Strategic Healing and the Vigilante Campaign

In the hubbub around themes, I nearly forgot that I promised to update my opinion on the vigilante once our all-vigilante campaign ended. It turns out I was only 80% correct on the class, in that every problem was about 25% worse than I thought it would be.* The unified background for all members of the class was a huge issue in making characters feel distinct. The lack of class options meant everybody shared several abilities, even within their role subsets. The party didn’t all gather in the same room until the fourth session and didn’t consider themselves a group until the end of the campaign, if they did at all (which took a surprising amount of arm-twisting, because the “my character wouldn’t trust these people” built into the class trumped our “I signed up for a campaign where I knew full well this exact thing would happen”). My players were mostly acceptable, but the vigilante class was a mess exacerbated by the single-class concept. So, no, I’m not a fan.

It didn’t help that our party healer couldn’t make the first session, then couldn’t make the second, and eventually dropped out altogether. By that point nobody was willing to rewrite their character, so an NPC cleric got upgraded to party minion status, and then often wasn’t there because vigilantes are lone wolves and such. We ended up running the whole campaign on a few potions and heavy wand abuse.

Imagine my surprise upon learning that this is the exact way Pathfinder should work. As I understand it, the general consensus among the Pathfinder faithful is that healing, as a party role, is pretty much a joke. Healing capacity lags behind monster damage to the point where it’s more worthwhile to build a cleric who deals rogue damage and smack the dragon than it is to spend that action fixing the dying fighter. Instead the point of combat is to win fast so you can use several minutes and a few wands of cure light wounds to get back into fighting shape. My Pathfinder campaigns have only gone up to L11 and I haven’t seen anything like this, but the opinion is ubiquitous enough I imagine it must have some at least anecdotal merit.

I have strong opinions on this, and they may be better discussed in another post. But as it pertains to the vigilante campaign, we did find ourselves in a situation where we had to at least pretend healing was a joke and run the campaign accordingly. Luckily, four people in the party had the AC of a tank so there wasn’t all too much damage flying around, but I did beat on them hard enough for some post-combat hand wringing. About halfway through the campaign we figured this was unsustainable and we had to get creative.

One of my players has traditionally divided healing into two categories: tactical and strategic. Tactical healing occurs during fights or any other time your actions are measured in…well, actions. Strategic healing occurs between fights, or whenever your actions are measured in time. This designation can apply to any resource, and some straddle the line; “If I cast expeditious retreat now, I can get behind the altar in two rounds” is a tactical choice, and “My expeditious retreat will run out in six minutes, so we should hurry to the next battle so I can use it there too” is strategic. (My mnemonic device is to think about Final Fantasy Tactics, which was much more about round-by-round resource allocation than fight-by-fight, even if you could spend most of your time looking at menus deciding which chocobo is your monk’s best friend.)

In Pathfinder, the assumption is that the higher your level, the less tactical healing is a thing at all. The weight of party repair falls on strategic healing, where wands of cure light wounds maintain their worth even into epic play. This is the world in which we found ourselves for the vigilante campaign: assume healing during fights can only happen in the most dire situations and find a way to survive the day. As long as a member of the party could cast cure light wounds from a wand, we were golden.

Except nobody in the party could. And we only had one person with Use Magic Device, and he needed to roll fairly high to use it. If he rolled a 1, his wand was done for the day. Our post-fight healing was him rolling a dozen or more times for each ally, fishing for good rolls and hoping against hope for no failures.

We eventually found a solution in, of all places, 5th Edition. In 5E you gain Hit Dice equal to your Hit Dice (yes, the terminology is exactly that ridiculous). During a short rest (five minutes, or the space between fights) you can spend a Hit Dice to heal that many hit points. For example, an L6 fighter has 6d10 Hit Dice. She can spend one of them and heal 1d10 hit points, plus her Constitution modifier and anything that applies on a per-Hit-Dice basis. She regains half her Hit Dice during a long rest (eight hours, or the space between days). If she multiclasses, her Hit Dice get goofy but otherwise function exactly the same; she can spend her d10 from fighter or her d8 from rogue.

This works in Pathfinder without any change. We just lifted part of the 5E rulebook and dropped it into Pathfinder. Immediately it changed from a tense “let’s hope Rogue #1 is lucky today, or the campaign is over” to a much more reasonable “let’s roll for our wands, and if that fails use a resource we know will function”. But it also put strict caps on party healing, rather than the “heal to full between fights” we at some point considered and which wands provide, and didn’t make party survival based on the money they could scrounge from all the wolves and zombies they were fighting. The players took to it immediately, the campaign went on, and nobody died (not even, one could argue, the campaign villains. But that’s a story for another day.)

I don’t know if I want to keep this as a rule. I definitely understand it in campaigns within limited healing, as the Eight Arms and the Contract of Barl may be. And I like it a lot more than the “we’re injured, spend 400 gp, we’re not injured any more” mindset in Pathfinder now. But it’s definitely a case-by-case solution for a case-by-case problem.

* — See, since I was 80% correct, that means I was 20% incorrect, and 20% is 25% of 80%. Fractions!

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