D&D 5e: Hit Points

Another in my highly irregular series of “crap I wrote on WOTC’s board that I’m reposting here in order to pretend I have content”.

OK, first of all, you need to read this, which is Mike Mearls’ take on hit points in 5e. Not “D&D Next”. Please. “5e”.

So here’s what I wrote in reply:

Mrrrm…. I sort of like the concept, but I have a few issues. First, while it’s mostly a matter of narrative, we’ve always tended to describe injuries as dramatically increasing in severity as we approach 0 hit points, not “He’s a little battered” right up until he goes negative. Sure, that’s a matter of habit and custom and 35 years of DMing, but it’s a hard habit to break. :)  Perhaps more importantly, if you define hit points this way, then how does a DM narrate, say, an impaling attack that causes someone to be pinned? (Many 4e powers do this, as do many 3e special abilities.) Acid, cold, fire, lightning… it’s going to be hard to narrate all of those convincingly as just scratches and dings.

Second, I think 5e’s design is too concerned with pick up games and one-off games and small party games. Making this kind of healing a module is a fine idea; making it core is more problematic.

Third, I suppose I’ll have to see the mechanics, but how do healing skills help with this? Does a ranger who knows “healing herbs and poultices” give a bonus to his allies, for instance, or a wizard who has studied anatomy?

If hit dice represent mundane healing, will mundane factors (no bandages, filthy conditions, etc) reduce this capacity? Probably not for everyone, but it would be a good optional rule for gritty games where resource management counts.

I think you can do a lot of mechanical tricks with the “hit dice” concept, which is a bonus.

I’d like to keep “bloodied” in as a conditional modifier. It’s a good idea and one of the “Top 10″ innovations from 4e, IMO. It’s even migrated to our PF campaign. It has no mechanical effect there, but a player will call out “bloodied!” to let us know he’s wounded (well, his character is. Usually his character. Almost always.), or the DM will use it to let us know we’ve finally managed to really hurt the monster. (To a chorus of “What, you mean we JUST bloodied it?”)

I also wrote this, a little later:

I suppose I should ask this… if the system is designed so that you can expect to survive fights without an in-combat healer (cleric, warlord, druid, bard), then, what is the benefit to having them? They will have to be designed so that their healing abilities represent part of their “value”, but if that value is not needed due to how encounters are expected to be designed, then, they’re going to be underpowered in their secondary role. Further, if you argue that “Well, it’s a lot EASIER with a cleric”, that’s fine, but then how do you design an adventure which can “work” with both magical and non-magical healing? (By this I mean, “If you have magical healing, you won’t need to rest for a day after 2 fights, so we can set up the scenario to occur in a shorter span of time. If you don’t have magical healing, you’ll most likely need to camp after the first two encounters, which means the orc shaman has time to summon Cthulhu while you’re napping.”)

This latter one might need some expansion here (see! Real content!), to be more clear, and because I never say in a hundred words what I can say in a thousand. Or more. If “healing after the fight” and “no need for a cleric” (which, at this stage of the playtest, means “no need for a healer”, as only the four core classes are being developed, so please don’t get nitpicky and say “Oh, but not needing a cleric doesn’t mean you don’t need a healer at all”, because, right now, at this point, at the stage the game is currently at, the only healers are clerics) are core mechanical concepts, this implies that basic fight design is going to assume you can survive to heal after the fight without a cleric. The “standard, balanced” encounter will not require in-combat healing to survive.

Which means:

a)Those parts of a cleric’s design which are devoted to healing are not needed by the basic game design; those parts which aren’t are, by definition, secondary. That is, if we want to say a cleric is “Half healing, half melee”, then, if the healing isn’t actually needed to survive a fight, then you’ve got half a fighter when you could have a whole fighter, or a whole wizard, or whatever.

