D&D 5E Does “Whack-A-Mole” Healing really happen in games?

Does “whack-a-mole” healing really happen?


Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Supporter
Or not. My anecdotal experience is probably skewed; for the vast majority of it, I have been the DM and I don’t shy away from attacking PCs while they’re down if it makes sense in the moment (and for the creature doing the attacking). I’m pretty confident in assuming that’s not a universal approach.

Attacking PCs while they are down (which I do as well when it makes sense) does not discourage whack-a-mole healing. If anything, it encourages it.

For example: if I figure the monster is going to attack a downed ally, my bard pretty much HAS TO cast healing word on the downed character to prevent that character from getting two auto failed death saves and/or possible dying. Yes, the character is probably going to get immediately knocked out again, but that's fine - they are alive. If I hadn't momentarily revived them, they'd be dead.

If I'm a mid-level bard I have the level 1 slots to keep that game up for like 4 rounds:

1. Monster hits my ally and knocks them out
2. I revive the ally and hit the monster with vicious mockery
3. Ally is up, either tries to disengage or kill the monster
4. Monster hits my ally and knocks them out
5. I revive the ally and hit the monster with vicious mockery
Wash, rinse, repeat

OR
1. Monster hits my ally and knocks them out
2. Ally makes their first death saving throw
3. I revive the ally and hit the monster with vicious mockery
4. Monster hits my ally and knocks them out
5. Ally makes their first death saving throw
6. I revive the ally and hit the monster with vicious mockery
Wash, rinse, repeat

Strategically, it works. After four rounds of that, one of two things will happen:
A. The monster dies or flees because I wear it down with vicious mockery and/or my ally hits it during one of their brief moments of consciousness
B. The monster finally whiffs on the ally and the ally is able to retreat to safety during one of their brief moments of consciousness

The monster (depending on how bright it is) spends up to four consecutive rounds trying with variable success to accomplish the dubious goal of making my ally roll one death save. A smart monster will figure out what's going on and probably turn their attention to me - but in that case my whack-a-mole strategy has still succeeded in the intended goal of keeping my ally from dying.

The strategy of "keep healing them so they don't get knocked down in the first place", generally speaking, doesn't work in 5E because healing magic simply can't keep pace with damage in that way. Unless you are only running one or two encounters and then allowing a long rest.
 
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Siriak

Explorer
I honestly don't see the situation that the original poster described (waiting until someone drops to 0 hp to heal them) very often at all. In fact, I really don't see that many people playing clerics in 5e. They party I usually play will use potions and class abilities to keep from getting to close to 0 hp. When someone hits 0 hp, it is a noteworthy event.
 

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Supporter
Also worth noting - the mechanics of the Grave Domain cleric actually actively encourage whack-a-mole healing. The Grave cleric's healing spells are automatically maxed when cast on a creature with zero hit points.
 

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Supporter
I honestly don't see the situation that the original poster described (waiting until someone drops to 0 hp to heal them) very often at all. In fact, I really don't see that many people playing clerics in 5e. They party I usually play will use potions and class abilities to keep from getting to close to 0 hp. When someone hits 0 hp, it is a noteworthy event.

Can depend on party composition and availability of potions. Earlier this year, I finished (as a player) a two-and-a-half year Tomb of Annihilation campaign, which the DM ran more or less by the book. For most of the campaign, the party was bard, druid, warlock, rogue (druid and warlock died in final dungeon & replacement characters were brought it).

In the majority of combat encounters in the campaign, at least one character was dropped to zero hit points - often, more than one, or one character more than once in the same encounter.
 

Stalker0

Legend
Worst I saw it was in a final campaign fight. One player kept going down, but with potion uses was brought back up 5 times to still deliver pain continuously in the fight.

The player later admitted that though they were happy to be in the fight it was pretty darn silly.
 


Rune

Once A Fool
In pretty much any encounter worth having.
The implication being that combat encounters that pose little or no risk to life or resources are not worth having?

If so, I must say I find that implication bewildering; every bit of my practical experience as a DM reinforces the philosophy that a campaign’s pacing requires that some combats are not just simple, but actually trivial.

These give the players a chance to flex (briefly) without expending resources. Importantly, they also highlight the set-piece combats by providing contrasting points of reference for the players, thus making the set-piece encounters feel all the more epic.

