5e is an especially lethal RPG, even compared to, say, Pathfinder. One friend dubbed it “rocket tag”.
The game definitely assumes you have a healer in your party. Which is a problem when you don’t. I’ve played in parties with no healer, and we feel the difference.
So what do you do?
What’s wrong with high lethality?
Let’s take a step back. Why is this potentially a big deal? Here are a few issues we run into with a high lethality game (and some potential mitigating factors):
1. You miss out on a lot of the game.
Whether you’re lying unconscious waiting for the fight to end, so you can take an in-character rest and recover health naturally, or you need to wait for next session to introduce your new, new, new character, a high lethality game can turn you into a spectator for a lot of your own RPG.
For some games, this isn’t far off from standard operating procedure. Maybe you have backup PCs up your sleeve, so you don’t need to go away and spend a few hours rolling up a new one. Maybe you’re a group that routinely splits the party, so there’s already an expectation of some spectating built in. But for a lot of games and a lot of groups, this is a problem.
2. It hurts the chargen-to-roleplay ratio.
You’re here to roleplay. The prototypical activity of a roleplaying game is speaking and acting as your character.
Now, in practice, there are all sorts of ancillary activities that go with an RPG, and often these ancillary activities are part of the game’s pleasures. Chief among these activities is, of course, character creation.
But the default assumption is that you’re mostly here to roleplay, and that any factor that shifts the emphasis away from roleplaying needs to at least be carefully examined.
Guess what high lethality does.
Now, again, that’s not necessarily a problem. Some people relish the process of character creation enough that they’re perfectly happy rolling up a new character every other session, or every fifth session, or whatever it ends up being in your game; they may well have a stash of characters created “on spec”, and are ready to whip out a new one whenever the old one dies. And maybe you’re playing with a system that makes character creation trivially fast. But unless you’ve got these mitigating factors in abundance, time spent on character creation can start to feel like wasted effort.
3. It hurts narrative continuity.
You’re on a quest to save a character who’s one PC’s father, and another PC’s mentor… until both of those PCs die.
You’re trying to find a cure for a particular PC’s illness… until that PC dies.
You’re trying to help a PC comrade fulfill an oath… until (say it with me now) that PC dies.
Not every quest is about destroying the One Ring, or bringing down the Galactic Empire – quests that are of value to tremendous numbers of people, and hence fodder for more heroes than just the few in your party. Some quests are inexorably tied to one or more specific PCs in your campaign, and if that PC dies, what happens to the quest?
And if this happens over and over again, what happens to the campaign?
4. It hurts player engagement.
I briefly ran a game using a published campaign that was written by the game’s developer, and was meant to be “the” published campaign for that system. It had a long, involved chargen system that involved developing the families of each of the PCs in parallel, building up histories, and generating homes for all the characters. We spent weeks creating those characters.
The first die-roll killed a PC.
The moment it happened, the air was sucked out of the room. Feedback from players was immediate – how am I supposed to develop an attachment to a character who isn’t going to be around for long?
In some games, you get around this by downplaying engagement with individual characters. Maybe individual characters are supposed to be somewhat disposable, and it’s an organization or a family that matters. Maybe it’s a game about an imperishable being who possesses individual hosts from adventure to adventure, or who reincarnates.
But in a lot of games, you’re trying to really sink your teeth into a single, individual character, who can die. And if they die a lot, that becomes hard.
5. Losing your character sucks.
Seriously, losing your character sucks.
Some games are optimized for high lethality
King Arthur Pendragon gives you a whole family, from which to draw player-knights. Paranoia gives you a creche of six clones – a PC and five backup copies. They definitely have high lethality and high character turnover baked in.
So what do you do for a party with no healer?
But, assuming you’re playing a highly lethal game, where the lethality is meant to be balanced by a healer and you have no healer, what do you do?
A few options for dealing with a lack of a healer in a high-lethality game:
1. Add an NPC healer.
There are so many ways to go with this. The players could design this character. They could take turns playing them, or leave it up to the GM. The character could be a quiet placeholder, or a font of personality. They could be usefully tied to the plot of the adventure, or simply be an arbitrary hireling. They could be seamlessly competent, or a boat-anchor who provides healing, but creates their own complications.
