Time to talk about combat tactics! More specifically, when should characters use their abilities?
At the core of every tables roll playing adventure there is some game element where there are winners and losers. Depending on your game system or genre of storytelling you could win as a group or lose specifically. Sometimes losing is as much part of the game as getting the largest value on the dice. No matter the outcome players must learn the methods of the game and often have to manage their resources effectively.
In Pathfinder there are many types of resources. Gold, magic, actions and more make of nested systems of reliance. One of the first to master is actions. Every round of combat each player receives 3 very precious actions, as does every enemy combatant. As the sides expend those actions for strikes moves and other activities like spells the tide of battle may swing back and forth. Every round that combat goes on actions tend to use greater and greater resources if used haphazardly. Here is an example.
Your 3rd level wizard has 3 first level spells and 2 second level spells per day. Every round they can spend 3 actions to cast those spells and move around the battlefield. If a combat lasts for 5 rounds and each round the wizard casts either a first or second level spell at the end of the combat most of their magical resource has been spent. Maybe this use saved the party? But will using the spells this way save the party if the next combat lasts another 5 rounds and the wizard has yet to prepare new spells?
Generally, the answer is no, another character will have to expend their unique resources or maybe the party will all die. In the first combat the wizard may have cast every spell for maximum damage but now in the second combat they have only their cantrips to aide the party. The secret is in those cantrips!
Every class in Pathfinder has some form of renewable resource that helps keep them effective in combat. For Fighters it is their lethality with every strike. Monks can use KI abilities with their focus points and wizards have cantrips as well as a focus spell. At low levels and during long adventuring sessions, the trusty cantrip is how the wizard remains a threat to the enemy for a whole adventure. Going back to our first example if the wizard had used 3 cantrips in the first combat they would have 3 higher level spells in the second. The wizard may even be able to save spells for the 4th or 5th combats. You might ask, well wound not that mean the wizard is shortchanging their damage? In most cases no. The wizard has a high chance of wasting spells trying to compete for flashy kills.
The wizard could use the cantrip produce flame. This snazzy spell allows the wizard to make a spell attack roll (which is on par with a fighter’s first strike) at range or melee. When the wizard hits with it they deal 1d4 fire damage and on a crit, double damage and persistent fire damage. This spell costs the wizard no spell slots, uses 2 actions while putting out elemental damage with a nice critical effect. That is no where near like a power attack with a great sword of 2 d12 + strength but the wizard can do it at range which makes it more like a crossbow that uses no bolts. Picking when to use the cantrip versus the magic missile is the challenge of playing a wizard.
Wizards are great examples, but healers take this idea of resource management even further. Divine and Primal casters keep a party hale and hearty, but they too suffer from overuse of spells. Unlike with wizards there is not a consistent healing cantrip. The closest example is a paladin who if they focus can put out a constant amount of healing every 10 minutes. That is great for exploration or downtime but in combat they can not recharge their focus pool in time. What is the savvy adventuring party to do?
The prepared party brings along a healer’s kit and a back up medic. The medicine skill is open to every class and with the trusty kit non magical characters can reduce the healing load needed between combats. Feats like battle medicine help mitigate when the enemy targets your healer and when used in conjunction with a champion and cleric a party can restore their hit points easily.
What does this mean for our intrepid adventures? They have neither cleric nor champion, but they do have a bard and a plucky wizard with fey heritage. Between the two of them Demos can provide magical emergency combat healing and then supplement the party with medicine checks every hour. Taffy is the party “oh shit” button. She can stabilize downed players with her cantrip and use their wand of heal in combat. Their challenge is being able to switch between healing, damage or buffs as the combat calls for. If Demos buffs when he should have healed, they may have a player loose consciousness and those precious actions. Demos could heal too much and waste his spells when they could save the party in a future combat. Our party walks a fine line when managing their combat resources.