If you’ve played 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons any time soon and for any extended period of time you may have noticed something; something hiding in the spell lists of Bards, Clerics, and Druids; something evil and dark, making low level adventurers seem like gods; something broken. Oh yeah it’s:
HEALING WORD! (cue lightning flashes and cacophonous, ear-rending thunder)
Now I know, it’s just a first level spell. How can it break the game? To answer that we need to look at the nature of healing and how it’s really used in combat. When we look at healing skills we’re typically looking at how much bang for the buck we’re getting. The “value” is found in how many of what dice you can roll per spell level. The more points on average the better right? Not really.
The problem arises with how players typically run D&D combat. It’s no surprise that it’s way more fun to do damage to the bad guys than to methodically keep your team topped off on hit points. So the Clerics, Druids, Bards and others who can heal spend the initial rounds crowd controlling and dealing damage because well, it’s awesome. There is nothing wrong with that, it just is! What this leads to in combat however is the “oh crap” moment of tension when multiple people are really low or someone is unconscious.
D&D combat is all about managing the parties action economy vs. the bad guys. Equal numbers of equal level combatants makes for a very fair and tense fight. Multiple players become capable of defeating much higher level foes simply because they get more turns than the boss. When we look at combat through the lens of “actions per round” (APR), hit points become arbitrary. A wizard with 5 hit points can do just as much damage as one with 100 when casting the same spell.
Now we begin to see that the only goal when it comes to hit points is to be conscious when it comes to you in the initiative order. If a healer can keep you above 0 hit points, you are just as effective as you were with full HP.
This is where Healing Word breaks the game.
When we read the spell text it looks perfectly fine for a level 1 spell. It’s 1d4 of healing plus the player’s spell casting ability modifier. Harmless right? We need to look beyond the dice. There are two qualifiers to the spell that make it far too powerful.
- It has a 60 foot range. As long as the party member with the spell can see the the target within 60 feet (almost all combat happens within this range) they can cast the spell and bring the target from unconscious to conscious instantly; ready to strike when their turn comes in initiative. Additionally, they don’t have to move! The player can stay out of danger while keeping the team up.
- It’s a BONUS ACTION. Not only can the Cleric, Bard or Druid cast the spell at range, they still have their full action after. They can keep laying on the damage with weapon attacks and heal in the same turn.
This is just too much. If a DM finds themselves running a game for a party with 2 of the 3 healer classes, or gods forbid all 3 in the party, it becomes nearly impossible to endanger the party without sending something at them which is WAY too powerful for them to handle. That’s not fun either, so what can we do?
Let’s home brew this bad boy…
We don’t need to go any farther than Healing Word‘s underpowered and underused cousin, Cure Wounds. Cure Wounds is a touch spell, and takes the players full action during the round. What amazing benefits do you gain for this sacrifice? You bump the healing from a d4 to a d8. On average you’re healing +2 every time you heal. Now, this can add up to a lot don’t get me wrong, but we just established that the number of hit points doesn’t matter. Being able to cast the spell matters. No one is going to spend their whole action, their movement, and risk attacks of opportunity along the way, just get a d8 instead of a d4.
There must be something we can do with these two spells that will make for a more balanced experience.
So we now know the following:
- Healing Word needs to come down in power
- Cure Wounds needs a bigger benefit for the risk
If we can do this, we’ll have a much more dynamic and risky combat experience at lower levels. There are many ways to accomplish this. I’ve heard some DM’s just make Healing Word a level 3 spell and move on. This takes up the “nuke” slot for 4-6th level characters. PC’s need to think long and hard about using it.
I don’t want to go that far.
In my system Healing Word becomes a level 2 spell and maintains it’s range. It also takes a player’s full action to cast rather than being a bonus action. It remains 1d4 + the player’s spell casting ability modifier with the addition of a d4 for every slot above second level.
Cure Wounds, on the other hand, remains a first level spell and is still a “touch” spell. The healing, however, is improved to 2d6 + the player’s spell casting ability modifier. This could scale out of control so you can only add 1d6 every 2 levels above 1. You can expend level 2 and level 4 slots for example, but you would only gain the 1 or 3 slot dice. This bumps the healing up a little more and incentivizes the healers to have to mix it up in melee if you want the benefits of big heals.
I really think this helps the lower level combat experience for DMs and players alike. The power of healing at a distance was underestimated when 5th edition was developed so it needs to be tuned down. Additionally, PC’s should be rewarded more when they dive into danger for a touch based healing spell.
Let me know what you think in the comments. Have you run into these problems with Healing Word? What were your solutions?