RPG Blog Carnival: Things to Love and Things to Hate About Healing Surges

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 8, 2012

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival is being hosted by Nevermeet Press. The topic is Things to Love, Things to Hate.

The Cleric has always been my favourite class in D&D. I’m not a spiritual person in real life but there’s something I’ve always found appealing when it comes to playing divine characters. I think a big part of it is knowing that my character has to very power of life and death in his hands. With just a thought he can call forth his deity’s power and heal wounds. Having this power, a power until 4e that was limited to divine character, is like having insurance that the rest of the characters don’t. No matter how bad things get I know that I can use my class powers to heal wounds and stay on my feet. This is not to say that I’m a selfish Cleric, but if I go down no one else gets healed which certainly makes a compelling argument for serving my own needs first.

In my opinion, the most significant improvements to the Cleric class in 4e was making the ability to heal a minor action, thereby allowing the Cleric to still participate in combat. Until 4e Clerics often did nothing but heal the wounded while all the other classes did amazing things. Not so with 4e. The combination of the healing surge mechanic and Healing Word as a minor action made Clerics a lot more powerful because they could be a lot more involved. This is a big reason why I still find Clerics among the best classes in 4e D&D. It’s also the reason that I choose healing surges as the focus for this article, my contribution to this month’s RPG Blog Carnival.

Things to Love About Healing Surges

Healing surges changed the way characters are healed in D&D. Every character has his own supply of healing surges that replenish every day. Second Wind allows every PC to heal himself during combat and expend a healing surge without any help. After that it’s the leader’s job to let wounded PCs expend more healing surges as necessary. But this is a shared venture. Each player needs to be mindful of how many healing surges he has left. A Cleric may have healing magic left in his repertoire, but if you’re out of surges he can’t help you. The healing surge has madding healing a shared responsibility.

I love that healing is now based on your healing surge value and not on a few random rolls of the dice. In previous editions a Cleric’s level 1 healing spell only restored 1d8 hit points and was practically useless at higher levels. Now the number of hit points regained is based on a fraction of the recipient’s total hit points which means the power scales nicely as the PCs level up.

Gone are the days of the Cleric trading in his most potent offensive magic for a meager healing spell. Now the Cleric has a wide assortment of powers that can trigger healing surges above and beyond any other offensive damage he may inflict on an opponent.

Characters who find that they consistently have extra healing surges at the end of the day can find other ways to put those unused healing surges to use. Spellcasters in the group can take 5 minutes to use the ritual Comrades’ Succor and redistribute those unused healing surges at any point in the day. This lets the PCs who generally stand back and take less damage share the wealth with those who take the brunt of the hits. It also allows Con-based PCs to dump the surges that they’ll never burn through.

Another way to put those unused healing surges to better use is to invest in consumables. Many low-level, cheap consumables require the user to expend a healing surge, and the rewards are often extremely beneficial. If you’re not going to need the surges anyway, why not stock up on said consumables. At low levels the PCs may not be able to afford a lot of consumables, but after they’ve leveled up a few times there’s really no excuse not to be carrying around a wide assortment of consumables.

Things to Hate About Healing Surges

Now it’s time to look at the flipside of the healing surge mechanic. In truth it’s not healing surges I hate, rather it’s players’ misunderstanding the importance of healing surges to their own character and to the game going on around them. I’m not suggesting that everyone jump on the “love healing surges” bandwagon, but many players need to put more time and consideration into the importance that healing surges make to their character and to the party.

I wasn’t playing 4e D&D for very long before I saw first hand how important healing surges actual were. My first 4e character was a Paladin so I was fine in the healing surge department, but the poor guy playing the Rogue wasn’t as fortunate. As a frontline striker he was always getting into the thick of things. The party’s defenders (my Paladin and a Fighter) tried to keep opponents off the Rogue by marking them, but inevitably the monsters would realize the threat this deadly striker posed to team monster and they’d still attack him. When they did they acted together, focusing fire on what they realized was the biggest threat on the board.

