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.


  1. That is awesometastic! Is there a reason you put daily powers and healing surges under separate pacing mechanics? I assume it is so a GM can recharge them separately (even though they are intended to be recharged at the same rate)?
    Hmm, that is interesting, recharging healing surges and dailies opposite of each other. That may make the party push on for longer as they are unlikely to be out of both dailies and healing surges at the same time.

    I like that the name "challenge" is abstract enough to be any time during a game. I am not sure if "adventure arc" is quite as abstract, but it is a minor detail.

  2. While I think that your solution does wonders to remove the 15 minute adventuring day, it also presupposes a lot of GM wrangling in order to make it work. Essentially, what it presupposes is a GM who carefully manipulates the circumstances of an adventure in order to engender certain outcomes (such as the survival of the party), which is textbook Illusionism (or if you're averse to artsy-fartsy forge-speak just call it stealth railroading).

    What I think would be a worthy change to your framework is including the possibility of characters deciding their own challenges ahead of time, and the GM providing encounters that meet those criteria.

    For example, Darkington McAngsty (Brooding hero extraordinaire) might lead his companions on a quest to wreak horrific vengeance on the merchant lord who sold his family into slavery and scarred his visage. The player might declare sneaking into the villa of the merchant to be a challenge, and the wreaking of vengeance on the merchant lord an adventure arch. This would prevent GMs from being able to manipulate the terms of such a set up on the fly, and thus manipulate the story independent of player input.

  3. Neubert--
    The idea of dividing resources into different refreshes is that it opens up more opportunities. If you want, you can easily have a refresh point trigger more than one resource, but if they are pegged to the same trigger than refreshing them separately becomes challenging. It isn't a really powerful tool, per se, but it is more powerful than nothing.

    I think your criticism is valid; it does presuppose the GM has a plan and plot. I'm not sure it would work for all games as posed, but I do think it could grow into something more flexible that would work for all games. I also think it is better than the alternative (the current D&D standard).

    The idea of allowing players to declare refreshes is appealing. When it works, I think it'll work awesome. When it fails, I think it'll fail miserably. Sort of the perennial gamble of RPGs. I think that rule would work great for the best of groups, but would fail with below average groups. I tend to think that rules should be designed to help the below average and get out of the way of the above average.

  4. I'm actually curious how you feel my proposal would have the potential to fail miserably? Is it because you fear players gaming the system and declaring relatively minor things to be adventure arcs? If so, I think that such concerns are warranted but that there's a lot of design space available to help deal with the problem while keeping the story in the hands of the group as a whole rather than just the GM.

    Specifically, if you have incentives elsewhere in the system that push players to accomplish things that are important to their characters (and by proxy are things that the players enjoy), then there's less chance of players screwing around and killing random things for no reason. You wouldn't even need to completely overhaul the xp system-just making all xp rewards quest rewards would go a long way towards preventing that sort of behavior.

    Say you have 3 players:

    One wants to kill stuff, and feel awesome while doing so. She names her character Rachael Stabbington, a badass mercenary who'll do anything for a buck.

    One wants to get indepth into her character's backstory and psychology. She writes up 5 pages of character hooks and connections to the campaign world, creating cultures and NPCs for you to use as you will. Her character is Dame Demira Narvare, sworn knight of the Queen of Falrime.

    One wants to do a little of both, writing up a short paragraph of goals and a rudimentary backstory. He names his character Betram Blackroot, a mysterious sorcerer with an equally murky past.

    Having each player write down goals (or else things that they want their character to do), and having them act towards them in play allows you to give players rewards for the sort of things they want to do. So Stabbington might get to declare refreshes after she impresses a potential employer, wows a group of peasant rubes with a display of badassery, or kills a rival merc who's giving her a bad reputation. Dame Demira might get a refresh when she uncovers the traitor in her lady's court, or when she finds and begins to train a loyal squire etc...

    Or perhaps to reward players helping each other out with character goals, you could have any player's personal refresh also benefiting the party-when Stabbington does something incredibly badass, Dame Demira is heartened and encouraged that she will be able to accomplish her goals with the aid of such an incredible warrior.

  5. Sorry for the delay--

    I see two main ways it could fail hard.
    (1) The players deliberately abuse the system. Realizing that the refresh gets them more resources and that the more resources at their disposal, the more powerful they are, the players describe an act over extremely trivial things. Every battle, every wall climbed, etc is a refresh. Now, that might sound puerile, but this is the community that invented the "bag-of-rats." I also remember when 4e first came out groups arguing that they could out run their enemies by turning the battlemat sideways (so they only moved diagonal) and then insisting the monsters not be able to turn the mat sideways. Admittedly, that is the weirdest argument I've ever heard, but they shared it with pride. If those types of shenanigans are out there, I can't see them not exploiting the system.

    (2) Asymmetrical information. This is the problem I am more concerned about. The players and the GM routinely have asymmetrical information which means asking them to predict some point in the future is problematic.

    Let's say the player's understanding of the adventure so far is that they have to make a three day hike through a haunted forest to an abandoned tower, clear the tower to find the MoonSigil Stone, and use that as a map to hunt down the Shadow Unicorn from whence all Nightmares are spawn during the new moon. They declare a refresh after reaching the tower, figuring the haunted forest will pit some challenges for them, another after the tower, and another after they defeat the Shadow Unicorn.

    What they don't know is that the GM had planned for the hike through the haunted forest to be much more complex. During the hike they'll uncover the reason the forest is haunted and take a sidequest to lift the curse (which helps them out later against the Shadow Unicorn). It is much too much for a single arc.

    So now the GM has to change the adventure, insert his own refreshes (which sort goes against the point of letting players decide), or introduce a mechanic to let players set new refreshes in the middle of an old one. If we allow that, we've just increased the risk of (1) above because players can now reframe anything to heal whenever they need.

    All in all, I like the idea and I think steps could be taken to empower players. But, in my mind, this is one area where I think the information the GM has behind the screen is critical in setting the right balance.