One more article for the Blog Carnival! Next time, I’ll get back to the series on Pulp Genre Conventions, if everything goes according to plan…

A Variant Combat System for D&D 3.x

Is healing too easy in D&D? Sometimes it seems like Clerics are little more than magical drip bottles, especially in more tactically oriented campaigns and adventures, like the typical dungeon. Only when adventures move beyond this restriction and begin to explore themes of theology and the nature of divinity do Clerics contribute more to the party than being a source of healing and a second-rate fighter.

Worse still, other characters can come to take this instant total recovery for granted, giving them a sense of invulnerability, which expresses itself as a disrespect for the capabilities of the creatures encountered.

Nor can the GM counter by using the principle of “what’s fair for the PCs is fair for the NPCs”; doing so means that the combat will last long beyong the point at which it is interesting, becoming tiresome and exhausting, and taking entirely too much game time. Slowing the game to a crawl is not an acceptable solution!
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The Value of Healing

There is also an arguement to be made for an answer of “No” to the initial question. The characters are supposed to be exceptional, after all, and the chutzpah that comes from having sufficient healing available enables them to act that way. This is the same line of arguement that led me to introduce a ‘quick healing’ technology in my superhero campaign.

A second line of argument runs that reducing the game to an exercise in bookkeeping drains the fun from it faster than anything else around, continually dragging the players out of immersion in the roleplay and back into the metagame.

Finally, there is a third arguement that if clerics are less effective at healing, the value of the character type is weakened, reducing the variety in party composition, and that the risk involved in taking anything other than a high-hit point character class becomes disproportionately high. Having a reasonably high level of healing available makes variety more accessable as a choice.

The Delicate Balance

With as many reasons for having ample healing available as there are reasons for limiting the benefits of healing, it’s clear that there is a delicate balance to be maintained between too much healing and not enough.

Which still leaves the initial question itself to be unresolved. My answer is that it depends on the nature of the campaign.

Dungeon Campaigns

In dungeon-oriented campaigns, there will be more combat per day, and the number of healing spells available to a cleric will quickly be consumed; since this is the type of campaign that the designers of the game clearly had in mind when they wrote the rules, it was for this style of campaign that the availability of healing is balanced.

I would include in this category combat-heavy campaigns that take place above ground, as well.

Storytelling Campaigns

The answer is not so positive when it comes to campaigns that are more about roleplaying and less about frequent combat for its own sake. In these situations, where many game days in a row can be completely combat-free, I find that healing is too readily available, and that players can generally assume that they will enter each battle fully healed. The inevitable side-effect is that combat is not as thrilling as it could be – for anyone.

What’s Needed

What’s needed is an optional system that the GM can invoke. It must be compatable with the game as it operates normally, so that if a campaign enters a phase in which the ‘normal’ game balance is appropriate, the system can be ignored. The arguements, both pro- and anti- healing restrictions, can be viewed as design restrictions.

Standard vs Dramatic Combat

TORG had such a system, one of many worthwhile innovations that were either invented in that game’s rules or intruded apon my awareness for the first time when I read the system. They divided combat into two types: Standard combat, and Dramatic Combat.

If we designate the rules as written as “standard” combat, and the variations on healing effectiveness as “dramatic” combat, then requirement #1 – compatability – is assured.

When to use Dramatic combat

The goal of dramatic combat is to make both sides aware of every blow, to make the combat feel more knife-edge life-and-death dramatic. It follows that it should only be used at certain times:

  1. when the prospects for more combat in the near future are lower than they would be in a dungeon setting;
  2. when the outcome of the battle is unusually significant;
  3. when the GM has some specific reason for desiring the participants to feel every blow more keenly than usual;
  4. when the GM wants a more dramatic or epic flavour to the battle.

We’ll talk about this question again, once the mechanics are ironed out.

The Drama Of Dramatic Combat

By retaining the existing rules as “Standard combat” for compatability, certain choices are barred. We can’t reduce the effectiveness of healing spells, for example, or reduce the number of hit points a character has. We can’t increase the amount of damage inflicted, either. In fact, NONE of the standard paramaters can be altered at all; what we need is something “on top” of the existing rules.

Some sort of damage or combat effect that can’t be healed with the administration of a healing spell.


Every blow that lands on a target inflicts a certain amount of damage on the target. We don’t want to mess with that, it’s fundamental to the operation of standard combat; so it follows that we are talking about an additional kind of damage, which I shall call Wounds (unoriginal but it gets the point across).

Wound Capacity

Next, we need a quick way to measure wounds, one that differentiates between combatant combat capabilities. The obvious device is the size of a character’s hit dice, plus their CON modifier. If the character’s hit dice is a d6 and they have a class modifier of +2, then every 6+2=8 points of damage would inflict one wound. The character has a wound capacity of 8.

If an attack does less than 8 points of damage (in this case), the character doesn’t get wounded by it – it’s just a scratch (to them). If an attack does 25 points of damage, the character suffers 3 wounds (because 25/8=3-and-a-bit).

Compare this with a Mage (d4 hit dice) and a CON modifier of -1. That’s a Wound Capacity of 4-1=3. So the 8-point attack would do 2 wounds, and the 24-point attack would do 8 wounds. Such characters might well end up with a negative BAB. What’s a mage doing in melee, anyway?

The Effect Of Wounds

Third, we need some sort of effect for these wounds to have on the game. How about:

  • -1 to the character’s AC, or
  • -1 to the character’s BAB, or
  • -1 to either of the above, player’s choice?

The characters with a lot of wound capacity – those with a large-sized hit dice and high CON modifier – are also the character types with lots of BAB and AC to lose, and so are the most likely to feel this effect on combat. With BAB going down, they will slow with each nick and slash – but so will the enemies that they are attacking.

