[RPG] How to describe hit point damage without talking about wounds


The PHB's description of hit points (p. 196) says:

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.

Also, the "Describing the Effects of Damage" sidebar (p. 197) says:

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.

My interpretation is that the first few hits don't cause wounds or bleeding, and saying things like "your blade pierces his ribs" is inaccurate. However, I struggle to actually describe blows in combat without saying things like "The blow strikes the armour" for a miss, and "Your blade slices through his leg" for a hit.

I am looking for a alternate method which doesn't reference wounds, bleeding, etc., but still has narrative value – and the players will be able to tell the difference between a miss and a hit (Or a crit).

What methods have people used to describe damage which meet the criteria above, and how did this impact the experience for the players and DM? Please back up answers with experience, per "Good Subjective, Bad Subjective".

I have tagged this as D&D 5e because I don't know if the hit point rules are the same in the older versions or other games, but any experience from systems with similar rules will qualify as a good answer.

Best Answer

Why describe the damage?

I've played and GM'd in a few editions of D&D and while it certainly seems to be a table preference, I've never seen the value in breaking the flow of combat to narrate every single to-hit die roll on a spell or attack based on how much it met or failed the DC and how much damage the player happened to roll. The damage is already described numerically by the player. My personal experience as both GM and Player has been that this feels like it might add more narrative to a fight but there's a finite number of ways each person can describe most of the standard situations. Its inevitable that certain speech patterns will be repeated.

Only narrate major changes

It's been my experience as GM and player in D&D that only signaling bloodied (half hp threshold passed) and death in a narrative flourish is worthwhile. On tough enemies signifying to players that they are halfway there can be a relief and a good moment to spice up the combat with a bold description. Examples like "the dragon's scales are cracked" or " the knight sways on his feet" can be simple, characterizing ways to signal the half HP threshold has been passed and if you are only telling players hit/miss normally the very fact you narrated to begin with signals the import. (4e treated this as an actual mechanical condition "bloodied" and 5e treats it more of a descriptive threshold but there are some class features or monster features that function off of the half hp threshold).

Likewise enemy deaths are a perfect momement to narrate and the length and granduer of the narration should scale with the enemy. Did they just manage to kill a vampire within their lair? Ham it up, make it as dramatic as possible. Was it a monster they've fought before as a danger in a dungeon room, not part of a greater storyline? Keep it prefunctory and short to keep the adventure flowing.