Like anyone reading the second book in the Harry Potter series, you’re probably saying “enough with the f$&%ing herbology already.” And I sympathize. I was so happy when Voldemort finally burned Neville Longbottom to death at the end of that series. Spoiler alert. Anyway, this is the last time I talk about it.
And that’s a problem. It turns out that thought processes become very complicated once you have to spell them out. What you’ve been reading over the course of the last few articles, it happened in my head mostly in the span of an hour. I’m not bragging. I don’t have to. You all know I’m a genius. I’m just saying THINKING things is a lot quicker than EXPLAINING things.
If I try, I could probably get another 5,000 words of discussion about how I constructed my herbcraft rules for 5E after the 5,000 words you’re about to read which follow the 5,000 words that came before. Which is pretty amazing for a set of rules that, after the latest revision, only include about 2,500 words.
Speaking of that, there is a latest revision of the herbcraft rules. I clarified a few things, filled in holes people noticed, cleaned up some things, and made a few minor tweaks. And I’m done with them at this point. Download the PDF, extend them, use them, and have fun.
Here’s the thing. I can’t keep talking about this. I’m trying to illustrate some big, important game design concepts. If I get bogged down in explaining absolutely every little detail and decision, there’s going to be two more weeks of this crap. So, I’m going to hit on the biggest, most important parts of the system and explain my stream of consciousness for that crap and trust you to figure out the little stuff.
Here’s the thing, though. And this is an important thing. Some of that little stuff exists solely because it seemed like a fun thing to do. I s$&% you not. As I explain the way my brain works through things and why I think that’s the best way for brains to work vis-à-vis things, I give the impression that designing rules hacks is this weighty, complicated process of solving problems and confronting issues. And yeah, that stuff is there. But there’s also the part where you get excited about cool things and try them out just because they seem fun.
Why are there three different qualities even though no other die roll in D&D offers variable qualities? Because it seemed fun and it isn’t terribly complicated and crafting is a completely different thing than anything else and that seemed like a fun way to say, “crafting isn’t doing anything else because it’s crafting.” That’s all. My brain just said, “variable qualities, GO!” And I did. Some people don’t like that particular bit and want to know why I did it. Well, I did it because I like it.
Game design is a lot like hanging wallpaper. Yes, you spend a lot of time slogging in glue and scraping bubbles out and trying to match up every goddamned seem perfectly and yes that takes patience and practice and instruction. But you also get to pick out nice wallpaper with neat patterns in your favorite colors so that your room looks nice when you’re done. And that’s the fun part.
The Fight Between Fluff and Crunch
Inevitably, whenever you come up with a new rule or system for an RPG, you’re going to have two different groups of critics telling you it’s a s$&% idea. And that’s because the work of the critic is far easier than the work of a person who actually f$&%ing creates actual things. First, you’re going to have the crunchy people who piss and moan about weird rules or limitations or restrictions that only exist because they make sense in the story of the world. Those are the f$&%wits who cost us all the rules about how clerics and paladins actually have to follow a damned ethical code if they want to keep their f$&%ing powers. A$&holes. Second, you’re going to have the fluffy people who piss and moan about the rules that exist because the game has to function as a mechanical game and argue that they don’t accurately reflect the fictional world realistically. Those are the people who yelled at me for the rule that herbal remedies – and their ingredients – spoil after 24 hours because that doesn’t make any earthly, goddamned sense. And they both need to shut the f$&% up sometimes because every RPG system is a fight between crunch and fluff.
Crunch. The numbers and mechanics that make the game work as a game system. Fluff. The story and world details that tell you what is going on in the imaginary world and story of the game. Everything in the game has to serve both. A system has to provide a fun, fair, and balanced gameplay experience. A system also has to represent a part of the world that makes sense and seems like it could exist. But you can’t always do both. There will always come a point where you have to add some abstract limit for the good of the game or screw the rules for the good of the story and world. Designing mechanics is an exercise in compromise between the needs of the game and the needs of the story. And, like any good compromise, it will always leave a bunch of people unhappy.
