Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Game Design (IV):Healing, surges, dying

Longtime readers will know that the topic of healing surges is of significant interest to me, having proposed not one but two different solutions to improve the game experience of players running out of healing resources. Though I’m satisfied with how the previous rules played out,they were designed according to an important restriction I usually follow in these cases: to change the game as little as required to do the job. Since my current RPG project not only allows, but actually encourages trying out more innovative solutions, I have looked once more into the subject and come up with the ultimate ruleset for healing surges (or so I hope). The result is a streamlined system where surgeless characters can keep adventuring (at their risk!), surges become more interesting as a player resource, and getting knocked out of combat gets a new (and painful) meaning.

Problem statement

In my opinion, the one glaring problem with healing surges in D&D 4E is how the game handles a character running out of surges: by effectively ending the adventuring day for the character and, more often than not, for the whole party. Leaving an adventurer behind for an entire encounter (or more!) could be an interesting strategic challenge, if not for the fact that it unfairly punishes the player to skip a session or, even worse, to sit there unable to participate. Hence, a very common answer to this scenario is to just call it a day and find a place for an extended group rest.

Another problematic aspect of surges that I hadn’t touched on previous articles is they don’t work very well as a game resource. That is, they are important for characters, but there is no real way for players to meaningfully interact with them. Encounters cause player characters to lose hit points, and they must spend surges to heal them back (unless they prefer to stop adventuring, or to die). Apart from characters with very minor wounds worth less than a full surge, there is no incentive to hold back on healing or to save surges for later, nor is it possible to significantly reduce HP/surge loss outside of becoming extremely efficient at defeating encounters.

On a related note, I don’t like how dying characters are treated in the game, either. Any amount of healing will bring back an agonizing hero back to action, as if nothing had happened. Fallen comrades that somehow remain unattended are threatened by death saving throws, which is to say, not very much. Death saving throws are a strange mechanic, disconnected from the rest of the game, and way too slow to have any effect in combat encounters that last five rounds on average, if not less. But what kills it for me is that, as long as you don’t get killed, it doesn’t matter how many death saves you have failed, nor how much damage you have taken while down. There is relatively little immediate risk, and no long-term impact at all.

Rest in peace

The first change I propose is to replace the rules for healing characters during short rests with the following:

Healing in a Short rest: During a short rest, any player character can spend a healing surge to regain all hit points. A player character with no healing surges regains hit points up to his bloodied value at the end of a short rest..

Also, in the description of healing surges, add the following:

Running out of Healing Surges: A player character with no healing surges left cannot use daily powers nor action points. If an effect causes that character to lose a healing surge, he takes damage equal to half his bloodied value instead.

Nice and clean. Healing during rests becomes much more efficient than in the middle of combat, and players can keep adventuring after using their last surge, though at a significant penalty. The game now offers a legitimate option for players to cut down on surge expenditure, by minimizing in-combat healing. However, that may be easier said than done, particularly after considering the rules in the following section...

Rules to die for

Replace the following rules related to dying characters with the text below:

Characters reduced to 0 HP: When a character takes damage that leaves him with 0 or less hit points, the character is knocked prone and dying, and must make a Death Saving Throw.

Death Saving Throw: Some game effects require a character to make a Death Saving Throw. The character makes a saving throw: on a success nothing happens, and on a failure, the character loses a healing surge. A dying character rolling a result of 20 or higher becomes stabilized.

Healing a Dying Character: A dying character that receives any amount of healing becomes stabilized. In addition, the effect of healing on that character depends on the character’s current hit point total:

  • If the amount of damage healed is equal or greater than the character’s negative hit points, the character’s hit point total becomes equal to the amount of damage healed. The character is no longer unconscious, and is weakened until the end of his next turn.
  • If the amount of damage healed is less than the character’s negative hit points, subtract that amount from the character’s negative hit points. The character remains unconscious.

Coup de Grace: When a character targets an adjacent unconscious enemy with an attack, the attack is considered a Coup de Grace against that enemy. In Coup de Grace attacks, missed attack rolls are treated as hits.

Other death-related rules are left unchanged. Notably, dying characters still roll death saves each turn.

The main goal behind these rules is to have characters dropping below 0 HP really matter. Note that actually dying during combat no more likely than before, but there are other new, important consequences for getting knocked out. First, the mostly irrelevant death saving throws become integrated with healing surges in a way that feels very natural to me. If the previous section gave players a reason to use less in-combat healing, this set of rules compensates it by providing a very strong incentive to heal characters with low HP. Incidentally, spending actions to stabilize allies without spending surges is now a thing, though still far from ideal.

Side Effects

A common consequence of introducing the kind of deeper rule changes described in this article (as opposed to the more surgical approach I have preferred to use before) is that something, somewhere, is bound to break. What follows is a list of game elements that are negatively affected by the new rules, and need a revision to work. Readers are encouraged to point to other similar items that I may have missed.

Bard class - Song of Rest feature: Replace text with “Once per day, during a short rest, the bard may have a resting ally regain all hit points”.


