Monday 31 May 2010

Healing Surges : Good or bad?

We recently had a typical D&D session involving a large combat, lots of damage being dished out and several players reaching 0 hit points before receiving Healing Surges and getting up as if nothing had happened. Surges were a new concept introduced in 4th Edition and for some old warhorses like me they just don’t sit right. I discussed this with the EvilGM and here’s the essence of that conversation:

EvilGM: I must admit, healing surges were one of the things I really didn't like when I first saw 4e. Potentially a first level fighter might have 28 hp and 9 healing surges, each restoring 7 hp. That gives (9 x 7) =63 + 28 = 91 hit points for a first level character - preposterous! And the idea that classes other than clerics could be healing characters really rankled. And as for starting each new day at full hit points and healing surges? Ridiculous! But now I'm used to the new rules, I prefer them.

I guess it was a mind set thing that only clerics healed and it took a long while for higher level PC's to regain their HP’s. But did it really add to the game? I remember as DM having to throw in loads of potions of healing and scrolls, or as a player my PC waking up with only half hit points and deciding to camp where we were for another day or two to recuperate. And of course the cleric PC was regarded as a walking first aid box.

BigLee: As a player I like Healing surges (they have saved my bacon many a time) but I still find it hard to reconcile the idea that any character has a self healing capacity. Of course the concept of healing surges is supposed to reflect vigour and determination (shrugging off wounds in the heat of battle) which I can accept… but what about when the battle ends. Surely when adrenalin levels return to normal the true effect of wounds will be felt and the PC would drop to the floor through shock and blood loss. Without this negative, real world effect, Healing Surges become a magical element rather than a physical one. And if they are magical in nature, doesn't that fundamentally change every campaign setting they have ever been used in and undermine the whole purpose of the Cleric in the party?

Evil GM: Hmm, I'm not sure I totally agree with you though. Would the after effects be that debilitating? If the combat was a particularly brutal one leaving the PC's with broken bones and internal bleeding, absolutely! As soon as the adrenalin levels dropped so should our PC's as shock and blood loss kicks in. But remember the PC's are generally the victors, would they be that badly used? As long as the PC isn't dropped I'd have no problem assuming the hit point loss reflects fatigue more than anything else, and after a short break they are fully recovered. Without 'divine magic' to explain the 'miraculous' recovery it does seem somewhat far fetched.On the other hand, what would we prefer? We could easily apply penalties on a PC to reflect his pain and injuries, but its not much fun to play a less effective character.

BigLee: I've no desire to see the rules made more complex but it still doesn't sit right with me that PC’s can take massive wounds, be dragged to the threshold death, recover and then be fighting like nothing is the matter a few seconds later. I know its a fantasy setting but I’ve always thought of Magic as another layer of Physics superimposed over other real world laws - like Gravity and Relativity - even fantasy creatures can be explained as wierd branches of evolution. Given this ‘real’ world framework it seems to be a bit if a cop-out to not have a better explanation of how healing Surges work in a D&D setting.

I can believe in a cleric calling on his god to summon healing power (using the ‘force’ if you like) to cure someone, but the undefined semi-magical healing bonus that is the Healing surge stretched physics (both real and magical) to the limit. In some ways this goes back to my argument last week that 4E isn't D&D any more… how many conventions of the original game can you break before it ceases to be the same game?

EvilGM: To be honest I think it comes down to playability vs realism. The 4e position makes no excuses for realism and goes straight for playability. With 'healing' now more akin to 're-invigorating' you enter each encounter refreshed in terms of hp and start each new day at full strength - even if there is no divine spell caster to 'miracle' you back to full health. But while I think this is reasonable in realism terms if the PC's don't suffer a bit of a bashing, it does stretch the limits of believability that the PC's might have been at deaths door one encounter, then bounce back with no noticeable after effects in the next combat five minutes later.

