Tuesday, May 24, 2016

An OSR Heresy: On Healing Potions

When 3e D&D was the system du jour, the one idea that I could not abide was the magic item economy. The ability to go into a shop and buy a magical weapon or item drained the sense of wonder from the game. It took one of the issues that had always existed in D&D, the obsolescence of magic items, and codified a system around it. The result was a game that assumed players would buy magic items as part of a "build." Rejecting this idea did a lot to help unite the early OSR.

5e D&D generally didn't have the magic item economy, but it did have a healing potion on the equipment list. I've seen pushback against this in OSR circles, which find 5e healing too plentiful and easy. But on reflection, I find that I like the idea of a healing potion being a standard bit of equipment.

Part of the explanation for this is that I don't like the spell Cure Light Wounds. If it seems like an odd pet peeve, it comes down to the fact that I dislike the idea of a cleric as a healer. Dave Arneson's group introduced the cleric not as a medic but as a vampire hunter. OD&D didn't even give the class a spell until second level. But once the cleric gets there, he is on healing duty until he's done. AD&D compounded it by adding bonus spells, chaining the cleric to curing throughout combat.

I also don't like how Cure Light Wounds works with the hit point system. Hit points were a great innovation, allowing a quick, abstract method of combat that doesn't need hit locations and the like. But magical healing seems to fight against that abstraction. The 2-7 hit points (or 1-8 if you go with AD&D) restored by Cure Light Wounds don't represent physical wounds, so why are they healed this way?

The final flaw in CLW is that it just doesn't feel very magical. On the contrary, the high level Heal spell strikes me as how divine healing should work. It gives sight to the blind, cures disease, and repairs all physical injuries. It feels like a proper miracle. CLW feels like it's invoking the divine for a reason confined to the game world.

Healing potions are a lot like Cure Light Wounds: a magic item brewed only to restore a few hit points. They also exist in the same conceptual space as +1 Swords, where the effort to create them does not seem justified, and are correctly criticized as lazy treasure. But they have a clear strategic use, especially in parties without a cleric healer.

This is where alternative methods of brewing potions become interesting. A healing elixir doesn't have to be magical per se. An alchemist might distill it in his laboratory, a decoction that helps balance the humors. Or an herbalist can brew it as a mix of legitimate medicine, stimulant, painkiller, and psychoactive herbs. There are as many examples as there are real-world attempts to create medicine.

Having such brews in your game introduces several interesting variables. PCs have to be sure of the reliability of their potions. Depending on the quality and reliability of the source, there might be a 5%-25% or higher chance that a potion is a dud. The PCs might not detect this until it is too late. There is even an excuse to introduce literal snake-oil salesmen into the game, an aspect that too often seems to be missing. Equipment is too reliable and straightforward in D&D generally. The world is more interesting for the hucksters and con artists.

Beyond simple duds, a bad potion could be harmful. This might be a straightforward harm or any type of poison the referee can dream up. And there's a whole array of possible side effects even when they work. Just think of medicines in the real world. They could make you drowsy, give you nausea or diarrhea, or make you paranoid or anxious. Alchemical elixirs or herbal concoctions can follow suit. And the effects can be broader and weirder: changes to skin color, hallucinations, even minor magical effects such as floating or glowing.

I also think that alchemy itself is a valuable addition. It is a rich pseudoscientific framework full of interesting bits and bobs for your game world. Its symbols and ideas are great for framing an underworld environment. And the search for rare alchemical ingredients is a fine excuse to delve into unknown labyrinths. Healing elixirs are one logical step on the ladder to the philosopher's stone.

Alchemy also leads to other pseudosciences, such as astrology, which is too often overlooked in fantasy. There are rich symbols and ideas, and they can even work in conjunction with healing. An elixir might be most effective during a certain phase of the moon or while a certain constellation is highest in the sky. The idea of alchemy and astrology are natural for a pseudo-medieval world. All too often, fantasy seems to have a thoroughly modern worldview.

But elixirs don't have to be alchemical at all. They can instead be from any source, and in fact this can be true in the same campaign world. One might be from an alchemist, the second from an herbalist, and the third harvested from a rare plant deep in a jungle. The potential origins of healing elixirs offers room for a tremendous deal of variety. It makes the paltry d6 healing potion look pale by comparison.

The last bit of utility to squeeze from elixirs is that they are great gold sinks. D&D PCs always need more things to make the choice of how to spend gold pieces interesting. If a single d6 worth of healing costs 100 GP, that will take up a good chunk of treasure at low levels.That's worth something.

If they make healing too freely available, this kind of healing elixir offers enough benefits to offset it. And it certainly beats out Cure Light Wounds.

Snake oil image by Wesley Fryer, CC-BY


  1. You should correct "astronomy" to "astrology" in the first sentence of the third to last paragraph before you're taken to task for calling astronomy pseudoscience.

    I like the idea of moving away from healing "potions" to more mundane descriptions like healing herbs, bandages, tinctures and unguents. The same could be done to re-describe Cure Light Wounds as a minor laying on of hands that restores vigor, soothes bruising and minor cuts and abrasions, etc. It could also be described as a song that raises spirits or an incantation that causes one to fall into a deep and restful (healing) sleep.

    What I think is important in both cases is that healing not be treated like a first-aid kit that one just buys at the local shop. That diminishes its value and puts it on par with trail rations, torches and iron spikes. Healing, whether mundane or magical, is something that should require skill or spiritual training. Quaffing a potion or slapping on a band-aid cheapens it to my taste.

    1. Noted about astrology which was what I meant but in my defense I write while a 3 year old is actively trying to distract me these days.

  2. I agree 90%. But I would add this: since hit points are for the most part abstract, "healing" hit points need not be about healing per se, and thus not even about potions or elixirs. Wine, beer, spirits or even herbal tea could "heal" hit points. In the same way, the supply lust could include bandages to "bind wounds" or whatever. You could then preserve REAL magical healing as the sort of "miracle" you described.

  3. I like what you're saying, especially the concept that potions aren't necessarily healing physical damage, and aren't necessarily magical in themselves. I wonder about a limit to the number of healing potions that could be taken at once by an individual, would that invoke the Potion Miscibility rule?

  4. I love this article! Thanks! However, can someone explain why the 2-7 hit points restored by Cure Light Wounds don't represent physical wounds?

    1. "Hit points mean two things in the game world: the ability to take physical punishment and keep going, and the ability to turn a serious blow into a less serious one." - SRD

      So you're also recovering "the ability to turn a serious blow into a less serious one", whatever that means (a common assumption is stamina and focus.) Some people even infer that you're not injured at all until you're close to your last hit points.

  5. Likewise, if you want to have +1 swords in your campaign, can't you just treat them as really well-made swords?


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