On Hit Points and Healing

I’ve been thinking recently about healing out of combat, and it’s led me through some strange places.

Overall, though, I think they could make for longer ‘days’ and simpler play overall, and reasonably get rid of that stupid healing stick that it seems like everyone carries in his pocket… which can only, in my opinion, be a good thing.

Existing Healing Models in D&D

Out of Combat Healing in AD&D

One hit point per day of rest.  I think the rule was the same, but I can’t seem to find it in the BECMI Rules Cyclopedia.

Out of Combat Healing in D&D 3.x

Once a party bootstraps and reaches a certain level of wealth, one of the most efficient ways to spend their money is to ensure they have a wand of cure light wounds available at all times.  This provides about 275 points of healing (mean; 1d8+1 fifty times is 5.5 hit points on average fifty times, and with that many rolls you’re going to end up quite close to the mean).  At low levels this provides multiple hit point top-ups per character, greatly extending the party’s combat durability for the day.  At high levels it doesn’t stretch as far, but they become proportionately cheaper compared to the treasure the PCs can expect to acquire in the additional fights.

TL;DR: you can reasonably expect PCs to go into every fight with full hit points.

You can also heal naturally, one hit point per level after a night of rest, doubled for a full day of bed rest.

Out of Combat Healing in D&D 4e

During a short rest (five minute rest), you can spend as many healing surges as you want, recovering 1/4 your maximum hit points with each one.

During an extended rest (6+ hours, at least 12 hours between them) you recover all hit points without spending any healing surges (and in fact, recover any healing surges spent prior to the extended rest).

Out of Combat Healing in Trailblazer

When you take a rest in Trailblazer, there are two primary effects.  All ongoing spells expire, and you recover a number of hit points equal to half your maximum.

Proposed Healing Model

This is where I might have to talk fast, since it took me a couple of days to accept it myself.

What are Hit Points?

Step the first, we should review what hit points really measure.  Doug said to me once something rather like “hit points are the measure of a creature’s ‘hard-to-kill'”.

At various times hit points have been described as “fate, luck, toughness, and other things that prevent a character from getting killed”, and similar ideas.  That is, “how much hard-to-kill” the creature has.

It does not measure ‘just’ meat.  If it did, it would be pretty hard to have a human with more hit points than a horse, let alone something like a bear.  But in D&D high-level characters do, because they have lots of hard-to-kill.  Whether because the character has unnatural durable thews, has an indomitable will and desire to live, has fantastic agility and ability to avoid serious injury, has been touched by the gods, or is just a lucky son of a bitch, he has a lot of hard-to-kill.  Attacks that would kill a lesser man leave him relatively unscathed — a little bruised or cut up, but otherwise mostly okay.

Until he runs out of hard-to-kill.  At that point he has been beaten down, he is mentally exhausted and gives up, his injuries and fatigue hamper is ability to dodge, the gods forsake him (or vice-versa), or his luck runs out… and the next attack might be enough to kill him.

I have seen a similar description of hit points in previous editions of D&D (or AD&D).  It works pretty well as an abstraction, even to the point of explaining why cure light wounds can fully heal a peasant but do almost nothing for a high-level fighter: the peasant has very little hard-to-kill, and thus is easily restored to what little he has, while the hardened warrior who has faced down armies and demons (and perhaps armies of demons) has a great deal of hard-to-kill, and minor magicks to little to recover it.

Losing Hard-to-Kill

I’ve spoken to several practiced (read: black belt) martial artists, at least one of which has competed on the Canadian national team, and they’ve confirmed that in most fights, most ‘successful attacks’ really don’t cause much injury.  However, they can easily disorient, distract, or inhibit the ability to fight — they wear down the fighter’s hard-to-kill until the opponent can land a winning (which I will take as ‘killing’ for this purpose) attack.

Being punched in the face doesn’t necessarily cause any severe damage.  Even a broken nose is not that serious an injury.  However, it’s hard to fight successfully when your face is suddenly pain and you can’t see because your eyes are watering.  Within the bounds of this model, it is not unreasonable to consider such an attack to take away a fair bit of “hard-to-kill” — if you can’t see, it’s much easier to hit you again.

This sort of reasoning can lead to death spiral mechanics, but I think they are not needed (especially since they tend to make for distinctly unfun play).

Granted, the above suggests it the model best suits unarmed combat, but I think it can apply to armed combat as well.  I have seen various armed styles that make regular use of nonlethal attacks to inhibit or otherwise reduce the opponent’s ability to fight effectively before landing a ‘serious injury’.  If you can’t reach his head or heart, go for what you can reach — hands, arms, legs, whatever, and work him down.  Shield bashing can be a remarkably effective technique, even though it often does relatively little trauma.