BigLee: I think many players are not comfortable with healing surges as a concept but were stuck with them if we want to play 4E. So how do we use them more creatively? I originally thought there were too many healing surges, because we have never reached a point where a PC has run out. But maybe they just need to be used more creatively by the GM as non combat penalties for things like poison, fatigue, environmental conditions etc. or even as a reward mechanism under certain circumstances.

The DMG suggests using healing surges as a non combat penalty for failure in some skill challenges. For example moving through the Underdark a failed skill check results in an encounter with noxious gases or a rock slide. Rather than applying hit damage the PC's suffer a healing surge penalty instead. Another suggested use is to represent the progress of a disease or of poison. Some curses and monster powers already exist that effect Healing Surges. Some reduce the HP's regained from healing surges. Others prevent the spending of healing surges or limit the PC's to one surge per encounter.

In almost any any encounter or situation healing surges can be used as a superior penalty to having something deal actual damage. The important point to remember is that this penalty is cumulative and could have a significant effect on any major combat encounter later in the day. The possibilities are quite literally endless, and will undoubtedly add an extra dimension to the game.


  1. Wow: more interesting than all three of the pre-election debates!

  2. The game designers have made it pretty clear that the primary emphasis was fun, and that they didn't consider the old tendencies towards the "fifteen minute gaming day" and short PC life expectancies fun (others may disagree). They are also competing with the flash of video games where PC's (and monsters) dole out large amounts of damage with a single mega-blow. Both of these factors predicated the healing surge.

    Am I a fan? No, not really. It reminds me of the joke on the old series Ranma 1/2 where Ranma is supposed to be appearing seriously injured in order to fool someone, but keeps reflexively healing himself to normal after getting pounded on by his friends. To doublethink it my head I just figure that hit points represent the "soft" margin of damage that comes and goes quickly while the negative range is the seriously injured margin.

  3. Another great conversation. I know that I've already criticized healing surges here before, but I will point out one small thing in their defense. Yes, if you total all the healing surges a 1st-level character potentially has, it adds up to an absurd amount of hit points. But there's almost no way that character will get to USE those surges. This is the one thing that saves surges for me -- characters need to get very creative to use them, which calls for a layer of strategy that adds to the fun. A fighter, for example, can only "second wind" once per encounter, and many of the cleric and paladin healing powers require a fighter to be relatively close by. So it isn't too hard for a fighter to find himself in a perilous situation even with plenty of (unusable) healing surges still on his character sheet.

    That said, I'm generally with you, Lee. It's the concept itself that is just so hard to wrap one's head around. Surges are too plainly playability cheats intended to release the cleric from being ATMs of divine healing and nothing else.

    I understand the idea that hit points represent exhaustion or shock rather than broken bones and bloody stab wounds (always the refrain if you question hps with 4e fans). But don't PCs EVER come out of a fight with a missing limb or at least a nasty contusion? Only monsters do, apparently, who not only die bloody, they don't even get a chance for a healing surge of their own!

    This is so basic to the new version, I don't think there's really a way to home-rule out of it. (But does it make 4e "not D&D" as you suggest, Lee? I'd argue that what the cleric was doing in earlier versions was just as unrealistic, so it's the same game. You still go from death's door -- 0 hit points -- to fully functional -- 1 hit point -- with a hand-wave.) Our group is starting to experiment with a different system that still uses hit points as exhaustion points, but uses a Runequest-like location system for limb-hit-points that are more like actual wounds. You can regain overall hp during battle in a surge-like way (not attacking and resting for a round, for example, to regain some hp), but you can't regain limb-hp until you're out of battle and can heal the wounds through first aid or magical means. So far, it feels a lot more realistic. In a recent fight, one player lost the use of his shield arm to a nasty halberd slashing, but he managed to defeat his enemy with his remaining good arm. Later, out of battle, he got to work getting his left arm mended. Now that feels a lot more realistic than 4e's healing surges. But it may be too realistic for some.


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