This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Seventy One on 30 June 2021.
Ostron: Ugh…Is Gath around?
Lennon: Oh, man what happened? Did Cinder get too rough during playtime?
Ostron: No, because unlike some people I don’t make a habit of teasing the large jungle cat. I was trying to drag a chair into the Candlekeep Annex and it must have a split edge or a splinter or something.
Lennon: Are you sure? That looks more like a bite to me.
Ryu: Um, yeah, so we may have a problem. I don’t think Gath is doing healing anymore.
Ostron: Not doing…that’s what we hired him for!
Ryu: Well I went to his workspace and I found all these fliers for something…what’s a discretion?
Ostron: Oh great he went to a conference for Clerics. What’s it about?
Ryu: Well there’s a lot of hype but the tagline is “you are more than a healer” and some of the panels are things like “color theory and faerie fire” and “Bell choirs of doom: you’re the best now prove it”.
Ostron: Wonderful. First our fighter turns into a tree hugger and now the cleric wants to get his mace on.
Lennon: It wasn’t like I had a choice.
Ryu: You signed a contract! Nobody can make you do that!
Lennon: Fey charm people all the time! Do you know how low my wis-
Ostron: Stop. You’re not helping your case here. Anyway, can you ask RaeRae to come by?
Lennon: Why? I mean, she can turn into a boa constrictor and give you a cuddle but you’ll still be bleeding.
Ryu: You and I have to have a chat about what wild creatures are appropriate for what activities. But anyway, RaeRae’s great at healing.
Lennon: But she’s a druid. She turns into creatures that are scarier than her.
Ryu: Oh boy. Good thing that Scrying Pool door’s closed. Now pay attention. It looks like Gath at least had a few constructive suggestions.
Some players, particularly those more used to gaming from earlier editions of D&D, or more familiar with video game RPGs, are hesitant to be in an adventuring party that doesn’t include a cleric, and will be confused or even critical if a cleric is in the party and not focusing on healing.
It was a while ago, but KayDee has already educated everyone that clerics are more than capable of being effective at things other than healing, so if that’s the main concern then everyone can review that summary. I know KayDee likes it when people appreciate her advice.
It’s a wonder that happens at all.
Anyway, even if everyone’s okay with the Cleric being more of a Knight Hospitaller it still leaves a lot of people worrying about a source of healing if things are going rough for the party during a dungeon crawl.
Now, with an experienced DM they can usually tailor the composition and behavior of monster encounters to make it a little less stressful for the characters who are operating without an on-site healer. But if you’ve got a new DM, particularly one who might be using an official published adventure where, as we’ve discussed before, the goal seems to be to kill the party before most of them get to choose subclasses, that lack of a dedicated healer may be felt more keenly by the party.
Of course most healing can be substituted if there are healing potions available but, again, this requires the DM to be aware that more healing potions should be made available than normal progression and rewards may provide, and it may not make a lot of sense for a group of level 1 characters to happen upon a six-pack of them just dropped on their doorstep.
It should be noted for the record that analysis of spells in D&D and the various issues related to action economy and hit points suggest that actually casting a healing spell in combat is less efficient than using some sort of attack. Mostly this is based on the fact that all damaging spells are capable of outputting more damage than healing spells of equivalent level are capable of restoring. To use a very simplified example, a barbarian hitting a creature with melee attacks and a cleric firing cantrips at them will end the fight a lot faster than if the barbarian is attacking while the cleric heals them. Based only on the math, the barbarian will also come out of that exchange with more HP if the cleric is attacking rather than trying to heal them, because the creature removing the barbarian’s hit points will stop doing that once it’s dead.
All that to say that having the ability to cast healing spells in the middle of combat isn’t something groups need to rely on to survive. Chugging potions, casting spells, or using other abilities between combats, even if there isn’t enough time for a full short rest, will probably be a better option than using the actions during combat. The only exception is if a character drops to 0. At that point you do want to cast a spell, because losing the actions that character provides represents a real disadvantage.
Ryu (accusatorially): But let’s say you’ve got that one warlock in the party that doesn’t understand that if warlocks are in close combat at all they should be skirmishing, not just standing in the front line taking hits like a fighter.
