Magical Mondays: Healing   Leave a comment

JD And Unicorn

For this week’s Magical Mondays, we’re going to talk about magical Health and Healing, if the image of a unicorn and Dr. John Dorian isn’t clear enough. It isn’t an essential part of every roleplaying game… I don’t think it’s come up a single time whenever I’ve played Fiasco, for instance… but for most role playing games it’s a necessity. Love it or hate it, health is a big deal. But before we talk about that…

Blog Stats
I’d like to say that I’m stunned, shocked and utterly amazed by the number of views that last week’s Magical Mondays’ article generated. Seriously, just look at those views. Look at them. I thought that spike was a glitch at first.  This wasn’t the first time a link of mine had been put on Reddit, but it was definitely the first time that I had over nine hundred visitors to my blog in a day. So, thanks for stopping by!  It was almost tempting for me to talk more about D&D Next this week, but really there’s not much more I can say about that in specific terms this week. I’ll have to wait for August. But still, I wanna say again, thanks for reading. Now, on to the actual magical content that you’re here for.


Magical healing in roleplaying games is a tricky thing. Some people believe that without a dedicated healer, a party is doomed. Others believe that healing is an inefficient waste of character ability, especially during combat. Some see it as useful, but spend an incredible amount of time figuring out the most cost effective way to do it. The D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder circles of the Internet, for instance, will often debate wands, potions, scrolls, or simply just waiting for spells.

It’s important to remember magical healing as an effect rather than as just a collection of spells. Restoring hit points is probably the most familiar, and stopping disease or poison is well known. Fewer adventurers lose limbs these days, but reattaching (or regrowing) a severed limb is a wondrous thing.

Consider, however, the systems that are bereft of magical ability. I’m a huge fan of the d20 retrofit of White Wolf’s Adventure! game, for instance; a world of mad science, intrigue, and high adventure set in the 1920s is just about perfect for my sensibilities. One unfortunate oversight to the game, though, is a lack of any in-universe healing ability to revive players as their hitpoints begin to dwindle. Your daredevils truly do need to dodge bullets, or else they may spend the rest of the adventure in a hospital. Arguably super science could solve that problem, but it assumed that the party would have a scientist within it.

My problem at the time was a lack of knowledge about the basic need. What I really required was an ability to increase the hitpoints of characters that didn’t break the story of the game. I didn’t want to just have healing potions, but I didn’t want a contrived plot-specific method of restoring hit points with every new story.

When designing a form of healing magic (or healing effect) it can help to start from this basic premise. What form will the healing take in the game, and what in-universe contrivance can come into play that can provide the healing? Let’s look at one of my all-time favorite healers as a quick example of how this can be done in a game, even if it’s not strictly a role playing game.

TF2 Medic
The Medic. From the much lauded Team Fortress 2, The Medic is a mad scientist who runs through the battlefields of the game while providing healing through a method that MAKES ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE. He has a power pack and “medigun” that looks like it comes from Ghostbusters. This “health ray”, or whatever it is, simply hits his intended target and… heals them. Their hitpoints move from a low number to a higher number (even to the point that their hitpoints can go BEYOND THE MAXIMUM FOR THEIR CLASS.)

The brilliance of The Medic is the fact that even though his method of healing makes no sense at all, it almost never gets questioned by anyone. Sure, you can handwave an explanation involving TF2’s alternate timeline, and the wondrous technologies made available through Australium, but keep in mind how long the game existed before the folks at Valve started making those awesome comics.

The Medic works because it plays to what he is and the game’s setting. We have an official year of 1972 for the game now, but the general aesthetic of the game is somewhere between the late forties and mid seventies. The Cold War feel of the game is in full effect, and much of the spy technology feels like it’s from that era. The Medic is a mad scientist, and his medigun and related equipment have a general feel for something that a mad scientist might whip together from army surplus parts from the Cold War. Add to that the fact that it covers a basic need… healing… and you’ve suddenly got an amazing, implausible, and yet somehow unquestioned piece of technology.

For other roleplaying games, I recommend taking this approach. Figure out what sort of healing magic (or technology) you can bring into play. (By the way, I eventually solved my Adventure! problem with the help of a book from D&D’s 3rd Edition: since both games used the d20 rules, I found a convenient alchemical item that replicated the Cure Light Wounds spell as if it had no caster level. It was low powered healing, but by making it rare it fit the needs of my games almost perfectly whenever it arrived.)

By taking this approach, it’s important to remember a few things about healing: in most fantasy settings, healing is considered to be a “light” or “holy” sort of magic. “True” healing tends to be mixed in with divine things.

Awesome image from scibbe.com

Alternate methods of healing tend to be either rare, weak, unholy, or some combination of the three. Unholy in this sense is refering to the fact that it either comes in the form of “fake health” (temporary hit points, ablative health, etc.), or comes from stealing the health of some other creature. In D&D’s third edition, arcane casters generally can’t heal… unless they’re using necromancy. That form of healing tends to be this “unholy” sort, either leeching health from an enemy or gaining a sort of false life force that hovers over and outside of their regular health.
In a setting bereft of magic, this form of healing may be a suitable substitute for others. If I were to create a roleplaying game based on the Girl Genius stories of Phil and Kaja Foglio, for instance, even though I wouldn’t use much traditional “magic”, much of the healing I would use would be darker or stranger, generally in a way that causes a great price to be paid or high risk to be taken by the individuals involved.  (When or If the Girl Genius GURPS finally comes out, we’ll see what approach this takes.)

As a side note, it’s worth noting that much of the “special” healing in Team Fortress 2 appears to be of this “unholy” sort. The medical packs seem to be an exception to this rule, but the Medigun (and many other methods of providing health) seem to grant temporary hit points (called “overhealing”) that last for a while without being “actual” hit points. They fade with time. (There’s no reason, in game, to think of this as being “unholy”, incidentally, but it’s definitely different than the regular health that you can attain.)

D&D Next players may find a lot of “non magical” healing in their future. Herbalism kits are required for making health potions now, and while the potions are magical the methods for making them appear to be mundane (for a certain value of “mundane”, at least.) In addition, a long rest can restore players to full hit points, while a brief rest can allow a player to roll their own levels’ worth of hit dice to try and regain hitpoints. Clerics will still be valuable for healing during combat, but the out-of-combat healing options are more accessible to everyone. We can only guess at the true implications of this for now; the new edition’s impending release will likely give us a much clearer picture of exactly how this will change healing in stories.

That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays. I might post a little bit more in the coming week about D&D Next’s non-magic rules in the coming week, but time will tell. Thanks for stopping by!

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Posted July 14, 2014 by John Little in Magical Mondays

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