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In any game with hit points (I'm thinking D&D, but any will do), is there ever a situation where the DM ought to keep track of a player character's hit points, and not reveal it to the player?

I'm asking because a friend of mine years ago talked about doing exactly this, but now I'm trying to figure out what situation would warrant such an action -- and if it's something I can toss in a game I'm running, since it sounds interesting.

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If they are possessed and can't control themselves? –  Mike Wills Oct 26 '11 at 19:05
    
Unconciousness is also a possibility. –  GMJoe May 14 '12 at 8:00
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In light of the switch to the "system-agnostic" tag, I'd like to suggest that systems which use various kinds of wound levels or wound checks can create a lot of the same dramatic tension (and, perhaps immersive uncertainty?) without requiring the GM to handle hidden information for the players. –  Alex P May 15 '12 at 4:04
    
This is one of the first steps to run systemless... –  Sardathrion May 15 '12 at 8:51
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8 Answers

up vote 23 down vote accepted

The most common way this is done is as a "switch" on the entire campaign: the campaign's "you know your HP point total" switch is set to "no". Jason White's answer already covers the reason for such a blanket campaign feature well. This is almost always done at the campaign-wide level to make players more careful with the lives of their PCs. That isn't to say that it's a widespread campaign style though – it's always been a rare way of running a D&D campaign, probably even rarer today than in the days of AD&D if I had to guess.

Campaign styles in which this has useful/interesting effects are:

  • heavy-roleplay campaigns where combat is rare, and so the fog of war covering your own HP makes combat scarier
  • immersion-heavy exploration campaigns where combat is expected to be normal, but the riskiness of being an adventurer is made more "realistic"* by keeping the players from having perfect tactical knowledge, causing their characters to behave more like the fragile mortals they are

Other circumstances you might do this as an exception in a campaign where the players normally do keep track of their own HP is when you want to disorient the player to reflect the character's disorientation. For example, if the PC is hallucinating badly (and this is obvious to the player**), you can prevent metagaming by withholding exact HP values of damage, with the reasoning that if the player is being given obviously-untrustworthy descriptions of their surroundings, it doesn't make sense to have perfect mechanical knowledge from which they could infer what's real and what isn't. Other circumstances might be:

  • the PC is heavily ensorcelled and insensible to pain
  • the PC is affected by powerful illusions that hides pain and damage from them
  • the PC is berserking and either they are not normally a berserker, or they are and being "HP unaware" during berserking is a "feature" of being a berserker the player has already accepted as part of the character

The common feature to these examples of reasons for making this exception is a PC that is unable to judge their own health of body and limb and the player is very likely aware that something is terribly wrong either through strong in-game signals or an out-of-game understanding.

Any other circumstance than these is likely going to feel like a betrayal of trust by the players. Therefore, by implication, one final circumstance where a GM can withhold knowledge of HP is:

  • for effect at the GM's discretion, but only if there is already a well-established, deep trust between the players and GM

* I don't consider "realism" a dirty word in fantasy—we are quite capable of judging whether something obeys our fantasy game's internal reality, and "realism" is the right word to use in that case.

** Signalling to the player that their PC is in danger is even more important when you are subverting the expectations of how the game is run at the mechanical level. Clearly flagging that "things are not business as usual" allows them to proceed appropriately (i.e., with caution) instead of blithely relying on their expectations.

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This can add a nice layer of abstraction to the game for the player, since instead of telling you how much damage you took, the DM can just describe the attack and use general words for its strength. This allows players to focus more on the role-playing than the specific numbers.

Several problems can arise from this method, however. First, it gives the DM even more numbers to keep track of, which can potentially slow down the game or cause more errors. Second, as the DM, you have to remember to indicate to players how hurt they are. Forgetting to inform players how hurt they are can make them feel angry or cheated if they get knocked down below 0 hp and didn't know they were bloodied yet.

In addition to the term "bloodied" for half health (DnD4e term), you might want to consider terms for 3/4 health and 1/4 health, such as "mildly injured" and "mortally wounded."

As long as you feel you can keep up with all of these things as the DM, this method could certainly allow for a deeper role-playing experience.

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Hear here. Exact hp knowledge can (NOT will, mind you) overfeed metagaming tendencies. It's not for everyone; it IS a lot more work for the GM, and you have to give the players some indicators. –  ExTSR Oct 26 '11 at 18:00
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I think this should be EXTREMELY rare, if ever. I've never had an instance, either as a player or a DM, where I felt that it was appropriate that a player shouldn't know their own current HP status.

