[RPG] How to improve the descriptions of the health status of monsters


A bit of background; I'm a new GM to two players, one of whom played a bit of 3.5e and 4e while the other is a complete newbie. The veteran is used to knowing when creatures are "bloodied", as per 4e, and frequently checks in with me as to a monster's status. The second player often asks how much their attack seemed to hurt the monster.

Both of these are red flags to me that I'm not doing a good enough job indicating how much health they're taking off per hit, and how much health the monster has left.

I find that because I have direct access to their stats I tend to forget that my players need more information, and then abruptly throw in something like the following, which feels stilted and out of place by the 19th time I've used them;

It's not looking great
It looks pretty beat up
It's not doing well

Usually this happens around the 10-20% health left mark, which feels too late to give a good sense of the non-fatal injuries they've sustained, but is also too soon for the "it's almost dead!" when it could still be 2+ rounds of combat before the monster is dead. I do describe per turn how messed up they're getting under my players' attacks, but I feel like there's no overarching sense of continued damage.

What can I do as a GM to improve my description of injured enemies? I'd appreciate getting both a sense of how often to describe their status, as well as some examples of language I can use to make the descriptions feel more natural and less scripted.

To be clear, this isn't a question about statting my monsters or balancing their health. I'm just asking how to be more transparent about their health status to my players.

Best Answer

Health Status

Generally I follow a health status report system (when asked how each creature looks) like this:

  • 100% - Uninjured or in perfect condition
  • >75% - Minor injuries, doesn't show any signs of slowing, just a few minor inconveniencing injuries
  • >50% - Injured, visibly wounded with some nondebilitating injuries, but still fighting strong
  • <50% - Bloodied or Heavily Injured, starting to look more ragged or visibly slowing down
  • <25% - Severely injured, looking in bad condition, unable to fight or survive much longer
  • <5-10% - Critically injured, barely hanging on, one more solid blow may take them down (if true)

You can add in some injury flavour according to what you've already described on that target, so no giant cuts if everyone is hitting it with hammers.

As the target takes injuries, I describe them according to where on the chart they currently are, and where the damage would make them fall to.

Transition examples

  • A creature at Uninjured that drops down to Bloodied or lower, or from Injured to Critically injured (a 4 tier drop) has just taken a devastating strike, a solid stab or slash to the gut or chest, or a sickening crack as the maul comes down. I often use this level of drama for critical hits as well.
  • Uninjured to Minor injuries (or similar 1 tier drop) was only a glancing blow, or the creature managed to evade or absorb the brunt of the attack. As they drop into lower tiers, I describe the hit that connects as more damaging (eg, slashes instead of minor cuts), and the creature as being able to absorb or evade less.
  • A drop of around two or three tiers or an injury while at a lower than 50% tier is a solid hit, a sizable cut across the arm or leg, a powerful thud as a maul connects with a shoulder or chest, or an arrow puncturing and sticking solidly into the creature.

Note that you'll have to adjust your descriptions to make sense for your target. A slime may begin looking like it's form is struggling to hold together, or large pieces have been cut or smashed off of it, for example.

When to Describe

It's perfectly normal for players to ask for updates, as the players don't have the health numbers in front of them, and is not necessarily reflective of poor narration. It's easy to forget which bad guy was injured, and how badly they were hurt in between turns.

As for how often to describe, whenever the players ask for a battlefield summary (to try to decide who to prioritize) you should give a health status on each creature. You're their eyes into the world, so describe what they see whenever they ask. Additionally you should also describe the status whenever they drop a tier or more, so it clearly indicates the full effect of the blow. Use the descriptions of their attacks to help narrate this tier transition.

Your sword finds its way around the Hobgoblins shield, cutting a large gash up his chest, he clutches it for a moment and is looking quite ragged and breathing heavily.

You don't need to know the damage roll or the Hobgoblins hit points to know that attack did a number on him, and that he's now quite injured, to the point a follow up may kill him.