Every so often, a popular channel or blog will post some ludicrous opinion that is based on the shakiest logic (or a complete misunderstanding) and it will get completely overblown and poison the well for those too lazy to look into the matter themselves (and let’s be honest, we’ve all been there before). These fallacious sentiments can circulate for years and cause confusion, arguments, and sometimes even name calling if not rooted out and shown to be the product of ignorance before they can gain traction. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to catch them quickly enough; as Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”.
Well, we’ve strapped into our heaviest boots and we’re ready now to take on a new lie that has been circulating in the D&D community these past few weeks. No, healing word is not overpowered.
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This idea was put forward three weeks ago by Cody from the YouTube RPG channel Taking20. While we generally find that the quality of channels is inversely proportional to the clickbait in their titles, Cody really does have some decent content. Unfortunately, his video “Overpowered Spell is Wrecking Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Games” is most assuredly not one of them.
In his video, Cody inveighs rather strongly against healing word, calling it “overpowered” and a “get-out-of-jail-free card”. He argues that it abuses the action economy, that it is too freely available, and that it eliminates all sense of urgency in combat. Honestly, we could write whole articles about how to creatively and effectively employ the options for dealing with healer-heavy groups that he discounts out of hand (in particular, building encounters that challenge your players), but in this article we’re solely going to look at why he’s wrong about healing word.
Very quickly before we delve into Cody’s qualms, though, we’d like to briefly talk about why this spell was designed this way.
Given that Cody came to Fifth Edition from Third Edition, we’re quite disappointed in him for holding his opinions about this healing spell. The genius of this spell should be evident to anyone who played a healer in previous editions, where you were essentially an ambulatory hit point dispenser. A typical turn for a Third-Edition healer consisted of running to their various fallen party members and casting cure wounds. This was part of the game design; it was expected. Clerics even had a feature called spontaneous casting that allowed them to drop a spell they had prepared to cast cure wounds (this was back when you prepared spells to spell slots, so if you wanted to cast cure wounds more than once you needed to have it prepared multiple times).
What Fifth Edition has done with healing word is liberate those characters who would otherwise have been relegated to full-time healers. With healing word, you can heal an ally and also attack an enemy, making you feel as though you are more than just your spell slots. Everyone gets to have fun in combat, not just the non-healers. This is in keeping with the design strategy of Fifth Edition placing fun over balance.
Now, to address the specific points Cody raises.
The Action Economy
One of Cody’s biggest qualms with this spell is that it seems to abuse the action economy… somehow. As a bonus action spell that works at range, a healer doesn’t have to provoke opportunity attacks to leave an enemy’s threatened space so that they can run over to their fallen comrade and heal them (which also doesn’t trigger opportunity attacks, as casting a spell did in Third Edition). Instead, the character can cast healing word using a bonus action and then use their action to cast a cantrip or make an attack, all without “adding actions to the economy” (that is: triggering opportunity attacks from enemies). Cody calls this casting it “for free”.
Ultimately, Cody is ignoring an overriding drawback to casting a bonus action spell. That is: that it limits your options for what spells you can cast using your action on that turn to cantrips. If you’ve lost concentration on your key spells, such as a buff spell that really helps your party’s effectiveness (like bless or shield of faith), or a spell which debuffs your enemies (like bestow curse), you can’t cast them again if you use healing word. If you need to lay down some hurt with flame strike or cleanse a harmful status with remove curse, you can’t do that if you use healing word.
Therefore, while casting this spell may not take your action, it certainly affects what you can do with that action. That’s a major part of the cost of using healing word.
Part of the cost, because…
Spell Slots are Finite
Healing word is not a cantrip that can be cast infinitely; it is a 1st-level spell. Even though this fact is acknowledged in the video, it isn’t actually given due consideration. At one point in his video, Cody remarks, “When players finally do get access to level 2 spell slots and level 3 spell slots, now they don’t have three or four casts of healing word. Now they have six or seven or 10 or 12 casts of healing word. Twelve get-out-of-jail-free cards.”
We don’t want to pass judgment on how Cody plays D&D, but it must be said that a spellcaster who never casts a spell other than healing word is not leveraging their class’ abilities very well. If there are issues with combat, it’s more likely because the caster is saving all their spell slots for healing word than because that spell has got the barbarian back on his feet. Barbarians are tough; they have a d12 hit die and they resist the three most common damage types while raging. If the barbarian is going down, it’s probably because the party is not putting out enough damage in the race to pulverize the other side first. The fact that the spellcaster is hoarding their spell slots probably has something to do with that.
