Healing Potion Assumptions and Messing With Them
Ideas come to me from everywhere. I've learned to take inspiration from the smallest things: something that someone in a grocery store is wearing, a line I overhear at work, and so many other little experiences I have throughout the day. Often I find myself asking "how can I tie this into gaming?"
For this month's column, I'll go into how I turned a recent experience into a gaming idea.
I've recently cut back on my heavy caffeine intake. I used to drink a lot of Mountain Dew Code Red every day, which was doing no service to my weight, wallet, or insomnia. While I'm not completely eliminating caffeine, I still have to deal with the horrible, dry, throbbing headaches from withdrawal. In the middle of one such headache, while going to get my single, daily soda, I began to think about turning these headaches into a gaming idea.
As GURPS is my first RPG love, it naturally came to mind first. Immediately following that thought was "Yeah, GURPS *really* needs rules for that -- 'You haven't had a soda in a day, roll HT! Failed? Your Bad Temper self-control number decreases by two!'" While the idea of mechanics altering self-control numbers might have some merit, making rules for caffeine withdrawal isn't exactly inspiring.
I pondered on my way to the store. After I drank the soda and the headache began to fade, I made a connection between my bottle of sweet, red elixir and the typical fantasy idea of healing potions. When I got back to my computer, I began writing a Rules Requirements Document to collect my thoughts. The core idea was an adventure or campaign based around changing how potions work. From there, I came up with:
Project Title: Healing Potion Assumptions and Messing With Them
System we're going to pick on: Dungeons & Dragons 3.5/d20 -- playing with such a fundamental trope of fantasy gaming, it's only right to play with the iconic fantasy game system.
Since we're playing with a small idea rather than creating rules for a general concept, our requirements analysis will be different. In particular, "focus," "involvement" and "RPG sense" aren't elements I'm going to take into account for this, but they'll be replaced by metrics that better define how a plot-based minor change should be treated.
Goal: Play with player assumptions about healing potions, and present subplots which generate and encourage personal investment.
System deviation: We're going to take the rules for how healing potions work and add to them, replacing the original version with our own. However, as this is only about adding and subtracting numbers and keeping track of time, which D&D already handles pretty well, there shouldn't be anything further to change.
Setting deviation: Assuming typical fantasy tropes, this idea is a temporary change, a subplot for the players to investigate or leave behind. This means the campaign will already assume standard healing potion mechanics, and these new mechanics reflect some change in the setting.
Otherwise, I don't have a setting in mind -- I could use some homebrew setting as well as a published setting. It could easily be a dark cloud in a Forgotten Realms or Eberron game, as well as the upcoming PDQ game Questers of the Middle Realms. I could also spin it as a "light and happy" campaign in Ravenloft or Midnight. As long as the game supports the idea of consequence-free healing potions, this change-up has a chance of working.
Scope: This is only meant to be a small change in order to add a subplot to a specific campaign. We can project what happens to the world with this change, but as a way to ensure continuity and allow us to foreshadow rather than to create a new fantasy setting.
Those who don't own the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 core books can follow along with the d20 System Reference Document (SRD) online. In fact, since the electronic format allows me the convenience of a simple cut and paste for quoting purposes, that's what I'll be referring to. Three cheers for electronic media!
There are three basic healing potions in the SRD: Potion of Cure Light Wounds, Potion of Cure Moderate Wounds, and Potion of Cure Serious Wounds. The rules then direct us to the spells with the same name. I am aware of other, esoteric potions in D&D, but I'm discarding them to keep things simple. Looking at the spell effects for those three spells (from the SRD):
Cure Light Wounds
When laying your hand upon a living creature, you channel positive energy that cures 1d8 points of damage +1 point per caster level (maximum +5).
Since undead are powered by negative energy, this spell deals damage to them instead of curing their wounds. An undead creature can apply spell resistance, and can attempt a Will save to take half damage.
Cure Moderate Wounds
This spell functions like cure light wounds, except that it cures 2d8 points of damage +1 point per caster level (maximum +10).
Cure Serious Wounds
This spell functions like cure light wounds, except that it cures 3d8 points of damage +1 point per caster level (maximum +15).
Note: this boxed text is copyright Wizards of the Coast, from the d20 System Document Reference online.
This brings me to the next crossroad: Do I alter the spells themselves, or just the potion effects? Each has pros & cons to explore.
If I go with just the potion effects, then I have to consider two situations: (a) if I'm going to inflict a strange situation on players, what's to stop the players from using their innate magic abilities rather than these potions; (b) does this problem affect all potions, or just potions from divine agents of one god or one region?
On the other hand, if I alter the spells themselves, it makes it easier to affect the PCs. But that raises another, broader, question about whether or not all sort of healing magic and abilities (such as the paladin's Lay on Hands ability) have this change as well. I still have to ask if this effect is limited to one god or area, and if the PCs' own magic abilities are affected, then I need a good enough reason why (at least, as far as the game world is concerned -- my reason as a GM is "I think it'll be fun for all of us!"), because they will investigate that.
