In the first two parts of this series we examined alternative approaches to the simulation of injuries that were written cold, without the benefit of actual use in play. In this third and final part, I will describe a third – but this is an update on a variation that I have actually used (and use) in one of my campaigns, Shards Of Divinity. The updates will represent the benefit of hindsight and actual playtesting.
I started work on the third and final part of this series expecting it to be a big article, but the size has proven to be TOO big for one post. After some hurried rescheduling, I’ve divided it in two – the first half today, and the second half for this Thursday. I would normally rewrite the article to separate the two parts more completely, but attempts to do so in this case were less than successful. So, unfortunately, part 1 will start lines of discussion that won’t be completed until later this week. Sorry about that…
Although I hadn’t noted it when first drafting the series, it worked out that the first variant lowered the fantasy element in favor of a more gritty, reality-based environment, the second was relatively neutral in that respect, and this is something of a high-fantasy concept.
In practice, the Healing Imperative approach, also referred to as the Differential Damage approach, shares a number of concepts with the earlier alternatives, as you’ll see when we get into specifics. But I wanted to start this article by drawing the reader’s attention to a couple of larger issues. In particular, I wanted to emphasize how changing the damage handling system even minimally alters the look and feel of combat within the game, and of its consequences, and by extension, alters the atmosphere of the campaign.
Of course, this is only part of the story of distinguishing one campaign from another; you need the encounters and adventures that you design to do their share as well, and we could argue about which is the dominant factor until the turn of the century without settling anything. With everything working in harmony, these small differences compound and synergize and deliver a gaming experience that is both memorable and unique.
The point that I want to make is that the standard rules are just that, a common standard that is functional and capable of delivering most of the unique flavor of a campaign to the players, but their very ubiquity and generic capability blunts the final all-important few percentage points of distinctiveness.
The Flavor Experiment
I once ran an experiment, taking the one basic and generic adventure and running it using three or four different game systems; while the plot didn’t change, the mindset that the players carried into the game did and that made a major difference.
Part of the concept of this experiment grew out of discussions with a fellow-GM about convention adventure modules and how different players could take the same basic adventure and make it completely different by virtue of their different play styles, and how two GMs could take the same adventure and put completely different spins on it because of their own GMing style. I wanted to minimize these variables to focus on the consequences of changing only the rules system, so for the most part the same set of players were used throughout. The results were compromised, to some extent, by additional GMing experience and (more importantly) by contamination from player foreknowledge – an experience that eventually played a key role in the methods I devised for creating mysteries, described in my recent articles The Butler Did It and The Jar Of Jam and The Wounded Monarch which provides examples of the techniques described in the first article.
The point is that the same adventure will seem completely different in tone and dynamics when it is played with different game systems – the systems I used were AD&D, Rolemaster, Tunnels & Trolls, and Chivalry & Sorcery. Plans to repeat the experiment with Empire Of The Petal Throne and GURPS Fantasy fell apart when I didn’t have the time to learn those rules systems or the finances to seek out copies of the rules, but by then the principle results were well-established. Those results have formed the foundations of my perception of House Rules as a necessary medium for the actualizing of campaign concepts into game mechanics ever since.
The Healing Foundation
Which brings us to the core subject of this article – the “Healing Imperative” variant on the d20 damage-handling game mechanic. The key difference between this and earlier systems is that instead of making the differential between different wound types a function of the character’s total hit point capacity, it distinguishes types of injury by the amount of damage inflicted in a single blow – making it more akin to the “internal injury threshold” mechanics presented in part one, which were based (in part) on this variant system.
Rather than basing the point of distinction between types of wounds on the total damage inflicted, this goes to the source – the healing spells themselves. But before we can get into that in detail, we first have to address a strange anomaly in the effects of these spells:
The Inconsistency Of Cure [X] Wounds
When you compare the healing effects of the different clerical spells available, some strange anomalies present themselves. Compare them in the following table:
This is obviously the way the designers thought of the spells when they were designing them, it’s a nice orderly progression and looks very rational on the page.
But watch what happens when we compare the range of possible results for a given character level:
Do you see the problem now? The 3.x spell system is predicated on the concept that 2nd level spells are more powerful than 1st level spells – so why is it possible for the 2nd level spell, Cure Moderate Wounds, to do less healing than a Cure Light Wounds (Caster Levels 3-5)? And the same problem holds true for the 3rd level spell, Cure Serious Wounds, relative to Cure Moderate Wounds (Caster Levels 5-13); and for the 4th level spell, Cure Critical Wounds, relative to Cure Serious Wounds (Caster Levels 7-20). Until a spell achieves its cap bonus and drops out of the running, the minimum effect of the more powerful spell is always 1 point less than that of the more powerful spell.
Similarly, until a spell achieves the cap, the average result of the more powerful spell is less than the maximum that the lower-level spell can achieve, and this difference grows with increasing spell level. This might be comparing apples and oranges – but statistics shows that the more dice are involved, the more likely it is that the result will be close to the average. That means that these comparisons are absolutely reflective of the likely outcomes.
