In many roleplaying games the prerequisite to perform magic healing is knowledge, and during action it is mostly limited by magic capacity and sometimes time. Meanwhile the prerequisite to perform non-magical healing (such as medicine, surgery, physical care, and other things that currently exist in the real world) is also knowledge, but often requires elaborated materials, more time and often includes a more severe chance of failure. Magic healing also tends to be more effective and complete, making it the better choice in almost all situations where body and mind need a fix.

From time to time, I play a character with some non-magical healing skill, but while his service is usually good enough for NPCs it is seldom requested by the PC group, making him kind of stand back behind the overall-well positioned magician, despite healing being his primary occupation.

How do you keep non-magical healers useful to the group and fun to play?

I'm also curious how specific roleplaying games solve this (e.g., perhaps magic is really expensive to cast; or magicians are allowed to perform in only one "school" of spellcasting), but that's secondary.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One thing I'd like to point out is that in most RPGs, a party or team will only have a single magical healer. If that healer is the one who is now incapacitated/bleeding out/taking overflow/whatever, the magical healer will be INCREDIBLY glad and grateful there's a mundane medic in the group. \$\endgroup\$ – gatherer818 Aug 1 '14 at 8:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ I seem to remember a story where if you tried to magically heal a broken bone that was not set properly it just healed in place, which could permanently deform,handicap the individual. \$\endgroup\$ – John Jan 18 at 15:56

12 Answers 12


The best way to make healers fun to play is to make their profession matter in the culture of the setting and in the conflicts the group faces.

Is the character merely "Joe, with a Great-level Healing skill and a Good Herbalism skill"? If yes, why? Wouldn't it be more interesting to have the character be "Joe, an Adept of the Scarlet Order", with contacts in every city, a thorny relationship with ignorant village 'healers', and a respected profession that opens doors in polite society in ways a sinister sorcerer can't?

Make healers be more than just a skill. Tie them into the setting in ways that are distinct from the ways magical healers fit into the setting's cultures and society, and they'll be fun to play because they'll have opportunities unique to their status and reputation.


There's a few different things you can do here, from either the game system side or the game master side.

  1. Systems: Give natural healers more potent long-term healing. The idea here is that you may be able to bring someone from near death to fighting fit in a few seconds with magic, but that kind of healing reduces long-term viability. Maybe magical healing gives penalties if you use it too much, or maybe the damage comes back over time unless it's naturally healed.
  2. Systems: Make magical healing difficult. The idea here is to add some kind of extra difficulty to magical healing that makes it less attractive to use. Maybe make magical healers take in the damage that they heal, or maybe magical healing takes expensive components.
  3. Systems: Make magical healing limited. Either make it so a character can only take advantage of magical healing a few times a day, or make it so magical healing doesn't work on all kinds of afflictions. Perhaps magical healing is fine for a sword blow, but useless for infections or amputations.
  4. Game Master: Use challenges that only the natural healer can solve. Maybe there's a plague striking a city, and the natural healer has to deputize the rest of the party as junior healers to deal with it. Maybe someone is sick with an odd virus that isn't responding to magic, and the healer needs to figure out how to cure them before it's too late.

I'm sure you can think of more things along these lines. The basic idea of magical healing is that it's better than natural healing in most ways, so you either need to significantly nerf magical healing or significantly improve natural healing in order to make them at all balanced against each other.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Regarding (2), in The Wheel of Time healing magic uses the body's own energy, so it's exhausting—healing a nasty wound can knock the patient out cold. In a fight, then, do you choose a fast heal weave with inevitable fatigue and a risk of incapacitation, or do you bind it quick and soldier on? Also, magic users can't heal themselves, so they must trust a fellow magic user in order to get magical healing. (Sometimes, there just isn't anyone trustworthy.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 23 '13 at 4:17

Your question can be generalized to the form of "Why are there mundane versions of healing/crafting/transportation/whatever", a question that comes up whenever the logistics, economics and day to day realities of a fantasy world are considered.

The answers can be any of the ones mentioned in the other answers: make magic rare, make magic costly, or make magic a bad choice for any other reason.

However, most of these may be good solutions for the setting in general, but not for an adventuring party. Magic might be rare, but the characters are usually those rare individuals with access to it.

