Wednesday, August 22, 2018

You Don't Need a Healer: The Case Against Party Balance in 5e

Cool guys don't look at foggy backgrounds
I've heard two outcries from my players since we started playing D&D 5e:
  1. Healing is so weak! Cure Wounds is a whole spell slot and healing potions do next to nothing!
  2. Every party needs a healer! How are we going to survive without healing?

The end result is that somebody in the group ends up "biting the bullet" and taking the cleric class, or the Druid/Bard/Paladin ends up devoting several spell slots a game to healing spells. Despite the Cleric class being one of the richer role-playing classes with tons of amazing control, support, and offensive spells, most players hear "cleric" and think "heal-bot."

Well, I'm here to tell you: You don't need a healer. And I can back it up with math.

You Don't Need a Healer

Yeah, I repeated it again for good measure.

Healing in 5th edition is kind of weak. 5-10 hit points is nothing, usually only negating a single attack and making the difference between life and death every so often. And it seems like every healing option is equally restrictive. Lay on Hands? Not a very large pool, there. Cleric spells? Spending a spell slot on Cure Wounds almost seems like a waste, especially at 1st and 2nd level.

But I think this was a deliberate choice by the designers. That's because of two things: Action Economy, and the focus on hit points and damage in 5th edition.

Let's start with the latter. You've probably heard that 5th edition has something called "Bound Accuracy". That means the d20 rolls are extremely limited, so you never see Armor Classes or Difficulty Classes get too high or low. Part of this is to make the players hit more often at all levels (a very satisfying feeling), but it also allows low-level monsters to be a threat at all PC levels. Even with 22 AC, an average kobold still has a 15% chance to hit a PC wearing magic armor.

But a side effect of bound accuracy is a huge focus on hit points and damage. The designers needed to make higher level PCs feel safer, and higher level monsters feel more dangerous. Thus, hit points are quickly scaled up on monsters and damage shoots up so quickly they needed to add Multiattack to nearly every monster in order to accommodate the increase. Meanwhile, PCs gain extra attacks and more powerful spells at levels 5, 11, and 17. These correspond to the four tiers of combat the game uses.

You might not realize it, but these guys can get stung by 100x as many bees as a normal commoner.
Before we talk about how this affects healing, let's talk about action economy. On each character's turn (PCs, Monsters, and NPCs alike), you get an Action, a move, a Bonus Action, and a Reaction. Action Economy is about using these actions to their best effect. And since 5th edition is all about damage and hit points, that means dealing as much damage as possible while taking as little damage as possible.

A fighter at level 1 can expect to deal 1d8+3 damage on their turn with a longsword. If they are lucky, they can use their reaction to deal another 1d8+3 damage on an Opportunity Attack, but those are fairly rare once the heroes have clashed with the enemy in combat. This amount of damage per round should look familiar: it's the same amount of healing a 1st-level Cure Wounds costs.

By focusing on damage and action economy, it's easy to see that D&D combat boils down to a race to 0 hit points. Bound accuracy means everyone is going to hit about 65% of the time, on both sides of the battle (if the DM has properly balanced the encounter). Damage will be taken. But healing spells only ever really heal one hit's worth of damage. And that's the key.

If a Cleric can heal one hit's worth of damage, they will keep another damage-dealing character active for one more round. That character will get one extra round, and another attack, in because they were healed. So what's the difference between a Cleric healing and a non-Cleric making the extra attack on their own turn?

The answer gets back to action economy. Cure Wounds is guaranteed to hit. It's a great use of an action, but it loses out on the chance to deal damage. An extra attack might not hit, but it reduces the potential for future damage. It's furthering the race to 0 hit points.

This is why healing can't be too powerful. It has to numerically resemble the equivalent action of making an attack. And if the options of fighting or healing are similar, it means an extra fighter doing damage is just as effective, and the need for a healer goes away.

For a practical example, if you pit a party of adventurers against a group of 4 Kobolds, they'll probably take 10 damage per round. If the party has 4 fighters, they can probably take the Kobolds down in 2 rounds, thus only taking 20 damage as a party. But if they have 3 fighters and a cleric who heals them, it would take 3 rounds due to the lowered offensive power, and they'd absorb 30 damage. But the cleric's healing would likely reduce the damage back down to 20, causing the party composition to make little difference.

