NELCO 2016 Part IV: Healers

In effort to get a start on one of my New Years resolutions, I’m going back to a topic that came up at NELCO 2016 which I continue to often find myself thinking about. It was a topic I proposed: “MEDIC! : Healers in LARP and Other RP Media“.

I used to love to play healers in boffer LARPs and tabletop RPGs before that, but I slowly grew to dislike it because of the way healers are conceptually treated in LARPs (much of which is directly related to how they’re designed in tabletop RPGs and MMORPGs) and the way other players treat healer characters in-game. The panel mostly focused on healers in boffer and/or campaign LARPs, but some of the discussion applied to healers in theater and/or one-shots. My fellow panelist was a boffer LARPer who frequently plays healers in boffer campaigns. (I should note we both play a fair amount of Accelerant campaigns, so a lot of the discussion at NELCO and the content of this post will reflect that, but most of the principles can be applied to other systems.)


I opened the panel with a personal anecdote. Years ago, I played a half-elf healer in a Dragonlance tabletop campaign. When my character offered some kind of minor petty insult to a minotaur fighter, he tried to kill her. I decided my half-elf would refuse to heal him until he apologized, which he refused to do. This quickly became a problem, as much of the mechanics  of D&D are based around the idea that every party has an active healer. Eventually, one of the other players got fed up and told my half-elf if I refused to cast healing spells on the minotaur, the party would ditch her at the next town and hire a cleric to accompany them.

That wasn’t my last healer character, but it was the start of my relationship with playing the healer in RPGs going sour.

There’s a lot that can be rough about playing a healer, both in tabletop RPGs and LARPs. Some issues healer characters often run into include:

1. They’re often treated as secondary to the fighters, especially the melee fighters. We toss around terms like “backpack healer,” which implies they’re an accessory for a fighter character, or even “girlfriend healer” which has a sexist little twist of implying it’s a feminine role that exists to provide support for a masculine fighter.

2. Healers are often taken for granted — it’s just assumed they will heal any PC, anytime it’s needed or asked for, regardless of the situation or their relationship with the injured party. (See the tabletop RPG story above.) People feel entitled to their abilities. Healers are often looked down upon if they want to get compensated for their healing, even though many boffer games have an economy that disproportionately rewards melee fighters by inserting much of the currency/loot into the game via monster drops, which usually happens at the feet of melee fighters. Some LARPs even have a culture of “killing blow gets the loot”. (The topic of loot is discussed more in depth in a previous post.)

3. The mechanics for healing are often a lot less exciting and dynamic than the mechanics for other roles in combat — in my first Accelerant campaign, I spent a lot of time pantomiming suturing and counting to 60 in my head, over and over. Boffer combat is a sport — it’s inherently fun for most LARPers who play live combat LARPs. Healing often isn’t.

4. In some campaigns, there are many different flavors of fighters, but only one or two flavors of healers; for example, you may have to play a religious character in order to have healing skills (likely influenced by clerics being the primary healers in Dungeons and Dragons.)

I think in order to brainstorm ideas for improving the experience for healers in LARP, we first have to ask why people choose to play healers, whether as someone whose skills are exclusively related to healing, or as a primary healer with other secondary sets of skills.

Reasons for playing a healer include:

1. A player wants to contribute in combat but are afraid their combat skills aren’t up to snuff, or they just don’t want their contributions dependent on their personal skills. (Healing mechanics are often divorced from actual player skill, aka “a soft skill”, unlike combat which is often dependent on player skill, aka a “hard skill”.)

2. Some players simply dislike violence, but don’t want to be left out of a major part of a live combat campaign LARP entirely, so they choose a role that is present in combat but has the most distance from the nexus of battle.

3. Health concerns lead can lead players to choose a healing role; for example, more physically active roles may exacerbate asthma, or they may have a bad shoulder that gets painfully sore if strained by wielding a weapon or throwing packets for too long, or they may have mobility issues (and would like a role that may spend a fair amount of combat seated in a “triage area” — a clump of healers separated from the bulk of combat, where injured fighters go — or get dragged to — for healing before returning to combat.)

