive a second conflict, with the life of the character at the stakes, needs to be rolled).

There are mechanical advantages in escalating the conflict (using a different category of actions than the one the conflict started from) and in using guns.
(There also is a strong narrative incentive in not being seen as a murderhobo by the inhabitants of the town you're in, so most conflicts are conceded or won before someone has the opportunity to get d10 fallout dice.)

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The short answer is that almost any system out there uses either a variant of hp or a variant of staged damage. The staged damage systems are awkward and clunky to work with more often than not (i.e. Shadowrun) and the hp systems lack clarity (i.e. anything from the D&D or Palladium suite). Systems that use random hit tables for determining where on the body a blow land require way too much tracking but lend a little more reality to the picture. If you can stand the slow combat. But to date, I've seen nothing that abstracts damage well.

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If I remember the Chill mechanics correctly (I am probably missing one or two subtle points), there was a "fatigue points" measure that measured how tired you were. This was an ever-depleting pool, replenishable by rest, that all attacks and strenous activity depleted.

There was also a "wounds" counter, with (IIRC, and I am probably not getting the names right, I mostly dealt with the Swedish translation) "superficial", "light", "medium", "serious" and "fatal" wounds. You could have two wounds of the same kind, before they overflowed into the next higher wound type and once you hit "fatal", it was either time for healing magic or immediate shipping to an ER.

I do not recall if a character with only a "medium" ticked would tick another medium or a superficial if they then received a superficial wound.

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Star Wars and the d6 system use a wound category system; on a successful hits damage is rolled vs the characters strength+armour and that determines what effect the character/droid/ship takes, which can be insto-death.

The categories are:

Stunned (minor penalty for current and next round, multiple stuns stack)

Wounded (Fall prone and no action for current round, penalty until healed) (Rules vary here, in some editions characters can take 2 wounds before it becomes Incapacitated, in others it's only one)

Incapacitated (Fall prone, knocked out, cannot use skills and half rate move)

Mortally Wounded (Fall prone, unconscious, may die at end of any round)

Dead (Nuff said)

I've found it a quick, simple system for battles and it's exceedingly easy to track; players get a healthy respect for combat when they realise that a single shot could finish them off!

d6 Space is available free from RPGNOW if you want to see how it works in more detail.

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A similar, but more complicated, hybrid system was used for West End Games' later Torg. That had wound levels as above, plus a hit-pointy system of stress that caused unconsciousness when you ran out, plus a 'K O' system that knocked you out instantly if you received both a K and an O, but did nothing otherwise - allowing for instant-knock-out nonlethal attacks. –  Tynam Nov 18 '12 at 23:07
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Mutants and Masterminds/DC Adventures.

Every attack has a Damage value that is added to 15 (Damage 5 = 20). Every character has a Toughness rating they roll against the Damage value to determine how hurt they are. The greater they fail that roll, they greater the damage.

Example...

Succeeding on a Toughness roll (20+ in this example) = no effect.

Failing by 1-4 = -1 to further Toughness checks.

Failing by 5-9 = -1 to further Toughness checks and Dazed Condition.

Failing by 10-14 = -1 to further Toughness checks and Staggered condition.

Failing by 15+ = Unconscious. (Two Staggered conditions also result in Unconscious.)

In that system, everything is dangerous, but if you're of equivalent level, then an average of 10-11 roll is going to give you a level 1 or 2 result until your Toughness gets whittled down a bit. However, there is always that chance of rolling a 1! (Hero Points help by allowing you to reroll.)

Everything is based on status effects (Dazed = loss of Move action for 1 round, Staggered = 1/2 Speed and loss of Move action for 1 hour).

Hope that helps!

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Ars Magica 5 Edition uses wound categories with different penalties:
Light, Medium, Heavy, Incapacitated, Dead with different penalties.

Unlike the most other systems I know, you can get unlimited wounds, only the penalties add.
So you can get 10 light wounds and get ten times the penalties of the light wound, but you are still only light wounded and light wounds heal fast.
So you can get around the normal hitpoint problem that the 1 point sunburn you got before the combat damage of Max-1 comes, can kill your character.

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First edition Conspiracy X has two damage tracks - lethal and non-lethal - each of which has three categories.

Non-lethal           Lethal
==========           ======
Bruise (Br)          Flesh Wound  (Fw)
Thwack (Tw)          Wound        (Wn)
Break  (Bk)          Splatter     (Sp)

Each category then has six levels which is where you take damage. Once the six levels in that category are full you take the damage in the levels of the next category up. If you fill Break then you move up to Splatter and above Splatter is Instant Death (Id) - taking even one level of Id has the expected effect!

Weapons damage is noted as the category and the level - for example a pistol is Wn3, an LMG is Wn5, an average person's punch is Tw3 and nunchuks are Br4.

