I think that healing surges in D&D 4th Edition are too limited as they are written. Putting my thoughts about having them overall aside (which I talked about in a previous post) if we must have them, I wish they did more. Part of this is from my experience of running D&D 4th Edition where all of the characters ended the action-packed session with most of their healing surges unspent – except for the defender, who had used all but 4 of his. I also like fiddling with systems to make them more fun for me to play and run.
It is implied that a healing surge represents a bit of extra effort – one recommendation in the DMG is that you have failed skill challenges in the wild cost healing surges, representing the party getting banged up and having to spend some of their reserves recovering. I’d like to go further, however, and shoe-horn in a but of the Action Points of the previous edition. I like systems that give the players a way to give one roll more “weight” than another – a way to say “as a player, I want this roll to be more likely to succeed, or to e more baddass if it does succeed”. This gives players some say in creating drama when they want it, even in a traditional game like D&D where the DM comes with a bag-full of “story” which is unloaded on the players, who function as a participatory audience.
So, instead of healing surges, let’s just call them “surges” – they could be surges of adrenaline, or surges of inspiration, or surges of willpower, or whatever. You get the same number of them per day as is listed for healing surges in the PHB, but there’s more you can do with them. What a surge represents is extra oomph, extra effort, loaded into an action. In combat, these surges can be used to catch a second wind just as written. Some powers require that they be spent or lost in order for the character to benefit from them. All that remains the same as written for healing surges.
In addition, (1) you can spend a surge to add a d6 to any d20 roll you make. You have to choose before you make the roll, but it can give you just the little edge you need. (2) You can also spend a surge to add one die to a damage roll of the same type you’re rolling anyway – just like the first use, this is a little extra oomph, and you can spend this surge after you know whether the attack roll succeeds or not. Lastly, (3) you can spend a surge to “fail forward“. If you fail a roll that means catastrophe for your character, you can spend the surge and move the bad news one step back. Instead of dead, your character is unconscious from damage. Instead of in a horrible spot, your character is dangling by their fingertips. The requirement here is that your character must require outside assistance to get out of their predicament. This solves the problem of succeed-or-die skill rolls, and also pulls at least one other player-character into the fun you’re having…