Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Healing Salves

Returning to the subject of D&D, I wanted to record some of a conversation I was having last night with my own smart life partner, about recipes or formulas for making potions and other magic items. In particular, the making of something I use in my campaigns, called healing salve.

This is a very simple sort of magic that I allow to be purchased.  I don't like the purchase of magic items, but there are a few very minor ones that I consider to be common enough that they would exist in abundance, without overbalancing the power structure that I consider delicately reflects that of the real world, circa 1650.

One such item is the healing salve.  This is a simple packet, typically a liquidy powder, that can be eaten or poured directly into a wound, which restores 1d4 damage virtually instantaneously (call it half a round, or about six seconds).  If the wound is bleeding, the salve will close the wound up immediately, even if it only heals 1 point.  It takes a character one round to administer the salve, either on themselves or on others.  Typically, depending on where the party is in my world, a salve can go for as little as 75 to as much as 200 g.p.  It is often not available, or available in small amounts, and parties will snap up all they can find if it turns up on an equipment list.

On the list of things that an alchemist could fabricate, from yesterday's post, is the healing salve, and there's no question that someone will rush to make it as soon as they are able.  So the subject of 'how it is made' is bound to come up.

The first notion that we're likely to have is that it is made from some part of a given creature's anatomy, so that the party has to rush out and kill the creature, probably in a careful manner, to get the blood or ichor or fingernails of the beast, whatever seems most annoying.  This would then send the party on an endless quest to kill trolls (regenerating makes an obvious healing ingredient), flesh golems (reconstituted life), giant slugs or worms (most sponges, annelids and the like heal rather easily) and so on.  Unfortunately, doing so would make the game into Quest for Worms, which the party would probably pursue endlessly.

Another idea that we had last night was more interesting, practical and most importantly game-friendly.  Suppose that the seeds for the medicinal plants needed to create the healing salve were fairly easy to get, and fairly inexpensive (say, a gold coin per seed).  The seeds could only be planted during a 10 day period late in the spring, and had a 63 day growth period before harvesting.  During that time, they would have to be watched very closely by the druid, which would restrict the druid from doing anything else for 2 months.  Each week, the druid would have to make a roll for every plant, to see if the plant died.  The roll would improve as the druid's study points improved.  There'd be a limit on how many plants a druid could conceivably manage, perhaps a hundred, and attempts to manage more would drastically increase the likelihood of plants dying.

At the end of the 9-week period, the remaining plants would be harvested.  To transform these plant into a packet of healing salve per plant would take three weeks, which wouldn't be expensive but would require intensive effort by the druid (nothing could be allowed to interrupt the process).  At the end of the effort, the druid would produce perhaps 60-80 packets, depending on the success of each operation.  Cost, as I say, would be about 1 g.p. per packet.

However, having now created these healing salves, the party could do nothing to make more of them until the following spring!  That means, although they can make a ton, for 12 months, the number is limited, and they have to be reserved.  Each one that is used is used with the recognition that these have to last.

Moreover, as planting time approaches, the party must somehow return to one of those parts of the world where the plant grows, or miss a whole year of crop growing.

I really like this system, as it encourages freedom for a lot of the year for the party, so they are not endlessly hunting some animal, while at the same time still offering a limitation to how much salve they can reasonably make.  It helps stabilize the party's wanderings, and promotes a community association for the months when the party returns 'home' to grow more plants.

This is game play on a very powerful, meaningful level ... and as I was told yesterday by Maxwell Joslyn, it does the heavy lifting for me.


  1. As a player, my first questions would be:

    1) Can I pay someone to grow this for me? If so, how long does the harvest keep before I must process it?

    2) Does the growing season change with climate-how does this do in an orangery?

  2. 1) The caretaking process must be done by a druid of necessary knowledge, so minimum 4th level; and it means three continuous months of work. Which is the equivalent, pretty much, of what the druid would charge you at the apothecary. So, yes, you could pay someone else - at about 75 to 200 g.p. per packet.

    2) The growing season, this being magic, would have more to do with the exact nature of the soil and the time between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice; so an orangery (which I do have in my world) wouldn't work.

    Incidentally, there is a good point that comes up; since someone else making the salve has a chance to make quite a killing on it (which the party can also do, and the trade system is arranged for that), there's always the chance of someone trying to steal the product before it is made (get another druid that has started the process, swoop in and then steal the thunder).

    A simple solution to that would be to say that the plants have semi-intelligence, and grow loyal to the druid that has taken care of them, and thus die when the druid dies, or otherwise fail to grow if the druid raising them is working while threatened, etc.

    Magic has its own solutions.

    Good try at circumventing the process, but really, I always think this is crappy gamesmanship. OBVIOUSLY the system has to be designed to limit character power and strength - why is it that players always think, "I know, I'll break the game so I can WIN!" And why do they think that will be of course allowed, because no one has a problem with the game being broken?

  3. Continuing in that line of thought. Does it never occur to players that, perhaps, the DM can simply say, "Well, I was going to offer this rule to enable the game to be more interesting and constructive, but since the player would rather only see it in terms of obtaining personal power, guess what? Option gone. Bye now."

    I like giving players new options to power, but there is a social contract here that needs to be respected; the game, and the playability of the game, is more important than the player's need to alter the new rule so that it serves in a manner for which it was never designed.

  4. The time sensitive salve harvest is really interesting.

    You could also tie it to a specific area or small group of growers (a bit like Phoenicians and purple dye) which might lead to some fun if that area/group is threatened somehow.

  5. Such twistings of meaning run me mad as well, Alexis. It seems a very common defense mechanism for intelligent people who do not wish to undergo the work of understanding another's mindset. These people instead focus on the actual words instead of the words intent. Not a bad way to be while reading a text book or instruction manual, but a blog is not that type of writing.

    I have run into enough such people that I have distilled my advice to them down to a single sentence: When debating, always interpret what the other said in the most intelligent manner that you can.

    Eric, taking the time and energy to follow the above advice will likely keep others from getting angry (they might even be flattered when it becomes clear you hold them as an equal) and ensures that you are not wasting your time by defeating weak arguments. It is rather like playing chess against a player who you believe is not able to see a subtle weakness in your position. If you want to improve, you should play as though they do see the weakness. If you just want to beat someone... well, Alexis' blog isn't the right place to try and score an easy victory and the man shouldn't even be on your list of people who make idle or weak points.

  6. "A side thought, and probably not a practical one: instead of having the plants die right off, have 'em be lower potency; just 1 HP healed instead of a d4."

    That is a bad plan, for one simple reason. Never require something complicated of the player that the system can manage simply.

  7. Thank you Justin. Sorry it took a long time to confirm the comment, I was out pitching for the book.

  8. I like the way you turn a minor magic item and use it to explain your philosophy on both world building and game making. Most people would have something like this and might have the same ideas as you, but they might not be able to put them to words. I've been trying to come up with a low magic world that resembles real life Earth as much as possible (and so I am thinking on how magic works without it having a profound effect on the world), and this is the kind of thinking I was looking for. do you have a list of minor magic items that players are allowed to buy?

  9. Stuart,

    I have only a few, and they are all included in this list at the Apothecary's shop.

  10. Reading some old posts and came across this one. Immediately thought of the much more recent one you wrote about creating more powerful magic items where the main cost is time. Shows a great consistency of thought to the game design over the years. Also a reminder to myself about what is important when giving players options.


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