Cure Selfish Wounds

Today’s D&D Next post at the Wizards site by Bruce Cordell is titled Time to Heal and discusses the role of the Cleric class and how it relates to healing through the life span of Dungeons & Dragons. There’s a nice little recap of how healing and the Cleric class have both worked in previous editions, and then there is a poll asking how people prefer the mechanics to be handled. Reading about how healing worked in previous editions brought forward some experiences that I am dying to share with you.

After the announcement of 4th Edition D&D, Dave decided he wanted to run a finale 3rd Edition (3.x in actuality) campaign to send the edition off in style. Gathering a group of players mostly from around where I live, Dave kindly traveled a decent distance to plan and run the game for us. One of the first things that happened amongst the players during character creation is that a friend of ours called playing the cleric. This wasn’t too surprising if you know anything about the cleric class in 3rd edition and how overpowered it can become, but even this early in the process I had a small suspicion that healing would be an issue for this party. As such, and inspired by an excellent character in the Wheel of Time novels I was reading, I decided to give a serious try to playing a Bard character for the first time. This allowed me to play a character type that I wanted to play while still having access to healing spells if the need arose.

Dawn of the Selfish Cleric

Before I get too far into this, let me say that I do not hold any grudges against this player (he is a regular in my current ongoing game) and he was never elusive or deceptive about the type of character he was playing. With that out of the way, I will say that there was quite a bit of tension in this party based on the fact that we were adventuring with a cleric that did not seem to know how to heal. Ever. Having chosen his domains in the direction of war, death, and destruction, this cleric instead become potentially the most powerful and dangerous member of our party through the entire course of the game.

We all knew that within the mechanics of the game he could give up his spell slots in exchange for healing, which sounds like a great mechanic. However, it can lead to a lot of animosity when it is paired with a character who responds to healing requests with, “I’m not that kind of cleric.” There were rare occasions where he would choose to give up a spell slot for healing, but that was almost always in a situation where my bard character could not immediately heal one specific party member, the selfish cleric himself. I imagine if you looked at his healing habits through 14 levels of adventuring that he healed himself 80-90% of the time, with the rarest of heals going out to another character (most likely my bard, so he could wake up and heal the other party members).

The surprising part for me was that I felt some angst for playing a bard that had to be the party’s primary healer, but in the end I found it as an incredibly fun and rewarding experience. The only aspects that led to conflict around the table was that the selfish cleric player did not put any effort into differentiating between his character’s decisions and his desires as a player, so we as the party felt like both the player and the character were being really dickish. In the end I think the experience became more funny to us than anything else, and obviously I look back on the whole selfish cleric experience as just another great D&D story to share.

Avoiding the Non-Healing Jerk Situation

Going from the selfish cleric experience to running an ongoing 4th Edition D&D campaign with my wife playing the only cleric in the party was a revelation to me. I say this because, just like the player in Dave’s last 3.x game, my wife has chosen very few healing spells and powers as a cleric in 4e. However, what we have seen across 25 levels of play is that she still acts at the party’s main source of healing and is a crucial resource to the group’s survival. The 4e cleric class has the option of being even better at healing by taking as many additional healing powers as they want, but without those they still fulfill the vital role of the healer that is so valuable in many D&D groups.

My experiences are why I am very happy to see the “A cleric should have a combination of free healing and ‘spell slot’ healing” option in the lead on Bruce’s D&D Next poll (leading with over 60% of the votes at the moment). It is the option I voted for, because I think it is the perfect balance that the cleric class needs in D&D. What I hope comes about next in the discussions about D&D Next is the idea that healing, hit points, and damage in D&D go way beyond the way the cleric class is handled. 4th Edition illustrated this point nicely with the inclusion of healing surges and second wind, which are two aspects of the 4e design that I think could use some careful consideration. In addition, my experiences as the primary healer bard illustrate that other classes with access to healing are just as important to the conversation. I liked that 4e had the leader role as a defined element tying these classes together, but I always felt weird about the implication that having a cleric in addition to a warlord, bard, or artificer would be overlapping roles for the party.

