Inspired Healing

Eric Lis

People who work in healthcare are sometimes heard talking about “the art of medicine.” Most particularly, this concept was made famous by Sir William Osler, a nineteenth-century physician who is, more or less, the patron saint of my alma mater, McGill University. A prolific writer, Osler said that “the practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business; a calling in which your heart will be exercised equally with your head.” He would elaborate that “medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.” While most people would classify medicine as a science (how quackish a science depends entirely on your point of view and the particular branch of medicine, admittedly), physicians and some philosophers often discuss the “artistry” inherent in impressionistic diagnosis, in inductive and deductive reasoning, and in the selection of different treatments based on judgment and clinical wisdom when, as is often the case, good evidence doesn’t exist. I’ve always had rather mixed feelings about the idea of medicine being an art. For one thing, I would never minimize the artistry which is inherent in engineering, mathematics, biology, or any other scientific field. For another, much of what we consider “artistic” about medicine is stuff that we shouldn’t necessarily be proud of: how often we make treatments up as we go along and how often we go with our gut because our brains don’t have anything useful to add. On the other hand, a lot of medicine really does have artistic elements, whether you’re talking about the plastic surgeon trying to minimize the appearance of a scar or a psychotherapist staying one step ahead of a talking client. There’s probably no question that healing is an art of a sort, just as is architecture, or cooking, which begs the question: why don’t you see more bards who specialize in it?

Ever since 3rd edition D&D, bards have had a role as an ersatz “emergency healer.” Bards arguably act as a sort of paramedic; D&D 3.5 includes limited healing magic in the bard’s spell list, letting them close wounds and remove poisons but not heal ability damage or remove diseases. Pathfinder broadened bardic healing a bit, letting them cast accept affliction, for example, which isn’t quite as good as actually healing a sickness but at least gets a front-line fighter back on their feet in an emergency. Interestingly, in neither system do bards actually get the Heal skill as a class skill, but then again, bardic knowledge abilities may make that redundant. Pathfinder further enhanced the bard’s ability to heal with archetypes such as the Arcane Healer and the Songhealer, both of which can serve to turn a bard into something more akin to a primary party healer, although in my opinion the Arcane Healer in particular incorporates some game mechanics I find very questionable. From time to time I’ve contemplated creating a bard whose primary art is actually medicine, as opposed to music or something, to see how it would work, but I’ve never had the opportunity to give it a serious try. It certainly presents a different take on performers.

Consider the bard in Pathfinder. Most, if not all, of the class’ abilities can quite easily be transformed into healing-themed “performance” and abilities with little more than cosmetic changes. Bardic knowledge is obvious; the study of healing brings a person into contact with philosophy, history, languages, mythology, and a host of other topics. Bardic performance is a bit trickier, but it’s not impossible to imagine how someone might use medical training to fascinate (one of the first things you learn as a physician is how to drone on endlessly at a moment’s notice), inspire courage (toss a stimulant pill to the fighter or use cognitive behaviour therapy techniques on the wizard), suggest (“trust me, I have letters after my name!”), leave an opponent shaken (“I realize this isn’t the time, but you should really get that mole checked out as soon as possible”), or die (a scalpel in the throat is more reliable than a musical number in most cases). A physician might certainly pick up some magic during their years of study, although a storyteller might reasonably judge that the bard’s spells depend on Intelligence or Wisdom instead of Charisma.

This whole concept is one I’d love to see someone try to pull off. Bards are often dismissed as being under-effective, and that may be true, but they’re also dismissed by many players as uninteresting, and I think that shows a painful lack of imagination on players’ parts. Bards shouldn’t be limited to a narrow-minded conceptualization of what is and isn’t “art” when almost profession in the world has some artistic component. If he’d lived in a fantasy world, Osler himself would probably have been a bard, to say nothing of other notable performers such as Graham Chapman and Ken Jeong (and let me say, I was shocked to learn that man was an internist). Almost anything can be an art if it’s approached in the right way by the right person. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on May 31, 2015. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system