I have been playing D&D4e with the same group of friends for almost 3 years now.  As the long-term DM of this particular group of ragtag adventurers, I have learned a lot about running a game, building on a history of playing and DMing that stretches back to AD&D2.  In all this time as a DM, I have rarely sat down to record my ideas, observations, or fixes of the various systems I have played.  I am writing today to change that.  As a companion to my Game Design Diary, I will also write a Dungeon Master’s Journal.  Here I will talk about D&D with a focus on tips for running the game, house rules, and maybe an occasional encounter or adventure idea.

With this first DMJ, I’d like to tackle an issue that came up in my group’s last session that brought the game to a crashing halt: Healing Surges.

The biggest problem with D&D3e was the imbalance of character classes.  At higher level, wizards were ridiculously powerful, able to unleash an arsenal of spells to devastate their foes while the rest of the party sat back and watched the fireworks. When the wizard’s spells were depleted, the party would rest, rinse, repeat. D&D4e did a great job of evening the playing field by creating different types of powers for each class (at-will, encounter, daily) that allow adventurers to forge ahead and continue adventuring even after many party resources are expended.

However, in solving one hinderance to the eight hour adventuring day, they introduced another in the form of healing surges.

For those of you unfamiliar with 4e, healing surges are a game mechanic that represent a character’s life force.  There are numerous powers and abilities that allow injured heroes to spend these healing surges enabling them to battle valiantly through the hordes of villainous ne’er-do-wells. The mechanic effectively recreates the exhausting toll hacking-monsters-to-shreds-all-day would take on one’s body, limiting the number of encounters heroes can safely handle before packing it in and resting for 8 hours. The adventurers in my group usually run out of surges after three or four encounters, then find a place to hole up and rest.

The dilemma regarding healing surges that surfaced last session was caused by both the urgent need for rest  and the necessity of haste as their target ran deeper into his  fortress.  On the one hand, if the party pushed valiantly onward, through several more encounters, to face the evil magister and foil his nefarious plans, they would certainly parish due to their diminished pool of healing surges. Conversely, stopping to rest for eight hours would give the villain an opportunity to redouble his defenses, replace lost guards or simply disappear off the map. Not to mention the simple fact that it just doesn’t make sense to stop and rest in the middle of such a situation.  It is an instance where a game mechanic can break the verisimilitude of the experience.

So what’s the solution? I have a few suggestions for house rules that might help the party in situations like this:

House Rule #1: The rule that I will implement in my game will replenish 1 healing surge per tier at each milestone (1 at heroic, 2 at paragon, 3 at epic). This will not only allow the party to handle more encounters before an extended rest, it will make milestones even more rewarding and create incentive to continue adventuring.

House Rule #2: Healing during short rest doesn’t use surges. This makes the use of healing surges a strictly tactical decision, made on the battlefield in the thick of an encounter.

House Rule #3: Get rid of healing surges all together! This extreme option would undermine the power of certain classes, particularly the cleric, but might be viable with certain party make-ups. Surge value would still be used for all powers that allow the use of healing surges, I would simply change the wording of all powers and effects to “regain hit points as if you had spent a healing surge.”

So what do you think? Are healing surges really the villain I make them out to be? Have you had similar issues in your own game? Do you have a different house rule to deal with the same problem? Leave a comment with your thoughts.