“Traditional” Healing: A Critique

Time for me to step on some toes. The traditional healer design in MMOs is a bad design. A bunch of people just got upset and don’t know why (because they don’t read my blog) at this statement, because it’s their favorite class, the one they’re the most comfortable with, everyone loves them on it, etc etc.

Let me clarify the statement. By “traditonal healer”, I’m talking about a healing class that is primarily reactive, filling up health bars as they deplete and attempting to do so without running out of [resource], which is its own bar that depletes. By “bad design”, I mean several things– it’s a dead end, it messages badly, it doesn’t reward players well, and it limits players of high skill.

Consider a few (very common) scenarios:

1.) A traditional healer at an appropriate gear level is in a group with one or more undergeared characters, one of which is the tank.

2.) A traditional healer is undergeared, in a group that is otherwise appropriately geared.

3.) A traditional healer is overgeared, in a group that is otherwise appropriately geared.

4.) A traditional healer is overgeared, in a group that is undergeared.

5.) A traditional healer is undergeared or appropriately geared, in a group that is otherwise overgeared.

In scenario 1, the healer is likely going to struggle. Reactive healing will create some issues, as the tank’s HP is going to swing wildly from full to critically low at a much faster rate than expected. A healer might be able to struggle through this, but will be under a lot more stress than the rest of the group (they’ll be carrying the party). If anyone does anything wrong and takes avoidable damage, the healer will likely be unable to catch up. Consider how similar this looks to scenario 4– the overgeared healer in scenario 4 is also carrying the group, and is probably powerful enough to make up for the shortcomings and mistakes of the rest of the party. There is no real way to know which situation this is until you actually try it (though occasionally it’ll be blindingly obvious). Note that the same is true in scenario 2, though the lack of incoming healing will likely be more obvious. Essentially, the healer’s situation here is binary: either the party lives or it does not, and only in scenario 2, where the healer’s knowledge of his or her own limits would allow them to make sense of the situation, is the healer the active decider of success or failure.

Now look at scenarios 3 and 5. Odds are very good that in both of these, the healer may be bored or otherwise undertasked, either because their excess power is going to waste (scenario 3) or because the group needs them less (scenario 4). Again, the healer’s agency is diminished because once the party has reached a certain threshold (either not needing the healer’s full power or diminishing the need for the healer due to their own excess power), the healer is less and less useful. A group that is powerful enough obviates the need for a healer entirely, though rarely can a healer be so powerful as to obviate the need for a group.

All of this is to point out that the traditional reactive healer lacks agency. If your only output is ensuring that health bars are full, then when health bars are full you are unnecessary until they deplete, and if they don’t deplete at a rate requiring your intervention, your spot in the group is better served by, say, more DPS. Similarly, the healer’s threshold for skill is limited by the health pools of their party members– fine-tuning your heals to be hyper-efficient is only relevant if you run the risk of running out of resources.

Compare this to the standard “tank” or “dps” paradigms– as these roles get better gear and more skill, their agency also increases, and as their power increases the effect their power has on the overall experience increases, often without bound. As a player gets more and more skilled and ekes out more and more performance, they can often materially alter the experience, generally by noticably increasing speed.

More modern healers do this as well, usually through the use of DPS abilities that also assist the healer in solo play, though I would argue that this is a substitution, rather than a natural extension of the healer’s support-oriented role. Tanks often have this issue as well, though they too can trade tanking functionality for damage, and this is generally a more natural extension of their role (as tanks are interacting directly with the enemy, whereas healers generally aren’t).

Offensive buffs, in my view, should be primarily the purview of the healers, a natural extension of their support role that also allows for a higher skill cap. Smart use of offensive buffs allows the healer to support the party on more than one axis, extending the class past simply “keeping everyone alive” and into “helping everyone perform at their best”. This also helps to solve the messaging problem, where a healer of barely passable skill can be differentiated from a healer of exemplary skill.

Worth noting: healers that primarily heal via damaging enemies (see: Rift’s Chloromancer) have much higher skill caps, though this design isn’t as refined as the more traditional healer (and furthermore doesn’t suit a great many players who are looking for a pure support role).

I’ve spent a bunch of time bashing the traditional healer design here, I’ll try to balance it out with some designs that solve the problems I see. If you’re a big fan of the traditional healer, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts!

1 comment

  1. I used to main healing in MMOs. I agree with you. Not just for the reasons you list, but I actually think thematically it is the dumbest thing ever. One of my favorite (and older) blog posts of mine is “Greatest Fantasy Movie Ever” in which I play out a short movie scene as if it were an MMO.

    Hint on the obvious outcome: How many heals did Gandalf cast in LOTRO – the movies? How many epic fantasy battles have we seen in movies (and even in our heads) where there are healers involved?

    The whole concept sucks – the next improvement to MMO combat is where HP reductions are changed with dodges, blocks, and parries (graphically and numerically) and hits are meaningful – something you want to avoid at all costs (as they should be)!

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