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A bit of background; I'm a new GM to two players, one of whom played a bit of 3.5e and 4e while the other is a complete newbie. The veteran is used to knowing when creatures are "bloodied", as per 4e, and frequently checks in with me as to a monster's status. The second player often asks how much their attack seemed to hurt the monster.

Both of these are red flags to me that I'm not doing a good enough job indicating how much health they're taking off per hit, and how much health the monster has left.

I find that because I have direct access to their stats I tend to forget that my players need more information, and then abruptly throw in something like the following, which feels stilted and out of place by the 19th time I've used them;

It's not looking great
It looks pretty beat up
It's not doing well

Usually this happens around the 10-20% health left mark, which feels too late to give a good sense of the non-fatal injuries they've sustained, but is also too soon for the "it's almost dead!" when it could still be 2+ rounds of combat before the monster is dead. I do describe per turn how messed up they're getting under my players' attacks, but I feel like there's no overarching sense of continued damage.

What can I do as a GM to improve my description of injured enemies? I'd appreciate getting both a sense of how often to describe their status, as well as some examples of language I can use to make the descriptions feel more natural and less scripted.

To be clear, this isn't a question about statting my monsters or balancing their health. I'm just asking how to be more transparent about their health status to my players.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In addition to a well-stated question, +1 for proactively deciding that your players' comments reflected something in your GMing that you can improve! \$\endgroup\$ – Greg Martin Feb 13 '17 at 19:27
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Health Status

Generally I follow a health status report system (when asked how each creature looks) like this:

  • 100% - Uninjured or in perfect condition
  • >75% - Minor injuries, doesn't show any signs of slowing, just a few minor inconveniencing injuries
  • >50% - Injured, visibly wounded with some nondebilitating injuries, but still fighting strong
  • <50% - Bloodied or Heavily Injured, starting to look more ragged or visibly slowing down
  • <25% - Severely injured, looking in bad condition, unable to fight or survive much longer
  • <5-10% - Critically injured, barely hanging on, one more solid blow may take them down (if true)

You can add in some injury flavour according to what you've already described on that target, so no giant cuts if everyone is hitting it with hammers.

As the target takes injuries, I describe them according to where on the chart they currently are, and where the damage would make them fall to.

Transition examples

  • A creature at Uninjured that drops down to Bloodied or lower, or from Injured to Critically injured (a 4 tier drop) has just taken a devastating strike, a solid stab or slash to the gut or chest, or a sickening crack as the maul comes down. I often use this level of drama for critical hits as well.
  • Uninjured to Minor injuries (or similar 1 tier drop) was only a glancing blow, or the creature managed to evade or absorb the brunt of the attack. As they drop into lower tiers, I describe the hit that connects as more damaging (eg, slashes instead of minor cuts), and the creature as being able to absorb or evade less.
  • A drop of around two or three tiers or an injury while at a lower than 50% tier is a solid hit, a sizable cut across the arm or leg, a powerful thud as a maul connects with a shoulder or chest, or an arrow puncturing and sticking solidly into the creature.

Note that you'll have to adjust your descriptions to make sense for your target. A slime may begin looking like it's form is struggling to hold together, or large pieces have been cut or smashed off of it, for example.

When to Describe

It's perfectly normal for players to ask for updates, as the players don't have the health numbers in front of them, and is not necessarily reflective of poor narration. It's easy to forget which bad guy was injured, and how badly they were hurt in between turns.

As for how often to describe, whenever the players ask for a battlefield summary (to try to decide who to prioritize) you should give a health status on each creature. You're their eyes into the world, so describe what they see whenever they ask. Additionally you should also describe the status whenever they drop a tier or more, so it clearly indicates the full effect of the blow. Use the descriptions of their attacks to help narrate this tier transition.

Your sword finds its way around the Hobgoblins shield, cutting a large gash up his chest, he clutches it for a moment and is looking quite ragged and breathing heavily.

You don't need to know the damage roll or the Hobgoblins hit points to know that attack did a number on him, and that he's now quite injured, to the point a follow up may kill him.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Love the idea of describing based on the severity of the transition. Accepted! \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Feb 12 '17 at 23:45
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Creatures are not injured while they have at least one Hit Point

This might sound confusing, but Hit Points are not health. Player's Handbook describes Hit Points as an abstraction of character's possibilities to avoid death:

Hit Points

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.

Whenever a creature takes damage, that damage is subtracted from its hit points. The loss of hit points has no effect on a creature's capabilities until the creature drops to O hit points.

(PHB page 196, emphasis mine)

Creatures with Hit Points below 50% "show signs of wear"

Hit Points doesn't make the creature weaker, neither damages its health, unless you use the "Injuries" optional rule from DMG page 272. Only zero Hit Points means actual injury:

Describing The Effects Of Damage

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. An attack that reduces you to O hit points strikes you directly, leaving a bleeding injury or other trauma, or it simply knocks you unconscious.

(PHB page 197, emphasis mine)

Dungeon Master's Guide assumes the same, except for monsters could "has visible wounds" or is "bloodied" (but only starting from 50% of their HP as well):

Players often ask how hurt a monster looks. Don't ever feel as though you need to reveal exact hit points, but if a monster is below half its hit point maximum, it's fair to say that it has visible wounds and appears beaten down. You can describe a monster taken to half its hit points as bloodied, giving the players a sense of progress in a fight against a tough opponent, and helping them judge when to use their most powerful spells and abilities.

(DMG page 248, emphasis mine)

Nothing prevents you from revealing actual HP though

Keeping Hit Point numbers in secret is supposed to make fights more tense. However, you are not obliged to hide monsters' HP from players. You can reveal the actual number of HP if you think it is necessary:

Tracking Monster Hit Points

During a combat encounter, you need to track how much damage each monster takes. Most DMs track damage in secret so that their players don't know how many hit points a monster has remaining. Whether you choose to be secretive or not is up to you. What's important is that every monster's hit points be tracked individually.

(DMG p.247, emphasis mine)

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Regardless the perfectly correct rules-as-written answer given here, I find that approach highly unsatisfactory and uninspiring in the course of actual play; I am more likely to apply that line of reasoning to the players than to the monsters, because I find in straight up D&D, few players want to spend three or four rounds beating up on a boss monster without any evidence that they are doing serious damage to it.

It's also a bit of a terminology clash: "You... hit the rabid warg! For twelve points of damage!" "Great, what does it look like?" "Exactly the same as it did before! No cuts, no bruises, no nothing." "Greeeaaaaat...."

What I do is to remember that health overall, for a monster, during combat, often expresses itself either as something the monster does or something it tries and fails to do. You can tell the monster is wounded because:

  • It is bleeding
  • It is howling in pain
  • It is holding its side with its free hand
  • It is favoring its left leg
  • Its skin is blistering and blackening
  • Its arm is hanging limp
  • Etc

This works fairly well with monsters made out of meat (orcs, wolves, even dragons, mind-flayers) but the farther away you get from that, the more difficult it can become (how does this play with an extra-planar creature, or a walking statue, or a green slime?) It also has the benefit of keeping me in an active-voice style of description that is very in the moment, rather than a more passive-voice technique.

There is a pitfall, though. (And it may be this pitfall that leads to the rules-as-written.) And this is, the more creative you get in your descriptions, the more you are implying mechanical effects that don't actually exist. And since players tend to act on what you describe as GM, they may start trying to take advantage of the states you've just described. I find two ways out of this are effective for me:

  • For boss fights or fights with only a few monsters or with only one important one, I am usually deft enough to work further descriptions around what I've said before. Just because they think they're getting an advantage doesn't mean they are. (If you've got dice sharps in the game, this gets tougher.)

  • Coming from more of a 4e mindset with its tokens and markers and whatnot, I'll often say, "Yeah, put a plaid marker on that one to remind me." Plaid being my code for "It's flavor-text, don't focus on it." The point of this technique is to come up with some means of communicating to your players the essential notion, "Some times, I provide non-mechanical flavor text. Please run with it."

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I think of the hero (or significant villains) in action movies: they bleed, howl in pain, favor one side, etc. and yet somehow still have all their combat capabilities until the very end. (or until the story demands something different) \$\endgroup\$ – Greg Martin Feb 13 '17 at 19:31
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This isn't easy. Some groups I have played with have abandoned narrative description and just use a joking "x LEDs" description. That works like this:

  • No LEDs: Less than 25% damaged.
  • One LED: 25-50% damaged.
  • Two LEDs: 50-75% damaged.
  • Three LEDs: More than 75% damaged.
  • Four LEDs: Obviously about to fall over.

When players are used to this way of describing the situation, monsters that "don't show LEDs" for some reason (illusions, blob-monsters, etc.) become very worrying, because you can't tell if you're actually harming them.

I think the terminology originally came from the 1983 BBC Micocomputer game Starship Command, where the LEDs were showing the status of your own starship, rather than the things you were fighting. I first encountered it around then.

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Describe concrete injuries when possible

If you want to expose the monster's status in a narrative way, try to describe connecting hits as concrere injuries instead of just abstract wounds. Instead of just "you hit the goblin for 5 damage", illustrate the damage: "you almost score a hit on the goblin's skull, but the little devil moves too fast and your blow lops off one of its ears. She's bleeding like crazy and is VERY mad at you". You can refer to these injuries later on to give an intuitive idea of the monster's health: "that goblin's still bleeding from where Urho the Paladin slashed her ear off, and it looks like the blood loss is starting to wear her out." Indulge all aspects of the injuries: not just the bits and blood, but how the creature reacts: emotions, cries of pain or rage, fatigue from blood loss or pain - and you can narratively paint a very intuitively clear picture on how well a monster is.

The disadvantages of describing injuries vividly are that it requires a lot of work from the GM to describe and track such wounds in a conaistent way, and that it may also distress players not comfortable with detailed descriptions of violence.

Consider just giving them the numbers

I would consider just being open about the number of hit points a monster has left, in addition to describing the wounds. By my experience, players who want to know the monsters' health will use vague descriptions, earlier encounters and math to figure out the remaining hit points with remarkable accuracy. It may be a better idea to just let the players know the monsters' remaining hit points and let the players focus their thoughts elsewhere.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The problem with being to descriptive is that many players will expect a corresponding in game effect: "Shouldn't the goblin have a penalty to hear us coming? Her left ear is cut off and full of scabbing blood." \$\endgroup\$ – Xavon_Wrentaile Feb 12 '17 at 22:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Xavon_Wrentaile Aye, but that will not exactly happen very often. The usual DnD battle ends with all monsters dead in half a minute, so longer-term consequences are usually safe to be ignored. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Feb 12 '17 at 22:32
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I describe foe's health after every hit.

"You hit the orc for 7 points. A good blow, but it's still going very strong."

"You hit the giant for 15 points. A mighty blow! The giant is swaying, you reckon a couple more hits like that and it will all be over."

"You hit the golem for 24 points. An amazing blow! Sadly, it seems to take less damage than you might expect." (resistence.)

Hit Points are just as much luck" as "health". While a combatant is over half their health, they are still unwounded. Between half and quarter health, they have taken minor nicks and bruises. Under quarter health, serious wounds start to appear.

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    \$\begingroup\$ (in Darkest Dungeons narration) "A devastating blow!" \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Feb 13 '17 at 0:25
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I usually give my players access to their enemy's hp in the following form:

Assuming that what you are fighting is a normal {thing that I think they think they are fighting}, it should have about {average hp for that thing minus perceived damage done} hit points left

Usually, this provides a basically accurate amount of hit points, but it allows me to emphasize their failure to correctly identify a powerful enemy in disguise (or whose powers are hidden, etc.) by telling them that by all reason the thing should have succumbed to its injuries long ago. It also allows the players, if they suspect something's up, to ask me to use a different creature as the point of comparison so they can better tell if they're outmatched. For example, if the party knows that an Ogre's worth of hp is on the high-end of what they are prepared to deal with from something with the offensive potential their opponent has revealed, and that their opponent is clearly not a 'normal' human swordsman, then they can use the fact that it's taken half an Ogre's worth of hitpoints in damage without showing any anxiety regarding the outcome of the fight as a good signal to start a retreat.

In systems like D&D (all editions), I strictly avoid giving descriptions of the form damage takes for a regular attack because hit locations and damage types in the narration conflict pretty strongly with the rules. Giving a narrative description of the effect of an attack on a monster encourages players to make use of that narration in future attacks, which makes the effects of those attacks unnecessarily difficult to adjudicate. Generally, I find RPGs works best when the narration and the rules and the game world all work together, so it's pretty important to make sure the fiction you're giving the players models what's mechanically happening at least reasonably well.

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Your description needs to follow the narrative.

If a creature has 100 HP and you hit it for 20, saying you broke its arm makes no sense unless it has something like 5 arms. You'll run out of limbs.

The same when the creature has 30 HP can make a lot of sense -- your blow took it most of the way to killing it.

If you have some mental math skill, on each hit work out of it exceeded 50% of current HP and 25% of current HP. This just requires doubling once, and again. Many people can do this nearly instantly.

= 50% of HP means you get to go all out with a nasty blow description. You can shatter an arm, have an arrow sticking out of the creature's eye, open a huge gash in the torso, or whatever else. Another blow of the same magnitude will kill the creature.

= 25% of HP you should describe as a solid hit. Bleeding from a cut, dents, chunk of armor breaks off, etc.

Below this, no blood, no noticible damage. The blow connects but bounced off the armor, they dodge and stumble, etc.

You could add another threshold at 10% (which is again easy to calculate -- drop the last digit) especially for big creatures when monsters start having enough HP for this to happen often.


This means that a 50 point blow early in a fight with a 210 HP dragon bounces off her scales. She laughs at you.

The same blow when the dragon has 60 HP will open a huge bleeding gash, and fire will leak out everytime she moves.

It is possible for this to get comical set of "Monty Python"-esque injuries; the dragon takes 105 HP (and you cut half of one of its claws off). You then hit for 53 HP (and open a huge gash in its chest). Then you hit for 26 (and break a leg), 13 (arrow into the eye), 7 (cut a wing to tatters), 3 (expose its skull), 2 (cut off the leg), 1 (kill it).

But that is exceedingly unlikely in practice.

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(We actually play with some other rules, but I think it does not matter here)

before shooting/slashing or so I offer some approximation of probability (based on the character knowledge and stats) if it is not totally obvious from previous gameplay:

  • It is too far to hit him (=out of range)
  • not sure, if you even can hit him (=near the maximal range, cannot say if in- or out-side for sure, or in range, but terrible conditions - fog, dark etc. - maybe there is not roll, which would hit at all)
  • extremally hard to hit target (it is possible, not probable)
  • good chance to hit
  • it is easy to hit

I usually describe every blow in common terms, both from character view and for vissible effects, so it could be took as a lead, how strong the opponent is and how much damage he took.

Total miss:

  • you did not even reach him (= out of range, or really bad roll when really good roll is required)
  • you missed him terribly bad/cannot even see, where the shoot went (= you must roll much higher number or use much better weapon to even have chance to hit him)
  • wow, you nearly hit him! (= like rolled natural 19 when only natural 20 may hit)
  • you nearly hit him, but in the heat of battle he moved at the last moment and so he evade your blow (= he had luck on his side, used some ability or rolled too much on defence, but basically it looks, like you can hit him next time with the same attack - until it happens each time, so there is something more on him, than you can see)
  • @#$%! Something fall in your eye, so you missed him/you slipped and missed him/you wonder, if your weapon is broken or what/you wonder, how could it happened, that you missed him?/you was sure that you hit him, but then realized, that it was only clothes what was damaged/some feathers went to the air, but there was no resist, so your sword probably did not hit the body(= rolled really bad)

Hit, but obviously no damage done:

  • (you hit his shield/hit his helmet/hit his armor) but it deflected your blow/your blow just slide on his scales (= you basically hit him, but the target is armored enough to not be affected with this attack roll)
  • you thrust your dagger to his eye, but nothing happened except your hand little hurt from the force of your attack/you kicked him so hard you nearly broke your leg, but it doesnot affect him (= you rolled really good, hit him, but it does not any damage, for some other reason like when he is stone statue/have special spell on him/invulnerability to this kind of weapons or something like that)
  • you swing your sword and hit him, but it flow full way thru his body and left no visible damage (= he is illusion or something immaterial or so. Or maybe just big blob of slime or watter form or something like that. Probabelly you need different kind of weapon or attack his caster or try anything else)
  • he jumped away as you passed your blow/he blocked your blow with his sword/he rolled on ground to avoid your blow, but then stand up in one flowing move / he hissed and evade your blow (=he rolled too much on defence, otherwise you would hit him)

Hit and some damage done:

  • you hit him hard and scratched him a little/you cut off a little pice of his slime body, the piece is now soaking to the ground/one of his many tentacles lost few inches, the pice is swirling on ground/he have hard fur and nearly no blood was visible where your sword hit him/you hit him and hear him hissing at you/your blow little wounded him, but it makes him even more furious/your sword cut his robe and hit something under it, he raised his wand and .../you made shallow wound on his body, but nothing serious/you hit good, but it still looks that the batle will be long (= you rolled good, but he is hard oponent, no much damage done)
  • you swing you sword, but it was not so good, as you hoped for, anyway you could scratch him a little/not so good hit, but anything counts/even if you hit him he do not seam to notice it/he laught at your nearly failed attempt to hit him/
  • as you penetrate his deffence, he screamed wildly, but is still trying to stab you/his fur have one more hole, but he is still attacking/he roared his pain on you, but did not mede even step back/you managed to avoid his shield and hit him, he was pushed little back but regained stability and now he attacks/it was not pleasant wound, that you placed on him, but as trained warriror he did not stopped fighting(=you hit him good, but it takes more such hits to finish him)
  • He barely managed to stand on his legs after your furious attack hit him with full power/he is hit again and rolls his long body in pain/his gelatious body is vissibly smaller now and all the place is covered with dying parts of this unholly creature/he got big wound and started to panically run away/to his many open wounds your blow added another one, you wonder, how long he can resist yet/he seams to be bleeding hard, but still somehow manage to oppose you/only his will probabely keeps him standing after your last hit(= yes, there is not much until he will die)

as for status:

  • he looks fresh and ready to fight/his feathers glows in the sun with breathtaking perfection/he looks as ugly as all of his kind looks/old scars are crossed with some more fresh, his clothes are cut and sewed again too much times, but he moves fast and with his usual agility (=undamaged)
  • nothing important, just scratch here and there/his monstrous body does not show vissible damage/he got some hits, but he fights as usual/there are some smaler wounds, but he does not care/considering how many times you hit him, he should bleed much more, than he does/he laughts and enjoy the fight/his maniacal smile is even wider, comparing to fight start(=some hits, but like 80% good)
  • the fight had took his toll on him, but his sword move as fast as before/there are some wounds, but this does not seem to slower his attacks/he ignores the wounds still, even if some blood is under his feets/he screems a lot, but attacks as much too(=60% HP, would take some time to recover, but still deadly)
  • he tries hard to kill you, but you see, that it is more difficult for him to move so fast/now he does fight for joy, but he went really serious/many of his tentacles are cut off, but even so you have no rest, if you want to survive/this monstrous blob of accid looks boiling and a lot of mud is whirling inside it, but you would not risk to turn your back to him even for split of a second/he is wild and roaring and fights still as if he was not afraid of death, even if there are many wounds all over him/his moves are now much slower and the blood is everywhere, but even so he does not give up(=40%, seriously wounded)
  • even if looking terrible wounded, he still seems to determined not let you pass/you hear his hard breath and his knees are shaking, but his sword is still ready to bite you/you would not believe, that somebody could took this much wound and still fight, but he anyway does/the fight is long, but you are not far from victory/he does not have chance to win, and he should know it now, but he still try hard(=20%, even may die later from his wounds, but still fights)
  • even on the edge of death his bites are strong/he is determined fight to his death/his bleeding is terrible, wounds are wide open and you see some his inner organs, but he still fights somehow/he will rather die than surrender, even in his current state(=on the edge, only few blows from end)

My point is, that I do describe a lot of colors, but do not name exact status, so I do not have to manage its result (like which eye is missing, can he hear with one or none ears, where which would was placed, is he more vulnerable from left or right ...), only how much HP he lost and so how much damage should I describe if he survives long enough to meet group again (or if the group searches his dead body after fight)

I use it in both case, when I do some rolls for characters (so players would not know, how successful characters really was, just how this visually affected the enemy) or if players do all rolls and just state the numerical results to me. I do not like to tell them exact numbers, as it makes game much slower and more bean-counting, combo mastering and less interesting.

"But how much HP he has left"

"Your character can ask him"

"@#$%! My character sees it!"

"Ok, roll your perception ... wow, good result! So you character thinks, that the enemy is really bad hurt and you probably win soon"

(It allows me also little cheat and make it more interesting - and I cheat more for players, that against them, so they take it usually good and tries more colorfull action, as I usually give them better chance to succeed than with exactly counted but boring plans. And if they play well, then it does not end with them dying and enemy surviving with 1 HP, even if rolls would say so, but they spectacullary win instead and found lot of healing potions in treasure or meet good fairy or something like that - which would not be possible without cheating on GM side and with all numbers on table. Yes, it is Hollywood and two horses can crash to make big fireball with The Hero running just in time away)


Also if there is some sentient enemy, who tries to cheat them, I do not like them to roll against it - they can stte their bonuses and such, but I do the rool for them, to avoid situation like:

"I failed the roll, the prisoner tells me, that he was send by our king, and my character is trusting him, so it must be a lie and he is enemy. I will kill him anyway."

"I made a good roll, the prisoner tells me, that he was send by our king, and my character is trusting him, so it must be a truth, so I will protect him, even when local baron says, that the prisoner is enemy spy"

Instead I do the roll and tell them, what their characters think.

"Your character trust him, that your king send him. The baron states that he is enemy spy, but I can not trust him, as it is apparently lie"

(regardless which version is true - but usually both prisoner and baron have their own agenda too and nobody tells (or even knows) total truth or total lies, just their version of more/less colored and spiced reality).

So my players are used to vague descriptions in favor of good story.

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