D&D’s Designers Can’t Decide Whether Characters Must Rest for Hit Points and Healing, but You Can Choose

In the original Dungeons & Dragons game, ordinary monster attacks inflicted just 1d6 damage. Yet characters still died, frequently. Clerics gained far fewer spells and much less healing than today, so most damage took a trip out of the dungeon to heal. Heroes mounted dungeon expeditions, fought as many battles as they dared, and then hoped their mapper could lead them to safety and healing.

To threaten full-strength characters in a climactic fight, monsters needed unique attacks that did massive damage, like a dragon’s breath weapon, or save-or-die effects like a beholder’s eye rays.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons granted clerics more healing spells, so characters entered more fights at full hit points, but damage still taxed resources that only a rest could regain. If the cleric squandered spells on something other than cures, the party hollered.

Third edition changed that equation. Without anyone ever needing to rest for spells or healing, characters could regain all their hit points after every fight.

A 2nd-level character who had gained the 900gp of treasure recommended in the Dungeon Master’s Guide could buy a 50-charge Wand of Cure Light Wounds for 750gp. At 2nd level, the party might share the cost. In just a few levels, characters gained enough gold to make buying in bulk a minor expense. Of course, dungeon masters could limit the purchase, but by 5th level, PCs stopped needing a magic shop. A cleric could take the Craft Wands feat and make wands at half price.

Third edition’s Living Greyhawk organized-play campaign enabled PCs to craft and purchase healing wands. Most characters bought Wands of Cure Light Wounds and loaned them to the party cleric for healing between battles.

In a standard third-edition campaign, savvy characters stopped needing rest to recover hit points.

Third edition’s designers probably overlooked how the low cost of healing wands would erase D&D’s 25-year-old limits on hit points and healing. The fourth-edition designers noticed. Their edition kept magic healing available for purchase, but also limited healing between rests. Rested characters gained a limited number of healing surges, and then healing magic let characters trade surges for healing. For example, healing potions just let characters spend a surge in the heat of battle. Fourth edition’s treatment of hit points and healing ranks as one of the edition’s best innovations.

At a glance, fifth edition seemed to keep D&D’s tradition of limiting hit points and healing between rests. This presumed limit made the introduction of the spell Healing Spirit seem like a game breaker. With a mere 2nd-level spell, everyone in the party could regain 10d6 hit points in just 1 minute. Casting at higher levels increases the healing, so a 3rd-level spirit could restore 20d6 to every PC in the party.

Blogger Merric Blackman summarized the concerns, “One of the major objections to the healing spirit spell is that it turns all the assumptions of hit point recovery in 5E on their head; suddenly we’re in a 3E-style game of ‘hit point loss isn’t important’ rather than the 5E-style of ‘hit point lost drains resources.’”

While Healing Spirit outshines other out-of-combat healing spells so much that druids need sunscreen, the spell doesn’t shatter any standing limits on healing. When the Player’s Handbook offered healing potions for sale for 50gp, the fifth-edition rules freed characters of any need to rest for healing or hit points. Unlike in early D&D, characters can buy potions. Unlike in fourth edition, potions work without a limit imposed by healing surges. Characters who gain a typical amount of treasure can easily afford all the potions they need. Most PCs gain tons of gold and have nowhere else to spend it.

Savvy characters can recover hit points without ever resting.

Dungeon masters who want to capture D&D’s original limits on hit points and healing between rests need to limit both healing potions and Healing Spirit. Such limits restore hit points and healing as a resource to manage through an adventuring day.

If you want to keep healing potions readily available for 50gp each, I suggest adopting a version of the fourth-edition limit: Drinking a potion lets characters spend a Hit Die for healing as if they had rested. To avoid doses that just heal a point or two, make potions heal an extra 1d4 hit points per Hit Die spent. Stronger potions spend more Hit Dice. With this house rule, make stronger healing potions for sale at higher prices. Although these potions spend hit dice, they still bring the advantage of granting healing in the heat of battle.

Potion of Healing
Potion, rarity varies

When you drink this potion, you spend hit dice up to the maximum listed on the Potions of Healing table. For each Hit Die spent in this way, the player rolls the die plus an extra 1d4, and then adds the character’s Constitution modifier to the rolls. The character regains hit points equal to the total.

Whatever its potency, the potion’s red liquid glimmers when agitated.

Potions of Healing

Potion of … Cost Spend up to …
Healing 50gp 1 Hit Die
Healing Moderate Wounds 300gp 2 Hit Dice
Healing Serious Wounds  750gp 3 Hit Dice
Healing Critical Wounds  1400gp 4 Hit Dice

Potions of Greater Healing, Superior Healing, and Supreme Healing can remain unchanged as long as they keep their rarity and only appear in treasure. These potions bring the precious advantage of healing without costing Hit Dice.

