Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Philosophy of the Healing Surge

The debate should be over by now. At this point, you either like 4e or you don't, and h4ters shouldn't waste their time ranting about it any more. Pretty much everything that's going to be said, has been said. But I still keep coming across threads where people complain about surges and compare 4e to MMOs. So I'd like to respond with a rant of my own.

When 4e was released, one of the biggest complaints from the grognards involved the healing surges. "You can heal yourself freely!" they shouted, without fully researching their claims. "You're health goes back up when you rest! That's too much like a video game!" they whined, condemning the new system without even playing it first.

I think the problem comes with the idea that Hit Points represent life. Here's a quote from the Fourth Edition Player's Handbook (page 293):
"Hit points (hp) measure your ability to stand up to punishment, turn deadly strikes into glancing blows, and stay on your feet throughout a battle. Hit points represent more than physical endurance. They represent your character’s skill, luck, and resolve—all the factors that combine to help you stay alive in a combat situation."

...but if you really want to simplify it, just think of it as stamina. Remember, in real life, it only takes one hit to kill you. But an experienced warrior spends the entire battle fending off that one lethal blow, relying on his skill to dodge and block oncoming hits. When he finally runs out of hit points, that means he didn't have the energy to block that last hit, or wasn't quick enough to duck that last arrow. The last hit point is the one that nicks the jugular, pierces the heart, or bashes the brain.

I'd even go as far as to say that until the first time you're bloodied (1/2 max hp), nothing's even broken the skin. Until then all your enemy's blows have glanced off your armor, sapping your endurance but not actually harming you. After that the attacks actually begin to hurt, but you're still alert enough to keep your squishy parts protected.

So, once per battle you can spend your Second Wind, regaining a bit of your stamina as you seize a little respite and catch your breath. Between battles, you get a bit of that energy back, as you rest your muscles and bandage your minor cuts and burns. But you can only do that so many times per day before you absolutely have to sleep, which is why there's a limit to healing surges per day. And remember, those of you who think 4e has "free healing", once you run out of surges, even healing potions don't work.

I think it's the best of both worlds. Some people have always wanted a system where you fight worse when injured. After all, if you get hit in the leg, you should be slowed, right? And if you get hit in the arm, shouldn't your swings be weaker? But realistically, that would make D&D too difficult. If you're already losing, you don't want the battle to get even harder. It would be too much like Monopoly (the most unbalanced board game ever created): whoever starts out winning is usually the one who wins the game, because it's so hard to come back once you're at a disadvantage. But 4e is similar philosophically if not mechanically... the more hit points (aka stamina) you lose, the easier it is to get whacked by that death blow, because you're too weak to block it.

Doesn't that make more sense than a "life" number? Why not just give your character little hearts like The Legend of Zelda? It drives me crazy that the ones who preferred previous editions, where hit points acted like Gauntlet, are the same ones complaining that 4e is too much like a video game.

Plus, the stamina/skill/luck definition of hit points also explains minions. One-hit kobolds don't seem so strange when you're at first level. But later in your career, you might start to wonder why the Ogre Bludgeoneers (Level 16 Minion) only take one hit to kill. Do they actually have less "life" than other Ogres? Of course not. It's actually due to one of my favorite tropes, the Conservation of Ninjutsu. When the hero of our story is swarmed by an army of ninjas, he manages to take one out with every swing of his sword. But when he faces that single last ninja, you know you're in for a long bloody fight.

It's not that these Ogre minions are thinner-skinned than their tougher partners. It's not that they have less blood or whatever other measure of "life" the grognards think people have. It's simply that they're not as skilled in battle. They haven't learned how to block their vital areas, and they're easily tricked into revealing their weak spots. If a PC hits a minion, they hit them in a lethal spot. These are the ninjas our hero managed to throat-slash and groin-stab as he waded through the swarm on the way to the boss.

So in short, you can debate all you want about whether or not the surge system is better, but DO NOT tell me that surges makes 4e more like a video game, then turn around and tell me you preferred the old "life meter" system. Because I will laugh at you and take your lunch money.

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