Recovering Hard-to-Kill

Here is where things take a sudden jump.  What if most ‘damage’ sustained in a fight is simply wearing down hard-to-kill, and not significant trauma?  If this is the case, it should be relatively easy to recover, so let’s try a simple rule.

When you take a rest out of combat, you catch your breath, clear your mind, refocus your will, clean and bind wounds, and so on.  You recover all hard-to-kill (that is, hit points) that are not associated with serious trauma or systemic injury.

Perhaps the simplest definition of serious trauma would be a successful critical hit.

“‘Put a bandage on it’?  I can see your lung!

Systemic damage?  That could be caused by poison or disease, probably by necrotic/negative energy damage.  Possibly falling, I don’t know yet.

As long as you survive a fight, you get back probably a fair amount of the hard-to-kill you’ve used by taking the time to clean up and regroup before moving on.

Consequences of this Change

I see the following consequences of this change:

  • This should do quite a bit to extend the adventuring day, at least as far as hit point damage is concerned, without requiring the ubiquitous healing stick.
    • In fact, I’m pretty sure the healing stick first showed up in D&D 3e.  Let’s get rid of it, it serves little purpose in combat and is no longer needed out of combat, and could cause this new scheme to not work right.
    • If someone wants to burn up a really big healing stick (staff of healing) on out of combat healing, I won’t stop him.  But I might point and laugh.
  • This should do nothing to extend a particular combat because it does not provide a way to recover hard-to-kill during a fight.
  • A critical hit with a greataxe now has more effect than three hits with a greataxe, which should make the critical ‘bigger’ than before.
  • No real extra work for the DM (the monster goes down, he goes down, and I don’t care if he gets up).
    • In fact, may make it easier to take prisoners, simply rule that when a creature is out of hard-to-kill he’s helpless and can be rescued if desired, or left to (probably) die.  It might be worth considering the attack to be fatal anyway if the last one was a critical hit — you wanted to capture him, but he was so out of hard-to-kill that he ran himself right onto your blade.
    • For that matter, ‘0 hit points’ might now just mean helpless.  Forget the fallen until you have time to do something with him.  Unless he has a way to act while helpless.
  • Over the course of a day, the party can still get worn down (by criticals, if nothing else), but is unlikely to suddenly ‘run out’ (as they might with the healing stick).

Secondary Changes

Other things to consider when making this change:

  • As mentioned above, lose the healing stick.
  • I want to simplify spell durations anyway, and Trailblazer seems to have a decent mechanism here.  Let’s say that all “combat” duration spells expire when you rest… so do you rest and recover hard-to-kill, or keep your buffs up?  This can provide an incentive to keep moving, which in turn reduces the “start all fights with full hit points” behavior mentioned earlier.
    • If this is a tough decision, things are right.

Closing Comments

I haven’t tried this change in play.  It seems consistent with where the game has been going for a while (D&D 3.5 it just became a paid-for tax — you could earn enough money with the extra encounters to pay for the wands of cure light wounds, in D&D 4e and Trailblazer it’s pretty close to built-in, as long as you don’t get your hit points get too low before you rest).  It doesn’t add work to me, it makes some effects a little scarier compared to normal damage, it may make it easier to not-kill things (when it’s out of hard-to-kill and helpless you can do what you want, so if you want to capture you can).

This looks worth a try, I think.

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25 Comments to "On Hit Points and Healing"

  1. October 21, 2011 - 2:32 am | Permalink

    People can be surprisingly hard to kill. Even people who’ve suffered a mortal wound and are on their way to the great sorting algorithm in the sky can hang on for longer than you’d think (certainly longer than the few seconds you usually get in D&D). I’ve started tending towards making death “non-mechanical” for this reason. Once you’ve got them helpless you can just chop their heads off anyway, so it just helps avoid awkward moments when you accidentally one-shot a PC miles from the nearest cleric. :-)

    Presumably, then, the staff of healing is primarily useful for dealing with aggravated damage from criticals etc. Speaking of which, does that work by reducing your maximum HP for the duration of the injury? Or inflict some condition instead? If you wanted to get all detailed you could have muscle tear (-1 Str), concussion (-1 Int), and so on. A bit more bookkeeping but it does distinguish clearly between the two. A few options for applying such conditions: choose one randomly, or randomly based on damage type, or maybe use a sort of “retroactive called shot” and let the player pick?

