The PHB's description of hit points (p. 196) says:

Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck. Creatures with more hit points are more difficult to kill. Those with fewer hit points are more fragile.

Also, the "Describing the Effects of Damage" sidebar (p. 197) says:

Dungeon Masters describe hit point loss in different ways. When your current hit point total is half or more of your hit point maximum. you typically show no signs of injury. When you drop below half your hit point maximum, you show signs of wear, such as cuts and bruises.

My interpretation is that the first few hits don't cause wounds or bleeding, and saying things like "your blade pierces his ribs" is inaccurate. However, I struggle to actually describe blows in combat without saying things like "The blow strikes the armour" for a miss, and "Your blade slices through his leg" for a hit.

I am looking for a alternate method which doesn't reference wounds, bleeding, etc., but still has narrative value - and the players will be able to tell the difference between a miss and a hit (Or a crit).

What methods have people used to describe damage which meet the criteria above, and how did this impact the experience for the players and DM? Please back up answers with experience, per "Good Subjective, Bad Subjective".

I have tagged this as D&D 5e because I don't know if the hit point rules are the same in the older versions or other games, but any experience from systems with similar rules will qualify as a good answer.

  • \$\begingroup\$ @JohnP that's exactly what I am wanting this answer to talk about how to describe, normally I would have a quick character avoid the blow, and an armoured character tank it on their armour for a miss, but actually a hit is taking it on the armour or forcing them to expend energy to dodge, and a miss is ... something else \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 3, 2019 at 18:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried looking at HP as "ability to avoid dying/unconsciousness" rather than "physical health", out of curiosity? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2019 at 17:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @justin time I don't mind how it is looked at as long as it isn't physical damage and can be described narratively so the players can distinguish a hit and a miss \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 4, 2019 at 20:35

5 Answers 5


Why describe the damage?

I've played and GM'd in a few editions of D&D and while it certainly seems to be a table preference, I've never seen the value in breaking the flow of combat to narrate every single to-hit die roll on a spell or attack based on how much it met or failed the DC and how much damage the player happened to roll. The damage is already described numerically by the player. My personal experience as both GM and Player has been that this feels like it might add more narrative to a fight but there's a finite number of ways each person can describe most of the standard situations. Its inevitable that certain speech patterns will be repeated.

Only narrate major changes

It's been my experience as GM and player in D&D that only signaling bloodied (half hp threshold passed) and death in a narrative flourish is worthwhile. On tough enemies signifying to players that they are halfway there can be a relief and a good moment to spice up the combat with a bold description. Examples like "the dragon's scales are cracked" or " the knight sways on his feet" can be simple, characterizing ways to signal the half HP threshold has been passed and if you are only telling players hit/miss normally the very fact you narrated to begin with signals the import. (4e treated this as an actual mechanical condition "bloodied" and 5e treats it more of a descriptive threshold but there are some class features or monster features that function off of the half hp threshold).

Likewise enemy deaths are a perfect momement to narrate and the length and granduer of the narration should scale with the enemy. Did they just manage to kill a vampire within their lair? Ham it up, make it as dramatic as possible. Was it a monster they've fought before as a danger in a dungeon room, not part of a greater storyline? Keep it prefunctory and short to keep the adventure flowing.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ FWIW, I don't recall seeing "bloodied" as a condition in 5e, though it was one in 4e that had mechanical effects. (But my first 5e DM was 4e fluent, so I learned "bloodied" as a term meaning at least half way before I learned it was not a "game term" ) \$\endgroup\$ Sep 3, 2019 at 19:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Yes, I should not have used bloodied as if it was a mechanical keyword. Edited. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 3, 2019 at 19:38

Describe the effects of the impact, not necessarily the results of the impact. Just because an attack is a miss, doesn't mean it won't have some later impact in the fight, and on the flip side, a successful attack doesn't mean that they have automatically gaping wounds. The few times that I have been a DM, that was how I described it. I basically drew on fantasy novels that I have read as well as how I felt in sparring matches, competing in martial arts.

