Pathfinder - Practical Guide to Vital Strike
Last Updated: October 25th, 2017
I will use content from the core rules, but will intentionally omit any content not published on the official Pathfinder SRD due to the unmanageable volume of non-SRD content, and the wildly varying quality of non-SRD content. If you would like me to write handbooks for specific content not published on the official SRD, please email me and I will consider it on a case-by-case basis. I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks. Also note that many colored items are also links to the Paizo SRD.
- Red: Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
- Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances
- Green: Good options.
- Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.
Temporary Note: Pathfinder Unchained and Occult Adventures were both recently added to the SRD. I'm excited to explore them, and I am actively working on adding their contents to my collection of handbooks. I appreciate your patience while I make these changes.
As characters grow in level, their Base Attack Bonus (BAB) increases. With higher BAB, characters gain additional attacks when making a full attack action. Fighter type classes with full BAB progression get their first iterative attack at 6th level. The addition of a second attack vastly improves the character's effectiveness in combat, and can potentially double the character's damage.
Using your iterative attacks typically requires a Full Attack action. If you need to move to reach your enemy, this means you must sacrifice your attacks in order to move. This tactical limitation is one of the biggest shortcomings of melee fighter characters.
Enter Vital Strike. Vital Strike allows you to forego additional attacks in favor of making a single attack with high damage. Because Vital Strike only multiplies the weapon's base damage (just the dice; no enhancements), Vital Strike seems like a poor tactical option. However, with some focus, Vital Strike can be an excellent option around which to center your character.
Vital Strike Feats
The Vital Strike feat tree is simple compared to feat-starved trees like Two-Weapon Fighting. At only 5 feats, any fighter character could make use of Vital Strike and still have room in their feat list for other interesting feats.
- Vital Strike: Double weapon damage.
- Faerie's Strike: Adds a nice way to handle invisible creatures to your attacks.
- Grasping Strike: Great crowd control, but the uses per day are limited.
- Improved Vital Strike: Triple weapon
- Greater Vital Strike: Quadruple weapon damage.
- Devastating Strike: This feat is severely
limited by the +6 damage bonus cap. If not for this limit, this feat
would be the most important feat in the Vital Strike chain. Still, +6
damage with no penalty is pretty great. Note that bonus is only on
extra damage dice rolled, so make sure that you get at least
three extra damage dice as quickly as possible.
- Improved Devastating Strike: Critical hits are not a crucial part of Vital Strike, as your bonus critical damage will likely be dwarfed by your bonus damage dice. However, if you still want to build with critical hits in mind (and you will have the feats to do so), the +6 bonus is better than what you get from Critical Focus, and the bonuses stack.
- Winter's Strike: Fatigued is worthless, and the duration is pitiful, but it appears that you can stack the effect with itself to make creatures Exhausted. For this to work you need at least 14 Wisdom so that the duration will last long enough to overlap with itself. Even then, the Exhausted condition only lasts while two or more stacks of Winter's Strike are applied. This isn't a perfectly clear mechanic, but my post on the rules forum got mixed responses.
Benefits of Vital Strike
- Accuracy: You always attack at your full BAB, which means that you should rarely miss.
- Good Damage: You may need to buy more dice to construct the tower of d6s or d8s that you're going to drop on your enemies. If you use miniatures at the table, I strongly encourage you to build towers of dice and then very deliberately topple them onto enemy miniatures when you roll for damage. Slightly impractical, but it really gets your point across.
- Mobile: You get to use your move action every round. Move around a bit. Pull something out of your pocket. Open a door. Enjoy yourself as a move action.
- Weapon Versatility: Is the BBEG flying out of range of your oversized sword? Switch to an oversized crossbow and shoot tent poles at him. You can use Vital Strike with melee and ranged weapons withjout investing additional feats.
Drawbacks of Vital Strike
- All or nothing: If you miss, you're out of luck for the turn.
- Critical Hits are Boring: When you deal 16d8 damage, adding 4d8 won't feel very exciting on a critical hit.