Lennon: Once again, I’m detecting some latent hostility I don’t really appreciate.
Ryu: You’re just projecting because you think KayDee’s going to show up. Anyway, if your group thinks or decides it absolutely needs someone around who can conjure up those sweet sweet heals and your Cleric is on strike, there are a few other options.
The first thing to do is look at spell availability. In the past healing spells were almost the exclusive domain of the Cleric, with the Paladin given access to some of the piddly low level ones in an emergency, but that’s not the case anymore.
The immediate go-tos for substitute healers, particularly at low levels, are Bards and Druids, with druids often being the preference. In addition to most of the healing spells the Cleric gets, Druids also have access to Goodberry. While the berries only heal one hit point, that’s enough to get a 0 HP character back on their feet, so if they’re saved and spread around it’s almost like giving the whole party the “spare the dying” cantrip.
Druids can also take care of things if someone doesn’t get the grape in the gullet fast enough. At higher levels they can cast Reincarnate or True Resurrection, but if they happen to be a wildfire druid they also get access to Revivify at level 5, or the same time as a Cleric would.
If you’ve ever heard of someone’s singing described as being able to wake the dead, you may just have a healing-focused bard on your hands. Like Druids, Bards get access to most of the healing spells Clerics enjoy, and they can use Raise Dead and Resurrection at later levels to help comrades who decided to take a nap in front a behemoth stampede. While it’s not applicable in combat, they also have access to Song of Rest, which can give the whole party a small healing boost during a short rest.
However, the real benefit to a bard focused on healing kicks in later. Two words for you: magical secrets. Starting at 10th level the Bard can snag any two spells they want from any other class in the game. That includes any of the Cleric or Paladin healing spells they were hoping to get ahold of, including any of the missing resurrection spells like the lower level Revivify. And after they do that at 10th level, they get to do it twice more at levels 14 and 18. If the Bard chooses College of Lore, they can start that pilfering at sixth level instead of waiting until 10th. That’s eight additional spells on top of the bard’s regular list, which should be more than enough to fill out any gaps in their healing repertoire.
Rounding out the classes that get access to healing spells without any special tricks are the Artificer, Ranger, and Paladin. These classes are less efficient at healing than the Druid or the Bard and will have a harder time filling in for the Cleric, mostly because they have the so-called “half-caster” slot progression, meaning it takes them longer to get access to higher level spells and they never get spell slots above 5th level. Also, none of the three get access to Healing Word which, as mentioned, is one of the best spells available for ensuring the survival of downed teammates. In the case of the Ranger and the Paladin, you’re also going to be limiting their efficacy as damage dealers; remember the Ranger needs spell slots for hunter’s mark, and the Paladin smites with them, so if they need to hold onto them for healing you’re hamstringing their ability to deal damage.
That said, with ready access to cure wounds and at least one “back from the dead spell” they can at least stand in as a debatable substitute for the robe and mace crowd. The Paladin in particular can made good use of their aura spells, with Aura of Vitality allowing them to dole out 2d6 hit points basically for free at the start of their turn, and Aura of Life keeping allies from dropping dead due to lack of attention. However, both of those are concentration spells, and the Paladin is kind of designed to get hit, so some other bonuses or feats to make it easier for the Paladin to maintain those spells is recommended.
The Ranger has a nice trick in their magical quiver thanks to Xanathar’s Guide. Healing Spirit was at one time considered a broken healing spell and had to be revised by Wizards of the Coast to placate cranky DMs. In its current form it manifests a spirit in a 5 foot space and anyone that moves through or starts where the spirit is gets 1d6 hit points. If someone is having trouble getting to it, the ranger can move the spirit to them instead for the low low cost of one bonus action. This is also only a second level spell so if you happen to be able to grab spells from anywhere you like, it’s another one to consider for the list. The druid gets this spell too, by the way, again making the argument for using them as a substitute healer.