James Haeck listed a couple of house rules for limited Healing Spirit. For instance, designer Jeremy Crawford suggests having the spell end once it restores hit points a number of times equal to twice the caster’s spellcasting ability modifier.

Of course, none of these house rules apply to organized play. Authors who write adventures for the Adventurers League should expect characters to enter every fight at full health and to never run short of healing between battles.

This entry was posted in Advice, Role-playing game history and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to D&D’s Designers Can’t Decide Whether Characters Must Rest for Hit Points and Healing, but You Can Choose

  1. Teos Abadia says:

    An interesting aspect of 3E was that the reason for resting shifted from healing to buffs. Buff spells were supremely powerful, and if the party had reason to expect a fight they would spend time “buffing up” before even entering the room (so that you could spend all your actions on damage spells and attacking). This was a huge problem, because the game didn’t expect such buffing. I think very few designers realized the true impact of buffing at the time and how profoundly it ended up impacting game balance. A lot of the need for monsters to be ridiculously strong in 3E came from that need to counteract buffing.

    As with healing, 4E made huge innovations here, moving towards buffing that often was part of an attack (many warlord powers are good examples) or that had very short durations and/or were daily powers, so that pre-casting them didn’t help at all. All of that “until end of next turn” phrasing was a great way to get rid of the problem of buffing outside a room. One of the few areas where 4E didn’t limit this was with Temporary Hit Points, though those did not stack and would go away if you rested.

    3E did have a healing problem, in that there was a lot of “heal someone, they get hit, must heal them again.” Monsters often hit absurdly hard. Getting hit once or twice was likely, because the first two attacks had a strong to-hit bonus. The third (and sometimes fourth or more) attack had such a low bonus that it was unlikely to hit. If a strong melee monster could hit twice it might drop you. If it hit more than that, it might kill you. Because of that, we often said that the right AC was the one that blocked that third hit. And, because it was so hard to have a high enough AC to block the first two hits, many rounds saw the melee fighter go down, get healed, get back up, go down, etc. When a cleric didn’t heal the melee character, it could be disastrous because then the monster would go after another character and a TPK could take place. Clerics, however, often enjoyed being combat monkeys. Those that did could take 2-3 rounds powering up, during which time they gave no healing at all. They might even power up… just to find the combat was already over and their self-buffing wasn’t needed.

    4E again fixed these issues, granting powers combining healing with attacking and limiting self-buffs so that such problems weren’t common.

    5E seems to have maintained those 4E corrections. Very few buffs are problematic in that 3E sense. I do agree that healing potions are problematic, though I think most home campaigns can address it. Even in AL, where for a while there were some parties with an insane number of potions, there are now more uses for gold. Having those uses has quickly moved players away from stockpiling endless potions, because they now fear that something cool will come along and they will need that gold to get it.

    I do like your ideas around potions using Hit Dice. A question, though… how does it interact with healing and hit dice? Currently, when a long rest is taken you don’t usually get back all of your hit dice. Would this then also limit using healing potions?

    • David Hartlage says:

      Hi Teos,
      Thanks for sharing these stories of how 3E came to be played. Your description of the strategies that developed fascinate me. I never played the edition enough to get such deep insights.

      My suggestion for healing potions would let characters spend hid dice just as they do during a short rest. The games rules for recovering hit dice during a long rest would apply.

      I’m curious about why the designers chose to have characters recover up to half their hit dice during a long rest. Characters almost never bump up against the limit, especially with so many more efficient ways to heal. I suspect that many players don’t even realize that after a long rest, characters only get back half their hit dice.


  2. I think when comparing the old healing vs the new healing one should take spellcasting and Spell slots vs the Vancian magic system used in the older editions. You touch on this before jumping into healing through readily available items which negates the need for spellcasting healing to be accounted for.

    AD&D clerics as well as magic users had to pick their specific spells to use so if we wanted three Cure Light Wounds, we had to memorize three Cure Light Wounds. The benefit clerics had over magic users was access to every spell on the list not just the ones they had encountered/learned.

    In 3rd edition it was introduced for good clerics to drop prepared spells to “spontaneously” cast an equivalent healing spell. (Evil clerics also had the option to drop spells for “harm” spells as well).

    The spell slot system allows a great degree of flexibility that previous clerics (and now magic users too) did not have before. If a cleric has a Cure Light Wounds prepared that’s likely enough. They can fit it into any open slot they have so they can use it in a high slot of needed during combat or afterwards they can mend the party using slots left over. This leaves the cleric free to select and use multiple non-healing spells with largely no repercussions.

    I’m not saying one is better than the other but that as you point out, changes were made that affected available healing, possibly changes whose full effects could not be foreseen.

  3. I really like this hack – will have to try it. It seems to address a perceived need to increase the importance of hit dice as well as the “Get to 6” that’s been floating around. It also scales by class, so there is parity on class use.

