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I've been seeing a lot of people (specifically DNDShorts) saying that healing is actually not optimal to play. I've always been confused by this, as extending the length of which your party members can fight is always good, and I'm playing in a campaign as a cleric healer.

Is healing actually suboptimal in 5e? Or am I just doing it wrong?

When I say suboptimal, I mean to say if focusing on healing is less effective for helping the party than, say, using offensive magic to end fights quicker. Does healing works better than offensive spells to minimize losses at the end of combat?

For a better understanding of my party makeup, we have 2 fighters, a paladin, a sorcerer, a cleric(me), and a rogue. We are all at 1st level.

Second thing I should mention: My character has proficiency in the herbalism kit, which lets me make potions of healing. In a low l;evel campaign, would it be more effective to distribute healing potions that use healing spells?

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Playmaker I've edited your actual question to the body of the post. However, it seems obvious to me that healing does not actually shorten the fight, but rather extend it. Do you mean to ask "does using healing allow for players to end combat without fewer losses rather than using offensive spells"? \$\endgroup\$
    – Vylix
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 13:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ The main problem with saying anything conclusive about level 1 tactics/strategy is that level 1 is randomly lethal. You can have the best preparation in the world and still have a decent chance of going down after a single hit. \$\endgroup\$
    – biziclop
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 14:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @biziclop the bigger problem is that you are focussed on level 1, which they will probably be for 1 session. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 15:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Let's also not forget that pen&paper RPGs are not an MMO raid. You don't have to be optimal to have fun. That said, Clerics are in concept a very diverse class and a cool choice. You can attack, you can cast spells, you can heal. Other classes are built around just one of those actions. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 9:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterKrebs: Brennan Lee Mulligan made an interesting point in some discussion (perhaps an Adventuring Party or Academy episode), saying that having a healer makes it very unlikely for just one PC to die, unless the enemies really to inflict failed death saves while they're down. So usually everyone survives, or it's a (near) TPK if everyone gets to low HP totals without anyone actually dying. But without a healer, there's more room in the middle for someone to die. (Esp. without a healing potion someone else can administer, or I guess a medicine check to stabilize but not bring them up.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 1:02

6 Answers 6

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The argument people make is that "damage prevented" is equally good as "damage healed".

If an orc was going to do 25 damage (over the course of a 5-round combat), then you could spend three of the next five rounds casting cure wounds to negate the damage -- or you could just kill the orc, which also negates the damage, and doesn't cost you three spell slots, and additionally frees up your allies to fight other monsters.

Of course this only works if you can kill the orc. But clerics in 5e are balanced to be pretty good at killing things -- they're not a pure-healing class -- so in practice you will find it easier to kill the orc than to heal all the damage it deals.

My approach is to prepare healing word, and only use it when someone goes down. This has several advantages: it doesn't cost an action, it can be used from 30ft away, and the healing is nearly the same as cure wounds.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This works quite well, as I''m considering having my character have a small change in faith(changing subclass) if it works for the DM \$\endgroup\$
    – Playmaker
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 15:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ I work on game balance, and my view is that the purpose of healing is to prevent focus damage from bringing down a teammate. Effectively, to make sure incoming damage is roughly equally distributed. Beyond that, offense is generally better. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 16:53
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My experience is that in-combat healing, of characters above 0hp, using your action; is almost always less effective than using your resources to mitigate incoming damage in other ways. The amount of HP restored vs the expected incoming damage per turn is just too low.

Healing Word bringing a character from 0 to positive with a bonus action is a major exception to "healing spells bad", mostly because it covers two of the caveats in the above statement. You net 1 PC action if they aren't hit before their turn, which at level 1 quite often means an extra enemy down, which will snowball in later turns

