Staying Alive: 8 Ways to Keep Wounded PCs in the Game

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 5, 2012

One of my biggest issues with D&D is the five-minute work day. This is when PCs expend all their best powers and burn through their healing surges so quickly that they’re useless unless they take an extended rest. The game is designed for PCs to have four or more encounters before they should need to take an extended rest but I suspect that many DMs rarely push through more than four encounters before calling it a day. However, there will be times when this just isn’t possible – either because it doesn’t make sense given how the story is progressing or the printed adventure doesn’t allow it. In these cases the DM may need to get creative to keep the PCs alive until the end of the day.

Assuming the PCs can still take short rests then output isn’t usually a big deal if the party continues on past four encounters. Sure they may not have those awesome daily powers at their disposal into the fifth encounter but they will have all their cool encounter powers. It’s healing surges that usually become the biggest problem.

Strikers generally have the fewest surges to begin with, and unless the player has a reasonable Constitution score or the Durability feat they’ll run out of surges quickly. What makes the problem worse is that as soon as monsters (intelligent monsters anyway) see a striker mowing through their ranks they’ll target the biggest threat (the striker). Unless you’ve got advantageous tactics or a decent defender at your side, strikers end up taking damage every fight.

So what’s a DM to do when this kind of thing happens? How do you keep a wounded party in the game and convince the players to push those PCs forward? It may just be a game, but players get emotionally attached to their PCs quickly and no one wants to enter a combat encounter knowing that their PC is likely to die. It’s a delicate situation that requires some careful manipulation. The key is not to do so in such a way that it insults the players or belittles the game mechanic. Players want to do well but they don’t want the DM to just give them an easy, unearned victory. It’s a real balancing act and here are 8 suggested ways to pull it off.

1. Maximize Healing

A large party with only one leader has fewer chances to get those extra d6s from healing magic. One house rule that I’ve used with great effect is that bloodied PCs automatically get the maximum benefit from the overflow dice when a leader provides healing. I also allow leaders to maximize these dice if healing is done outside of combat (say if the PCs can take more than one short rest between fights). This makes the few surges they do have go a lot farther.

2. Temporary Hit Points

For soft PCs temporary hit points are as good as healing. By providing this buffer they don’t lose real hit points and therefore don’t need to receive healing as quickly during a fight. However temporary hit points aren’t readily available to just anyone so DMs need to be creative when it comes to doling them out. A helpful NPC, usually with a divine or arcane theme, is a good way to buff the PCs without it seeming too out of place.

3. Redistribute Healing Surges

Comrades’ Succor is a fantastic ritual that allows the party to redistribute their healing surges. This is especially useful if the party has more than one defender or a PC with really high Constitution. However, the party needs to have the ritual and time to use it. Since this is one of the few ways to help a PC who’s out of surges that’s actually in the book, I extend tremendous latitude when the party chooses to use this ritual. It’s only 10 gp if they’ve already got access to it and only 150 gp for a scroll if they don’t. With a 5 minute casting time it can be used during a short rest. I really don’t know why every party doesn’t have a few of these on hand. If they don’t I will often award them as treasure early in an adventure. These can be more valuable and more beneficial then a few healing potions.

4. Replenish Healing Surges

There are a few powers that allow PCs to replenish healing surges, but they are rare, especially at low levels. So I will often find creative ways to bestow the gift of healing surges on the party or one PC who desperately needs them. There are two ways that I most commonly accomplish this. The first is to give the PCs food or drink that is somehow empowered. It might be a rare fruit, water from a magical pond, or blessed wafers. The other way is by touching a magic object or passing through a magical location like a ritual circle or archway. The key to using either of these devices is that it seems plausible given the party’s circumstances. If they’re already in a crypt perhaps they find a sarcophagus of a cleric of healing and touching his tomb while saying his name restores one healing surge to each PC. As long as the device doesn’t seem out of place the party won’t realize you’ve bent the rules for them.

5. Potions

Potions that replenish hit points or provide temporary hit points usually require the imbiber to expend a healing surge. Every once in a while I’ll provide the party with one or two “special” potions that do not require the surge expenditure. The trick is to anticipate the need for this kind of gift and award it earlier then needed. If the party conveniently finds this kind of special surgeless potion on a corpse at just the right time they realize the DM is throwing them a bone. But if they’ve had the potion in their inventory since the fist encounter they’re less likely to see it as bending the rules and more as good fortune and incredible luck.