For each attack the attacker gets a chance to "stage up" (i.e move up a damage level) and the target then gets a chance to "stage down" (i.e. move down a damage level). The chance of these are related to the level of damage vs. the target's resistance. Most armour will reduce lethal to non-lethal (i.e. Wn -> Tw).

Each category has a stun check, a KO check, recovery time per level, stabilisation requirement and game mechanical penalty. The check difficulty is related to the cumulative levels of damage in that category taken so far.

Given that a pistol is Wn3 so can stage up to Sp3 and, if you fail to stabilise (highly likely at that point unless you have medical attention), you will then take an extra Sp1 each turn you fail an (increasingly harder) stabilisation test which will probably take you into instant death in four turns. Alternatively, it can stage down to Fw3 which will barely slow you down.

Getting caught by a burst of LMG fire (2 or 3 hits are likely and each hit is Wn5) is highly likely to kill a normal person outright.

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Cyberpunk 2020 has a nice way of dealing with physical damage to characters.

When a hit is scored, first a hit location is determined on a simple table with a d10 (1:Head 2-4:Torso 5:Left Arm 6:Right Arm 7-8:Left Leg 9-10:Right leg). Each of these locations has a separate armor SP(Stopping Power) that is directly subtracted from the damage, and if the SP can completely absorb damage.

Then, the character's BTM(Body Type Modifier: A derived stat) is also subtracted from the remaining damage but BTM cannot reduce damage below 1

The remaining damage is marked on the character's health track which looks like

10   11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   19
□□□□ □□□□ □□□□ □□□□ □□□□ □□□□ □□□□ □□□□ □□□□ □□□□
Lt   Mod  Sev  M0   M1   M2   M3   M4   M5   M6

and represents your general ability to keep standing. The groups of four boxes each represent a damage category (Light, Moderate, Severe, Mortal 0-6) with corresponding penalties and risks.

The numbers above the track are the target numbers for Stun/Shock saves. Every time you take a hit, you must roll COOL+d10 to match or exceed the corresponding number. If you fail, you are incapable of doing anything due to shock and pain. You may try to regain your composure next round.

When you reach one of the Mortal categories, you must immediately make a roll with a single d10 to exceed the mortal category number. Fail that and you drop down and begin to die right there. If you succeed, you must keep rolling every round until you die or get medical attention. It is deadly.

If that is not enough, every damage category imposes penalties on every skill roll you make until you are stabilized. After that, the penalties apply only to physically taxing actions.

Light: -1 | Moderate: -2 | Severe: -4 | Mortal: -6  

It doesn't end there. Whenever a single hit does 8 or more points of damage, you must make an immediate Mortal 0 save(if not more already). If a limb is hit, that limb is mangled beyond repair. If the torso is hit, make that a Mortal 2 save. If it is a head hit, don't ever bother. You're dead.

Not to mention that any damage after armor SP is doubled if it is a head hit.

Some numbers for completeness of information: Armor SP's are around 4 for heavy leather to 20 for fully padded composite milspec armor. BTM is a number between 0 and 4, 2-3 for most characters. Handguns and SMG's do between 2d6-4d6 damage per bullet depending on caliber. Assault rifles go up to 6d6. A good sword dishes out 4d10 damage. A solid hit with any of these means you're probably dead or will be soon.

This is a deadly system that motivates players to avoid combat whenever possible (usually after wasting a few characters) and go for more subtle tactics for solving their problems. Use at your own peril. :)

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In a version of Cyberpunk 2020 that I've once played, the GM used an interesting system. Each limb has 10 hit points. Armor reduces the damage that can be given to that limb. So if you have 17 armor on your arm, and get hit for 10 damage, then you have 7 armor left. If you then get hit for another 17 damage on your arm, you lose your arm.

Obviously, if you lose your head you die. "losing" an arm can mean it's broken or detached, GM's choice I believe.

Another system I have seen in some computer games, is various wound levels on limbs. When those limbs take enough damage then you get new afflictions. So too much damage to your gut may result in a ruptured spleen, too much damage to your legs might result in muscle craps or a broken leg depending. Some afflictions if never healed kill you, others you can live with but have negative combat effects

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Still a hit point system. But that's not the same system as the CP2020 I've got, which is a single hit point track. –  aramis Oct 20 '11 at 21:20
    
This is definitely not Cyberpunk 2020. Still a valid answer though. @GMNoob, would you mind removing the reference or clarifying if this is a house rule –  edgerunner Oct 21 '11 at 6:27
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Yeah sorry, must be a house rule. Never read the actual manual –  GMNoob Oct 21 '11 at 7:28
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@Iain Anderson Gave an ok explanation of the Dresden Files (fate 3.0) system, but I’m going to try and explain it a bit better.

In Dresden Files (DFRPG), you have three stress tracks. These three stress tracks are called Physical, Mental, and Social. These represent your capacity for stress that you can take in these three categories. Stress can be incurred during any encounter in the game through physical combat, psychic combat, social situations, etc.