Or:

b)Healing without magic is time consuming and limited; your total daily fighting capacity is much less. This is strongly implied by the article, and I guess we’ll know for sure in three days. (Why they’re being so coy when the playtest is public and three days away, I don’t know. Just tell us the actual mechanics you’re using, dammit!) I do not object to this at all; it’s a very good way to distinguish between magical and non magical healing. But… this means that a party with a cleric might be able to complete a particular task or quest in one day while a party without one will not, which means any adventure designed without exact foreknowledge of what the party makeup will be risks being either too easy (you build it for a non-cleric party) or too hard (the party has to battle several times to get to the end goal, which is going to happen at a specific time; if they nap in between, they miss it.)

I should note a pretty good answer to ‘b’ is “Well, then the party better find a clever way to avoid some of those encounters” or “The DM should change the adventure!”, and that’s fine for a lot of cases. It’s problematic in any kind of structured play, where you don’t want DM subjectivity giving one group an easy out because he like their cunning plan, while another DM thinks their cunning plan is Baldric-quality and doesn’t let it work.

Further, it’s emblematic of a common thread I see running through a lot of Mike’s pronouncements, the idea that the game will run the same no matter what rules modules you’re using, and, frankly, given how smart Mike is, and what a good designer he is (and those two statements were not sarcasm, irony, or any such thing; I mean them absolutely and sincerely), I’m really finding it hard to understand how he can think this. He knows, he knows very, very, well, how much subtle changes to rules change how the game is played. A feat, power, skill, or spell can become overpowered, or useless, based on which modules might be used. Changing how often characters can recover resources changes how much they can do in an in-game day, which changes how the DM has to structure events. Even in a sandbox game with as much player freedom as possible, the amount of “stuff” a character can do before needing to turn in for the night greatly impacts how you design the sandbox, how far you can expect players to explore, how clever they need to be to exceed the expected limits. In a more structure adventure, it becomes even more important to have solid expectations of what you can do.

FantasyCraft has options and dials you can set for an adventure, or for a campaign, and these have a mechanical impact that ripples through the system. Dials that make things easier for players increase the resources the GM has to build encounters, and vice-versa. I’ve not seen a hint that 5e intends to do this, though it’s so early in the process I might be making false assumptions. Nonetheless, the message from Mike’s posts is “Everyone gets to play the D&D they want to play, all at the same time, and it all works!” is the design goal — and I frankly can’t see that being possible. A modular system is great, but then you need to have tools to adjust and tweak each encounter, NPC, etc, to be balanced with the modules you’re using — not at all impossible, but counter to the “Sit down, open the box, and just PLAY!, dammit!” design goal.

I’ll probably have a lot to say in three days…which means I’ll get around to saying it in thirty or forty.

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2 Responses to D&D 5e: Hit Points

  1. Philo Pharynx says:

    In 4e you can get by without a healer, but the assumption is that most parties have one. Those who don’t have a bit more challenge. I think that’s going to be the assumption for 5e. Also, there’s another layer that can affect this. If you don’t have a healer, but you have healing potions and wands on top of natural healing then you’re in a grey area. Likewise having a cleric and using this natural healing rule will play differently to having a cleric without natural healing.

    As for the “hit die” concept, I see this as a good way to model the warlord as a healer. Since he’s not doing anything magical, I see him as allowing people to use their natural resources better. Perhaps he gives a bonus or a bigger die type or just using hit dice during combat. He won’t be as good of a healer as a cleric, but he’ll have other abilities to balance this. Likewise, I see some themes giving a bonus to healing.

    As for the modules affecting adventures, I think there will be a standard set of modules for organized play and this will be the baseline most modules will be written around. If enough grognards jump on the 5e bandwagon (which I doubt), then there will probably also be a set of “old school standard options” emerge as well. Sadly, this will probably lead to “civil edition war” as people argue the merits of different combinations.

    And bloodied is bloody useful. It’s even easy to import into games that have different kinds of health levels.

  2. My group has also brought the bloodied condition from 4e into our Pathfinder game. Like you it has no mechanical effect – its just such a good descriptive term (and I no longer have to answer ‘how does he look?” after every single attack).

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