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

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on May 31, 2013

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From June 5, 2012, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Staying Alive: 8 Ways to Keep Wounded PCs in the Game.

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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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Liack May 31, 2013 at 10:29 am

In surge redistribution and temporary hit points, the leader class Artificer does a pretty decent job also, healing with the form of infusions. 2 (3 at level 16) free infusions after an extended rest. The infusions don’t require a PC to spend a healing surge. Replenishes the infusions with any party member’s healing surge. Also gives temporary hit points with daily item magic use.

2 Joe Lastowski June 1, 2013 at 7:51 pm

I find myself cutting the extra damage entirely when I’m doing organized play stuff with new players at the table (like D&D Encounters). Many of the newer players are less frugal with resources like healing surges, so I sometimes downgrade the monster damage to give them a bit more of a chance.

I also will often give out the healing potion from Mordenkainen’s – the one that still works if you don’t have a surge to spend – instead of regular healing potions.

I like the idea of maximizing the extra healing dice for bloodied PCs, but I do also know that it’s possible from the other side of the table to boost healing a lot (esp once you hit 11th level and the cleric paragon class Miracle Worker becomes available). Sometimes I’ll specifically put items that boost PC healing abilities into treasure packets… Brooch of Healing, Cloak of Walking Wounded, Healer’s Armor, Gloves of the Healer, etc.

3 Toldain June 3, 2013 at 6:16 pm

One time I had the party at a sort of interplanar nexus that they were trying to realign and get working again. The misalignment had been carried out by the forces of a mad god, and had resulted in the incapacitation of the God of Travel.

I wanted to throw several waves of demonish attackers at them, with no short rests even. However, because the God of Travel wasn’t completely powerless at this point (a nexus built by him, in fact), he provided a table with a pot of soup, a cistern of water and a (undepletable) loaf of bread.

Eating some bread would give you the effect of spending a surge between rests. The soup would let you recover all encounter powers and the water would let you recover one daily power. They could do one thing between waves.

It worked out pretty well, really.

4 Leslie L. Beasley June 15, 2013 at 10:33 pm

When you design the game, assuming you’ve made combat healing balanced against other spell choices and tactical options and balanced the combat engine in general, you don’t have to treat healing as a part of balance at all. It just becomes one tactical tool the party might bring, just as good as a bless spell or a sneak attack or whatever. It is not a neccessity. Parties do not have to bring it along. And parties that do bring it along aren’t really better off than other parties because they gave up other tactical options to have it.
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