Thought: RPGs Without Healers
Okay, so here’s a thought: Healers potentially ruin RPGs.
That seems weird, doesn’t it? Because the healer is such a core class. But think about it this way: In most fantasy stories you might read, magical healing is rarely something ongoing in the middle of a battle. It’s something that happens in-between battles, and sparingly; it usually still takes time or has a downside, because that helps maintain tension. If a character can receive instant magical healing with no downsides, suddenly nothing short of complete death has any impact. Compare a story from real life or based in a non-magical setting and even relatively minor wounds are a danger or hindrance. Darkest Dungeon goes the route of making even healer characters only heal small amounts of health. This not only reinforces the sense of the quest as a hopeless battle of attrition and makes the whole endeavour feel more risky and damaging to the characters’ bodies and minds. It not only adds to the tension and risk of the game, but also makes the player think carefully about healing as a tactical choice.
So what are issues with healers in RPGs specifically that are bad?
– Healing makes players concentrate on cure rather than prevention. If you can heal all your HP fully in a turn and you’re safe so long as you keep out of an HP level where you can get one-hit killed, especially in a turn-based game, there is no reason to be cautious or tactical. It makes more sense to use all your heaviest attacks with every character but the healer, who uses heal every turn. This is repetitive and doesn’t reward smart tactical play. Lately I’ve been playing a pencil and paper RPG called “Magical Burst” (a magical girl RPG that’s heavily Madoka inspired) and our 3-girl party has no healer, which makes my character’s role as a defender-class suddenly really important and vital, because nobody can heal, so her job is trying to prevent partymembers from taking too much damage by tactically placing herself in positions where she can intercept enemy attacks and deflect or absorb them. If we had a healer, this role would not be so necessary or interesting to play. In reality, avoiding damage is one of the core disciplines of any martial art and has been a central part of technology of warfare for thousands of years; it can lead to far more interesting tactical gameplay decisions and mechanics.
– It encourages rash and violent solutions to problems. If you can immediately heal the damage and there’s no risk of breaking your leg and not being able to walk for weeks, or of bleeding to death, there’s no real risk to choosing to take on anything hostile physically. Especially if the game makes physical confrontation the only way to gain necessary experience, or absolutely impossible to progress without. It creates a scenario in which the way to solve all the world’s problems is simplified down to the barbaric solution of just “hit anybody who opposes you with a sword, we’ll make up storyline reasons to justify it, say they hit first, or they’re “evil” or thoughtless monsters, so you can still feel heroic while doing this”.
– It contributes to ridiculous numerical escalation. In a lazily designed RPG, boss HP is designed around the idea of “what is an appropriate amount of time for this player to have to fight to make them feel like they’ve overcome something hard and accomplished something. Even if it wasn’t actually hard because you just repeated the same actions every turn; it was big, there was epic music, it took half an hour, soooo wow what a great player I am, I beat the end boss! If you have a healer, you can last out more turns, and if your damage output has steadily increased throughout and the game’s mechanics are not suited to building interesting tactical challenges… well, the only way to make an end boss seem powerful is to make them do very high damage that’s not quite enough to kill the party every turn and have lots of HP so they take a long time to kill.
-It limits viable party choices or diminishes the difference between characters. In many games, either you have one or two characters as designated healers, in which case you must take at least one of them along and any partybuild without them is hopeless versus at very least bosses (ie. Dragon Age 2, if you’re playing a mage, it’s all but impossible to make a survivable party without either Merill or Anders, or Persona 4, I cannot imagine beating the final boss without Yukiko), OR pretty much every character can be made into a healer and they all end up very similar in build (like say FF7 where by the end most people have a party of three characters who are pretty good at both fighting and magic only differentiated by their Limit Break inputs). Compare Mass Effect, where only Shepard is directly playable and in charge of healing items (not saying this is the ideal solution, though Mass Effect at least is pretty much playable without healing if you’re skillful at the gameplay, and rewards you for not using heals, so pretty good!) which means that healing is not a factor in party choice, so pretty much all builds are viable.
I think personally, I would definitely consider making an RPG in which healing has a hugely diminished role or is removed from battles altogether. I think it’d be really interesting!