The Imagery of Healing Surges

2010 April 5
by Stupid Ranger

Friday night D&D.  We’re venturing through the Howling Warrens of the Underdark.  Our first two skirmishes of the evening were brief and painless, but the two Oni we faced took a bit more out of us.  We all survived, but we definitely needed some healing.  And that’s when the crazy set in.

(Only character names are referenced to protect innocent — or not — players.)

Tali – Have you ever thought about what a healing surge looks like?  I always think of it like this. Then she demonstrated her healing surge; it involved tense muscles and grunting, and some at the table commented that she might be giving birth instead of healing.

Atka – I always think of it like the video games.  You just glow a little and feel better.

Eaerenel (me) – I imagine little stars dancing around me until I feel better.

The guys in the group neglected to comment on their image of healing surges.

In the end, even though it was a funny sort of conversation, it did get me to think.  4E has a lot of flavor text to make the technical aspects blend with the roleplaying aspect.  It’s pretty easy to imagine — and describe — how your spells looks when it hits its target or how your sword slashes through the air to harm your enemy.  Self-healing?  That’s a little harder.

If you’re looking to add a little flavor to your roleplaying, consider one of your most basic character features.  What does your healing surge look like?  Try bringing that imagery to life with your character, whether it’s with a second wind during combat or during your five-minute rest.  It’s a great little challenge that can add a extra flavor to your game.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. April 5, 2010

    How about d.) All of the above? I’d say that what a healing surge is depends on who’s granting it. The glow theory works Joe divine or arcane surges. The child birth theory works for self-granted (second wind) or martial surges. Bandagingand other first aid would best describe self-granted surges during a short rest.

    Incidentally, this discussion applies equally to the imagery I associate with saves, granted or otherwise.

  2. April 5, 2010

    I’ve always told my player’s about 1/3 of their HP total represented the actual vital bits of blood, bone, and muscle that kept you together. The rest were more spirit and endurance. Take a few whacks and you are likely feeling more sore than actual physical damage. In that light, I see healing surges as just a grim determination to keep pushing on. I agree that being descriptive helps tons with making the game exciting, yet with healing surges I keep them pretty unspectacular.

  3. April 6, 2010

    I appreciate healing surges for what they do in the game (keep it going), but sometimes I have a problem with the realization of it. Yeah, I know I’m playing a fantasy game, but sometimes I need a bit of realism.

    I really do like, though, when a player says, “We take a few minutes and apply some healing salves, and wrap our injuries in the cleanest cloth we have.” Something like that might even grant a bonus surge.


  4. April 6, 2010

    Rob Bodine’s got the right idea, I think. My small group of PCs consists of two martial characters (a warforged fighter and a halfling rogue) and one human artificer. The warforged fighter often describes his second wind or warforged resolve as a quick “field repair” — slapping a plate back into place, a few quick readjustments, etc. The halfling’s second wind (and his majestic word multiclass power) are usually reassurances or inspirational shouts, even to himself. The artificer’s healing powers are very different, usually with much more ‘magical’ special effects depending on what he’s doing; but even his second wind usually looks magical.

    If someone like Tourq is really having trouble with the idea of healing surges, it might be helpful to have them keep a rough track of the injury descriptions his/her PC suffers. Took a nasty gash across the chest when that creature bloodied you? Maybe that’s the wound the cleric’s healing patched up. Hurt leg from an attack that slowed you? The warlord’s inspiring word isn’t a generic shout of encouragement — it steels you for the pain of the moment when you have to snap your dislocated knee back into place. (Note that this will also encourage players to describe the effects of their other powers and actions, which is also a good thing.)

    I know some people have a problem with the “granularity” of healing surges — “Why can I only be healed so much in one day?” they ask. Giving good descriptions of the moment of healing helps to explain it — eventually, sheer exhaustion kicks in, and those internal reserves that kept the PC going have simply run dry.

