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Since there's quite a lot of discussion on the button of cure light wounds question, I'd like to pose a separate question:

What is the most effective solution for healing outside of combat as considered on: opportunity cost (judging by money, feat, or class investment), reusability (will it work after the 5th encounter of the day?), speed, expected level of party using it, and least "questionable" rules (i.e. a preference is given to answers that don't need custom magic items as they don't fly in some games).

I recognize that these answers will differ by party level, and so an exploration of feasibility at 1,6,11,and 16 would be even better.

I also strongly encourage actual solutions that have been used in your games and a elaboration of the consequences of those specific solutions.

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A little tidbit, not really an answer, dragon shaman can get the party to half health with its vigor aura inbetween combat. –  Ze Demon Pyro May 8 at 12:56
    
And it looks like these comments have turned into a discussion about the normative implications of healing, as none of them are helping me improve the question. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 9 at 4:55

5 Answers 5

Wands

At nearly any level, Wands remain a viable source of hp damage healing. A Wand of Cure Light Wounds heals 275 points of HP for 750gp on average, is scalable to most wounds, and has an action usage of 'Out of Combat'.

Combined with a few scrolls of things like Remove Disease, Remove Curse, Restoration, at higher levels another wand of Lesser Restoration, it's the 3.5 answer to 'no-one wanted to play a cleric', provided a sufficient quantity of Use Magic Device to activate.

In Non-Core, a Wand of Lesser Vigor cures 550 hp at that same 'Out of Combat' speed. Other options, like Faith Healing, possibly have some in-combat utility (assuming everyone worships the same god).

Potions

Potions don't require a Use Magic Device check to activate. They are also absurdly expensive compared to wands and scrolls. That's really it.

Having A Magical Healer

This seems like a no-brainer, but when you have someone who can cast curing spells out of combat (and usually, should only be casting them out of combat), your cheapest and easiest source of healing magic is often them.

However, this comes with an opportunity cost in terms of utility spells and combat spells that go unprepared or uncast in favour of magical healing. Even at high levels, canny spellcasters find uses for lower-level spells, and often the sheer quantity of hp-damage received in high level encounters will burn out all the low level spell slots of even a slightly optimized healer.

As such, other than the 'Dedicated Healer' concept, most healers in 3.5 that i've seen.. carry wands. They might have the occasional spell slot for a Break Enchantment or Restoration, but even Lesser Restoration usually shows up in wand form - when you get hit by Shadows, a Lesser to restore everyone strength-drained is usually all your 2nd level spell slots.

As such, other than a bit of extra utility and the occasional in-combat heal, a well stocked healing box of wands and scrolls and someone with Use Magical Device is basically the same as a healer, in that regard.

Consequences: Due to the way WBL scales, you are generally going to be able to heal HP damage. More esoteric stuff might need to wait a day, or a trip to the local church, but i've never seen a party get into trouble running out of healing even when i've done my damnedest to wear them down. And really, you don't want them to, because low-hp means you suddenly need to lowball encounters to a frankly embarrassing extent.

With just Wands, it relies on there being healers who craft healing supplies in the setting, but in most DnD settings this is a fairly safe assumption. Break Enchantment is the highest level 'needed' out of combat healing spell, and it's 5th - depending on setting, it might be hard to find scrolls of this, and with CL issues, if you have a party wizard or sorcerer it's better for them to cast it.

Overall: It works, it's cheap, except in no-magic settings.

High Op/High Level Solutions

Another technique i've seen used for out of combat in higher level or higher op games i've run was to Persist (Persistent Spell) a Lesser Vigor or Mass Lesser Vigor spell, giving an individual or the group effectively Fast Healing 1 for 24 hours. It removed any hp healing requirements out of combat, and even better, all hp book-keeping. It just became a matter of 'how many rounds passed' since the last combat, if they managed to get in a fight before they'd certainly be fully healed.

Consequences/Overall: Works well if you have a character who can cast it, and unlike other Persistent Spell shenanigans I have seen, no-one ever complains about it. The removal of book-keeping alone is a godsend.

On Dispel: Surprisingly large amounts of legitimate encounters do not have access to Dispel or Greater Dispel Magic. And that's fine! Targeting encounters specifically to target powerful elements of the group or tactics the group uses should be something only intelligent enemies with intelligence on the PCs should use - if every Joe, Dick and Sally does it, the GM is a) cheating b) a dick.