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Playmaker You certainly shouldn't prepare Cure Wounds and Healing Word, at level 1. At higher levels using low level slots to top people up between combats can be OK, depending on how frequent combats are between rests \$\endgroup\$
    – Caleth
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 12:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NotArch A level 1 cleric can prepare 3-5 spells, typically 4. Having 2 of those be healing spells is a bad idea for basically any style of game. \$\endgroup\$
    – Caleth
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 14:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Caleth Have you played level 1?! It's the deadliest - healing is a priority at that level. An "any style of game" is a bit of an hyperbole. There are definitely games and tables where it's not a bad idea and OP's may be one. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 14:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NotArch Have you read the spell description for Cure Wounds? It requires an action, has a range of touch, and for all that you get a d8 instead of a d4. Casting Cure Wounds in combat is a bad idea at any level, but level 1 is when it's worst. Healing Word is miles better \$\endgroup\$
    – Caleth
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 14:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NotArch: At level 1, cantrips are still relatively powerful, and you don't have a lot of spell slots. Healing Word + Sacred Flame or Toll the Dead is on average 2 HP less healing, but the increase in average damage output (zero vs. 4.5 or 6.5 x chance to fail the save) makes up for it because what you really want is to take enemies off the field and prevent their future damage. OTOH, if you roll well on 1d8 for cure wounds, you might overheal some characters, but it might also let them survive more than 1 more hit before dropping again. 7 HP from a max Healing Word with +3 Wis might, too. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 23:42
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Healing is awful in D&D

Healing has one good use, and that is getting someone up from 0hp so they can have a turn or not die. If a character has 1hp they are just as useful as a character with full hp, a character with 7hp getting healed for another 1d8+wis just means the cleric who healed them probably didn't actually do anything useful that turn.

But is damage better? Probably not if you are talking about magic.

The argument for damage is that a dead enemy does 0 damage, but unless your spell is going to kill an enemy then it effectively does nothing to change the flow of any given round of combat.

So what do I do then?

This is where control magic comes into play. If you cast something like hpynotic pattern you can completely take a bunch of enemies out of the combat, they are doing zero damage and it only cost you one spell.

Then you use other control spells to minimise the damage that comes in from whoever is left, and pick off the stragglers.

The primary tactic in D&D is to prevent incoming damage, and that is a combination of control and damage (one without the other is less efficient or entirely useless). How you do that is different in every single combat, but healing remains nigh useless.

Any exceptions?

Maybe. If you use a heal which allows a character to survive an otherwise 0hp inducing hit then maybe it was worth it, but equally if you stunned or killed the enemy so they didn't land the hit at all.

TL/DR:

If you have a sword - hit people, if you have magic - control people.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is not my experience at all. I agree that healing is awful, but bringing someone back to consciousness is just one use, and my experience has shown that the other uses are necessary at times. It's important that we remember that our playstyle may not be others, and that answers to questions like this are extra sticky because of that. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 15:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ One that's top of mind is that when an ally is hit with a nova strike early enough in combat, healing them to keep them in combat might be the better call than hoping it ends early. But that's just one and there are more. My point is just that this question is hard because of a lack of defined scenario. We can all come up with scenarios that work or don't work - which is why I think this is opinion-based. I thought about writing a similar answer and stopped because it was just going to be a description of my experiences - which may not be useful to OP's undefined situation. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 15:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NotArch: Healing to keep them in combat is exactly what this answer is suggesting: heal them up from 0 before their turn, so they still get to act. If initiative order doesn't put a healer after an enemy but before them, it's much harder to make that happen. Keeping them conscious the whole rest of the fight is important for some classes, like barbarians with limited numbers of rages, or other casters with useful concentration spells, but otherwise limping along for the few more rounds of a typical combat might be your best bet, even if it means that character playing more defensive. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 23:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes Actaully, this answer suggests the TLDR: "If you have a sword - hit people, if you have magic - control people." Indeed, the 1st part says: until your companions have 1 Hp, there is no use to heal them, because they are useful as they are full HP, don't matter if the next enemy blow will probably knock them out. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eddymage
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 7:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Eddymage: Yes, that first part of the answer is what I was referring to: heal only if they're at 0 HP, which in 5e is the same thing as "heal to keep them in combat". (I assume you meant to say 0 HP, not 1 HP, since healing at 1 HP usually won't get them high enough to survive another hit, especially not multiple hits.) I guess if you care about the RP impact of being knocked unconscious vs. just heavily injured, that might be another justification besides mechanics like concentration or other stuff that drops when unconsciousness. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 12:03
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It is never* worth it to spend an action on healing

D&D characters are as effective at 1hp as they are at 100hp. If it is worthwhile to cast healing spells (expending spell slots and actions) on someone who still has HP left during combat, then it would be even better to spend actions on other things (attacks, cantrips) that bring the combat to an end sooner or mitigate enemy damage, and then spend the spell slots on healing after combat ends, when actions are abundant.

But there was that asterisk...

There are a few situations where the above doesn't apply.