6. Less Damage

If you know that the party is low on healing surges then don’t inflict as much damage. When rolling damage use a die one step down from what’s indicated, so 1d8 becomes 1d6 for example. It’s a minimal change that will likely go undetected by players. In the grand scheme of things it may only minimize damage buy a few points here and there but sometimes that’s all that’s needed to get them through one more fight. Another option is to cut any additional damage in half or eliminate it all together. So if the monster deals 1d8+4 change it to 1d8+2 or just 1d8. This will have a much more noticeable reduction to damage.

7. Stupid or Careless Monsters

Unless the monsters are intelligent or have a component leader it makes sense that they’ll attack anyone. Unless one PC is clearly a better target than another have the monsters spread their attacks around a little bit more. I don’t generally do this unless the party is really hurting. In fact I usually have the monsters gang up on one guy until he’s dead. But if they’ve already suffered this fate a few times, it might be time to have the monsters return to their baser instincts and just attack the nearest guy.

8. Play to the Party’s Resistances

A lot of PCs will eventually acquire energy resistances. When PCs are getting low on healing surges it might be time to let those resistances play a bigger part in the combat. Have the monsters deal damage that matches the wounded PC’s energy resistance. It might not stop him from getting hit but it can lessen the damage considerably. Of course it may seem strange that the Goblins all have acid weapons so try to find a way to explain this oddity. When in doubt you can always rely on magic. In this case have the Goblin shaman make a big display of casting a spell in the first round and then suddenly all his allies’ weapons explode with acid. Alternatively just say he’s go an aura that turns all his allies’ attacks to acid when they’re within 5 of him. These are very reasonable powers that don’t insult the players or minimize their eventual victory.

These are just a few examples of ways to keep a wounded party in the fight. Anything that will minimize the five-minute work day and keep PCs without healing surges viable is good. These tricks are good for occasional use but players will see through the smoke and mirrors if you keep doing these things over and over again. Where possible don’t force a wounded party to push on when they don’t have the resources unless the story demands it. However, if a PC is reckless or stupid and finds himself out of surges because of his own mistakes then don’t feel the need to reward him with these boons as often. Sometimes a PC has to fall unconscious (again and again) to learn how important good tactics and a decent Constitution really are.

How have you replenished lost healing surges and kept badly wounded parties in the fight? Do your players find it insulting when you throw them this kind of bone or do they expect it when they get down to the bare minimum or resources?

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Madfox11 June 5, 2012 at 10:25 am

In all honesty, I regularly push the PCs past the 4 encounter limit without really resorting to any of the otherwise fine suggestions (with one exception*). I simply let the PCs suffer the concequences of their builds, and gave them the choice between failing in the adventure or pressing on. Now at 18th level the leader is an excellent healer, the strikers have worked on their durability and tactics (the rogue made sure ranged attacks and hiding is an option) and the defenders/controllers on making sure the leader and strikers stay out of reach. The fact is that the D&D mechanics allow each PC to make optimal use of their healing surges. It comes a bit at the cost of some other things, but for me that is an important part of the balance of the game.

* I really dislike Commerade Succor. It rewards a type of play where a PC specializes to the extreme which in turn makes some of the CharOp monstrosities workable. Above all, healing surge management is part of the strategical resource management that balances D&D and this seriously impacts the balance of the game.

2 Liack June 5, 2012 at 10:41 am

To support this, I house ruled an item of sort: my PCs are end of heroic, so their ring slot are mostly empty. I created an item that works in the way of the paladin’s lay on hand with feat (once per day, doesn’t count as daily item usage, the ring uses a healing surge from the wearer to heal an adjacent target his surge value). The team currently doesn’t have a leader (3 striker, a paladin and a wizard).

Another of the things you haven’t mentioned is the nifty healing from the Artificer. The infusion you can fill with any PCs’s surge during a short rest.

3 Norcross June 5, 2012 at 11:06 am

There is a very easy way to combat the “five-minute workday” problem that will keep characters (mostly) alive while still challenging them – just have one encounter per day. Instead of four smaller encounters, have one big one that really stretches their resources. If the players take a break after that to rest and recover, no problem. And they only have to pause to heal once during the day, but if they have already used up some of their healing resources during the battle then they have choices to make.

Frankly it makes more sense, too. Unless you are doing yet another dungeon-crawl-with-a-time-limit, adventurers should go days between fights (or at least ones worth playing out – I’m all for just letting the wizard cast a fireball and saying they fried all the foes sometimes – it lets them do something cool, burns off a spell, and saves the time it would take to set up the map).

