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This is my first time GMing, and I'm trying to get a small group going with 5E, but it seems no one has much interest in playing Cleric or Paladin.

Among the many new-found freedoms granted by 5E, can a party be effective without either of these?

The session I'm running is a one-shot 'intro,' so I guess I could reduce the challenge rating. The following week, however, another buddy is GMing Hoard of the Dragon Queen--can a party succeed without either of these classes (no spoilers, please)?

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How many people in the party? And what class are they going for? With many classes who can cast some Curative Spells it is important to know how the party is done to be able and give a more specific answer. –  Crico Aug 30 at 5:49

4 Answers 4

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It's going to be a while before we collectively have enough experience to answer this definitively, but based on my limited experience (and having read pretty much the whole PH on a long flight without anything else to do...), I think the answer is that you really want the healing role covered, but it doesn't have to be by a cleric or paladin.

Without healing magic, fights are going to be a lot more dangerous, and bad luck can really compound without any possibility of correction. A party without any recourse to combat healing will need to be a lot more careful — and, meta-game, the DM will need to be a lot more careful to not kill the whole party with a middle-difficulty encounter.

As Joshua Aslan Smith notes in his answer, potions can help, but aren't really sufficient. But I disagree about other classes and abilities.

First, let's look at the healing power that the cleric class provides. A generic cleric actually gets nothing special here outside of spells — there aren't any healing features except for those from domains. And in fact, they are only from the Life domain. I'm going to go ahead and assume that the answer to this question isn't "every party not only needs a cleric, but they need a Life cleric"; that is, these extra features are indeed above-and-beyond.

So, that leaves the spells. And, obviously, clerics get a lot of good ones. The thing is, many powerful healing spells aren't cleric exclusives. A few options like 9th-level Mass Heal are reserved, or 2nd-level Prayer of Healing or 3rd-level Mass Healing Word, but the healing basics aren't:

  • Cure Wounds: bard, cleric, druid, paladin, ranger
  • Healing Word: bard, cleric, druid
  • Lesser Restoration: bard, cleric, druid, paladin, ranger
  • Greater Restoration: bard, cleric, druid
  • Mass Cure Wounds: bard, cleric, druid
  • Raise Dead: bard, cleric, paladin (and druids get reincarnate)
  • Heal: cleric, druid
  • Regenerate: bard, cleric, druid
  • Resurrection: bard, cleric
  • True resurrection: cleric, druid

Bard and druid get the same number of spell slots as cleric. Paladins have fewer spell slots overall, none at first level, and no high-level spells. They do have the Lay on Hands class feature, which is nice, but I don't think makes up for it — if you don't have a cleric, a bard or druid with a healing bent is probably better at it than a paladin. A circle-of-the-land druid can even regain some spell slots during a short rest. And bards have the "Song of Rest" feature, making short rests more effective, plus they have an exclusive 9th-level Power Word Heal, plus the "Magical Secrets" feature allows them to actually learn those exclusive cleric spells after all — choose the College of Lore to start getting those at 6th bard level. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that a bard with a healing focus is likely to be a better "party medic" than a cleric who takes a non-healing path.

Adding the Healer feat (for anyone in the party) adds a bit more healing, and that's never bad, but if you do have some sort of spellcaster focusing on healing already, I don't think it's necessary. Also if building a cleric-free party, take a look at the Acolyte background, which includes the "Shelter of the Faithful" feature — you can count on free care at temple or shrine of your faith. That's particularly good for getting rid of curses — or party deaths.

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Things don't really work all that well without a dedicated healer. But there are some things you can do to work around it.

  • The first and most obvious would be to provide plentiful healing potions. Your heroes should be able to find, and purchase, these fairly easily (maybe even at a reduced price, make up a story reason if you need one). For the first few levels, healing potions make a huge difference in whether your party can stay up or is flat on it's back.

  • Second, you could make sure one of your party members is a caster from a class who gets Cure Wounds. It doesn't have the kind of punch as you level up, but it's a solid spell that does scale with your casting level. Druid, Bard and Ranger get this one.

