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Physician, Heal Thyself!

Posted in Indies & More

The big topic of Mike’s post is the role of non-combat healing and the essential-ness of having a healer. It’s essentially a reverse from the earlier ideal that a cleric should not be a requirement for play.

Like a few other recent changes, it’s a shift to a clear ideal of what D&D is, but with the promise of huge flexibility for the DM to do whatever they want. I have all my normal concerns about how shifting, say, the need for healing is a fundamental change with many repercussions, and that making such a big change seem like a simple dial to turn won’t work out well. But instead let’s take another look at the why of healing and damage.

HP (and healing) are generally thought of as how much damage, and therefore how many fights, you can take before you’re dead. That’s completely accurate, but it’s not the whole story. There are two functions to HP that get all twisted up in one thing.

HP is both a measure of how close to death you are and an indication of how long you can stay in a fight. In D&D these have typically been intertwined, but really they’re two different things: the length of the battle and the outcome of the battle. The potential divide between these often shows up in typical forum threads/blog posts/letter columns like how to have player characters taken hostage, or how to add morale rules. Practically lots of players hit a point where it seems to make sense that someone might be no longer able to fight, but still alive.

Since healing addresses both of these factors of HP, it’s a hard thing to design in modern D&D. The idea that characters could be both ready to fight and close to death doesn’t fit into this healing system.

I think this is where a lot of the challenges that Mike talks about come from. The survey data is so split because different people are seeing different aspects of HP and healing. The long term attrition of HP not refilling means that battles become shorter (as the make-or-break point of low HP gets closer).

There are quite a few ways to work around this, but few of them have any history with D&D.

Morale systems (as found in OD&D) add an end to combat other than running out of HP. When put into a tough situation (as defined by the system and, in some cases, the GM’s judgement) some characters may have to make some kind of roll to keep fighting. This tends to work well for NPCs (maybe owing to its roots in war games), but crosses some boundaries for player characters that may not fit all play styles. The idea that the rules an say that your character isn’t willing to fight while you (the player) still are doesn’t fit well for everyone.

Fatigue (for example, in The One Ring) is another option. Implementations are often somewhat like morale, but turned into a physical aspect of your character: when your fatigue gets you you’re too tired to keep fighting, not unwilling. This neatly sidesteps some issues with morale and allows the length of a battle to be reset by healing of fatigue, while the outcome of the battle might depend on healing wounds. A player character who’s fatigue reaches the break point is either unwilling to fight or dead, depending on the wounds they’ve suffered.

Shadow Chasers, a precursor to d20 Modern, instead tracked what amounted to two HP scores. One was easy to refill, the other hard. Damage first went to the easily-refillable pool, then the other pool. While this didn’t really change the fight-to-the-death instinct, it did provide a point of no return that prompted some reconsideration. It also made some more sense within the game—the easily-fillable pool is stamina, the other is actual wounds.

The approach D&D Next is taking (healing mostly in the hands of the cleric) is workable and classic. Even with the intertwined goals of reflecting how hard something is to defeat and what that defeat means, it’ll be as functional as it’s been in all the various incarnations of D&D that use it. There’s an opportunity here to push some boundaries, but that might not be what D&D Next need.

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and senior test engineer at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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