  5. April 6, 2010

    @Saragon: FYI, Dragon Age RPG has an interesting mechanic that can help explain the question of, “Why can I only be healed so much in one day?” In DA, you can receive non-magical healing to repair injuries, and the amount of healing you receive is random. You can’t, then, go back and heal again until you’ve taken more damage. Why? Because the injuries you’ve already received can’t be made better by simply changing the bandage. (In the real world, that would help fight off infection, but that’s additional damage in and of itself, rather than extra healing.)

    I’m not suggesting that WotC made a mistake in adopting its healing mechanic; in the end it’s more about balance than realism. I’m just pointing out a possible explanation you can give your players for why healing is limited, whether from first aid, magic, inspiration, or alchemy. Basically, the body and/or mind can take only so much “medicine” in a period of time before having to just relax for a bit.

  6. April 6, 2010

    @Rob Bodine: That last sentence is an excellent point. Sometimes healing effects just have to take time to work. Which can provide a partial explanation for the “healing back up to full HP and healing surges” effect of an extended rest — that rest gives all the assorted alchemical potions, lingering magical effects, bandages, etc. time to do their job, alongside the body’s natural healing processes.

  7. Danny permalink
    April 6, 2010

    I think adding the “Healing” part to “Healing Surge” has sort of mucked things up in people’s heads in regards to how to think of this stuff. A healing surge doesn’t make an arm that’s been cut off come back, or cure diseases you’ve contracted, or anything else that taking an extended rest wouldn’t heal in any other edition of D&D, it just lets you keep on fighting. I see no reason you have to imagine that someone’s wounds are stitching themselves up or anything. It’s just the character finding the strength to keep fighting–which is why simply being inspired by a Warlord or catching your second wind is enough to grant you the use of a healing surge.

    I would say that true healing, like where wounds close on their own or lost limbs return, is reserved for rituals, roleplaying encounters with medics, or at least some form of magical healing. And probably wouldn’t be done in battle 99% of the time.

  8. Saragon permalink
    April 6, 2010

    @Danny — you’re right in that, especially for martial characters, “healing surges” don’t need to involve any sort of magic or even any sort of true healing. Unfortunately, a lot of 4e’s leader classes have healing powers whose flavor makes this very, very hard. The cleric’s healing word, the artificer’s healing infusion, the ardent’s ardent surge, and the runepriest’s rune of mending all have flavor text that describe their healing powers with “magical special effects”; and even if you ignore the default flavor text the nature of these classes naturally implies magical or supernatural healing. The ability to magic that sort of magic happen is inherent to each of those classes.

    I don’t think it’s a bad thing one way or another — I consistently ignore the default flavor text on powers in favor of my own, and encourage my players to completely rename and redescribe powers to suit the character they’re playing. But healing in battle with any of these classes — essentially any non-martial leader save the shaman — implies magical healing, right then and there. I suspect that this is why the martial party continues to intrigue me; just as those leader classes imply those magical special effects, martial leaders’ healing powers imply that gritty, old-school, Conan-esque sort of adventuring you seem to find appealing.

  9. April 7, 2010

    Often times my players neglect to describe their healing surges, so more often than not I do it for them. I try to string it along into some kind of continuity.

    If a player is bloodied before he takes his surge I say that “You wipe the sweat from your brow, spit out a tooth and then chuckle softly as you hold your sword with renewed confidence…”

    If a player was knocked prone and she spends a move action to get up before taking a second wind, I say “You get up, brush the dirt from your shoulders and crack your neck. You’ve shrugged off greater things during the War.”

    If the person spends her last healing surge and the enemy is close to dead I tell them that “Through sheer force of will you pull yourself together. Now, your survival hinges on these next few seconds.”

  10. Stupid Ranger permalink*
    April 7, 2010

    Lots of great comments & recommendations! Thanks to everyone for contributing. 🙂

  11. April 26, 2010

    I love the idea of Healing Surges, just not the idea that you heal all wounds after sleeping for six hours. That’s probably my only gripe. I don’t know, sometimes I want a bit more realism in my land of frolicking fairies.

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