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The Two Faces of Healing

February 3, 2012

How Should the New D&D Handle Healing?

This is kind of rough and dirty. I’m throwing it out as a quick response to Bruce Cordell’s recent D&D Next article about healing, which you can read here. Of course, just because it’s a quick response, doesn’t mean it is not also a long response because, hell, its me. I’m just warning you that its not exactly polished.

As I see it, the problem with discussing healing in Dungeons and Dragons is that healing is really two seperate issues, but the distinction is rarely made. That makes it difficult to discuss how healing should be treated because the two different functions pull the game in two different directions. So, let’s talk about it.

While healing primarily refers to magical healing, I’m talking about all healing here. Natural healing. First aid. Healing by having a warlord yell “suck it up” really loud. All of it. Any way of removing wounds and restoring hit points is healing.

The first face of healing is tactical healing. Healing during battle.

The second face of healing is recovery. Recovering from the events of a battle or adventure or any other form of really bad day that pretty much defines anything that happens to an adventurer when they are not asleep.

At first blush, these things don’t seem very different. They seem to perform the same basic function. But D&D 4E is the first edition of D&D to acknowledge the difference. Sadly, that may be little more than a consequence of the dichotomy between combat and non-combat that 4E set up for pretty much everything in the game.

During battle, healing is a defensive tactic. It reduces the effectiveness of the enemy’s attacks by undoing those attacks. It also allows combattants a better chance of winning battles of attrition by outlasting the enemy. The dirty little secret is that tactical healing isn’t as much about survival as it seems like it should be. What do I mean by that?

Well, IN THEORY, speaking in 4E terms, healing ability should be a tactical option on par with marking, dealing extra damage, battlefield control, and so on. Its a way of getting a tactical advantage over an enemy. Healing is part of a combat strategy. You could bring four damage dealers and win fights quickly and decisively or you could bring two damage dealers and two healers, with the healers limiting the amount of damage dealt so that the damage dealers can afford to take twice as long to win the fight. IN THEORY, those two parties should end combats roughly equal.

Now, this is a great idea (IN THEORY) because it means no party should ever HAVE TO bring a combat healer. The player who gets off on being the healer can pull that off and everyone else can be the thing they want to be. If the various tactical options are balanced (damage dealing vs. healing vs. other defensive options vs. other offensive options), it all works out well (say it with me: IN THEORY).

But the key to this working IN PRACTICE is that healing also needs to be as costly or difficult as the other tactical options. A damage dealer has to work at getting the bonus damage. A defender has to work at keeping the right foes marked and staying in their faces. And so on. Choosing the marking or damage dealing strategy puts some constraints on the choices the PC can make. Every strategy has a price. And the challenge of winning a battle is balancing those prices against the benefits of the strategy (e.g.: the thief deciding whether to attack a preferable target without combat advantage, attack a less-preferred target with combat advantage, or giving up an action to set-up combat advantage next round).

It can be argued that this is where 4E drops the ball. It sounds like such a good idea to say “the healer doesn’t have to give up anything to be the healer,” and they said that time and again when previewing 4E. And it was true. Two heals per combat as a minor action that did bonus healing, plus powers that hit, dealt damage, and healed, plus utilities that allowed a little more healing at a price. It was all very nice for the cleric who didn’t want to be a healer cleric.

But it meant that tactical healing wasn’t really tactical healing anymore. It meant that healing was something that a lot of parties could bring to the table without paying much of a price. Especially when so many classes got healing abilities. That meant that every party was probably going to bring healing. Even the guy who didn’t want to be the healer cleric was okay healing the party because it didn’t cost them anything.

So, to balance combat, the designers needed to assume that most parties would have access to the healing. They worked it into the numbers and even controlled how much healing could be brought to bear so that they could know just how much healing a party could dish out. Unfortunately, that took combat healing out of the realm of the tactical option and into the realm of neccessary for survival.

Now, all of that about 4E is an aside. Because there are counterarguments that can be leveled. After all, combat healing is a staple of the genre and something people expect to be there. And if you don’t balance for it and control it, it becomes hard to set challenges. And, if you make healing too costly, the people who will want to do it are few and far between. I’m not saying 4E failed to handle healing well. I’m just looking at it from both sides here.

Long story short: tactical healing IN THEORY works best a combat strategy, a defensive strategy that allows the party to mitigate damage and outlast their opponents. IN THEORY, it is not neccessary for survival, but instead is one possible tool parties can bring to a battle to use to their advantage.

Okay, now, just hold that thought for a moment. Because we need to look at the other side. Recovery.

Recovery is the healing that happens between combats and adventures. Its what let’s the party keep going into the next encounter or adventure. No matter how skilled a party is, they are going to need it eventually. Adventurers get beat up. People take damage during combat. They spring traps. They freeze crossing the Tundra of Frigid Icy Death or waste away crossing The Toxic Swamp of Terrible Wasting Poison, and so on.

Now, interestingly, recovery isn’t really about survival either. Its more about letting adventurers keep having adventures without starting every encounter at a disadvantage. It makes it easier for a DM to design challenges by knowing that, at the very least, the party isn’t going to go into a fight with one foot already in the grave. And that’s true whether it takes them five minutes of short resting or a few days sleeping it off or just licking their wounds while they travel from point A to point B. It means the game can go on even if the party has a really bad turn of luck or handles something incredibly stupidly.

