What are hit points?
Historically, they were a measure of health and toughness, but over time (much like armor class) that got more and more abstracted until you’re left with some incongruous trappings (like tying them to constitution) and a simple reality: They’re a pacing mechanism. They measure how long something stays fighting, which in turn is a yardstick for scene length. If you need evidence of it, look at how monsters were changed with Monster Manual 3 - the change to hit points was not because monsters had somehow been written up as too healthy, it was to address pacing issues.
In fact, you could probably get away with really simplifying hit points by just tracking the number of “hits” a monster took over the course of a fight. Hit him with a basic attack or an at will, or do some real on going damage, it’s one hit. Hit him with an encounter power and it’s two hits. Daily and it’s 3. Strikers by and large do an extra hit. Simple, yes, but such a fight would be virtually identical to a normal one from a player’s perspective (barring some sort of math nerd tracking all damage at all times) provided the number of hits worked out close to those of a regular fight. Players would still track damage (because, hey, they have the bandwidth) but the GM could more easily tune fights up and down with this system.
The problem is that players wouldn’t stand for it. We _like_ rolling damage. One of the most established truths of D&D is that the roll to hit and the roll for damage are separate things. “Margin of Success” is one of those idea that may find root in other games, but which has no home in D&D. There are crits, and that is good, and one or two feats that can bleed across a little, but by and large the damage dice are beholden to none. A great hit can roll crappy damage, or a minor attack can max out. It’s just one of those things that makes it D&D.
And that’s the inversion I think we need. The instinct is to expand the scope of skill challenges, taking advantage of their structure because it’s intellectually exciting, but I think that’s too far removed from what excites people about D&D. We want to hit things with axes and roll for damage: Why not solve all our problems that way?
Which is to say, my not literally give challenges hit points, and let skill rolls do damage?
It sounds crazy on the surface, I know, but it’s actually a surprisingly workable model. Obviously you’ll have to call it something other than Hit Points - Challenge Points abbreviates to CP, which is already in use, so let’s say Situation Points, or SP - and damage might be called something like “Progress” but we all know a damage roll when we see it.
So that guard over there? He’s a 20 point challenge. Every time you beat him with stealth, you inflict damage (sorry, ‘make progress’) on those points. Say a simple rule of thumb: Untrained skills do d6 + Stat + 1/2 level damage. Trained do d8, trained plus skill focus does d10. Easy peasy. Your stealth guy is gonna chew up that challenge in no time, but if he fails, the guard goes active, but his hit points are still based on the remaining SP (which additionally allows for the small, skirmishy fights we were talking about). That’s one example, but it’s easy to see others, with skill use being freely interchangeable with actual attacks when appropriate, it becomes easy to think of the difficulty of skill checks as a defense: you don’t just roll to avoid the storm, you roll to kicks its ass (which is to say, to maintain control of the situation. Players may not _be_ more proactive in these situations, but they’ll like feel like they are.
Obviously, this requires a pretty drastic reconsideration of how these encounters are built and budgeted, but I am confident it can be done, and more, it can be done in a manner that continues to stay within the rules and spirit of 4e. More on that tomorrow.
1- In doing so, the GM would effectively have just turned fights into skill challenges. The “hits” model is essential the same at its heart.
2- Unless I get totally sidetracked by my inspiration of how to make Hawkman awesome.