4. Some players are looking for a role that is primarily about conferring positive benefits on fellow players. This might be because it will be useful in as many modules/plotlines as possible, or perhaps because it informs a relationship with characters who stick around, unlike combatants, who often don’t have long term relationships with many of the people their mechanics are designed to affect (that is, enemy combatants.)

5. A player may want to roleplay a character who is self-sufficient, though this is often a reason for players who create characters that dabble in multiple skill sets, rather than focus on healing primarily.

6. Some players are interested in the roleplay opportunities healing provides and want to experiment with playing a pacifist (or at least want a character that is less likely than most to fall into the role of a “murder hobo”), or they want play a character who wrestles with moral questions like whether they should heal or withhold healing from people who commit crimes. Or they want to be able to roleplay more with enemies who refuse to treat with hostile combatants.

7. Players may like the flavor that comes attached to the healing mechanics (for example, they may have interest in the church that worships the god of healing in a LARP’s setting.)

8. The reasons may not have to do with a personal draw towards the concept of healing per se. A player may simply be playing on a team that doesn’t have a healer yet, or may want to play an underrepresented group in a campaign that doesn’t have many other healer characters. Or maybe they’ve played a lot of fighters and want to try something new (especially if they have been stereotyped as a fighter because of past characters, or their physical appearance.)

As you can see, there are lots of reasons why players might choose to play a healer role; I’m sure the list above is incomplete. A staff can poll their players to find out the reasons behind their players’ choice to play healer . Asking these questions could be part of the character creation process, or part of the ongoing dialog between a staff and their players (via between event feedback forms.) It’s also a question that becomes relevant for non-healer characters who branch out into healing mid-way through a campaign.

So how can we mitigate some of the common problems mentioned above, and support the type of play LARPers want when they create healer characters?

I’m personally not a huge fan of economies in LARPs based primarily on loot drops, but if you have one such in your LARP, and healers aren’t getting a reasonable amount of currency or items, there are a few ways to address this. You can introduce skills available to healers, such as medicinal herb craft, where they know how to identify and properly collect and prepare plants used for medicinal purposes, and can either use them themselves or sell or barter them.

If the players want to organize a healers guild, a LARP staff (and fellow PCs) can support the effort, especially if other players are less than supportive. (Or the staff can even initiate one.) This can be as simple as allowing them to register for it, and then providing them a stipend at each event. Some LARPs have a cost of living applied to each event — for example, if you turn in enough gold, you can have “eaten well” or some such and gain a temporary extra hit point, or you can avoid the “starving” trait and an accompanying subtraction from your hit points, by turning in some amount of gold. A healers’ guild could also simply automatically cover those costs. A LARP staff could write in wealthy NPCs who require healing and will reward it generously, possibly by individual rewards or donations to the healers guild, or they could donate items of value to healers, such as bandages or antidotes with special properties that improve a healers’ skill.

It may be necessary to introduce measures to prevent the healers’ guild (or other group that serves a similar purpose, such as a medical school or church worshiping the god or goddess of healing) from being abused. (You probably don’t want it to be a source of free resources to those who regularly loot on the front lines of combat and have only bought the a single healing skill or whatever the equivalent is in your system.) One may want to make it open to those who are exclusively healers (and don’t dabble in other roles in combat, or have never wielded a weapon) or primarily healers (eg characters who have at least 3/4s of their skills purchased under the healer header or have at least 10 skills with the tag “healing skill”– obviously this needs to be adjusted according to however your system works. For example, if your system doesn’t have skills, you might include in-game requirements, like spending X hours every event in the infirmary, or in emergency situations — ie combat — one must report to the head of the healers guild.)

In fantasy settings, this can be reinforced with magically binding oaths — perhaps an oath of pacifism, or some alternate version of the Hippocratic Oath, one that players cannot choose to break while they are under it, or can break but only with dire consequences. If there isn’t a supernatural way to reinforce an oath, there could still be an investigative organization dedicated to rooting out those who break the rules of the healers guild.