Moving Forward with D&D Next

As I’ve stated before, one of my biggest hopes is that I will be able to play a style of D&D very similar to my experiences with 4th Edition with the system that is being called D&D Next. I would love to see a module for this new edition of D&D that allows something more like “heroic survival” that incorporates healing surges and second winds into the game. Having some characters at the table with this option and others without it wouldn’t be too difficult to manage, and if it were applied to tough fighter or barbarian characters or even available to Dwarf characters as a feat or bonus I think it could really add a lot to the game. This would allow me to continue running and playing the game with some of the flavor of 4e D&D without forcing everyone (even at the same table) to use that style of healing.

No matter what D&D Next ends up looking like, the issue of healing goes way beyond the cleric class and I’m sure quite a bit of attention will be paid to how that all ends up coming together in the end.


  1. I think the second wind, and martial healing classes in 4e were a great addition to the game. No one in my group ever wants to play a cleric, but being able to heal people by using a battlecry minor action etc. is super cool and very fun.

  2. TheMainEvent says:

    Danny, Justin was RUNNING AWAY WITH the selfish healing cleric concept in Dave’s classic “Kegland” game. Evil Priest of Pain that took lots of damage and only healed himself and freelanced as a murderous psychopath outside of adventuring.

    Oh, Hagar the Horrible.

  3. I must say that the ‘selfish cleric’ idea does sound like a fun one…up to the point where it creates real annoyance for the players (and not just the characters).

    In our 3e games, it was almost given that the last person to join / decide on their character *had* to play the cleric, because no one else wanted to. Playing someone who had to give up all elements of choice in order for the game to “work” was just not fun. Whereas, in 4e, the role of cleric (or other leader) has been an enjoyable and customisable one, with our group sometimes having up to three leaders (~50% of the group) in it; not because they were needed, but because 4e made playing the healer more interesting, and ultimately, fun.

    I haven’t seen anything concrete about how healing is being handled in 5e, but what little that has come out via ENWorld is a little scary: it doesn’t sound like surges still exist, it sounds more complex, and Clerics are going back to the Vancian system. I hope they take a much more 4e-stance, mechanically.


  4. I think the designers are sincere in their goal of bringing characters from different editions to the same table, and many of the ideas they discussed at the seminar indicate they are headed in the right direction (of course, this is my opinion). But, I think having some players at the table whose characters can heal themselves while others are dependent on a cleric or some outside source would be awkward. It will probably have to be a table-by-table and not player-by-player decision.

    Personally, I’m very much in the simulationist camp. I do not believe that magic and clerical healing exist in our reality; but if they are going to exist in a fantasy world, they should be believable in some context of realism. Clerics heal through divine power granted by their deities. I have trouble comprehending how inspiring speech, rousing ballads, or even pulling oneself up by their bootstraps can provide a magical healing effect. I could see these providing temporary hit points, but not outright healing.

    Personal feelings aside, I hope the next iteration of D&D does provide some meaningful way for both approaches to healing to exist.

  5. Regarding your comment about second winds and healing surges, I agree that they should be considered, but also that they should be tweaked before being implemented. The power of offense in 4th edition is supreme, and especially that of hit point damage. No longer are there combat speed spells that can cause a save versus (insert here) that result in the enemy slumping over dead, unconscious, or so mired in a pit of mud that the battle is effectively over, leaving damage the one, and really only, default way to end a fight. In a game where more damage faster is the order of the day, Second Wind is usually pretty garbage, which is why I’m such a fan of playing Dwarves – a minor action Second Wind goes a long way towards maintaining yourself without a cleric on call, just like how minor action healing spells go a long way towards maintaining your healing as a cleric.

