Sunday, February 5, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons: "Healing"

            I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years.  Lately, I have not had access to any other players and so I have just been kicking around ideas that normally would be in a game and instead I am just going to post them on my blog.  This is going to be a reoccurring thing as I just keep hammering out things and not all of them can be turned into elements in my “random fantasy novel ideas” folder.
            Last week I talked about the concept of a “common” language that appears in Dungeons and Dragons and how that might reflect on the game world.  The fictional country I created was actually a massive metaphor for the game of Dungeons and Dragons itself.  I am clever.
            This week I want to focus on something that is more rules based, which is going to make this pretty inaccessible to anyone who wants to read just for the “how to write fantasy” aspects…  Anyway, I want to talk about healing and game flow.

What Have I Got: Injuries
            Most of my experience playing Dungeons and Dragons (like 90%) is in 3rd or 3.5 edition.  In 3rd edition healing is slow, expensive, and resource intensive.  I hate it.  At low levels, games quickly get bogged down as each room of a dungeon could potentially kill the entire party.  An Orc with a great sword and a single level of warrior has an attack that is likely to hit and likely to incapacitate.  Here is some math!  (This is perhaps the boringest part of this whole thing… I regret putting it here at the front).

            The orc gets +1 for being a level one fighter type class, +3 from his strength score with is likely either 16 or 17, but could be higher if they are an elite enemy, and +1 from the weapon focus feat.  That is a +5, assuming the orc has no allies granting a flanking bonus (+2), or a slightly better weapon or spell helping (+1), or maybe they are just charging (+2).
            The orc is going to certainly hit the wizard AC11, 70% of the time, and will probably have no issue hitting the high dexterity rogue AC17, 40% of the time.  And at low levels those guys are toast.  Because the orc will deal 2d6+4 damage.  The highest health you can really expect from a wizard is 9 hit points if they decided to toss away a feat on Toughness.

            Curing the damage caused by even a single hit by this orc (and remember, there is a dungeon/camp/waaargh-party of these guys hanging around waiting to hit too), just this one guy will eat up one of these three resources.

1)     Time.  “We will barricade the room so that we can rest up for the night and recover health before continuing.”  And resting is a shit way to recover, 1 hit point for your level and 1 additional hit point for your Constitution modifier.  And that assumes you can find a place to rest.  I once had a team hold up in a secure location, only one entrance to secure, when they woke the next morning they found the door barred from the other side, the kobolds had bricked them up inside.  This method stops the game cold, and is insane in the context of the world; you are going to break camp inside the enemy stronghold?
2)     Spells.  “The cleric can burn off one of their fun spells like- Hahaha…. I couldn’t even finish that sentence, Cleric spells are all boring protective wards, cook one off and use the spell for healing.”  Cleric spells are boring, and the role of the character in the party of adventurers/players is to heal (more than anything else, paradoxically they and Druids are considered the strongest classes) so this doesn’t really feel like much of a loss, but there are not a lot of spells to go around at low levels, each heal is a substantial resource lost.
3)     Items.  Scrolls, potions, and wands are all present early in the game, but they are kind of pricey.  Maybe this is supposed to be some kind of sub textual bit of commentary on how expensive healthcare is in real life?  But, why in heaven’s name does a potion that cures 1d8+1 hit points cost so much?  Imagine if healing magic existed in the real world and you could bottle a healing potion that would never expire and be in constant demand, why would this shit not be bottled like Coca-Cola?  People would be sprinkling it on their food.  And don’t give me that, “XP cost” BS, the Spice Must Flow!
More like, "Blood must flow!  Am I right?"  All orc comedy is about bloodshed, it is not very funny.
            I am also going to point out how worthless I think the Heal skill is as I know of it.  Skills are a not-that-fun aspect of 3rd edition, but Heal is actually so useless that it gives new players misconceptions about what they can do with it.  At best it should be called First Aid and should be a skill for people who have no access to healing magic.
            So what do I think should be the solution?  How can you speed up healing to keep the pace of the game going but not incur expenses that will screw up the game’s economy?  Well, I said that most of my DnD experience was with 3rd, but the rest was with 4th edition, and for all the faults that game had, healing was a lot faster, and the game was a smoother experience for it.  Beyond that, let’s look at some video games and I can complain about “Skyrim” a whole bunch.