In fact, anyone who has tried to play a healer in Fifth Edition has probably figured out that this is exactly the wrong strategy to use. Why? Well, it’s because…
Healing Is Less Effective Than Dealing Damage
You are never going to out-heal the damage output of your enemies. That is just not how Fifth Edition combat is designed.
The length of a typical combat encounter varies based on the many factors that come into play, but an oft-cited average (and one that fits our experience) is five rounds. The mathematics of calculating a monster’s challenge rating come with an inherent presumption that the creature will be around for at least three rounds (the three-round average damage output, the hit points it regenerates over the course of three rounds, etc. are all factored into its final CR), and many monsters have abilities that recharge on a roll of a 5 or a 6 on a d6 (that is, a one-in-three chance), effectively becoming harder to defeat if a party lets the fight drag on longer than expected. Reduce all of this down to the very basics and you get the basic concept behind any fight—not a test of endurance, but rather a race to reduce the other side to zero hit points first.
A party that wants to survive won’t sit back and let the enemies hit them with everything, hoping to be able to outlast them with spells that can never heal more damage than a party suffers. Smart parties will attempt to establish superiority over the battlefield and force enemies to fight at a disadvantage. If you give up battlefield superiority, chances are you have already lost and no amount of healing words will help you. Spells are a big part of maintaining control, and it is an overly generous DM who does not punish their players for expecting to be able to get away with not using them. There is a lot of merit to saving a spell slot for a clutch heal, but hit points are worth more than spell slots and if you run out of the former then the latter become meaningless.
The Real Problem
We don’t disbelieve Cody that his experience in organized play is that healing word is a highly effective spell. Had he said healing word is “wrecking organized play”, we would have taken a less harsh view of his sentiments—not that he’d be much closer to being right. The fact that this spell shines at conventions, however, is a great indicator of what the actual problem is.
Unlike in a home game when the DM can create each encounter from the ground up, tailoring them to challenge the PCs, encounters in pre-made adventures are designed purely through mathematics in order to offer some challenge to every conceivable party composition. Such encounters are not designed to respond differently if there is an abundance of healing magic, or DMs haven’t had an opportunity to fully consider the different tactics the monsters might have to deal with such situations. Likewise, because of the uncertainty of what any given party composition will be in organized play, there are a disproportionate number of people who take healing spells, and healing word specifically, as compared to home games where players can discuss and plan the party ahead of time and generally have a more well-rounded result.
A party of strangers is also not going to have the same synergy as a party where each player knows the abilities of their companions. As such, the players will be far more likely to play conservatively, putting them in the position I described above where they’re hoarding their spell slots and suffering more damage than necessary because of it. This isn’t a problem with the healing word spell, it’s an issue of how a party behaves when the players don’t necessarily trust each other.
Cody at Take20 has put forward some good ideas in his YouTube videos, but his recent rant about healing word that is taking the Internet by storm is really just shortsighted. His argument is based on a questionable belief that healing must trigger opportunity attacks, and he completely ignores the inefficiency of spamming this spell over using the same spell slots to deal damage, as well as the reasons why players might play this way. Ultimately, the problems he raises are issues of encounter design and questionable DMing practices.
The problem is not and never has been with a single 1st-level spell.
If you enjoyed this article, check out this video by Luke from The DM Lair on YouTube, partly based on the points that I raised!
Taylor “Ipsimus Arcanus” Reisdorf is the lead writer and self-styled Archmage of Dungeon Master’s Workshop. He lives in the frozen wasteland of Manitoba, Canada with his partner and their two nine-lived familiars. You can find his content both here and also on Dungeon Masters Guild.
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25 thoughts on “No, Healing Word Is Not Overpowered”
Ehh just another reason I can’t stomach 5th edition. With how the death rules work in 5th edition it’s just about damn impossible to die without being crushed by a building, or falling off a cliff. Seeing as all it takes is 1 point of healing to negate an angry ogre from EVER killing a fighter or barbarian you end up playing this lame mini game of front line going down, front line coming up…. it’s horrible. All it took was three gaming sessions for my group to swap back to Pathfinder. Between the death rules, the advantage system, and the oddly high amount of HP everything has (including PCs) there just wasn’t a lot going for it.