  2. Chakat Firepaw's Gravatar Chakat Firepaw
    October 21, 2011 - 10:39 am | Permalink

    This sounds like a good way to use hit points not all being meat as more than a hand wave without adding major mechanical changes, (e.g. soak dice).

    I might just try this out.

  3. Doug Lampert's Gravatar Doug Lampert
    October 21, 2011 - 3:13 pm | Permalink

    The term I use for HP is “Mojo that protects you”, but “hard to kill” works fine too. The herowars implementation of Glorantha that existed between RuneQuest III and the current Mongoose game had free HP recovery between battles.

    The Homebrew I’m working on now has HP (mojo that protects) and DC (damage capacity, aka meat). If you take more than half HP in a combat scene then recovering HP requires one mojo or one DC (depending on whether the scene was physical combat or something else), but otherwise HP recovery is free. DC recovery times are very long (I keep worrying too long, but I want DC damage to wear you down for the adventure not just for one day and serious wounds should take a very long time to heal).

    I don’t really like “crits bypass HP” unless skill somehow makes crits much less likely. Otherwise you’ll find that high level combat is “hit each other till someone gets lucky and crits”.

  4. EKB's Gravatar EKB
    October 22, 2011 - 1:57 am | Permalink

    I’m another one who dislikes “crits bypass HP” and who doesn’t care all that much for crits in general. IMHO one of the best features of the 3e crit system is the way it inhibited DMs from applying even more extreme crazy-stupid critical hit systems of their own. So I’m skeptical of anything that makes crits “bigger” even if, as you point out, it doesn’t result in “crits bypass HP.”

    Setting that aside…

    Another concern is that no one ever used the “natural” healing rules in older editions if they could possibly help it. Instead they used healing sticks (or in older editions, healing potions) if they could at all afford them. I suspect that the same effect will happen here: Players will still do their best to get healing sticks or healing juice of some sort to heal that last ~15% of hit point loss from crits, applying the healing juice after the new non-combat healing. They really really won’t want to wait for that last ~15% to heal naturally, and trying to push them into doing so will be like bailing with a sieve unless you’re willing to take some incredibly drastic measures and to force them on the players with a will of iron.

  5. November 21, 2011 - 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Might I suggest taking a look at the luck VS body point mechanics of Neoclassical Geek Revival? combined with how healing works it may be of interest to you.


  6. SpaceBadger's Gravatar SpaceBadger
    January 21, 2012 - 10:37 pm | Permalink

    This is some good food for thought. We’ve fooled around with a couple of different ways of dividing hit points in to what shake you up but can be recovered vs what really injures you and can kill you quickly – wounds vs vitality, HP vs CON, etc. Looking at what you’ve done here, I don’t think what we’ve been trying to achieve is really a way to kill characters quickly (not fun, who wants that?) but a way to make some injuries more serious so that characters will try to avoid that damage. So maybe certain don’t really do more serious damage as in making you die faster, but only in taking longer to recover from… yeah, I like that.

    For book-keeping on character sheets, this also suggests to me that instead of scratching out and reducing HP as damage is taken, we just leave the HP number along, and in a different space (or even just on scratch paper) keep a rising total of “hard-to-kill” damage taken, and a separate rising total of “real” damage taken – and when those two numbers add up to HP the character is down or knocked out or helpless. This would also allow for separate tracking of other types of damage such s nonlethal – when all three numbers add up to your HP total, you’re down/helpless. Although with this type definition and recovery of “hard-to-kill”, there seems little reason to separately track nonlethal.

  7. SpaceBadger's Gravatar SpaceBadger
    January 22, 2012 - 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Rather than having =all= hard-to-kill regenerate fully between encounters, I’ve been looking at various healing surge proposals, although I still haven’t found one I really like. I agree that h-t-k as we’re discussing it here should mostly come back between encounters, or you’re just going to have parties carry healing sticks to accomplish that anyway, but it seems that some mechanic is needed to say how fast that happens – otherwise, what about when enemy reinforcements arrive quickly? Also I kinda like some limit on getting back h-t-k within the same day; going back to your martial arts example, any kind of strenuous contact sport is going to take it out of you over the course of repeated games/fights in one day, and a weekend tournament can leave you feeling pretty beat-up and needing some serious R&R to get back that h-t-k you’ve lost. (I’m still exploring around your new blog format here; last time I visited was a few years ago and there was a different kind of index to the articles, so I don’t know if you have written about healing surges or not.)

  8. SpaceBadger's Gravatar SpaceBadger
    January 23, 2012 - 6:27 am | Permalink

    *headslap* Search function, duh! I should have tried that.

