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Healing Without Healing

This article was first broadcast in Episode Fourteen on 7th March 2018.

Lennon: Ok, so I’ve been thinking about our Ixalan adventure… well, mis-adventure… and I think I’ve gotten to the bottom of it. We need a cleric.
Ryu: No we don’t
Ostron: Right — a paladin would probably be better. They can absorb more damage.
Ryu: Wrong again
Lennon: Ok, well what do you suggest?
Ryu:  Well, I find that depends on how you look at it.



The easiest way to guarantee blind panic in most players is to drain the group’s healer of spell slots or hit points. Some players refuse to engage in a fight or even a campaign unless there is a dedicated healer ready to go when things get violent. However, having someone ready with Healing Word isn’t the only way to mitigate damage in combat.

Now, you might be asking why we’re talking about this in the Gnomish Workshop? Because in order to find solutions to get around the lack of healing, you have to think of healing in terms of what it actually does. There are three ways to look at healing and what healing effects do, in terms of game mechanics. I’m reminded of this quote from a famous wizard:

“What I told you was true… from a certain point of view…”
— Obi-wan Kenobo, Return of the Jedi

Let’s look at how different things can be healing, from a certain point of view.

Viewpoint 1: Healing restores lost hit points

I know, it’s obvious — it’s how everyone thinks of healing anyway, and it’s exactly how the majority of the healing spells and items work. But we’ve already established that for whatever reason, no traditional healing methods are available. So let’s move on.

Viewpoint 2: Healing increases total hit points

Mechanically speaking, you could rewrite any healing spell to read:

“Increase target character’s hit point total and current hit points by the difference between their current hit points and their total hit points, or by the die roll total dictated by this spell, whichever amount is lower.”

Wizards didn’t write the spells that way, obviously, because that wording is awkward and verbose. But mechanically it has the same effect.

Any time a creature is healed in combat, it means you are increasing the amount of damage they can take before reaching zero. Mathematically, if you increased the healed creatures’ hit point totals at the start of combat instead of healing them in the middle, it would have the same effect (though you usually don’t know which creatures are going to need healing at the start of combat, obviously).

That means any spell or effect that increases total hit points is effectively a healing spell. The most common place you see this is shapeshifting and polymorphing effects. Most of those have you choose a creature, and the character becomes that creature and gets its hit points in the bargain. When the creature drops to 0 hit points, it reverts to their old form and, this is the important part, retains the hit point total they had before the shapeshift took place. If there’s extra damage to the creature sometimes it bleeds over, but that doesn’t matter in this example: the creature’s hit point total was effectively added to the character’s, giving them that much more damage to soak up. So if you transform someone into a Black Bear with Animal Shapes, you effectively healed them for 34 HP.

Unfortunately most of those spells are fairly high-level. Another spell, Aid, increases hit point totals and is only level 2. The increase is only 5 HP, but Healing Word cast at level 1 averages around there for most spellcasters, and Aid hits three people. So if people are calling out to be healed, you might cast your gaze past the cleric and over to the wizard.

Viewpoint 3: Healing Reduces Damage

In an alternate universe where the word “heal” was forbidden because it sounds like the back end of a foot and everyone got confused, healing spells could have been written like this:

“Roll dice and add a modifier. Target creature or creatures have the total damage taken this turn reduced by that amount.”

Healing effectively erases damage. If a creature attacked a character and did 6 damage, then the Cleric heals them for 6 damage, it works out the same as if the cleric used an equivalent spell slot to prevent the attack. Most people want their characters healed because they’re anticipating future damage. But if a character is not going to be hit again for the rest of the fight, it doesn’t matter if they stay at one hit point.

Basically, this idea means that if you run out of healing, anything that prevents attacks from hitting should be used in place of the healing, because it works mechanically the same way. The Shield spell is a good example; considered from another point of view, it has the same effect as a spell that reads:

“Regain hit points equal to the damage taken from the last attack that hit you if the attack roll was less than five plus your AC”.

Have a divination wizard in your party? Congratulations, they have up to two healing interrupts. Every time one of their portent rolls negates an enemy attack or helps an ally save against an effect, mechanically it counts the same as healing them from the damage they would have taken.

This can also extend further to effects that reduce the chance of an enemy’s attack hitting, but the results are harder to quantify. For example, if an effect is causing an enemy to attack with disadvantage, every roll where a hit was negated by the disadvantage effectively healed the damage from that attack. That’s harder to figure out because the DM is unlikely to announce every time disadvantage causes a miss (unless they’re getting really frustrated). This also expands the definition of “healing” a lot and you can go down quite a rabbit hole. For example, you can argue that when an opportunity attack kills a creature moving toward a wizard in the back row, whoever killed it actually healed the wizard after the attack. But that sort of thinking gets very existential and meta. The practical upshot is simple: if you can’t heal, keep the enemy from hitting.

It seems like a no-brainer, but many people ignore spells and effects that prevent damage, particularly if they end up being used in place of something that does damage to the enemy. If you’re on the front line of battle without a healer, consider using your action to Dodge instead of making a mediocre attack, particularly if you have a Ranger or Sorcerer behind you to damage from afar. If you’re the Wizard, you don’t have to apologize for using Expeditious Retreat instead of Burning Hands; you just saved the healer having to use a spell on you. Always remember; if characters die, they aren’t doing damage either way. As long as a character is still above 0 hit points, they can do damage. After all, those that fight and run away live to fight another day.

So next time someone in the party cries “I’m almost dead” and the group’s healer has a “devil in the holy light” look in their eyes, start thinking outside the potion bottle and consider how to substitute straight up healing with things that work just as well.





Lennon: Ok, you’ve convinced me, we don’t need a cleric, nor a paladin
Ryu: Cool
Lennon: We need a druid. One who’s multi-classed into bard for Cutting Word to do some damage reduction–
Ostron: OOOH, and if we can find them an Amulet of Health it’ll make their constitution score 19—
Lennon: —which will increase their max HP! And then if we can get them a shield
Ryu: Ugh, you guys never learn!

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