Thursday, October 7, 2010

Healing Surges revisited

Healing surges are among the most game-changing innovations brought to D&D by 4E (and that is saying a lot!), and their contribution to the game has been positive overall. However, their implementation has been plagued by minor, yet significant flaws, preventing them from being completely successful as either party resources or character attributes. Today I’d like to discuss the mechanical aspects of surges, both good and bad, providing an overview of the patches that have come up (from official sources as well as this very site) and paving the ground for yet another (hopefully improved) solution in an upcoming article.

The good stuff:

The positive points of healing surges that stand out the most to me are the concept of making characters responsible for their own healing, the introduction of non-magical healing, and the reduced dependency on PC healers.

1) Healing as drawing from inner reserves.

Under the Healing Surge model, the healed character takes an active role in his recovery. Where previously all the merit went to the healer, now it becomes a joint effort - with both healer and patient spending resources and contributing to the final result. Notably, this means that tougher characters heal better, and can endure healing more times during a day.

Why is this important? There is an obvious benefit in character customization: surge value and the number of surges are new attributes that complement hit points and defenses, being weaker than them but still interesting and relevant, and providing an additional niche for defensive magic items and feats.

2) Healing not tied to magic

If I had to name the greatest single contribution of the surge mechanic to the game, I’d point to the Warlord. Linking healing to a character’s endurance and resolve means that healing effects no longer need to be strictly magical - allowing things like Warlord healing, and the Second Wind ability. These could still exist in a game without surges, but they would probably feel more forced. More importantly, though, is the fact that you could build a fully functional D&D party in a setting with no magic whatsoever - an all but impossible feat in earlier editions of the game.

3) Healing less dependant on the leader role

Before the creation of surges, the only limiting factor to a party’s daily healing was the number of leaders in it or, alternately, the amount of potions (and, more likely, Wands of Cure Light Wounds) available. Having more of these characters or items could greatly increase the number of encounters you could survive during a day. Having none of them meant you were doomed.

This cannot be emphasized too much: before 4E, you couldn’t play without healing magic. Not for long, anyways. A group might get along without melee specialists, and perhaps even without a wizard, but lacking the ability to cast Cure Light Wounds meant certain death. Coupled with some less than fortunate leader mechanics (since healers were expected to spend almost all their actions and resources in unexciting healing spells) meant that someone was often forced to take one for the team, and play a cleric even if he didn’t want to, just so that the group could advance.

Now that we have surges, and limited self-healing via Second Wind, and hit point recovery during short rests, playing without a leader is a real option, if not an optimal one. Not that leading is such a sacrifice anymore, as they can be real fun to play, but the added flexibility is definitely welcome.

The bad stuff

The main flaws in the implementation of surges are related to their application as a character and party resource. Lack of healing surges ending a player’s adventuring day is a major issue here, and leads to strong fluctuations on their value as character stat depending on who is the most fragile member of a party. Finally, a non-critical problem that is nevertheless annoying is the lack of support for encounters against worn down parties.

1) You can’t fight without surges.

This is the root of the problem. The character who runs out of healing surges is down for the day at the moment he’s dropped to 0 HP. At this point, the only alternatives are either forcing a long rest, or have the party leave the unconscious PC behind, and keep fighting without a member. Both interact poorly with adventures on unsafe locations (where it wouldn’t be credible to either sleep, or leave a fallen comrade), and the first one can lead to unusually short adventuring days. As for fighting without a party member, it may be more acceptable from a narrative point of view, but it isn’t a lot of fun for the guy who gets to sit without playing! So more often than not, the compromise is to rest regardless of location or time constraints, so as not to screw the fallen players.

2) Fragile PCs are a party bottleneck.

Because one fallen PC is often enough to bring a party to sleep, the role of surges as a character resource tends to be very uneven. Simply put, most of the times you don’t care about who will be the second character in a party to run out of surges - because you won’t get to that point. It’s only the most fragile member that matters, so everyone else’s surges tend to become irrelevant. Investing feats or items to gain additional surges thus ranges from a vital strategy (if you are the softest PC) to a mostly pointless exercise (if you are anyone else).

3) Tough PCs don’t shine

As a corollary of the previous point, it doesn’t pay to go out of your way to build the toughest character on earth. More Hit Points are always welcome, but extra healing surges are usually worthless once you are more resilient than the guy next to you. Or, as the joke goes, you don’t need to run faster than the dragon - outrunning your friend should do the trick. This is particularly aggravating because it makes surges a survivability stat that players who want to specialize in defense should ignore. It completely misses its target.

4) Exhausted parties don’t fight

Right now, it’s difficult to tell certain stories in a D&D campaign due to the fact that adventuring parties don’t grow weak or tired as they fight more encounters - they become unconscious. So if, for example, a DM wants to present a race against time (“rescue the princess in 3 days”), there is not much that PCs can do to delay long rests, other than losing people along the way. Likewise, it’s usually not practical to have a villain ambush the players when they have spent most of their resources and about to rest - because he won’t be fighting vulnerable heroes, but unconscious ones.

Overall, I get the impression that a model where surgeless characters became crippled but still capable of contributing to the party (and enjoying the game) would play much better than the current one.

The patches

A solution of sorts has been provided for healing surge woes in the form of Comrades’ Succor, a level 1 ritual that allows for surge transfer among teammates. Leaving aside the fact that releasing a game-changing ritual through an obscure Dragon article hardly seems like the most intelligent strategy, we have to admit that this works. More or less.

