Spell Spotlight: Healing Spirit
Healing spirit is the most criticized new spell in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Its design has been heatedly discussed on our own forums, on the D&D Reddit, and every message board and social network in between. It has been almost universally denounced by online fans of D&D as utterly broken, and in desperate need of houseruling, official errata, or even outright banning.
But is healing spirit really that broken? And if it is, what about it needs to be changed in order to fix it? These may sound like silly questions to ask, but a good game designer (and I firmly believe that all good Dungeon Masters must also be good game designers) should look at every spell, class feature, and racial trait from all angles. Let’s take a look at healing spirit—where it succeeds, where it fails, and how you can change it to fit your game.
What Does Healing Spirit Do?
Healing spirit is a 2nd-level spell from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything only available to druids and rangers (and bards that steal it with Magical Secrets or Additional Magical Secrets). The spell’s most important effects are as follows; it has a few other minor properties that you can look at in the spell’s full description:
Requiring only a bonus action to cast, the caster can concentrate on this spell for up to 1 minute, creating a healing spirit that fills a 5-foot cube within 60 feet of them. Whenever a creature you can see enters the spirit’s space for the first time on a turn or starts its turn there, you can choose to have the spirit restore 1d6 hit points, requiring no action. This spell can be cast using a higher level spell slot, increasing the healing by 1d6 for each slot level above 2nd.
Healing Spirit’s Pros
This much-maligned spell is not without merit. If it weren't, people would just discard it instead of trying to find ways to fix it! Healing spirit fills an important niche in fifth edition D&D’s design that no other spells cover: powerful in-combat healing.
As a spell exclusive to the druid and ranger classes, it helps players who want to play a druid or ranger fill an important healing niche in parties without a cleric. One of the design goals of fifth edition D&D was to let people play with any party composition that they wanted—and one of the main barriers to this style of play was the perceived necessity of the cleric. Giving a powerful healing spell to druids and rangers is a step towards democratizing healing, in the same vein as giving all classes hit dice to use as a healing resource.
It’s generally considered less efficient to spend spell slots on healing compared to spending them on damage. Compare cure wounds to guiding bolt. One deals 4d6 radiant damage (an average of 14 damage) and grants advantage on a successful hit and grants advantage to the next attacker’s attack roll, while the other restores hit points equal to 1d8 + your spellcasting modifier (an average of 7, assuming you have a +3 spellcasting modifier). Guiding bolt deals twice the damage that cure wounds heals, and has a bonus effect.
Even if you take into account the fact that guiding bolt can miss its target and cure wounds always “hits,” as long as guiding bolt hits more than half the time, it’s a more efficient use of a spell slot than healing.
Healing spirit is a healing spell potent enough to be worth using in combat. It only requires a bonus action to cast, and, with some clever positioning, can restore 1d6 hit points to each of your allies each turn. While in combat, this element of tactical positioning can be an interesting puzzle for the players to unravel, since they have to find a balance between aggressive and defensive positioning.
This is where healing spirit really falls apart. Unfortunately, I don’t have much good to say about this spell when it comes to out-of-combat healing, either from a narrative or mechanical perspective. We’ll look at it more in the cons section.
Healing Spirit’s Cons
Unfortunately, healing spirit steps on the toes of other existing spells and classes in the game. As you’ll soon see, most of healing spirit’s problems arise because, while it is a balanced and fairly competitive spell in combat scenarios, it’s grossly overpowered out-of-combat.
Healing spirit can cause contention in parties where both clerics and druids/rangers are present. If a cleric wants to play a support role and focus on healing and buffing, it feels unsportsmanlike to play a combat-focused ranger or Wild Shape-focused druid that also has access to a healing spell as potent as healing spirit. Personally, I feel that this is an excellent way to differentiate the healing capabilities of different classes, but the out-of-combat balance of healing spirit needs to be addressed if this stylish asymmetrical balance is to work as intended.
My impression of healing spirit, after several readings of its spell description, is that it was balanced around its usefulness in combat (compare its 1 bonus action casting time to prayer of healing’s 10 minute casting time). As it stands, its concentration requirement makes it an unattractive option in combat, especially since so many of druids’ 2nd-level spell options require concentration.
In fact, only six of druids’ twenty-three 2nd-level spell options don’t require concentration: animal messenger, darkvision, find traps, lesser restoration, locate animals or plants, and protection from poison. Similarly, healing spirit’s concentration requirement fights directly for the ranger’s class-defining hunter’s mark.
All other small issues aside, healing spirit’s gravest flaw is its power when used out of combat. If an entire party of adventurers clusters in a 5-foot cube for the spell’s full 1 minute duration (in a sort of heroic cuddle pile, perhaps?), each character will regain 10d6 hit points (an average of 35 hit points) at the cost of a single 2nd-level spell slot.
What this essentially means is that, with only a minute of rest and a single 2nd level spell slot, a druid can fully heal an entire party of 3rd level adventurers. It’s a short rest’s worth of healing in a fraction of the time, which essentially allows an adventuring party to take on any challenge at full hit points. This is where your mileage may vary. If you like to throw a small amount of very challenging encounters at your players, then you’re probably designing all of your encounters with the assumption that your players will tackle them at full hit points anyway. This encounter design philosophy leads to a very heroic style of play, where just about every encounter is a major cinematic moment. If that’s your playstyle, then healing spirit’s out-of-combat potency isn’t a problem at all. It may still present other problems, but this isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s the way the fifth edition D&D is balanced.