Some of the ways you can describe misses are

  • Major miss: You feinted to the side just as he was swinging and it was a clean miss
  • Near miss: He came close, but you managed to get your shield up. Rattled you a little bit, but no damage
  • Miss due to previous attack damage: That blow you landed on him earlier took a toll. He got his attack through, but there just wasn't anything on it.

Same with successful attacks, describe the effects rather than the actual damage, up to describing damage as the fight progresses. Some of the ways I've described it are:

  • Minor blow/damage: He slipped one past your guard. Really thumped against your armor and winded you just a bit, but not a lot of damage.
  • Moderate or cumulative: You really went for that parry, but he got in before you were able to deflect much. You really felt the impact, and your ribs will be sore for a week
  • Major/cumulative: You just didn't even see that coming. He opened up a good gash on your [insert body part here], that's definitely going to leave a mark
  • Major (non cut): That hit on your leg really staggered you. Not sure what damage it caused, but your leg is really hobbled now.

The last is one example of what is termed a "deep bruise", which is a fairly serious bruise that can take a week or more to heal to the point where it won't compromise muscle function. Many times a deep bruise won't even show for a few days.

It really all comes down to expanding the variety of ways to describe the same thing, and applying that to the actual fight. If it is difficult for you to come up with it on the fly, sit down with some fantasy books and read through the battle/fight scenes and create a crib sheet of phrases to use. Some of David Eddings' book series (Elenium, Tamuli) that have a paladin as their central character have really good descriptions.

The other thing to remember is that the actions are not happening in a vacuum. You don't take your swing and then stand there waiting for the counter. You're attacking, but at the same time that shield is ready to defend, or you're popping back behind that pillar after firing your arrow, but got hung up on the rubble and their archer popped you one, etc. Think of a fight as a fluid, shifting entity of give and take rather than a "you whack at them, they whack at you" situation.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That sounds quite like how I already do it. Your first miss scenarios are dex based avoidance, but a tank character isn't going to avoid a blow, just soak it harmlessly, and separating that from tanking a blow less than harmlessly is what I am looking for. Your last line in paragraph 3 also talks about opening wounds, which I am looking to avoid. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 3, 2019 at 18:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri - Eventually everyone gets cut. And honestly, if that's already how you do it, you just need more adjectives/depictions. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – JohnP
    Sep 3, 2019 at 18:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like a lot of what's in this, but it could use some formatting (tables or bullet points probably) to make it more readable. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    Sep 3, 2019 at 19:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ifusaso - Good point. Edited for clarity. \$\endgroup\$
    – JohnP
    Sep 3, 2019 at 19:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Miss due to previous attack damage" Is this supposed to be a mechanical scenario you're describing? (Where near miss and major miss could be for example rolled very nearly the target number on the attack or rolled a natural 1) Or is this just a narrative convenience? (That is, a miss that you're attributing to previous damage despite it being mechanically unrelated) \$\endgroup\$
    – Zeus
    Sep 4, 2019 at 21:32

A non-wounding "hit" can be a miss that was too close for comfort.

As you yourself quoted, "Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck." Those early hits can represent "damage" that occurs mentally, emotionally, or with respect to general overexertion of the body rather than a physical strike per se.

One idea that came to me when reading the question was a dichotomy between "misses" that are true misses (and correspond to game-mechanical "misses") and misses that are too close for comfort and do have some sort of effect. Let's consider a slash with a reasonably sharp sword, as it is fairly difficult to hit someone with one without at least running the risk of cutting them. Examples of "non cut" injuries could include:

  • You dodged the slash, but it required you to contort your body in an unusual way and you pulled a muscle. You are now in pain and unable to resist as well as if you were not, but you are not actually bleeding.
  • You dodged the slash, but it was so close and the air pressure caused by the blade's vortex was so sensuous that it triggered a panic attack. You are now distracted from giving the rest of the fight your "all" until you can find some time to calm down.
  • You dodged the slash, but it took so much energy that you are now feeling a bit tired. You are not quite Exhausted, but your brain and body are definitely no longer operating at their peak efficiency.
  • You just barely dodged the slash. You recognize that you just came very close to an early death and, as a result, are experiencing feelings of being down and depressed over your lack of combat skills. You feel like you won't ever be able to beat this foe.