If everything is always a challenge, the campaign is essentially a treadmill (and, in my experience, feels like it).
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
No because virtually every game I run or play in has a glamour bard, and with all those temporary HP, nobody ever drops to 0.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
The implication being that combat encounters that pose little or no risk to life or resources are not worth having?

If so, I must say I find that implication bewildering; every bit of my practical experience as a DM reinforces the philosophy that a campaign’s pacing requires that some combats are not just simple, but actually trivial.

These give the players a chance to flex (briefly) without expending resources. Importantly, they also highlight the set-piece combats by providing contrasting points of reference for the players, thus making the set-piece encounters feel all the more epic.

If everything is always a challenge, the campaign is essentially a treadmill (and, in my experience, feels like it).
I tend to agree with the idea, but the actual combat rules take too long to bother with unless there’s actual risk and resource loss involved. For those trivial flex encounters I just use minions (one-shot kills) or more often tell the players to describe what they’re doing and don’t bother with rolls. My reasoning being, if it’s so trivial that there’s no risk and no loss of resources, then it’s too trivial to bother engaging with the combat rules and potentially eating up 30 minutes to an hour of table time.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
The implication being that combat encounters that pose little or no risk to life or resources are not worth having?

If so, I must say I find that implication bewildering; every bit of my practical experience as a DM reinforces the philosophy that a campaign’s pacing requires that some combats are not just simple, but actually trivial.

These give the players a chance to flex (briefly) without expending resources. Importantly, they also highlight the set-piece combats by providing contrasting points of reference for the players, thus making the set-piece encounters feel all the more epic.

If everything is always a challenge, the campaign is essentially a treadmill (and, in my experience, feels like it).

Spending a significant amount of game time on something that is neither challenging or does not have thematic heft is something I have about zero interest in. I'm not interested in flexing.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I’ve experienced a lot of 5e D&D over the years with players of varied play-styles, and at every level. I have never once seen players purposefully wait to heal someone until they drop to 0 hp, nor has dropping to 0 hp ever felt like a trivial matter.

It makes me wonder if the whole phenomenon is just a white-room scenario that doesn’t actually/usually come up in play.

Or not. My anecdotal experience is probably skewed; for the vast majority of it, I have been the DM and I don’t shy away from attacking PCs while they’re down if it makes sense in the moment (and for the creature doing the attacking). I’m pretty confident in assuming that’s not a universal approach.

My hypothesis, therefore, is that it does happen in some groups (possibly regularly) and (almost) never happens in others. I have no guess on what the ratio is.

Discuss.
Yes and no. For players who play the mechanics rather than the fantasy, whack-a-mole seems to be the default. Wait until there’s an actual loss of ability to fight, i.e. unconscious due to 0 hp, then heal. It might cause the loss of an action or two over the course of the fight, but at least the cleric can help burn stuff down faster by using their actions and spell slots damaging or hindering the monsters.
 

DND_Reborn

Legend
What house rules did you put in place?
At the time we used them:

1. Going to 0 HP gave you a level of exhaustion.
2. Rolling for Lingering Injuries (DMG pg. 272) when at 0 HP.
3. You must be restored to at least 5 HP before you regain consciousness.
4. (EDITED before I forgot it before) Your death save failures do not reset until you finish a short rest or your current hit points are at least half your maximum hit points.

Results of these changes:

1. People wanted healing or to break away from combat if they got close to 0 at all. No one wanted a level of exhaustion due to the death spiral effect of accumulating levels. Others didn't want you to get them, either, because you were less effective, required spells or more rest to restore you, and such.

2. Most of the time this was an annoyance, but once in a while you got something bad and it became more of an issue in play. When players saw this happen a couple times, they grew to respect the possibility more and avoid going to 0 HP more.

3. No more feeding the downed PC a goodberry to get them conscious again. Sometimes even a healing potion wouldn't be enough. So, it cost greater resources (slightly) to get you back into the fight.

Admittedly, #1 is the biggest and that alone encourages more cautious play and combats. You go down, get up, go down, get up, go down again... and suddenly you have three levels of exhaustion: half speed and disadvantage on ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws! That is pretty brutal really. AND it lasts and takes time to remove (or powerful magic).