But most of all, magic is useful. It's useful for the classic adventuring dynamic of move-fight-move-fight. You want to fight, get hurt, heal quickly and move on. No matter how efficient or useful non-magical healing is, it will never be as fast as magical healing. Wounds take time to close. Infections time to heal. If you give your non-magical healers such powerful herbs that they match the speed and utility of magical healing, then you've effectively made them into another variant of magical healing.


In Shadowrun, there's explicitly a rule that each wound can be healed once by magic or by first-aid; the question then immediately comes up as to which is better; some characters may have a passive resistance to magical healing due to cyberware, but it can also be favorable because First Aid is quicker for most wounds, and doesn't come with drain.

Again, some of this has to deal with the system; if they can stack and both can be applied quickly, then there's no reason not to have at least one person able to do both.

Another thing to consider is to make magic risky; or at least magic healing. Alternatively, it losing effectiveness if repeated too frequently can also be a good way to make people diversify their healing abilities.

Also, magical healing can be something very finite-if potent healing is far and few between, the need to heal using a standard medic and a healing kit immediately rises to the forefront (in 3.5, for instance, were you to restrict access to healing spells to 1/day, you would probably see a lot more people taking the Healing skill).

In short:

  • Magical healing is difficult to do; one healer can't maintain a whole party.
  • Spells have a material cost that far exceeds traditional healing, at least healing spells.
  • Normal healing works much better in combat than does magical healing, taking less time or being less draining for the mage.
  • Normal healing and magical healing can work in tandem; neither can easily tackle the entirety of a tough injury.
  • Some characters may get less, if anything at all, from magical healing than would normally be expected.
  • Alternatively, magical healing can have side-effects, such as diminishing repeated effects.

Also, based on the setting, magical healing could also be socially taboo, though theoretically this isn't so different from a side effect. One mechanical way I'd model side-effects would be to turn physical damage (i.e. bleeding wounds) into stun damage (i.e. being fatigued or knocked unconscious) when healed with magic were it too powerful (for instance, if I inadvertently gave characters a 10th initiation mage in Shadowrun).


The biggest advantage I can offer for "mundane" healers is Preparation. In quite a few games, you can make all of the items that effectively heal ahead of time. Having the (let's call it) alchemical knowledge means you know what to bottle or powder and keep on hand. Not only this, but in some game, characters must use less expendable resources to generate "magic potions" or what have you. In D&D you need to use XP or in L5R the only school that can create potions essentially works as a precast until the potion is used. Someone with a "healing powder" or an "antidote" can usually make those only needing a small amount of money, which is arguably the most usable resource for a character. And the limit on how many they have is truly up to the GM of the game.

Secondly, You keep versatility. Every time someone uses magic, they reduce their versatility to cast other spells, and this seems all but universal. Not only that, but even a touch of the standard "Heal Check" to stabilize a character can save that finite number of spells from being expended too soon. Plus, even when your healing consumables are gone, your character can still do their job without any loss in most cases.

Third, The system matters. Not to harp on a popular answer. The mundane healer definitely rules in 7th Sea. The healing magics are exceedingly rare, and the good surgeon can far surpass their abilities. Not to mention the power level of the party at large can make all the difference. In D&D 3.5 "Neutralize Poison" is a 4th level spell which takes a while to attain if you start at level 1. The heal skill definitely adds to versatility in these cases.


This is entirely setting dependent. It is entirely possible for a setting to be structured so that magical healing is relatively common and strictly better than mundane methods. In that case, there would be very litle reason for nonmagical healing, other than first-aid to stabilize someone until they get to a healer or for the very poor who may rely on someone with an herb garden and some knowledge that may or may not be actually true. These settings address it by virtually getting rid of professional, non-magic using healers.

Now if you want to create/tweak a setting so that non-magic healers can coexist meaningfully with the magical kind, then you need to limit magic in some way.

Limits on how much magical healing

As others have mentioned, the most straightforward way is to make it existing, but rare. In that case, you might have access to a healer in a major city, but out in the field you are relying on your friendly medic.

Another way is to make it much more expensive than non-magical. It may require rare and precious ingredients that get burned up in the process. It may come at a high cost to the healer himself, in fatigue or in risks of things going wrong or even in taking a portion of the damage healed himself.