- No Charging: You can't Vital Strike on a charge. If enemies are more than twice your speed away from you, Vital Strike with a javelin or something while you move up.
- Single Target: Your attacks are huge, but you can only kill one thing per turn.
Choosing Your Weapon
Because Vital Strike works based on your weapon's damage die, you want to select a weapon with the biggest damage die possible, often at the expense of other considerations. Critical threat range and multipliers can generally be ignored, as the bulk of your damage will not be multiplied by Vital Strike.
Because weapon die is so critical to Vital Strike, it is not recommended for small creatures. All weapons below are assumed medium unless otherwise noted. Weapons at larger sizes are included to account for effects like Enlarge Person, Gravity Arrow, and Lead Blades. Keep in mind that Enlarge Person can be stacked with Gravity Arrow, Lead Blades, or the Impact weapon enhancement to do damage as though you were using a weapon two sizes larger than your character's normal size, but Gravity Arrow and Lead Blades do not stack with Impact. If you are already using a weapon one size larger than your character, you can effectively wield a one-handed weapon three sizes larger, and I encourage you to do so. It both looks and feels awesome.
|Aklys (Huge)||3d6 (10.5)||6d6 (21)||6d6+6 (27)||9d6 (31.5)||9d6+6 (37.5)||12d6 (42)||12d6+6 (48)|
|Aklys (Gargantuan)||4d6 (14)||8d6 (28)||8d6+6 (34)||12d6 (42)||12d6+6 (48)||16d6 (56)||16d6+6 (62)|
|Aklys (Colossal)||5d6 (17.5)||10d6 (35)||10d6+6 (41)||15d6 (52.5)||15d6+6 (58.5)||20d6 (70)||20d6+6 (76)|
|Bastard Sword (Large)||2d8 (9)||4d8 (18)||4d8+4 (22)||6d8 (27)||6d8+6 (33)||8d8 (36)||8d8+6 (42)|
|Bastard Sword (Huge)||3d8 (13.5)||6d8 (27)||6d8+6 (33)||9d8 (40.5)||9d8+6 (46.5)||12d8 (54)||12d8+6 (60)|
|Bastard Sword (Gargantuan)||4d8 (18)||8d8 (36)||8d8+6 (42)||12d8 (54)||12d8+6 (60)||16d8 (72)||16d8+6 (78)|
|Crossbow, Light||1d8 (4.5)||2d8 (9)||2d8+2 (11)||3d8 (13.5)||3d8+4 (17.5)||4d8 (18)||4d8+6 (24)|
|Crossbow, Light (Large)||2d6 (7)||4d6 (14)||4d6+4 (18)||6d6 (21)||6d6+6 (37)||8d6 (28)||8d6+6 (34)|
|Crossbow, Light (Huge)||3d6 (10.5)||6d6 (21)||6d6+6 (27)||9d6 (31.5)||9d6+6 (37.5)||12d6 (42)||12d6+6 (48)|
|Crossbow, Light (Gargantuan)*||4d6 (14)||8d6 (28)||8d6+6 (34)||12d6 (42)||12d6+6 (48)||16d6 (56)||16d6+6 (62)|
|Crossbow, Heavy||1d10 (5.5)||2d10 (11)||2d10+2 (13)||3d10 (14.5)||3d10+4 (18.5)||4d10 (22)||4d10+6 (28)|
|Crossbow, Heavy (Large)||2d8 (9)||4d8 (18)||4d8+4 (22)||6d8 (27)||6d8+6 (33)||8d8 (36)||8d8+6 (42)|
|Crossbow, Heavy (Huge)||3d8 (13.5)||6d8 (27)||6d8+6 (33)||9d8 (40.5)||9d8+18 (58.5)||12d8 (54)||12d8+6 (60)|
|Crossbow, Heavy (Gargantuan)*||4d8 (18)||8d8 (36)||8d8+6 (42)||12d8 (54)||12d8+6 (60)||16d8 (72)||16d8+6 (78)|