4th Edition and “World of Warcraft”: Healing Surges and Sitting on Your Butt
            The idea behind healing surges was to take healing systems like those in World of Warcraft and adapt them to Dungeons and Dragons.  In WoW you regenerate health after each combat encounter.  You are sacrificing time (a few seconds) to get back to your starting point and then you can get on with slaughtering boars and kobolds.  The game flow is interrupted, but that can be sped up by eating food and drinking beverages which shorten the recovery process.  You effectively have infinite health, just not all at once.  And charging people money for small amounts of food allows them to pull some money out of the bloated WoW economy.  WoW has lots of ways to heal, but they are thoroughly restricted for game balance.
            The 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons took that concept and adapted for a tabletop game which lacked the luxury of having actual time happening.  4E just said that your characters could recover back to full health via short rest periods several times each day, and several abilities could recover from these short rests as well, essentially a breather after each fight to gain one’s bearings and ready yourself for the next conflict.
            There was still a limit on how many times you could do this each day as a function of class and ability scores, these still served as a slight interruption to the gameplay (but not nearly the flow destruction of 3rd edition), and some abilities required a night’s rest to get back which when coupled with the limited amount of surges meant the players still eventually ran out of resources.
            Each of these systems means that the players only had enough for any given encounter while simultaneously having enough for many encounters.  Healing Surges have a good balance, and had they included things like potions to restore daily abilities it really would have worn the fact it was borrowing from WoW on its sleeve.  Got milk?
"Guy Fieri is going to be here any minute!"
“Bloodborne”: Quick and Easy
            The great thing about every video game grafting RPG element into them is how it can illustrate which mechanics work and which that don’t in a variety of ways.  “Bloodborne”, to me at least, is a hack and slash game.  If the game just gave you a small incremental increase in health, stamina, and damage each time you beat a boss you really could pack in most of the other elements of the game’s leveling up.
            I am sure there are many people who love the insanity of trying to optimize builds in the game and the “Dark Souls” series overall, and those fans of the series are calling for my head reading this, but I actually find the system too arcane to use (and I say that as someone who has power gamed the hell out of DnD, mostly because I find that system modular and accessible).  Regardless of this I like the “Bloodborne” healing system.
            Healing potions, “Blood Vials” are common with nearly every goon in the game dropping them and you can regain health by counter attacking enemies that have just hit you.  The game keeps up its pace and rewards being aggressive.
            How would that adapt to Dungeons and Dragons?  The game is punishingly difficult, has limited team work opportunities, and death is a built in mechanic.  This seems like a hard thing to lift from the game and put on to another system right?  I don’t think so.
It is also a single player experience (for the most part), so its mechanics might not work for large parties.
            Make healing potions super common and cheap as hell.  But also make them less effective.  Instead of 50 gold for a standard healing potion, have the healing potions cost 5 gold, and have the players find them on bad guys who will use them if they have the opportunity to (make them easier to use, a move action or maybe even a free action if the player has the Quick Draw feat).  The new drawback would be this: the potions expire.
            “Bloodborne” has death as a core part of gameplay, and since that is not going to be taken over too, and you can’t cap the number of healing vials the players in DnD will carry (there are portable holes and bags of holding for reasons, namely that players like endless piles of stuff that they never use), so the only way to get rid of an endless supply of inexpensive healing items that the players would be willing to stockpile is to make the things only good for a short time.
            Have it so they can’t be found in ancient dungeons because they would have all gone bad, much like cough syrup they just don’t work after a certain half-life, or can even become poisonous.  They are common and useful in living civilizations but they are medicine produced to be used and only stored for protracted periods of time under special circumstances (perhaps there will be a bag of refrigerated holding).
            The healing potions, Blood Vials, would be not too expensive so they can be stocked up on before a big adventure, but if they are not consumed in a short enough period of time (3-5 days) they will spoil, so you don’t have to worry about the players splurging on 100 potions all at once and destroying all tension to any individual encounter.
            And you might be saying that this system will make the Cleric’s healing ability a lot less worthwhile, and by extension all healing magic will be less meaningful.  Yes.  Yes, that is the case.  I consider that a good thing.  Maybe then the players will be willing to let the cleric cast some wards around them so they don’t need the healing as often?  And the player with the cleric character can do something other than make everyone else not dead.

“Skyrim”: An Example of What Doesn’t Work
            The economy of Skyrim is broken and unbalanced.  It is possible to have money coming out of your ears in no time and there is nothing that serves as a drain on that system.  I blame their healing system.
            Let’s see,
1)     You get fully healed from sleeping.
2)     You can just stand still in a safe location for a while and you will heal.
3)     If you want to hurry things along you can cast a healing spell you get for free at the start of the game.
4)     You heal to full when you gain a level.
5)     There are potions you can buy or make yourself from free ingredients that are everywhere.
6)     And there is a ton of food which is so ineffectual it is rendered meaningless almost instantly, but it is there and thus should be mentioned.  HEY GUYS, if cooking requires a lot of butter and salt, maybe make those things super cheap, super common, and make food somehow functionally better than the potion which has the same weight, otherwise it isn’t worth the trouble.