There are other rules we've used to make the game more deadly as well:

1. Death saves are a DC 15 Constitution check. (Not a save, a check, so no proficiency bonus except for Jack of All Trades and Remarkable Athlete.)
2. Death save successes and failures cancel out until three successes or three failures are reached.
3. Each time you die, you gain a permanent death save failure. (In other words, you can start with 1 or 2 death save failures when you go to 0 HP!) This means the 3rd time you die, you are forever dead, short of a Wish spell or such to remove on of the permanent death save failures.

Results of these changes:

1. You are unlikely to stabilize on your own. Someone will need to help you.
2. It won't be decided in five rounds or less. We had a PC seesaw back and forth between success and failure for over 10 rounds before.
3. If you've died once, your tie to life is weaker and you are more likely to die again. Also, no more infinite lives. Basically, you die three times and you're out.

Parts might seem harsh, but yeah, no more whack-a-mole at our table. ;) Players are more cautious about entering combat in general and there is more talking/ negotiations than before as a result.
 
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BacchusNL

Explorer
whack-a-mole is definatly a thing, in my experience. You don't need to be big on mechanics to see that when a Hill Giant or so is whacking your fighter around for 50%+ of his HP per hit (and can hit twice per round) then you healing him for 10 or so isn't going to make much difference, if he's still standing. That next hit is going to take him down regardless, so you might aswell save recources to help him after the fact.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
Used to happen routinely just as everyone describes: healing word or a goodberry up and down. Was like a Rocky boxing movie, and unless you're very low level, there's little chance the next hit will outright kill. Instead, a 1 hit point goodberry will let the PC absorb a 20 damage hit.

Got ridiculous enough that we imposed homebrew rules as well, replacing Death Saves with Vitality Points (the actual damage your body can take before death, whereas HP reflect for players the ability to avoid real harm).
Vitality Points = your starting HP. These don't change unless your CON does. You may get better at avoiding death as you go up in levels, but a sword through the gut generally kills most people. If you have 0 VP, you're dead.

At 0 HP: take 1 vitality damage and player opts to gain condition Staggered or Unconscious. Condition remains until player gets HP.

Staggered: Gain 1 death point. At 2 death points, gain a DMG Lingering Injury. At 3 death points, you're dead (DM may opt to let you go out in a blaze and affect the combat in some way, or simply give a dying speech). These go away 1 per long rest, no other way.

You can keep taking Actions but have no movement (you can use the Dash action to move, but you can't Disengage since this modifies movement and you don't have any). Everything you do sucks. All your d20 rolls have disadvantage and enemies have advantage against your abilities. Items are excluded since their power operates independently. All further damage you take is from Vitality.

Unconscious. Make a DC10 Death save to stabilize. Otherwise, take 1 Vitality point damage at start of your turns. On a fumble, increase to 1d4.

HP rules: unchanged.

Healing Vitality: slowly. They cannot be healed until your HP is at full. Then, they heal at rate of 1 + CON modifier per long rest, or 1 for every 10 points of magical healing that a spell or item could do (e.g. a potion of healing can heal 2d4+2 (max 10), so it could heal 1 VP, whereas a healing word of 1d4+4 (max 8) could never heal VP).
 

jgsugden

Legend
For those that do not understand why you'd do it: Because it is often the most efficient option.

I'm a cleric. Before combat begins I case Spirit Guardians. Then in round 1, I cast a cantrip and cast spiritual weapon. In round 2, I have one ally at half hit points. I have choice - Heal them to make sure they stay up for the entire next round, or cast another offensive spell / attack.

If I attack or use another offensive spell, we can take down an enemy faster. That may prevent the attack that would have damaged an ally, which saves me the action I'd have used to heal them later. Further, I don't know if my ally will even need healing before the end of next round to stay up - and if not, then healing them gained us no real benefit as they're not diminished in effectiveness until they run out of hps.

Further, let's say that PC does run out of hit points and then is attacked, putting them at (or even 2) automatic death saves. And then I heal them. They absorbed an attack that might have put them back down, or have hurt an ally - and as they're healed back up and their death saves are rest, they do so at no real cost.

On the other hand, if I stop to heal the ally, and they were not going to go down, as previously mentioned, there is no real benefit felt.

SO long as you can effectively manage the risk of the PC being hit so many times that they fail 3 death saves before you heal them, it is more efficient to enter wack a mole territory.
 