These effects apply ONLY in Dramatic conflicts.

The best choice, in this case, is the first one, because I have another trick up my sleeve for BAB.


Why not use a similar mechanism to track the effects of repeatedly inflicting damage? In effect, each blow of sufficient magnitude would inflict a “wound” on the character inflcting the damage.

Fatigue Capacity

Fatigue should not accumulate as quickly as Wounds, so let’s set Fatigue Capacity to 150% of Wound Capacity (round up). Our Fighter example had a Wound Capacity of 8, so he would have an exhaustion capacity of 12.

However, exhaustion should not be determined on the basis of counting only extraordinary blows; instead, it should be a reflection of the total accumulated damage handed out. If the fighter lands three blows in a round, doing 6, 12, and 15 points of damage respectively, they have inflicted a total of 33 points of damage and have suffered two points of exhaustion and are working on a third.

Effects Of Fatigue

It should now be obvious that Wounds have been applied to AC so that Fatigue can affect BAB. Every 5 points of exhaustion costs the character one attack a round, until they are reduced to a single blow.

This effect applies ONLY in Dramatic Conflicts.


Undead need to be treated as a special case. Since they don’t get a CON bonus, they are disadvantaged by this system. To compensate, Undead have their Wound Capacity doubled, and do not suffer from exhaustion. This actually reinforces the flavour of Undead – even when hacked to ribbons, they keep coming.


A creature that regenerates can remove 1 wound each round for every point of regeneration. This again acts to emphasise the fact that they remain whole more readily than normal creatures.


A Cure Wounds spell can heal 1 wound for every Wound Capacity of healing, up to a maximum of 25% the wounds currently suffered (round up). This reduces the Healing amount by Wound Capacity. Once a character’s HP are fully restored, the character’s Wounds cannot be healed by spell or by potions of healing. These spells have no effect on Fatigue.

So if a character with a wound capacity of 10, who has suffered 8 wounds, receives 60 points of healing during or after a battle, he can either take all 60 as HP recovery, or up to 20 points of it to recover 2 wounds – the maximum permitted. If the character still has damage to recover, he may receive a second dose of healing, and another 2 wounds (25% of 6, rounded up, is 2) may be recovered.

Not only does this reduce the effectiveness of healing, it CAPS it. The character is unlikely to fully recover all wounds, and recovers no Fatigue.

Resting In Combat

A character can take the option of resting during battle as a Standard Action. This removes one point of Fatigue, but the character risks taking Wounds during that round.

Resting Out Of Combat

At least eight hours of continuous rest permits a character to recover half his accumulated Fatigue (round up) and 1 Wound. This can only take place once per day – it doesn’t matter if the character does nothing but lie in bed all day, he only gets this much recovery. If the character has no Fatigue to recover, he may recover a second Wound.

The effects Of Negative AC

If a character experiences so many wounds that their AC is reduced below zero, that simply means that attackers (effectively) receive a bonus to hit their opponants.

The effects of Negative BAB

If a character experiences so much fatigue that his BAB is reduced to 0 or less, this simply means that it becomes harder to successfully attack the enemy. In effect, the enemy is receiving an AC bonus because their attacker is Fatigued.


This mechanism would dramatically alter combat in many ways. Creatures with different ratios of damage inflicted, number of attacks, and Hit Points would necessarily adopt different tactical styles; in some cases, battling several targets at once, in others focussing on a single target until it is down and then moving on to the next. Melee with a large number of opponants becomes more dangerous because a character will accumulate Wounds and Fatigue, then confront fresh opposition in a weakened state. Numbers alone can eventually bring down the strongest combatant.

Healing becomes less effective, and two Dramatic conflicts in close succession become far more difficult; the character is unlikely to be fully recovered from the first when he enteres the second.

The psychological impact of becoming more vulnerable as a critical combat continues, and becoming less able to inflict damage apon the enemy, should be equally great. For the first time, there is a cost to inflicting massive damage on the enemy, and a player will FEEL his character’s wounds accumulating in the course of battle.

Spellcasters are unlikely to suffer Wounds (unless they are silly enough to enter melee) or they are attacked at Range. However, their most potent spells are likely to severely deplete their Fatigue; while this may make Touch Attacks more difficult, it will have no effect on Area Effect spells such as Fireball. That means that tactical spell use acquires a new and different parameter, one that will alter slightly with different types of opposition.

At the same time, properly utilised, this system permits the details of enemy’s nature to impact on their style and behaviour on the battlefield, giving colour to what is otherwise simply “more of the same”. Even without special planning in the way of Tactics, this will have an effect on the flow of combat. The uniqueness of each combatant becomes more emphatic and larger than life – exactly what you would hope to achieve with a “Dramatic Combat” system variant.

When Should You Use Dramatic Combat (revisited)?

That’s up to each GM. An arguement can be made for using it all the time, no question. As a general rule of thumb, if the EL is two below the average level of the party, I would always use Standard Combat, if the EL is two above the average level of the party, I would always use Dramatic Combat.

Wandering Monsters would almost always use Standard Combat, except when the EL indicates Standard Combat as defined above. Encounters that are designed to advance the plot or nudge characters in a different direction would almost always use Dramatic Combat, regardless of their EL.

There are a couple of downsides. There are more numbers to track in battle, and that’s a big one – though the bookkeeping is relatively straightforward. Combat might take a little longer as a result – and that’s another big one. The role of Clerics would shift somewhat away from being walking Healing Potions, and for characters who have been optimised to deliver the maximum Healing punch possible, that can be another.

For me, the key question to be asked in each encounter is: What would you rather have: a better combat or a faster combat?

Mike is now on Twitter! You can find him as @gamewriterMike. Why not stop by and say Hi? And, of course, you can always leave a comment if you have something to add to, or say about, this article!

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