VP/WP

The Vitality Point/Wound Point system (from Unearthed Arcana) is absolutely amazing. It allows you to have an actual HP system that tracks how many 'hits' a character can take before they actually get screwed over without constantly being covered in cuts and bites and whatnot from monster claws, have actual 'oh no, blah is grievously hurt and can't move!' moments, makes critical hits suddenly meaningful in the HP-rich world of 'Beyond 3rd Level', and is just wonderful and great.

The sole area where it falls down is that you only recover 1 Vitality Point per Hour. I houseruled it personally to Character Level in vitality points per minute, for a High Action game (what I think of typical DnD as), and Character Level in Vitality per Hour for a Gritty game (think Western movie, or Deadlands).

Consequences: With the Houserule, magical healing became this thing you hoarded against necessary situations like actual Wound Point loss or serious badnasty fixes. I got to be much rougher with the party in general, which I enjoyed. The 'Healer' became a lot more important to the party in general, rather than being treated like a hp packdonkey and an expected amenity. It was generally magical and wonderful and you should use it forever.

The Boom/Bust of Healing

Generally I find that you either need a LOT of healing, or you need very little. Either your tactics are good and you finish off the encounter without taking much damage, or you get pasted and burn through spells like children eating chocolates, which puts you in bad shape for the next encounter and so forth.

Also often encounters seem to naturally flow in groups of hard/soft so the Boss Lair of Evil is going to wipe the floor with you, but the mostly investigatory Ninja Assassin Guild is going to leave you relatively unscathed (or vice versa).

This is hell on Healers or Eternal Wands or whatever that deliver their healing per day, since some days you need 1000 points of hp healing and 36 points of ability damage and 8 doses of poison and 5 diseases, and some days you need like, 50.

Worse, Healers have to use those spell slots in battles that are going south, so they have even less to spend on healing afterwards. That's why competent healers often carry a wand even if they try to use slots for healing. For that 'overflow' healing when the party is having a bad day (or runs into a mission with a Time factor that means you can't stop to get spells back). It's why, in my opinion, Wands or some source of nigh-infinite healing is generally a good thing to have on you.

Realism and Wounds

Stab wounds are pretty painful. Most times, people don't want to have them. Having a stab wound is really terrible and GMs who play HP-As-Wounds and then characters walk around with huge wounds and ignore them makes me sad.

Something to take into account with wounds and magical healing is that realistically people would want to have their wounds fully healed as soon as possible - so 'waiting' until someone has 'enough' wounds to cast a Heal on them or something is really weird conceptually.

People can and will waste resources to not have to feel horrible pain.

So any consideration of out of combat healing should take that into account. If people are roleplaying, they won't want to walk around at half-HP with wounds.

Touch of Healing and Draconic Aura: Vigor

Some people tout Touch of Healing/Dragon Shaman as a healer replacement, as it can keep people filled to half-hp all day with no resource expenditure whatsoever. This is false. The resource you are expending is your hitpoints, to wit, half of them at all times. Having half-hp means you get KO'd easier, affected by more of the symbol line of spells, and have to fight more cautiously, all of which can easily snowball. In practice, low starting HP is the highest source of TPKs I have witnessed. Only in games where the GM regularly lowballs fights and they are at worst trivially difficult can a group rely on Touch of Healing.

If you can get it cheaply, though (and probably not at the cost of a feat - feats are expensive), it can save you on some wand charges.

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Persistent Lesser Vigor is actually a great idea for "it is a long, long day" kind of games, especially if there is nobody to throw a dispel at you 8) –  Baka-Mastermind May 8 at 9:50
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I have seen a lot of people object to persistent mass lesser vigor. More importantly, I don't think the VP/WP rules in UA are much good at all, and moreover don't think they're really relevant to the question asked. That puts me in an awkward position: I want to upvote the first half of your answer, but then I want to downvote the VP/WP section, which is a subject that really doesn't belong in the answer in the first place. In short: great answer to the question, don't agree on the tangent and think it detracts from the actual answer. –  KRyan May 8 at 13:47
    
I think it's in the spirit of the question, 'how should the party heal up between encounters', if not in the letter. It's something I have a lot of experience with using in games, and I think it's relevant to the issue even if Brian did ask for no UA or non-official content. –  Jack Lesnie May 9 at 4:51

Beyond the extremely low levels (first and second) or extremely low loot games, we always used Wands of Cure Light Wounds. This preserved more potent (and limited) magical healing from characters for use in combat and other dangerous situations, and is the most cost efficient mechanism of healing.

The only mechanical downside of this tactic is the time between battles. Healing 100 HP of damage at an average 4.5 points a round takes an average 23 rounds or two minutes and 18 seconds of time. If the party controls the pacing, such as when pushing through a dungeon, this usually isn't a problem.