            You can also remove all diseases by touching a holy shrine or if you are in the middle of something just swallow a potion.  Though I found myself walking thru hours of game without noticing my diseased self because the effects are often to negligible and there is no indication of illness on your heads-up-display.  This is poor design.  But, let’s stay on Healing.

"You look rather pale."
"Shut Up."
"You'll find tonics, salves, poultices and potions on my shelves. Browse to your heart's content."
            All of these things together add up to too much.  Healing could easily serve as a pressure release on the world’s economy if healing cost more money.  But healing really doesn’t cost much, or anything.  Not having to manage your health in a game like this sucks a lot of the challenge out of the game, and a lot of the use for money goes out the window too.
            Sure even somewhat useful magic items cost a fortune and in theory they could serve to take some of your money, but who buys those?  Really, who buys items in Skyrim?  I buy raw materials, but more often than not (before installing a mod that just gave all the merchants more money) the hardest part of Skyrim was finding a place to sell shit to accumulate more and more nearly-useless currency.
            Adjusting the Healing system could have solved that.  Get rid of the WoW-esc “heal by standing still” method.  You have to cast a spell, take a potion, or rest (like in 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons) but make the potions cheaper so that people will be more inclined to buy a bunch and use them with impunity.  Suddenly this system means food will remain useful longer, as it will provide a slight, but present, source of health on the run, all those set tables in dungeons full of Bandits will serve as hubs of quick recharging to continue on the mission.
            This video game is one of the many that does not benefit from recharging health but I think it was included because its first person perspective made it expected.  This complaint is more about fixing their busted economy than healing itself.  I keep finding myself stocked up on potions and money in the late game and that is not good.  Cause you need tension.  Hell, “Skyrim” doesn’t even put a limit on how many potions you can take in a single fight, WoW does that.
            This system would still have regenerating health (in a way), because mana still regenerates, but it would require that extra step of actually casting the spell.  This actually is an instance in which making things more like 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons would benefit the game because of the minor differences in Skyrim that are harder to transplant back into the system: spells are less of a massive resource because of mana regenerating, resting is a more substantial because it is solidly a game feature, and the existence of food as another inexpensive source of healing.

It's like Scrooge McDuck's.

The Compromise: What’s Right for Your Game
            So what should you do for your game?  You can probably already tell what I would be my preferred method to slide into a game.  Either healing surges so that you have limited health per encounter but plenty of health over the course of the day, or cheap and plentiful Blood Vials that provide enough help to push forward but a supply that will eventually run out so as to require thought and management.
            The system for 3rd edition now is excessively resource consuming and the system for Skyrim is not consuming enough.  The first leads to characters getting bogged down and being too careful because loosing health is expensive, the other leads to your pants being pulled down from the weight of unused money.
"You just need a place to put it, mate!"
            If you want to go with the Healing Surges method I would have it work like this, each player gets a number of healing surges equal to 5 plus their constitution modifier and each is worth ½ their full hit point total.  With feats like Endurance, Great Fortitude, and Toughness providing an additional healing surge to make those feats more attractive to the players.  Cause Endurance is pretty boring as is.  You might also give additional Surges to Barbarians and Paladins, or the ability to swap out unused Surges for additional uses of a class abilities like Rage or Healing Hands.

            If you want to go with the Blood Vials method make all healing potions cost 10% of their current price, and whenever players fight humanoid or other intelligent creatures (like giants, though they would be using stronger stuff) roll 1d6-4 (or 1d6-3 if you want to be generous) to see how many healing items they have on them.  You could also introduce a few feats that make the individual items more effective on the player than they otherwise would be, like the Fast Healer feat.
            If you want further restrictions on Blood Vials, making it so the players can only use a few during any given encounter and need a short rest (5 minute) before using more, would limit their use in each encounter to prohibit the game from dragging out as players just keep healing themselves rather than taking risks to end the fight.

            The truth of the matter is that most of this discussion is probably moot.  5th edition is where a lot of new players are right now, and unless you like reading about game design and adapting it to your own game this will have little relevance.  But maybe, if you think your games have been a little slow consider adapting a system like this to play, maybe it will speed things up a bit.

Whatever works.

Future Dungeons and Dragons Discussion
            I am unsure how to install a poll function in this blog.  But if you have a topic you would like to see someone else talk about in the context of Dungeons and Dragons (or just in the context of writing fantasy stuff) write it in the comments.
            I think the next thing will be about Alignment.  It will probably have to be a 10,000 entry series on the subject matter that has all the depth of a teaspoon and more debate among players than ANY OTHER THING IN GAMING.

The Beg for Attention
            If you enjoyed reading about this, please say so in the comments.  If you think I am off base about “Bloodbourne” please tell me in the comments.  If you have had your own issues with healing in video games or Dungeons and Dragons, share in the comments.  If you think I contradicted myself somewhere, criticize me in the comments.  Thank you for reading.
            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

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