I'm most familiar with D&D 3.5e and 5e, which both have pretty similar ways of describing hit points. The 3.5e SRD says

Hit points mean two things in the game world: the ability to take physical punishment and keep going, and the ability to turn a serious blow into a less serious one.

5e's Player's Handbook has a couple bits about hit points, but the most descriptive part is on page 196.

Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.

Hit points are a reasonable abstraction by themselves, since in both the editions I know about, they effectively convey the fact that a tougher or more experienced character is better-able to survive dangerous scenarios. They also allow a novice and an epic hero to spend similar amounts of time recuperating after an adventure (since natural healing scales with the number of Hit Dice a creature has), which makes sense, given what hit points are stated to represent.

However, magical healing (be it via potions or a divine caster's spells) scales with the caster's abilities and not with the target's hit points. This means that, in both editions, an average peasant or a 1st-level fighter who drinks a healing potion will instantly heal from all their injuries and be brought back to full fighting strength. However, an epic dragon-slaying adventurer (or, in a more extreme case, an actual dragon, with its mountains of hit points) would drink the same potion, and only a very small percentage of their vitality would be restored.

What's with the difference? I know that mechanically it serves as a sink for high-level parties' gold and spell slots to force players to use stronger magical healing, but narratively, I haven't been able to find any information on why everybody's natural healing happens at similar rates, but the efficacy of magical healing is inversely proportional to a target's natural fortitude and adventuring experience. Did 1st and 2nd editions handle healing differently, or is there something specific about healing potions and magic that causes them to behave this way, or is there simply no explanation given, with the assumption being that "it's just a mechanical thing, don't think about it too hard"?

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    \$\begingroup\$ @indigochild: It's less effective by percentages. On an NPC with 4 HP total, injured to 1 HP, a cure light wounds would, more often than not, render them 100% healthy. On a PC with 100 HP injured to 1 HP, they're still basically on death's door (figuratively, not the game rule of the same name). \$\endgroup\$ Sep 3, 2020 at 20:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ShadowRanger I'm pretty sure a person at 20/200 hp is still in better shape than a person at 4/4 hp. Having 4 hp is on death's door even when fully healthy. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 3, 2020 at 20:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ So could your question be more simply put as "Why is magical healing a flat rate and not a percentage?" \$\endgroup\$ Sep 3, 2020 at 20:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Shadow I think the OP is asking if there is a narrative explanation for the game mechanics to work that way. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rykara
    Sep 3, 2020 at 20:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov: Sure, but that's supposedly accounted for by the whole "HP aren't purely health, they're some abstract combination of things including luck, endurance, turning more serious blows into less serious ones, whatever." In theory, the actual raw physical resilience to damage of the 4 HP peasant and the 200 HP hero isn't that different. The confusing part (for the OP, not for me; I accept a lack of coherence in the rules) is that the 200 HP hero who is similarly physically damaged (on their last HP) and has a similar healing applied isn't helped out more. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 3, 2020 at 21:10

2 Answers 2


There is no official in-universe explanation for why more powerful adventurers require stronger magic to heal the same fraction of their total hit points. It is not explained because it cannot be explained - it simply makes no sense in the fiction. The reason why stronger magic is required to heal stronger characters is purely a game design decision: if the same level of healing spell always healed the same percentage of hit points, then healers wouldn't need to use the more powerful spell slots they gain at higher levels to heal the damage inflicted by higher level enemies. It is one of several things in the rules text that flatly contradict the stated model for hit points and damage, and that one must not think about too hard when trying to describe what is happening in the story of a Dungeons and Dragons game.

It's worth noting that 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons was actually designed around the idea that the "fighting spirit" model of hit points was the truth. As such, healing is measured in "surges". One surge always heals 1/4 of a character's total hit points. To address the healing resource balance issue, characters have a fixed limit of surges available to them per day. Healing abilities generally cause a surge to be expended, and non-surge healing is either relatively minor or strongly limited in uses per day. Surge amounts are usually tied to class role, with classes that are expected to absorb damage having more surges. Also, the Warlord exists in 4th Edition as a Leader (support role) class who uses encouragement to rally fighting spirits instead of magic to restore hit points. This more coherent model of hit points, damage, and healing is unfortunately unique to 4th Edition, like many other ways in which the edition diverged from tradition.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Minor nitpick, since the answer only mentions 4e tangentially: still, healing powers added a certain number of d6 to healing, agian not depending on the target's HP. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Sep 6, 2020 at 18:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is true; furthermore, the amount of d6s added to healing scales with character or power level. Also, I didn't bring it up in the answer, but all editions of D&D except the very earliest make larger and heavier weapons deal more HP damage, which is another problem for the "fighting spirit" model. So 4e didn't abolish all contradictions, but it did do work to bring the fictional explanation and the mechanical model closer together. \$\endgroup\$
    – sptrashcan
    Sep 6, 2020 at 20:30

You have a misconception

an average peasant or a 1st-level fighter who drinks a healing potion will instantly heal from all their injuries and be brought back to full fighting strength.

because they are not necessarily be healed up from their injuries. When they receive the HP healing, they regain

3.5e the ability to take physical punishment and keep going, and the ability to turn a serious blow into a less serious one.

5e physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.

A peasant or lower-leveled character might have the same fitness and strength as your level 10 fighter, but the experience accumulated through the adventures give the fighter the ability to grit their teeth and keep going on where your starting character might give up to live (and of course, the memory of your shenanigans and voice of your beloved party).

They can get healed, but still be injured, and keep going. That's why healing word works - we like to flavor the bard is cheering for the fighter "you can do it!" while hiding behind that pillar.

Healer feat might work by effectively using morphine-like herbs - or ammonia to wake up unconscious character.

Divine healing might work by easening the pain.

There are a lot of narrative twist you can insert to make it makes sense, but you might want to shift from 'healing' heals your physical injuries instantly as if you haven't taken that cut on your arm, into 'physical and mental durability, will to live, and luck'.

  • \$\begingroup\$ OK, it's not necessarily physical damage that's being restored... but that still doesn't explain why a hardened level 10 fighter is so hard to convince (after getting down to 1 HP) to re-grit his teeth and go back into battle, while a single "you can do it!" from behind the pillar is enough to make an untrained peasant (also down to 1 HP) as ready to fight as he's ever been. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 7, 2020 at 8:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DaveSherohman A level 10 fighter with 10 hp is as battle ready as level 1 fighter with 10 hp, and it takes the same effort/damage to bring them down - either physically or mentally \$\endgroup\$
    – Vylix
    Sep 7, 2020 at 9:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sure, if you want to look at it that way, but the level 10 fighter is still nowhere near his peak readiness (i.e., max HP), while the level 1 fighter is. That's the discrepancy that the OP (as well as many, many others in the last 40 years) is bothered by. Why is it so much harder to bring an experienced fighter - someone who has done this a thousand times before - back to full readiness (100% of max HP) than an unseasoned peasant who's probably soiled himself at the mere thought of going into mortal danger? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 7, 2020 at 12:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ The logical instinctive reply is that in order to take the lvl10 fighter to 10 hp, you beat him up a lot more on the first place. You didn't rrslly hurt him, but he has the light scars and memory of the 10 battle axes he took to the face (metaphorically) to get to 10 hp. \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Sep 7, 2020 at 16:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ In essence, the slight scars, muscle pain and memory is the missing hp. It is why the lvl10 fighter is harder to cheer up from tht brink of death, because he too a hell of a lot more. Now that I say it this way, I may take the time to set this into an answer of its own \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Sep 7, 2020 at 16:50

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