Hit Points and Healing

I don’t much like the mechanic of healing.

First of all, it stretches my immersion in the game to think about people getting hacked up with swords and axes and fangs and fire, and then walk up to a cleric after the battle and you’re right as rain.  You can keep at it all day long or until your cleric’s god (whom you don’t even worship) stops granting minor miracles for the day.  To take it a step further, try imaging a world where gods really did offer those kinds of miracles to their worshipers.  People would be insanely religious.  Take today’s religious activists and multiply by several orders of magnitude.  Imagine clerics who could simply cure the sick, cure diseases, cure the wounded, and even raise the dead!  Why bother with assassinations – surely the King can afford a resurrection or two.

Second, it’s generally kind of boring.  One player traditionally gets “stuck playing the cleric,” and spends their time bouncing around the fight patching up wounds.  Because of the basic need for healing, the cleric’s rather unique healing niche, and the, well, finality of that particular resource to be managed, most clerics end up stuck expending most of their time and energy healing other members of the party rather than engaging with the rest of the world.

Third, the recharge of all that healing is nothing more than a good night’s sleep, which leads us to those 15 minute adventuring days.  Either that, or players can just find infinite fonts of healing (take Pathfinder, wand of cure light wounds with 50! charges costs 750 gp…).  The wealth of a level 3 party of 5 characters in Pathfinder should supposedly be 15,000 gp making that wand quite affordable.  Worse, players can actually start manufacturing these healing machines.  Which leads me to…

Fourth, healing takes away a lot of risk, which can kill the drama.  There’s not much danger in a 20ft fall, walking through fire, or anything really unless it’s going to kill you right then and there.  And even dying barely matters!  In Pathfinder, the raise dead spell has a material component cost of 5,000 gp.  By the time the players can cast this on their own, death becomes just about meaningless.  But even at early levels, according to this pathfinder reference doc, getting a cleric to cast this spell is supposed to cost 5,000gp (material cost) + (10  * 5  (spell level) * 9 (caster level)) = 5,450.

Even playing Pathfinder pretty straight up, I refuse to play by these rules.  Since I’m constructing something new, I’ll just toss them out the window.  So what can be done?  I think first is to abstract hit points a bit more.  A lot of people do this already, but it’s not formally supported by the rules (or else why the need for a “cure light wounds” after the fight?).  The first thing to do is to give characters a pool of “hit points” that don’t mechanically represent wounds.  This pool could represent fatigue, luck, or minor bruises and scrapes that have no lasting impact.  I could see a holy person as inspirational, perhaps providing a way to refresh some of that fatigue in a more believable way.  Ideally, I’d want to tie the mechanics a bit more into the flavor of the class.  Perhaps followers of the cleric’s deity can get some sort of fatigue regeneration when fighting alongside the cleric, and anyone with the same goals can receive a lesser benefit.  Maybe the cleric’s power to inspire is directly related to the size of the following they’ve amassed, or the amount they’ve spent on a temple, or some other divine currency to get the cleric to do cleric things.  Maybe when they spend that divine currency, it’s gone until they earn more.

Since the luck/fatigue pool doesn’t represent actual wounds, it could refresh after a short rest without stretching much believability.  This allows the party to continue adventuring without suffering quite such a severe death spiral.  It also allows for characters to combat weaker opponents without actually getting stabbed or hacked, although it might tire them a bit.  This can encourage some strategy (as someone’s luck/fatigue pool begins to run low, they switch away from the front lines) and some heroism (the wizard’s fatigue pool could replenish as well!).  It also pushes some of the character’s skill into hit points, meaning they can come through a combat technically unscathed, but the GM didn’t have to miss with every attack on every round (which would be boring, right?) in order for it to happen.  It also approximates what already happens  – between each fight everyone heals up to full health anyway – they just do it in a less believable way.

So, it seems like I’m being pretty generous with this luck/fatigue stuff.  Before the drama of combat flies completely away, let’s take a look at wounds.  This looks like it should be a separate pool of hit points, and since we’ve been so nice about luck/fatigue, why don’t we add some risk back into the game by making wounds matter.  Maybe wounds take a long time to heal?  Maybe they give you a static penalty?  I could tack on an optional wound chart, although I don’t think I’ll go that route.  I think really limiting powers that heal true wounds to divine currency kind of stuff is probably enough to make those wounds really feel meaningful.  A slight penalty for a “wounded” condition, or even just powers that trigger on becoming wounded could also work well with the mechanic.

A critical hit then (however that gets decided… the core mechanic is up in the air) could bypass some luck/fatigue and go straight to your wound pool of hit points.  It doesn’t even have to do MORE damage, just the fact that you are inflicting damage on a person’s actual body is probably enough to make critical hits scary.  I’d consider leaving a character’s wound pool pretty static as they advance, so that it approximates how much damage a person can actually take before dying.  This would really put some drama in, since anything with an axe could legitimately kill you again.  It also allows us to explain why assassinations of high-level characters can actually work.  You can actually surprise a guard and kill them with a sword in their back if you can bypass their luck and fatigue.

