Thursday, May 23, 2024


How do we deal with players hoarding healing potions? I came up with a solution a few years back, but only barely touched on since it's inception- limited shelf life Tonics. Originally written up in the Dirt Simple Alchemy post, I wanted to revisit the concept after reading the Goblin Punch post here.

You ever like how fantasy games have magic potions made out of like three mushroom caps, a handful of clay dirt, and a bat wing and yet they have this perfect bright red color and usually don't taste like absolute shit? That's part of the magic, actually.

When specific ingredients are mixed together in a cauldron and boiled, stirred with a wand, and readied by a skilled hedge mage or witch: a Tonic is created. The chunks of whatever is within the brew smooth out and disappear into a consistent glowing fluid, which can then be poured into an appropriate flask. It's like fantasy Gatorade. This is also the reason that healing potions (tonics) are all consistent despite being made with different batch sizes and with different qualities of ingredients and the like, it doesn't actually matter how big your cauldron is or the size of your vial, the magic is one "dose" no matter how you slice it. Once you fill a single vial with the brew, the rest of the cauldron turns back into gross dirty soup-water. This also gives a nice and easy way of knowing when the tonic has gone bad- just look at it. If it looks like a bunch of gross shit floating in a beaker, then you know it's gone off and isn't good anymore.

Once a tonic has been created, it has a shelf life of approximately one day, one week for traveling campaigns, or one season for more time-abstracted games. The time setting here is abstracted, but is in essence supposed to be for one session. At the end of the session, any tonics not used go bad and lose their magic. You can't hoard them.

Characters can make tonics if they want to and they have the skills and ingredients. This makes time very valuable when exploring, but spending a bunch of time gathering ingredients and brewing tonics always comes at a cost; random encounters and torchlight dwindling away must be considered against the value of brewing some more useful tonics for future encounters. The dry ingredients used to make tonics are also almost always cheaper and more light-weight then the tonics themselves (but you need a source of water, fire, and something to cook them in- if you lost your cauldron to the rust monster you might have to improvise with the shell of the massive turtle you killed earlier in the dungeon), giving an incentive to pack up tonic ingredients for longer exploration trips- because while you can make as many tonics as you want with time allowing, they will all go away at the end of the session.

You can also buy tonics from shop keepers and herbalists in villages. Because tonics only take about a turn (10 minutes) to make, you could also abstract this and let players buy as many tonics as they want from the local healer before going off into the dungeon. This is part of your preparation phase, without the inherent problem of players being able to hoard healing potions, just buy as many as you think you need. You can also get specific here, tonics don't just heal, they can do any effect really. Tonics can be antidotes, strength potions, "fire" potions that can cast light or make your weapons go inflamed for a damage boost, invisibility, freezing liquid, acid- whatever you want really. The idea here is to provide a use it or lose it tool that isn't as reliable and permanent as a spell or recharging magic item- because they have space and material limitations. You can only carry so many tonics, and they go away after your exploration.

Potions vs Tonics
Tonics are magic potions. The reason I'm calling them Tonics and not Potions is so people don't feel ripped off when they go bad and to separate them from capital P Potions that could act like magic items or treasures with a one time use. You could still call these potions if you really want, I just figured potions as something to hoard was so ingrained in the popular consciousness that a different name would help with this. This way, finding a Potion as a magic treasure can be considered a great find, same as a magic sword or spellbook. I'm imagining a Potion of Healing to be much like a Potion of Youth or a Potion of Gold or something similar- it probably fully heals you, restores all your limbs, removes your trauma and ability score damage, etc. etc.

Tonics in Gameplay
The main idea behind Tonics is to manipulate player psychology and provide an in-universe mechanic for more interesting healing and preparation for tabletop dungeon crawling. No longer is healing a class specific feature, anyone can order a village alchemist to make them some tonics to act as the mistake allowance and shared HP pool for the whole party. Not only this, tonics also discourage certain behaviors (overly risk averse), while encouraging other ones (experimentation and preparation). For example, the players know their special tonics will run out at the end of the session anyway, so why not experiment and see if healing potion is like acid for the undead? Why not pour some fire potion on a mushroom to see if it mutates into an exploding shroom? It also creates a certain amount of time pressure and scarcity inherent to the mechanics. 

Why doesn't everyone have access to magic healing in the fantasy world? That's simple- the resources and knowledge used to make tonics isn't unlimited, and the tonics themselves can't be hoarded. You can't assume every knight or soldier will be able to carry healing potions with them, or that the king has a supply of cure poison under his throne's pillow- you still need healers, magicians, or old wise men to actually work their craft. It creates a less gamified fantasy world and one that feels more believable and lived in, with the conveniences and mechanics that allow the dungeon crawling adventure fantasy to still work.

Of course, this doesn't actually solve some of the problems listed with Arnold's original post. How do you stop people from just bringing in unlimited healing? Well I'd do it by saying that potions are really heavy, being liquid, and also being something you can't really sneak around with since they, you know, glow in the dark and are carried in glass bottles. Plus the expense of buying them. Technically nothing stops you from having hirelings carry them, but nothing stops you from hiring a private army to do your dungeon delving for you- if you have enough resources. Personally, I think most players will be satisfied with just mentally calculating how much healing they think they may need, how many antidotes or resist fire potions or paralysis cures or sleeping draughts or whatever else they think they'll need, invest the gold at the start of a delve, and enjoy using the resources they have prepared for. Of course your players may be a bit too clever for that, in which case, you'll you have to come up with something better. I just wanted to share my version of potion-based-magic that I think works pretty well.