The idea behind this post comes from a guy I know, David, who messaged me yesterday wondering about why healing spells only ever put things back, and why there weren’t offensive healing spells.
Healing magic – and indeed healing in pretty much any game – is the kind of thing that generally gets seen as a tool that puts things back to order the way they should be. This is, generally, perfectly fine; these things exist as a way for players to quickly get back into action. Sometimes, in fantastic games, they can be used offensively under the right circumstances – undead are notorious for being weak to healing spells in most systems.
The thing is, as David so aptly observed, there is literally no reason that some entity couldn’t have created healing-style spells to make the body go haywire. A spell that causes a massive immune system reaction could be horrific to encounter, and it’s just the kind of thing that a malevolent student of healing magic might come up with.
Likewise, in sci-fi settings with advanced medicine that involves things like nano-bandages, medical nanites embedded in the body, healing vats full of highly advanced medical goo, and the like, there’s nothing to stop a person from programming something to infest amid the other nanites or reprogramming the healing vat to rebuild the person wrong.
Depending on the specific effect and the design of the spell or contaminated technology, the effects could either be rapid, painful, and outright damaging, or they could be subtle, long-lasting, and insidious. A spell that causes your bones to rapidly grow jagged segments that pull and tear at your internal structure or a nanite payload in a dart gun that triggers anaphylactic shock in the victim are both rapid and brutal examples of this kind of healing-gone-bad.
More subtle ones might function like a curse, in a magical setting – a long-term curse that causes all the cartilage in the body to slowly ossify, gradually crippling them as their skeleton fuses into an immobile mass, or one that infests them with virulent and painful forms of cancer. Science-fiction can be even worse – encoding the nanites to transform a kidney into a factory for some debilitating drug, effectively turning their body into a weapon against themselves, or inducing very specific and selective cancers or genetic diseases by reprogramming a healing vat.
Imagine the horror of a player group that encounters what first seem like zombies in a fantasy setting, only to find that their opponents scream, bleed, and rapidly heal, with regular healing magic simply making them recover faster? The poor victims of some mad alchemist-chiurgeon, rendered into cancerous masses of obedient tissue, defending him as he works on unlocking the secrets of true immortality – even as he prepares deadly weapons developed from healing potions.
Or the nightmare of a ship coated with an unsettling layer of organic gunk in space, the interior still heated and oxygenated, only to discover that the layer is the malformed and overgrown mass of flesh that was once the crew of the ship, after a trojan in the medical systems rewrote them into this horrible cancerous mass?
Surely the sort of things that nightmares are made of, that. Something to think about, the next time the GM needs an unsettling and unusual adversary for a group.