Healer’s Corner: What a Healer’s Job Actually Is (and What It Isn’t)

My sister loves (and my friends tolerate) some of my really hilarious stories about what it’s like playing a healer in some video games, especially MMOs. My experiences of dragging a tank that occasionally bothers to pull aggro and DPSes that are as spastic as sugar hyped two-year-olds through a dungeon have led to the oft uttered joke you’ve likely heard on the Cartographers Guild stream, “Wow, we should have brought a healer.” This is mostly because the tolerance of those sorts of groups (and my buddies, jokingly) about any mistakes on my part are about that polite.

I intend to tell some of those stories in this series of articles, though not today. I thought we’d begin this series by establishing a few important things. In a video game where you’re playing on a team populated by real humans, what is a healer? What does she do? How does she do it? How does she decide who gets healing and when (hint: not caprice)? What is she responsible for and when?

Ugh, you’re thinking. One, this is a game. Lighten up. Two . . . it’s inherent in the name, isn’t it? Healer see player health bar go down. Healer play whack-a-mole with Cure spell. Sparkle, bling! Player all better, healer wait to play whack-a-mole again.

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(Picture: Low MP by Sigeel, DeviantArt: https://sigeel.deviantart.com/art/low-MP-429376670)

In the very simplest sense, sure. That makes healing sound easy, and played that way, it sure is! But healers are capable of much more than that, based on a combination of what the particular game offers, the healer’s skill, and– and this one is often overlooked or just plain disregarded– how the other players on the team are playing.

I’m going to attempt to keep this general as opposed to referring to the mechanics of a particular game. What does a healer do? Well, healers heal, obviously. They can replenish lost hit points/health/vitality, etc. They also typically have some form of “cleanse,” which means if someone else has a bad status effect on them, poison for example, a healer can take it off.

Depending on the game, healers may have more “utility”, which is basically anything that’s not strictly healing or cleansing. They can have “buffs”, which means they can put positive status effects on a player: shield them from damage, give them a heal over time (or HoT, think of it as the opposite of poison, which does damage over time, or DoT), make them temporarily stronger, faster, etc. And finally, healers can sometimes, if the situation calls for it, do quite a decent amount of damage, as DoT or as an attack or skill, on one enemy or in an area of effect (AoE), which can also put bad status effects on the enemy, called “debuffs”, depending on the game and skill.

That’s quite a grab bag, isn’t it? Way more complicated than playing whack-a-mole with health bars. Playing a healer can be as complicated as you want it to be– or as complicated as your teammates allow it to be, which puts us neatly at the next question. We now know basically what a healer does, now, how does she do it?

A healer’s first priority is to heal. All the utility in the world is useless if your team is dying. You can’t neglect healing to play with all the other cool tools in your belt, sadly. First and foremost, play your role, although it’s fun to masquerade as a DPS when you have some extra time.

Now for all the stuff healers either forget or don’t have time for due to battlefield antics. Priority number two: you’re already looking at their health bars; if you see a DoT or debuff, cleanse it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this ignored or forgotten. I’ve seen healers just try to heal through the extra damage and wonder why it’s so much harder. It’s been so bad that if someone views my character’s search info on Final Fantasy 14, the search comment is actually, “Esuna. It’s a thing.”

By the way, if you’re more of an “off-healer”– which just means you’re not the main healer with all the big impressive Cure spells– you’re accomplishing all this with shields and HoTs and buffs. I’ve seen off-healers so good that main healers have nothing to do. Lots of people think off-healers are just mediocre DPSes with some heals, to which I counter: not the ones who play them properly. A good off-healer prevents so much damage and keeps everyone’s health so even and high that all I have to do as the main is throw out a quick heal after a big attack we can see is coming and go back to my utility stuff. I love good off-healers.

Did you see a slip of the tongue I made in the last paragraph? I reread it and saw I’d written, “I’ve seen off-healers so good that main healers have nothing to do.” Bad girl. Healers always have something to do! I’ve heard people say healing is boring, and that’s only because they actually believe that garbage. Healers always have some kind of damage or buff they can be doing in the moments where no one actively needs a heal. Stop over-healing, healers! You can’t heal over a teammate’s max health. But you can be doing something else for them they’ll like, I guarantee you.

Priority number three: resurrection. If you’re playing a game that allows this in battle, unless you’re the last one up, you’ve got to make sure your team’s OK on health before you engage in getting somebody up if they’ve died/passed out, etc, because it normally takes a few seconds. If you see somebody’s gone down, you need to be getting ready to get them up as soon as possible. This seems pretty common sense, doesn’t it? But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people so intent on the battle that they don’t even notice somebody’s gone down.

Finally, the last priority is all that utility I’ve been mentioning. And be careful. This is the stuff you do if you have extra time, which means everybody is up, has plenty of health, and no bad status effects. DPS tunnel vision is extremely easy to fall prey to. It’s fun to wail on an enemy, satisfying to know you’re killing the crap out of it. It’s easy to look up and go, “Whoops! My bad,” when you notice a DPS has gone down because you didn’t see his health bar falling. Try not to be that person. I’ll tell you a secret, though. You want a healer that that happens occasionally to because they were trying to use their utility skills. A good healer tries to do everything they can to help their team, and doesn’t just play whack-a-mole.

Next question: how does she decide who gets healing and when? Well, sadly, a good healer does play favorites a bit. The tank, the person in charge of holding all the enemies on them, gets your primary attention, always, period. If the tank goes down, the group typically wipes (everyone dies), and then you’ll find people blaming you pretty quick.

I would like to point out that if the tank goes down, it’s not always the healer’s fault. Sometimes it is. Sometimes the healer wasn’t paying attention, was doing something else, or just plain messed up. It happens.

