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.