More often than not the Rogue ended combat way below his bloodied value, sometimes unconscious. With Constitution as his dump stat he was limited to only 6 healing surges. Despite what the Rogue brought to the table as far as offense, he sorely lacked when it came to defense. Even with two leaders providing overflow dice to his surge value and my Paladin offering a Lay on Hands every combat, the Rogue still ran out of healing surges faster than anyone else in the party.

Recognizing this sever deficiency the player took the Durability feat to give himself two more healing surges by the time he reached level 4. He also learned the value of more advanced tactics. In this case the player changed the way he played to overcome his character’s limitations. It also illustrated to the whole party the down side to a low Constitution. Since then I don’t think we’ve had a PC with an initial Con score below 13 (and it’s almost always bumped to 14 at level 4).

What I hate (and I can’t emphasize hate enough in this circumstance) are players who go through the same experience that I’ve described above and make no effort to remedy the situation. Instead, what I see over and over again are power gamers who continue to play strikers (often the classes that begin with the fewest number of healing surges), leave their starting Con at 10 (or possibly even lowering it to 8.) and then running out of healing surges after one combat encounter. One! Suddenly the party needs to take an extended rest because one PC is out of healing surges. My usual response is along the lines of “too bad, suck it up” and the party continues adventuring. Before the end of the next encounter the inevitable happens and the PC who began the encounter with no surges falls unconscious.

You reap what you sow. If you choose to take a 20 in your primary ability during character creation and that means you don’t have enough points to bump up your Con, then that’s a decision you made. No one forced your hand. You wanted your PC to be a bad ass and he probably is; however, if you don’t drop your opponents quickly you’re going to feel the pain that comes from short-changing the other ability scores (like Con). If you’re not willing to take Durability because you’d rather take a feat that gives you +1 to attack or +1 to damage, then again that’s your decision and you have to live with the consequences.

Don’t get me wrong, I want players to make the characters they want to make and I want everyone to have a good time, but when this kind of deficiency takes your PC out of the fight it affects everyone. Now the DM has to figure out how to keep the train on the rails. The other players don’t want to be pressured into resting for 24 hours after every fight just because you are soft. Anyone who ignores the importance of healing surges to the game is disrespecting everyone at the gaming table, players and DM alike. You choose to be selfish and as a result the game suffers.

Now that I’ve ranted I think it’s important that I emphasize that I’m not this harsh on brand new players. This hate is reserved for players who have some 4e experience and have likely played multiple characters. I reserve an extra dose of hate for players who make character after character with this same deficiency. I’m not kidding; I see this at D&D Encounters almost every week. A player shows up with a PC who has 6 healing surges, blows through them all in one session, and then brings a brand new character the following week. Oh, did I mention that the replacement character (usually a different class) also has only 6 healing surges? No respect at all.

Healing surges have changed the way we look at hit points and how characters are healed. It may not be a perfect system but in my opinion it’s a huge improvement over what we had in previous editions. We’ll see if this is a mechanic that is carried forward into the next iteration of D&D or if it’s one of the modular options that we’ve been hearing so much about. I think healing surges are an important staple in D&D and love them or hate them they’re going to be included in the future of D&D.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Toldain February 8, 2012 at 11:29 am

This highlights one of the reasons I don’t really adhere to the “rogues are the best strikers” dogma. Yes, they have more added dice, but they use smaller weapons and they have to be far more vulnerable to counterattacks to get their dice.

2 Philo Pharynx February 8, 2012 at 4:08 pm

“I love that healing is now based on your healing surge value and not on a few random rolls of the dice.” Rolling low on healing sucks. When a cleric spends their action healing and burns a useful spell and tthen realizes they’ll still need to do it again next round really sucks. One of my friends usually plays the cleric and they have bad dice luck. At a certain point he starts using heal for wounds of a certain level because burning one big spell is easier than burning several lower level spells.

I don’t think I’ve ever made a character with Con as the dump stat. Even if they have a lot of other stat needs I usually try and put at least 12 in. It just doesn’t make much sense that a sickly person would bother going out on an adventure. Partly I base this on myself. I probably have an 8 Con, and I hate all of the discomfort and issues that roughing it causes.