These sorts of structures and restrictions dovetail with the idea of presenting plot directed at healer characters, as they can make good fodder for plot. It might be tempting to make the oaths simple, or as ethical as possible, but if they’re extreme or potentially viewed as problematic by players, it can create more opportunities for roleplay and plot. The oaths (or rules) could be extreme (complete pacifism) and players can wrestle with what the question of under what circumstances are they willing to keep or breath their oaths, or they could be complex, and players can debate the meaning and practical applications. (If an oath of pacifism permits violence in immediate self-defense, what qualifies as immediate self-defense? If they’re required to treat anyone who asks for it, must they do their best? Are they required to save a life, but perhaps not a limb of, say, an evil assassin? What about a prisoner who may then be tortured?)

These kinds of things are ideal for players who create healer characters because they’re looking for unusual opportunities in roleplay, both with fellow PCs and also NPCs. I recall once in a historical LARP, unarmed members of Red Cross were permitted by enemies to cross their lines and assist with hostages. It was a small moment, but it left a huge impact on me, and taught me that healer (or pacifist) characters have great potential for creating personal, non-violent interactions with dangerous enemies. Maybe they’re the only ones enemies are willing to treat with, or the only ones enemies will let into their headquarters, perhaps because they’re required by international law, or want a healer to see to their hostages or injured members. This can also be an opportunity to introduce information to the PCs — maybe while treating hostages, the healers note the enemies’ numbers, or new weapons, or spot a map marked with their planned targets, and this information can be brought back to the other players. Or maybe the hostages want to use them to pass secret messages, but if they’re caught, they won’t be allowed to return in the future.

Besides designing plot-lines around healing, the mechanics themselves can be designed (or re-designed — ongoing campaigns can always improve) to be more fun for players. As mentioned above, some players choose to play healers because they want to be able to contribute in combat, but don’t want their contribution to be based on any real life skill. In this case, they’re looking for healing that doesn’t require a success at any sort of challenge to go off. But some players do still want a fun activity to participate in (and pantomiming suturing or bandaging or blood pressure taking can be fun, but the fun doesn’t last the way the fun of physical combat often does for many players). What if one form of healing is provided by a book of spells, and each spell is a puzzle, and solving a puzzle allows players to call out “By My Voice, Heal 5 by Magic”? (Perhaps the book is gift from Hermes, both a trickster and a healer god?) Players can choose the slow and steady form of healing (eg “roleplay performing first aid for 60 seconds, then call “Heal 1 by Medicine”) or they can try the more powerful, but more time consuming and difficult path of solving puzzles. Alternatively, healing could involve art — say, a series of runes have to be in calligraphy onto a bandage in order to cast a “Heal Maim by Runes”. (What can I say, I love arts ‘n crafts in LARP.)

It’s important to remember that while many players do choose the path of healing in order to avoid being in the thick of things during combat, there are lots of players (including yours truly, during the first two boffer campaigns I PCed) who play a healer,  but really would still like to be physically active where the excitement is. I often found it frustrating that the most efficient way to handle healing during combat was to set up triage in the safest area, sit all of the healers in it, and then have injured combatants come over to the healers (or get dragged over) before heading back to where the excitement was. I ended up taking a melee weapon skill just to have an excuse to leave the triage area.

This kind of issue can be difficult to fix, especially since it’s difficult to alter the tactics of general combat without introducing a host of new issues (and reducing the benefits of playing a healer for the players who specifically do want to spend combat sitting in triage), but there might be ways to mitigate it. What if dragging unconscious bodies to triage was dangerous (eg you had to call “1 Damage by Dragging” when moving another person) and therefore it was beneficial to have healers come to the front line? Some LARPs have mechanics where someone concentrating on a non-combat task has extra defenses (such as scholars working on puzzles being allowed to call Resist or Short Repel if an attacker tries to interrupt them), which might also encourage PCs to bring their healers towards the front lines. Pacifism in particular can be so limiting in a live combat LARP, that extra defenses for healers who take vows of pacifism so that they can have more mobility in violent situations is worth considering.

