What’s in a Healer’s Kit?

Healing Kit. This is a waterproofed leather or canvas backpack or handbag containing cloth bandages, splints, needles and thread (for stitching wounds), ointments, and a selection of herbs for soothing pain (these don't heal damage). It also has room for special medicines, such as poison antidotes or healing potions, but these are not included in the standard kit. The kit is useful in treating injuries of all types; a character with the healing or veterinary healing proficiency without this kit or equivalent may not be able to use the proficiency, depending on the situation.

-- AD&D - The Complete Ranger's Handbook, p. 96

Snidely, the wizard scrunched up her nose and made a rude noise. 

"Meltran Oil? What's that going to do for me that my magic won't?"

But Colwan didn't lose their temper. They'd been dealing with adventurers for a long time. Compared to some reactions they'd gotten, snark was tame.

"It's magic you don't have to waste, and from what I've heard, it's less conspicuous than casting a spell."

Sevirra started to interrupt, but that made her pause. She bit her lip and took a second to reconsider her position.

"Maybe it's worth a try. Where do you keep your supply?"

"Right here. I keep all the essentials with me in this bag."

"Ooo. Mysterious. I like that."

Colwan set their leather satchel on the table in front of them and activated the opening snaps. The spells engraved inside them instantly caught the mage's attention.

"Hey! What's the enchantment woven into your clasp? It feels like… pocket magic? Is that a mage's bag?" 

Although she'd been dismissive before, the wizard's interest was clearly piqued now.

"It's something a friend made for me when I graduated from the academy."

It was about that time Sevirra noticed the sigil engraved in the latch. She made a little gasp and pointed at it.

"That—that's the seal of Do Gwaysh-ni!"

Colwan felt their cheeks warm. They waved a hand to keep Sevirra's attention off their face.

"Um… Yes. You know Kurtran?"

Either the distraction worked, or Sevirra wasn't entirely without tact. If she noticed the blush, she didn't say anything.

"Only by reputation. Kurtran Do Gwaysh-nil is one of the best conjurers in Gorthir. I have an original sealed conjuring orb from his collection. It's the best focus I own."

That brought a proud smile to Colwan's lips. "Yes," they agreed. "He is truly exceptional. "

The ubiquitous healer's kit. Even with powerful healing spells and items that can bring the dead back to life, most adventurer parties carry one of these. What makes them so imperative? Why are they quintessential to the well-equipped band of blades? Today, let's take a look under the hood at the humble healer's kit.

Tools of a Healer

Medicaments, cloth and suture; the three most important pieces of equipment an adventurer can have. Whether to stitch together tattered clothing or that ragged tear in their leg, medicines and its related trappings will aid the hapless hero in a time of need (or time of mead?). 

-- Zweihänder, p. 236

From Dragon Age to Iron Heroes, most systems agree that a healer's kit focuses on bandages, sutures, poultices and salves, and medicinal herbs. That tracks fairly well with doctors' bags in the real world. Historically, they've focused on diagnostic tools like stethoscopes, reflex hammers, and blood pressure cuffs. They carried treatment necessities like bandages, ligaments, and disinfectants. Beyond that, they also hold a range of general medicines from morphine to adrenaline.

Inevitably, every healer's kit will contain slightly different tools, just as every healing potion tastes slightly different. But what might we find?

The Surgery skill in The Riddle of Steel (p. 41) involves leeches and bleeding, amputation, and stitches. That seems to indicate bone saws, scalpels, needles, and ligaments. The healer's kit in Dungeons and Dragons, both in 2nd and 5th editions, includes splints in its standard loadout. In Cryptomancer's item entry (p. 161), it contains tweezers. Band of Blades has a long list of items (p. 85) that also covers slings, gauze (in addition to bandages), and sterile compresses (in addition to poultices). Legend's entry for a Healer's Kit (p. 114) includes a mortar and pestle, barber's tools—presumably, scissors and perhaps forceps, and surgical tools. Its First Aid Kit, which is a separate entry, also includes tourniquets. 

Right. Then. If I'm going to assemble a healer's kit, here are the tools I think I'd include. 

Bandages, compresses, and gauze are a basic necessity in any kind of medicine. If a patient has a cut or puncture wound, I'll apply a sterile bandage to staunch the bleeding. For inflammation stemming from any number of causes like sprains or blunt trauma, splinters, or infection, I might apply a sterile compress for a while to soothe the pain and reduce the swelling. With gauze or long strips of bandage, I can create tourniquets to prevent blood loss, slings for broken limbs, or splints to stabilize broken bones. I can wrap severe bruises or bind broken ribs to protect them from further trauma. For any healer's kit, bandages are an absolute necessity.

The second tool in my medic's arsenal is going to be needle and thread. Any time a patient has a deep cut or a severe stab wound, it'll need to be closed to promote healing and prevent bleeding. That means stitches, and for that, I need sterile needles and strong suture. Sometimes, I may find I need to close off an open blood vessel. I can use thread to ligature that, too. Traditionally, my surgical line is made of silk or animal intestines (Yum!), although those materials are prone to causing infection. I might want to get my surgical thread blessed or enchanted, if possible, to prevent such complications.

I can't have a healer's kit without scalpels or sharp knives. Lancing blisters, removing splinters, cutting off dead tissue, clipping off sutures. Letting blood. Even getting to damaged organs. There are a million and one uses for a sharp blade when you're practicing field medicine.

