too many healing surges!

I think my 4E party members have too many healing surges. I don’t think is peculiar to them. I just think it’s how 4E works. For example, Orc the Orc, a 6th level Weaponmaster, has 15 healing surges per day. A healing surge is worth about 25% of his total HP (which is 64) so he can take about 314 HP of damage before being dead, assuming he can always spend his healing surges by spending his second and third wind, by healing powers or potions, by exiting combat, or whatever other means.

It’s really pretty hard to run a character down to zero surges, though. In combat, you can probably get through about three surges, in the heroic tier. You can blow your second wind and, if you’re lucky, get healed twice. Orc has a third wind, which helps, but it’s still tough. Once you’ve gotten through those three or surges, unless you have some magic around, you’re going to die. If you survive, though, and if you can take a break for five minutes, you can spend as many healing surges as you want. So, the first combat takes you down three surges and all your health but 1HP, you can immediately spent four more surges to return to full health. It’s actually pretty likely, in my experience, that the player won’t have to heal all that much, because in the first combat, the party will still have their daily powers.

If the party gets into another combat, they can blow three surges again. If Orc ends up at 1 HP again, he can blow another four healing surges. Now he’s at full health and down to one healing surge. He can still take 80 HP before going down. Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that we can ever fit three encounters into one session, especially since we want to get some story in there, too. I find it’s tough to ever get to a point where the PCs actually feel worn down.

I did succeed at this once or twice, by basically never leaving combat. This meant the PCs could never freely spend healing surges. There was plenty of time that they weren’t using combat powers: they were sliding down zip lines, running across loose tile roofs, and sneaking past guards. This led to a bizarre situation where, at the end of the day, they were all down to a handful of hit points, but had an enormous number of healing surges left.

Imagine that the game had begun with that combat. Then, by the time they were nearly utterly run down to zero hit points, chased across the rooftops of the city, and then down into the sewer and then to the undercity where they could finally take a break… they would’ve been back to full health and still had a pile of surges left! So how do you combat that? You put another encounter right after the short rest after the first massive encounter. The party won’t feel like they’re actually fighting after a long struggle to survive, because the only thing they’re down from being freshly rested is their daily powers.

I want the party to sometimes feel run down and stretched to the limit, but I don’t want to have to run three or four encounters to get that feeling. I also don’t want to just have a single encounter that uses up all their healing and kills them that way. I want to be able to nickel and dime them in a way that 4E seems to make difficult. I think it is time for me to try some house rules.

Here’s what I’m thinking, to start with:

  • Healing surges spent outside of combat, without healing powers, can only be spent once per hour. When you get a five minute break from combat, you do not get all your HP back. You get a quarter of them. If you can stay out of trouble for another hour, you can get back another quarter. I’m not sure if “one hour” is the right duration, but it seems like a reasonable start.

  • You don’t regenerate all your hit points automatically overnight. If you want to get your HP back overnight, you need to spend the appropriate number of healing surges. You’ll definitely have enough time, since extended rest is six hours, and you can’t possibly need to spend more than four surges.

  • You don’t regenerate all of your healing surges automatically overnight. Instead, you get two. This means that if you’re down to 1 HP and zero surges, you can get back to full HP in two days of rest.

  • Healing surges become recovery points. What does that mean? Well, you can use them for things other than healing. I’m not sure exactly what yet, but here are some ideas: spend a recovery point to make an extra saving throw; spend a recovery point to regain an encounter power; spend two recovery points to regain a daily power. I think I’d like to replace action points with these, too. This means that not only will PCs be slower to regain surges, they will be quicker to spend them on non-healing purposes. It means that during combat, they’ll have to decide whether to focus on being able to heal (either during or after combat) or on engaging in tactical maneuvers by regaining spent, useful powers.

In the end, I’m trying to fight two problems in 4E: the 15-minute adventuring day and the amazing never-tired hero. I don’t think there is a huge benefit to stopping for a rest, with these changes. There’s a benefit, but it’s got its own risks. After all, during your six to eight hour extended rest – taken to recover your daily powers naturally – you’re risking more random encounters than you might by just pushing on. That risk existed before, but the benefit for an extended rest was enormous: all your HP and all your surges, on top of your powers. Oh, and an action point!

So, the characters have a more balanced choice between resting and continuing, and either way they will grow fatigued after days of pushing it. They will need to establish a safe camp for truly extended rests of several days, now and then. I think that will help restore some of the feel of older D&D, where this was also a necessity.

I look forward to testing this in play.

Written on August 24, 2011
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