So then what does a cleric look like in this kind of game?  I’m sure I’ll get deeper into this when I start talking about abilities vs classes, but a cleric would have low-level abilities to restore luck/fatigue with blessings and inspiration.  Through the “lower tier” levels I’d want to limit substantially their ability to actually perform miracles of healing on the body.  By the mid-levels, I could see some minor miracles coming into play, but I’d want to limit these to followers of the cleric’s deity, or at least tie these miracles into their worship.  Since these really are miracles, I don’t think I want them to just refresh each day.  I like the concept that calling on your deity is spending some divine currency you’re earning by spreading that word of that god.

To make up for the downgrade of healing, the cleric needs to be given some more stuff to do.  That’s also exactly what I want, but I think I’ll tackle that topic another time.

17 thoughts on “Hit Points and Healing

  1. Andy

    My only worry about this is that it could lead to a 5 minute adventuring day instead of a 15 minute one as people try to rest any opportunity that arises after they get one wound…

    I actually think the PF cleric would still do fine without healing. It’s the other classes that need him to be able to heal so that they don’t have to worry as much about defense/HP =P

    I think if you eliminate healing, you’d have more people worrying about hp/AC/”number of wounds” and might end up with more balanced characters. Maybe. I’m not sure. Pathfinder mechanics make the monsters so brutal that avoiding getting hit is the #1 priority, and the #1 way to avoid getting hit is generally to kill the shit out of the monster before he can hit you.

    I’m not against this as a design philosophy, it would just have to be carefully balanced and unintended consequences may pop up.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      My thought is that the wounds would heal at a slow standard rate, so that there wouldn’t be a point of stopping to rest after 15 minutes, because a day of rest isn’t going to gain you very many resources back. If you have to take a week or two, you start having some dramatically different role-play and quest success/failure scenarios to stopping for a week to recover resources after each combat.

      My other thought was that there could be some magical wound healing, but it would be more rare and more valuable. Maybe a cleric of higher level CAN heal wounds, but it’s not just a spell slot given up for the day. They have to trade in some kind of divine currency that they earn by building temples and converting followers. Once it’s spent, it’s -gone- until they earn more. I have no idea how that mechanic would work or be balanced, but it’s one idea of how to make wound healing feel more like the ‘miracle’ it would be to the characters.

      Hopefully, combined with automatic-refreshing fatigue/luck pool, and maybe another mechanic or two (I’m thinking escalating XP awards that reset after a rest) to encourage heroism, we can find a balance.

  2. Brian

    I personally don’t mind the idea of HP – however I do agree that being able to emerge from a fight after sustaining massive damage just makes it more of a “game” than an immersive role playing experience. The key is some lasting effect that is not cured with a few platinum. Perhaps our brave adventurer critted by a nasty hill giant suffers from sever panic against that type of creature for a length of time (until they level, or reach some milestone), or has trouble sleeping because of a crooked neck resulting in random fatigue some days.

    One thing I’ve been reading about in some forums is the critical deck, where up on a confirmed critical a card would be drawn and the result applied to the character. Instead of just dealing massive damage and outright killing a character, a character could lose a few fingers, suffer internal bleeding (perhaps lowering an ability score for a lengthy duration), become maimed with a leg injury (slowing speed) etc…If these penalties were such that they couldn’t just be hand waved away with enough gold or time then I think you’d have the drama and tension within combat and lessen the chance of a 15/5 minute workday (your leg isn’t going to regrow without some significant resources or ever).

    Almost like a high and mighty paladin losing his hand early on and nearly suffering death at the hands of shallow water for the rest of the campaign….much better than death and a complete resurrection for 15,000 gp I’d say.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      The dreaded crit deck! Players are so divided on the merits of the crit deck. Arkham Horror’s expansion added Physical and Mental wounds much like a Crit deck as well.

      I agree that, sparingly used, permanent effects on characters can be more interesting than character death/resurrection. Think about all the critical hits that have occured through our games though, and over the life of your character, how many of these could result in a party of cripples by now.

      For my first version of Lost Worlds, I added a feature to death that basically said, when you are reduced to 0 hp you can either perform a “last action” and then die – which would make your death memorable and heroic OR you could be knocked out of the fight (still could be killed though if you continued to take damage) and have a chance at taking a permanent wound, which would translate into a permanent penalty to an ability score.

  3. Andrew

    “Healing” in pathfinder or the RPGs I was raised on (final fantasy 4 life) never took me out of the fantasy of the games, because I’m just so used to that mechanic. But I can very much understand wanting to get this out of a game. I like the idea of minor wounds (or fatigue/luck) and major wounds, with major wounds becoming more and more likely if players ignore the minor wounds. I also like the idea of the crit deck.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      I’d love to see what the players would come up with for a crit deck! You all should come up with one and we could playtest it to see whether we really do like it or not.

