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Fantasy Medicine – Part One: Healthcare, Magical and Mundane

lost by ultracoldFantasy, whether epic, high, or sword-and-sorcery, would not be very exciting if the characters were as susceptible to death and disability as we are in the real world. The truth is, it takes much less than a broken leg or severed hamstring to render a human useless for battle and adventuring. How about a back spasm hitting just as the hero is bending down to pick up a sword? Or can you imagine a wizard trying to cast a spell with a full-fledged migraine?

Of course, no author is going to afflict their mightiest warriors with such conditions, but one must keep in mind that if the main characters continually ignore ‘superficial wounds’ and continue to press on, it becomes harder for the reader to suspend disbelief. And to have a character miraculously escape all form of injury with no plausible assistance or reason will also create reader skepticism sooner or later. But you need to keep your heroes and heroines alive and healthy throughout their adventures, at least through the end of your story. So what to do?

Silverstars by AnthonyFotiHere is where healers and priests solve this problem. Find the nearest church, monastery, or traveling holy man, or have a character who can cast healing spells hang out with your hero and you are golden. Broken leg? Laying on hands and a nice prayer will have that good as new. Too many cuts and gashes to count? Here’s a potion. Poisoned? There’s a potion for that too. I don’t have it on hand, but here’s a cure-all scroll I found in my pocket of infinite capacity.

This works fine for adventure parties, but it falls short on a worldbuilding scale. Magical healing and potions that deliver instant results are not for everyone, and a worldbuilder should not solely rely on this form of medical treatment. Below are a few reasons why. Of course you can make an exception in your world, but keep in mind that there should be a logical reason for everything that seems implausible.

Holy Men and/or Women Are Not A Dime A Dozen
Not everyone receives divine calling. And even fewer are blessed with the ability to wield magic in the name of their god. And in a fantasy world, many of them are off adventuring, crusading, or performing some kind of mission. And if there are multiple gods in your campaign or world, the sick might even refuse to be treated by a particular healer or priest.

Magical Healing Takes A Toll On The Caster
A healer can go visit a town and lay hands, cure disease, and eliminate disease on all who are sick there, but is this action feasible for the character? In a roleplaying sense, it might help the healer gain needed experience, but it also consumes energy and resources that would likely be better used in the major upcoming battle. In a story setting, a healer should be generous and empathic, but to have your priest turn to your character in an inn after several days of traveling and tell her, “I’m going to take a walk after supper and help some sick people,” is not plausible if it does nothing to further the plot.

Healing Spells And Potions Are First-Aid Treatments
Magical healing is essential to successful adventuring. It is an instant way of restoring the health and ability of an adventurer in order to finish the job. And if a hero accidentally gets hit too hard and dies, the story is ruined unless he or she can be resuscitated. But keep in mind that death is unavoidable, and if magic could treat all ailments, everyone would be in perfect health. How would that affect your world, your minor characters? Would everyone live forever? Would there be no one-eyed grizzled veterans, no lepers or amputees? Would everyone remain scarless, with the stories and memories behind those scars wiped out and forgotten like the scars themselves? Chronic conditions, for example, osteoarthritis or dementia, should require much more than a single potion to treat.

Lambholt Elder by Matthew StewartThese are only guidelines! The points above reflect a practical view of magical healing in a fantasy world. But we all know that fantasy doesn’t have to be practical. This does not have to be the case in any particular world, and of course you can throw one or all of these points out the window and create your own healthcare system for your world.

Incorporating mundane forms of medical treatment can provide a depth to your world as well as an alternate form of healing. Below are a few great supplements to magical healing:

Experts on plants and their healing properties. Herbalists were the first doctors, and a skilled herbalist’s concoctions can be considered cutting-edge medicine in a medieval setting. Even today, many widely used drugs are made from plants. Taxol, a chemotherapy drug, is made from the bark of the Pacific yew tree.

Alchemists may not sound much like medicine people. However, alchemy is the precursor of modern chemistry and medicine. Alchemists focused on allopathic medicine (the use of minerals to treat disease). These would be your non-magical potion or tonic makers. They also make good quacks.

The old-world pharmacists. Apothecaries should have a shop, stocked with both herbal and mineral/chemical antidotes and preparations, as well as supplies such as distillers, bottles, pots, bandages, and such. Although an apothecary should have the knowledge equivalent to a modern pharmacist, they do not necessarily have to be healers.

Chaos and Alchemy cover by ChrisRaOf the three occupations above, I believe most worldbuilders would view herbalists as best suited for fantasy settings, although all three can work quite well. In my next post, I will delve a bit into good-sounding herb names and common herbal preparations.

Books that helped me write this piece:

The Complete Guide to Herbal Medicines – Charles W. Fetrow PharmD, Juan R. Avila PharmD

Back to Eden – Jethro Kloss

This article was originally posted on May 19, 2014.

Title image by Michael-C-Hayes.



  1. Avatar Moisés says:

    I found this guide really useful, though I have to disagree in some of the firsts statements. Ill characters have been done and quite well so sometimes: often it gives a chance for them to think or do things they normally wouldn’t. In fact, I would encourage using ill and injured characters more often. Of course, maybe to fight the big antagonist they need their health back or some help, but at least once, even if it lasts for three days, have a sprain ankle and something happen in that time. Being attacked always and not on those ‘special’ days is if anything ridiculous if no reason for it is given. I guess we could summarise saying that injuries and illness can actually add to fantasy.

    However, in the rest of the article I’ve found interesting information and can’t wait to see the next issue.

    • Avatar B. Pine says:

      Thank you, Moisés. I agree with your points. My point was to illustrate how priests and magical healing serve in part as a solution to healthcare issues that arise while adventuring. But indeed, dealing with the adversity of a debilitating strike or illness can make for thrilling fantasy.

      • Avatar Mattitude says:

        San dan Glokta in Joe Abercrombie’s books is ALL jacked up, but he’s a badass in spite of it.

        • Avatar Mattitude says:

          And speaking of shortage of magical healing etc, The healing wars trilogy is a good source of that. Gives a good look as to what happens when there isn’t enough healing magic to go round, or when the healers tax themselves too much

  2. I found this article to be very informative and enlightening. Thank you very much for opening my eyes to this!

  3. […] my last article, I wrote about healing and healthcare in fantasy settings, focusing on the various types of […]

  4. Avatar Erica says:

    Nice article. Thanks for writing it 🙂

    Though I think a wizard who gets migraines when he or she casts spells would be a fascinating character.

  5. […] There are already a couple of great articles on Fantasy-Faction about medicine in fantasy (here is part 1 and part 2), and I recommend taking a look at those for some good […]

  6. […] Fantasy Medicine – Part One: Healthcare, Magical and Mundane […]

  7. Avatar Atala says:

    This guide was extremely helpful, although not what I was looking for. I was more looking for a guide of magical herbs and potions and such for a DnD camapign, but I just learned a whole lot I didn’t even know I needed to learn, haha. This guide really helped me, especially since I do tend to over power my healers. Thank you so much! One last thing, this guide is beautifully written, and I love some of the lines in there. (Like: “Would everyone remain scarless, with the stories and memories behind those scars wiped out and forgotten like the scars themselves?”)

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