    • If you’re concerned about rolling 1s and 2s (which will still revive an unconscious character), I would suggest simply using (Avg. hit points for HD) + Con bonus for each level of the potion – particularly if that’s what your PCs are using for their Hit Points. Less exciting (read: random) than die rolls.

      • Shane Vaillancourt says:

        Or ,go the other way and balance with more randomness. Counteract the uselessness of rolling a 1 or 2 with an exploding 4.

  4. Robert says:

    I really like your idea about Potions allowing you to spending hit dice instead of just restoring hit points. That’s the kind of house rule that encourages the kind of gritty, “resource management is important and damage matters” feel I like in my game. I will probably be using that.

  5. S'mon says:

    Hm… I think I’d either disallow this spell or make the healing a Reaction.
    Re healing potions, I roll 2d4 each session for the number available.

  6. Alfred Smith says:

    My solution for the healing potions (at least early on) “Broomhilda’s Benevolent Brews has 12 of them on the shelves. No she doesn’t have more in the back. She has some excellent whiskey if you’re interested in that”

    Obviously this only works if the party isn’t in a big city, but most of my games lately have focused on helping to build up a small frontier village into a thriving settlement.

  7. Shadowspawn says:

    While I can understand the point of view expressed here, I see it as more of a DM thing than players. DMs need to look at the game they’re running and see what they can do to challenge the players (taking into account their capabilities).

    The most memorable experience I’ve had was during a game put on by a friend. I entered the game in the second session (clearing out a goblin fortress) as a Gnome Druid (3.5E) and the big bad was a Barghest that had taken the form of a hobgoblin (to draw the goblins). As I didn’t have any weapon capable of doing much damage not did I have that much in the way of spellcasting, I settled into a support role which allowed the stronger characters to get AoOs to drop it. Later, we took down harpies (with my Kelpstrands causing consternation) and ended up facing a young white dragon (I’m not sure of the age, but it wasn’t anything horribly old). It attacked us while we were sailing somewhere (it ate the captain) and we had little recourse in our combat options (Wizard had fire spells available, a few had bows, etc.)…so I stood out on deck with a flask of Alchemist’s Fire and took out a wing as it neared. After it dragged the Dwarven Warrior overboard, we chased it to its lair where its aura overcame everyone…except me and the Wizard. With no healing forthcoming, the two tank characters out of action (Dwarf was in a hole, the other Fighter was running scared), and some horrible attack rolls with my Flaming Sphere (it seriously didn’t hit in the entire fight), we somehow scraped out a win.

    Ultimately, though, the DM needs to be aware of the party and what they can do and craft encounters around that; after all, the rulebooks just give the guidelines…it’s up to the worldbuilder to control the game.

  8. Neil says:

    Love the walk down memory lane. Clerics have always gotten a bad rap. for being weak. I’ve always liked them.
    My response to healing between battle is during a short rest each character gets ONE hit die to use. Plus CON bonus. Long rest gets all remaining Hit Dice not used.
    Puts a limit on the heal-everything b.s. a long rest provides.

  9. Ol' Greg says:

    I’ve been playing 5e for a few years now, and never have I encountered a DM that allows the party to just buy Health Potions in whatever quantity. If you want to buy them, you have to find the right shop, and even then there are only ever 1 or 2 available in stock. This seems like a much simpler solution than messing with the mechanics of the game.

    • FuGeniusRy says:

      Adventurer’s League allows you to buy anything on the Adventuring Gear equipment in any quantity you like

  10. I mean you can impose strict limitations on how gridding works. Only 2 medium creatures can occupy a 5ft square, so you can limit the number of party members a druid can heal by forcing them to only heal up to 2 party members at a time; again, costing them (a lower levels) a valuable second level spell slot for what would be ample healing, yes, but not in any way game-breaking. Casting healing spirit can potentially be broken out of combat assuming the druid hasn’t already burned their spell slots. And again all this if assuming your party even has a druid in it. In the last 6 campaigns I’ve played in there has been 1 druid. And the campaign he was in was before any of us had access to Xanathar’s so he didn’t take that spell.

    This wasn’t supposed to be an “in defense of 5e” kind of post, but if you’re so worried about healing items being an abused resource then just make them scarce. Sure it doesn’t help with Adventurer’s League but I always found official TSR adventures to be dry with only a few exceptions (Red Hand of Doom, Night Below, Against the Cult of the Reptile God).

  11. As a player who learned with 5e, I can honestly say this is the first article i’ve read that has something (anything) positive about 4e.

  12. Shane Vaillancourt says:

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that worrying about out of combat healing is a little misplaced to begin with.

    There isn’t all that much of a difference between saying “Ok, I cast healing spirit, the whole party is healed”, “ok, we all chug potion after potion until the whole party is healed”, and “Ok, we’ll hole up here in this tiny hut until the whole party is healed.” Is there?

