Thursday, October 1, 2009

Healing in a Low-Magic Campaign

Wanting to run a campaign based on a low-magic, Sword & Sorcery, genre can be difficult with regards to healing. Most class-based, old-school games hang healing solely on the shoulders of a "Cleric" or other priestly class. This includes not only healing generic hit-point damage during an adventure, but also stuff like poisons, diseases, etc. The result of this is that adventuring parties often feel the need to include or hire one or more Clerics as a sort of walking band-aid.

The Cleric as a class concept has its genesis in the "holy" knightly orders of the crusades. It is intended to be a warrior-priest (this is important - clerics weren't necessarily supposed to end up as "divine wizards") with a selection of protective magics. Naturally, the limited number of spell slots and fire-and-forget nature of Vancian casting means most of those "protective magics" get ignored in favor of memorizing the all-important cure spells. It wasn't long before this trend became obvious and Paladins were introduced to occupy the role the Cleric was originally intended to fill.

All that aside, a DM running a campaign steeped in the lore of Leiber, Howard, Vance, and so on, has little use for Clerics or Paladins from a genre standpoint. The "priests" of the genre are usually more accurately represented by the Magic-User class. But a DM wanting to omit the Cleric altogether from the campaign is basically consigning the players to short lives at worse, and short adventures at best.

Here are some options I've used with my Swords & Wizardry Wilderlands campaign, in which none of the three PCs are clerics.

Basic Healing:

After a combat, damaged PCs may spend one turn on "first aid", healing 1d4hp of damage sustained in that particular combat. This is acually an old house rule I first noticed in the old Judges Guild "Ready Ref" Sheets, and just this house rule alone improves play regardless of genre, as it also frees up Clerics to exploit a wider variety of spells. Personally, I find it also better reflects the nature of hit points themselves, in that they are a more abstract form of damage, representing not just actual wounds, but fatigue, bruising, and even combat ability. The left-over damage after the 1d4hp of first aid represents the actual injuries that will require rest or more intensive healing.

PCs regain lost hp at a rate of 1d3hp per day of rest. This is a healing rule I've adopted from the Moldvay Basic book, and far preferable in my opinion to the more common 1hp/day standard. It's faster on average, and gives the player's something to do every day (roll a d3) rather than just saying "ok, I'm down 6hp, so I rest for 6 days". Also, I consider "day of rest" to be "day spent back in town/camp". No one gets any rest down in the dungeon while nervously anticipating the next wandering Umber Hulk encounter. PCs are welcome to drink, wench, shop, and divvy treasure while "healing", provided there is a comfy bed at the Inn to retire to at a reasonable hour.

PCs regain lost hp at a rate of 2d3 per day under care of a physician. Sometimes, PCs don't have all the time in the world, or are too seriously injured, to play man-about-town. A physician does require his patient to get complete bed rest while under care, and costs roughly 1gp/hp healed. Some adventurous physicians can be lured out on expeditions at a rate of 20-50gp/day (plus cost of poultices used and the standard 1gp/hp healed as a "tip"), but will never venture into actual dungeons, rather remaining at "base camp". Such field physicians sometimes also require the aid of one or more assistants at a rate of 1gp/day.

PCs may be cured of non-magical diseases and poisons under care of a physician. Treatment typically takes 3d4 days and costs roughly 50gp/HD of the creature that inflicted the injury (for instance, disease from a giant rat costs about 25gp to cure). Again, this requires complete bedrest, and a tip of 1gp/hp cured is recommended.

Death and Negative Levels:

PCs reduced to 0 or fewer hit points die in 1d6 rounds. This represents the time the PC gets for someone to help stop the bleeding, pull out the arrow, etc, before actually dying. This is totally at the referee's discretion, of course: In cases where the damage inflicted is catastrophic, such as being reduced to -30 hp by a blast of dragon breath, the referee may rule that there is nothing left to heal! This is another discovery from those ever-helpful Ready Ref Sheets.