I think that many people who think healing word to be a problem, probably play bonus actions incorrectly and just allow the spellcaster to cast a full action spell after it. Another thing that maybe causing this discussion is that they play very unoptimized characters and casting 7 points of healing per round sounds like a big deal. There are so many ways to counter this from simple things like:
– focusing on single character instead of spreading damage everywhere
– preventing line of sight so the spell cannot be used (darkness, fog, blindness on healer, walls, etc)
– simple cantrips like chill touch prevent regaining health points
Anyhow, there are ways to duplicate this effect with divine soul warlock casting distant spell metamagic on cure wounds (which scales better with casting it at higher level spell slot) and then casting quickened spell for the cantrip if that is wanted. Clerics (and others with access to the spell) can cast “Aid” which targets 3 characters and gives hit points (and max hitpoints) to all of them (5+5/spell level over 2) at the cost of 1 Action. Healing spirit has a similar function really and scales really well with casting it at higher level (as the added dies are multiplied by ability modifier).
Anyhow, overall healing word seems like a nice spell. It is far from overpowered though, but it is useful (as it should be).
Spot on! It has nothing to do with healing that makes it broken. This article never touched the actual problem. It is bouncing people back from unconscious, often in time for the downed person to have never even missed an action! That’s some action economy to get behind.
I used to agree with this position, now I agree with Cody. The reason? My DM accidentally ran a CR 17 Goristro against a party of 6 6th level characters, and thanks to healing word no one died. Honestly, it wasn’t even close. Those 10 “get out of death free” cards that the cleric had picked up one damage dealing character after another, and after about 5 round we were able to do the 310 points of damage that thing had as HP.
Now you may say “sure, but action economy…” which is true, but this is the point. Healing word has a negligible action economy in and of itself, and frankly as a DM, Don’t you WANT to be able to send a single big monster after a party and have them RUN AWAY? This should be something that the DM can do, but thanks to this one little spell, the party can stand its ground WAY above it’s weight class. If that doesn’t count as broken, I don’t know what does.
Thanks for your comment!
It should be noted that, by 6th level, a party of adventurers—especially a larger party with six characters—is not a force to be trifled with. Access to 3rd-level spells, extra attacks, and a healthy complement of spell slots means that they should be able to face most non-legendary solo creatures and stand a chance if they’re starting at relatively full strength. The action economy really is that important to encounter design.
It’s true that the goristro’s average damage output could stomp all but the toughest 6th-level characters to 0 in a single round, but even if that character doesn’t receive healing before the goristro’s next turn, the goristro would have to then spend another one or two attacks to actually kill the character before it can be healed. That leaves perhaps one attack left to keep putting the beatdown on the party while the other five characters have been free to unleash their full offensive power. Adding just one other creature that poses a threat to the party (that is, one which isn’t dispatched using a single spell) would have probably changed the entire battle, as would have giving this goristro some legendary actions, which is something we recommend doing for all creatures that are meant to be faced alone.
You should check out our article on Building an Encounter for a broader discussion on this topic.
Personally, I have found Healing Word to be UNDERpowered. Yeah, you can cast it faster, but at the cost of half the healing you have available! In our game, we NEVER have enough healing to go around. We’re always holding off until after the fight so we can get full healing from Cure Wounds. And this is even with the house rule, allowing Cure Wounds to be used as a ritual, so it doesn’t eat a spell slot.
Of course, this is kinda par for the course for 5e, being a much lower powered magical game than 3.5 or Pathfinder.
Healing word really isn’t half healing.
Cure wounds = 1D8 + casting modifier (average of D8 is 4.5)
Healing word = 1D4 + casting modifier (average of D4 is 2.5)
With a spell casting modifier of +4 (fairly typical for a healer) that’s 8.5hp vs 6.5hp healed.
For the low, low cost of 2hp you’re able to cast this spell as a bonus action and at range (the actual biggy here).
The issue isn’t with how much it heals, the issue is with the fact that it can bring people back from unconsciousness like a game of whack-a-mole. I have 3 players in my party that can cast it and even at 2nd level in the most treacherous conditions they just go up and down.
To fix this I’m going to propose that we switch the ranged components of Spare the Dying and Healing Word. Spare the Dying can stabilise from range and prevent the need for death saves, Healing Word can be cast as a bonus action but at touch range.
Another strategy is to simply remove it from some of the classes (druid being prime contender for a class that thematically, really shouldn’t possess it).
If you want that character back in the fight, it’s going to cost you something, at the very least strategize to be in range to do the work required.
Thanks for writing this article up! I recently got into 5e, and just multiclassed to become my party’s battle healer. I agree with your diagnosis on the usefulness of healing word versus other spells, as well as overall combat flow in 5e. Not being able to cast anything other than a cantrip after using this spell is a really big tradeoff, and the design of the spell seems to lend itself to a character that is usually using their actions to fight with a weapon, allowing some HP restoration while not completely breaking the bank and outclassing “Cure Wounds”, and I can only imagine how effective a spell like this could be for a class with a proper healing feature. Great force multiplier, but I don’t think it invalidates other healing spells.