    Actually, spending 12 hours waiting until you can take your next long rest might be better than spending slots on a spell or good on potions.

    If your party wants to spend resources to fully heal up all the time, you’ll either have to let them, or adjust.

    Maybe I’m just being obtuse here, but I don’t see how any of the methods are better or worse or more difficult to adjust to than any other method.

    • wefwef says:

      There’s actually a pretty huge difference. 12 hours sleeping off all damage might mean the bad guys ready a defence and become much more impenetrable. 12 hours allows for wandering baddies to happen across you and completely ruin your sleep and thus your healing, AND possibly give you some more HP scars to boot.

      D&D in its original incarnation was built around risk, such as happening upon a monster while going from point A to Dungeon A. Or having those monsters happen upon YOU as you sleep,.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTD2RZz6mlo&list=PLlUk42GiU2guNzWBzxn7hs8MaV7ELLCP_&index=2 If you watch his videos, he says that you should have an element of risk in walking to and from places. Maps shouldnt exist, or should possibly be inaccurate.

      In original D&D, there were rules based on the Wildnerness Adventure game which was bound to Chainmail to make a “complete D&D game”, in which you could actually ROLL to get LOST in direction. Delays in time mean using up FOOD and LIGHT resources.

      Sure, 12 hours sleeping is as meaningless as spamming potions… if you’re not using rules for resource management of food and water. If you’re suspending time for all the rest of the people in the fantasy world so that monsters just freeze in place until your PCs get up from their 12 hour nap, so they arent accosted in the night, so the baddies don’t have a chance to use that 12 hours to regroup and go on a hunting expedition for the PCs with a superior, deadly force.

      Consider the following. If the PCs try to sleep, but are interrupted by an attack, why would they NOT start taking fatigue hits, lowering their abilities?

      Finishing a long rest reduces exhaustion level by 1. I cant find any had cut rule for exhaustion past “forced march” of more than 8 hours moving, but lets assume that you need to ‘long rest’ once every 24 hours, so if you go 24 hours you tick up one level of exhaustion. Realistically, you’d start taking that at hour 16, and it would get worse about every 4-6 hours (trust me, I know how it works in reality).

      I hope you don’t run games where the PCs can simply spend weeks on end endlessly moving, fighting, etc, while chugging potions?

  13. sean h says:

    This kind of thing is why I prefer to only play oldschool D&D

    • S'mon says:

      There were some broken spells back then too, eg 2e AD&D Stoneskin.

    • wefwef says:

      I agree. 1e AD&D is probably the best game of the D&D series. Its a shame they aren’t trying to keep it going. They could have multiple variants of D&D for different audiences. Instead they axe old D&D production (which is really just printing the books I guess), and axe creation of more product for old D&D because “old is bad, new is good” consumerist reasoning.

      • Simon says:

        I think WoTC’s 1e reprints are still on sale. They did write a new 1e adventure as a prequel to the Slave Lords series to make the reprint into an adventure path.
        Of course we also have the OSR with OSRIC being a faithful 1e retro clone, Swords & Wizardry Complete models 0e immediately before 1e and is well supported by Frog God.

  14. Pingback: Sensor Sweep: REH Guide, The High Crusade, Pulp Revolution, D&D, King Kong – castaliahouse.com

  15. wefwef says:

    Simple video/TT game rule #1. If anything in game exists to counteract negatives, you have two choices. You can either make it a game of chronic upkeep to fight a tide of taxation on resources, making something a necessity, or it could be an unnecessary extravagance which would make the game a cakewalk, at which point players will simply take advantage of it to make the game as easy as possible because why not?

    If healing potions exist, they must either fill a role that prevents characters from just dying off in the wildlands or dungeons, which they would do so without these potions, OR they fill a role of causing a tough game to be easy by just throwing in game currency at the problem endlessly.

    Healing potions are either a necessity for survival, or they imbalance the game towards effortless survival for PCs.

    • Simon says:

      Best to keep anything like that a limited resource on more than one axis – eg healing potions cost both money and time. For my 5e game (healing potion cures 2d4+2) usually the local temple produces 2d4 a week at 50gp each, while a PC with the right skills can produce one a week for 25gp. A wizard or cleric with the right magic formula could make 5 a week at 50gp each but I’ve not seen this done. My games use strict timekeeping with normally 1 week between dungeon delves so time is not an unlimited resource.
      Putting those elements together, healing potions are useful, not vital, and definitely don’t trivialise the game. At higher levels they are not very important but they give low level PCs an edge, in return for sucking up funds.

  16. Pingback: Would Dungeons & Dragons Play Better If It Stayed Loyal to How Gary Gygax Awarded Hit Points? | DMDavid

Leave a Reply