Hit Point Variations: Mana and Madness and Taint, Oh My!

A-Z 2014 HA couple of years ago I wrote a post On Hit Points and Healing, and a couple months after that a post exploring the Implications of Changes to the Hit Point Model. According to my logs, it seems both have been fairly well-received.

It occurred to me recently that the model can be further extended to other purposes. Actually, not just recently, I wrote about this a year ago, too… but with different emphasis, exploring more the idea than the model.

Hard To Kill vs. Hit Points

In the first article I describe a change to the hit point model used in D&D 3.x and Pathfinder that changes play but does not appear to harm balance.

Hit points represent how ‘hard to kill’ a character is, rather than measure durability to physical trauma. A low-level character is pretty easy to kill (low hit points; most attacks can easily kill him). A high-level character is harder to kill — he is tougher, more cunning, luckier, whatever it may be — and the same amount of damage rolled causes less physical trauma than to the lower-level character. The high-level character doesn’t have more meat and thus greater ability to survive trauma, he has a greater ability to avoid trauma. Give him time to take a breather, fix his gear, and patch what small wounds he has taken and he’ll be back to form pretty quickly. He’s still quite functional (endorphins are wonderful things!), but had he stayed in the fight longer he may have been exposed to the blow that actually would have killed him.

Critical hits and systemic damage such as poison or death magic cause actual trauma. Simple rest won’t repair the damage immediately, but longer rest or magic can. It just occurred to me that a ‘critical fumble’ on certain saving throws could result in injuries considered ‘actual trauma’ as well — fail a Reflex save against a fireball normally and you’re briefly dazzled (not the condition) by flame and smoke, choking on smoke, somewhat singed and tender to the touch, but not hurt that badly really… but fumble the save and you’re at least mildly cooked and will need some time to fully recover.

This change does not affect how long a particular fight can last. A character who goes in with thirty hit points still has thirty hit points, and only thirty hit points, to last him the fight, assuming he doesn’t get healed during the fight. The only meta-game effect really is that he doesn’t need to make use of a healing stick (wand of cure light wounds, which seems to be standard-issue gear for most PC parties as soon as it can be acquired) between fights. It extends the adventuring day and largely avoids the need of an item that annoys me (and many other GMs).

“Hard to Kill” can, after a fashion, be seen as a resource that can be used (or taken away…) and recovers at different rates depending how it happened. Very quickly for things that could best be limited ‘per fight’, and somewhat more slowly for things that might be limited ‘per day’, or take even longer or require specific action for things that recover more slowly or with more difficulty.

There are other things that can fit this model, I explore some below.

Magic Points, or Mana

Magic points are another resource that could be used this way. Spell casting and some magic items might be okay to be used frequently, many times per day, but should still be limited in how many times they can be used in a particular ‘fight’. Others might be better limited on a ‘per day’ basis, or even longer.

Assuming spells are cast with a cost similar to those in the Expanded Psionics Handbook (D&D 3.x-era book; I don’t have the Pathfinder equivalent at hand to compare), where cost is equal to the caster level of the spell, most full casters could expect to be able to cast  several spells at full power each combat. [This may need tuning]. However, if some, or many, spells require ‘longer term’ mana to cast, a caster may be exhausted pretty quickly.

That is, as long as you stick to magic missile (decent damage to one target, or a little damage to many, and unavoidable — no attack roll or save) you might be able to get several off every fight, and as long as you aren’t exhausted you can afford to cast some utility spells many times per day, but you might be limited in the number of times each day you can cast fireball (good damage against many targets). The Trailblazer Rest Mechanic had some fairly functional guidelines.

Some spells and magic items use short-term mana, some use longer-term mana. You can use some things many times per day, and some only a limited number of times (and it may take quite some time to recover, if you use a lot of long-term mana in a short time). I like how this feels.

Sanity Points

This is an idea I hadn’t much explored with this model, but I think there are some possibilities here.

Some games try to model peoples’ reaction to horrifying and terrifying things. Call of Cthulhu is the premiere example, of course.

In Call of Cthulhu each character has a Sanity score (SAN, initially equal to POW * 5, as I recall; Call of Cthulhu d20 used Wisdom * 5). Certain events and experiences cause the character to have to make a ‘SAN check’ (Sanity-based saving throw, basically) or take SAN damage… and possibly even on a successful SAN check. Some things do ‘minor SAN damage’ (d6 points, say), others can do much more (bigger die rolls).

What if instead we used ‘sanity points’ that are much like hit points in this model? Roll your Sanity Dice (modified by ability score… I don’t know yet which one) to find your base sanity point total. When you run out of sanity points, you go mad.

