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The Douchey DM » Adventure Design, General Gaming » JiB on GM’ing: Vigor and Wounds vs Hit Points in Pathfinder

JiB on GM’ing: Vigor and Wounds vs Hit Points in Pathfinder

When last we spoke …


We were talking about armor as damage reduction in the Pathfinder game. The next part of the variant rules available from the Ultimate Combat Guide involve replacing hit points with a Vigor score and a Wounds score. As unpalatable as Stu finds armor class, I have the same problem with hit points. As long as I’ve been playing variations of the d20 rules I have thought that hit points were a really bad way to express a characters health or their ability to withstand, or avoid, damage. It has always been one of those things that everyone ends up house ruling to some extent or another. Paizo has provided players with a much better representation. The purpose of this JiB on GM’ing article is to explore the rules about Wounds and Vigor vs Hitpoints, and Critical Hits.

What are Hit Points Anyway?

Hit points are, depending on who you ask, a measure of the creature’s health, or resistance, or ability to avoid damage, or … I give up, I don’t really have a good working definition of hit points except to say that they are what get taken away pretty much any time anything harms a creature. I agree with Tappy that combat in d20 games become fights of attrition where you are trying to attrit away the other guy’s hit points hopefully faster than he attrits away yours. For this reason d20 combats become more about the bonuses than they are about the actual die rolls. On average weapons do in the range of 1d10 of damage on their own before the other stuff gets involved.

So What to do About That?

Back to the Pathfinder Ultimate Combat Guide, in chapter 5, “Variant Rules,” we get the following; “Just as Armor Class is an abstraction, so are hit points – after all, just because a dagger does 1d4 points of damage doesn’t mean a high level fighter is somehow immune to having his throat slit. This alternate system attempts to better represen the differences between injuries and impeded performance.”

Wounds and Vigor

Instead of hit points, creatures using this system have a number of wound points and vigor points. These two scores are kept track of separately, and represent different ways a creature handles the damage inflicted on them.

A creature, typically, has a number of wound points equal to double their constitution and a wound threshold equal to its constitution. Wound points represent the amount of physical punishment a creature can take before it dies. When the number of wound points drops below its wound threshold it becomes “wounded”. When a creature is wounded it gains the “staggered” condition until it is no longer wounded. There are other game effects that come into play as well making it much more unpleasant to get wounded. This is similar to the effects of taking wounds in Savage Worlds. If a creature takes constitution damage (from poison or other effects) this will also lower the number of wounds points as well.

Vigor points represent a creature’s ability to avoid the majority of actual physical damage from an attack. When a creature is damaged from an attack, typically, it affects vigor points first. Some types of attacks effect wounds directly. Vigor points are gained much like hit points in the core rules but without the addition of the constitution modifier. Likewise healing (and similar skills and effects) generally affect vigor before healing actual wounds. I will leave the exact effects of healing as a research project for the reader (It’s on page 206).

An Example

Our example character from the previous article Bobs Uruncle is a 1st level human fighter. He has the following statistics (STR-17, DEX-12, CON-14, INT-13, WIS-10, CHA-8). Being a 1st level fighter he gets the maximum vigor points for first level 10 (1d10), and having a 14 constitution he gets 28 wounds and a threshold of 14. (In the next article we’re going to take a look at Bobs at several different level points and with differing equipment and we will take a look at how magic effects these numbers.)

So now let’s see what happens when he gets hit. Bobs finished off the goblin in the previous article without any ill effects but the noise has drawn the attention of an orc. The orc swings his falchion at Bobs and gets a 19. This would have missed Bobs if we were using AC but we’re not. So the orc gets past Bobs’ defense and rolls well on his damage getting max damage for 9 points (2d4+1). Five points get taken away by the damage reduction from our hero’s chainmail leaving 4 points that gets transferred to Bobs. He has 10 vigor points from which we will subtract the 4 leaving him with 6 vigor. Bobs is starting to feel winded from the fight and the hit the orc gave him but he’s still in the fight. If the attack after damage reduction had done more than 10 points those excess points would have gone to wounds instead.

Critical Hits and Special Considerations

Some attacks, like critical hits, bypass vigor points and do damage directly to wounds or to both vigor and wounds. Critical hits are another variant rule and they behave much differently than in the past as well. When a creature threatens a critical hit they no longer confirm the critical hit. The affected creature must make a save against the critical hit. The save roll is determined by rolling a d20 and adding the Critical Defense Check Bonus which is calculated thusly:


Critical Defense Check Bonus = Damage Reduction + Dexterity Modifier + Shield Bonus to Defense + Deflection Bonus


The DC for the check is based on the attack roll that is threatening the critical:


Critical Defense DC = critical hit roll + 1/2 attacker’s base attack bonus + 1 for each critical feat + 1 for each size category the attacker is larger than the target.


On his turn Bobs rolls a natural 20 to attack with his longsword which threatens a critical hit. His DC is:


CDDC = 20 + (1/2 * 1) + 0 + 0


Because Bobs’ BAB = 1 and he has no critical feats and he is the same size category as the orc giving him a 21 DC.