I dont think Healing word is ruining the game, but it definitely is too effective at what it does. As someone mentioned above there is a huge difference in 0HP and 1HP so im not going to repeat it here too much. While at 0HP you can take a full on dragons breath and if you are level 8+ and have somewhat decent constitution you will only take one failed death saving throw. A thing that is probably one of the most painful things in the game (dragons breath) gives you one failed DST and you can take 2 of them before dying. Healing word in that regard counteracts two Dragons breaths while not putting the caster in any additional danger. Yes I know that melee attacks if successful will account for two automatics failed DST and if DM wants really bad to kill a person he can definitely do so. There isn’t much stopping him. The problem is that most DM’s want to put the party at deaths door, but leave a chance to recover. They expect hard encounters to kill one, maybe two people. But not the whole party. That is where Healing word comes in.
Our Group in the last two years had 4-5 encounters where Healing word alone was the decider of the fight. Most of them went like this: Everyone, except for the healer that always stood more away from the fray, was down and unconscious. That healer basically was running for his life and threw a last hail Marry in a form of healing word. The person that regained consciousness healed someone else with a healing word spell and lets say gave a potion to a close ally and so on. That means that in a matter of a round everyone is standing and able to fight. Their AC, ST Damage all start to mean something again. From NPC’s perspective 1 running enemy turned into 7 (we have a large group). It immediately dilutes the attack effectiveness of the NPC’s. It becomes less concentrated. And if players get to do damage there is a high chance that one or more NPCs will die, and they usually do not have that type of recovery.
For us in a matter of one round where there are 5 NPCs alive and 6 unconscious PCs and one running away PC, because of that one clutch spell, all of the PCs are conscious and 3 NPCs died. In all those encounters we all thought this is it. This is a group wipe. There is nothing to be done. And that one spell and one round determines that the encounter was won and no one died.
While it may not be a perfect example it definitely paints a picture of how it might be better than any other 1st or maybe even 2nd and 3rd level spell. There is no point in casting healing word when your party member got hit with the first attack. Its point is not to out heal the incoming damage. That spell only becomes effective when someone is down and it keeps getting more effective the more failed DST that person has. Its a spell that works in Hyperbolic way. The more unconscious players you have in your party the better it becomes (generally).
So in conclusion, I like the spell. It makes for very memorable battles, because there is a lot of ups and downs and players are on the brink of their seats the whole time. It adds tension to the game. I believe the game was balance in that swingy kinda way on purpose. But again, i fully understand why people consider the spell overpowered. It makes some things in the game like DST a bit obsolete. And if encounters like these happen a lot in someones game, I imagine it would start to take a lot out of players immersion in their game.
I agree, I feel like a nice (and sensible) change would be making it harder to bring back unconscious PCs from death’s door. Having to heal negative HP or something like that. Being able to come back to full battle potential by healing 2 HP is, indeed, kind of broken and thematically absurd.
You bring up not being able to out heal an encounter, but that’s exactly why healing word is so good. There is just a fine line between 0hp being out of the fight and 1HP that brings you back to full dmg potential till you drop again. I’m not looking to keep people at max health I just want them up taking actions, and I still get to attack. A downed party member is a useless member. Also as you mentioned this is not 3rd where we have to pick each the exact number of a spell I have, I can open the fight buffing and blasting, all the while having the get out of jail card sitting there when it is needed. And spell slots are limited really that is a terrible argument, that’s the limit ON all spells and maybe time to take a rest to resupply the party. If I am out of 1st level spells I have probably also run out of most if not all my more powerful spells.
Your title is saying that it isn’t overpowered, yet the article’s entire premise is that fun is more important than balance. While I agree with the last statement, that doesn’t mean that healing word isn’t broken.
Thanks for commenting!
My first argument has always been and always will be fun. This is a game, after all. That said, I wonder if you skimmed over some (rather large) sections of this article where I specifically dismantled Cody’s arguments by highlighting:
– Bonus action spells mean you can’t cast non-cantrip Action spells that round (“The Action Economy” section);
– You’re never going to out-heal the damage your party suffers, especially if you continually are healing and throwing out a cantrip (“Healing is Less Effective than Dealing Damage” section); and
– You can’t cast this spell forever (“Spell Slots are Finite” section)
I then addressed how Cody was basing his entire premise on his experience in organized play, rather than in the far more common home game setting. I’m not discounting organized play as a valid system (they’re doing that all on their own with the recent changes to Adventurers League), but the type of player attracted to organized play and the prudence of stocking healing spells when you can’t necessarily rely on your fellows are but two of the many factors that foil any fair attempt to draw broad conclusions about the game from such a narrow experience.