Fixing the minimums is easy – we just need to add a progressive bonus to the amount of healing each spell. +2 to CMW, +4 to CSW, and +6 to CCW will fix that problem. Fixing the second problem is a little trickier; we need to increase the variability of the results without increasing the overall healing amounts very much. Instead of throwing more dice at the progression, a better answer would be to adjust the dice size with increasing spell levels, incorporate the progressive bonus, and then tweak the results as necessary to give a rational progression of minimums, averages, and maximums.
So, let’s try this:
- 1d4 for CMinW.
- 1d6 for CLW, +1d6 at levels 4, 7, and 10, and +1 every caster level from 2nd except those in which a dice is gained, to a maximum of +6.
- 1d8+5 for CMW, +1d8 at levels 5, 8, and 11, and +1 at per caster level from 4th except those in which a dice is gained, to a maximum of +12.
- 1d10+12 for CSW, +1d10 at levels 6, 9, 12, and 15, and +1 per caster level from 6th except those in which a dice is gained, to a maximum of +23.
- 1d12+27 for CCW, +1d6 at levels 9, 15, and 21, +1d12 at levels 12, 18, 24, and 27, and +1 per caster level from 8th except those in which a dice is gained or transformed, to a maximum of +40.
Or, to put it into a table:
This violates the nice, neat orderliness of the original table, but it should come closer to giving a rational progression of results. CLW now caps out at level 10 – it was level 9. CMW now caps at level 13, the same as it used to be. CSW now caps at level 20, the same as it used to do. CCW caps at level 27, also the same as it used to be. So there has been minimal change in that respect. In the critical caster level 7-20 range, there are (in general) more dice on the entries to the left than on the right – so lower level spells will deliver less healing but more reliability of result. Higher level spells appear have higher maximum results – but also greater variability. On average, healing results will have increased somewhat – but that will be counterbalanced by restricting the utility of individual spells, ie specifying that there are some injuries that can’t be healed so quickly, as will be seen in later sections. But there’s no way to check that this has solved the problems other than recalculating the minimums, averages, and maximums.
Close examination of these results reveals five anomalous results:
- Caster Level 4, Cure Moderate Wounds does the same maximum healing as Cure Light Wounds. This is acceptable as the average result is still better for the higher level spell and the minimum much higher, so the supposedly more powerful spell actually IS still more powerful.
- Caster Level 5, Cure Serious Wounds does the same maximum healing as Cure Moderate Wounds. This is acceptable for exactly the same reasons as for the Caster Level 4 anomaly.
- At Caster Levels 15, 16, and 17, Cure Critical Wounds does the same maximum healing as Cure Serious Wounds. This is acceptable for the same reasons as for the previous anomalies.
This shows the degree of effort and complexity involved in ensuring that a fine-sounding principle or progression does not lead game designers to flawed ends.
The numbers shown for healing are much higher than those of the old system. Here’s a direct, spell-by-spell comparison, at caster level 12 (chosen randomly):
To see how reasonable these are, let’s consider the likely number of hit points that a character of 12th level will have (various classes). The panels in green highlight the values that have been found to be most probable for each class, through experience of the priorities for each class.
So a revised CCW is barely able to fully heal a fairly typical 12th-level Wizard with an average result. For most classes, it would require two such spells to fully heal a character who was near-death – perhaps a CCW and a CSW might suffice. For many classes, even a maximum result on the CCW would not be enough. Even though the CCW is twice as effective (on average) as it used to be, it is not a cure-all.
It should also be remembered that a cleric who has access to CCW is not that far away from having access to the most powerful healing spell in the game, Heal. So a spell that can heal a little more than half a character’s hit points is not all that far out of line – though it is far more powerful than the original version of that spell.
Unfortunately, it was at this point that I ran out of time. Calculating and recalculating and re-recalculating the tables above simply chewed up too many hourglass sands – there’s more work in them than there seems! So these results will be put to good use later this week in Part 3b…
RaptorKing has suggested (refer comments at the bottom of the post) that what the designers actually meant for the table of results to be is as shown below, something I find both plausible and unsettling (there’s something odd about accruing bonuses for a spell you can’t cast yet).
While this disposes of the first set of anomalies quite comfortably, it does nothing for the second. Because the more powerful spells always have more dice, they are more likely to yield a result close to the average than the supposedly weaker spells to their left on the table.
With the +1 per caster level the same for all caster levels, it becomes easy to compare the possible results:
You read that right – only 53.7% of the time is 4d8+number better than 3d8+number. Heck, 4d8+number is better than 1d8+number only 96.2% of the time!
The same two basic problems remain: there is too much overlap in the results (curable with a bigger bonus) and there is less variability in the higher-level spells than in the lower level spells.
And that means that the fundamental solution remains – the modified tables for healing results that I presented earlier.
For those interested in peeking behind the curtain (I do, as often as possible) to see how the figures in table above were derived, I’m including a PDF of my working, warts and all… Oh, and if you’re wondering why I went to all this trouble, it’s because I was afraid that my error may have undermined the whole foundations of the alternative damage system, leaving the second part of this article moot. As it happens, those fears were unfounded…