The practical downside of this is that it becomes a real pain to track at high levels, causing us to automate the measurement of the healing, on T-89 graphing calculators in college, and later on scripts on laptops. At extremely high levels we sometimes opted for more potent magical healing for simplification. A staff of Heal is reasonably efficient and when GP is abundant and may be preferable for the ease of tracking (large number of HP healed, in increments of 10).

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Wands of Lesser Vigor are also easier to work with, as each charge = 11 points of healing. No rolling required, and the amount is higher than CLW can give you. You do have to wait longer for it to kick in, but in my experience that's often time used to search a room anyway. –  Tridus May 8 at 12:15
    
@Tridus frankly I don't think that was available when we played in college and we already had the infrastructure developed to use cure light when it came out. –  C. Ross May 8 at 12:24

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the Healing Belt, from the Magic Item Compendium. It costs 750 gp, has 3 charges, and heals as a standard action (2d8, 3d8, or 4d8, depending on number of charges used). As a small bonus, it also gives +2 to Heal checks.

It's only slightly more efficient than a Wand of Cure Light Wounds (unless you don't have a Cleric or Druid who can use it), but at low levels using all the charges in combat for a 4d8 heal can really turn the tide of a fight.

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But at low levels, how would you afford such a thing without using the entire groups funds? –  Ze Demon Pyro May 8 at 21:50
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@ZeDemonPyro 750 gp is very cheap by D&D 3.5 standards; It's cheaper than a +1 shield. Heck, it's cheaper than some potions. And they're very good for the price; I actually banned these at one point, since they made healing so trivial that damage ceased to be an interesting condition for quite some time. –  GMJoe May 9 at 4:21
    
@GMJoe oh... In the campaigns my group plays, our characters typically start out with around 100 GP and make anywhere from 10-50 GP a quest... –  Ze Demon Pyro May 9 at 13:05
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@ZeDemonPyro I recommend you check out the expected wealth-by level chart in the DMG; It sounds like your group may be receiving much smaller cash rewards for adventuring than the system-as-written expects. That's a valid play style, of course, but it's not the default assumption for most games. –  GMJoe May 12 at 6:39

The answer to the question's title is, obvious, Any way they can! But to go further and take an actual stab at the question (ha!) one must first ask,

"How Much Healing Does the Party Need?"

Using the information from Chapter 6: Nonplayer Characters in the section NPC Statistics in the Dungeon Master's Guide (113-26), I made a chart showing how many hp each class has at each of the breakpoints, the average number of hp for all classes at that level, and Character Wealth by Level (DMG 135), including the maximum value of a single item and the maximum value of consumables (see below).

CLS  hp        CLS  hp     CLS   hp     CLS   hp
-------        -------     --------     ---------
Bbn1 13        Bbn6 50     Bbn11 98     Bbn16 141
Brd1  7        Brd6 29     Brd11 52     Brd16  74
Clr1 10        Clr6 42     Clr11 75     Clr16 107
Drd1  9        Drd6 36     Drd11 64     Drd16  91
Ftr1 12        Ftr6 49     Ftr11 87     Ftr16 124
Mnk1  6        Mnk6 36     Mnk11 64     Mnk16  91
Pal1 11        Pal6 43     Pal11 76     Pal16 108
Rgr1  9        Rgr6 37     Rgr11 64     Rgr16  92
Rog1  7        Rog6 29     Rog11 52     Rog16  74
Sor1  5        Sor6 23     Sor11 40     Sor16  58
Wiz1  5        Wiz6 23     Wiz11 40     Wiz16  58
----------     -------     --------     ---------
AVG   9             36           65            93
----------     -------     --------     ---------
WBL  (100)      13,000       66,000       260,000
item  (50)       6,500       33,000       130,000
con   (25)       3,250       16,500        65,000

Obviously, this isn't a good reflection of actual play. Real players take prestige classes and multiclass to have different Hit Dice, arrange their ability scores to get higher Constitutions, seek out items that increase their Constitution scores (e.g. the amulet of health (DMG 246) (4,000, 16,000, or 36,000 gp; 0 lbs.)), and employ shenanigans (e.g. becoming an undead like a lich (MM 166), switching bodies using the spell magic jar [necro] (PH 250-1)). But, as those are unique to the campaign, the DMG's NPCs provide a useful--if low--standard from which to begin an analysis.

By the way, I'm certain a statistician could provide greater insight. I'm not a statistician though, so if less-than-amateur stats and clunky math make you cry, you're gonna need a box of tissues.