From what I’ve been seeing, I don’t think they’ll use healing surges in D&D Next (at least in the default options). I’d like it to be there, but if they do I think it will make it harder for them to “unify the editions”.

Finally I think you still owe us half a post. The second half wasn’t about hating healing surges, just in how some people misuse them. :)

3 Alton February 9, 2012 at 12:58 am

Love the article.

I noticed shortly after I started playing 4th, how vulnerable my character was in combat. I play a rogue halfling. I have adapted. I had and still have only 8 surges for the day. I have created my character with a crapload of mobility. I am squishy and my AC is sucky at best, but I move a lot. If I do engage in combat it is usually beside a fighter. We can usually go 6-8 combats before the party rests, and I usually have 4-5 remaining surges left.

Contrary to Toldain, I do think rogues are the best strikers, but with negatives to it. They are squishy at best. It is all about what you want in your characters.

4 Gargs454 February 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm

I agree that in many respects, healing surges have become the new “spellcaster powers”. In older editions, I can remember the spell casters in the group going nova out of the gate and then wanting to rest so that they could get their good powers back. Now you have the squishies who go charging into combat, drawing all kinds of aggro, then running out of surges and now wanting to take a rest to get back those surges.

That being said though, I agree with the article in that I think surges are a great addition to the game. It frees up the need to have a dedicated healer (particularly when added with consumables), and they still enable that dedicated healer to have an offensive role in combat without feeling as though they are neglecting their “true” duties.

5 Matt February 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm

As a way to provide healing and give the Cleric a larger role in the party, I agree that 4e has a big advantage on the healing front over other editions. But we are hating healing surges to some degree in one of my home campaigns, but for a different reason than you describe– we think 4e took it too far.

Our DM feels, and none of us argued, that the way healing surges work (healing a large percentage of your hp and healing up completely and getting all your surges back after an extended rest) makes it very difficult to truly challenge players once they have gained a few levels unless the DM throws encounters that are consistently level +2, 3 or even 4 and this can make every combat take a lot longer.

The fear of actually dying has really fallen out of 4e and I think that’s taken some of the tension out of combat and made it too easy for players to just do massive amounts of damage and take their punishment for it, rather than coming up with more creative ways to defeat an encounter.

My sense of D&D Next is that they’ve done away with surges but maybe it will be included in an option pack… our group is experimenting with some house rules to make surges more of a precious resource… only regaining half your max hp after each extended rest for instance… should be interesting to see how it turns out.

6 William February 10, 2012 at 12:51 pm

I mostly agree with Ameron about being considerate of the other players at your table by not shorting yourself on surges. It’s part of the social contract to make sure that everyone has a good time by not being a jerk. A few brief things though.
1) If a player is allowed to bring a new character to Encounters every week, he has ZERO incentive to build with extra surges. It’s statistically more advantageous for him to emphasize all other scores because he knows that 6 surges is enough to get him through the session, and next week he can build something new and not be penalized in anyway. I haven’t played Encounters, but if you’re allowed to continually bring new characters then the system is encouraging you to use CON as a dump stat. Honestly, I would probably do the same thing unless I somehow ran out of surges in the middle of a session and had to sit out.
2) If you have a player who is spending 6 surges in one combat encounter, the problem isn’t the character’s number of surges, not at all. Either the encoutner is far too difficult, or that player is terrible (obvious exception for new players). In almost 4 years of 4E I have only seen a few times when anyone spent more than 4 surges in one combat, even a hard combat, and every time it was because the player was reckless or the encounter was significantly harder than the party expected.
3) I 100% agree with Matt, challenge in 4E diminishes quickly as you level, and that’s a clear indicator for why you see so many players with a low surge count. There’s very little reason for experienced players to worry about running out of surges, ever, especially with that ritual available. I made a Bow Ranger in a paragon campaign with only 4 players (Warden, Barbarian, Warlord) and was often reckless enough to run into melee to get the Prime Shot attack bonus. We regularly fought encounters built for 5-man parties, 2-4 levels above us, with little problem. That’s not bragging, it’s just how the system works. If you pay attention it’s pretty hard to die as a PC in 4E, so again, spending character resources to gain extra surges is actually wasteful in many instances.