Since my intent is to add a subplot to an adventure of campaign, I think it's best to only limit it to potions in a particular area. But as I thought of the options, I started to play with the idea of making the magic affected as well, but only for a particular god -- some minor one the PCs aren't familiar with, let alone one they worship or serve as divine agents. Clerics of some god can cast cure spells and make healing potions that have interesting side effects, and their small number operate in this one city the PCs would adventure around for some time.
Next, I'll need to pick out some effects. I want some beneficial side-effects to occur immediately, and negative side-effects to occur during withdrawal. But, while in the real world "being awake" and "having headaches" are perfectly valid effects, they are a bit weak for a fantasy game. So, let's use what tempts players: bonuses. Now, I don't play D&D often, but I have picked up a few ideas that I can draw from to create this beneficial effect that works within the rules of bonus overlap After chewing on the idea, I came up with the following additional effect:
For each point of healing rolled (including any excess that was not applied), the target gains a +1 circumstance bonus on attack rolls, saves, skill checks, and ability checks. After three rounds, this bonus reduces at a rate of 1/round until it reaches +1. After an hour, the bonus is lost.
Any creatures who would be harmed by this spell, such as undead, do not gain this bonus.
Those familiar with Ioun stones (Dungeon Masters Guide 3.5, p. 260) will recognize this as the effect of the pale green stone, only as a circumstance bonus rather than a competence bonus. Using a circumstance bonus means that I can easily allow it to overlap with other bonuses, and when asked what type of bonus it is, I can just smile wryly and say "it's a circumstance bonus!"
I chose this partly because it's really powerful, and this will be very tempting to use again and again. By saying that you get the full healing amount as a bonus, even if you don't need the healing, these potions become a performance enhancement drugs. "So, the dragon's staring you down. Do you drink that Potion of Cure Serious Wounds now for that sweet, sweet bonus, or do you wait on that?"
That alone is almost enough to make it interesting, but I need that bite that'll come with withdrawal in order to create conflict. That will give the players something to consider, both for their own characters and the course of the campaign as a whole.
To determine if someone will suffer from withdrawal, the GM will keep track of how many hit points were healed, including what wasn't applied, by each potion. We'll call that "Consumption Total". At the end of each day, if a character has any Consumption Points, the GM secretly rolls a Fortitude save with the DC equal to the character's current amount. If he succeeds, nothing happens; otherwise, the character will suffer from withdrawal penalties upon waking until he consumes another potion. In any case, the points remains, minus 1d6 if the character did not drink a potion that day.
The intent is to create a gradual process, while avoiding permanent addiction, as such permanent afflictions are outside the social contract of D&D (a topic for another time). I would likely have permanently addicted NPCs appear once the players start looking into the matter, in order to create a sense of desperation and allow the characters they might share the same fate.
As for the effects of withdrawal penalties, I think something slow-starting, but still dramatic, would be a good way to go. In addition, something that can become bigger over time if left alone gives the afflicted players a reason do something about it:
For each day a character endures withdrawal penalties (including the first day), he suffers a cumulative -1 attack rolls, saves, skill checks, and ability checks, to a maximum of -10. Should his Consumption Total ever drop to 0, the withdrawal symptoms will begin to decrease after one week, at a rate of -1/day. Should he drink a potion in this time, the penalty goes away and his Consumption Total returns to its previous maximum amount.
This is by no means iron-clad. I would need to playtest this before I feel confident that it works. With that in mind, I have a few questions I'm going to keep asking about how this works. Some of these should be self-evident, but having them explicitly written out helps me remind myself to ask it each and every time.
- Is the benefit too much? Not enough?
- Is the penalty too harsh? Not harsh enough?
- Is it too easy to become addicted? Too hard?
- Is it too easy to shake off the addiction? Too hard?
- Most importantly, is this any fun?
This is as far as I'll take this exercise -- any ideas of gods, clerics, and various NPCs would require me to think about the world I would run this in, and I'm not likely to run a D&D game in the near future. But, considering that this idea began as a caffeine headache I decided to apply to gaming, I'd say it's not a bad start at all.
I hope you found something interesting in my thought process. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to raise my Consumption Total and fight off these withdrawal penalties. If you try these rules out, I would love to hear about it at MasterPlan@hmfy.com.
- Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 by Wizards of the Coast
- Eberron by Wizards of the Coast
- Forgotten Realms by Wizards of the Coast
- GURPS by Steve Jackson Games
- Midnight by Fantasy Flight Games
- Prose Descriptive Qualities (PDQ) by Atomic Sock Monkey Press
- Questers of the Middle Realms by Silver Branch Games
- Ravenloft by White Wolf's Sword & Sorcery Studios