|Elven Curve Blade||1d10 (5.5)||2d10 (11)||2d10+2 (13)||3d10 (16.5)||3d10+4 (20.5)||4d10 (22)||4d10+6 (28)|
|Elven Curve Blade (Large)||2d8 (9)||4d8 (18)||4d8+4 (22)||6d8 (27)||6d8+6 (33)||8d8 (36)||8d8+6 (42)|
|Elven Curve Blade (Huge)||3d8 (13.5)||6d8 (27)||6d8+6 (33)||9d8 (40.5)||9d8+6 (46.5)||12d8 (54)||12d8+6 (60)|
|Falchion||2d4 (5)||4d4 (10)||4d4+4 (14)||6d4 (15)||6d4+6 (21)||8d4 (20)||8d4+6 (26)|
|Falchion (Large)||2d6 (7)||4d6 (14)||4d6+4 (18)||6d6 (21)||6d6+6 (27)||8d6 (28)||8d6+6 (34)|
|Falchion (Huge)||3d6 (10.5)||6d6 (21)||6d6+6 (27)||9d6 (31.5)||9d6+6 (37.5)||12d6 (42)||12d6+6 (48)|
|Greataxe||1d12 (6.5)||2d12 (13)||2d12+2 (15)||3d12 (19.5)||3d12+4 (23.5)||4d12 (26)||4d12+6 (32)|
|Greataxe (Large)||3d6 (10.5)||6d6 (21)||6d6+6 (27)||9d6 (31.5)||9d6+6 (37.5)||12d6 (42)||12d6+6 (48)|
|Greataxe (Huge)||4d6 (14)||8d6 (28)||8d6+6 (34)||12d6 (42)||12d6+6 (48)||16d6 (56)||16d6+6 (62)|
|Greatsword||2d6 (7)||4d6 (14)||4d6+4 (18)||6d6 (21)||6d6+6 (27)||8d6 (28)||8d6+6 (34)|
|Greatsword (Large)||3d6 (10.5)||6d6 (21)||6d6+6 (27)||9d6 (31.5)||9d6+6 (37.5)||12d6 (42)||12d6+6 (48)|
|Greatsword (Huge)||4d6 (14)||8d6 (28)||8d6+6 (32)||12d6 (42)||12d6+6 (48)||16d6 (56)||16d6+6 (62)|
|Katana (Large)||2d6 (7)||4d6 (14)||4d6+4 (18)||6d6 (21)||6d6+6 (27)||8d6 (28)||8d6+6 (34)|
|Katana (Huge)||3d6 (10.5)||6d6 (21)||6d6+6 (27)||9d6 (31.5)||9d6+6 (37.5)||12d6 (42)||12d6+6 (48)|
|Katana (Gargantuan)||4d6 (14)||8d6 (28)||8d6+6 (32)||12d6 (42)||12d6+6 (48)||16d6 (56)||16d6+6 (62)|
|Longbow||1d8 (4.5)||2d8 (9)||2d8+2 (11)||3d8 (13.5)||3d8+4 (17.5)||4d8 (18)||4d8+6 (24)|
|Longbow (Large)||2d6 (7)||4d6 (14)||4d6+4 (18)||6d6 (21)||6d6+6 (27)||8d6 (28)||8d6+6 (34)|
|Longbow (Huge)||3d6 (10.5)||6d6 (21)||6d6+6 (27)||9d6 (31.5)||9d6+6 (37.5)||12d6 (42)||12d6+6 (48)|
|Rapier||1d6 (3.5)||2d6 (7)||2d6+2 (9)||3d6 (10.5)||3d6+4 (14.5)||4d6 (14)||4d6+6 (20)|
|Rapier (Large)||1d8 (4.5)||2d8 (9)||2d8+2 (11)||3d8 (13.5)||3d8+4 (17.5)||4d8 (18)||4d8+6 (24)|
|Rapier (Huge)||2d6 (7)||4d6 (14)||4d6+4 (18)||6d6 (21)||6d6+6 (27)||8d6 (28)||8d6+6 (34)|
|* - See "A note on Crossbows", below.|
- Aklys: Easily overlooked because it's a light weapon at medium size, the Aklys has the highest base damage of any light weapon. Bumped up to Huge size (two-handed for a Medium creature), it deals an impressive 3d6 base damage, albeit at a total -4 penalty to attacks. The Vital Strike damage exceeds that of a Large Bastard Sword until you get Greater Vital Strike, and the Aklys is throwable, retrievable as a move action, and can be used to make Trip attacks at range. These abilities provide a considerable amount of versatility which the Bastard Sword can't match, so as long as you can get past the additional -2 penalty to attacks beyond the Bastard Sword, the Aklys is a fantastic weapon.