Just make sure you bring enough swords
And the final nail in the coffin is the Hit Dice. Most parties can easily take a short rest between encounters, or fight easy/medium encounters that don't require resting between every encounter and can make due with every other.

I've had plenty of groups that are quick to call for healing when they could easily find a safe location, take a rest and spend some hit dice, then get back into the fray. This usually means they never run low on Hit Dice, but the Cleric is always the first one out of spell slots.

All of this leads back to one idea: You don't need a Healer in 5th edition. If your party is efficient in their Kobold-murdering, you'll be just fine.

So Why Play a Healer Anyway?

Well, there are some situations where having a healer is still a good idea.

In general, healers get access to spells that reverse status conditions, making them incredibly valuable when facing monsters that inflict those conditions. Lesser Restoration is a fantastic answer to a lot of low-level threats, and you won't get far in the upper tiers without Greater Restoration and Raise Dead. There's a reason many temples offer spellcasting services.

It's also convenient to have a healer when somebody is at 0 hit points. Spare the Dying is a lot more reliable than a Medicine check, and doesn't run out like a Healer's Kit. However, if you don't have a healer, both of those options are available for use. Just make sure someone in your party has a good Wisdom modifier.

Finally, each "healer" class has it's own reasons to play it.

At least 3 of these guys could be a healer. And one might be the DM.
Clerics, aside from being the second-best roleplaying class (after Warlocks), are excellent fighters and support characters. They get divine weapon strikes, some of the best passive effects in the game (Spiritual Weapon, Spirit Guardians, Guardian of Faith), and most can wear heavy armor on top of that. In fact, they are the only class with a d8 Hit Die to wear Heavy Armor regularly. Not only that, but when there is a need for healing, they are the best. Healing Word is like a super-powered long-distance Healer's Kit, Revivify is great for in-combat saves from death, and Prayer of Healing is one of the best out-of-combat healing spells available.

Paladins are the heavy hitters of the healer classes, with Heavy Armor and a tanky d10 Hit Die. They can do massive damage on a single strike, and gain tons of combat-oriented spells. They can focus on Strength or Dexterity, with tons of weapon options and powerful support magic through the use of auras. They even get their own special brand of healing, which is best used as an auto-revival for allies at 0 hit points.

Bards and Druids have tons of non-healing benefits, but they both get Healing Word for good measure. Rangers only get Cure Wounds, but can be used as healers in an pinch. Druids and Rangers also get Healing Spirit, hands-down the best non-combat healing spell in the game.

The point is, even if you play a "healer" class, you don't need to solely focus on healing. If you do, you'll miss out on all sorts of good stuff your class can do!

So, What Do you Need?

If party composition can forego healers, what exactly do you need?

Well, as I mentioned above, you really need the ability to deal and absorb damage. Every class has the ability to do this, so you shouldn't have any trouble getting these into your party. But even some commonly-accepted necessities can be forgotten in this system.

Picking locks? Just make sure someone in the party is Strength-focused and you can probably kick down any door that you'd have to pick. Or just have the Wizard cast Knock.

Charismatic Face of the Party? Not needed, especially if you're willing to work with the DM to avoid political quests. Or just have the Wizard cast Charm Person.

Ranged Attacker? Not completely necessary. If you're a squishy wizard, then sure, fight at range. But it isn't necessary to ensure it's included in your party.

Healer? Didn't we just talk about this?

All you need is damage and damage absorption. Once upon a time, the party's thief was the only character that could pick locks or disable traps. Now, magic and system flexibility have altered that completely.

The one thing you don't need but will always get: weird and anachronistic party names.
For damage, the classic example is the Fighter or Barbarian. Sorcerers, Rogues, and Paladins are also good choices. Also, classes like Bards and Druids that can "lock down" an enemy can allow for an easy victory.

For damage absorption, any class with good Hit Points (Fighter, Paladin, Barbarian, Ranger) and good AC (Fighter, Cleric, Paladin) can tank damage. But don't forget the dodging abilities of Rogues or Monks, and the Temporary HP buffing abilities of Warlocks and Wizards.

Party balance used to be important, and the idea that it's necessary has carried forward into modern D&D. This is a PSA to help you feel better about not picking the Cleric class "because nobody else did".

One last time: You don't need a healer.

Thanks for reading!

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