Friday, June 8, 2012

Dissociated Mechanics and House Rules

I have recently been looking over some archive posts at The Alexandrian, and am most grateful for Justin Alexander's super-smart Primer on Dissociated Mechanics. I highly recommend that post to my readers.

The post sheds light on the underlying reason why D&D 4e didn't really work for me: because as a "method actor" type who loves immersive role-playing, I really cannot bear obtrusive dissociated mechanics. This preference is evident in the primary house rule I impose upon my Labyrinth Lord games: multiple round searching for secret doors. The arbitrary (to me) rule in LL as writ saying that each PC can only search each area once is a dissociated mechanic -- it just doesn't make sense within the role-playing world. It may exist for some very good metagame reason that I don't understand, but it is impossible to justify within the game world, and thus does not support good roleplaying.

In this sense, the "only search each area once" rule in LL-as-writ is quite similar to "healing surges" and "daily powers" in D&D 4e. I have written at length about why 4e doesn't feel right to me, and recently stated at the end of this post that, like Jeff Rients, I do not care at all for healing surges. I noted that this dislike was because these surges make it hard to kill PCs, and indeed, this is partially true. (It's not that I'm out to kill PCs -- in fact, if anything, I am the opposite of a "killer DM" -- but it is just that I want there to be something palpably at stake, I want there to be real danger and threat in the game so that players are forced to play cleverly to secure their own survival.)

But the REAL (or more fundamental) reason I despise healing surges is that they just don't make sense within the roleplaying universe. They represent a dissociated mechanic, unconnected to the character or the game world. So again, thanks to Justin Alexander for making the specific root cause of my system preferences much clearer to me.


  1. Agree with you all the way on this one. Scarey. Absolutely love the picture. It sums it up very well. Those metagaming rules are the ones we usually dispose of or house rule so it works. Great post.

  2. Continuing on my cranky Jesuit-argumentation-for-its-own-sake streak this week:

    Okay so Mr. Big Purple d30 Jeff Rients says a healing surge is a bogus abstraction, and you say it has no game-world logic, then what's the difference between a healing surge and a once per session d30 roll where you can have a damage surge once per session? And that's once per session, not once per game day? How dissociated is that?

    The answer is because the d30 rule is awesome. But why is it awesome and the healing surge sucks?

    1. Good question. Maybe because the d30 rule is so dissociated that it doesn't even remotely pretend to be tied to the character rather than the player?

    2. One thing to keep in mind about the big d30 rule is that it always piggybacks on an associated mechanic.

      I think "every once in a while you do something you can normally do, but give it everything you've got" is a lot easier for players to grok then completely disallowing certain abilities.

    3. Well said Telecanter! I think that's it exactly.

  3. I think it was a blog post by one of the 5e guys wherein they explained their view of hit points and damage and then explained the Hit Dice (healing surge) mechanic.

    Essentially, damage from full to half HP equates to fatigue, bumps, bruises, and minor scratches. The blow that takes you below half is an actual solid hit (a nod to 4e's bloodied condition). Then more fatigue and such until the blow that takes you below 0, which is again a solid hit.

    Hit Dice (healing surge) in 5e are only available (as of now) outside combat and represent catching your breath, resting up, and bandaging your wounds. That your hit dice are limited represents that only so much of your injuries are fatigue (those minor bumps and bruises and scratches can add up).

  4. This is why I usually note how the secret door is hidden, so that players can actually figure it out without rolling a die...the die roll then becomes a saving throw instead of the one and only chance that the character can find the secret door...

  5. Replies
    1. And to once again quote Jim Raggi from your first link above: "OD&D, Holmes Basic, Mentzer Basic, AD&D, OSRIC, and Swords & Wizardry do not have this 'one try only' language in the rules for secret doors."

      In other words, it is unique to Moldvay/Cook and also Labyrinth lord.

  6. Couldn't healing surges be seen as reserves of energy (liver glycogen stores etc), short rests as catching one's breath & allowing recovery of oxygen debt, mobilization of stored energy etc?
    Of course, that sort of interpretation rests on lost hit points not equalling physical injury, but expenditure of energy and will.
    I like the WHFRP notion that the actual wound happens after you lose your last hit point.

  7. The 4e healing surge can normally only be used once a combat by a character to heal a chunk of HP. This requires dedicating a round's action. Other than that, in 4e, when a cleric or other class "heals" another character during an encounter, this normally takes the form of allowing the character to take a healing surge +some amount of HP.

    Potions work the same way, if you drink a potion you get to spend a surge.

    An interesting thing to note about healing surges is they actually place a cap on the number of times a character can be healed in a combat encounter.

    Healing surges could then be thought of as limit past which the body cannot be pushed, even by magical means. Earlier editions had no such limit.

    In any older edition of D&D it was fully possible to be loaded to the gills with healing magic in the form of potions and scrolls.

    This brings me to Carter's post:
    "...I do not care at all for healing surges. I noted that this dislike was because these surges make it hard to kill PCs, and indeed, this is partially true."

    Healing in earlier editions came from potions and clerical magic. Every PC in our Ara LL group carries several potions of extra healing. Many of the NPCs have potions. Endra's spawn is always willing to toss some good ole Cure Light Wounds out. On top of that, we use the Shields Will Splinter houserule which in essence means that you have to kill us twice as a shield can be sacrificed to stop any killing blow.