Rune

Once A Fool
I tend to agree with the idea, but the actual combat rules take too long to bother with unless there’s actual risk and resource loss involved. For those trivial flex encounters I just use minions (one-shot kills) or more often tell the players to describe what they’re doing and don’t bother with rolls. My reasoning being, if it’s so trivial that there’s no risk and no loss of resources, then it’s too trivial to bother engaging with the combat rules and potentially eating up 30 minutes to an hour of table time.
I should probably clarify my position. I don’t mean to imply that there be no stakes for such encounters, nor do I mean that they should continue past the point when they are enjoyable. I’m not even suggesting that they should be designed specifically to pose no threat or cost no resources. Nor, for that matter, should the DM overtly telegraph that a fight is going to be easy. Usually.

But encounters that are meant to be quick and can be easily trivialized by the PCs are important to the pace. I’m not sure that skipping them entirely is going to be all that satisfying and I don’t see how it can possibly address the pacing issue.

On the other hand, I do see the value of occasionally having potential enemies take a look at the PCs and just say, “No thanks. Not today.”
 

DND_Reborn

Legend
Used to happen routinely just as everyone describes: healing word or a goodberry up and down. Was like a Rocky boxing movie, and unless you're very low level, there's little chance the next hit will outright kill. Instead, a 1 hit point goodberry will let the PC absorb a 20 damage hit.

Got ridiculous enough that we imposed homebrew rules as well, replacing Death Saves with Vitality Points (the actual damage your body can take before death, whereas HP reflect for players the ability to avoid real harm).
Vitality Points = your starting HP. These don't change unless your CON does. You may get better at avoiding death as you go up in levels, but a sword through the gut generally kills most people. If you have 0 VP, you're dead.

At 0 HP: take 1 vitality damage and player opts to gain condition Staggered or Unconscious. Condition remains until player gets HP.

Staggered: Gain 1 death point. At 2 death points, gain a DMG Lingering Injury. At 3 death points, you're dead (DM may opt to let you go out in a blaze and affect the combat in some way, or simply give a dying speech). These go away 1 per long rest, no other way.

You can keep taking Actions but have no movement (you can use the Dash action to move, but you can't Disengage since this modifies movement and you don't have any). Everything you do sucks. All your d20 rolls have disadvantage and enemies have advantage against your abilities. Items are excluded since their power operates independently. All further damage you take is from Vitality.

Unconscious. Make a DC10 Death save to stabilize. Otherwise, take 1 Vitality point damage at start of your turns. On a fumble, increase to 1d4.

HP rules: unchanged.

Healing Vitality: slowly. They cannot be healed until your HP is at full. Then, they heal at rate of 1 + CON modifier per long rest, or 1 for every 10 points of magical healing that a spell or item could do (e.g. a potion of healing can heal 2d4+2 (max 10), so it could heal 1 VP, whereas a healing word of 1d4+4 (max 8) could never heal VP).
LOL I always like the Vitality-type systems inspired by d20 SW but I preferred the terms switched.

Our clone of d20 SW was more direct: Vitality = HP and adding Wounds for criticals and death. But we dropped it after a bit of testing in favor of the current house-rules.

Glad it works for you, though! :)
 

I’ve experienced a lot of 5e D&D over the years with players of varied play-styles, and at every level. I have never once seen players purposefully wait to heal someone until they drop to 0 hp, nor has dropping to 0 hp ever felt like a trivial matter.

It makes me wonder if the whole phenomenon is just a white-room scenario that doesn’t actually/usually come up in play.

Or not. My anecdotal experience is probably skewed; for the vast majority of it, I have been the DM and I don’t shy away from attacking PCs while they’re down if it makes sense in the moment (and for the creature doing the attacking). I’m pretty confident in assuming that’s not a universal approach.

My hypothesis, therefore, is that it does happen in some groups (possibly regularly) and (almost) never happens in others. I have no guess on what the ratio is.

Discuss.
The bard in my 5e game doesn't want to heal anyone who is above 0 hit points because it's less efficient. (Of course, the dropped character has to get up, but that's not as bad as in 3e or 4e, where it took your whole move action-equivalent.)
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
yes absolutely but there are a few d&d/ 5e things that contribute to it. 4e' already been mentioned but there's a good comparison to 3.5 too.

