Underpowered: Healer

It’s been said that the most important resource in D&D is actions. This is mostly, but not entirely, true, and not just because this belief happened to pop up around the same time the 3.5E warlock was published and it was the only thing that convinced the masses the class wasn’t overpowered. Certainly, most characters and monsters have the same number of actions, which makes any variance an obvious benefit or penalty. But generally when a character runs out of actions the only consequence is that their turn ends. When a character runs out of hit points, however, they generally lose all actions and often don’t get to play for a significant amount of time. This is why the seven party roles only have one truly mandatory role: healing.

It stands to reason that a class based on manipulating hit points better than anybody else would be very powerful, perhaps approaching the power level of a class based on manipulating actions. (I realize that smart people actually rank the power level of a class by its ability to solve a wide variety of problems quickly, but we’ll get to that later in this post.) So when I see a class so good at healing it’s literally named “healer”, I expect something at least on par with other spellcasting classes. It’s unfortunate that, instead, it’s terrible.

In Core the big healing classes are the cleric and the druid, in that order. Let’s compare these to the healer:

Healing Class Comparison
Cleric Druid Healer
Hit Dice d8 d8 d8
BAB Fair Fair Poor
Skill Points 2 4 4
Class Skills 10* 13 11
Weapons Simple Some simple, scimitar Simple
Armor All Medium, shields Light
Restrictions Alignment Alignment, no metal Alignment, no metal or shields
* – Certain domains get more class skills.

Roughly comparable, maybe a little weak. But the meat of a spellcasting class is the spellcasting. Let’s look at the raw spell power of the classes by levels per day. That is, if a class can cast a 3rd-level spell twice per day, that’s six levels of spellcasting. (Here, a 0th-level spell is .5 spell levels.) How do the above classes compare?

Spell Levels Per Day
Cleric Druid Healer
L1 3.5 2.5 5
L5 18.5 12.5 24.5
L10 61 46 70
L15 145 109 170
L20 243 198 240

That’s a pretty clear win for the healer. So what’s the problem with them again?

Spells Available Per Level
Cleric Druid Healer
0th 12 13 9
1st 25 20 8
2nd 32 26 7
3rd 31 22 7
4th 23 17 5
5th 24 19 7
6th 26 18 5
7th 18 13 3
8th 17 11 3
9th 11 10 3


The healer can do very little, but they can do it a lot. The most powerful classes in D&D got that way by offering options and utility, something the healer lacks. Add in that only the cleric and druid get support in later books, like the Spell Compendium, something that Wizards was very bad about for non-Core classes in 3.5E. It’s starting to be clear why the healer gets no love.

It’s possible that its special features would save it, but they’re just as lackluster. The healer gets thirteen special features. Nine duplicate a spell; their primary motivator is that they don’t have material components, so the best thing going for the healer right now is its ability to save players money. The other features are a slight bonus to healing, a feat (Skill Focus (Heal)), an animal companion that heals, and the ability to heal without provoking attacks of opportunity. There aren’t new things, they’re just ways to do the same thing more loudly.

Is the healer the best healer in 3rd Edition? Yes, by a wide margin. But where there’s nothing to heal, a healer putters about being ineffectual. They can’t attack, they can’t defend, they can’t affect the battlefield, they can’t harm monsters (except undead), they can’t buff, and they can’t even flank because their armor is tissue paper. It’s a class based around sitting on your hands until an opportunity occurs, then responding to that opportunity in the same way you respond to every similar opportunity. They can’t even prepare their non-healing spells more than once or twice because that takes away valuable slots for healing. It’s not a class for PCs, it’s a class for the NPC run by the computer. This is why nobody plays it, because there’s nothing to play.

What would make me be a healer? There are a lot of things we can do, but let’s start with what we can’t do, and the big one is add to their spell list. We may be able to consider newer spells on a case-by-case basis as long as they pertain to healing hit points or removing status effects, but that makes for a long post. We can’t give them additional utility spells or damaging spells of any kind. Throwing a ton of problem-solving abilities at the healer would make them real overpowered real fast, and it violates their high concept of being a healer. Rather than get into a debate of what utility spells are and aren’t appropriate, I’d rather ignore the whole thing and assume their spells are set in stone. We’ll have to make them interesting some other way.

For starters, I think they shouldn’t prepare spells. I think they should cast spontaneously, with their whole spell list as their known spells. The Miniatures Handbook predated Complete Arcana and the Player’s Handbook 2, where the warmage and the beguiler ran on this mechanic. With such a small spell list, I don’t see a compelling balance reason that the healer couldn’t do the same. And it makes the class a lot more versatile when players can remove fear five times rather than watching the party run away because they prepared cures instead. It means we can also get rid of all those spell-duplicating special features if we really want, but the healer needs all the help they can get so let’s keep them for now.

I guess that it does make it harder for them to use metamagic feats, and those can be real useful. But that doesn’t convince me. Healers cast spontaneously, with their entire (limited) spell list as their spells known. Now players don’t have to worry about preparing the same spell list every day and can respond to broader situations.

