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Dungeons and Dragons: Feeling the Pain of Hit Points

Just 4 months old, Steven Pete’s parents noticed he was chewing on his tongue while he was teething. Chewing on your tongue HURTS, which should have been a clue to knock it off.

Concerned, his parents took him to a pediatrician. Perplexed, the doctor put a cigarette lighter underneath Steven’s foot, but Steven didn’t even flinch as the heat caused his skin to blister. Seeing that Steven didn’t respond to pain–ever– the doctors made a diagnosis: congenital analgesia, a rare genetic condition that condition that inhibits the ability to feel physical pain.

Steven’s parents were terrified for his safety, but they tried to allow for a normal childhood where they could. Still, the things we’d take for granted were a real risk for Steven, as when he blissfully continued to roller-skate on a broken leg, only stopping because people were pointing at him because his pants were covered in blood from where the bone came out.

Steven, now in his mid-30s, often lends himself to research in order to find a cure for congenital analgesia.

Pain is necessary for human survival. It’s a warning to us that we are in danger because our bodies are sustaining damage. Without pain receptors to signal for you to get you hand off that stove pronto, you’d simply leave your flesh there to cook.

Without pain, you’d not feel a piece of grit in your eye, which could lead to real cornea damage. Broken bones go untreated; hot water leads to scalding; infections are left to flare up; etc.

Not being able to feel pain meant that Steven missed a lot of school due to injury and illness. When he was a Kindergartener,  his parents were reported for child abuse and he was taken away from his home by child protective services. He remained in the state’s care for two months, and during that time he broke his leg (again), which made them realize his parents and the pediatricians were telling the truth about his genetic condition.

Kids would pick fights with him, saying something along the lines of, “If you can’t feel pain, you will once I’m done with you.” But then this difficult story turned tragic. Steven had a twin brother, Chris, who took his own life. Although Chris couldn’t feel the pain in his back and joints, that didn’t mean the damage and scar tissue wasn’t there. Faced with ever declining health, Chris felt pain of a different type and tragically put an end to it.

How do I transition from that? Only indelicately, so let’s just go there. Those who suffer from congenital analgesia remind me of D&D players. Flush with hit points, D&D players rush headlong into danger as if they can feel no pain.

Hit points are a funny thing. D&D has to have them. After all, you have to mechanically represent health in some way. But in most health systems–whether they be tabletop or video games–a character that is near death will look and act the same as if they have full health.

Imagine this: A barbarian with 100 hit points goes into a rage, brushing off all caution as if the dragon’s breath weapon ain’t no thing. The barbarian then fails his reflex save, taking the full 55 points of damage, dropping him below half health.

Yet the very next round, the barbarian acts as if he suffers from congenital analgesia. Never mind the fact that a dragon in and of itself would trigger some serious PTSD, but imagine having your flesh seared away to near the point of death, yet you just shrug it off like you didn’t feel a thing.

In our story, the barbarian is like young Steven Pete who was roller skating on a broken leg, not a care in the world until others point out the bloody wound.

D&D hit points are kinda like that. Yet, I don’t know if I would change anything. After all, if I’m down to 10% of my hit points, I certainly don’t want 90% of my abilities to be taken away in an attempt to represent realism. Times like low hit points are when players need their full bag of tricks.

But maybe next time my character just shrugs off a painful blow I’ll spare a thought for Steven Pete and his tragically departed bother Chris. And next time I accidentally bite the inside of my cheek and it hurts like the dickens, I won’t curse the pain; I’ll remember that it serves and important function in keeping my body out of harm’s way, even if it’s to remind me to slow down, enjoy life, and chew my food like a civilized human and not like a raging barbarian.

And even though I don’t know that I’d change a thing about hit points, I certainly wish Steven the best, as do I the others like him who suffer from congenital analgesia. Pain is the darnedest thing, but when you get hit, it does have a point.

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