    Similarly, while the healing surge mechanic allows the game to be properly played without a cleric on hand, and the healing between combat encounters allows a very even keel for encounter balance (between surges and encounter/at-will powers, every character is going to be at a pretty high level of relative effectiveness going into any combat scenario), that sort of invalidates the “oh man, we got really screwed up by the trolls back there – we’re so battered I don’t think starting this fight is a good idea!” The only time that happens in 4th edition is when healing surges have literally been reduced to very low numbers or none at all. If I’m remembering right I believe AngryDM wrote a piece about short and extended rests and what was wrong with them, and I’m mostly in agreement with his points there (although not necessarily his potential solutions, which he admits were mostly spur of the moment).

    Beyond that, I think this was a very well written article and am in agreement on all points!

  6. hvg3: That’s our exact same experience with 2e D&D, the last person to show up was pretty much always the Cleric. I think in the last 2e game I played I chose to play a cleric, and it worked well because I was best friends with the Barbarian and was the only one who could snap him out of his rages.

    Webgeek: I actually disagree, I don’t think it’d be that awkward at all to have one character that can heal themselves and others that need a cleric or potions. I chalk this up to the same kind of difference as one class having more hitpoints or even more healing surges than another class, it’s just a more direct approach. Also, I’m imagining if it’s a module that the players who don’t have surges/2nd wind are gaining something else instead of that ability. I also disagree with the realism/simulationist argument here because hit points on their own are a huge deviation from this line of thought. If you can believe a character taking an axe to the face is the same as them taking an axe to the finger, then you shouldn’t really have a problem with rousing speeches inspiring people to fight longer/harder and shake off their wounds (which happens in real life, believe it or not). I’m glad we can both agree that there could be a place for multiple types of healing in the new version of D&D though!

    TheHydraDM: Thanks for the comment! I’m with you on the “damage is king” and the “fresh for every fight” ideas in 4E, and they’re things I’m happy to see being tweaked or revised now.

  7. I thoroughly enjoy 4th ed Leader classes. I think they have a good balance of healing, effects, and some useful damage.

  8. I can’t see why no one wants to be a cleric outside of the fact that it can get pretty complicated. Clerics in 2E got stupid powerful around 9th level, let alone level 20! 3.x and 4E are the same. A clever player can build a tank of a toon with the cleric class.

  9. Healer not healing? Have the fighters stop blocking enemies movement towards them. The healer will be more inclined to heal when it’s his blood all over the floor and the fighters are doing fine.

  10. Hi all

    Bartoneus, I think you’re missing the point of what webgeek was saying a little.

    The issue is- what makes the divines special? The paladins and clerics lost a lot of the flavour in 4E, although I don’t even think they had it the roughest. That award goes to the Arcane classes, with the same @W/E/D/U as the rangers etc, so much more just came down to “How much damage do I do?”.

    It’s not a problem mechanically for people other than divine classes to be healing, it’s how the mechanical elements relate to the story/imagery.

  11. Rob: The problem is Webgeek didn’t say that at all, but you did, so I’ll respond to you!

    I agree that a lot of the caster classes felt like they may have lost some distinction (or, as you say, “flavour”) compared to the other classes, but a lot of people look at it this way instead – the other classes became just as interesting as the caster classes. I think there are a lot of other ways to distinguish between classes rather than “this class has a lot of mechanical options open to it, and this other class doesn’t, but they don’t use magic so it’s okay!” I like how the Essentials design fixed this issue, keeping the A/E/D/U mechanics (though minus dailies) for the martial classes.

    Anyone who will try to argue with me “Clerics lost their flavor in 4E” won’t make much of an impact because I just finished running 25 levels with my wife as a Cleric. Her character played as much like a Cleric as any of the ones I’ve played or run for in 2E or 3E, if not even more so because of how insanely good her healing was. The issue is when you say they’ve lost their “flavour”, with regards to Clerics, unfortunately the issue you’re really expressing is that they’re not better than other classes and/or just healbots anymore.

