6d6 RPG: In Sickness And In Health

Having been ill for much of the last couple of weeks and still not 100%, it seems a good opportunity to discuss healing in RPGs.

Realism versus Gameplay

One near universal in RPGs is that in-game healing has little in common with real life. Even ignoring magic or high-tech healing, most games’ natural healing rules allow a character to go from death’s door to full health in just a week or two. The only exception I can think of is the early editions of Call of Cthulhu where healing occurs at 1hp per week resulting in seriously hurt character’s being out of the game for around 12 weeks.

Call of Cthulhu can use a realistic time scale because it fits the nature of the game – Sporadic adventures with only brief episodes of violence. For any game involving regular combat this rate of healing is impossible. A dungeon crawl could take months to accomplish which would create a very different type of RPG but not one most players would be happy with.

Time Heals All Wounds

Another question of realism is whether wounds always heal. In D&D type games, players do not expect any lasting damage to a character, no matter how badly hurt they were. Some games like Runequest or Rolemaster have critical systems that can deal permanent changes to a character through the loss of limbs and similar injuries.

Having lost too many characters to critical systems and been in parties where no one has the right number of limbs, I’m against these sorts of systems. Losing a leg often means that a character is forced to retire which to a player is the same as a character’s death.

The Miracle Pill

Whether it comes from a potion bottle, a Paladin’s touch or hypodermic syringe, there is always a miracle cure. A game mechanic that allows instant healing of some or all of the character’s injuries.

There are very obvious gameplay reasons for this trope – it reduces character death and it allows for faster paced adventures. Even with unrealistic natural healing, it is hard to save the world in 12 hours if have the party need to rest for a week between combats.

How the miracle pill is delivered is pure fluff, the critical game design question is balance.

If a party has a never ending stream of healing it will run head first into any situation without worry. Too little healing the party will be unable to accomplish the heroic deeds the GM has planned for them.

The Zone of Uncertainty

The bottom line is that hit points and healing are a matter of resource and risk management. A party has X = Current Hit Points, Y = Healing Potential, Z = Damage Potential. Learning to maximise the X & Y and minimise Z is a core skill for RPG gamers. How this is presented in the game is all about fluff and style but every game designer is looking for that sweet spot – the zone of uncertainty.

Combat is only exciting when there is doubt in the player’s mind about their own survival. Stray too much outside of that zone and combat becomes routine or pointlessly fatalistic.

But there is no universal zone of uncertainty. Highly tactical games such as 4e are designed with a mathematical basis that carefully keep characters constantly in the centre of the zone. Call of Cthulhu places character much more towards the “we’re all going to die” edge of the zone where as superhero games tend towards the other edge. Each approach works because they suit the type of game the designers and players want.

6d6 RPG – Getting Better

The healing rules for the 6d6 RPG are still in a state flux. The biggest problem being limiting the amount of miracle pills available to the party as we are unable to find a workable mechanic that prevents clerics etc having too much healing. The rest of the damage & healing system is coming together well. I have more on this soon.


  1. Just yesterday I was wondering when we’d get the next 6d6 installment. Glad to see things are still coming along.

    1. It was overdue thanks to the Death Lurgy ™ I’ve been down with. Hopefully have another installment in a couple of days.

Comments are closed.