Encounters, Items, and Wealth by Level

The Adventures chapter in the Encounters section under the heading Challenge Ratings and Encounter Levels under the subheading What's Challenging in the Dungeon Master's Guide says

An encounter with an Encounter Level (EL) equal to the PCs’ level is one that should expend about 20% of their resources--hit points, spells, magic item uses, and so on. This means, on average, that after about four encounters of the party’s level the PCs need to rest, heal, and regain spells. A fifth encounter would probably wipe them out. (49)

Thus the game expects 4 encounters equal to the party's EL in a day then a rest. In actual play, this is ridiculous--the swingy nature of low-level combat means dead PCs litter the 4-encounter-per-day campaign world, and by level 5 a Wiz5 can just skip the day's remaining encounters by using the spell rope trick [trans] (PH 273-4) modified by the feat Extend Spell (PH 94)--so as to save his highest-level spells for actual encounters the wizard could himself scribe such a scroll for 187 gp 5 sp and 15 XP. Nonetheless, the DMG's expectations and recommendations are 4 encounters per day, so that's what's used.

In the chapter Using the Rules in the section Character Death under the heading Making a New Character the Dungeon Master's Guide says

As a general rule, a new character can spend no more than half her total wealth on a single item, and no more than one quarter the total wealth on consumables such as ammunition, scrolls, potions, wands, or alchemical items. (42)

Emphasis mine. So while many DMs apply this rule to existing characters by not providing as treasure magic items worth more than half their Character Wealth by Level, this isn't a rule for existing characters. However, it provides a standard, which is necessary. So it's used.

Beginning characters have only their Random Starting Gold (PH 111), but that conveniently averages out to about 100 gp, for a possible maximum single item cost of 50 gp and a maximum spend on consumables of 25 gp.

Putting Things Together

Here's a bold assumption: Each of the 4 PCs will suffer lose 20% of their hp in each encounter. I know that the 20% resource depletion the DMG mentions includes the loss of other resources, but this seems the most reasonable way to math this out. Here's another chart.

         Healing Needed        
Level  Per Encounter & Day 
--------------------------
 1 ..............  7 &  28
 6 .............. 28 & 112
11 .............. 52 & 208
16 .............. 74 & 296

Are there problems with this? Certainly. Some methods of healing are just bigger than others, healing more damage than a single target needs and wasting the remainder.1 Further, some methods are time-consuming, and sometimes that time isn't available.2 (Further, it's boring waiting for your health bar to refill.) But working with the information available, this seems a good place to start.

Further, a permanent means of healing can't cost more than half a character's wealth, and consumable means of healing can't cost more than one-fourth a character's wealth.

List of Means and Evaluation

I... don't think I can do this. As can be seen in Giant in the Playground forum's "Compendium of Healing" by Chronos, there are a prohibitively huge number of ways to heal. Subsequently, evaluating each based on the question's requirements of opportunity cost, reusability, speed, expected party level, and legality would require serious spreadsheet skills. Then to reach a conclusion based on the categories at each level... such a task is simply overwhelming.3

Instead of doing that, as a placeholder I'm listing below some simpler means of consumable and permanent healing and their costs until I can determine a reasonable and less intense way to determine an actual answer to the question. If the community would prefer this answer deleted until I do so as to not clutter the question, that's reasonable.

Consumable Means for Beginning Characters

  • Use Table 7-8: Goods and Services under the heading Spellcasting and Services in the Player's Handbook (129) to purchase from a Drd1 or Clr1 for 10 gp each 1st-level spells (e.g. cure light wounds [conj] (PH 215-6), faith healing [conj] (SpC 87), lesser vigor [conj] (SpC 229)).
  • A scroll of lesser vigor (1st-level spell at caster level 1) (25 gp; 0 lbs.) heals 11 hp.

Consumable Means for Higher-level Characters

  • A wand of cure light wounds [conj] (PH 215-6) (1st-level spell at caster level 1) (50 charges) (DMG 246) (750 gp; 0 lbs.) heals 275 points of damage per wand.
  • A wand of faith healing [conj] (SpC 87) (1st-level spell at caster level 1) (50 charges) (750 gp; 0 lbs.) heals 450 hp per wand.
  • A wand of lesser vigor [conj] (SpC 229) (1st-level spell at caster level 1) (50 charges) (750 gp; 0 lbs.) heals 550 points of damage per wand.
  • A wand of heroics [trans] (SpC 113) (2nd-level spell at caster level 3) (50 charges) (4,500 gp; 0 lbs.) can provide a creature with at least 1 fighter bonus feat, which may be sufficient to heal the creature. Note: It is debatable whether the spell heroics can grant more than 1 fighter bonus to feat to the same creature (see the chapter Magic in the section Casting Spells under the heading Combining Magical Effects under the subheading Stacking Effects under the subheading Same Effect with Differing Results on Player's Handbook 172); ask the DM.