Perhaps ‘mundane horrors’ (mutilated body where one isn’t expected) cause ‘short-term sanity damage’ — go outside, get some fresh air, try not to think about it, and you’ll be fine (go ‘rest’). Perhaps ‘paranormal horrors’ (mi-go and other Mythos creatures) do ‘longer-term sanity damage’ — you’ll have nightmares for days. The truly horrifying realities might do permanent sanity damage, per Call of Cthulhu effects.

In fact, let’s make a small adjustment: sanity damage comes in basically three grades: short-term, long-term, and permanent. Making your save (‘SAN check’) might mean either negating/reducing the damage or reducing it one grade (which for short-term damage is the same thing: you were spooked, but only for a moment), failing your save means you take the damage normally, and botching the save means it actually gets worse.

It might be worth adjusting the time scale a bit as well. Perhaps all ‘short-term’ sanity damage is recovered on a schedule more similar to long-term hit point damage or magic point expenditure and ‘long-term’ is measured in weeks or months. ‘Permanent’ is still permanent, of course.

Speaking of permanent sanity damage or expenditure, in Call of Cthulhu you take permanent sanity damage when you gain Mythos Lore skill, or learn spells. I see no real reason to not do this for Mythos-related things. Learning ranks  in Knowledge(Mythos) — or Knowledge(The Planes) might be more generic — costs you some amount of sanity. In Pathfinder, maybe d4 points of sanity per rank, since you can have a number of ranks no higher than your Hit Dice. This should stay on the sane side… on average, but you’ll be somewhat sensitive and excitable. Similarly, learning Mythos spells (not all spells, just those that are mind-warping) might do permanent sanity damage.

Casting Mythos spells also causes sanity damage, probably the long-term kind (with a successful save reducing it to short-term, and a botched save making it permanent — all Mythos casters go mad in the end, unless they die first).

What does this mean? Baseline sanity points scale with level, nominally linearly but permanent expenditure or damage can affect that. High-level characters can have many more sanity points than in the Call of Cthulhu rules, but low-level characters have many, many fewer. Your normal human, on catching a glimpse of True Reality and recognizing it for what it is, is likely to snap like a twig, while the high-level characters can withstand quite a bit more (and in such a setting likely have some permanent sanity damage anyway). Assuming, of course, that you have characters who survive to reach high levels.

“Taint” or Corruption

Some settings have the concept of ‘taint’, some physical or metaphysical corruption of the body, mind, and/or soul. Rokugan (setting of Legend of the Five Rings) is probably one of the better examples, and Michael Stackpole’s story Born a Hero could be another example.

Over time as a character is exposed to taint, the taint invades the character’s body — something like a ‘physical sanity’, if you will. Given sufficient taint it may be possible for a character’s body and mind to become twisted.

As with sanity, I can imagine two or three grades of tainting. Short-term taint might be accumulated by brief or light exposure to taint (traveling in tainted lands, fighting tainted creatures, and so on). Get away from the source of taint and it can be shaken off fairly quickly. Long-term taint comes with longer or more severe exposure to taint (spending a long time tainted — having taken ‘taint damage’ — or being bathed in the blood of tainted creatures). Using certain magics could qualify as either. I expect permanent taint comes when a character is actually warped by their exposure to taint.

When a character takes sufficient ‘taint damage’ to be reduced to ‘0 taint’, that character can suffer a permanent change. The scope of the change might be based in part on the character’s ‘base taint points’, or how much long-term taint damage he currently has, or something else. Small changes are likely to be superficial or cosmetic, and greater changes can be quite severe. A change made this way might reduce permanent taint score, if you expect that the more you are tainted, the more susceptible you are in future.

Even without reducing permanent taint points, I would want to know how much a character is tainted (how much they have been warped). If this equals or exceeds the character’s taint score, the character is irreversibly tainted (and probably an NPC now).

As with sanity and magic points, it might be possible to spend taint points — or ‘accept taint’ — to fuel special abilities. Abilities gained by taint warp are especially appropriate. Taint points spent this way may be short-term or long-term, depending on effect.

Again as with sanity, the time scale for recovering from taint damage might be longer than for normal damage (days and weeks or months, rather than rest or days).

Low-level characters warped and lost are likely to suffer relatively minor actual effect (they don’t have the capacity for more) but are still lost. A powerful character warped and lost is likely to be an abomination. A powerful character who is warped but not yet lost might be riding the edge of disaster….

Closing Comments

I don’t have all the details worked out, but it looks to me like the short-term, long-term, and permanent ‘damage’ model can be applied in several ways for fairly different purposes. Each of these measures different ways a character can be affected by situations, all scale with level, and several can involve risky decisions by the character.

“Do I sacrifice my sanity to learn forbidden magic?”

“Do I accept the taint of the Shadowlands and hopefully gain power to fight the Oni?”

These look like good questions to have come up in a game.


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