Some variant rules can turn an RPG system on its head. With wounds and vigor, from Pathfinder’s Ultimate Combat, hit points are thrown out. Instead, you have essentially a stamina and vitality system.
The vigor points pool represents your ability to endure attacks and fight on, and it increases as your character gains experience with a roll of the applicable hit die at each level, with no modifiers. Wound points, on the other hand, represent your character’s body, which over the course of a few levels, other than some new scars and perhaps a sun tan, will probably not change dramatically. Your wound total is equal to twice your Constitution score and leads to much hardier-seeming characters at early levels. However, Constitution rarely changes unless the player invests ability score increases in it or the DM provides magic items with bonuses to Constitution. It’s likely a character riding wagons with 14 Constitution at 1st level will be riding magic carpets at 15th level with 14 Constitution (or less, if the GM is particularly vile).
In practice, vigor points are both easier to lose and easier to get back than wounds. Combat tires you out. All that dodging, ducking and blocking wears you down. Once you’re out of vigor, subsequent hits impact your wound points. That means your opponent actually drew blood. You’ll get all that vigor back after an 8-hour rest, but wounds take a long time to return (half your level per full day of bed rest). Healing spells and potions can be optionally applied to either vigor or wounds – if vigor, you roll the D8s as normal; for wounds, you don’t roll, you just get one wound point back per die you would have rolled.
What is the point? It seems like more upkeep and tracking. In reality, it is barely more tracking. Not more than one needs to track in, say, Shadowrun 20th Anniversary Edition or Star Wars Saga Edition, and probably less than the required tracking in 4th Edition D&D. As to the point, it is all about the preferred abstraction.
Hit points are the ultimate abstraction. In that little number is the sum total of a character’s health, stamina and drive. When a wizard is hit with a morningstar, that number drops, but what does the hit actually do? Was it a glancing blow that simply shook him up a little, tired him out? Was it a solid thwack in the shoulder that is now dripping blood and probably going to get infected? With hit points, it was generally assumed that a hit was a hit, it did some kind of physical damage. That leads to situations that make little sense, like adventurers who are constantly horribly wounded, then bounce back after a quick breather. Or high-level characters who can suffer grievous wounds with no ill effects.
Wounds and vigor feel much more realistic in that regard. You can go through a lot of fights without actually suffering any wounds, and level increases translate to better physical condition and more skill and efficiency at defending yourself from attacks. It also implies defensive reactions, so if you don’t use a defensive combat roll, it makes the defender in an attack seem less passive.
This system does make Pathfinder feel a bit more hardcore. As soon as a character starts taking wound damage, the player realizes it is going to be tough to recover, so combat feels more tense as things escalate. Retreat becomes more likely, and without magical healing, parties may need to exit dungeons for prolonged campouts to get back to full health (which makes time-intensive quests much more difficult).
There’s also a rule where critical hits go straight through vigor, hitting wounds directly. That makes a crit feel awesome – instead of gradually wearing down your opponent, you catch her off-guard and draw blood right off the bat. That also makes combat more dangerous, since with more rolls, the bad guys tend to deal more crits as well. It sure makes those Keen weapons awesome though.
Suffering wound damage leads to a slightly more gradual decline from “perfect health” to “dead” than hit points provide. When you hit half of your wound value, you are officially “wounded.” You take on the staggered condition, and any time you take a move or standard action, you have to make a DC 10 CON check or lose consciousness. Even if you pass the check, you lose another wound point. It makes it very obvious that you’re in bad shape.
This gradual decline helps to balance one of the system’s flaws — it makes weaker monsters a lot tougher than normal. That goblin who had 6 hit points under the normal rules now has 24 wound and 5 vigor points. Running out of vigor provides incentive for certain creatures to run away. Fighting heroes is fun until it starts to hurt. The same goes for the heroes. Running out of vigor provides a pretty solid point from which to base morale.
In play tests with wounds and vigor, it felt fluid and sensible. The aggressive, evil sheriff waited until he was wounded to try to stagger off and he paid for his delay by falling unconscious not thirty feet from the fight. As a player, it felt right. It made sense and provided a numerical display not only of my character’s health but of his ability to put up a good fight the following day. Gone are the days of character level hit points per night’s rest. Sleeping actually feels productive without feeling over-productive like in 4th Edition, in which a character gains all of his or her hit points overnight.
Another potential problem with the system is that the DM will have to convert monsters, sometimes on the fly. Once you’ve done it a few times, it’s not actually difficult. Figuring their wounds score is as simple as doubling their Constitution. Vigor requires simply subtracting the accumulated Constitution modifier score from their hit point total. For example, the goblin mentioned above has a 12 Constitution, or 24 wound points. It also has 6 hp (1d8+1), which gives me a result of 5 vigor (6 hp – 1 = 5). Alternately, you can just roll the D8 hit dice for the creature, not adding a Con mod, to figure out vigor.
Next week we’re going to take a look at the armor class/damage reduction system, the other major variant introduced in Ultimate Combat.