People will talk about top-down design or bottom-up design and say it’s always better to hedge toward story because that’s what the game is about or talk about how balance in king and everything else must bow to almighty game balance or whatever. People will say you should start with the mechanics and then figure out the excuses for them in the story. People will say you should start with the story and create the rules that serve them best. But I’m not going to tell you any of that. Because good design involves flitting back and forth between game and story so that the two elements feed into each other without breaking each other. When you add a mechanical bit or bob to your system, make sure it makes sense in the world and the story. When you come up with a cool bit of story fluff, tweak the rules or change them to suit the fluff.
In the end, you WILL have to compromise between the fluff and the crunch. There’s no way around it. You will have to find a middle point. So, it’s better to start somewhere in the middle. That way you have a shorter trip to the right middle point. Don’t start at one of the extremes and then slog to the middle, dragging your design along with you.
The Mechanical Tree
A game system is like a tree. It is rooted in some deep, core system. And from those roots, a strong trunk grows. Consider spellcasting. Spellcasting in D&D is rooted in the action resolution system. You declare an action, roll an attack roll or force a saving throw, and then the outcome happens or doesn’t happen. The trunk of the spellcasting system in D&D involves a few very strong ideas. First of all, all magic comes in prescribed effects called spells which define what can be done and how it can be done. If it isn’t a described spell, spellcasting can’t do it. Every spellcaster has a list of spells they can cast. And they have resources they can expend to cast the spell. And the resources and the spells are scored by some sort of power level. Right? That’s spellcasting in D&D.
From the trunk of the tree, branches grow. The branches represent additional rules details that provide variety to the system. For example, all spellcasters have a list of spells they can cast, but some spellcasters can choose that list from a larger list of spells they know (wizards) while others can choose that list from a list of all the spells they could ever possibly cast (clerics). Still other spellcasters can’t change the list of spells they can cast, they only have that one list (bard, sorcerer, warlock). There are also branches that have to do with how the caster uses slots. Some spellcasters only get one pile of spell slots instead of different piles for different levels of spells (warlocks), for example.
Finally, growing off the branches are leaves. The leaves are all of the tiny little details that vary from character to character or situation to situation and allow players and GMs the chance to customize things to their heart’s content. Each particular spell is a leaf on the tree.
What amateur game designer GMs – and even professional f$&%ing game designers – seem to forget is that it’s the leaves that people see the most. The leaves are bright and colorful and obvious. And maybe the leaves are flowers. Or fruit. Yes, I know fruit isn’t leaves. Shut up. I’m making a point. Underneath the leaves, the branches affect the overall shape of the tree. But lots of trees look pretty much the same despite variations in their branches. By the time you get down to the root and the trunk, you get down to the things that no one really notices or is interested in What’s my point? Well, to use spellcasting as an example. If you wanted to create a new spellcasting class, the most noticeable thing and the most interesting thing, is the list of spells and class features that class has. Those are the bright, pretty leaves on the tree. You can f$&% a little bit with things like slots and preparation, sure, and tweak the shape a little, but deeper than that and NO ONE ACTUALLY F$&%ING CARES. People who invent new classes spend so much time developing “new and interesting” deep core tree-trunk type mechanics for no good reason because those aren’t the things that make the class interesting. Which would you rather have in your game, a “Vancian wizard” and a “non-Vancian wizard” who have the same spell lists and features but use different deep core mechanics to cast them or the “Vancian wizard” and the “Vancian warlock” who have very different spell lists and features and, aside from some tweaks, use exactly the same core spell system.
Why are we talking about this bulls$&%? Because you never ever want to reinvent anything you don’t have to when hacking a system. You want to draw, as much as possible, on the systems that already exist. And when that isn’t possible, you want to make your system as similar as possible to systems that already exist. Especially the deep core parts of your system. Why? First, it’s less f$&%ing work. Second, you don’t have teach people a whole bunch of extra s$&% to use your system. Third, RPGs are complicated and the different parts interact in weird ways. Adding a completely new thing can throw sand in a very complex set of gears. Whereas drawing on what’s there means you are less likely to discover a fantastic new place where the gears don’t fit together and the transmission of the game explodes out of the hood.
