Demascus coughed up grit. He tried to spit, but his mouth was too dry. Why was it so dark? He shook his head to clear his brain fog. Where was he? He remembered fighting a drow matron and . . . a dragon. Then a death-dealing amount of rock had dropped on his head.
He couldn’t see anything. Something pinned his legs, and his hands were with sticky with his own blood. The air was thick, not just with dust, and each breath felt like a foot on his chest. The air’s turning bad, he realized. But if he didn’t find some surcease from his wounds, how quickly he’d suffocate would be academic . . .
A few of my previous blogs touched on magical healing in the game. Based on the discussions those and other blogs engendered, today’s discussion focuses on the idea of the resilient hero.
In the situation above, Demascus’s ability to bounce back from wounds is all-important, because he’s alone. No healer or other supernatural agency seems likely to rescue him before he dies of his wounds or his air goes bad. If this story was playing out within the confines of a D&D game, the edition in which it occurs makes a big difference as to how likely Demascus is to survive.
Above and beyond the nature of negative hit points, as discussed in  A Close Call with Negative Hit Points, a character’s survival chances also depend on rules for natural healing (or in other words, a character’s access to self-healing).
Earlier editions of D&D are especially stingy with options for characters to heal themselves naturally. In this way, they simulate real-world recovery time from trauma. For instance, the 1st Edition Advanced Player’s Handbook indicates that for each day of rest, a character naturally heals 1 hit point. In these games, reliance on magic is really the only way to be a resilient hero.
Later editions provide more options, such as the 3rd edition’s Heal skill. But even with long term care, each full day’s worth of bed rest provides only 4 hit points for a wounded character. Magic remains the best way to bounce back into the action.
The current edition introduced the concept of healing surges. Healing surges provide every character an ability to get their second wind, so to speak, several times per day (but not an unlimited number of times). The benefit, of course, is that 4th edition allows for games that have resilient heroes that don’t rely so heavily on magical healing. To some extent, this approach removes simulation in favor of portraying heroes who can take a licking but are able to keep coming back for more. However, healing surges have suffered some criticism in that they feel a little too “game-y” and not grounded enough in the world. In fact, such criticism has come even from the many players who enjoy having personal access to self-healing.
Which leads me to my questions for today.
Question 1: What kind of access should player characters have to self-healing?
Characters shouldn’t gain any special access to self healing.
Characters should have access to limited self healing.
Characters should have access to unlimited self healing.
Question 2: In a game that provides limited access to self healing, which do you prefer?
I like healing surges just fine, don’t go changing.
I like the idea of self-healing, but try something more organic to D&D.
I have a different opinion I’ll explain in the comments.