I know some players really dislike when NPC monsters are re-spawning from every direction in the dark, but I find this structure for combat precludes players easily setting up triage areas, so it’s worth considering if you’d like to discourage or outright prevent the “triage area”.

Some campaigns really like to emphasize the slow, steady form of healing (eg the 60 seconds of roleplaying first aid for “Heal one by Medicine”.) It’s understandable in that it can be easier to balance when determining the difficulty of combat when healing isn’t dependent on a player skills (if solving puzzles was the only way to heal in-game, what if the players got stuck and simply couldn’t solve one?) or players don’t have much instant-healing to access. It can also convey a grittier tone when healing is time consuming and mundane, whereas instant magic healing can reduce the sense of danger any given encounter might have.

But the slow healing can just be so incredibly dull and repetitive, that it’s worth looking into ways to reconfigure the healing mechanics to make playing a healer less unappealing, while still maintaining as much of the constancy and grit as possible. For example, in one LARP I played, one of the common forms of healing was instantaneous for the healer, but necessitated the heal-ee still refrain from combat and rest for 5 minutes. (“Heal 2 and Drain by Medicine.”) This way, the healer didn’t have to spend minute after minute counting down the time, but combatants still couldn’t just pop back up into battle. Other LARPs had similar systems, but the costs/drawbacks were varied, depending on the treatments “side-effects”. (Eg “Cure Maim and Agony by Medicine” or “Heal 1 and Short Drain by Medicine”.)

I’m a particular fan of a couple of other ways I’ve seen LARPs limit the power of instant healing. The first is to make healing come at an interesting price to the healer, which could be as simple as the healer spends their own health to heal another (“Heal One to Victim and One Damage to Self”) or more complex, (“Heal 5 and short agony to Victim, Double Maim to Self,” or “you have a boost of healing so long as you root yourself to the ground for five minutes”) or far more dramatic (“Cure Death to Ally and Death to Self” or “Cure Death to Ally and Death to Other Ally” — this can be great fodder for emotional roleplay.) I usually find it more interesting when I have to mentally calculate whether or not an ability (or resource) is worth spending. Or it can be a roleplay cost (eg the healer and/or heal-ee now owe a favor to the Devil in exchange for restoring a  permanently maimed limb.)

The second is to have the healing be tied to an in-game relationship. I’ve seen players enter essentially magical body guard contracts with one another, for boosted defense (and also healing), which incentivized (or possibly required) them to watch one another’s back, even in difficult combat situations where the PCs were frequently getting split up by the enemy. I felt as though there was a much more noticeable roleplay element to that battle for me. In another LARP, characters who could become a member of a witch’s “hearth” such that the witch could apply extra healing to them (the hearths were of limited size), and joining the hearth took different forms depending on the witch. For one witch, who was also a lawyer, it took the form of an extensive, complicated legal contract. This sort of thing goes over well with players who create healer characters in order to build interesting and/or complex relationships with fellow players.

And remember that the relationships between healers and other characters need not always be warm and fuzzy — what if mad scientist-type characters had healing they could apply to other players they experiment on, or having healing spells they can apply to other players playing summoned demons in their thrall? Or a sci-fi game where healing requires allowing the healer to infest them with an alien with whom they have a psychic link, but the alien can sometimes take over? These kinds of ideas also work well for players who want to play healers, but feel restricted by the flavors that healing often comes in (eg clerics of a benevolent, gentle god.) Healers can be mad scientists or necromancers or alien psychics; healing can be dark, or weird, or clinical, or even selfish.

Individual modules designed for healers often appeal to the players who don’t want to be in the thick of combat, but also often feel like secondary characters when relegated to the back lines or triage. I once went on a module that was set in an old fashioned operating theater, where a creepy surgeon taught us healing skills by demonstrating surgical techniques. An NPC got beneath a sterile blue cover, and a fake version of the crown of his head (fake hair over a plastic dome on hinges) stuck out. We opened the top of his skull, where a jello brain was visible, and we were given tools to surgically remove bits of his brain (small items stuck in the jello mold.) In another similar module, we cut into a fake arm sticking out of the sterile sheets. Inside the arm was a wooden bone to saw through, red and blue tubes for arteries and veins to cut and clamp, and fabric muscles to cut and stitch . We replaced the arm with a set of tentacles that got stitched on. These modules were a ton of fun, very creative, and taught the healers new medical skills.