- Bastard Sword: The gold standard of melee, the Large Bastard Sword is the biggest damage die that a medium creature can wield, at 2d8. The -2 size penalty to attack is annoying, but won't matter much because you are always attacking at your full BAB. Medium size Bastard Swords are intentionally not listed.
- Crossbow, Light*: With the exception of reload speed, the light crossbow is strictly worse than the heavy crossbow. Because Vital Strike only takes a Standard Action, Rapid Reload moves the Heavy Crossbow's reload speed down to a move action, which means you can fire as frequently with a Heavy Crossbow as you can with a Light Crossbow.
- Crossbow, Heavy*: With the Rapid Reload feat, the Heavy Crossbow is strictly better than Light Crossbows. The difference in damage die size is negligible at low level, but the gap widens as you gain additional Vital Strike feats.
- Elven Curve Blade: The Elven Curve blade is a step up from the Falchion. With a considerably better damage die, the damage is slightly better than the Falcion, even at Medium size. As you increase the effective size of your weapon, the damage gap becomes considerable. A better choice for comparison is the Katana. The Large Katana will deal more damage, but at a -2 penalty. The Elven Curve Blade requires a feat. Because that -2 penalty is fairly gentle, the Katana is typically a better option if you want something with a large threat range. With no dependency on iterative attacks, the -2 penalty will quickly become irrelevant.
- Falchion: Because the base damage dice are so small, the Falchion doesn't work well for Vital Strike. The threat range is great, but Vital Strike doesn't work well with critical hits, and the damage gap between the Falchion and other weapons is immense.
- Greataxe: At medium size, the damage gap between the Greataxe and Greatsword becomes very large. With a large Greataxe, both weapons deal the same damage, and the choice between the two becomes personal preference.
- Greatsword: Good, but not as good as the Large Bastard Sword.
- Katana: A close competitor with the Large Bastard Sword, the Katana gets an increased critical threat range instead of bigger damage dice. At medium size, the damage gap is small, but when you Enlarge Person yourself, the damage will will grow larger. Medium size Katanas are intentionally not listed.
- Longbow: Because you can't use a weapon larger than your size, the Longbow falls behind crossbows in damage.
- Rapier: Normally a terrible option for Vital Strike enthusiasts, rapiers are included here primarily as a reference for my other guides, and for exceptionally rare builds which might use Vital Strike one-handed.
A note on Crossbows
Depending on GM interpretation, you may or may not be able to use crossbows which are larger than your size. The Light and Heavy crossbows both say "you can shoot, but not load, a [light/heavy] crossbow with one hand at a [-2/-4] penalty on attack rolls." Because you can fire them one-handed, it stands to reason that you could use a weapon one size larger at the normal -2 penalty, just as you can use a Large longsword at the same penalty.
Some GMs may rule than you can fire an oversized crossbow, but cannot reload it because it requires to hands to reload. I have always thought that you need two hands to reload a crossbow because you need to hold the crossbow while drawing back the string. This requirement isn't changed by the weapon's size relative to the player: you still need two hands to load a crossbow too small for you, so why should you need more than two hands to load a crossbow too large for you?