So while I would say that fun is an important consideration, I wouldn’t call it the entire premise of the article.
A balanced party with a Paladin (lay on hands and healing spells), fighter (second wind), rogue (damage avoidance), Druid (off heals and Healing Word), Bard (off heals and Healing Word), Wizard (Life Transference) and Cleric is over powered when it comes to heals. Period. You have 3 classes with the bonus action at range healing word. As a DM you are not dropping this party in any hard cover campaign unless you cheat by buffing your mobs or nerfing the party. Even parties that are not so heals heavy will be fine. If Healing Word was not available to so many classes and at no cost that would not be the case. True that 5 barbarians and cleric might need Healing Word, but most parties are more balanced and have more heals than that.
“As a DM you are not dropping this party in any hard cover campaign unless you cheat by buffing your mobs or nerfing the party.” Adapting an encounter for a specific party isn’t cheating. Its doing your job as a DM.
I agree strongly that 5e is a totally different beast. I think we’ve all seen the argument against concentration, for example; or people wanting to put masterwork items back into the game.
I personally found the delivery a little dramatic, though, tbh. It was a little funny to cite “Lies!!” or criticize clickbaity titles in the same breath to me. A simple “I disagree” might have been sufficient? Especially with so prevalent a misconception. Ideas like this are common enough I probably wouldn’t even say they ‘poison the well’ as common as they are – it hasn’t been drained of the stagnant old water in the first place.
I might argue, actually, that 5e didn’t express the change in ideals very clearly from 4 to 5. They kind of came off (to me at least) with this “We’re going back to 3.5” impression; I had to work it out myself how significantly different 5e is.
A simple example:
I have a friend who is convinced that every action, ever, should fit into a skill category. But Angry GM really hit it on the head, in my view, when he stated it was more about the Ability check, hence the wording change (“Wisdom (Survival)” instead of “Survival Check”) in the DMG, despite it feeling a little wonky going against previous editions.
The idea being that abilities need not be married to proficiencies, and that deciding which ability, and THEN whether a proficiency applies, was the game-changing difference between 2e and 3e. As opposed to offering an extensive, all-encompassing list of Skill Buttons to push in any given situation. It was to facilitate creative actions under the same mechanic, not offer a solution to every gameplay situation. Which I totally agree with. (Though I’m less familiar with pre-3e. It makes sense to me, though.)
I dunno. Just an example.
Great article, friend.
…er. Wording is a little awkward there. I didn’t mean to say that 3e distinguished abilities and skill proficiencies; rather that 5e makes that distinction *better* than 3e did, and that’s why we ended up with the skill-button mentality in the first place. But the real value was the unified ability score mechanic, not the list of skills.
Aid is also not a concentration spell.
Thanks for your comment!
You’re quite right. We meant bless.
We’ve updated the article. Sorry for the confusion.
– the Archmage
Some of us prefer the 3.5e version of the healer’s role. You assert that the 5e way is “placing fun above balance” but personally I’d have a lot more fun figuring out how to heal my party while staying alive myself as opposed to doung the weird hodgepodge of jobs a 5e cleric has. As such i just don’t find the spell “fun.”
Then play 3.5.
Seems quite simple, really: play what gives you the experience you want, don’t say there is a “problem” with a system that does not do what you want.
You can build a party that way… with the 3.5 feel, but it’s a choice.
One of the things that Cody of Take20 doesn’t factor in, and one of the things Ipsimus leaves out of this article is that 5th Edition’s game design for PC classes is much more wide open than in previous editions.
You can have a stalking thief built as a monk, or a woodsy ranger built as a rogue, or a healer built as a bard. The “role/responsibility” overlap for the PC classes is vast. The cleric is no longer, necessarily the best healer in the game.
In the group I’m currently running with, our cleric is an undead slayer and almost never has time for healing anyone. She’s too busy bashing monsters. The bard that I play is our party’s healer, and he’s arguably better at it than she is.
My point is that the flexibility of the PC class abilities that is specifically built into 5e makes the old modes of thought doable, but not mandatory for optimal party layout and player fun.
Thanks for your comment!
You raise a very good point, one of several that we wish we could have covered in this article. As many people tend to skim after 2,000 words, however, we had to limit the scope to simply replying to the video in question.
We hope to cover this topic in another post. Be sure to check back or subscribe to get updates when new articles come out!
Spiritual Weapon isn’t a concentration spell.
Thanks for your comment!
You are quite right. We’ll update the article… and our spell list. Wow.
– the Archmage