Whenever I start designing a mechanical system, I always start by figuring out the deepest core parts. And I try to use stuff that already exists in the game as much as possible. Or emulate it. The farter I get from the core, the more creative I’m willing to be. What that means, in the end, is that I have built a tree that is very pretty to look at, but underneath, it’s actually a freakish bunch of sewn together tree parts and prostheses.
The Trunk of My Frankenstein Tree
Let’s look at the trunk of the hideous abomination of the herbcraft tree.
Herbcraft is an at-the-table system. That means the tree should be rooted in the action resolution system. That is to say, when a player decides to herbcraft, they roll a d20, add an ability modifier, possibly add a proficiency bonus, compare the result to a certain DC, and either succeed or fail as a result. Does that seem obvious? Well, it isn’t always. After all, herbcraft could be something different. It could be based on random rolls on ingredient tables, tracking inventory, and spending resources to buy an effect. Like the various downtime activity systems. Or it could be based on, say, expending a certain resource and gaining an immediate effect like barbarian rage or laying on hands.
Action resolution, by itself, is very freeform. The player can imagine just about any action they want. For example, even just limiting ourselves to actions involving the Athletics proficiency, we can imagine a lot of actions that could be resolved there. Imagine, for example, we added a new proficiency called “leadership” instead of “herbcraft.” That could end up being a very broad skill indeed. But we don’t want a big, broad skill. We want a simple system that one player can enjoy without too much pressure and without putting an extra burden on the GM or the other players. So allowing the player to try to create any herbal concoction they imagine and asking the GM to adjudicate it just not reasonable.
We’re better off with a trunk of a system that prescribes very specific effects. But we already knew that. During the concepting phase, we decided our system was probably going to look like spellcasting. But simpler spellcasting. And not actually spellcasting. So, we’re not using a trunk that exists in the game. But we are using one that is conceptually similar to a trunk that exists in the game. And as long as we keep it simple, there’s not a lot to grasp.
Conceptually, the system is this: there’s a list of effects to choose from. The herbalist chooses an effect, rolls an action check, and, if they succeed, they get the effect. Lots of things in D&D already work that way. Spellcasting, ki powers, fighter maneuvers, and so on.
Apart from being conceptually similar to other systems in the game, this also has an advantage in that it’s easy to see how all sorts of fun leaves might grow off this system. The list of effects are the pretty little details that sell the system. When a player is thinking about choosing herbcraft, they won’t be looking over the rules, they will be looking at the list of effects they can create and imagine their uses. The system is also easy to extend. All anyone has to do to add more fun to the system is to add more effects to the list. You can trim the damned tree any way you want without having to take an axe to the trunk.
But before we call the matter settled, we want to make sure the that the mechanical framework also works from a story perspective. Does this mechanical framework actually suit herbcraft as a concept? Sure. Rolling a check represents crafting the item. That’s fine. The idea of lists of prescribed effects from which the player selects the one they want represents the idea that herbalists learn recipes for specific medicines. Herbalists know recipes for different medicines. If they have the right tools, the right know-how, and the right ingredients, they can make those recipes. The right tools and the right know-how fit into the tool proficiency rules. That’s the herbalism kit and the matching proficiency. The ingredients? Well, that’s the trick isn’t it?
The Failure Point
That bit about the ingredients being trick? That bit is super f$&%ing important. And it might not seem like it. But it is. Whenever you’re dealing an action resolution system and you only have one die roll to work with – because we don’t want to build a system with six f$&%ing die rolls to resolve one simple thing – whenever you get one die roll, it’s important to think about what, conceptually, that roll represents. And that means finding the failure point. When things go tits up, what exactly, went tits up? When the action fails, what part failed and why?
The failure point is extremely useful because it lets you define the point of highest tension in the action. It lets you find the make-or-break moment. The turning between “I hope this works” and “it’s all downhill from here.” Or the moment between “I hope I can handle this” and “oh my god there’s blood everywhere!” Conceptually, that’s the point in the activity where you want the die roll to go. I hope that’s f$&%ing obvious. Please don’t tell me I have to explain that.
