Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Healing Potions

Healing potions in 4th Edition suck.

These are supposed to be the iconic consumable item. They're cheap, they're ubiquitous, and they're always useful. They're a cure light wounds in a bottle. No adventurer should go without.

By contrast, in 4th Edition, drinking a healing potion uses up one of your healing surges, and instead of your surge value you heal 10 HP. You can drink a potion as a minor action.

Now, that's not useless. Up until about level 5, 10 HP is probably more than your surge value. And healing as a minor action is otherwise something that only clerics, paladins and dwarves could do. But it uses up one of your precious surges. It's just not as good as you'd expect a one-shot magic item to be.

The first thing that confuses about healing potions is that they're flat rate. Every other healing effect in the game does proportional healing, based on the 25% surge value. Heal pots give you a straight-up ten.

There's two arguments behind this that I can see. One is an intention to keep healing potions as a low-level item. They're really only useful during the first half of the heroic tier; after that you'll need to find more powerful potions that presumably cost more gold. If healing potions scaled with surge value, you'd have to artificially scale their cost to match, or high-end adventurers would be forever carrying as many as they could haul.

The other aspect of the flat rate is that it benefits low HP characters more than tanks. 10HP is practically two surges to a wizard, while it's only just above a single for a fighter. The potion is therefore proportionately more valuable to the wizard. Flat rate healing for potions (and only potions) casts potions as a "wizard item", providing a bit of flavour both to the item and the class.

Now, why does the potion use a healing surge? It's a magic item - isn't it supposed to be a bit special? Other "super-heals" like cure light wounds are able to heal players without consuming surges.

Presumably this is for balance reasons. While low-level characters certainly benefit most from these potions, there's really nothing to stop high-end characters buying them in bulk and chugging one on each and every minor action. 10HP might not be earth-shaking but it's nothing to sneeze at when it's happening every turn.

Balanced it may be, but it's not fun. When you acquire a magic item, it's supposed to feel like you're beating the system in some way. A healing potion is the RPG equivalent of having an extra life; it's a special, unique commodity. 4th Edition relegates them to just another everyday heal.

Suggestion: make healing potions not consume a healing surge, but rule instead that players can only drink one potion of any sort per extended rest. (Or once per milestone, if you feel generous.)


16lettersonly said...

Just discovered this blog, and I'm loving it.

"Up until about level 5, 10 HP is probably more than your surge value."
...unless you're a Defender.

Let's say 15 is a good Constitution score. That means our hypothetical level 1 Fighter has 30 HP and 7 surge right off the bat. At level 2 he gains 6 HP for a surge value of 9. And so on up until he has 54 HP and 13 surge at level 5 (more if he took Toughness).

Add to that the fact that low HP characters (except maybe the rogue) hardly ever take hits, the low starting gold for level 1 characters, and the prohibitively high cost of magic weapons, and potions are looking pretty useless.

"after that you'll need to find more powerful potions that presumably cost more gold."
You're right there; the next highest potion is level 15, 1000g, and 25 hp + a saving throw.

"potions as a "wizard item", providing a bit of flavour both to the item and the class."
You make a good point there, which I suspect I could accept more if wizards had a 'create potion' skill. As it is, potions still 'feel' like generic NPC shopkeeper items, like they've been in hundreds of RPGs. RPGs in which fighters chug potions all the time, without needing a cleric to get through each battle.

"When you acquire a magic item, it's supposed to feel like you're beating the system in some way."
It should, shouldn't it? I'm not a DM or a playtester, but I'd prefer doubling the healing values (i.e. 2/3 of a fighter's hp, or bringing the wizard from near-death to full) and treating consumables as part of the magic-item-dailies-per-day limit. This seems it would preserve their usefulness at low levels, while preventing abuse at higher levels. For example, a potion could cancel out one string of monster crits, but not terrible PC tactics.

Greg Tannahill said...

There's a "create potion" ritual, either in the PHB or in something released since (I found it in the character builder) that lets the ritual caster create a potion of equal to or lower to their level, I think introduced for this very reason. Seeing as rituals are mostly a cleric and wizard thing, it supports my interpretation of potions as a "caster flavour item".

Good to see your rogue is taking hits too; I was worried this was just something weird about my player group. That incentive to go for flanking really seems to put them in the danger zone for melee attacks.