Second, they need something to do in combat besides heal. One idea is to give them control effects, like the Pathfinder witch or the pacifist cleric in 4E, and we could go that route and make things real easy on ourselves. But again, a healer’s high concept is “make people feel good”. They shouldn’t get any serious offensive ability; that’s not their job. The abilities that suit the healer are more defensive:

Healer’s Blessing (Su): A healer can focus her magical energies to assist allies in less obvious ways than raw healing. At 2nd level and every four levels thereafter, a healer can choose one ability from the list of blessings. No blessing may be chosen more than once. Unless otherwise noted, using a blessing is a standard action that does not provoke attacks of opportunity.
A healer can use any blessing she knows at will. All blessings are magical and a healer cannot use them in an antimagic field.
Redirection: As an immediate action, a healer can draw an magical effect from an ally by drawing it to herself. If a healer succeeds on a saving throw against a spell and her ally fails, she can choose to instead fail the saving throw and allow her ally to reroll the save.
Shield: A healer can use the aid another action to increase her ally’s Armor Class from a distance of 30 feet.
Stabilization: As a free action, a healer can stabilize an ally within 30 feet.
Transference: A healer can transfer a held charge for a cure spell to an ally. As part of the same standard action as casting a spell, the healer can allow an adjacent ally to hold the charge instead of herself. That ally can then touch a target to cast the spell. This follows the same rules for holding a charge. The healer can cast another spell while her ally is holding the charge for her cure spell. Once a healer has transferred a charge to an ally, she cannot transfer another charge to the same ally for 24 hours.
Ward: A healer can touch an ally to give them temporary resistance against an energy type of her choice. This resistance lasts for one minute or until it prevents an amount of damage equal to the healer’s class level. The healer can choose a different energy type each time she uses this blessing.

I’ll admit to being inspired by Pathfinder here, what with the “choose an ability from a list every X levels” mechanic that’s in many of the Pathfinder base classes, but a few 3.5 prestige classes work this way. It’s not brand-new ground.

This gives a healer something to do just about every round, preventing allies from taking damage and healing them when they do. None of these abilities attack or hinder enemies and none directly help the healer herself, which fits with the fluff of the class.

The only real balance concern I had was with the transference blessing. I know it’s a corner case, but I was worried about a healer/monk combo fighting undead. The healer can fight undead by casting cure spells, but she’s lousy at it because her attack bonus is so low. With transference, a healer could give a cure to her monk ally (or an unarmed fighter, or an animal companion, etc.), who then punches an undead with a much higher chance of positive energy damage and a much lower chance of putting the healer in danger. It’s like giving the healer the same attack bonus as the monk in that situation, which isn’t the intent. So an ally can only hold a charge once per day, for an emergency heal when the ally can reach someone that the healer can’t.

Third, I’d get rid of the unicorn, because screw the unicorn. It’s not underpowered or anything, but it limits the class to certain archetypes. Unicorns only associate with “good human or elven maidens of pure heart.” So why are they mandatory for a class that’s supposed to be for all races, genders, and lifestyles? The best thing about the unicorn is picturing it arriving when a rugged, male dwarven healer reaches L8. It could burst majestically through a stained-glass window, sunlight streaming around its glowing mane and a chorus of angels heralding its entrance, approach the confused dwarf, then shrug and say “Look, I was promised a lovely elf. I’m no happier about this than you are.”

…That’s actually a really neat idea, the healer and unicorn who resent being chosen for each other. But still, it shouldn’t be hard-coded.

If we really want the healer to have a companion, play up the friend-to-all-animals shtick that they have in their fluff description. Let them substitute Skill Focus (Heal) for Skill Focus (Handle Animal, Knowledge (nature), or Survival). Then give them a ranger’s animal companion. It lets them have a friend, mount, or meat shield depending on what they want without over-complicating things. Given how bad healers are in combat, they might even be fine with the druid’s animal companion.

I’m really torn on the alignment restriction. The healer’s code states that they must always heal allies and good-aligned creatures. This means that a healer can waltz mindlessly through a crowd of the sick and dying as long as she knows they’re merely neutral or evil. I’d rather play the lawful neutral government healer, tasked with keeping all citizens alive for pragmatic reasons, than the lawful good healer who’s uppity about only healing people walking a virtuous path. Remember, most NPCs are neutral. But the whole point of the class is to provide “pure solace and remediation”. Allowing neutral healers would require relaxing their concept a bit, and no matter how tempted I am I think that’s better handled on a case-by-case basis by an individual DM than by issuing a blanket change.

I’m still not convinced that this makes a healer fun to play, but it makes a healer more fun to play. There’s a lot of work to be done by a player, making sure they they’re involved and interesting out of combat because their in-combat role is still fairly limited. The important thing is to make sure that the healer is an option to be considered rather than discarded without sacrificing the feel of the class, and I think the above changes make it viable.

(Note to self: try playing an evil healer in thrall to a lich, who has ordered him to kill various undead who won’t submit to the lich’s rule. The healer joins a party and continually goads them into taking out high-level undead while he keeps them alive and destroys the undead himself whenever necessary. It’s a character with built-in conflict, secrets, and allies that could easily become enemies if he turns on his patron.)

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