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Personally I think this is information that a character should always have access to. When you exercise or exert any physical energy you need to be in tune with your body to know when you've hit your limit or when you've come close to your breaking point. You may not have an exact scale of your exertion/limits, but you have a better idea of how you are doing than a DM is able to give a PC during an encounter, even with some verbal clues.

Making decisions based on your HP is not meta gaming, its a representation of being attuned to your body and mind and knowing when you should charge into battle and when you should hang back.

There is one and only one case where I can see a good reason for a DM to hid player HP totals and it should be used incredibly sparingly. When the PC has no knowledge of an effect that is draining them. Even here I would hesitate to obscure or obfuscate HP totals because I feel like it violates the DM/Player trust that is implicit in the relationship.

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To be fair it's also highly dependent both on what type of game you are playing and what system, perhaps more importantly. –  GPierce Oct 27 '11 at 6:10
    
I don't think anyone is attuned to their body enough to feel the difference between 51/100 and 58/100, and I've never before heard the claim that D&D characters have that much knowledge of their own game-mechanical representations. (If they were, I'd expect it to be a skill that monks would be better at!) –  SevenSidedDie Oct 27 '11 at 6:30
    
@Seven - probably not that minute of a difference, but probably a 20 HP difference would feel different. –  wax eagle Oct 27 '11 at 12:14
    
@wax Yeah. That's why I'm saying that making decisions that depend on knowing HP at 1-point granularity is metagaming. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 27 '11 at 16:59
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I find HP hiding to be very effective in horror-type games. The game "Unknown Armies," for example, hides HP totals as standard rule. Only the GM knows how much damage has been done, and how many HP the characters have left. It discourages ridiculous risk-taking (of the "I can jump off this cliff no problem!" sort), and players in such games tend to treat their characters as much more breakable. This makes the fights much scarier.

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I like the idea in theory, but it's more overhead than it's worth in my opinion.

The one place where I do use it is for death checks. If a player goes down in 4e, I don't let them know if they make their death saves. In 3.5, they don't know if the bleeding has stopped. This adds a lot of drama, but doesn't come up often enough that it takes much work.

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I'll come out and say what a couple others have hinted at.

No, it's not acceptable to hide a PC's hitpoints from the player.

I don't think it's ever a good idea. I'm a strong believer in rules transparency, and my experiences are that hiding information from players about their own characters is almost always going to be a bad experience for someone at the table, if not everyone.

Unless

There are exceptions, but they involve complete agreement of all involved.

For the GM, it means a LOT of extra work. It's not just book-keeping, either, tho that's significant, too.

For the players, it means not having good clues as to when it's time to run from a fight. If the GM doesn't give EXCELLENT feedback on current states, then it's very much the same effect as Hansen's Disease (Leprosy) or significant neuropathy - they lack tactile sensation of an adequate nature, and so often injure themselves without realizing they have done so.

Pros and Cons

Pros:

  • It allows a GM to hide continuing damage from undetected poisons and parasites
  • It allows a GM to misrepresent a hit as worse than it is when fudging in the players favor †
  • It allows the GM to misrepresent a hit as milder than it is when fudgin against the player †
  • It reduces player involvement in the mechanics ‡
  • It allows the GM to simulate hallucinations
  • It can reduce reduce metagaming (could you really tell the difference between 21/50 and 20/50?).

Cons:

  • It allows a GM to misrepresent a hit as worse than it is when fudging in the players favor †
  • It allows the GM to misrepresent a hit as milder than it is when fudgin against the player †
  • It increases book-keeping
  • It increases GM feedback needed
  • It decreases apparent speed of play to the players as the GM does all the math behind the screen
  • It usually requires a GM using a screen or a GM sitting apart from the players.
  • It reduces player involvement in the mechanics ‡

† Generally, Fudging is bad. It means you have misjudged your players' and their characters' abilities. Many consider it cheating. Some consider it to be a sign of an untrustworthy GM. Others consider it to be the ultimate sign of a trustworthy GM. I consider it the sign of a careless one, myself.

‡ This is arguable as either good or bad by point of view. Hence in both. It's a hot button issue, tho'.

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Please do not comment war; all comments have been deleted. @aramis, using H1's in your answers is indeed obnoxious, please consider not doing so. –  mxyzplk Nov 1 '11 at 23:22
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I don't think there is any really good time to hide a PCs hit points. It can be interesting, but makes a lot of work for the GM to keep track of them. I tried it once, and it quickly went back to the original method.

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