Interested to hear more of your thoughts. Love Dungeon’s Master!

7 Philo Pharynx February 10, 2012 at 2:30 pm

William brings up encounters being too hard, then gives an example that his group regualrly smashes through what should be difficult encounters. This brings up something about 4e that many people have brought up before. Players and characters that work together well break the balance of 4e. In order to accomodate this, the GM has to ramp up the difficulty, and then you get combats where they spend lots of healing surges. This is either by ramping up the monsters or by using tactics like having a nasty creature isolate the ranger and beat on him exclusively. It’s hard to balance out the synergy bonus, and if you misjudge at a point that the party’s luck isn’t particlarly good then you get some nasty encounters.

Oh, and there’s another type of encounter that always uses up lots of healing surges. Life-draining undead. Getting hit for damage plus healing surges is a nasty thing to deal with.

P.S. William, your group sounds like a really fun combination. I can see why they work together well. Let me guess – Bravura warlord?

8 darkl26139 February 10, 2012 at 4:35 pm

I am not a fan of healing surges because they don’t make sense to me. It feels like a forced add on just to limit the game. I can see only having the 1 second wind as that is your body healing itself. However limiting the number of times magic can help you seems to go against the whole point of magic. It is another aspect which as other have pointed encourages players to treat character as kleenex. Why on earth would I want to stay out of surges when I don’t have too. Also, I played a cleric at the start of this encounter season. He was next to useless in combat compared to the rest of the party. The mages were able to hit for more dg with the basic attacks. The cleric powers available paled in comparison to the rest of the party. I switched to a Paladin who could heal just as often as my cleric and could hit something. I have been playing since the beginning of D&D and abuse of healing was never a major issue in my groups. Clerics had to rest for 8 hrs to regain a spell which was hard to do with wandering monsters. Most modules only had a few places the party could rest unmolested. This forced the party to carefully choose who to heal and when. With only a few healing spells available and healing potions being expensive the party had to play smart or be in big trouble. I could see limiting the number of healing potions someone could take in a given period just because it takes time for the potion to make its way out of the player’s system. Even this isn’t that big a deal because healing potion only give 10 hp and are fairly rare.

I do like the set healing value as that make sense to me. If I am in good health then I should heal easier and faster than someone who isn’t. I think this would be enough of a limit on the rogue and mage characters as the healers only have so many healing powers available.

9 Bill February 28, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Healing surges in 4e bother me for the same reason that a lot of other things bothered me in 4e, not for what was on the page but the lack of fluff to make what was on the page make sense.

Healing surges only available a few times per day? Fluff wise, I would justify this by saying that you can only benefit from healing magic so often before it starts to take its toll on the body. After a while you’re just too beaten up and you have to rest and give your body real healing.

Skill Challenges and Rituals would also have benefited from this treatment. I feel like the early complaints about 4e being video game like would have been in some ways been alleviated if there were good obvious in character reasons why the group needed to slow down to deal with things at a less break-neck pace.

10 Philo Pharynx February 28, 2012 at 6:55 pm

I’ll admit that this probably came up from designers taking part of their creation for granted. they could see the explanation in their heads and didn’t bother making it explicit. Still, this was one that I didn’t see as stretching creulity as much as some of the other assumptions. I find it harder to believe that a warlord can inspire somebody from the brink of death to full health than that there’s a limit to how often you can be brought back from the brink of death to full health.

Still, many previous editions didn’t add much fluff to their assumptions. AC, hit points, vancian magic, wizards not wearing armor or using swords. They definitely didn’t add fluff to the unstated assumptions. Non-rogues can’t hide or move quietly. A bard can’t be lawful when many of their abilities are designed to help people work together. Sorcerors only having so many spell slots. Most editions have had something that was assumed.

Part of the issue is that we’ve worked with the limitations of the older editions for years and we’ve rationalized them in our own minds. Or houseruled them.

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