2. Add a magic item that simply stands in for the healer.
Give the PCs a magic item that very simply does the job of a healer. Give it a certain number of healing charges – whatever is appropriate for your system and level – and have it recharge each day at sunrise. It can fill the gap left by a party healer without completely de-fanging the dangers the GM throws at them.
Like the NPC healer, it can be as simple or as flavourful as you like (as with any magic item). Is it mysterious in origin? Is it the result of a delve into an ancient, abandoned city of wonders? Was it wrenched from the hand of a slain demigod?
3. Add a magic item that stands in for the healer, but with nothing simple about it.
As above, but with complications. I’ll provide a few examples at the end of this post.
4. Just live with it.
In most games, and certainly in 5e, healing is available even in the absence of a healer. Healing potions and first-aid kits can do a lot of the work of the healer. It’s just that these options consume resources (money, ability slots) that could have been used for other things. It stretches the party’s resource budget further.
A knock-on effect from such a strategy is that the PCs will need to be more cautious. They’ll have to be smarter about what risks they take. Maybe this is a good thing – maybe it leads to more cunning, careful operations, that are less focused on open combat. I’m sure more than one gaming group has drawn influence from Ocean’s Eleven or Rainbow Six or Leverage.
But maybe it’s a bad thing. I get leery when a game tells me it’s making things more dangerous, or hiding information from me, with the specific intent of making me more cautious. If I want a scenario where I have to take smart risks and avoid danger, I have real life for that.
5. Have the GM adjust treasure accordingly.
Basically, the “just live with it” option, but where the GM either scales up the party’s treasure finds, or makes sure to include more consumable healing items among said treasure.
6. Give the party a sponsor.
If the PCs work for some sponsor, with a large store of resources, that sponsor can provide them with supplies for their quests – including healing supplies. The PCs can operate on behalf of a local monarch or noble, a society of adventurers or do-gooders, or a professional army.
A few flavourful options
Here are a few magic items that could stand in for a healer, but which are anything but simple.
The Surgery Spider
This device is a mechanical spider the size of a large dog. It’s made of brass, and it has tiny, needle-like manipulators at the ends of four of its eight limbs. When it encounters an injured sapient being, it will go to work right away trying to heal them.
The Surgery Spider is paired with a small brass ring, and it will follow whoever wears the ring. But the spider has no particular allegiance, and doesn’t know friend from foe – it will treat any injured sapient who is nearby. It’s an adept climber, and can climb most vertical surfaces with ease. It can’t be given orders, and hence can’t be commanded to (say) ferry PCs up to the top of a cliff.
The Surgery Spider was built by a team of royal artisans, in an ancient Elven kingdom hidden deep in a forest where few now dare go.
The Rattle of Kazinza
The rattle is made of seashells tied to what appears to be a shinbone. It’s activated by shaking. The rattle knows the difference between deliberate shaking and incidental jostling (as in someone’s pack).
When activated, the rattle summons Kazinza, a mysterious cloaked figure. Kazinza stands in a self-generated cloud of shadow, and is entirely covered except for green eyes that glow within a drooping cowl, and a short snout full of jagged fangs.
Kazinza will heal any living party member up to full health. In return, the patient must give up a key body part – a tooth, a finger, or an eye. It’s up to the GM to determine at what point these amputations lead to mechanical penalties.
If ever Kazinza is summoned, but no one offers up a body part, the rattle will dissolve, and Kazinza will depart and not return.
The Concordian Diadems
The Concordian Diadems are a set of silver circlets, each set with relief images of ants crawling along their length.
If a group of characters wear the circlets on their heads, they form a bond, pooling their hit points. Injuries taken by any member of the group cause the pool to lose hit points, instead of any one individual member. As long as there are hit points left in the pool, all members of the group stay alive and conscious.
If a member of the group removes their diadem, they leave the bond. They take hit points from the hit point pool equal to their maximum total, or to whatever is currently left in the pool – whichever is lower.
How about you?
Have you played in a high-lethality game where you had to deal with the lack of a healer? Did you find it was a problem? How did you handle it?