    I see what you’re saying about the accumulated real damage from crits. We play with a little higher hit points, so I’m not sure I want to rely on the real damage from crits as the only carry-over between encounters, although referring back to your first post in this thread I agree that it should be pretty easy to recover h-t-k between fights, or else they just solve the problem w healing sticks if available, or one encounter per day if healing is limited, and I don’t want to encourage that.

    I think in my sword & sorcery game, which is grittier w healing magic rare, I’ll probably go w real damage taking days or longer to heal as you’ve suggested above, while h-t-k can mostly be healed between encounters by some surge mechanism (better if there is some time to actually rest/bandage before moving on), but if you’ve been through multiple fights you run up against some limit and need a good night’s rest to get your h-t-k back up to snuff.

    For my more standard “D&D” flavored game, I guess I’d use the same rules for real damage and h-t-k, but there would be some healing magic available, just not a cheap and easy healing stick or equivalent – it would cost something in terms of resources/spells if you need to heal up more h-t-k than your surges can cover, or need to heal up some real damage without taking the normal amount of time to do it.

  9. SpaceBadger's Gravatar SpaceBadger
    January 24, 2012 - 11:59 am | Permalink

    Cool. Marked to look at later. Thanks!

  10. GreyKnight's Gravatar GreyKnight
    September 17, 2012 - 3:35 am | Permalink

    5e is using a healing-stick-tax replacement of the following nature:
    * your hit dice double as a “recovery dice” pool; during a short rest (~10 minutes to catch your breath and stick on some bandages) you can use up any number of your recovery dice to recover hit points. Eventually you’ll run out of recovery dice, so:
    * during a “long rest” (8 hours) your recovery dice pool resets, and you also regain all hit points. There is the option to skip that last part, which is my personal preference.

    This means you can recover piecewise during the day and hence last longer, but there is still a limit to how much you can do before you need a long rest. Incidentally, other things that used to be “per-day” (e.g. spells) are tied to “long rest” now, which is IMO a bit tidier.

  11. Frendle's Gravatar Frendle
    March 6, 2014 - 4:44 pm | Permalink

    I have been using the hit point “Hard to kill” rules for about 10 meetings.

    Since my campaign is E6, the availability of cure sticks in mass is pretty limited. There really aren’t that many casters of 5th level or higher (It’s rare for any NPC to be higher than 2nd level) and they don’t, for the most part, make items for sale.

    So using the hit point recovery “Hard to kill” option significantly extends the group’s time in the field. Since this is a non-linier sandbox campaign it really makes a difference.

    I have a spreadsheet with a macro that helps keeps track of the real/normal damage for me. I didn’t want my players to have to keep track, since I want them playing, not doing math :)

    Also, I am having the players roll their defensive rolls (their + to AC+d20 against Opponents atk+11) so I am no longer having to roll hits for all NPC’s. It’s kind of nice when they cut their own heads off, instead of me having to do it.

    On a couple of occasions where the players got in chase and evade situations with Orc bands etc. having to choose to rest versus keep going versus “You hide, we’ll lead them away so you can rest” turned into a lot more fun than rolling 1d8 +CL 20 times in a row….

    Here are the rules I am using:
    * 20 minutes of rest will recover half hit points minus real damage. A successful heal check will cut that time in half.

    * (total damage – real damage)/2 = Hit Point regen after 20 minute rest.
    Regen + previous hit point total = current hit points.

    *One hour of rest will recover full hit points minus real damage. A successful heal check will cut that time in half.

    *Total Hit points – Real Damage = current hit points

    *Rest = Not moving more than 20 feet, no combat, magic, device activation (except healing potions) or using skills other than heal, perception or knowledge checks. If combat occurs you can voluntarily remain flat footed and not take any part in the combat to retain your resting state if you succeed at a fortitude save. DC 10+ER.

    *Curative magic will first reduce the real damage as well as adding to the current hit point total.

  12. March 7, 2014 - 5:24 am | Permalink

    I just realised, the personal shields in Halo work like this. The shield provides “hard-to-kill” that gets worn down by attacks. When the shield collapses, one good shot can drop you; better find somewhere to rest for a bit to get it back up (which luckily only takes a matter of seconds; it’s an action game, so compressed timescales are to be expected).

  13. Frendle's Gravatar Frendle
    March 26, 2014 - 7:22 pm | Permalink

    So I ran my group through a mini Campaign based loosely on the venerable Giants modules, but with far more outdoor locations, (They relished the opportunity to be Super Heroes again) using these healing rules and here is what we found. They were 16th level.