Let’s make this more concrete by looking at the failure point for herbcraft. It’s easy to say that the act of crafting the potion, the act of mixing the ingredients, that’s the point of failure. And, to be clear, we can define any point as the failure point. It really doesn’t matter. Mechanically, a failure is a failure. Except it DOES matter. Obviously. Or I wouldn’t be talking about it. But it doesn’t right now. Because the failure point is totally arbitrary. It’s something you – the designer – just think about. And I promise I’ll tell you why.
Okay. We have a system about making medicine from natural ingredients and then administering that medicine. The failure point could be anywhere. You could f$&% up administering the medicine and cause more harm than good. You could f$&% up mixing the medicine by screwing up the preparation and making something worthless or poisonous. Or you could f$&% up gathering the ingredients. From the perspective of the story and the world, which makes the most sense? Administration really doesn’t. if the skill were medicine or first-aid or whatever, it might. But not if the skill is herbalism. In fact, what makes herbalism special is the herb- part. You can have lots of -isms and -ologys and -crafts. But it’s the herb that makes it special. Herbalism is about herbs. It’s about the ingredients. It’s about people wandering the wilderness recognizing the proper ingredients and carefully harvesting them.
But who cares? Who f$&%ing cares? Who gives one actual flying f$&% that the die roll is about gathering the ingredients? The GM won’t care. The players won’t care. That stuff is immaterial to running the game. The action succeeds for fails as a whole. Well, you’d better f$&%ing care. Because this is an ability check. That’s how D&D works. And D&D has six ability scores to choose from. And you’ve got to pick one.
If the failure point is at the potion-mixing stage, you might lean toward Intelligence as the proper ability score for the check. Intuitively, Intelligence is about laboratory work and following steps and all of that crap. But if the failure point is at the ingredient-gathering stage, it’s a completely different check. Now the action is about tromping through the woods, foraging and gathering, spotting the right ingredients amongst the backdrop of useless plants, and intuiting where you might find what you want. Those activities align with things like wilderness survival and foraging. And those things are Wisdom-based.
The point of highest tension, the point when the die is cast, that helps you design mechanics because it gives you sense of what your system is about. And what it isn’t about. And it helps you decide what things belong in your system. And things don’t. The actual decision will rarely make it explicitly into the rules – but sometimes it will – but it will be implied by all of the rules. It will determine what success looks like. And what failure looks like. And it will help you figure out what branches and leaves to hang off your system.
Okay. So, from a fluff standpoint, we’ve decided that herbology is basically about gathering ingredients. All the other parts are secondary. And that leads us to making it hinge on a Wisdom check. Does that make sense given the other mechanics of the game?
What does keying the system off of Wisdom actually mean? It means that herbcraft is probably going to be one of those skills sought by characters who already have an above average Wisdom score. Class-wise, that means it’ll be more common among clerics and druids. That makes sense. Clerics are often healers. And druids live off the natural world. Great. It also means that it will probably appear on the character sheets of those who have other Wisdom skills. Skills like Nature and Medicine and Survival. Does that seem right? Yes! Absolutely! Those people should be the people gathering herbs and making remedies.
We have a solid trunk and root structure for herbalism. A character chooses a specific effect from a list of possibilities, rolls a Wisdom (Herbalism Kit) check to gather the ingredients, and, if they are successful, they get the effect. Now it’s time to start hanging branches on the system so we can make the system more interesting than just “roll a die, get an effect.”
Of course, we KNOW that later, we’re going to have to define the effects themselves. We’re going to need a list of possible effects. Those are our leaves. Those are the pretty details. And, honestly, we’re not going to get around to designing all of those. Unless I get a huge swell of people begging me to keep analyzing these rules, I’m going to stop with designing the broad strokes of the underlying system and let you figure out how I did the rest.
Beyond that, the branches in a system primarily do two things. First, they differentiate the system from other systems. They give it a unique shape so that it feels like whatever it is supposed to feel like. That also means that often, these are the rules where the crunch and the fluff get inextricably tied together. Right now, that system “select an effect, roll a Wisdom check, get the effect” could be ANYTHING. We need some things that suggest that this is really about gathering natural herbs and making remedies. Even without looking at the specific effects and without even looking at the name of the system.