All of the possibilities above not only explain how a "miss" could be problematic for a creature, but also explain how the typical ways to regain hit points could repair the damage - resting to calm down after a panic attack, taking anti-inflammatory medication to reduce muscle swelling from overexertion, etc. This can also help explain what increasing maximum hit points represents. A creature with more hit points may be more physically fit (and less likely to pull a muscle while dodging blows), more emotionally stable (less likely to have a panic attack or get distracted in the middle of battle), or have greater self-regulation skills (less likely to overexert themselves too soon).

You can also look at a psychology or psychiatry textbook for additional examples of how a person can experience emotional or even physical distress as a result of a non-physical injury. Consider especially disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Somatoform Disorder, clinical depression, and other disorders that can be triggered or exacerbated by distressing experiences not amounting to physical combat damage. Mix and match as you will with your own descriptions or criteria - you don't need to conform 100% with current evidence-based clinical practices 100% of the time unless you really want to.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I like this idea \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 4, 2019 at 20:37

One of my GM's had a good perspective on this topic, and the PHB's description hints at it with the word "luck". Basically Hit Points are your Heroic Luck being worn down by enemy action. Think of all the minions shooting at James Bond, none actually "hit" him in the real sense, but those close shots could still be reducing his HP/Luck. The tangible version of this would be stamina for a more "real" approach.

Basically you don't suffer any serious wounds until you run out of HP, then a wound will incapacitate you. It mimics the real world a bit more in that, actual wounding hits tend to knock you out of the battle in a serious way.

Others here have already mentioned it a bit but actual "hits" just drain away stamina, sure they hit armor, or deflect off the shield, but you still feel the impact. A sure sign that you grow weary and your luck is starting to fade.

This way you only have to describe 1 injury; the one that brings you to 0 HP, the one requires the aid of magical healing.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This is what I am getting at, but looking for tried and tested ways of narrating it to a group. How do I tell the players that their luck has been worn down by a hit in a sufficiently different manner to telling them they there luck hasn't been worn down by a miss? \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 4, 2019 at 14:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri I just added my own answer here rpg.stackexchange.com/a/154707/30877 where I explain a few ways that can be narrated. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2019 at 15:06

I've attempted to describe in this way once or twice - reflavoring hits to be "close calls".

I made a cheatsheet of attack / armor / currenthealthiness to assist in the general descriptors I would use.

The descriptions made judicious use of parrying for dex-based hits (misses were dodged) and denting for armor-based hits (misses just glanced off).
For some variety, dex-based hits could also result in a character diving to avoid it rather than just stepping aside, and armor-based hits might glance off the head, causing momentary dizziness.

My players... mostly didn't notice, and when they did they were generally dissatisfied - feeling like their hits weren't actually hitting.

As such, I don't attempt to describe hit points in that way anymore unless I want to evoke that particular feeling.
And especially since magical healing is a thing, a debilitating leg gash isn't nearly the problem that it would be in the real world. Adrenaline keeps the adventurer up during combat, and there's plenty of ways they can staunch the wound with a minor amount of non-combat time that would last until their next rest.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ "My players... mostly didn't notice, and when they did they were generally dissatisfied" This sounds like you didn't discuss this with the players ahead of time. Did you switch to this style in the middle of a campaign or in some way not indicate this is how you would be DMing during session 0 or similar? It seems that expectations were not in sync at your table. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Sep 4, 2019 at 3:21

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