Occasionally you can mix things up by having a slightly easier (but still tough) fight where the party burns off all their resources and then throw in a much smaller fight later in the day when the party has used up their big stuff (bandits attack in the middle of the night before they get eight hours sleep or something) so that they have to fight a different way. But there is no logical reason why most parties should have four fights per day – reasonable real people would take the time to recover after a fight instead of going right out to look for another one after catching their breath for five minutes.

Having just one fight allows the players to have more epic fights than they otherwise would have (and they should be big – there’s a reason the PCs are doing the job instead of the town guard, after all!), allows you more time to do some actual roleplaying (if you are into that, rather than just a series of miniatures wargames), and lets them use all their healing resources afterward to keep the characters alive even after taking a big beating.

4 froth June 5, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Don’t forget “Attack them when they try to rest”

5 Ameron (Derek Myers) June 5, 2012 at 2:02 pm

@Madfox11
In most games I too try to push the party, especially at higher levels. However, for low-level play there is a lot less forgiveness if players don’t build characters that can handle four or more encounters per day. This is a really big problem at D&D Encounters.

I agree that Comrades’ Succor can certainly be abused. I usually only see this ritual used during public play (LFR and D&D Encounters) where people tend to build more for power gaming and less for versatility. This is one of those RAW rituals that I don’t really have any issue with. If the players work this ritual into their Standard Operating Procedure that’s up to them. Of course, there may be times when a soft striker runs out of surges and then the party doesn’t have time to perform the ritual because a crafty DM springs monsters on them before they complete their short rest. If the players are willing to accept that risk, I’m ok to let them us the ritual.

@Liack
We had a similar house rule but it was a magical tattoo rather than a ring. We were in a party with no leader and the DM took pity on us. The range was line of sight, but otherwise it also worked like the Paladin’s Lay On Hands. My archer Ranger saved the Barbarian and melee Ranger more often than I can count.

The only reason I didn’t mentioned Artificer healing is because I didn’t think of it. If I had it would have been #9 on the list. Good call.

@Norcross
It’s rare that I take a hard stance against any comment (everyone is entitled to their opinion) but personally this is an approach that I would absolutely never take. I think that it gives the PCs WAY too much power.

The game is designed so that the PCs need to make choices during each encounter. Do they use their daily power during encounter 1, 2 or 3? Do they use an action point during the first fight or the next? If I’ve only got a few healing surges do I hang back during the first encounter so I have the option of charging in during the next encounter or do I go balls-to-the-wall during the first fight and hang back for every fight after that one?

I agree that one massive fight can certainly be epic, especially if higher level PCs have daily after daily in their bag of tricks, but if I’m a Paladin with 15 healing surges there is absolutely no way I’m going to need them all. Items and effects that last until the end of the encounter become overly powered (especially if you can get multiple ones active) if you know there’s only going to be one fight. It also disrupts balance of things like Healing Word. If I’ve got 2/encoutner and there are four encounters today I can use it 8 times. If it’s just one massive fight I can only use it twice.

The closest I’ve come to doing something like this is to have back-to-back encounters where the party is either denied a short rest or they can choose not to take one thereby foregoing the benefits but keeping ongoing powers active. This rewards good resource management and creative foresight.

Sorry for the rant, but this is just one of those things we’ll have to agree to disagree on. If it works for you and you’re ok with the power levels of a party that can use absolutely everything during one massive fight then do it. But it’s not something I see myself ever doing on purpose.

@froth
I’m not sure how your suggestion will keep a party alive.

6 froth June 5, 2012 at 2:49 pm

It might not, but it sure helps cure the five minute workday!
froth´s last blog post ..A Look at 4e Forever’s Epic Tier Monster Design

7 Mike Karkabe-Olson June 5, 2012 at 4:36 pm

While these are all useful suggestions that can occasionally help out a PC party that is light on resources and has decided to push on without a rest, the root problem of the “5-minute work day” remains, as does the incentive to constantly rest. With that in mind, I’d like to invite you and your readers to visit a link at http://houserules4dnd.weebly.com/1/post/2012/05/house-rules-for-resting.html that shows a way to eliminate this 15-Minute Work Day through the use of a couple house rules. This may provide a more permanent solution to the “problem” you’ve described.

I, too, dislike the 5-minute work day, and I discourage it in my games. With these few adjustments, though, you will find PCs much more willing to take risks and move on to their next encounter without stopping to rest after each and every battle.

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