Let Food Be Thy Medicine

Using Food to Gain Hit Points

My gaming group just started a new d20 Modern table-top game based on the Fallout series of video games, in which, you eat food to heal. Our GM kept this mechanic in place and it works brilliantly – eat a TV dinner and gain a couple of hit points (and a teeny tiny bit of radiation, too). So, I pose the question: Can you use food-for-healing in other tabletop games?

The Question of Cuisine

Healing comes in many forms in the world of RPGs – magic spells, medkits, rest, regeneration, hospital visits, and the ubiquitous healing potion. These types of tropes are integrated into their respective game mechanics to allow hearty adventuring folk the opportunity to continue questing despite the fact that they have been bitten completely in half by a ravenous dire wolf. But very few game systems exploit food for its healing properties.

Can food heal us, too? And if so, do we treat it like a potion or something else entirely? Will adding Hit Point Funyuns to a game spoil the delicate dish of rules or bring the spice of life to a tasteless world?


Body of Bread

Games that stick to gritty realism require long recovery periods and rolls to see if you get gangrene or if your doctor missed a piece of shrapnel. Healing happens over time. But in the really-real world, it’s food that heals us. Our bodies convert caloric content into useful energy while our guts turn nutrients into the very stuff that makes us physically healthy – flesh and bones and various fluids (that tend to fall out if a sword hits you in the right spot). Food replenishes the body, so it makes sense that it would be part of a realistic simulation of healing, especially in games that already use slow healing over time.

In this case, food can be easily integrated into the rest routine – in many rulebooks, it’s already implied that adventurers are eating and drinking while they nap and clean off the goo from the monsters that exploded (thanks, Wizard). But the important point here is that the consumption is happening outside of combat. Hitting pause to gorge on twenty wheels of cheese mid-battle for a few dozen points of health is hilariously fun in a video game like Skyrim, but it doesn’t really translate to a pragmatic roleplaying game world that’s supposed to marginally resemble our own. Unpacking, preparing, and eating food takes a little more time and care, so it shouldn’t be treated like a potion, stim-patch, or first-aid kit, which are made to be used during a combat situation. Forcing food to be a downtime-only option helps these other items retain their value as fast-healing tools.

Exceptional Edibles

Many rule-sets address starvation and indicate that pretty much any kind of food will prevent whatever negative status effects happen when you don’t eat enough. Adventurers, being naturally cheap frugal, tend to buy the bare minimum in terms of rations – which probably equates to something like hard tack, beef jerky, and deliciously lukewarm water. And while such simple fare is enough to stave off hunger, is it really enough to earn a precious few points of healing?

To prevent ourselves breaking game mechanics, we should consider limiting what kinds of food grant health, and further, limit our food to only restoring a few points of health at a time. Our goal is to add some interesting flavor to our games, not to create a scenario where the party stuffs their faces full of basic bread loaves after every fight while watching their wounds regenerate with the magic of gluten. Set a limit on the number of food items or the amount of health they can regain per “meal” and then tell them they’re too full to continue.

The ideal healing food, then, is some kind of “special” food. In a fantasy game, this might be a roast pheasant with gravy or Elven Waybread. In a pirate game, perhaps it’s a rare citrus fruit to stave off the scurvy or a rum-soaked cake. Uncommon food items allow the GM to control their availability – finding them may be harder, they might cost more than a generic pouch of rations, and they might need to be prepared in a special way. And extra-rare foodstuffs with greater healing benefits could even be the goal (or the reward) of a quest.

Which brings us to another point – adding foods that heal also means that a player’s cooking skill becomes more useful. Imagine that one of your players wants her character to moonlight as a chef and whip up delectable meals for the group on special occasions, like after a hard-fought victory. She spends the time to seek out healing ingredients, makes a menu, and customizes dishes for the champions. The GM can then reward her roleplaying efforts with small healing bonus for everyone who feasted merrily. Perhaps her skill checks can even improve the amount of health regained if she rolls exceptionally high. Finding new ingredients for the next feast might become a kind of mini-game for the adventurers as they travel.

Dietary Details

If you can get players interested in the foods of your world by hooking them with the promise of free hit points, you should use that curiosity to feed them details via victuals. Food is one of the defining aspects of culture, and you can describe places and peoples with what foods they eat. Stuff your street markets with the mouth-watering aromas of roast beasts – perhaps the very same creatures that they will have to face if they travel outside the town walls. Pepper your palaces with feasts that feature the rarities that only the elite are permitted to enjoy, and show the disparity between the rich who devour and the poor who toil and starve. Entice your traveling troupe of sell-swords with exotic dishes from the far-off lands that they’ll find at higher levels. Every meal can become an opportunity to fill in the mental map of where they are and how they fit in.

To give an example, let’s take a Call of Cthulhu horror game. Imagine a group of tormented occult investigators who have just finished destroying (they hope) an eerie priest who wasn’t quiiiiite human. They limp back to the seaside boarding house, nursing their wounds, and the kindly couple that run the place offer to cook them up something special while they recover – a gesture of gratitude for ridding their village of the unspeakable thing that used to be Father Dourmoor. Grandmother Palsgrave spends hours bringing together her family’s secret recipe and presents the heroes with Palsgrave Chowder – a warm, seafood stew, made with care, that revitalizes their spirits and gives them each 2 points of healing. For their mental anguish at seeing the priest begin to transform into his true, alien shape, Grandfather Palsgrave doles out the last of his secret stash of Old Bristol Brandy. It’s faded label has some strange symbols on it that hearken back to the warding spells of the white witches of that region, but the old man doesn’t seem to know much about it as he pours out little doses of the stuff into cold, pewter mugs. The brandy brings back 1 point of lost sanity.

Food that heals can be an appetizing addition to any game, provided you balance it with the standard healing mechanics already in place and limit its use to prevent abuse. It can be one more way for players to explore the world.

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