Fluff-wise, herbcraft is about gathering natural ingredients from the wilderness. Oh, look, it’s a callback to that failure point thing you thought was a bunch of pointless bulls$&%. Anyway, it’s about gathering ingredients in the wilderness. That’s not something you can do just anywhere. It’s tied to a location. You can’t herbcraft in the heart of the city or in an ancient crypt or in a dungeon. You have to herbcraft where things grow. Now, that defines the system, but it also constrains it. You can’t do it dungeons. You can’t do it during downtime. You can’t do it in time. You can only do it in the transitions. Remember that.
Something else that makes herbcraft unique? Well, it’s about making something that provides some sort of benefit. That means the actual effect of the action is delayed. You take the action now, but you can bank the effect and use it later. You’re taking an effect and putting it into a pill. Interestingly, that aspect of herbcraft helps get around the location constraint. Yes, you can only do this thing while you’re traveling between places, but you can hold the effect for later. That means it’s perfect for right before the adventure or while resting in the middle of the adventure.
From a purely mechanical standpoint, the net of those effects is a wash. The fact that you can bank your effects for later means the location constraint doesn’t matter except in some very extreme cases. So, they basically add up to zero mechanically. Except, they give us places to hang more branches – as we’ll see – and they serve the fluffy parts of the system. So, in this case, the zero is greater than zero.
Balancing in the Branches
Now we come around to the second thing branches can do. Branches add necessary constraints to a system to prevent abuses and to keep the system in balance. Now, in the past, I’ve gone on record as saying that game balance is something people need to calm the f$&% down about and also something no one can actually define properly. And those two statements might imply that I don’t care about balance. But I do. I care very much. I just also have a sense of f$&%ing perspective. And I also have an understanding of the intrinsic value of IMBALANCE.
Both of those things would add another 5,000 words to this article if I tried to explain them, though. Someday, I’ll write an article on game balance as a concept. Hell, maybe my Patrons will want it for next month’s Fanservice Bulls$&%. But I ain’t doing it now.
Instead, I’ll say this: every mechanic can be abused or exploited. Purposely or accidentally. And that can potentially wreck a game. But GMs are very good at imagining ridiculous horror stories. For example, I had people warning me about how five herbalists could sit around through the course of an eight-hour day and utterly wreck the system. Yeah? No s$&%. And how often will that actually come up? Especially given the payoff is a few extra items that aren’t even as powerful as a potion of healing.
At the design stage, you want to focus on looking for first-order abuses. A first-order abuse is what happens when a player – alone, in a vacuum, without the help of the rest of the players – notices they can exploit the system to get a bigger effect than what you intended. A higher-order abuse, by contrast, are the deranged imaginings of crazy GM rants. Things like “if a player takes these three feats and is a druid who specializes in moon logic and has this magic item, they can destroy a city with one dose of this potion.” The “order” in first-order and higher-order basically refers to the number of “ifs” that have to be true before your game burns down.
Before you f$&%ing e-mail me or comment below, I am not saying higher-order abuses don’t happen. They do. There are some players who specifically look for them. And publish them online. And share them with everyone. Some do it just to make fun of the system. Those are fun. Some do it to win games. Because breaking the game is winning it. Those are not fun. But you can only do so much to prevent that in any complex system. And even if you prevent one, those players will find another. Because that’s how they play. Fortunately, those players are rare and they mostly play Pathfinder these days. And most higher-order abuses won’t be spotted in design. They will be found when players try to break your system. So, don’t go crazy about them.
Can we spot any first-order abuses in our system? When you’re looking for first-order abuses in your system, it’s useful to spell out exactly how your system SHOULD be used. So, let’s quickly state that. Again. Here’s how I see it. And since it’s my system, that’s how it SHOULD be.
Players will firstly use herbcraft to respond to specific dangers or problems. Someone gets injured or poisoned or sickened or stabbed by Nazguls, and the herbologist can slink off into the woods and, in short order, return with the cure. Huzzah. Secondly, players will use herbcraft to prepare for potential problems. Once they learn, for example, that they are going to be fighting a poisonous monster or one that drains levels, they might want to stockpile a few cures for that problem to hedge their bets. Or maybe even something preventative rather than curative. So, it’s a safety net. Thirdly, players might turn to herbcraft because they have some time to kill and nothing to do. So, they might want to prepare something generic that might give them a little boost in an upcoming encounter. This is where minor healing effects and small bonuses to various actions might go.