Healing surges as a shared party resource (which is what this ritual achieves) certainly mitigates the problem of fragile characters forcing early rests, allowing for longer adventuring sessions. But it also takes away some good things. The ritual itself is an obviously magical solution (so fully martial parties are out of the question), and having a party-wide pool of surges makes each individual surge even less valuable - so feats like Durable and powers like Cure Light Wounds become downright terrible.

I think the houserule I suggested in a previous article was slightly better, in that it didn’t allow free trade of surges, but use of other characters’ surges for off-combat healing. This meant that PCs still could run out of their own surges - they’d be able to fight, but lose access to on-combat healing, becoming extremely fragile. This way, each character’s surges remain important, though less so than under the original system.

Having played with this houserule for a year now, I can say it’s an improvement but it still doesn’t convince me. Among other things, the sharing of resources doesn’t mesh well with the dynamics of our campaign, where the player lineup shows great variance from one session to the other. In a following article, I’ll talk about a different idea for surge management that I’ve been toying with lately.


  1. I've occasionally run into the problem of adventurers needing an extended rest during a time sensitive adventure. I threw them a bone in the form of a dark altar from which they could gain the benefits of an extended rest, but the party took a -2 penalty to saving throws until their next extended rest. It made the following boss battle that much more tense, and worked well.

    On a broader scope, allowing the party to regain healing surges at some other cost might be a decent house rule. Maybe a ritual or boon that would let the party regain healing surges at the cost of gold, or a longer-term defensive penalty. It would be a little tricky to balance- it needs to be worse than the time lost for an extended rest, but available when time is of the essence. Maybe a (scaling) expensive consumable item, like a vat of uber coffee, would let the party gain the benefits of an extended rest but take a -2 penalty to all d20 rolls until a real extended rest.

  2. What about some type of permanent injury mechanic where you can go negative on surges ("I'm at -3 surges") but at the risk of some permanent injury ("Dex saved the princess, but he pushed himself so hard that that leg's never going to heal right...")

    It would have to be balanced. Not so bad that it's not worth it ("I'm not risking a permanent -2 attack to save some NPC!"), but not so good that it's too tempting ("We can keep going, I'll just wind up with 'Horrific Toenail Scar', that's all. Who cares about that?")

  3. I put it to you that these flaws are actually challenges which a well-balanced party of adventurers can handle. A tough fighter with lots of tanking powers like Come and Get It can draw a lot of attention to himself, leaders can pull squishy allies out of melee with attacks like Wolf Pack Tactics, and Controllers can reposition foes so that only the tank can be attacked.

    As for running out of hit points, two points. First, you wake up at the end of an encounter with 1 hit point even if you have 0 surges, so the character does not need to be dragged around. Second, being out of healing surges is akin to being dead, a bad thing that happens when a character takes too much damage.

    That's not to say that the healing surge system is the end-all be-all, but the points you list strike me as challenges rather than design flaws.

  4. Wow, I had completely missed the rule about going back to 1 HP when you are out of surges and spend one. That certainly improves the logistics of moving fallen comrades to a safe place, and reduces the impact of some of the problems I pointed out. I should try that out, to see how it affects play - fighting encounters as a minion certainly beats being unable to fight at all.

    K.A., your points about surges challenging the party are very valid, but I'm concerned that the mechanic as written is as much of a punishment for the DM, if not more. Realistically, when players are out of surges, the DM has to call it a day and let them rest without presenting further encounters - even if they are knee deep in the Dungeon of Evil. That is unless he wants the campaign to finish prematurely, or plans to knock them unconscious and has a Prison Break scenario ready.

    The comparison between running out of surges and dying is a good one, though I'd argue that dying at least can have some dramatic impact, to compensate for the annoyance of being out of play for a while. By contrast, skipping an encounter because your character is dying is as anticlimatic as it gets.

    Then there's also the fact that death no longer terrifies players in my group, because there have been so many books released since the current adventure started, that they can't wait for an excuse to try out a different class. But that's a wholly different subject...

  5. Here's an idea that I've been thinking about: Make a ritual called Greater Succor or something that links the entire party's healing surges until everyone takes an extended rest (and it could be extended by casting the ritual again before the extended rest at a reduced cost or a reduced time). This way, they aren't figuratively a group resource, they ARE the group resource for pacing, so everyone needs to be cautious about the fighter getting pounded, but at the same time, if the weaker party members go down, they might be able to piggyback on some fighter or warden surges floating around. You could even model this deliciously and add as many pieces of candy to a bowl as there are people playing the game, and whenever someone pops a surge, they eat a piece of candy. This would make workdays longer (Daily powers non-withstanding) if they aren't being completely pummelled.

  6. That's pretty much how the Comrade's Succor ritual (which is an official, if little known game element, as I mention in the article) already works, though you take away unneeded bookkeeping.

    The candy idea is great, but it would be totally broken in my gaming group. They would be constantly running out of surges and asking for an extended rest (and a bowl refill!).

  7. What also works is having a CON-based Runepriest who keeps a bunch of Protective scrolls with him that he hands out to allies when they need it. If the Runepriest gets feats to increase the amount and size of his Healing Surges, he can make a BIG difference. All of a sudden, the squishy guy with no healing surges went from almost dead to barely hurt, plus has a substantial bonus to his Defenses. True, the runepriest runs out of Healing Surges faster, but if he has the right feats, he can have a substantial amount of them. And i can tell you from experience that a Runepriest is NOT a boring role to play. You get to heal guys, and play around with the Defenders at the same time.