While I do highly recommend this sort of hands-on activity for healer modules, they doesn’t necessarily have to involve such elaborate set-up and props. NPCs could teach players how to identify and combine herbs to create remedies, or different techniques for bandaging. (Along with techniques for inscribing healing runes if it applies to your setting.) In a module in a different campaign, the players showed up to an impoverished area and set up a temporary clinic, where players performed interviews and examinations on a series of patients, then diagnosed and distributed pharmaceutical treatments. With a little research into the principles of triage, NPCs could stage a scenario where players learn the principles, then apply them to the scene of a large accident, or the aftermath of an attack from enemy forces. (In one LARP, my character learned a triage ability, which allowed healers to determine at a glance who on the field was most in need of help — “By My Voice, Expose Unstable”. That ability was a lot of fun.)

And there’s always the idea of a monster who is harmed by healing magic. (This needs a bit of finagling in Accelerant, where most healing is touch cast, and one generally doesn’t want touch casting being used offensively; perhaps healers can channel their healing into ranged/gesture attacks?)

If you want to enable non-healers to come on these modules, there can always be other activities (including even combat; say, some NPCs are trying to prevent the surgery from being completed) just make sure your healers still get to be the stars for once.

Other ideas for healer plot lines and themes to explore include plagues, distribution of vaccines (including identifying counterfeit ones), medical experimentation, and quarantines. (Try looking up medical ethics for inspiration.)

Much of this advice is aimed at the staff side of a LARP, but fellow PCs can also help. Offer to split loot with healers (and others not on the front lines, where the enemies are falling) if the healers are unsupported. Support a healers guild if they want to develop one. Appreciate your healers — it’s easy to see them as just another piece of the combat machine, and forget that in-game, we go to them when our characters are often in a lot of pain and they are the ones who alleviate that pain. Don’t take their healing for granted — if they refuse to heal for some reason, don’t get annoyed on an out-of-game level, but see it as an opportunity for roleplay in-game. If someone who is a primary healer wants to spend time on the front lines, you can roleplay concern for them, but make sure you don’t come off as annoyed on an out-of-game level that having them on the front line isn’t an efficient approach to battle. And maybe leave the term “girlfriend healer” behind. (Personally, I kinda like the idea of being a backpack healer, but if your healer doesn’t like it, that term can be avoided, too.)

I’ll conclude this post with an idea for a healer-centric plot I’ve been kicking around.

An NPC hook comes into the tavern, furtively trying to find local healers. They want their help with someone who has been poisoned. It’s all very hush-hush. They take any healers who agree to help to the victim — it’s one of the high ranking members of one of the enemy groups of the PCs. Curing them involves a logic puzzle to figure out the symptoms, what combination of poisons might have been used, and what antidotes can treat the symptoms and/or counteract the poison without killing the NPC. (Retrieving the antidote ingredients and crafting the antidote might be their own separate stages of the plot line.) The NPC hook is willing to bargain for their help, perhaps they are willing to give up information on where the enemies are gathered, or the schedule of their guards, or information on where the enemies plan to strike next. The PCs have to decide carefully how to use this information, so as not to compromise their new asset. Maybe eventually the Big Bad enemy hears about this, and would like the healers to return to treat another member (blindfolding them to bring them into their lair). The healers have to figure out how best to take advantage of this opportunity, gain as much information as they can, perhaps find a way to sabotage the enemy, without possibly ending up hostages themselves.

Please do feel free to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!

What has motivated you to play a healer character?
What did you like about it? What did you dislike?
What kind of healing mechanics have you found most enjoyable or unenjoyable?
Have you, as a healer, ever felt like the star of combat (or non-combat) scenario? What made you feel that way?
What kind of plot lines or modules have you run for healers as a member of a LARP staff, or have you played as a PC?


