Hipsters & Dragons

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Drinking a Healing Potion in Combat (New Rule)

I was watching this video, by the excellent Dungeon Dudes, when I realised there is an issue on my table that hasn’t been resolved satisfactorily to my mind. That of drinking a healing potion in combat.

The official rules state that drinking a healing potion requires an action. But when you consider that this means allowing whatever creature you’re fighting a free round in which to hit you, the odds are that you are actually going to take more damage in the round you drink the potion than you receive from drinking from it. (Even if, as the Dudes suggest, you use the maximum dice rolls possible to determine number of hit points recovered per potion… although this will certainly help even the odds quite a bit!).

Overall, in any situation where the monster is likely to target you with their next attacks, it’s almost always a disastrous strategy to use an action in combat to drink a healing potion.

Of course you could try retreating, to drink the potion in safety, but that assumes you have allies who are able to prevent the monster pursuing you: and even then the monster will get one free opportunity attack on you, making this ploy almost as risky as drinking it under their nose.

I’m not surprised that some DMs (including one of the three in my group) rule that drinking a potion only requires a bonus action, to offset this problem. Unfortunately for me, that feels way too generous mechanically (there’s almost no cost to doing it), and is also almost impossible to justify in a narrative sense. Even assuming the potion is kept close at hand, perhaps on a belt or necklace (and not at the bottom of a backpack), it still has to be retrieved, uncorked and drank. That seems too intricate an activity to require a mere bonus action, and definitely not something you could combine with casting a spell for example.

Is there a middle ground here? When stopping to drink a potion still has a cost to your own offensive potential, and still carries a risk, but where that risk has a decent chance of paying off.

Introducing…

HIPSTER RULE FIX: DODGE & DRINK

Simply put, I would house rule that when you use an action to drink a potion in combat, you can choose to use all of your other combined actions (bonus action, move, free action and reaction) to take the Dodge action.

The Dodge action (p.192, PH), you probably don’t need reminding, imposes disadvantage on all attack rolls against you (by attackers that you can see at least).

For me this rule neatly achieves what I want it to. It makes drinking a potion in combat a viability, by reducing the odds of taking damage in the round you’re trying to heal up in, without needing to introduce the “videogamey” feel of on-the-go power ups at the speed of a bonus action. And while Dodge is quite a powerful benefit to give the PC, the fact that they can’t use their movement to retreat to safety at the same time, or get an opportunity attack, feels about right.

Narratively I feel it’s easy enough to justify. The fighter pulls out a potion, flicks out the cork and chugs it down, at the same time as they shimmy lightly on their feet and keep their longsword at full arm’s length to prevent their opponent from getting close, maybe throwing in a feint or two for good measure. There’s no time for the fighter to attack, and the opponent has a free pass to move away, but the savvy soldier is able to use their weapon as a deterrent, keeping the pointy end between them and danger.

So there you go! As always, let me know what you think…

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6 Comments

  1. Sam

    I have yet to see what anyone has against making taking a potion a bonus action. This is equally against RAW, but takes a little more thought (not a lot, but a little).

    • duncan

      Haha, well I did literally just write a post about what I have against making it a bonus action!

      In the video from minutes 6:40 you can see what the Dungeon Dudes have against it.

      I think the comment from Paul is bang on as well.

      Finally here’s a bit more from Jeremy Crawford himself on why it’s not a free action (and by extension not a bonus action either).

      https://www.sageadvice.eu/2017/01/19/the-rule-for-drinking-a-potion/

      He says: “Potions are effectively bottled spells. Do you want spells cast as non-actions in your game?”

      Of course bonus action is not the same as a free action, but making drinking a potion a full action was clearly a well considered point of game design.

      Actually, that tweet thread is quite interesting, and gave me an idea. I would be totally fine as a DM with drinking a potion being two bonus actions, as another option besides my Drink & Dodge suggestion. The first bonus action to get it out and uncork it. The second to drink it. That would mean you’d have to wait an additional round to get your buff, but you could keep on attacking… and if you’re lucky one of your buddies would have killed the beast by then, and you can simply put the cork back in!

      • Paul

        ‘potions are effectively bottled spells’.

        Actually, they are a little better than bottled spells. You ignore the concentration aspect of a spell effect gained through a potion. So for example, you could theoretically have haste, bless and invisibility all at the same time! Admittedly, its very unlikely, and limited to the ‘spells’ made possible by potions, but potions currently provide the only means to circumvent the concentration limitations in 5e…

  2. Paul Field

    Personally, I find drinking a potion as a bonus action to be a terrible idea for a number of reasons.

    1) already mentioned above (its not very realistic—frankly, anyone foolish enough to stop in the middle of a fight to chug a drink, no matter what size, is just asking to get cut to pieces…)

    2) It steps on the ‘toes’ of some class abilities. Namely, the Fighter’s Second Wind ability and indirectly on the Monk’s Ki options (because in RAW, Monk can pop potion as normal action, and still have a number of action choices available as bonus actions, so less feeling of ‘wasting’ a turn to drink said potion). Giving everyone bonus action healing (provided they have the potions of course, but let’s be real, they are pretty easy to accumulate!)

