Analyzing Pathfinder’s Alternate Wounds & Vigor Damage System

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.

20 Responses to Analyzing Pathfinder’s Alternate Wounds & Vigor Damage System

  1. I really want to use this system the next game I end up running. I like how it changes things. AC as damage reduction scares me and will require further analysis.

  2. As I’ll write in my next article, AC as DR does have pitfalls and problem areas. I’m making changes to smooth it out in our game that starts probably next week, but even with that, I’m not confident that it’ll be perfect. I do like it as a concept though.

    I am confident about Wounds and Vigor though.

    I think it opens up new areas useful to a DM. What if some constructs are purely run by “Vigor” and deactivate once their Vigor runs out? What if zombies never experience the “Wounded” condition and continue to fight ceaselessly until destroyed? Good times.

  3. Heh. There’s been a lot of talk about “the undead issue.” No, Pathfinder does not give them Con scores. We just didn’t give them wounds – they died when they ran out of vigor. I liked this, as it felt like a good representation of the supernatural force that holds them together. They’re, for all intents and purposes, already wounded. I also liked that it made them mechanically different, though undead encounters might require some juicing on the DM’s part.

    However, Gavin found some errata that suggested using CHA in place of CON when necessary.

  4. Undead are supposed to be scary. My fear is that allowing them to shamble about with 4 vigor points will make them chumps. Then again, many are chumps already. Maybe I’ll just give every undead enervating attacks.

  5. It is still 30 creatures killed with a single blow. If I were to do 30 zombies with 4 vigor, I’d also have to use the called shot rules and give them DR 15/- unless the head is targeted.

    Zombies are a bad example. Maybe I’ll have skeletons only exist while their vigor lasts. Or at least have to start making saving throws as soon as the vigor is exhausted.

  6. “and probably less than the required tracking in 4th Edition D&D” Not really. 4e has just one pool of hp, which is easier. If you add healing surges in the mix it becomes about the same recordkeeping as wounds/vigor. If you’re going to poke at 4e, poke fairly ; )

    But back to wounds and vigor. Looking at the PRD, criticals don’t go completely to wounds. It just does the weapon’s critical modifier to wounds (usually 2 points). This eases the previous problems I’ve seen about wound/vigor systems. In many older systems, one critical could easily drop somebody and it made critting the most powerful force in the game. This variant still makes critical hits significant, but survivable.

    One person defined this system as taking the usual negative hit points and making them positive.

  7. The 4e comparison was regarding how many different things you need to track. Between powers, hp, surges, etc. most characters, even with Wounds and Vigor, would have less to track than in 4e.

    Yep, crits do their damage to Vigor first. If that damage depletes Vigor, than the excess goes to wounds. However, in addition to that, crits do their modifier to Wounds. So, a x3 weapon crit always does at least 3 wounds damage. x2 crit does 2 wounds damage.

    Making negative hit point positive is one way to look at it. However, I think it goes a bit beyond that.

  8. At low level (where you’d be facing vanilla zombies), how many zombies can you hit in one round? How many zombie attacks can I absorb before I get down into wounds? If those zombies are between me and my goal, that’s a daunting fight. Winnable, but daunting.

  9. Yeah, I know what you’re saying. Maybe I’ll try it your way first and see how it goes. Don’t know how many zombies you’ll be facing out of the gate anyway.

  10. This is relevant to me because the setting I want to run this in is heavy on undead. I would vote for scaling the undead based on power level. Likely the basic grunts are all vigor, but some of the wierder flesh-golemy guys probably need a good hacking to bits that could be indicated by wounds. Or, just give undead their usual HP and call it vigor. I’ll probably default to the latter cuz I’m lazy.

  11. Yeah, Billy, I know what you mean. I think the Wounds & Vigor variant does inspire or even require a bit of creativity. I think you owe it to your players to shake things up a bit, too. Each one of the Robot Viking-affiliated RPG group are RPG/D&D veterans. Not much surprises us anymore. Throwing in a few variant rules and tweaking monsters to have a few thematic or mechanical curve balls goes a long way towards keeping folks interested. If I have a dungeon full of skeletons that drop at 6 vigor but two or three that seem to persist even though they are obviously damaged adds a bit of flavor and mystery. Increasing hit points simply means they are a tougher enemy. Giving them wound points suggests they have something special keeping them up.

    For channel positive energy purposes (not that we even have a cleric at this point), I might give Vigor-only undead Wound points equal to their hit dice. Undead in desecrated areas would receive a bonus to that pool (Vigor, too).

  12. I’m removing damage energy channeling for balance reasons. One cleric could kill nearly everything in the setting in no time. Were I using it, though, I’d certainly have it deal only vigor damage to represent the way it’s disrupting the magic maintaining them rather that physically hacking them to pieces. Had a clever thought, Necromancers lose control of Zombies when they run out of vigor because the magic’s gone. Corpse is still there and intact for later use. That’d be an interesting mechanic of making the undead un-useable. Mutilate the bodies, go up a level.

  13. Interesting. I understand what you’re saying about vigor = magic. Losing control of undead when the magic runs out is good, too. I originally considered something similar for constructs.

    I think the damage energy channeling is balanced in that, if he chooses to do wound damage, the cleric can only do wound damage equal to the number of dice he would roll. So, even a 3rd level cleric maxes out at 2 wound damage per use and a 6th level maxes out at 3. Not very much when most monsters have a minimum of 20 wound points. Alternatively, if they target Vigor, they can roll d6s, but still needs some decent rolls.

  14. Yeah, I like that idea. Is that from the core rules or something you’ve cooked up? It would go quite far in making clerics not broken.

  15. It’s actually from the rules based on how Healing and Negative Energy Damage are listed:

    The only change to Vigor and Wounds that I’m making is regarding healing. For the time being, in my game, magical healing always heals dice number in wound points and is maximized in regards to vigor, but receives no caster level bonus. That means a Cure Light Wounds spell would heal 1 wound point and 8 vigor. Cure Moderate Wounds heals 2 wounds and 16 vigor. Potions, on the other hand, will work as indicated in the rules (so, either wound points at 1 per die OR rolled vigor).

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