Thursday, August 4, 2011

Resting and healing in D&D

Healing should not be linked to resting. There's the argument, now I'll try and prove why.

Resting in D&D serves a narrative purpose ("We make camp for the night") and a mechanical purpose ("I regain hit points, healing surges, daily powers, etc"). Players, being non-idiots, often attempt to maximize the mechanical purpose which results in the 15-minute workday. This has some mechanical issues, but it is primarily a problem for the narrative. The description just feels weird when these heroes keep making camp after every battle despite the fact that adventure, treasure, and glory await them.

There are two main elements that build to this problem:
  1. Because the mechanical benefits of resting follow on the narrative decision of resting, players have complete control of when resting (and all its attending benefits) happens. The GM's only recourse is to put a clock on the adventure, and that quickly damages the narrative as well.
  2. Players will always seek out optimal strategies. A well designed game would reward this, not break because of it.
The simplest solution is to break the relationship between resting and healing. Allow characters to rest as often as they like, but don't guarantee mechanical advantage for doing so. In other words:

At first blush this seems like an odious recommendation. At second blush, though, this is no different from any other narrative/mechanical relationship in the game. Characters often jump without actually making a check, a character could bandage a burn without expectation that hit points suddenly return, or eat a meal after days of travel without feeling a mechanical renewed sense of vigor. Most things have a distinct narrative and distinct mechanical role in the game; resting seems to be the exception, and the permanency of that linkage results in problems.

So if we broke the relationship, what would it look like and is it worth the cost?
Here's a first hypothetical breakdown of how one might decide hit points, healing surges, and daily powers return when not linked to healing:
  • Hit points don't automatically return during an adventure, but abilities (such as healing surges) can be spent freely whenever danger has fully subsided. If a party defeats a fire elemental but finds themselves in a burning building, the danger has not yet subsided. However, pushing back the hobgoblin horde and collapsing the tunnel does end the danger even though you are still buried in the hobgoblin tunnels.
  • Daily powers return after a challenge is completed. A challenge is defined as one stretch of an adventure sharing a general theme. A single challenge could contain multiple encounters, but they'd all be of a similar variety pushing towards a single, discrete goal. Sometimes a challenge might be as brief as "defeat the necromancer" but it also could be "fight to the top of the lighthouse, defeat the necromancer, and disable the Light of Darkness before it is ignited by the lunar eclipse." A challenge could also span multiple days; "Pass over the Misty Mountains might be a single challenge."
  • Healing surges return after an adventure arc. An adventure arc is a significant portion of an adventure culminating with a substantial goal. An adventure arc could be as long as "successfully navigate the Marsh of Mazes" which takes many successful checks, each day having a chance for random encounters, a negotiation at the Mud Hermit's Hut, and successfully fording the mudfalls (a waterfall of mud). It could also be as short as defeating the BBEG which ends the adventure.
  • Between adventures, everything returns.
There are a few clear benefits. First, it allows the mechanism to support the narrative instead of fighting against it. If the drama is supposed to build around navigating the Marsh of Mazes, each failed check means one more encounter to stretch already strained resources. If you get to heal everything each night, the Marsh of Mazes is just annoying (or the GM has to put all the random encounters in a single day, which, again, undermines the narrative that this is a big complex marsh).

Second, the different elements don't have to be triggered simultaneously. You can decide that a Challenge is completed without allowing the danger to have subsided. Putting this structure in place makes it easier to return things like daily powers in the middle of a combat after, say, bloodying the Dragon King.

Third, and my favorite, by having resources refresh upon the completion of challenges instead of just narrative declaration, you make those challenges more important. The skill checks to successfully navigate the Marsh of Mazes were important because they helped you complete the adventure arc and get your healing surges back. This elevates the importance of skills without relying on skill challenges. If a challenge is ended once you've gotten into the castle, whether you sneaked past the guards or killed them, the challenge is a success. It's easy to put those types of incentives into the game when the mechanism supports the narrative and incredibly hard when the mechanism fights the narrative.

So what's the downside?
The big downside is that while this helps a skilled GM make exciting adventures that motivate the players, an unskilled GM might expect too much. Fortunately, this is easy to fix. First, while learning the ropes a GM could set challenge and adventure arcs to mimic the existing system. To begin he risks nothing, and as he learns he can slowly push the adventurers to the limit. Second, the definitions are actually more flexible than the current resting rules, which means they can be changed on the fly to adapt to any situation. If the party is pushed too far (because of the GM's mistake), they can wrap up a challenge earlier than initially planned and actually avoid the dangers inherent in novice GM judgment calls.