Permanent Means for Beginning Characters

  • The domain feat Healing Devotion (CC 59) as an immediate action once per day for 1 minute +1 min./5 levels (maximum 5 at level 20) grants the creature fast healing 1. If a use is available, this fast healing activates automatically when the creature reaches 0 hp. If the creature can turn or rebuke undead, a turn attempt or rebuke attempt can be spent to use this ability again or to move the ability to another by touch.
  • The general feat Sacred Healing (PH2 89) is a prerequisite for the feat Sacred Purification (PH2 89). The feat Sacred Purification (PH2 89) grants the creature the ability, as a swift, to spend a turn undead attempt to heal 1d8 + the user's Charisma modifier hp on living creatures within 60 ft. Undead in the are take that much damage instead. Note: Although it takes both a human Clr1's feats, this is a remarkable low-level heal-between-encounters method.
  • The regional feat Troll-blooded (Dragon #319 64) grants the creature, among other benefits, regeneration 1, who takes normal damage from acid and fire damage.
  • A character who knows a martial maneuver via any means (e.g. class levels as martial adept, a novice crown of White Ravens (ToB 149) (3,000 gp; 1 lb.), the feat Martial Study (ToB 31-2) acquired via character level, bonus feat, or the spell heroics) can take the fighter feat Martial Stance (ToB 31), picking the Devoted Spirit martial maneuver martial spirit [stance] (PH 60) which grants the creature the ability while in the stance to heal an ally within 30 ft. by 2 hp per successful melee attack versus an opponent. Note: It's generally a bad idea for a character to take the feat Martial Stance with only a temporary means of acquiring access to a martial maneuver, like via the spell heroics. Further, the DM may limit this healing method, ruling a creature cannot willingly designate an ally an opponent; a chicken costs 2 cp (PH 112).

Permanent Means for Higher-level Characters

  • A healing belt (MIC 110) (750 gp; 1 lb.) heals an average of 27 hp per day.
  • A ring of regeneration (DMG 232) (90,000 gp) heals the wearer's level in hp x24 per day.
  • The reserve feat Touch of Healing (CC 62) grants the creature the ability, as a standard action, to heal at least 3 hp on a touched creature if the touched creature has half or fewer his maximum hp.
  • The fighter feat Combat Focus (PH2 87) after the creature's first successful attack during an encounter grants the creature combat focus. While possessing combat focus a +2 bonus to Willpower saving throws for 10 rounds +1 round per additional combat form feat. The fighter feat Combat Vigor (PH2 88) grants a creature that's gained its combat focus fast healing 2 or 4 if the creature has 3 or more combat form feats.

  1. The initiate feat Initiate of Ilmater (PG 80) gives overhealing purpose.
  2. War Story: The PCs in one of my campaigns forced another PC to switch (when it was exhausted) from a wand of lesser vigor to a wand of cure light wounds because, although all the PCs knew the wand of lesser vigor was more efficient, waiting for it to hurry up and work bugged everybody.
  3. And, after all that, it'd probably just come down to a choice between wands of lesser vigor and healing belts anyway.
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Herbalism.

From a veteran healers perspective, we've integrated an entirely homebrew herbalism system. This allows our characters to do something in their down time, and gives them a source of income (not much, mind you) when they're not looting or gaining treasure by 'defeating the bad guy'.

Most of the healing herbs are berries or flowers, and don't do much, the most being I think 2d6 hps. Eating too many will either make you 'stoned' or sick; which eliminates the herbs being a replacement for a healer. There are also basic poisonous herbs, pain relievers, etc etc.

I don't have the chart in front of me, but a search on google for 3.5 herbalism will yield tons of results. Using plants for healing can also be quite amusing if your herbalist is even slightly forgetful, or the player has issues writing things down in detail (Of this, I am guilty, and it has caused several humorous events).

Integrating a detailed herbalism chart into your campaign may also give players a nudge to 'use' certain skills more often as well.

Basically you start with a list of basic herbs, split them into groups by region, and make sure you have a die that matches the number of herbs in that region. Making sure to put the more rare or difficult herbs at the bottom of the list, you have the player 'find the herb' by rolling on the chart, and then rolling an herbalism check to see if they even picked it right. You then roll a 'dose' amount. That player now has x doses of x herb.

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