You, me, and reified numbers

So a while back I had a chat with a fellow gamer about HP. He mentioned that he wasn’t a big fan of metacurrencies (understandable). I then mentioned that, from a certain point of view, HP was a type of metacurrency. It had no immediate physical connection to the game (unlike, I dunno, your Strength score), and was “spent” to prevent narrative and mechanical consequences (namely, dying). Sure, you could endlessly pontificate about HP being some sort of grit-minor wounds-health-fighting spirit-luck-plot armour hybrid, but all that really proves is that you don’t have a solid grip on what HP is supposed to correspond to in fiction either. The way I saw it HP wasn’t really that different from, say, Fate points, but yet as he puts it it is almost… reified. Like we’ve learned and collectively agreed that HP is somehow more “grounded” in reality than, say, spending Fate to get out of being stabbed and bleeding out. Even though the outcomes are exactly the same in both cases.

And I think there’s something to that assertion. There are some kinds of numbers that we’ve just been trained, by consequence of maybe history, maybe nostalgia, maybe something else, to take as more “real” than others. Take Saving Throws, for example. They’re arbitrary, completely unrealistic, and not even tied to stats, but at the same time they “feel” grounded and real, like they’re somehow a part of the game world.

But I don’t think it’s “just” nostaglia blinkers. I think there’s something more. For one thing, these numbers are totally abstract. There’s no connection at all to realistic terms whatsoever. HP isn’t called Blood Volume, say, and Saving Throws aren’t called Dodge Rolls. There’s no a prior connection between the game term and some real world concept, unlike your Strength score. As games have evolved, there’s been a general move away from these kinds of abstract terms towards things more strongly tied to the game world, more “thematic” if you will. These days HP is called Luck or Grit or Willpower or a thousand other names. And yet in my nerd brain HP stubbornly remains “real”. Perhaps another important factor is that these numbers are hard. There’s no fudging of usage dice or any uncertainty, you have 10 hit points and when you run out you die (or start rolling on the fun tables).

Who knows, maybe it is nostalgia speaking. But at the same time I can’t help but notice that, despite everything, HP’s stuck around for a lot longer than any other name for health, and not just in the fantasy genre.

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