PCs may regain levels lost as result of supernatural level-draining effects under the care of a qualified physician. Perhaps the most radical of these houserules, its nonetheless a good idea to have something like this in place for any campaign that doesn't have a high-level cleric in every town. Regaining lost levels takes 1 week of complete bedrest for every level lost, and costs 1000gp per level lost. Treatment must begin within one month of the loss, or level loss is permanent. Only physicians with a working knowledge of the supernatural (such as witchcraft, sorcery, religious mysteries, herbalism, etc) may render such treatment.

Non-magical Healing Potions and Poultices:

Another good way to supplement the Cleric-free party is to make available some simple herbal or medicinal remedies. Some examples might include:

Poultice of Healing (50gp): This is a creamy, salve-like poultice that is applied directly to a wound. It heals 3-6(1d4+2) points of damage and prevents scarring. Such a poultice is only effective on an individual once every 24 hours. A second application is only half as effective (round fractions down), and further applications have no effect whatsoever, until 24 hours has passed.

Anti-Venom, Weak(25gp): Imbibing this fluid within one round of poisoning allows the poisoned victim an immediate second saving throw against that poison.

Anti-Venom, Strong(200gp): Imbibing this fluid within one round allows the victim an immediate saving throw at +4.

Cleansing Remedy(100gp): Imbibing this foul herbal concoction within 24 hours of contraction of a disease thoroughly and noisily flushes out the victim's system (which may be inconvenient in certain circumstances), giving them an immediate saving throw against the disease with a +2 bonus.

Veritus Charm(500gp): This holy charm, if worn openly around the neck, allows the target of level draining attacks (that wouldn't normally allow a save) a saving throw at -2 against level drain.


  1. What we've done, in a game with clerics even, is allow the PCs to rest for 1 hour after a combat (chance of wandering monster) and recover 75% of the hit points they lost during that combat. The game has remained deadly, but it alleviates the need for very short adventuring "days".

  2. Great post! I'm totally "borrowing" these rules for my Gary's Greyhawk 1E AD&D campaign. Thanks!

  3. I've quite enjoyed my house-rule for Spellcraft & Swordplay: characters regain half the damage suffered in a fight once they get to catch their breath. This is because Hit Points include fatigue and whatnot. This keeps the ablative nature of Hit Points (you still are down soem HP unless you only took 1 in a fight), but eliminates the "Argh! Cleric!" syndrome.

  4. I recently tried a few of these ideas in a game where none of the players had chosen a cleric. It worked very well. Immediate administered "first aid" for 1d4 hp, and 0 hp = unconsciousness, with death in rounds = to constitution. They were all 1st level and managed to run around a dungeon, through several battles and all survive, although they all closely skirted death many times. Interestingly, the players said it was the best game of D&D ever.

  5. I do not think paladins were included to fill the role originally intended for clerics, though it is true that a large segment of players started playing them that way... that aside, I also tend towards a low magic game, and this all seems reasonable to me.

    I tend to record each blow delivered in the form "7, 6, 3, 8", so I allow 1 hit point to be recovered per turn rested to a maximum of the number of blows received. Healing balms, and the like, cost 10 GP (we play a low treasure game as well) and would restore 1D3 in place of the usual 1.

    I am not a big fan of the "you have this long for your fellows to act, or you die" method of dealing with negative hit points. Generally, I just decide between "dead or wounded" (sometimes randomised), with wounded imposing penalties that require extensive rest or healing magic to overcome.

  6. I like those rules you have there. But they do have that odd problem that high level characters with more hit points take longer to heal. I'd relate those d3 rolls to level somehow, like rolling once per every three or five levels of the wounded character.

    Amazing to hear that all that stuff is in the Ready Ref Sheets. I bought them, browsed them and didn't find them that impressive. Time to go back and read a bit closer, I think.

    The idea about Paladins being invented for filling the slot meant for Clerics is interesting. It would be fun to try to get hold of someone involved and ask if they remember how and when it was invented. I took out my copy of OD&D and found them in Greyhawk (boy! where that supplement organized like a labyrinth, or what!?) so I wonder if someone other than Gary remembers? Hm.

  7. @ Andreas
    You could say that they get back 1d3 HP per two levels per day. But you'd still have a Magic-User healing to full faster than a Fighter healing to full.