In short, the players can craft cures in response to setbacks that happen during the adventure, they can craft a reserve cure to have ready to mitigate an upcoming potential setback, or they can craft a handy bonus that might give them a slight edge in an upcoming encounter. And the players will always be crafting these things during the game. And these things should be minor?
Why minor? To be frank, there’s almost no cost to herbalism. The only prerequisites to using it are having the proficiency in the herbalism kit and owning an herbalism kit. Most of the tool proficiencies available to various characters have very little mechanical impact on the game. So, to create one that has a huge impact on the game would not be appropriate. Then, too, we’re not looking to add other costs to the system. Crafting a potion, for example, shouldn’t require the character to expend gold or some other resource. That wouldn’t make sense. The whole point is that they can live off the wilderness. They aren’t buying their ingredients from dryads or some s$&% like that. Moreover, tool proficiencies are something that any character can choose, regardless of class, without a heavy investment in particular stats and without making some pretty hefty choices. If you want to cast clerical spells, you’ve got to be a cleric. That’s a HUGE decision. Consequently, clerical spells have a lot of impact on the game. So, minor effects. Hedges or minor cures.
What are some potential ways players could use the system other than the ways that we intend it to be used? The most obvious is that they could use it outside of adventures. They could use it between adventures. And during downtime. And away from the table. That creates two problems. First, the system is an action resolution system and requires GM adjudication. But the GM isn’t there between game sessions. Second, players could potentially craft lots of little potions in their downtime. However minor the effects of the potions we invent might be, they will have a big impact once the players are slurping down hundreds of them.
We COULD put an arbitrary rule that forbids players from using the system outside of their adventures. But that’s a terrible way to handle anything. We care about both the crunch and the fluff. Arbitrary limitations fly in the face of the fluff. There has to be a reason that exists in the rules AND in the world why players can’t craft potions between adventures. Well, maybe the remedies have to be applied as they are made. The remedies might be things like teas and boluses and wound-dressings that have to be used right away. We could make that work, but that would break the system. After all, players need to be able to prepare for upcoming encounters and adventures. But there’s a good idea in there. What about an expiration date. The remedies have to be used within a certain period of time. Ingredients, if they aren’t properly stored, lose their potency. As do the remedies themselves.
And now we’re in a f$&%ing minefield. An expiration date is something you have to track. If the party crafts a few remedies today and some tomorrow and one the day after, they have all of these different expiration dates noted in their inventory lists. And that means the GM has to keep very careful track of time. So an expiration date is just too much f$&%ing paperwork. Unless we set a very smart expiration date.
Remember, there are two main uses for herbcraft. You either use it to fix a problem right now. Or you use it to plan for something that is going to happen in the immediate future, an upcoming encounter or adventure. If you’re using it to fix an immediate problem, the expiration date is irrelevant. If you’re planning for an immediate future encounter or adventure, you probably won’t be left with any stuff left on hand. Especially if there is an expiration date. The expiration date encourages you not to save your stuff for too long. This is a weird case where the existence of the expiration date is actually more important than the details of that date. So what we want is an expiration date that doesn’t really require any tracking.
We could say all remedies expire at “the next long rest,” for example. Every time you take a long rest, you erase any remedies you didn’t use. That encourages players to use them or lose them. But that’s kind of arbitrary. It means a remedy could spoil in an hour or it could spoil in eighteen hours, depending on when it’s made. And it also removes the possibility of making something TODAY to use TOMORROW. And we want that possibility.
In the end, the best way to go is to set an expiration time of 24 hours. That allows you to make something TODAY and use it or lose it TOMORROW. That’s easy enough to track. In fact, it doesn’t require any tracking at all. Just erasing. But that leads to a weird bit of complexity too. What happens if you make a potion at 1 PM today while traveling to the dungeon. Tomorrow, do you have to erase the potion at 1 PM even though we want you to be able to use it tomorrow? Technically, yes. But actually no.