Now, the argument about whether recovery should be easy or hard is much more subjective. There is something to be said for the party having to live with the consequences of poorly handled battles and there is something to be said for letting the party start every battle or adventure at a set level of power. But regardless of where your personal opinion falls on that spectrum, we can all agree that at least some recovery is neccessary for the game to continue running. The party needs some way to recover itself from, at the very least, the worst of disasters.

So, this is where things get funky. Tactical healing seems to work best when it is an optional strategy. Recovery healing is something that works best when it is readily available in some form or another to all parties. Tactical healing, to prevent it from becoming neccessary for survival, needs to have a cost on par with other tactical options. Recovery healing needs to be readily available in some form and therefore needs to be cheap.

And that is where healing suddenly becomes tricky. Prior to 4E, the game did not distinguish between tactical healing and recovery. A cure spell was a cure spell was a cure spell and it didn’t matter whether it came from a cleric, a potion, a wand, a staff of healing, or an NPC. If you wanted to have options for recovery healing, you also had tactical healing as an option, and the DM knew that and had to balance combats accordingly, which lead to the idea that tactical healing was neccessary, which found its way into the collective consciousness of gamers, and now we’re here having conversations about what sort of healing options clerics should have in the next iteration of D&D.

4E did a much better job with healing overall. Recovery healing was cheap and easy (though, depending on where you fall on the spectrum of “living with the consequences’ I mentioned above, you might think it was too easy). Tactical healing was ackowledged as a different kettle of fish and, while you can argue that it was also perhaps it was not costly and still assumed to be neccessary, it was a move in the right direction that got sidetracked a little by game balance issues and wanting to make healing classes more approachable.

The reason I bring all of this up is because Bruce Cordell wrote a short article on healing in the next iteration of D&D which ended with a poll about what options for healing clerics should have. And frankly, I think the question is a very important one, but I think its also being asked the wrong way. I think that the two faces of healing need to be acknowledged and addressed and that each requires a different solution.

Now, those of you who know me well know that I hate the segregation of gameplay mechanics and the game’s narrative. I hate artificial designations like “in combat” or “not in combat.” I hate the very suggestion that something might or might not be possible because “we’re in a combat” and for no other reason. So, it seems very odd for me to be suggesting such a dichotomy. But in this case, I think that the best way to give healing its due is to acknowledge the dichotomy.

So, here are my criteria for handling healing:

I think tactical healing needs to be an option, not a requirement, and that it needs to carry the same cost as any other tactical option. This is not as impossible as it seems. After all, if you figure the average damage output of a monster, the average attack roll, the average armor class, and the average number of HP that someone can heal, you can equate healing to an AC bonus. That is, you can say an average of 8 HP of healing has the same statistical impact as a +4 to AC. Likewise, you can say that if a PC does X amount of damage in a round and suffers Y amount of damage in a round, a certain amount of healing is worth another round of attacks against a monster. And so on.

I think recovery healing needs to be freely available in a variety of ways so that the game is never stopped dead by a party that is too weak to continue. Now, I do think there should be some limits. For example, it should take enough time that the DM can set up difficult choices like “continuing to the next encounter or risk failing at the adventure because time ran out” or “recovery costs gold” or “recovery can only bring you back to 75% of your max HP.” Something to ackowledge consequences and give the DM tools to set up risks and choices.

I think different forms of recovery healing should have a much narrow power scale. That is, magical healing should be a little better than natural healing so that characters who bring those options feel good about the choice, but not so much better that a party that doesn’t bring magical healing is hamstrung. I think the best healing options should be available between adventures when the party is in town or in camp, but these, again, should not be too much better than options between encounters. Just enough to drive home the difference between sleeping in a nice warm bed (or paying a temple healer) and sleeping under the stars with some bandages and on-the-road healing.

My suggestion for magical healing would be this: suppose healing, by its nature, is just difficult and time consuming. Assume that magic, by its nature, doesn’t improve on natural healing too much. Just enough to make it handy to have but not required. Suppose the best any form of magic can do is accelerate the natural healing of the body. Assume that any baseline healing spell takes several minutes to work.

Assume that magical healing of this nature is an easy option to attain. Any spellcaster can pull it off (with some slight variation between arcane and divine and primarl and elemental and diabolic and necromantic and whatever ends up in the next D&D). Any party with a spellcaster can pretty cheaply have access to it. Maybe make it a skill to put points into, a chooseable class feature, maybe a feat if that’s balanced against other feat choices. Whatever.

Now, assume that some spellcasters can overclock their healing as it were. Assume, for example, that a cleric trained in healing, can crank a lot of energy and power into a person and pull off the same sort of healing spell in seconds rather than minutes. This takes a spell slot, requires a standard action, expends an encounter power, has to be prepared, whatever. This is the tactical healing option. It costs something because its a tactical option. In fact, maybe this ability is one of several class features available, like choose between Turn Undead, Bless this Party, or Combat Healing. So that the cleric (or whatever) only has the option if they choose it as part of their class design. This allows them to say “I’m not that kind of cleric” without earning the party’s ire and gives them a different (balanced) tactical option as a reward. Make it both a tactical choice (with a cost) and a chosen (rather than assumed) class feature. Balance it against other tactical choices and other chosen class features.

When you design the game, assuming you’ve made combat healing balanced against other spell choices and tactical options and balanced the combat engine in general, you don’t have to treat healing as a part of balance at all. It just becomes one tactical tool the party might bring, just as good as a bless spell or a sneak attack or whatever. It is not a neccessity. Parties do not have to bring it along. And parties that do bring it along aren’t really better off than other parties because they gave up other tactical options to have it.