    I like the 1d4 healing after a fight. I'd suggest instead that you get 1 HP from bandaging and if you have someone with medical skill you get 1d4 from the first aid. Up to what you lost in that fight, of course.

    Resting a short time for 75% healing could work, but I dunno.

    I look at HP as fatigue and luck and such until the last 6 HP. Those are your bones and organs. Those 6 HP represent a normal man with no special luck or endurance. So maybe allow them to heal up quickly unless they dropped below 6 HP.

    Example: A 3rd level Fighter with 19 HP gets in a fight. He loses 2 HP, and heals it with the post-combat roll / resting.
    The next fight he loses 12, dropping him to 7. These lost HP are still his "luck and will of the gods" points, so he can heal them. He rests / rolls his d4 / whatever and gets 8 points of healing. Now he's at 15.
    The next fight he loses another 13, dropping him to 2. Because he fell below 6, those four "bone and organ" HP must be healed by magic or long-term rest. So no matter how much he gets back from his post-combat Second Wind / Liquid Courage rule, he cannot heal those 4 bone-and-organ HP. So the best he can hope for is 15 out of 19 HP.

    In this case I'd actually be willing to allow 75% healing if you rest an hour.

    Note that none of these have an impact on survivability during the fight. And mine doesn't help 1st and 2nd level characters much, so that may be a drawback.

  8. Hm. I hadn't thought about that a M-U would heal quicker than a Fighter. Rolling you HD for regaining HP, maybe?

    How about this.

    Your CON is your vital points, and you can take your HP as damage, and regain them fairly quickly (using any of the schemes above). But, after that you take damage on your CON, which take far longer to heal since it's real "bones and organs". Could work, maybe?


  9. It wasn't long before this trend became obvious and Paladins were introduced to occupy the role the Cleric was originally intended to fill.

    I don't know how seriously you meant that, but I felt it sounded wonky and asked Rob Kuntz his opinion on it. He didn't think the ideas of "roles" fit that piece of history of the Greyhawk campaign.

  10. @Andreas:

    Maybe my use of the word "role" is not spot on? In any case, at the time of Chainmail's release, the cleric was the Templar or Teutonic Knight, but by the "Greyhawk" supplements' release, things had evolved, according to Gygax:

    "Changes in both archetypes were mandated by the game system for which they were designed."

    Gygax would reference specific historical inspirations for both classes:

    "the cleric was based loosely on Bishop Odo, brother of Duke William of Normandy, the fictitional Friar Tuck, and a religious proscription against the shedding of blood.

    The paladin was likewise loosely drawn from the Paladins of Charlemagne and the Code of Chivalry."

    By AD&D: "As far as I am concerned the terms cleric and priest are interchangable for the AD&D class. Consider many of the spells available to the cleric--clearly meant to provide for the general population."

    So you can follow kind of a loose progression there, as things progressed from miniatures wargame through OD&D w/supplements, on up to AD&D. One obvious change was the 1st lvl OD&D cleric getting no spells (from a tiny selection of such spells) to by AD&D starting out at 1st level with as many as three 1st level spells.

  11. Maybe I'm innacurately drawing my own conclusions (reading tea leaves?), but I certainly get the impression that the cleric was pushed more and more into the "fantasy priest" mold, rather than being designed as one to begin with.

  12. Maybe it just looked differently to Rob compared to when Gary wrote things up for publication.

    Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if Gary "filled in the blanks" afterwards either.

  13. No, I think Rob is spot on. There is a huge difference between the Paladins of Charlemagne and the Military Orders. Many things are being unfortunately conflated above, especially the fact that the AD&D PHB describes the cleric as being based on the Military Orders, well after the introduction of the paladin.

    A thread probably worth looking at is:

    The Cleric as an Archetype

  14. Cool thread! Some very good reading there, especially if you're interested in running a more medieval-europe setting than a pulp-fantasy one.

    It would be interesting to see an actual pulp-fantasy "priest" PC class, built from the ground up, with their own unique spell list.

  15. agreed Al! great post and discussion, very useful!



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