You have to understand the way most groups actually engage with the game. Most players and GMs don’t want to be bothered with that sort of nitpicky bulls$&%. And they won’t be. 24 hours is actually very loosey-goosey to most GMs. Various fudges will take over. At most tables, 24 hours will just become “make it today to use tomorrow.” At some, intention will take over. There will be an implicit understanding that players can make potions to use today and potions to use tomorrow. A few GMs WILL nitpick the hours and the first time a player gets screwed by that nitpicking, they will just start making their potions before they go to bed.
Sometimes, it’s okay to design a rule knowing full well people will only mostly follow it. In the end, any expiration date we assign is going to have a potential tracking problem. So we just have to put it close enough to something a GM can fudge and accept that a few misguided souls will have to learn to work around the letter of the law. After all, remember, the EXISTENCE of the expiration is doing most of the work. The actual date will RARELY be a factor.
Hey, all you people who complained about the 24-hour timer and said some other timer would be so much better? Hope you’re paying attention. Because there it is. But hey, enjoy writing down all of those expiration dates on your f$&%ing character sheets.
Now the system is very difficult to use between adventures. More or less. In theory, some players could use the day immediately before they leave for the adventure to stockpile a bunch of potions. But that thought reveals the other major first-order abuse: stockpiling.
There’s nothing to prevent a group from spending an entire day stockpiling herbal concoctions and using them all tomorrow. And again, however small the effects, dozens of them will break a game. The expiration date limits how long that stockpile will last, but it doesn’t prevent stockpiling. An adventure that takes three days could be stretched out to six: stockpile potions for a day, adventure for a day, stockpile for a day, adventure, stockpile, adventure. How do we prevent that crap.
The question is how long all of this takes. We already said that, conceptually, gathering ingredients is like foraging. Under the D&D rules, a party can forage for food during a single day of travel. It’s not a stretch to assume they can also gather potion ingredients during a day of travel. But it’s far easier to find anything edible or potable in the wilderness than it is to find a list of very specific flowers and herbs and berries. Especially if you’re going in a straight line and picking s$&% up as you go. It’s not a stretch to imagine that in the same time that other people are foraging food to feed the party, an herbalist can turn up the ingredients needed to make one potion and prepare them. Flavorfully, it fits. Mechanically, it falls right into the rules for wilderness travel and travel tasks. Great, right?
If it takes a day of travel time to craft a potion, an herbalist can’t slap together a potion to solve a poison emergency, can they? The travel task idea is very strong. But by itself, it breaks the system. So, let’s keep it, but add another option. Presumably, if an herbalist can wander freely, they can more quickly and easily gather the ingredients they need. But that’s not traveling. That’s wandering in circles. We can allow an herbalist to create a potion in a shorter period of time than one day of travel, but they – and the party – have to forego any sort of traveling or progress. They can’t cover any actual distance.
But how long a period of time. If it’s too short, it won’t prevent stockpiling. If it’s too long, it’s going to require the poor GM to keep careful track of time. Fortunately, there is a unit of time that doesn’t require much tracking that the game rules already has some effects hung off of it. One hour.
The concept of “one hour” is very important in D&D 5E. It is the length of time a of a short rest. And lots of things hang off of that: hit dice, class ability recovery, and so on. Because of that, “one hour” is the unit of time in D&D 5E that is synonymous with “halting all progress in the adventure to focus on recovery and preparation for the next thing.” Mechanically and thematically. And isn’t that just the perfect place to sit potion making. Especially because any sort of emergency that requires an immediate potion is probably coming alongside everyone in the group feeling like it’s time for a short rest.
Now, we don’t have to key herbcraft directly to the short rest. That’s very abstract. All we have to do is say it takes one hour of time to herbcraft and specify that the herbcrafter can’t do anything else like traveling or resting or whatever. The players and the GM will fill in the blanks. Players might say “if you’re going to run around picking flowers, we’re going to take a short rest and recover our hit points and class abilities.” That’s fine most of the time. But it also means sometimes, in an emergency, the herbalist might have to choose to forego a needed short rest of their own OR to convince their party to take two short rests.