To summarize the changes, healing during rests is now cheaper than ever, but getting knocked out during combat can now drain characters out of surges pretty quickly. I honestly don’t know if this ends up extending or shortening the adventuring day overall - the answer depends a lot on encounter difficulty and party dynamics, though I should get a rough idea when I get to playtest it.

I really like, at least in paper, the new tension introduced for combat healing: you don’t want to use too much of it because it’s a lot less efficient than just resting... except when you get too greedy and the monsters beat you out of surges. Let’s see if it plays as well as I expect.

The following article will consist in a recap of all the new rules, since I now feel I have enough material for a decent round of playtests. After that, I’ll probably go for a revision of character conditions, which should prove interesting. I also need to take some time to catch up with the comments section, which is providing some amazing feedback as of late. Speaking of which... what do you guys think about this new approach for healing and dying?


  1. In our party, healing is limited enough that it's used as sparingly as possible in combat (especially since they like taking advantage of Desperation); I don't know that the new healing rules will really change their application.

    That said; I really like your new approach to dying and it makes a lot of sense to combine your new healing rules with them.

    My only concern is wondering if we should be reducing the number of surges available for players. Under the current system, you can get really unlucky and die in three rounds (which requires a couple things, the group almost has to be separated from you and out of heals). With this new system, our defender could easily require eight unlucky rounds in a row to die. Admittedly, those failed throws could take place over multiple combats, but to die over the course of the day it will take on average ~16 rounds of dying.

    I try my best to avoid letting characters die; I never allow monsters to attack dying characters unless it's actually a TPK (and even then, I'm much more likely to throw them in prison). However, I appreciate the potential danger of three unlucky turns meaning the death of a character. I like that your new system means that turns spent dying have a bigger impact but I worry that it's a much less lethal combat for classes that get plenty of surges (it does look just about equally lethal if not more so for softer classes). Maybe that's not a problem, maybe softer classes should die easier, I'm just curious if that's intended (or if I'm just looking at this all wrong).

    I'm definitely looking forward to hearing how your playtesting goes; this system looks like it will make dying much more interesting (I'm just too afraid of killing off the party to playtest new dying rules for my group).

    1. In my system, Death Saving Throws aren’t intended to be a way to kill characters (unless they are extremely short on resources), but as a means of attrition. If you are dying, the immediate threat should come from the risk of monsters finishing you off in a hit or two. What Death Saves do is add some long term consequences for dying, through loss of surges.

    2. My group has always been pretty good about grabbing up dying characters, but I've always been pretty cowardly about finishing off the downed members. I'd definitely be interested in trying out this set of rules if I start playing with a newer group.

  2. I like the running out of surges rule.

    I'm not sure how I feel about the "full heal with 1 surge during rests" rule.

    The "Healing a Dying Character" rules are too complicated (or moreso than they need to be). I would rule that negative HP simply count as HP for the purposes of healing; for example, if you're at -5 HP and you heal 10, then you're at 5 (instead of 10 with the RAW). This could balance out the cheap full heals during rest to the point where the adventuring day isn't lengthened or shortened by as much.

    I love the idea that you lose a surge when you fail a death save.

    Overall I'm intrigued.

    1. Yeah, that healing the dying part a bit ugly. Basically, I’m torn between two requirements that can’t be met with a single, simple rule. On the one hand, I don’t want characters to get healed back to consciousness ending with something ridiculous like 1 HP, only to go back to dying when a cat scratches them. This is something that I think the 4E rules did right. On the other hand, I don’t want characters with a ton of negative hit points to get back up with a 5 point heal from Consecrated Ground, or something like that. Perhaps there is a way to achieve this with clearer, shorter wording?

  3. What I'm doing for my campaign is somewhat similar: when you fall to zero, you make an immediate death save, and some attacks inflict death saves. But I use the traditional death save rules in that you have a certain number of them before you die. So, my big contribution?

    *Death save failures carry over from encounter to encounter*

    Of course, my games are virtually all encounter resource based-that is, you get X surges per encounter instead of per day, and daily attack powers are handled differently. The dying rules are mostly aesthetic at that point.

    1. Out of curiosity: does this mean that, under your system, death saves are the only actual daily resource for players?

  4. My changes have been less thorough. I came up with the same mechanic as you - failing a death saving throw loses you a surge and has no other effect - but that was pretty much the only change I made.

    The issue I have with my system would probably be even more applicable to yours with the modified healing rules - it makes bonuses to death saving throws much more potent. A character with Disciple of Death and, say, Haunted Armor can pretty much ignore death saving throws. A high-con character with that setup who only needs to spend 1 surge to heal out of combat could keep going all day.

    1. I think we can afford to make bonuses to death saving throws stronger, considering that they were rather worthless before (barring very specific builds, like revenants). Anyway, I don't think auto-passing death saves becomes such a big deal, under these rules. Granted, you can keep fighting for a ton of encounters, provided you don't spend surges during combat - but that also means you will get knocked out, missing a significant portion of these encounters, and risking enemy coup de graces. By contrast, regular characters who run out of surges can also keep fighting indefinitely, though at a penalty. Honestly, I think your proposed combo can be compared to gaining a bunch of extra surges - useful, but not a gamebreaker.