Combat healing is a bullshit mechanic. Honestly, any healing that takes place during a session seems a little bullshitty to me. I don’t like to think of hit points in D&D like life bars in video games, going up and down constantly. Rather, hit points are like a character’s ability to hold their breath while diving. When the players are in a dangerous situation, hit points measure how long they can last there before they need to come up for air. (By which I mean, return to town, and rest up for their next delve).
Being low on hit points and having to choose between walking away or pressing onwards is an important experience. On the one hand, you’ve made it through this many rooms already, and treasure may be just around the corner…but you might die. On the other, you could return home and come back later fully refreshed, but the rooms might be restocked.
And yes, it could be argued that this situation still occurs when midsession healing is allowed. You’ve just gotta wait for the cleric to run out of healing spells. But that seems like a pointless complication to me. All you’re doing is delaying something that would happen anyway, and in the process, you’re burdening the party with spells and items, which take up spell and encumbrance slots. Those slots could be filled with more interesting options if the opportunity to heal from injury wasn’t so useful as to invalidate other spell/equipment choices.
All of that in exchange for essentially giving the players a communal pool of extra hit points. If all you want is for the players to last longer, why not just give them more HP to start with?
All that being said, I’m not against the idea of mid-session healing in theory. It’s the practice that annoys me. Healing potions and Cure Light Wounds spells are too reliable. You can pretty much always get your hands on them, easily keep them with you, and using them is always an unambiguously good choice.
Below are a bunch of healing and healing-adjacent mechanics that I think would be interesting to see in a game. I’ve avoided pinning any of these down into any specific means of conveyance. They could be turned into spells, or class abilities, or items, or purchasable services. At this point, what I want to do is come up with some interesting ways to replace healing. The vectors by which that healing is delivered can be worked out later.
As a small aside, several of these have been shamelessly lifted from the video game Atlas Reactor, which is why I used screenshots from that game for this post. I realize game mechanics can’t be copyrighted, but it does seem only fair to acknowledge my source.
Magic Shields, which act as temporary hit points for the target. So if I’ve got a shield on me with a rating of 5, and someone deals 6 damage, then the shield absorbs 5 of those, becomes dispelled, and now I take 1 damage.
I imagine the shields having a short duration. Something on the order of a single combat round, so that whomever is doling them out will want to be careful when they use it. It’s not something you cast on the fighter at the start of combat because they’ll get hit eventually. It’s something you save, until the fighter is surrounded by 12 goblins, and needs a little extra survivability for the coming round.
Healing is based on location, so that players must reach a place in order to heal. The simplest way to do this might be to have pools of healing water which exist in some places. I feel like a lot of older video games did this, and I always thought of it as a very video-gamey solution to the problem. But, the more I think about it, the more I think it actually fits D&D better than D&D’s native method does.
I particularly like how it fits into the “I’m almost dead” decision. Do you return to town, where you can rest and heal up in safety? Or, do you open just one more door, and hope it’s one of the places you can heal in.
The danger here is that once the party finds one of these healing locations, they can always return to it. But that could be solved by saying each person can only use the location once. And, of course, the locations can be as common or uncommon as the referee desires, based on the style of game they want to run, or on the individual area. (Ancient temples may offer more healing locations than vampire castles do, for example).
You could also make the location something very simple, but restrict it in other ways. For example, “While standing under moonlight, Dave can heal up to 30hp each month.”
Create a lifelink bond to your ally, so that some percentage of damage done to them is instead transferred to you. Something nice and even, like 25, 50, or 75%. This could last a single round, or until the bond is broken somehow.
I like the percentage approach because no incoming damage is actually being invalidated, the players are just shuffling it around to suit their needs. A character who is safely hidden away from the bad guys may end up dying through this transfer, and the character actually getting hit isn’t exactly safe either. They’re still taking hits, just fewer.