In d&d mmo style "in combat healing" is almost always a poor option over doing something to end the fight faster & that's fine as eve a lot of video games work that way. That was true back in 3.5 but not as absolute as 5e, first you have
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I thought about cutting out just the relevant bits, but it's most of the page and conveniently located all on the same page to make sure nobody needs to give too much thought to connecting those dots. For comparison...
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You while previously you were in severe risk of death if you were even low on hp because any damage over your current hp still subracts hp that just be healedbefore you are no longer disabled & you only had a 10hp buffer hat kept replenishing itself until you were healed or somehow made stable. 5e changes that so amy damage beyond your curret hp just goes away & dno longer requires you to heal it before you are functional again.

Putting than in perspective a zombie did 1d6+1 damage for a theoretcal crit of 14 making it so a crit could just instantly kill someone in low single digits of health and everyone knew that the too beat up to risk it margin only went up from there as monsters hit harder. In 5e you can be at 1hp and not die drom a single attack unless that attack would also kill you at max health. So that's the first big shift..
healing spells themselves work different
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There were some ranged heal spells, but they are..
Channeled Divine Health (PHBII p.106) - Cleric 4
Range/healing increase the longer you spend casting it: from touch/1d8 as a swift action up to long/4d8+CL if you spend 2 rounds casting.
Close Wounds (Spell Compendium p.48) - Cleric 2
Immediate action, close range, heals for 1d4+CL (max. +5). Can be used to save someone who just dropped below -10.
Darts of Life (Complete Champion p.118) - Cleric 5
Creates 10 floating orbs that you can launch (close range) for 1d8 healing each.
Healing Circle (Complete Champion p.122) - Cleric 5
Allies within 30 ft. can use one of the spell's charges to heal themselves as a standard action. 5 charges; each one heals for progressively less.
Healing Spirit (PHBII p.114) - Cleric 4
Creates a spirit that can heal an ally within close range for 1d8 each round.
Insignia of Healing (Races of Destiny p.166) - Cleric 3
You'll first need to make special insignias for your allies to wear (10g each). Heals 1d8+CL (max +10) to all insignia wearers within long range
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Take a level 10 cleric casting that cure light wounds spell vrs a 5e level 10 cleric casting cure wounds. in 3.5 it would heal 1d8+5 with cure light in a first level slot, 2d8+10 cure moderate in a second level slot, 3d8+10 cure serious i a third level slot or 4d8+10 cure critical in a fourth level slot while the 5e cleric casts cure wounds giving slot level *1d8 plus caster stat ability mod(ie swis/cha/int). In 3.5 those low level healing spells got better to a point as you advanced and your higher level slots were for when it rally mattered while 5e the low level slots are more efficient for healing/slot level & dramatically so when you factor in the first big shift. That's the second big shift.

Finally they changed how spells are prepared, just ignore multiclassing for now. In 5e you get a certain number of spells you can prepare based on your class & levels in that class plus some extra for your relevant int/wis/cha mod in most cases & it didn't matter if you use every single spellslot or no spell slots on a given prepared/known spell. Without getting into irrelevant details like how/when you recovered expended spell slots what attributes were involved, & if you prayed meditated or whatever to select your spells it was fairly simple but extremely different from 5e because you would prepare your spells for each spell slot. Using just the cure x wounds that 10th level cleric would have 4/4/3/3/2 1st/2nd/3rd/4th/5th level slots & would probably not be very interested in putting cure x wounds in every one of those. They might devote most of those first level slots to cure light wounds, but there are a lot of good first level spells that got better as your level advanced so that's unlikely. The higher level slots had more impressive non-healing options as you advanced so you wouldn't see many people preparing more than a couple or less cure serious/critical wounds & we haven't even gotten to the mass versions that worked the same but covered multiple targets. With that said... The fourth big shift is that the cleric now has any amount of healing spells available to burn on the yoyo/wackamole style healing in the most efficient manner instead of saying "That was the only/last big cure x wounds spell I prepped so be careful guys" & no longer has the same clout that goes with keeping you alive because point 1 2 & 3 make death not very likely, not very costly to prevent, and the healer's ability to cast cool stuff vrs heal is not particularly limited as long as they have a single spell slot of any level.

edit: also as @(Psi)SeveredHead noted it was a bigger cost to stand up from prone back in 3.5 & you were not going anywhere this round without eating an AoO if you did get healed back to an extremely dangerous conscious
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