    First, I did not do anything to limit their access to healing sticks/potions.

    Second, I made sure there was at least one priest, arcane and mundane in the group. In fact there was a Fighter, Barbarian (Cause I can’t get him to play any other class) Cleric, Rogue and Sorcerer. I sent a Monk NPC with them.

    Third, I asked them to set up their skills/feats with the idea that they had been using this rule since their first level.

    Fourth, even though my group isn’t much into min maxing, I reserved the right to veto or alter their builds to suit the purpose of the campaign, namely to satisfy my curiosity concerning this rule. “This isn’t supposed to be fun, it’s for science dang it!”

    By class:

    He experienced the least impact on his gameplay. He still prayed for the same spells as he normally would have. He still packed his bags with plenty of heal sticks, though he used them somewhat less than he normally would have. Particularly during the rest periods for regaining spells. He put full ranks into Healing, which he probably wouldn’t have before.

    Of course the rogue put full ranks into UMD so that he could use wands without fail. He was fine and really didn’t change his game play much at all, again only in that he used his heal sticks somewhat less, especially during the rest time. He didn’t put any points into healing, which he later regretted. More on that to follow….

    Just to be a smarty pants my daughter took UMD so that she could use heal sticks. Kids…. It was a redundant choice really since you only need a couple folks in the group who can do out of combat healing. Since she had limited skill points, she also didn’t take healing…. Dun, duh duuuhhhh!

    The fighter started out playing pretty straight, but early on in the second session figured something out. He was no longer tethered to the cleric.

    He had not taken more than a few healing potions in his load out, trying to keep in the spirit of the thing. He did however take full ranks in healing….
    He took about half points in stealth, which is what he usually does, “Best time to be able to hide is when you aren’t wearing any armor.”

    At one point the action called for him to “Hold the bridge” which really amounted to him keeping watch on a choke point while the rest of the party got far away. He figured it was going to be a noble death, which it surely would have been, but for the fact that he was able to fight a patrol off then rest waiting for the next one to come along while regaining HP’s.

    Without his ranks in healing, which sped up the time it took to get to full health, he would have been nickeled and dimed to death even with the ability to get his health back.

    Then as he made his way back to the group, he had a couple run ins and he was able to fight them off, take off his armor and hide and put it back on when he was full.

    I know this is an unusual circumstance and not at all likely to alter the typical game play of fighters in and of itself, but it was fun for him nonetheless.

    Monk and the Barbarian:
    I’m going to lump the Monk and the Barbarian together since they were played by the same person. I’m bound and determined to get him to play something other than a great axe wielding, insane damage sponge.

    Observing what the Fighter was able to do, it occurred to him that the Monk and Barbarian could make use of that as well. At one point the group wanted some reconnaissance done, but it needed to have the capability to become reconnaissance in force if needed. So he volunteered the services of the monk and the barbarian to go find out what was around the bend and over the hill.

    He confirmed that here is where the rule really shines. He was able to stay in the field much longer with the two of them, fighting, hiding, resting, fighting, spying etc. Perhaps I was a little lenient on him when it came to pushing the pursuit, but still….

    Oh, and what the Rogue learned… that hiding and waiting to regain his health by resting is much safer than pulling out a wand and healing yourself under certain circumstances. He was the only casualty….

    What I’ve concluded in running a low magic, low level E6 world and admittedly a short dip in the higher levels:

    Arcane casters probably only change a little, especially bards. Their survivability away from the priestly classes is really dependent on things other than retaining and recouping health.

    Priests, including Rangers and Paladins, hardly change at all. Rangers might benefit a little from not having to use magic to recoup health when doing so could give away their position etc. (lesson learned by a certain pancake flat rogue) Not really a big deal which would change how they play the game, lump the typical UMD rogue in here.

    The most important change this brings about is how it gives new viability to some old archetypes for melee classes. The wandering Monk, the Spell hating Barbarian, the Fighter selling his sword where he can all become more than just interesting backstories, they could become the basis of a successful group. Imagine playing the game without a healing class in the group and UMD gone as a skill option. A group of Fighters, Barbarians, Monks, Rogues, maybe even a Wizard sounds like a serious challenge and a ton of fun.

    Not a play style for the faint of heart, or the min maxer, but I’d love to try it out.

    PS. Incidentally I think the best way to limit wand use without breaking the game would be to add a rule that wands have to be attuned to their user, and only one wand of a given magic school can be attuned at a time. So out of combat healing via wands is possible, but not infinite and probably more expensive since you wouldn’t want your only heal stick to be CLW.

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