The way I imagine it, this would be done by a willing party member, to assist another party member. But, it might also be possible to force unwilling people to become damage sponges. It might make the players too overpowered to allow something like that, but their obviously evil acts could have interesting consequences.
One player tags a target in some way, perhaps by throwing a special goo onto them, or casting a spell on them, or something. If the tagged target takes any damage, then whomever dealt that damage is healed. Not necessarily at a rate of 1:1, that’s a little much.
Perhaps the amount of healing could be determined by the tagging method. If you hit the target with a level 1 tag, each successful hit against them will grant 1 healing. Level 2 tags could grant 2 healing, etc.
This would have the interesting side effect of allowing the tagger to direct the focused fire of the party. “Hey everybody, attack this guy!”
An ally is tagged in some way, similar to the above. Any damage they take during some period of time is recorded. Lets call it the “recording period,” and it could last anywhere from one to three combat rounds, I think. When the recording period ends, the damage taken is totalled up, and the tagged player gains Fast Healing 1.
Every combat round, they regain 1 hit point, until they’ve regained an amount equal to the amount they lost during the recording period.
Essentially, any damage taken during the recording period will be returned to the tagged player. But, it’s returned at such a slow rate that they may not survive long enough to get it all back.
An area of effect damage spell, which also grants a small amount of healing to allies as a side effect. Much like a fireball would harm a group of cultists, but would heal the fire element they summoned.
Of course, part of the challenge of casting area of effect spells is damaging the most enemies you can, while not damaging any of your allies. This flips the problem a bit. You don’t want to cast it on a group of allies, because you’ll lose out on the damage (which is much more substantial than the healing). But, you also do want to get the benefit of the healing, so you specifically wait for a good mix of friend and foe.
Cause an instrument of violence to become incapable of causing harm. For example, a sword may be tweaked so that it cannot stab, or the ground may be adjusted such that if a person fell onto that bit of ground, they wouldn’t take any falling damage.
So lets say you’re fighting a goblin. One player does whatever they need to do to “break” the goblin’s spear. They’ll probably make a few attacks with that spear, and some of those attacks will hit. It might take two, three, or even more hits before the goblin realizes their weapon has been nerf’d, (almost literally in this case), after which they pull out their dagger, which probably deals less damage.
Healing potions exist, but they are incredibly rare. The players will be lucky to find a handful over the course of the whole campaign. This robs healing potions of their reliability. You can’t always get them, and so they’re something to be saved. There’s a worry that if you use a potion, then you may not have it sometime in the future when you really need it.
Healing potions exist, but they are incredibly large and heavy. Like, instead of something you drink, a healing potion is something you bathe in, and must be carried around in a huge barrel, just for one dose.
This exacerbates the problem of healing items taking up encumbrance that could be spent on something more interesting. However, this healing item takes up so much encumbrance that it stops being useful enough to invalidate other equipment choices. When a player asks themselves: “Do I bring a healing potion, or three iron spikes?” they’d be a fool not to bring the potion. But if they have to choose between bringing the potion or all the rest of their equipment, that decision isn’t so easy.
I think if I went this route, players would immediately start hiring people to carry their potions for them, which is fine! That presents an interesting set of problems all its own. What happens when these potion porters die? Do you leave the potion behind? What about when you’re in a dangerous situation (when you’ll need a potion the most), and all your porters flee? How many people will really be willing to do the job of hauling huge barrels of potion in the a dungeon? It sounds like an unpleasant and dangerous job with shitty pay.
Healing potions exist, but they’re poisonous. There’s no risk of death (or hey, maybe there is?), but there’s a lot of ways a potion could harm a character, while still increasing their hit points.
Maybe potions cause mutations? Maybe they artificially age the player? Maybe they cause a person to go blind for an hour after drinking them, or make a person incredibly flatulent such that they attract more monsters? The possibilities for side effects are pretty much infinite.
It’s also worth asking: are the side effects guaranteed, or are players allowed to make a saving throw?