Now we said that the Artificer doesn’t get access to Healing Word and by default that’s true. However, if the Artificer goes the Alchemist route, Healing Word is added as a spell option, and they greatly increase their healing utility thanks to their Experimental Elixir class feature. Either by sleeping or by expending spell slots they can start churning out these bottles of wonder, and one of the things they can manifest is roughly equivalent to a healing potion given how much HP it restores. By 9th level it no longer matters what the potion actually does because whoever’s drinking it gets HP back as a bonus regardless.
All of the classes we mentioned so far have access to the healing abilities by default and it doesn’t require any special effort to get them there. Sometimes a subclass option makes things better for healing, but they were always able to do it. Now we’re going to talk about the classes that have to go well out of their lane to manage being healers.
Chronologically and alphabetically, the first one to discuss is the divine soul sorcerer. Choosing that origin just flat out gives the sorcerer access to the cleric spell list, including all the healing spells on it. Also at 5th level they gain the ability to spend sorcery points to reroll healing dice, for those annoying occasions where you roll for the healing on an upcast cure wounds and end up looking at a field of d6-es with 1s and 2s staring up at you. For a while there was debate about whether the Divine souls could actually do a better job healing than Clerics. Numerically speaking the answer is no, the cleric can output more raw healing, especially if they’re a life domain, but when you also factor in metamagic abilities like being able to make single target spells hit multiple people and change touch spells to ranged ones, the divine soul can arguably get healing to comrades in tougher situations that would stymie the average cleric. When you’re looking for just a straight up replacement for a cleric, a divine soul should be right at the top of the list with the Bards and Druids, and arguably ahead of them given their class features.
Finally, probably at the bottom of the list overall is the Celestial Warlock. The Celestial Patron option gives the warlock access to a bunch of spells off of the Cleric’s list but not all of them are healing spells and Healing Word is not among them. That said they make up for the lack of Healing word with their “Healing Light” class feature. It gives them a pool of d6s they can use as a bonus action to target a creature within 60 feet and restore d6 health. If that sounds a lot like Healing Word it’s because it is, and as long as you’re looking at using it just to save dying characters it’s actually more efficient than the spell because you’re not expending spell slots.
Spell slots is why this character ends up at the bottom of the list, however. As some people may recall, a warlock spends most of their tenure only able to access 2 or 3 slots. They recover on a short rest, but they’re still not going to have anywhere near as many options or opportunities to cast spells as even the artificer or paladin would.
It’s also worth mentioning the Healer feat. If your game is one that allows feats (which are generally chosen instead of ability score increases if you follow the optional rules laid out in the Player’s Handbook) the healer feat is a way to allow basically any character of any class to acquire a healing ability. The feat allows characters to provide one hit point when stabilizing a dying creature, but they can also use an action and a healer’s kit to provide 1d6 plus 4 plus level in healing to a creature. It’s not going to let the fighter take another direct hit from a troll but it’s a solid number of points that can cover random incidental damage like falling a bit, and it scales with levels, even if the scaling is somewhat slow. So if you’ve got a party with a rogue, a barbarian, a fighter, a wizard and a cleric and the cleric just decides “no, screw it, the only thing I’m healing is my own-“
Ryu: Okay that got vulgar. Did Gath actually write that?
Ostron: You’re the one who grabbed the notes. Oh…well.
Lennon: Does cure wounds actually fix that? I thought you needed at least Greater Restoration?
Ryu: How would you know?
Lennon: Well you mentioned this Celestial Warlock, and now that we have an opening, I thought…
Ryu: Yeah, fine, if you can find a god that wants to tick off an archfey be my guest.
Ostron: Speaking of restoration?
Ryu: Yeah, hang on, I’ll go get RaeRae. You need to be more careful.
The Mimic: He also needs more roughage in his diet and no mistake, that glandular flavor was far too tart.
Ostron: What, are you angling for Chauntea as your patron now?
Lennon: What? What are you talking about?
Ostron: You just said something about my eating.
Lennon: I did not.
Ostron: Of course you did, it was British and everything.
Ryu (from a distance): Hey geniuses, why don’t you just come in here and then we can fix Ostron and clear out the scrying pool at the same time?
Ostron: Right let’s go. And my diet is perfectly fine, by the way.
Lennon: Really? I didn’t know you were part gnoll.