In addition to Stress tracks PCs have consequences that they can take. Players can take consequences to mitigate Stress but at the disadvantage of having a temporary aspect tied to the consequence. PCs also have to heal from Consequences before they can use them again. Consequences come in four levels, Mild (-2 stress), Moderate (-4 stress), Severe (-6 stress), Extreme (-8 stress). Each level on consequence requires a different level of aspect, so the more damage prevented the more pain your aspect should reflect. For example, you might go from slight limp (-2), to twisted ankle (-4), to broken ankle (-6), to disfigured foot (-8, extreme consequences have their own rules).

Now, the interesting part is how players take stress. Let’s say we have a player named Bob that can take 4 physical stress. In the first round he gets his for 2 stress. His stress box would look like this:

□ ■ □ □

Now it’s the monster’s second turn, and it hits Bob for 1 stress. Bob’s stress now looks like this:

■ ■ □ □

Notice that his one and two stress boxes are now filled. Now let’s say he gets hit again for 2. His 2 box is filled so it rolls up to 3:

■ ■ ■ □

If a player is hit for stress with a filled box, it rolls up to the next unfilled stress box. If the stress would roll off of the player’s stress track (i.e. if Bob got hit for 5 stress) then that player is considered Taken Out. This doesn’t necessarily mean the player is killed, but it’s possible.

Let’s say the monster gets mad and hits Bob for a total of 10 stress. This will take him out and could potentially kill him. He decides to take consequences to stay in the fight. He takes slight limp for his mild, leaving 8 stress left. He then takes broken ribs for his moderate, leaving a manageable 4 stress left. His box is now completely full, and even a 1 stress hit can take him out.

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For thinking about how stress doesn't work like hit points (it doesn't abstract damage) and what it does represent, "Fate Doesn't Have a Damage System" is very good reading. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 8 '13 at 19:01
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One way is to use wound thresholds with associated penalties.

Burning Wheel uses this system.

Each entity would have a set of physical tolerances - these are thresholds above which they get wounded in certain ways. A typical human character might have a "B10" Mortal Wound rating (The B is black shade - mundane - as opposed to grey for superhuman or white shade for divine). They would also likely have Superficial at B3, Light at B5, and Midi, Severe, Traumatic at B7,8,9.

When an entity gets hit, the damage is does in the same terms - for example, an "incidental" hit with a sword might do a B4 - Which would be a Superficial wound on the above character.

Each set of wound levels has associated penalties and difficulty to heal. Superficial increases the obstacle of all tests performed by 1, for example. A Light wound means you have -1 die to all rolls. Take something above your Mortal Wound rating, and you are dead. Traumatic gives you -4 dice, and a short time before you bleed out and the wound ticks up to Mortal.

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If I am reading into your question correctly, you dislike the Hit Points system because of the lack of reality and possibly the length of combat that results from it. I put forward my suggestions based on that thought. I have other suggestions as well, but these three cover some of the best examples of more realistic, grittier health systems.

Dresden files, as you mentioned, uses stresses and it is a pretty cool system. It makes for much faster combats though and normal human types (even heroic ones) will have problems with stompy monsters. Two of the huge benefits to the system in my view are: 1. It allows for "combat" through social and intellectual means so the suave and smart can have their hay-day just like the brawny. 2. When you trip a stress on your character, you the player gets to decide what that means. So you could give yourself a limp (for a physical stress), you could make yourself super embarrassed (for a social stress) or get distractingly confused (for a mental stress).

Another system to look at is the the old West-End Star Wars game. I never played much and never GMed the game, but I remember that there were health levels similar to White Wolf and how far down the levels you went was based on a contest skill roll (like I roll to shoot you, you roll to dodge; the better I shoot you the closer to death you are). Again, this system leads to fast combats, though at times when the PCs and the baddies have close stats the combats can actually take a while until someone rolls big.

Finally, check out Unknown Armies. The world is amazing, the stories are phenomenal, but the system is a d% system which I never like. It still uses hit points, but, like West End, damage is based on differences in skill checks and combat tends to be over in a round or two. It's also really cool in one respect that I love: Players don't know how many hit points they have. The GM tracks the HP and the damage taken so all damage related information in done through in game descriptions.

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this is more of a discussion than I'd hoped to get into, but your first paragraph is half right. I think what I want to avoid is a situation where players see HP as a resource to be spent. If they ever think a dagger's d4 is no threat, something is wrong. PCs should try to avoid getting themselves cut open. I think what I'm looking for is a system that puts more emphasis whether a weapon hits than the damage that happens. I don't care if a sword or axe does more damage - I want to see which weapon hits first and how they defend against each other. –  valadil Oct 20 '11 at 17:38
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The key to Dresden's non-HP-ness is the consequences -- one your (2-4) stress are used up, you have to start taking consequences, which are aspects, and can be used to influence the outcome in more ways than just absorbing damage. –  Sean McMillan Oct 20 '11 at 18:30
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