Lgstarn said...

Healing potions actually work great with the healing surges rule. It isn't just that healing surges are limited per day: they are also more importantly limited per encounter. You can only use your second wind once per encounter, a cleric can only use healing word twice per encounter, and a Paladin can only heal a few times per day. Therefore, a group can really only expect to use a second wind per player plus three to five additional surges. On the other hand, these potions are able to be chugged down one right after another in a protracted encounter.

I was able to see the potion used in an essential way first hand. My party got almost completely destroyed by the low heroic TPK machine that is the Blue Slime. It was bleak: my rogue was covered in acid and had failed his first dying save. His paladin pal held on to him for dear life while his comrades threw them a rope and dragged them up the stairs. To my player's horror, the unthinking goo reached out for another opportunity attack, bringing the rogue further negative. The rogue failed both saves to end the acid and stop dying: one death save left. He had already used his second wind, and no one had any powers that burn healing surges left to give. Just as it was looking like we they were going to have to go through the Raise Dead rigmarole, a recently discovered healing potion was forced down the rogue's throat, saving him just before the acid took him below negative bloodied. Fortunately he saved for acid and the group was able to catch its breath for an hour or so.

So while I agree that the healing potion looks useless at first glance, its utility as a no-strings-attached last ditch access to healing surges can actually be a life saver. When a character is actually dying right then and there and there are no encounter surges left, that's when the heal pot comes out. So I think that if your group has one or two of these potions hanging around, you can feel a bit better throwing something horribly nasty at them just to let them use it.

Greg Tannahill said...

Lgstarn - I agree it's not a totally useless item, but it's not remotely worth its gold cost, and I think players who find it in a loot parcel could feel quite rightly cheated.

lgstarn said...

Hi Greg,

Thanks for your replies. I especially enjoyed the coffin surfing comment in the other thread. :-)

Aren't healing potions only 50 gp? That's not too bad - it's the same price "journeybread for 10 days," for example. 50 gp seems to put them just out of reach so that 3rd level players don't stock up on them like mad.

Colmarr said...

One handy thing we discovered is that a heal effect that requires you to spend a surge (such as a potion of healing) still heals you even if you don't have a surge to spend; it heals 1 hp.

Now, that's not much, but it means that Potions of Healing (all 50gp of them) retain a use all the way up to Epic level.

A Potion of healing saved my cleric's life. He was heavily negative with no surges left and with no (other) skilled healer in the group. That potion put him on 1hp and saved his life.

Titanium Dragon said...

Healing potions are totally worth their gold cost - they can revive a fallen ally without a check as a standard action, they can be drunk as a minor action to regain HP, and they aren't limited on a per-encounter basis.

The reason they heal a fixed amount is pretty simple - 50 gp is entirely trivial to a high level character, and you can chug any number of them. As for the suggestion that you could drink only one per extended rest, while that sounds okay, the trouble is that magic item dailies (which is probably what it would be) are already pretty limited, and unless you made it a second mechanic (which you could, I suppose), it'd probably be mildly frustrating because you'd have to choose between using your cool magic item daily and drinking a potion, and the latter is mostly going to be better.

They're worth their cost, but they aren't meant to be your primary source of healing. Briefly overlevel potions are great for healing in combat, but are too expensive to use all the time, and over time they become more of a desperation item - you don't want to use a healing potion because it heals less, but sometimes you need to because you're in trouble and out of healing surge activations.

It works well enough.

Anonymous said...

The thing you might be missing is that there's a "healing economy" that may not be visible at the outset. During any given encounter, each character can Second Wind, and the leader can heal twice. As you go along, you may have other healing resources (such as dailies or encounter powers that rely on an attack hitting) and non-leaders might pick up a limited amount of healing, but in general, each individual will only be able to spend around 2 surges in a combat -- and depending on how things go, maybe only one.

That's where the potion comes in. Even if 10 is half your surge value, if you have no other way to use a surge, you're gonna chug that potion and say thank you for the privilege.

I've seen it more than a few times -- the cleric is tapped out, only the Fighter hasn't used his second wind, and the rogue just took a nasty hit. At this point, he can either limp along with five HP left -- or he can drink a potion. That's a no-brainer.