    By the way, don't take this as an argument for healing surges! I'm just noting that the mean difference between our LL game and 4e in terms of healing in combat is really the source of the healing power. 4e places the ultimate source of the healing power within the character. Potions and divine magic can stimulate that internal power but they cannot push it past its natural limit. In earlier editions the source of the healing power was magical. It was in the potion, or it came from a god.

    1. "the mean difference between our LL game and 4e in terms of healing in combat is really the source of the healing power."

      I agree, that seems like the main difference. I am sure I am just being my curmudgeonly self when I reject the idea of healing surges out of hand.

    2. My dislike of surges is mostly quantitative: PCs start with too many surges. For example, a first level 4E fighter starts with 9 + con mod surges.

      Starting HP is 15 + con score. For sake of example, let's say con score is 15, so 30 total HP, and a +2 con mod. 11 surges.

      Each healing surge restores one quarter of PC hit points. So in the case of our fighter, 7 HP. That's 77 hidden HP, not counting the extra negative buffer of any time spent in unconsciousness, as healing always goes from zero.

      I actually don't mind the second wind once per encounter thing, because people do have limits kind of like that, though I can see the position.

      Another thing that I sort of dislike about healing surges is actually how they limit healing from things like potions. It makes the potions feel like they are not doing anything.

      To respond to Carls point about all the LL healing, I would say the difference is that the LL characters (presumably) had to slowly acquire all their healing capabilities, whereas you are handed it on a platter in 4E. Thus, another example of how first level 4E is more or less comparable to 4th or 5th level traditional D&D.

      If the number of surges was dropped to 1 + con mod (or something like that), it would go a long way to fix the problem for me... except that surges are also used by other parts of the game system. For example, they power some abilities, and they are food for some undead (rather than levels).

    3. Wow, I didn't know all those details -- it sounds like 4e PCs are remarkably harder to kill than LL ones!

  8. I could probably accept a mechanic that said PCs' bodies could only heal so much. "She's hurt too bad the potion won't do any good" Maybe even give characters more serious wounds after x amount of "typical" damage.

    The problem with surges, if I'm remembering correctly, is that they are tied to *encounters*, not something inherent in the PCs body. So, that poor woman the potion wouldn't work for can be healed as soon as the next attack begins.

    The only way you can explain that in terms of the game world is that all 4e races have an ability to heal themselves that recharges over time. But wait, no, even that doesn't explain the potions and cleric spells. So it would be more like: all 4e races have the ability to be *receptive* to healing that recharges over time. Which is just odd and comes from no folklore or archetypes.

    1. The encounter limit for healing surges is that you can only use "second wind" once per encounter (second wind is how you use a healing surge *in combat* without having a cleric or potion or whatever heal you).

      Outside of combat, you can spend a healing surge each time you take a short rest. So, your poor old woman can sit down for a few minutes and spend a surge. She does not have to wait until combat.

    2. But once she's out of surges, she's done for the day.

  9. See also Mr. Rients' insightful comments on this matter, including this gem: "older versions of D&D probably have some dissociated mechanics that are invisible to me because I've been trained by decades of play to make connections that aren't really there."

    I am surely guilty of the same.

  10. It's interesting that the healing surge concept is as old as D&D. It appeared as the Shock Recovery rule in the Judges' Guild Ref. Sheets. Essentially, after a combat you can heal 1d4 hit points of damage sustained in that combat, provided you immediately rest to catch a breath, heal wounds etc. after the combat (if for some reason you can't rest, you don't get to heal.) I have changed this rule and replaced the straight d4 with 1 HD worth of hit points so that damaged healed scales by class. It works very well, makes characters a bit more resilient, and frees the cleric from being an heal bot. And it just plain makes sense, considering that hit points have never represented pure physical damage alone.

  11. I have to throw my lot in with the pro-healing-surge crowd. In my campaign, at least, HS represent the finite stores of vitality and adrenaline that the character can call on.

    As others have mentioned, hit points are an abstraction of the effects of combat: in D&D 3e and 4e, at least, losing HP doesn't equate to physical damage, but rather to the fatigue of parrying blows with your sword or holding up your shield to block a magic missile. Eventually, as you become more and more fatigued, you can't defend yourself as easily, and a blow hits you - you're bloodied, to use 4e parlance. Then, while you can defend yourself some more, another blow knocks you out for the count - you're dead or dying.

    Think about how this is portrayed in movies with more realistic combat (even if it's fantasy): a character will defend himself, taking little physical damage, but a lucky blow or a clever trick by his opponent instantly incapacitates him. Rarely is physical damage accrued evenly over a battle; it tends to be in a couple of well-timed hits.

    Saying that HP represents physical damage, and that therefore healing surges are a mechanic without an in-game explanation, is actually less realistic than saying that HP and HS are abstractions of fatigue.

    As an example, fiction often depicts a wizard or other spellcaster overloading himself forcing a spell to be cast; while it might not do physical damage (beyond, say, a nosebleed), it is often leaves them dizzy and drained. This, to me, is a good example of healing surges being used.

    Obviously this is just my interpretation of HS and HP, but I think it's one that provides an intuitive link between the crank and fluff of healing surges.