Sometimes, your teammates are at 0 HP

A character with 0 HP is not dealing damage, but is a single Healing Word away from being able to deal damage again. In this situation, healing is a no-brainer. There is almost nothing else you can do with that bonus action (plus spell for the turn) that would be more effective than getting your downed teammate back in the fight.

Technically, this is just a bonus action and not a real action, but it means that you can't spend your action for the turn casting other spells (aside from Cantrips), so it could be argued to still be spending an action on healing.

Sometimes, your teammates aren't as effective at low HP

I, as a player, choose to play suboptimally when my character is at low HP. Sometimes I have my character panic as they realize that death is one misstep away. Sometimes they get angry to drown out the fear. Sometimes they accept death and make themselves a target to try to go out in a blaze of glory.

Sometimes, characters are selfish and will yell at the cleric for ignoring them when they're in pain (though I haven't played such a character yet).

If your party acts like a Darkest Dungeon expedition, then these sorts of roleplay concerns can make it worthwhile to cast healing spells, even during combat, even when it is not necessary mechanically.

Sometimes, dropping prone is a big deal

A character who falls to 0 HP falls prone and has to stand up before they can attack without disadvantage (or avoid being attacked with advantage). Spending an action to heal someone before they hit 0hp avoids having them fall prone. Depending on initiative order, failing to do so might the enemy might be able to take advantage of their prone condition to send them right back to making death saves.

Or worse...

Sometimes, the specter of the instant death rules looms

There is a (somewhat under-discussed) rule in 5e where if an attack reduces you to negative one times your maximum HP, you die instantly. At low levels (before you have access to Revivify) or against monsters which destroy the body on kill (like Gibbering Mouthers), a single lucky enemy crit can take a character from low HP to gone forever.

Casting Healing Word on a downed ally creates the perfect conditions for this to happen: they are at extremely low health, can be attacked with advantage, and are still a dangerous combatant from the enemy's perspective. To avoid such situations, it can be useful to keep your teammates with a comfortable buffer in hit points.

Finally, house rules may apply

In the popular computer adaptation of 5e, Baldur's Gate 3, characters which have just been healed from 0 HP cannot take actions on their next turn. Almost needless to say, if your table plays by that or similar house rules, any strategic or balance wisdom that relies on the rules as written will need to be reconsidered for the new context.

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    \$\begingroup\$ but it means that you can't spend your action for the turn casting other spells - Cantrips are spells in 5e terminology. You can't cast other leveled spells, but can still cast a damage cantrip. Clerics usually have Toll the Dead or Sacred Flame which are both pretty decent. But sure, other good options include Mass Cure Wounds (action) + attacking with a spiritual weapon you cast earlier (bonus). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 21:43
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Ultimately, healing is a way to maintain the action economy. Unconscious characters can't take actions, and that means your team loses a large fraction of their capability -- and maybe more, if the character who went down was doing something to reduce the enemy team's action economy (wall spells, fireballs, hypnotic pattern, blocking a door, etc).

If your healing is getting somebody off the floor so they can take a turn they would have missed otherwise, the you've done your job.

If you're healing a hurt character who would be likely to drop the next time they take a hit, then you're doing your job.

If you're healing somebody who still has plenty of hit points, you're not helping and you should probably focus on dealing damage -- or, given you're a cleric, buffing the people who are better at dealing damage than you are.

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Basically the only situations you would heal in-combat:

  • Save an ally who is reduced to 0 Hit Points and doing death saving throws (Healing Word is your friend)
  • Keep a vital member alive and putting out damage / utility (due to their damage output or damage types working really well against the current threat) - The best tool for this particular scenario is likely a Cleric - Life domain and Aura of Vitality (Level 3 spell that grants 1 minute of access to a Bonus Action heal for 2d6 + Wisdom Modifier + 2 from Life domain for an average of 54 Hit Points over 6 turns, ranging between 24 - 84 Hit Points)
  • Paladin's Lay on Hands grants a touch range ability (including self) to restore a number of Hit Points up to their "healing pool" (which is 5 times their Paladin levels), renewed after a long rest. So a level 10 Paladin can heal up to 50 Hit Points in one swoop. (Cleric - Life domain gets a similar ability but is vastly more limited in both how high you can top people off and it's a one-time use per long rest, where Paladin can freely choose their numbers)
  • AoE healing like Mass Healing Word (3rd level spell) can pick up multiple fallen comrades who dropped to 0 Hit Points within 60 ft. It's only using a verbal component, so you don't even need to stow your weapon to cast. It's only a bonus action so you can still hit enemies with your action.
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