Next, leeches. Don't laugh. These may sound barbaric to us, but they're still useful in modern medicine in some cases. While they're sucking your blood, they release an anticoagulant to prevent clotting and promote circulation. This benefit lasts for several hours after the leeching stops, so it can encourage ongoing circulation in damaged or diseased tissue. It's interesting to note that leeches also produce their own anesthetic, so the process isn't painful. Depending on my medical perspective, I may use these critters to adjust blood humors, energy flow, life force, or simple circulation. 

Forceps become an absolute necessity in my kit when guns and bullet wounds come onto the scene, but they're useful even before that. I can use them to remove splinters, bone shards, and other foreign objects. They're also great at clamping blood vessels or holding skin together while I'm stitching.

Do I want a bone saw in my healer's kit? Maybe. Amputation was an incredibly iffy procedure before anesthetics and antibiotics, but sometimes it's unavoidable. But bone saws are just part of the picture: there are also bone drills, or trepans, used for making holes in the skull. If your brain is swelling up after a nasty bit of head trauma, this kind of nastiness might just save your life. So, yeah. Bring on the bone saw. And the trepans, too.

Medicines & Herbs

In game, the Heal skill can be imagined to consist of any number of things. A big part of the skill is assessing and bandaging obvious wounds. At higher ranks it probably assumes that the healer is carrying around various medicinal herbs to dull pain, slow bleeding, and prevent infection.

-- Insults & Injuries - A Pathfinder Sourcebook for Medical Maladies, p. 13

The job of a healer's kit encompasses a lot more than just instruments for cutting and measuring. It also carries medicines for relieving symptoms, treating conditions, and making the rest of the healer's job easier on hir and hir patient. 

The healing system in Zweihander (p. 236) is diverse, but it features several highlights. The ever-useful bandage, of course, is a mainstay for all kinds of medical maneuvers. You might include a bottle of leeches for bloodletting or psychosurgery. Epsom Salt is a necessity when you need to wake someone up. Laudanum helps the patient recover from damage. Opium, of course, is practically a necessity for tinctures and surgical operations. You'll need surgical tools if you want to treat frostbite, perform surgery, or deal with several diseases. Finally, every adventurer needs tinctures for ignoring injuries amid travel or battle.

FantasyCraft (p. 162-163) has a fairly standard doctor's bag, but it also sports various consumables for dealing with specific damage. Bandages negate the bleeding condition. Use leeches to handle fatiguing injuries and double the patient's recovery from subdual damage. Ointment is an antibiotic that grants a reroll for disease saves once per day. You can apply a salve to a deep cut to double the patient's wound recovery. Smelling salts waken any unconscious character whose Wounds are above zero. And tonic grants its imbiber an immediate save against one poison.

Alchemy is a central component of The Witcher (p. 87-88) from R. Talsorian. The powerful Interlock combat system on which the game is built gives it plenty of room to shine in the field of medicinals, and it does not disappoint. Here are a few samples: Base powder counteracts acid or damage from a torn stomach. Clotting powder temporarily stops a bleeding effect. Numbing Herbs lower the penalties from critical wounds. Smelling salts remove the stunned condition or waken an unconscious character. Sterilizing Fluid increases natural healing, and a Wives' Tears Potion immediately negates the effects of intoxication.

Then there's Rolemasterwith one of the best herbal medicine mechanics built atop the most descriptive wound system in the RPG industry. In Rolemaster Classic (p. 113-115), they list three pages of enchanted herbs. I'm not going to go into individual entries; instead, I'll just list the categories they present. Under each of these thirteen headings, there are three to fourteen items: Antidotes; Bone Repair; Burn & Exposure Relief; Circulatory Repair; Concussion Relief; General Purpose Herbs; Life Preservation; Muscle, Cartilage, & Tendon Repair; Nerve Repair; Organ Repair & Preservation; Physical Alteration & Enhancement; Stat Modifiers; and Stun Relief. Needless to say, Rolemaster is my favorite system for healing herbs, bar none.

If you're open to netguides, Shaun Hately's excellent Guide to Herbs for RPGs has a comprehensive list of herbs, their details and effects. It's based on the Dragon Warriors RPG, but is practically suited for AD&D 2nd Edition out of the box and is easy to convert to whatever system you like. It doesn't have any artwork, and its formatting is strictly pedestrian. However, the content is spectacular. There are many herbs listed in there I wouldn't mind having in my healer's kit. (Saffron, anyone?)

Honestly, medicine's importance depends on your campaign setting. It depends on how specific you like to play things about trials and treatment. If you're like me, you want plenty of detail to inform you about local apothecaries and mundane healers. If you're not, you can probably get by with skill checks and magical healing and potions, and that's okay.


Healing Poultice: A warm and stinking sludge of healing herbs and all manner of foulnessWhen used in conjunction with a Heal Test, on a subject who is heavily injured, the subject counts as lightly wounded for that Heal Test, thereby regaining 1d10 wounds instead of the single Wound. Characters using a poultice will have to put up with stinking of dung, cow urine or whatever nastiness has been used as a base for the mixture. 

-- Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 2nd Edition, p. 123

In its simplest form, a healer's kit is a tool that grants you the ability to make a check or gives you a bonus. With a little more description, the contents of a healer's kit can add depth and flavor to your world. If we add mechanics, we can extrude that complexity into our games. Zweihander, FantasyCraft, Rolemaster, and The Guide to Herbs for RPGs accomplish this by tying medical components to different actions and effects in-game. The Witcher does the same by offering alchemical formulae with different abilities. 

So. What's in your healer's kit? What's your favorite medical tool or component in fantasy RPGS? Let me know in the comments!

Game well, my friends,

Jonathan Andrews

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *