by Mike Shea on 11 December 2017
When we look at monster hit points in the Monster Manual, we're given two numbers. We're given the monster's hit dice equation; the equation that tells us the range of hit points a monster can have; and the monster's average hit points. Many of us might look at that average and say to ourselves "that's how many hit points the monster has" and call our job done.
However, that first number is equally important to us in another way. That number gives us the range of a monster's hit points that we DMs can use to tweak the difficulty of a monster. This range is valuable. It gives us a dial we can use to affect the speed, pace, challenge, and feeling of our D&D game.
Today we're going to dig deeper into why and how we would deviate from the average monster hit points listed in the Monster Manual.
In a poll on the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition Facebook group with 523 respondents, about three out of four DMs said that they modify monster hit points during a game. DMs may do so for a variety of reasons, some of which we'll discuss in this article, but the main point is that most DMs likely adjust hit points during a game.
You and I might have our own feelings on this conclusion but we can all assume that, just as you and I have these feelings and opinions, so do the DMs who choose either to tweak hit points during a game or do not. We all have our reasons.
We can tweak hit points in a few ways. During discussions of the topic on Facebook and Twitter, I heard some great ones. For example, some DMs maximize the hit points of a monster based on its hit dice equation before the battle begins and then lower those hit points to speed things up if they need to. This keeps the pace and threat of the battle in the control of the DM, to a degree, and lets them lower that threat if things are starting to feel hopeless or boring.
Other DMs describe ignoring hit points after a certain point and deciding when a monster dies on one hit or another. Sometimes they want a player who hasn't gotten a break to get in a solid killing blow. Sometimes they want a monster to get off its big ability before its beaten down too fast.
I'll offer two easy ways to tweak monster hit points for us lazy dungeon masters. First, if we think a monster could use a boost, we can double its hit points. Many D&D adventures offer this up for variant boss versions of a monster so, while it likely breaks outside of the hit dice equation of a monster, it's a technique even the designers of D&D use. Second, we can reduce a monster's current hit points to one. This minionization of a monster ensures that, on its next hit, its going down.
I much prefer this technique over the dreaded "let's call the battle right here" method of ending combat early I often see at organized play games. Lowering a monster's hit points to one ensures the battle is over quickly but still gives players the joy of finishing off their foes.
Both of these techniques require little work and can be done right at the table. Both them also work well together.
DMs may have a variety of methods they use to modify a monster's hit points, but why would they do so?
I argue that there are two good reasons to tweak the hit points of a monster: to change the pace of a game and to change the upward or downward beat of the scene.
Sometimes combat seems to go either too fast or too slow. Our characters drop everything they have in round one and turn a big battle into a slaughter before it has barely begun. If we know the characters pack a big punch; through optimization, a high number of characters, a large amount of available resources, or with experienced players; we can increase the threat of a battle by increasing the hit points of the monsters.
However, we might be making a mistake. How do the players feel about blowing through powerful monsters like that so quickly? Was it boring or was it awesome? If its awesome, we don't have to change a thing. Sure, we thought the battle against six hill giants would go longer but so what? They just got to cut down six hill giants in a round and a half! That's pretty bad-ass.
If this sort of destruction is routine, however, we might want to up the difficulty by increasing the monsters' hit points. Maybe we don't double it, but we can max it out within the range of the hit dice and lower it if the battle goes too long.
We DMs might sometimes feel like a battle went too fast but, when a battle goes too slow, everyone feels it. A battle going too long is usually a bigger problem than a battle happening too quickly.
Thus, we're more likely to want to lower hit points when a battle drags on. Letting monsters die on the next hit is an easy way to do this and not completely break out of the scene.
Roleplaying luminary Robin Laws wrote a wonderful book on the topic of pacing called Hamlet's Hit Points. In this book, Robin describes the importance of oscillating positive and negative beats. We see positive beats when things go well for the characters such as getting a new magic item, defeating a foe, or discovering a clue. We see negative beats when things go against them like setting off a trap, failing at a puzzle, getting caught off guard, or facing powerful foes.
If players see too many positive beats, the game gets boring and stale. If the players see too many negative beats, the game feels hopeless and grinding. One of our jobs, as the DM, is to keep these beats oscillating in the right directions. If the players have had a rough time, it might be time to cut them a break. If things have been going too easy, time to drop in the hard move.
Monster hit points are a perfect dial for moving the beat from hopeful to fearful or the other way around. If things have been hard, we can tweak the hit points down and monsters start to fall down dead. If the characters have been having an easy time, we can increase the hit points to let monsters hammer on the characters.
Shifting beats from hopeful to fearful is something we will want to control during the game. It's not something we can usually plan out ahead of time. Thus, being willing to modify hit points during the game, as roughly 70% of DMs seem to do, helps us control the feeling of the pace of our game.
There are strong arguments against modifying monster hit points. Who are we to take over control of the flow of the game? The game goes the way it goes. Just like we don't force the game to go down any one path in the story (right? RIGHT?) we also don't need to ensure that combat is a perfectly well-oiled machine. Things land how they land.
That's a fine and suitable argument and about one in three DMs tends to agree. The game goes how the game goes. Some monsters are tough, some go down easy. We throw in however many monsters makes sense for the scene and let them stand or fall based on how the dice roll. There's nothing wrong with that.
However we choose to handle monster hit points, we're not wrong as long as we do so for the fun of the game. Some games are more fun when the dice completely control the outcome. Other games are fun when the DM tweaks things for pacing and challenge. As long as we're considering why we're changing things and ensuring that we're doing it for the fun of the group, there's no wrong way to go.