I think it’s safe to say that OSR gamers aren’t big fans of 4th Edition D&D, and one of the (many) complaints about it seems to be that healing surges are a terrible idea. We can see this objection floating around in connection with D&D Next, which has retained them and therefore must be a terrible game.

I think they’re actually very consistent with a Gygaxian approach to hit points and combat. Here is Gygax on hit points (courtesy of Dragonsfoot):

It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage – as indicated by constitution bonuses- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the “sixth sense” which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection. Therefore, constitution affects both actual ability to withstand physical punishment hit points (physique) and the immeasurable areas which involve the sixth sense and luck (fitness).

I read this explanation when I was 15 or 16 and it’s always made perfect sense to me (though I prefer systems where physical frailty is built in, like Rolemaster or Warhammer, rather than this style of abstraction). In fact, this is the only way one can possibly explain away the basic multiplicative mechanics of hps in D&D:

  • A fighter can go from 1 hp at first level (killable from any dagger blow) to 11 at second level (killable with two good sword blows). How is that possible from a small improvement in skill level?
  • This reduction in killability applies to everyone and continues to 9th level, where a fighter can conceivably be hit 8 or 10 times with a longsword and just keep coming
  • Rounds are 1 minute long, and it’s ludicrous to think that each PC gets a single attack only in that round – so the damage they do can’t reflect a single simple physical hit

But if this is so, then healing surges of the kind used in 4th Edition D&D are perfectly consistent with this old school approach to hit points. After the battle, the PCs stop to take stock and through various means they recover some of their luck, divine blessing and poise – the fighter regains his courage and combat poise, so he’s better able to take advantage of small breaks when the next fight starts. The priest prays to her gods and gains a little favour, as well as a few blessings to take the worst sting off the bruises; the thief takes a piss and a small tupple of gin, and his sixth sense is restored. All of them adjust their codpieces (well, I suppose the priest doesn’t) and tighten shield straps – it’s the little things that count, after all – and put a fresh steak on an old bruise. All of that in total is a healing surge. Similarly, mid-combat, one can take a standard action to regain a bit of poise – stepping back to take a breather, reassess the situation, say a brief prayer, gird one’s loins, or recover one’s footing before reentering the fray.

The healing surge is entirely consistent with the old school abstraction of HPs. Jeff Rients, one of the OSRs luminaries, had the chance to recognize this the other day but his response was a simple “What I am against is another abstraction sitting on top of the original abstraction.” How does that work? The entire system is an abstraction – how can any objection to abstractions be anything but arbitrary? And in this case the abstraction fits very nicely with the original. In fact, it’s the original abstraction that jars – if you look at the history of the game’s development, there’s always been a tension between the Gygaxian vision of hit points and the way other parts of the rules operationalize it, as well as the way player’s implicitly understand hit points. Healing spells are universally presented as repairing physical damage, and they scale up according to the HPs of the fighter. Cure Serious Wounds is not called Regain Poise or Reassess Tactical Objectives, is it? And maximum damage for melee weapons is clearly constrained to represent seriousness of the physical damage such a weapon might be expected to deliver. If HPs were really an abstraction, a fighter would be able to do equal amounts of damage no matter what weapon he or she used.

If you look through OSR blogs and documents you’ll very quickly get a sense of a genre in which PC death is meant to be easy and there is no easy recovery from physical damage. Objections to healing surges, fate points and the like tend to be heavily biased towards this view. This is an approach to hit points that I favour, but it’s inconsistent with the practical mechanics of the HP system in D&D, demanding as it does an assumption of super-heroism for fighters and clerics that is inconsistent with the OSR vision of PCs as grotty realists; and it is also inconsistent with the original conception of HPs as stated in the rules. The practical result of properly implementing Gygax’s vision of one minute rounds and abstract HPs is that no one should ever receive more than one action per round, haste spells should confer no additional attacks, and healing surges should be routinely implemented in all early versions of D&D.