Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rate of Noncombat Healing

Previous posts (1, 2, 3) have discussed issues revolving around daily powers. A related issue is that of recovering from damage sustained during fights.

In a game using health as a long-term resource, the damage you take during a fight is recovered partially or not at all between fights, so that you start each fight weaker than you were in the last. 1st edition D&D is an example of this, at least if you played in the classic style of fighting many battles per day. Hit points could only be recovered by healing magic, which was in short supply (except at high levels). Basically, they were a resource that had to last you through the adventure, or at least one portion of the adventure. The biggest disadvantage of this form of recovery from damage is that each fight, until the very end of the adventure, cannot be strong enough to seriously endanger the characters. If you have to fight multiple battles per day, and you cannot recover a lot of health between battles, then the game balance requires that no one battle cause a lot of damage. The goal of the early battles is not to win, but to lose as few hit points as possible. If the GM tried to make the early battles tough enough that the monsters threatened to defeat the characters, he would be making those battles cause way too much damage, and there would be no way for the characters to last long enough to reach the later battles. This makes the fights seem less dramatic; instead of life or death struggles, they are a form of resource management.

The opposite form of game is one where health recovers completely between fights. In Champions, for instance, the normal form of damage taken by the characters, stun damage, recovers completely after every fight. So the PC’s can engage in a fierce combat, get battered all over the place, and still be ready for the next exciting encounter. This allows each fight to be more exciting. It also means that, when the big encounter comes, the characters can fight to the very limit of their abilities and go up against the toughest foes, rather than being so weak and damaged that they are only a shell of their former selves. The main disadvantage of total recovery between fights is that if the foes are not powerful enough to threaten victory, how well or how badly you do during the fight has no effect at all on the adventure. This means that characters cannot be “softened up” by sending minions at them. The GM can pretend to do so, but in reality it is a sham, the weak opponents don’t slow them down at all. So although total post-fight recovery allows you to have much more menacing foes than with limited recovery, it makes fights without menacing foes less interesting because nothing is affected by the outcome – no matter what happens during the fight, if you win you are OK.

In my experience, the advantages of total health recovery far outweigh the disadvantages, at least when playing with a cinematic style. In Champions, there were a lot of fierce fights against very dangerous supervillains, or hordes of agents with fiendish secret weapons. The purpose of weak fights against thugs was not to slow down the characters, but to give them some relief from the dangerous fights, a chance to be mighty superheroes and show off their abilities. The fact that they took no long-term damage was probably a good thing, as they were free to “act like Superman” and bounce bullets off their chests with impunity. Sometimes I considered creating a long-term damage system to allow certain types of adventures to be made, but most of the time it just wasn’t an issue. Whereas the advantage of having the players be able to fight full-out in every exciting combat was quite noticeable.

4th edition Dungeons & Dragons introduces a new method to try to simultaneously gain the advantages of both limited recovery and total recovery. In the new D&D, you essentially have a small amount of short-term health, and a large amount of longer term health. Between combats, you recharge your short-term health with some of your long-term health. At the end of a day, you gain all long-term health. You can essentially fight every battle at full health, but if you take too much damage in your early fights during a day, you won’t have enough long-term health to last until the later fights. This allows each fight to be challenging and badly damage the characters, while still allowing multiple fights during a day, so in some sense it has the best of both worlds. I’d have to say the idea is cool, and I like it much better than 1st edition. The disadvantage here is that the adventures have to be tightly crafted in a rather constrained manner for the rule to really work to its full extent. There has to be just the right amount of time pressure / encounter frequency. If there ends up being too few fights in a day, there is no difference from the total recovery method; too many fights in a day, and you have the issues of the limited recovery method. The method ties into the daily power concept discussed in my last few posts, which has its own drawbacks in terms of using the day as the key measuring point for everything. Actually, its is really only use of the daily powers that would cause a character to get “worn down” by waves of early monsters. Healing surges in D&D are pretty touchy; you are fine when you still have them, and rapidly get into big trouble if you run out. Since the party wouldn’t want to go on without them, the use of healing surges doesn’t so much weaken the party, as force it to rest more often than they would want to. And this is only interesting if you have the right kind of time pressure in the adventure.

Another form of healing I find very interesting can be found by looking at a portion of the Torg game. In Torg, characters can survive a small amount of damage with short-term health, but must often back this up by spending possibilities if they come under pressure. Possibilites are available in large numbers because they also act as experience points. Possibilities can be earned by completing adventures, but they do not renew with the passage of time. This means that spending a possibility is spending a permanent resource – you may gain more experience later on, but you will always be less experienced than you would have been had you not spent the possibility. Players care about permanent resources, so if the fight goes bad and they are forced to spend possibilities to survive, they care what happens even when they end up winning the fight. At the same time, there are enough possibilities for the characters to get out of really tricky situations. So the game balance is not so twitchy, and the GM can put in some really tough villains, knowing the players can bail themselves out, at a price, if they get unlucky or the GM has underestimated the difficulty. And because time is not an issue, the GM has great flexibility in designing adventures. One disadvantage of this method is that, if the players keep a large buffer of possibilities, they are pretty unlikely to ever get defeated, which can reduce the tension. I myself have noticed that it can be fun to limit the number of stored possibilities to make dramatic fights more exciting – though this makes the game balance tricky again. Another problem I find very troubling is that defense-oriented characters have a natural tendency to spend fewer possibilities, and thus gain experience more rapidly.

1 comment:

  1. The torg system sounds very interesting, but your comments on its downsides seem to confirm what we learned with 3e: character progression/experience converted into currency is a headache.