  • Make sure someone is trained in medicine and that they have a healer's kit. This can restore some vital HP as well, and they can make those checks to get flattened party memebers back up and running.

  • Have one or more fighters in the party. This is the only class that gets reliable self healing per short rest.

  • Give the average of HD when they spend them to heal. Or at least the option to take the average rather than rolling.

  • Take lots of breaks. Unlike a typical 5e party who might short rest every other or even every third encounter, this group is likely to need more breaks (both short and long).

  • Suggest someone take at least 1 level of cleric. This gets you access to some nice toys (including some great L1 healing spells), and if you aren't going to 20 comes with very little in the way of consequences.

Two more bits of advice on the DM side. First, start your characters at L2, if you don't have a dedicated healer, this can resolve a few of the yo-yo issues that can sometimes plague a 1st level party. The second is to reduce the damage output of your monsters. I've played around a little bit and I feel like taking the minimum of their damage rolls is too much, so maybe have each die roll be 2, or something along that line (but less than the average if you're using flat damage).

The best advice I can give is to start at L2 and ask one of your players to take a level of cleric. They don't have to go full cleric, just enough that they can get a few heals off a day and keep the party standing for tough fights. This is nearly all you really need to keep a party going (at low levels at least, we'll see what higher level play brings).

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Thanks! I was just reading through Cleric list, I think they could pull it off by dipping 1 Level of Life Cleric, and then being another full caster class (if I understood multiclassing correctly, they would have regular spellcasting slots, and could use higher-level slots to cast cure wounds as the game progresses) –  Khashir Aug 29 at 18:05
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Also, I noticed quite a few other classes have Cure Wounds--could a full Bard/Druid/Ranger be the healer? –  Khashir Aug 29 at 18:15
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Ah, nvm, you're right (was able to track down the info!). P. 164: "Spells Known and Prepared. You determine what spells you know and can prepare for each class individually, as if you were a single-classed member of that class. " –  Khashir Aug 29 at 18:39
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A human starting with the Healer feat would work as a basic healer if not during combat than while patching people up. It would reduce the burden on gp that the healing potions would cause. Also, a fighter with expertise dice and the ability to grant temp hp isn't a bad idea either, though this wouldn't happen at level 1 without a human using their feat. –  Aviose Aug 29 at 19:59
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No, a Cleric 1/Sorc 19 wouldn't get access to higher than 1st level cleric spells. They can cast a Cure Wounds in a 9th level slot, though. –  Aviose Aug 29 at 20:00

Yes, a D&D party can function just fine without a dedicated healer.

I've played D&D in various forms for the better part of two decades, from 2nd edition, to third, to a high variety of d20-sytem / OGL variants, and not once has the absence of a healer rendered a party unable to adventure. And this was in systems prior to 4th, which sped up the "natural" healing available to non magic-users from a paltry 2 hp per day to a considerably quicker pace.

In 5th edition, where all characters can spend hit dice over a short rest to gain HP and characters get all HP back after a long rest, not having a healer will, at worst, formalize the same "camp after a tough battle" strategy which most D&D campaigns employ.

You may need to adjust a published adventure which was written with the assumption of a dedicated healer, but this would be true as well if you lacked an armored fighter, arcane spellcaster, or someone proficient in lockpicks.

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Thanks, @DougM! Fair points, though I definitely don't want to formalise camping after every tough battle--I think it doesn't encourage judicious use of resources, which, in my opinion, is part of the adventuring challenge. –  Khashir Aug 29 at 22:49

My experience with the starter kit says no

None of the other magic user classes seem to have viable in-combat healing spells or abilities and that is where it is most important to have healing.

Potions of healing only heal 2d4+2 HP, take an action to drink, and cost 50GP each. This is assuming that in your adventure/setting you able to buy as many as you will need. If you are merely relying on potions found as loot to sustain the party then you will face a high probability of a party wipe during an encounter.

Even if the other magic users could cast cure wounds or the like, it would still be risky because they have much lower AC whereas a cleric or paladin spending their action to heal is less likely to take a hit resulting in a net HP gain vs. the monster HP over the course of the fight.

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