However, if you like to play a grim-and-gritty D&D where adventuring is all about carefully conserving your resources in grueling dungeon crawls and being slowly worn down by constant small combats… then this presents a huge problem. First of all, starting every combat at full hit points is antithetical to this style of play. Second, healing spirit is so much better at restoring hit points out-of-combat than it is at restoring them in-combat (its supposed primary function), that the most efficient way to conserve precious resources is to only use it out of combat. Finally and most importantly, it is so much more powerful than comparable spells of prayer of healing (available only to 3rd-level clerics) and aura of vitality (available only to 9th-level paladins) that it makes a druid a better cleric than a cleric and a ranger a better paladin than a paladin, as far as healing is concerned.
The Official House Rule
Jeremy Crawford, managing editor of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, frequently answers player-submitted rules questions on his Twitter account. While he maintains that healing spirit is working as intended, it does “have the potential to exceed our expectations” in out-of-combat scenarios. In layman’s terms, the D&D team isn’t going to make a knee-jerk nerf and over-balance the spell. Instead, they’re devoting additional resources to see how this spell plays out long-term to see if it really is as much of a problem as people claim.
In the meantime, however, Jeremy has provided a simple house rule that brings the spell more in line with its intended power level.
[Pictured tweet reads: “If healing spirit has felt too effective in your game, try this house rule, which holds the spell to our expectations for it: the spell ends once the spirit has restored hit points a number of times equal to twice your spellcasting ability modifier (minimum of once).”]
If a 3rd level druid with a Wisdom of 16 (+3) cast healing spirit, it would restore 1d6 hit points to any creature that passed through the spirit’s space or started its turn there a maximum of six times. If, over the course of their adventuring career, that same druid increased their Wisdom to 20 (+5), the spell could restore 1d6 hit points a maximum of ten times. This means that, at its most powerful, healing spirit cast at 2nd level now only restores an average of 35 hit points, instead of 35 hit points per creature.
This is a major nerf, but it brings healing spirit more in line with prayer of healing. To compare, prayer of healing cast at 2nd level restores hit points equal to 2d8 + your spellcasting modifier to up to 6 creatures. At its most efficient, that’s an average of 84 hit points (2d8 rolls an average of 9, plus 5 is 14, times 6). Prayer of healing restores more than twice the number of hit points of the house ruled healing spirit, but is much less flexible. It must be cast out of combat because of its 10 minute casting time, and it only restores a small amount of hit points to each creature, whereas healing spirit allows you to specify how much healing each creature gets.
For more of the tweets Jeremy has made in response to this spell at the height of the outcry, you can check Zoltar’s Sage Advice blog.
My House Rule
I think Jeremy’s proposed house rule is a strong fix to healing spirit. A few months ago, I was asked how I would change healing spirit, if I were a member of the D&D team. I didn’t have a good answer then, but I’ve had some time to think about it, and this is how I would revise healing spirit to make it a more attractive option in combat while clamping down on its out-of-combat power. Here are the changes I would make to healing spirit, and the final wording I would use:
- Remove the spell’s concentration requirement, making it a much more attractive in-combat option. This limitation does nothing to make it less powerful outside of combat, so removing it doesn’t break anything.
- Causing the spirit to heal requires you to use your reaction when a creature enters the spirit’s space for the first time on its turn or starts its turn there. Replacing “(no action required)” with “as a reaction” limits the spell’s healing to a maximum of 10d6 without having the spell scale multiplicatively with spellcasting ability modifier. I can’t think of any other spells that increase their effective duration based on ability modifier, just spells like cure wounds which add healing based on your spellcasting ability modifier.
My revised version of healing spirit would look like this:
Casting Time: 1 bonus action
Range: 60 feet
Duration: 1 minute
You call forth a nature spirit to soothe the wounded. The intangible spirit appears in a space that is a 5-foot cube you can see within range. The spirit looks like a transparent beast or fey (your choice).
Until the spell ends, as a reaction when you or a creature you can see moves into the spirit’s space for the first time on a turn or starts its turn there, you can cause the spirit to restore 1d6 hit points to that creature. The spirit can’t heal constructs or undead.
As a bonus action on your turn, you can move the spirit up to 30 feet to a space you can see.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the healing increases by 1d6 for each slot level above 2nd.
Healing Spirit in Your Game
When you get right down to it, healing spirit needs some changes. It gives druids and rangers an effective healing spell (hooray!) but it steps all over the cleric and paladin’s comparable healing spells (boo). It you play a heroic game, it lets you start every major fight with full hit points (yay!), but it singlehandedly makes an attrition style of dungeon-crawling play unviable (yikes).
Fortunately, D&D is a game played by humans who can make house rules as they see fit, not a game governed by strict computer programs. Unfortunately, the major problem with not having any official errata on this spell means that my house rules, Jeremy’s house rules, and (most importantly) your house rules are all illegal in D&D Adventurer’s League games. And unfortunately… I have no solutions for that. If you’re having a problem with healing spirit making your AL game less fun, your only recourse is to talk with your players and hope they’re mature about it.
What have your experiences with healing spirit been? I’m interested in what you think of Jeremy’s “official house rule,” and the house rule I’ve provided here, and I also want to know what you have done in your home game to address this spell!
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with Mei and Marzipan, two fey spirits in the form of small fuzzy animals. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.