About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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7 Responses to NELCO 2016 Part IV: Healers

  1. George says:

    I played a doctor briefly at the game you mentioned in some of your anecdotes. I was there for only two events, but both involved fake surgery mods. The first involved delivering and stabilizing a robot baby, and the second involved the tentacle arm/swap you described. Ever since then I’ve planned off an on to include something similar in one of the games I staff. My current idea involves appendage replacements with mechanical parts that will turn players into construct/human composites.

    I’ve greatly enjoyed listening to Dan Comstock discuss his experiences at some of the large convention LARPs in Germany (Mythodea, Drachenfest). In most recent podcast appearance he described at length some of the roleplay he experienced there where he went to the healer’s tent and had an arrow removed. I’ve tried to figure out a way to incorporate that sort of experience in some of the games I run, but the boffer larp combat model we use just isn’t well suited for it.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I imagine removing an arrow could be a lot of fun with a little prep — stick it through a sponge with a lot of fake blood hidden under a sleeve or pant leg or something, make someone push it through, snap on the head, pull out it… Maybe next time I play a healer, I’ll give my heal-ees something to bite down on.

      I’m sorry I missed the robot baby module! I usually avoid any and all pregnancy plots in LARP, but I think assisting with a robot baby birth sounds really cool.

      I’m generally a fan in LARPS where upgrades to character are dealt with in-game, whether it’s having rituals to enhance one’s magic, or tutorials to teach stuff, or scenes like the one you described, where players actually build their prosthetics or other props/costuming. I think that’s usually better than “it happened sometime off-screen between events.”

  2. Shannon says:

    As a player, give the healers preferential treatment. They’re the ones keeping you alive and your character’s bound to have strong feelings towards the ones they kept alive. I once played a brutal slaver who’d helped take over a town and spent a fair amount of time giving the herbalist some leeway and safety that wasn’t available to others (other than her husband whom I figured made a good hostage to keep her in line if need be).

  3. Philip Kelley says:

    I was reminded of this entry your Jan 2018 “Healers” post. This (similar to the Healers post) is, I think, one of your more thought-provoking items. I am wondering: four-plus years later, do you have any follow-ups or further insights?

  4. Lise says:

    This is good stuff 🙂 I got all excited at the potential healer plots you raised. I hope some staffers read this and decide to implement them!

    I admit, I played a healer in my first boffer larp (5G) because I was uncertain of my combat skills, and wanted to play a character that was *needed* in some way.

    While I think I succeeded at the latter goal — I was brought on a lot of modules, and I was rarely bored — I wouldn’t say I felt like a star in any of them. But it’s hard to tell how much that is just the nature of the game. (As you know, 5G focused a lot on big field battles and group/team plot over personal plot).

    Will I play a healer again? Probably. It wasn’t a *bad* experience, but I think I’d prefer the novelty of trying different combat roles in the future.

    I can’t tell if you mentioned this or not (since you left the details vague), but there was a triage mod at Shadows that I recall being very successful. Shadows also had plots around the outbreak of the Spanish flu, and how to deal with that.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Thanks, I hope so too! When I heard the panel inspired content, I was so happy.

      I can’t think of any 5G specific content, and I do recall one of my frustrations with the Tempest specific stuff was that it was clearly designed for melee fighters multiple times. I actually really love modules and mechanics in Accelerant where we temporarily get to play with a new set of skills/mechanics/fighting styles, so I had a good time anyway because the on-the-fly patch was “ok, here I temporarily grant you the ability to use my sword”… but that didn’t work for the dedicated healer.

      The plague plotline seems to be one of those that pretty much every Accelerant campaign uses, especially the Frenzy plagues (sometimes I think about what the tvtropes page for Accelerant campaigns would look like…) although weirdly, though it seems like it should be healer focused, it often isn’t. The solution is often “kill the source of it/those too far gone with weapons, do a ritual to purify those infected”. Sounds like Shadows did a really good version of it, which doesn’t surprise me. I was referencing some of the Red Cross stuff in Shadows. I’d love to see more like that.

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