    3) Its kind of game breaking when we look at other potions (and it doesn’t make sense for a healing potion to follow one set of rules and non-healing potions to follow another, quite frankly). Being able to pop a Haste, Heroism, or even Vigour potion as a bonus action is simply too good!

    4) It rewards players for making a ‘poor tactical choice’. As alluded above, drinking a potion in combat should have a serious downside (because it would really be a suicidal thing to do in a ‘real’ fight!). But as a bonus action, it removes a lot of danger (i.e. Withdraw/Dodge as your action, then pop potion as bonus action).

    5) Not only does it make PCs more survivable, but it actually makes the DM’s tactical options more difficult. Think about it: the DM wants his bad guys to challenge the players. The ‘smart’ thing to do is attack the damaged character that just withdrew or is dodging and popped a healing potion. But now doing so is no longer the ‘smart’ choice (because the monsters risk opportunity attacks or suffer Disadvantage to hit the ‘ideal’ target). Now the DM has to make a tough decision, when by all rights, it should have been the player popping the potion with the tough decision to make…

    So in conclusion, I think its better for the game to leave potions as is. Healing in combat can be tricky, and popping potions in particular is a tough decision. But that’s a good thing! It makes combat more interesting and challenges players with difficult choices. Removing such from the game just ‘dumbs’ things down (player side) and gives the DM a possibly more difficult time. Which, IMHO, is the exact opposite of what a good ‘fix’ should do…

    • duncan

      Hi Paul, agree with everything you say, until your final conclusion that RAW works. Because for me it doesn’t. Drinking a potion in combat – unless maybe it’s Mega Super Superior Potion or whatever and you’re fighting a bunch of orcs dealing paltry damage – is just virtually always suicidal in RAW.

      Once you’re fighting monsters with multiple attacks, significant to hit bonuses and large damage you’re almost always going to take more damage in a round when you stop fighting, than you receive back via the potion.

      If you’re happy for drinking potions in combat to be a) not an option or b) last chance, “against all the odds” risky, then I guess it’s ok… but if you want something a bit more balanced in terms of risk and reward then I think my fix will help.

      Something in between would the Dungeon Dudes rule that healing potions always return maximum hit points (a house rule I’ve seen quoted by other recently as well… so one that presumably works quite well).

  3. Paul

    While I don’t want drinking potions in combat to be a ‘non-option’, I certainly believe it should be a sub-optimal choice in combat. Or as you say ‘last chance, “against all the odds” risky’. Otherwise combat feels less dangerous, and the game loses some of its excitement.

    In older editions, drinking a potion in combat was usually very punitive (admittedly it could be DM/campaign dependent though), so most sane warriors would move off the front line to pop a potion and have their buddies cover them while they got out of harm’s way to drink.

    I admit in 5e this ‘smart play’ has become a less attractive choice simply because combat does not last very many rounds (even compared to the earliest editions). So I can see why a lot of players find this type of solution to be unpalatable (because let’s face it, ducking behind your buddies to save your skin is just not very heroic). Plus taking 2 turns to quaff a potion when the fight might only last 3 – 5 rounds seems like you just won’t get to contribute much.

    So I admit that I can see where it might be a problem with the default standard action to drink a potion (and I can see an argument that it kind of punishes the martial classes more than other classes, since front-line fighters are the ones most likely to need healing potions).

    However, I think bonus action to drink a potion just goes too far (as I’ve already explained).

    I think Max Hitpoints from the potion might actually be ‘good enough’ of a fix. Players still have to think carefully about the tradeoffs of drinking the potion (losing their turn in a lot of cases), but at least they are not at risk of that loss being a total waste (i.e. getting a bad roll on HP recovered). Also, it still encourages players to be creative in supporting each other when one character needs to heal (other solutions that make it easier to drink a potion can stifle team work and reduce the need for tactically covering each other when healing is required—-and this ultimately leads to a reduction in tension during combat which means more blandness).

    Your Dodge & Drink idea is not bad neither, since there’s a very real cost (all of your movement and actions), but it still puts a little extra difficulty onto the DM’s shoulders when the DM has to decide how the monsters will react (because now the ideal target becomes a poor choice since Disadvantage means unlikely to hit). And it also waters down the danger of having low Hitpoints, although that danger isn’t removed completely like it would if drinking becomes a bonus action (because even with Disadvantage, there’s still a risk your character takes a lot of damage, but its reduced).

    Ultimately, I like the way potions work as is, because I like the game to be dangerous. Although my perception is skewed since I have played a lot of earlier editions when PC fatality was much more likely than it is in 5e, and so I see combat in 5e as already being ‘watered down’ in a lot of ways (particularly death & dying rules). But even in my own playgroup I know there are differences of opinion on this particular matter. We may end up adopting some kind of house rule around potions (although we haven’t yet as we haven’t agreed on a mutually satisfying solution).

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