Sometimes, it’s someone else’s fault, and it can be hard for a layperson to see whose fault it is. To illustrate an example, I’ll have to explain “threat” and “aggro.” I’ll try to be quick. In short, everything anyone does generates threat. It’s a system to determine who the enemies will attack, who is the biggest threat to them. Whoever has the most threat has aggro, which means the enemies are attacking them. The tank’s job is to generate more threat than anyone else– he or she has lots of skills to do this– to acquire and maintain aggro. They have more health and armor than anyone else, and the DPS players kill the enemies while the healer keeps everyone healthy. In balance, that’s how every battle should go.

But sometimes things fall out of balance, and there are a lot of ways that can happen. Healing produces a lot of threat. Sometimes healers have a skill they can pop every once in a while to shed some, but in some games they don’t. This is why it’s so critically important not to over-heal. You need to generate as little threat as possible, so the tank can keep the enemies safely squared on them. There’s only so much the tank can do to maintain aggro, you need to be managing your own threat as much as you can.

Sometimes this is very hard, depending on a lot of things. A DPS might not be managing his/her threat well, for example, and then enemies get pulled off the tank to attack them, and then you’re healing a lot to keep them up, and then the enemies jump on you . . . you see how things get out of control if everyone isn’t playing their role well? Or maybe someone just isn’t dodging a lot of obvious dodgeable attacks, they just sit there and soak it up and expect you to heal through it. You heal more, and the same thing happens, and you die, then everyone else does, then everyone wonders why you are such a bad healer.

I don’t mean to scare you. People very rarely actually are mean to the healer, in my experience. If they are, they’re afraid they won’t get heals! However, you’re the most obvious target when something goes wrong, so it’s important to keep your priorities straight. You’re the one looking at the battlefield, while your team is looking at the enemies. You are the best qualified to know what went wrong. If you messed up, admit it. If you didn’t, don’t play the blame game. Point out what you saw and give suggestions on how the team might fix it.

Which segues nicely into the last question: what is the healer responsible for and when? You are responsible for healing your group. Tank first, then DPS. Of the DPS, heal the ones that actively dodge enemy attacks and actually do the specific mechanics of the fight first, because they are the most useful. If someone is blatantly ignoring those things, warn them. You can’t heal through all that. If they’re jerks, they might say a good healer could. Maybe, but it’s not your job to enable them to be lazy and wear DPS blinders, especially if that’s taking time away from the rest of the team. Raw healing output isn’t everything, just like raw DPS output isn’t everything. If you have to let a DPS die to keep the tank up, do it and get them up when you can.

I’ve noticed that while a tank tends to be the tactical leader of a group– they tend to be the ones who lead through the dungeon and explain the fights to new people– healers tend to be the morale leaders. I have often explained fights and led teams through a dungeon myself, but more than that, I find myself reporting about what happened in the last fight, and how we could improve it. Did you know that attack is interruptible/dodgeable? You were standing in an AoE, did you see it? Have you tried this skill? Be careful with that last one, no one likes to think they’re being told how to play their class.

Your knowledge of the battlefield is especially useful, healer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told somebody about a fight mechanic where they went, “Oh, really? I didn’t know that boss did that. Thanks a lot!” Or “I didn’t think of that, sorry.” Or even, to save face, “I was standing in an AoE? Sorry, my bad.” And then they’ll stop doing it, or try, even though you know damn well they didn’t care about dodging any of those attacks last attempt, but now someone called them on it, so they have to shape up.

If you’re in a good group, or have success helping your group improve, you are going to have lots of fun. The tank will keep aggro usually, the DPS will execute mechanics of the fight well, and you’ll get to do things other than whack-a-mole. Be sure to tell people about your utility skills in this case! Lots of times, non-healers don’t even know about them or how they could be useful. If your group is bad, or new (and if they’re new, be patient! We were all new once) you’re going to be doing nothing but healing. Which is, honestly, boring.

Which brings me to my last point. We’ve heard all about what a healer’s job is. It isn’t a healer’s job to do nothing but heal, or be ridiculed if their healing power doesn’t make up for everyone else’s laziness. Mistakes are one thing. Everyone messes up once in a while, throw them a heal as they’re scurrying out of the enemy’s way. But there’s a difference between a DPS not getting out of the way fast enough and just sitting there and taking damage because moving would lower their precious damage per second output. There’s a difference between a tank doing their best to hold aggro and deciding they’d rather put out more damage because it’s not their job to grab those ranged monsters back there that they don’t feel like walking over to (spoilers: it is their job). It’s a game, we should all be having fun, and it really isn’t the healer’s job to just cast healing magic. No one likes a game where they only have time to press one button, do they?

That said, if you’re relatively new, don’t have great gear yet, your healing power is low for whatever reason, don’t be afraid to say it and ask for advice, or for the tank to slow down through the dungeon. Healers tend to be the communication hub in a team, in my experience. There will be some jerks that just drop you from the group because they don’t feel like dealing with a n00b, sadly. But there will also be some awesome people who are happy to help and have lots of helpful tips to give, maybe they even offer to craft you some armor, or suggest which dungeons to get better gear in for your class, or their main toon is a healer and they can tell you all sorts of awesome stuff about your skills you didn’t know. Play with people that are fun. Don’t play with people who aren’t. It’s just that simple.

I hope I’ve managed to educate you a little bit about a class that I hear people are often too intimidated by the difficulty or responsibility of to play. I love healing, and while it’s not always sunshine and roses, especially with Pick Up Groups (or PUGs, which are just random people in a queue matched to play with you in a dungeon if you don’t have friends online to play with), sometimes the stories from the disaster runs are pretty awesome. But that’s a story for another day.

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(This picture is everywhere!  I’d love to give credit where credit’s due, but I can’t find the original.  So props to the artist, because I didn’t draw it.)

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