What makes for a good boss fight from a healer's PoV?

The other week Healing SWTOR wrote a list of their "top 5 SWTOR bosses to heal", and when I commented on it (because originally they forgot to actually add a fifth one to the list) they asked me about my own favourites. I couldn't think of an answer right then but decided to give it some more thought.

As it turns out, I found it really difficult to come up with a ranked list of bosses. Most of the time when I enjoy a fight, it's not for any reason related to how it feels to heal in particular; it's enjoyable in any role. Likewise, whenever I find an encounter annoying, it's usually not just because of what it does to the healers. Exceptions exist but they are rare. One example I can think of is the Terror from Beyond, which is a brilliantly engaging fight from a dps point of view (in my opinion) but boring as all hell to heal, because a lot of the time there just isn't anything to do for the healers.

Still, it did get me thinking about the general subject of what makes an encounter fun from a healer's perspective. In the end I came up with the following criteria for myself:

It mustn't require too much or too little healing.

Now this is obviously very subjective depending on skill, as one person's "too much" might be another player's "just right". I do think there are some fights that really stand out as hitting either extreme though.

Olok the Shadow in Scum and Villainy, to me, is an example of a fight with almost non-existent healing requirements. Now, that fight has other problems, most importantly that it's just too long and uneventful in general, but it's particularly bad from a healer's point of view because a lot of the time you just feel redundant. Both the upstairs and the last phase cause very little damage and you'll probably spend a lot of time just standing around and adding lacklustre dps out of sheer boredom.

It's a bit harder to qualify when the incoming damage during a fight becomes too much, but I remember the Dread Guards on nightmare indeed feeling like a nightmare to me, because even if I spammed heals like crazy until I was out of ammo, it never seemed to be quite enough, and I just became more and more stressed out with every attempt.

There needs to be a rhythm to the damage patterns.

Healing in SWTOR is a very rhythmical activity from a mechanical point of view, simply because of the way resource management works, and good encounter design takes advantage of that: for example by including times where you have to heal extra hard, burn cooldowns and so on, as well as times where damage is lighter so that you can recover a bit if you overextended your resources previously.

Dread Master Brontes is a good example of a fight with a great rhythm. It starts out easy with some damage on the tanks and tentacle dodging, then things ramp up a little once the failed clones spawn. While dps down the droid adds, the healers can recover a bit if needed or help by adding a little bit of extra damage, but from then on things just keep getting crazier until the fight ends in a mad climax of people being bounced around every which way and taking lots of damage in the process. When you get her down at the end of that, it feels like a great achievement.

It doesn't always have to be that complex either. To use an older and simpler example, take the first boss in Eternity Vault: he alternates between phases of doing light damage and phases of doing lots of damage throughout the fight pretty much until the very end.

Bonethrasher in Karagga's Palace on the other hand is an example of a fight with a fairly poor sense of rhythm, since it's more or less the same from start to finish and he attacks people completely at random.

There should be things to do other than heal.

As much as I love healing, whack-a-mole and all, if I don't have to pay attention to anything else it gets boring pretty quickly, and circles on the ground only provide a limited amount of distraction in the long run. There should be something else that I have to pay attention to at least at some point to the fight: maybe we all have to change position together, maybe I have to add a bit of dps during a burst phase, or maybe a button needs pushing at a specific moment. Just... something.

Prime examples of this: Soa with his platform jumping and Operator IX with all the colour-related mechanics.

Dispels should be handled with care.

Now this is something that's only become a bugbear of mine quite recently. I always thought SWTOR took a reasonable enough approach to dispelling since it had cooldowns on dispels from launch, making it clear that they weren't something intended to be spammed. And then... they gave us fights like Nefra in Dread Fortress, who puts a DoT on the whole raid something like once every thirty seconds. If you have a group where nobody but the healers can dispel (which I often do) you end up hitting it pretty much on cooldown, as well as hating all your dpsers for having rolled classes that can't cleanse at least themselves.

There are other ways to make dispels annoying too, such as on the Dread Council. Tyrans only casts his death marks about once a minute, but on hardmode they need to be dispelled asap or the afflicted person dies. Now, having an unforgivable mechanic like that isn't necessarily bad, but just like on Nefra, requiring more dispels than you are guaranteed to have dispellers can cause group make-up to increase pressure on the healers dramatically. On that particular fight it's also an issue that you're supposed to dispel things in a predetermined order (if you are limited to two dispellers) because it can be really hard to tell some debuffs apart, even if you increase the icon size to its absolute maximum on the UI. Making me feel like I'm fighting the UI instead of the boss is never fun.

Compare this to, for example, the person who needs to stay on the ground on Firebrand and Stormcaller in EC NiM. At level fifty, not dispelling the debuff there led to guaranteed death as well, but you only needed one person to take care of it (which could be done by any healer with no issues), and the bright yellow beam gave an obvious visual cue even without having to squint at debuff icons.

Basically: if there are dispels to be made, they shouldn't be so numerous as to require your healers to hit their dispel more often than some of their heals, and if there are any dispel-or-die mechanics, they should be obvious from a UI perspective and again, not so numerous as to punish groups with fewer dispels.


  1. I agree with pretty much all you've written but the dispel part.

    I do remember dispelling being a big part of WoW raiding (even dungeons sometimes) and people were used to it - don't know the current situation in WoW though.

    As you said, in SWTOR we have 5 sec cooldown which doesn't prevent us from healing, we only have to sacrifice one gcd to get the dispel out. I speak for myself only when I say that watching bars for debuffs (especially when I see them coming) is my responsibility as a healer. Punishing people for not calling out that they have a debuff sounds ridiculous to me (death marks for instance) unless you know your healer is simply unable to pay attention and there's an agreement to ask them for a dispel.

    I wouldn't talk about 'punishing' the group.. I mean certain groups don't have a dps with a taunt, some lack multiple dispel classes, some lack classes with movement boosts etc. That's like saying not having four Shadows/Sages for TFB NiM second boss is a disadvantage because of dodging the key mechanics. With the AoE healing sages and Scoundrels have these days, we can afford not having everyone cleansed within 5 seconds and survive (as long as dps are willing to help out when needed).

    Moar healing articles! :-)

    1. I feel like you misread me a little. I agree that paying attention to debuffs and dispelling is part of a healer's toolkit and I have no problem with that. I just believe that there are good and bad ways to go about making it part of an encounter. Up to the fights I mentioned, I never had any issues with the way dispels were handled, but Nefra and the Dread Council don't use the mechanic well in my opinion.

      Mindless spam pretty much every time your dispel is off cooldown is not fun. Neither is squinting at the UI to figure out whether that debuff is "body 2" or "body 4" (which look very similar) and wiping the group if you don't get it right within two seconds. Especially when they've used similar mechanics with much better visual cues before (see my EC NiM example).

      And I'm not talking about extreme stacking of one or two classes here. Of the eight advanced classes that could potentially fill a dps role, three can dispel, two can purge themselves occasionally, three never. It's not hard to end up with an awkward (or very good!) mix there. I think a better comparison is to fights that heavily favour either ranged or melee dps - and when that happens, it's not good design either IMO.