Tying the mechanic to both short rests and travel time also connects it – implicitly – with another potential limiting factor. One that we might want to explicitly mention as a possibility in the final version of the rules. Wandering the wilderness might put the herbalist – and the party – at risk of stumbling on a random encounter. Admittedly, not every GM uses random encounters. So, we can’t count on them as a limiting factor. But that’s precisely why we want to mention them in the rules. If a GM gets tired of the amateur herbalist halting the adventure for hours at a time to stockpile potions, the GM has a potential solution they can implement. One that is entirely in keeping with the rules. In that way, random encounters provide a sort of pressure valve in the system. If a party does start abusing the system, the GM has a way to curb it.
The 24-hour expiration timer is actually ALSO a pressure valve. It’s just subtler. Like I said, most GMs aren’t going to nitpick the hours. They will settle for fudging it if we make it remotely fudgeable. But what if the GM gets tired of his adventures grinding to a halt for days of flower-picking. What if the GM sees his three-day adventure stretch into six days: adventure, herbcraft, adventure, herbcraft, adventure, herbcraft. Well, the GM can start nitpicking the time limit. The potion you made at 10 AM expires tomorrow at 10 AM. He can start forcing the party to track those expirations precisely. And throwing random encounters at them.
I’m not encouraging you to build systems that allow GMs to grow increasingly spiteful and use the rules as bludgeons to beat the players into submission. What I’m saying is that you should build systems that suggest ways that GMs can reign in potential abuses if they feel they need to.
Meanwhile, we can safely say we’ve now built some nice, flavorful, mechanically sound branches to hang off our trunk that will curb the most serious exploits.
Branching Out More
Look, I could go on and on and on. I really could. And this stupid article could turn into a novella. But I need to wrap it up. The big concepts are there. And the rules themselves, the revised form, are also there. Look them over. See if you can figure out what I did. And let me leave you with a couple of minor, closing points. Because there are other things you can do with your branches.
First, you can use branches to intertwine your system with the rest of the game. That makes your rules feel like part of the same game instead of like a basement hack. But it also draws players and GMs into your system from other directions. Always look for rules that already exist that can hook into your rules. That’s why the ranger Natural Explorer feature is explicitly called out.
Second, you can use branches to broaden the appeal of your system. The herbcraft system is a system meant to be used by one player at the table. A badly designed system like that can become a system everyone else at the table hates. Look at wild magic again. It complicates spellcasting, makes the character’s spells less reliable, and sometimes causes actual problems for the party. That’s why the only one happy with it is the wild mage. To everyone else, it’s a time-wasting system that sometimes screws them. Herbcraft is the opposite. It’s a simple system to resolve and it allows the herbalist to do something nice for the rest of the group. No one complains about having extra healing and bonuses. But you can go one step further by giving other players opportunities to interact with the system even if they don’t fully buy into it. That’s why the herbal remedies can simply be purchased. Anyone can buy a remedy.
Don’t leave the GM out either. GMs like systems that enhance the world and offer them opportunities to set up stories or build interesting encounters and adventurers. And some GMs like to create stuff. The fact that the system is easy to customize just by adding recipes? That’s going to make some GMs happy right off the bat. But the special ingredient thing? Where the potion can require some sort of MacGuffin that has to be found through adventure? That’s all carrot for the GM and nothing more. Especially given that the GM can take advantage of that even if there is no herbalist in the party. An NPC herbalist could need a very specific ingredient to cure a particular illness. Sure, the GM could ALWAYS write that sort of adventure. But the mechanical backup makes that plot feel more tangible. More real. More a part of the game.
And then there’s branches that just add some fun to the whole thing. The variable quality thing is a perfect example. Nothing else in D&D does that. It’s a little weird. But why the hell not? It’s okay for something to have a little unique mechanical and flavorful spin on it. And frankly, if I built other systems for, say, alchemy and poison and stuff, I’d probably use the same variable quality thing. That might become a defining feature of the Angry Adventurecrafting Series. Who the hell knows?
Remember, it isn’t all about ironing the bubbles out of the wallpaper, it’s also about picking colors and patterns you like.