The orc rolls his save against the critical:


CDCB = dr (3) + dex mod (0) + shield bon (0) + deflection (0)


He rolls a 10 and ends up with a 13 not enough to save against the critical.

Bobs rolls his damage 1d8 + 3 and multiplies by the critical hit modifier for the weapon (2x). He rolls a 7 and ends up with a 17 after we double the damage and add his strength modifier. The orc’s damage reduction of 3 takes off 3 points leaving 14. The orc (being an orc) has a vigor of 11 so he ends up with 0 vigor and 21 wounds left. Most telling is that all wounds from this point will be actual wounds and if he takes 7 more points he will gain all the effects of being wounded. Author’s Note: When a creature loses all of its vigor or gains the wounded condition are wonderful places for a morale check.

Conclusion and Parting Shots

That’s the very quick and dirty view of how the vigor, wounds and critical hit variant rules work in Pathfinder. All of these rules are of course optional. As with the rules for damage reduction they make the game a bit more crunchy and make it a little harder to do. I think that they do make a better (if not perfect) representation of combat and also make the game intrinsically grittier.

For dealing with critical hits it’s a good idea to precalculate the Critical Defense Check Bonus and the Critical Defense DC.

Additional variant rules allow for piecemeal armor and for called shots with greater granularity and representation than the core rules and do make sense alongside the damage reduction and modified hit point rules.

As with all things I recommend experimenting and seeing what works for your game.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the people at Paizo for the Pathfinder game Ultimate Combat Guide. I hope I have represented your work accurately.



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Software developer, gamer, ice hockey player, sometime musician.

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11 Responses to "JiB on GM’ing: Vigor and Wounds vs Hit Points in Pathfinder"

  1. StuNo Gravatar says:

    This Ultimate Combat Guide sounds like my kind of book.

  2. JazzIsBluesNo Gravatar says:

    I highly recommend it and the Ultimate Magic Guide as well.


  3. SmergNo Gravatar says:

    The thing that many people do not think of hit points is that they are a pacing device. The ratio of damage the players do to the monsters compared to the number of hit points the monsters have and the ease to hit and record that damage will determine the length of the fight.

    Based upon the length of the fight, the monsters will have a number of attempts to do damage back to the players.

    This is the underlying game theory of hit points.

    Knowing this, you can then look at a few scenarios and decide what the end result will be and the impact on game pacing.

    Quick definition of ‘damage’ for this discussion of theory is that damage is not just the average amount of points of damage the players roll from their attacks but also the chance to succeed in applying the damage to the monster. A player that has only a 1 in 10 chance of getting to hit for 100 damage still has a low amount of damage they can do because it will take up to ten rounds to get that one hit in making for a long combat of missed strikes.

    Scenario One: The damage of the players is much greater than the amount of the hit points of the monsters. This combat will end quickly with monsters dying rapidly. This can be a fun scenario and is the easiest for the GM to control the pacing because the GM can choose to add another wave of monsters make the combat last longer.

    Scenario Two: The damage that the players do is close to the hit points of the monsters. This combat will end usually in a few rounds as chances of missing may extend a battle slightly. This will make a battle that feels like the players had to fight but ended quickly enough to not feel like it was dragging on.

    Scenario Three: The amount of damage the players do is much less then the hit points of the monsters. This combat will take many rounds to complete with streaks of missing or damage not being average extending the battle. This is often the problem of not considering the damage output of the players in comparison to the hit points of the monsters. Combats can often drag into six seven or more rounds of slogging with little happening but recording one hit after another. I personally try to avoid this even if it means taking a ‘listed’ monster in a bestiary and re-working the AC and hit points to make them easier to hit and bulk on the hit points.

    Why is this important to know? Well for me, I game with varied groups. My latest group is eight players using Pathfinder rules and not a single one chose a main line front line fighter class (I’ve got Alchemist, Inquisitor, Rogue, Ninja, Summoner, Cleric, Zen Archer, and Sorcerer). CR is a lousy tool for me to work out a combat for pacing purposes.

    I’ve got 3 to 4 to get the players in and through hopefully two to three combats. Each player takes two to three minutes to play their combat round which means a combat takes close to 30 min per round that it runs. A combat that drags out for seven rounds is actually a full night of gaming one battle with very little time for any story.

    Me, I’d like to aim for two to three combats that are over in one to two rounds which means that I’m going to slant the pace towards the players by keeping the monsters hit points low and the AC easy to hit too.

  4. //FastJackNo Gravatar says:

    As someone just getting back into my first love…Tabletop RPG’s with Pathfinder, I would be interested in some followup of how the Vigor/Wound system has worked for you and your group. Play balance at higher levels (with no con bonus to “vigor” etc). I am going to use the rules with my group, as we are shadowrun players also, so the little extra book keeping is not a deal breaker.
    Really enjoyed the post, keep it up.

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