But probably the best way is to limit what magical healing can do. Patch up flesh wounds so you can keep fighting? Sure, say a few words and it's done. Broken bone? Maybe, but you can only try once and its not reliable. Ooh, you have internal organ damage. Now, magic might stabilize you but you're going to need surgery, soon. Something got infected? You need antibiotics, and the right antibiotics, to a medic you go.

Make them cooperate

Another interesting approach is to make them complementary. Mechanically, this could be as simple as giving a major bonus to the roll when they work together, or you can only roll for magical healing once for a given wound and only do first-aid once, but you can do both for the same wound.

In terms of story explanation, you get things like magic can make that flesh wound close, but if it has not been properly cleaned out by the medic first it will get horribly infected. Magic can make that bone heal in minutes instead of months, but if a medic hasn't properly set it first it will heal horribly mangled and cause problems for the rest of that persons life.

Treating a disease might involve magic suppressing the immediate symptoms and a medic giving alchemical concoctions to actually speed the full recovery.

When faced with something new, they might also need to work together on the research, with the magic user providing knowledge of arcane energies and the medic providing knowledge of the body and bacteria. In real life, serious medical progress often involves lots of specialists working together, many of them may be statisticians or even physicists for certain areas of medicine rather than yet more doctors. There is no reason you wouldn't need more than one type of specialist to cure a new disease

In this way, you would expect to find medics working alongside magical healers and have a built in reason to have both.


In some settings:

  • Magic is rare enough to make non-magical healing the only available option. This is doubly true in games where the amount of healing mojo a spellcaster can spit out is limited to a certain amount each day.
  • Magic may be mistrusted, either due to groundless superstition or because it's actually got some potentially nasty side effects and miscasting consequences, and so characters may prefer the known risks of the non-magical option.
  • Magic may be more expensive or otherwise put out of reach of most people.

Admittedly, for the most part these don't do much to make non-magical healing fun for player characters, but that might not be the intention of the designers: In some games, non-magical healing abilities are only included to indicate that these skills exist in the setting, without really being viable alternatives to the more supernatural options.

Still, if you really do want to have a non-magical healer player character in the party, and don't want to hinder them from doing their 'thang,' you could implement one of the above setting or system features with the aid of your GM. Otherwise, there's not really anything you can do, short of switching to another system, banning or otherwise restricting magical healing, or convincing the group to abide by some sort of gentleman's agreement.


Make healing limited

Similar to what @DuckTapeal has suggested, but limit what magic can do in scope to simply speeding up what the body can achieve; ie simply faster healing.

What this would mean is that magic could be able to (for example) fix splinted bones and bind skin together, but it it couldn't put those things back into place - the bones would have to be set, the skin sewn together and so one. A surgeon would be very important to sort out prosthetics, perform the immediate field surgery and get things all back into one place so magic would even be able to be used.

For context in Rolemaster there are two types of healer; the first is a Lay Healer who nearly always have a high surgery skill to fall back on, their spells compliment their first aid and surgery skills and they typically pick and chose what they heal, they're basically a magical surgeon.

Change how healing works

The second type of healer in Rolemaster is the Healer they heal by transferring the wounds from the victim directly onto themselves, healing the victim instantly. All their healing spells deal with healing themselves (and they can quite possibly die from their wounds) they're generally regarded as masochists or martyrs and at least a bit mad. If you want to discourage magical healing, then make healing work like this, magical healing will become much harder to find/convince people to apply!


This is system dependent, but what I would do is create a "normal" healing character and reflavor the abilities to have a natural source rather than divine/magical/etc.

For a D&D example, I'd roll up the traditional cleric but leave out all the deity-specific stuff. All of my healing "spells" would actually be mundane treatments wielded by an expert to achieve a result just as good as magic.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 For a simple but effective answer that requires minimum rules hacking to work, compared to all the other answers. (Ranged healing spells could still get a bit weird, but some system-specific quirks are bound to show up with any reflavouring-based solution.) \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Apr 24 '13 at 5:12