      I think there are some commercial products that accomplish the same thing if you don’t want to invest much time into it.

      1. approximatedfray


        Thank you for an interesting post, really like your comment about the probable zealousness of a world in which the D&D Cleric exist, made me laugh.

        I have not heard of the concept crit deck before but instinctively liked it and the house rule you describe about a last action or unconsciousness.
        I tend to feel that the whole HP concept is a gameistic bookkeeping part that takes away a lot of feeling from the game, especially in a lower magic setting. And if you add in the different concepts of temporary hit points etc it all turns in to bean counting instead of roleplaying. It also turns ridiculous when a character has 176 Hit points and needs to be shot 27 times with a crossbow at point blanc in order to get any effect and that effect then is unconsciousness or death…

        I favor the solutions in which an injury really is an injury and up till then the character have dodged or escaped the damage.

      2. JackOfHearts Post author

        Thanks, and welcome! One thing that worries me a little it about the luck/fatigue pool is the book-keeping of two different pools of health. I like how it models a cinematic battle without unrealisitic wounding/healing, but if it’s too complicated, it’s still not worth it. Finding a nice balance will be the measure of success here. I also think that in certain situations, damage would bypass luck/fatigue and go directly to wound damage.

      3. approximatedfray

        Hello again,
        Yes an element of uncertanty, that a hit actually can kill or seriously hurt you even with a full pool, would add an element of suspension as long as it is not perceived as being too random. One approach to the book-keeping can be to have them in one pool (if you put in a point to do something out of the ordinary you have consumed some of your fatigue).

      1. Andy

        I’m ok with the crit deck but I think it should only be used VERY infrequently or it would stop being special. To me, it should only be a 1 in a thousand chance, or something like that (if we keep a linear system, two straight twentys might accoplish it). Otherwise your group might be as follows – Wizard (one hand, two missing teeth, no reproductive organs), Fighter (one leg/pegleg, no ears), etc. Maybe that’s how an adventurer would be in real life, but it’s still kind of silly imo.

  4. Brian

    Why not add positive outcomes to the crit deck – something as simple as normal damage and a scar resulting in -1 to diplomacy checks and +1 to intimidate checks. The more impactful criticals (lost hand, shattered thigh) and the resulting impacts (no offhand item or -some amount of speed) could be made to be rarer so that they become special.
    Perhaps only on a natural roll of a 20 and then confirmed would result in a use of the deck?
    You wouldn’t use the deck on monster fodder – but maybe recurring enemy NPCs could have something happen to them. Dueling master loses his dominant hand and he has to go and train for a length of time to get back to peak performance. In the meantime perhaps he suffers a pretty big loss of attacking ability (to hit/damage).

  5. Pingback: Effects of dying or getting knocked out | Approximated Fray RPG

  6. approximatedfray

    Hello again,

    May I suggest an alternate solution? When a PC is reduced to below -10 and is killed he, when he is resurrected, receives a permanent disadvantage?

    Examples of disadvantages:

    Animosity The Creature gets -2 to any action concerning the the kind of Creature that hurt him.
    Blurred vision The Creature will get -2 on all Spot checks
    Clumsy Any attempts at stealth or hiding will be done at -2
    Facial scar The Creature will get -2 to Social skills except Intimidate that is done at +1 (what Brian suggested).
    Hard of hearing The Creature will get -2 to all attempts to Listen
    Headaches The Creature gets -2 to any mental Action
    Periodic pain The Creature will get -2 to to any physical action that is done for an extended period of time (forced march, climbing a cliff face to the top, running etc)
    Sharp pain The Creature gets -2 to any physical action like jumping or balancing

    D&D and all games with movements in squares or hexes could have negative modifiers on move etc.

    The disadvantages from a “death avoidance” can only be removed by wish or perhaps a quest?

    It can also be used at -5 HP, death might not be necessary for getting a disadvantage if that better suits the playing teams taste.

    (Also looking into the concept for Approximated Fray (http://approximatedfray.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/effects-of-dying-or-getting-knocked-out/ ))

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      I still don’t know what I think about the disadvantage/crit deck. I think, for the most part, I’d want the critical hit disadvantages to go away at some point, otherwise, they’ll stack up on a character over time. You’d need to have a long rest, maybe a month, to remove them? That way, they will continue to impact the character for the immediate quest, and then the player could potentially still remove it with a break from adventuring so that they don’t just stack up a bunch of disadvantages over time.

      Maybe “death” disadvantages don’t go away, just critical hit disadvantages. So the disadvantages that came from near-death stick with you over time, but the critical hit ones don’t. Need to think about how to use these without overdoing it, or even whether I want to use them at all.


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