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.
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”.
Now, if we’re permitted a very short digression before we put this notion to rest, we’d like to briefly talk about this spell’s design. Given that Cody came to Fifth Edition from Third Edition, we’re quite disappointed in him for holding these opinions about a healing spell. The reason why this spell has been designed this way 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.
But to draw it back in and cut to the heart of the problem with what Cody is saying: he 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. Casting this spell may not take your action, but it certainly affects what you can do with it. 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.
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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