- Combat Expertise: If you need AC, Combat Expertise can really help. You will always be attacking at your best BAB, so you will be very accurate, and you can afford to sacrifice attack bonus for defense.
- Combat Reflexes: Unfortunately, Vital Strike provides no benefit when making attacks of opportunity.
- Dodge: More AC certainly never hurts.
- Mobility: Because you have the ability
to move without losing damage output, you may find yourself drawing
attacks of opportunity. Mobility will help if you don't have the
resources to devote to Acrobatics.
- Spring Attack: Vital strike specifically says "when you take the Attack action". The "Attack" action is a Standard Action allowing you to make one attack. Spring Attack is a Full Round Action, so it can't be used in conjunction with Vital Strike.
- Mobility: Because you have the ability to move without losing damage output, you may find yourself drawing attacks of opportunity. Mobility will help if you don't have the resources to devote to Acrobatics.
- Power Attack: Essential. Because you are always
attacking at your full BAB, the penalty for Power Attack won't hurt you too much.
- Cleave: Can't combine with Vital Strike.
- Furious Focus: Every attack is your first attack in a round, so you always ignore the attack penalty. Take this, and hit every time.
- Rapid Reload: Still essential for reloading your heavy crossbow (normally a standard action).
- Weapon Focus: More attack bonus never hurts, but
if you have more interesting feats in mind, don't worry about this too much.
- Weapon Specialization: This feat really only works if you get multiple attacks to apply the bonus with. 2 damage per turn is hardly worth the feat.
Class-Dependent Damage Dice
Brawlers, Monks, and Warpriests all use their own damage die progressions in place of weapon damage. These progressions present some interesting math. When relying on weapons, your two damage-increasing factors are your weapon's effective size and your best Vital Strike feat in the chain. Class-dependent damage scaling adds a third factor, dramatically complicating the math.
To summarize the information below: All of them are bad. Vital Strike becomes an occasionally amuzing mechanic that eats 3 or 4 feats with no meaningful payoff.
Your best bet for Vital Strike and level-dependent scaling. Weapon users will get access to Enlarge Person and Impact weapons at roughly the same rate that you will, so unfortunately that means that you won't match an oversized bastard sword until 16th level, and won't exceed it until 8th. If you really need a meaningful way to spend Standard actions, Vital Strike is fine, but you can do better with style feats.
Don't do this. Monks have 2/3 BAB so not only are you handicapped by your relatively poor damage die,
The warpriest's damage progression is weird. It's a little bit weaker than Monk, so you won't match and oversized bastard sword until 20th level. The damage die is also dependent on your character's size, not on the weapon's size, so you can use one-handed weapons without sacrificing damage. Unfortunately, you need to compare your own damage output to a normal-sized bastard sword, which you won't match until 10th level, and if you add Impact to that comparable bastard sword you won't match it until 20th level. You can still elect to use the normal damage die of your weapon if you choose to do so, but you'll fall behind the maximum damage output of Vital Strike.
Beyond the Pale
When you expand your options beyond my official SRD-only rule, Vital Strike becomes immediately problematic. Here's just s small sampling of the things I've come across:
A 6th-level Vigilante can pick up the Vital Punishment talent gets you Vital Strike for free and allows you to use Vital Strike on attacks of opportunity. With damage output like that, you'll easily put every other area control defender to shame.
Adventurer's Armory 2 introduced the Butchering Axe. It's a two-handed weapon that does 3d6 damage for a medium creature. The damage die charts are a bit unclear on the subject, but at a glance it likely means that with Greater Vital Strike, Impact Weapon, and Enlarge Person you're looking at 20d6 damage.
If you open up 3.5 options (please don't), things get even worse. Options like Monkey Grip and the Goliath race up your effective weapons size cap by several more steps, adding several additional dice to your theoretical maximum damage. While it's fun to explore in theory, it also means that your damage output is so absurdly high that the game loses any hope of providing a meaningful challenge.