The more healing/bigger healing dilemma

Sure, with this first point, your non-magical healer won't have many moments in the spotlight however, there are times where a non-magical healer will totally outclass a magical healer. The magical healer will get the vast majority of the healing work. Period. Yet, most systems I'm aware of have limits on magic use. In D&D, you cast a given number of spells per day, in Shadowrun (older versions at least) you fight against drain (stun damage and dice penalties) to keep casting spells, in Mage every casting causes you to risk Paradox since magically closing wounds just should not happen in this world. What happens when the party comes across a mass-health emergency? Maybe a battle just finished and there are hundreds of dead and dying. Depending on the system, a fresh healer would likely have about 10-20 healing spells of various potency that they can cast. What next? The non-magical healer can really shine in this instance. Sure, he can't cure 50 hitpoints in a single wave of his hands, but he can also treat a seeming never-ending line of casualties with bandages/poultices to help the non-critical patients. Maybe he's the hero for stabilizing all those who are dead or dying instead of the magical who "only" helped 10 guys. Granted, the magical healer will be beloved by the nobility in that battle's aftermath, but the hero "of the people" will be the non-magical healer who "kept Uncle Grognard alive".

Rule 1, never split the party, but what if it gets split?

Assuming your party gets split up and someone takes a few points of damage when the healer is not around, but the non-healer is present? Yup, you get a minute to shine!

OH [expletives deleted]! The Healer is hit!

If the healer goes down, someone needs to stabilize him/her at least until they can either cast healing on themselves, or the party can evacuate the healer to somewhere where magical healing is to be had.

How to play a pure, non-magical healer and not die of boredom

Why in a world of magical healing is your character learning non-magical healing? Follow the train of thought to really flesh out your idea. Then take it to your GM and hope s/he is willing to buy into the concept. Granted, this will likely mean that the campaign you play in will have a plot-point (or more) involving either just-completed battles, natural disasters, or human tragedies like a town burning down. However, when you come across this scenario, likely the rest of the party will be bored out of their skulls while the healer is casting spells until empty and your character is patching up wounds. Likely after the caster is finished with their spells, they will join you in poulticing and bandaging up the lesser wounded people if they are able (and not passed out from the exertion of working tremendous amounts of magical energy) and the non-healers will be glorified errand-boys/girls for the two party members who are healing.


Some settings make magic unpredictable and/or dangerous to cast. This implicitly makes natural healing safer and more reliable than healing that uses magic.


Magical healing: fast but scarce | natural healing: slow but abundant

If you want both magical and natural healing to coexist, one thing is clear: they have to attend to different needs, even though both restore hit points. If they filled the same niche, they would stand in direct competition and the stronger one would supersede and make the weaker one obsolete: in most cases, natural (non-magical/medical) healing.

From what I have read here, I mainly agree with two points and would summarize it like this:

  1. Make them different
  2. Limit magical healing

1. Make them different

The most obvious difference between the two is how fast they can heal. Bandaging a bleeding wound, treating an infection with herbs/medicine and especially having any sort of surgical procedure all take time and undisturbed attention; exactly the kind of things you don't have in clutch situations such as combat. This is where magical healing comes in. With magic, there is no inherent limitation on how fast it can restore hit points and no set procedures that would realistically not be feasible during combat. But if magical healing works so much faster and more secure, why not also use it to heal after combat? This is where point two comes in:

2. Limit magical healing

If you now severely limit the amount of magical healing available, you suddenly have a unique purpose for both natural and magical healing. How you do this depends on the system but I would suggest tying magical healing to an expensive resource like a scarce magical ingredient that is used up when by healing spells or to slowly regenerating Mana or something similar you may only get back when you progress in the story.

The end result

Magical healing can heal in seconds but is very limited in the total amount it can restore and thus insufficient to heal great amounts of damage. Non-magical (medical) healing is slow and essentially only able to boost the body's natural regeneration but aside from the time it takes and some medical items it requires, it is essentially unlimited in how much hit points it can restore. So use magical healing during combat to save your team from dying and natural healing after combat to bring the group back up to full strength.


An alternative would be to make them undo different types of inflections, for example magic for flesh wounds and blood loss and natural healing for poisens, infections and broken bones, a bit similar to what TimothyAWiseman said. But I don't like this approach as much, because it basically arbitrarily limits what each kind of healing can do and makes them artificially incomplete. This is why I would advocate for the above explained, making both kinds awesome and whole in their own way.

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