  12. Malecus: Oh believe me, this happened (because I don’t think we ever had a full on fighter in the party), but the selfish Cleric (seeing as he got the name “selfish”) was perfectly fine with healing himself. Our issue was, as I said in the post, that he probably healed himself 80-90% of the time, and only healed other party members on the rare occasion.

  13. selfish cleric says:

    Now in my own defense going into the party I made it clear that I was a dwarven war cleric, and healing would only take place when needed. I would not heal for minor wounds or stuff that a healing potion or time would take care of. I would however heal if the situation was dire. Also by healing my self it allowed others to heal as needed. I also welcomed oncoming attacks as I was geared correctly to work as a meat shield and often stood in as the groups fighter.

    Selfish maybe but not when it is in line with what I saw as a battle cleric would do. That is, people need to be self reliant, and that he could best serve his god by attacking and healing when needed to keep the battle going.
    Also there were many times when the offensive spells saved the day and if I had spent the spell slot healing the party we would have all been dead. The best example of this that I can remember is when we were in a dungeon and I used stone shape to trap and hold a dragon while the remaining party members killed it. At this point a few of the party had already dropped out even after I had healed them, and the rest of us were looking like it was the end. I never started a fresh day of with no healing spells memorized, just most of the slots were taken by offensive spells. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I think the one thing that WOTC did do correclty with 4th edition is fixing the cleric. The 3.x cleric was the first one I had ever played, prior to that I had played a thief/bard. The free heal would have been an added bonus and would have saved that tension in the 3.x game.

    The other issue is I find the group has a hard time telling when I’m talking in character or out. Even when I play a dick character, like my drow in the 4th ed game. I’m a nice guy (or at least I think so) so you would think the separation would be obvious. Now that might be a good article, separation of IC vs OC.

  14. selfish cleric says:

    I should also note had the bard not been there I would have done much more healing, as well as being the meat shield.

  15. Howdy

    I feel a bit rude for not saying this earlier Bartoneus:

    Great article, I really enjoyed reading it ๐Ÿ™‚

    Do you remember the Incredibles? At some point the villain has the hero tied up and reveals his evil plan, to make devices so that everyone will be super/special.

    “…and when everyone’s special…. NO ONE WILL BE!! MWHAHAHAHAH!!!”

    And I think this is the heart of the issue. It all sounds well and good to give everyone the ability to do everything, but to me, and I’m guessing a lot of other people feel the same way as well, it really dilutes the uniqueness of the classes.

    I appreciate what you were saying about your wife’s Cleric still feeling very much like a Cleric. I would put this down to good roleplaying and character development. And I’m not saying clerics don’t function as great healers, they do and the mechanics do leave them top of the pile.

    Unlike your group, my group doesn’t have the tenacity for a 25 level campaign (or maybe I just don’t manage to keep it on the rails as the GM and need to take a break and play for a while). Instead our campaigns tend to run 4-6 levels and then we swap over to something else. On the plus side everyone gets a chance to do everything and we see lots of interesting builds and classes. All in all I think I must have participated in at least 12 different campaigns of 4E.

    And after so many games its quite clear that the Divine, Martial, Arcane, Stealth distinction has broken down and the Striker, Leader, Controller, Defender has taken over. Maybe I’m just getting a little jaded here, but to me some of the magic has gone. Simply these (ad-nouns?) aren’t as interesting as the IDEAS they’ve replaced are.

    Maybe this is in part because I remember being a teenager reading the Dragonlance saga, which did such a great job in creating distinction between the different classes and bringing it to life. And I’m not saying 4E sucks- it doesn’t and I have had a ball playing it, overall possibly more so than 3rd Ed.

    Anyway, same problem as at the end of my previous reply- I have to go to work.

    P.S. Yes I did indeed play a cleric in 3rd Ed ๐Ÿ˜‰ But what prompted me to post was a comment by one of my players about “Why would you play a striker other than a Ranger?” after feeling dissatisfied with his Sorcerer. To me the answer is “Because it’s a Mage that does loads of damage.” but when you break it down to numbers and options it very much looks inferior to the Ranger as a striker.


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