I was reading through the Team Fortress 2 page on TVtropes and bumped into the “Shoot the Medic First” trope, which immediately got me reading and thinking. I have a lot of first-hand experience dealing with the trouble video game medics pose from both Guild Wars and Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Both have the unfortunate habit of extending fights well past the point of being fun.

I have a problem with the “shoot the healer” thing, though. First, there’s the problem that magical healing makes certain kinds of drama more difficult to believe. Injuries don’t mean as much if they can be magicked away, and there’s the problem with how long it takes. Instantaneous recovery from grievous bodily wounds kills the tension.

But what do you do instead? Obviously the healer exists for a reason, and when you simulate combat in a game, you have to presumably simulate the consequences of combat, as well. Actually, I think Guild Wars already answers part of that question. In addition to healing, the monk also provides protection magic, which reduces the harmful effects of attacks. New first-person shooters have regenerating shields.

Rather than having medics with the specific power to heal characters, you can have engineers and technicians whose purpose is to maintain the shields a character has protecting them from injury. That’s the first step in eliminating the “shoot the medic” problem. There’s still a fundamental problem underlying the situation.

You don’t want a single option to consistently be the most tactically viable one. What you need are the right combination of advantages for choosing other targets, and disadvantages for shooting the medic. (I’m going to keep calling them a medic, even if they’re an engineer, a technician, or a scientist.) Why do we prioritize targets?

Generally speaking, you want to take out the target that poses the greatest immediate threat to your continued operation. That’ll be the striker, or DPS, or whatever they’re called in your game. You want to get the guy who’s getting you for the most damage. You shoot the medic first when they keep the damage-guy on his feet. Of course, the tank’s job is to keep you from hurting anyone but him. (See also: damage sponge.)

If you get the balance right, then every battle is a puzzle of whom to gank first. You want to go after the DPS because they’re beating you silly, or you want the tank ’cause he’s preventing you from getting to the DPS, or you want to take out the medic because he’s protecting both of them. Maybe that’s the problem with the scenario.

Why does the medic help everyone? Actually, I think I understand some of the reasoning behind this one: if you make support difficult, no one will want to do it because they don’t want to work that hard. That may be the reason medic classes were stricken from Guild Wars 2 entirely, and everyone gets healing powers.