Archive for July, 2012

In my current estimation, Hit Points are the greatest single failing for Dungeons and Dragons.

That’s maybe a strong statement to start this off with. Hit points serve a vital (heh) role in Dungeons and Dragons, or really any system that has violent conflict as a key component and chooses to use them.  When our characters take damage in-game, they feel pain.  Presumably they also suffer wounds, and generally can tell when The Reaper looms near.  As players, we don’t have that same visceral connection, and Hit Points are one way to address the disconnect.  It answers the question, “how close am I to death?”

I think there are a number of complaints that can be levied against any system that tries to answer that question.  How aware are we of our own vitality? How much information should a player have about the wounds they’ve suffered?  What’s too much information, and what’s too little? I don’t think Hit Points are a perfect solution, or necessarily the right solution for everyone, but I do think they can be a “good enough” solution, and I think that character’s vitality is an important enough component that erring on the side of “too much information” is excusable.

Not all hit point systems are treated equally.  World of Darkness uses a Hit Point system where characters generally have between 6 and 10 Hit Points, where a single attack can do massive amounts of damage (one good shot is likely to kill mortal characters), and the effects and recovery vary based on the type of damage inflicted.  Palladium has a kind of “hybrid” hit point system, with vital HP wrapped in a sheath of “SDC” points that emulate toughness.  SDC represents superficial harm and heals quickly, HP represents serious wounds and heals slowly.  WoD hit points are essentially static, and there are penalties levied to actions if the character has suffered severe injury; systems like Palladium and D&D increase hit points through leveling, and don’t levy penalties for taking damage.

The Complaints

Most recently the topic of hit points in D&D came up with Dr. Gentleman, who has a post on the topic at his blog.  In his post, I believe he makes four claims:

  1. Hit Point systems lead to Nickle & Dime combat — hit him more than he hits you.
  2. This is unrealistic — real injury comes from properly applied force, not repeated lesser trauma, and an attack that fails to kill a character outright won’t kill him with repeated application.
  3. Strike placement is generally not considered in these systems — at best, a called-shot gives a bonus to damage.
  4. Hit Point systems are too abstract — what does “5 damage” mean? Especially if a character’s hit points increase?

My intent here isn’t to spar with Dr. Gentleman; I think he makes some valid points.  I’m using his article merely as a convenient framework to organize my thoughts.  In general, though, I think his points either confuse design of the system with implementation of the system (some DMs apply or describe the system poorly) or miss the point of the system (to give a player feedback that mirror’s his character’s experience) or actually criticize some other (possibly related) mechanics (such as damage or healing).  The major point, though, and the one that encapsulates where I feel D&D fails is Point 4 — what is the relationship between damage, healing, hit points, and my character?

Minor Points

For Point 1, I think it’s important to recognize what’s going on in the system.  Hit Points measure how close the character is to death.  If your goal is to kill your opponent, then reducing their Hit Points to 0 before he does the same to you is the goal; at the most basic level this is going to be “hit him more than he hits you,” but that’s something of a straw-man — the same can be said of actual combat.  The actual complaint is that Hit Points don’t model any kind of alternate goal, but you might as well say that a barometer can’t tell you how hot it is outside.  Point 1 is looking for a different tool, perhaps a system for tracking injuries, and Hit points neither precludes nor is diminished by the use of such an additional system.  (There are a number of such systems out there, and I hope to address some in a future post, since it can be a useful tool in the right situations.)

Point 2 strikes me as simply false.  That is, yes, properly applied force does cause real injury, but so can repeated lesser trauma.  Punching a man in the face will hurt but rarely kill him outright; a sustained beating is likely to lead to severe injury and death, and while that’s occasionally due to a single critical strike, it can also be because our bodies aren’t designed to sustain repeated trauma.  Bones break, vessels burst, all sorts of things result from otherwise-minor trauma applied successively.  That being said, this point begins to hint at a larger issue, one I believe is about assumptions and expectations. How many paper-cuts does it take to kill someone?  The answer depends on how much hit point damage a paper cut deals, and I propose this: the hit point system as designed for D&D is not granular enough to account for minor damage, whether it’s paper cuts, mild bruising, or even (potentially) “merely a flesh wound.”

Point 3 is actually a complaint about how damage is handled, and the fact that the placement and severity of an attack is abstracted away in the roll to hit and the damage roll.  A properly places strike is represented by a high damage roll; a lesser strike is a lower roll (and thus less injury).  This is very similar to Point 1 (all HP measures is how close you are to death, not alternate goals) and Point 2 (D&D Hit Points, and combat rules in general, aren’t granular enough to model this level of detail).  The trick of a called shot dealing bonus damage is a common patch for targeting vulnerable areas, though I think it’s a weak (if often “good enough”) tool for the job.  The Rogue’s sneak attack/backstab feature essentially models the same thing, allowing the rogue to score extra damage when they have an opening because they can strike a vulnerable spot.  This is a complaint against the structures around hit points, rather than hit points themselves.

Point 4 I think is a real issue, and because of that it’ll need to be addressed at greater length in it’s own post (or posts, depending on how this discussion goes).

Part 2

There are a bunch of reasons to play RPGs, and these reasons will color both how we approach the game and what we find satisfying.  I think it’s important to put down my own preferences, since that will color the problems I encounter and the solutions I choose to fix those problems.

I grew up on RPGs being all about story; I had a plot I wanted to run my players through, even if that plot was just “the players are heroes and the fight the bad guys and right wrongs.” I got burned out of that pretty quickly because it was a constant struggle for me to get the player’s do to “the right thing” and move the plot along. I recently discovered the OCR and read the Quick Primer to Old School Gaming, and though I agree with a number of the main points (Game Balance, Ming Vase, Moose Head) I eventually decided that I’m not “old school.”  This is mostly because I don’t agree with the idea that the focus should be on Player Skill rather than Character Ability; that’s a perfectly valid way to play, but it’s not what interests me.  It strikes me that the emphasis there is on Role-Playing Game, and I’m more interested is a Role-Playing Game.  For me, the character (and, by extension, the world he inhabits) is more important.

Saying that I want the emphasis to be on role-playing, though, brings a lot of baggage with it.  I don’t mean that I want to avoid rolling dice, that Combat is my enemy, that acting ability is key, or any thing else that’s attached to “role-players.” What’s important to me is that they player assumes an identity, is presented a situation, makes a decision based on who his character is, and experiences the consequences of his actions (leading to a new situation and further decisions).  This is the heart of role-playing, and all the other bits (rules, dice, acting, etc) facilitate that activity.

With that basic core established, there are lots of ways to do it.  You can have quality role-playing with pretty much any system, or no system at all.  You can use dice, cards, numerical stats, descriptive words — most of us have engaged in this sort of activity since we were kids laying Cops and Robbers (or whatever variation was popular with your group; my childhood was spent playing TMNT on the monkey bars).

Personally, I’m a crunchy sort of guy; I want a system that is consistent and “realistic enough” that I feel like it can model situations close to what I would expect in the real world.  My reasons for this are because I believe the rules should facilitate role-playing (making a decision based on your character), and so I want rules that help express the situation (and actions and consequences) in an understandable way. When the rules model the world, and that model resembles the reality we actually live in, it becomes easier to place ourselves in our character’s shoes.  When the rules are ‘realistic enough’ we can reason about our character’s actions the way we reason about our own actions, and when they’re consistent we can base our decisions on past experiences.

I do think there’s a place for DM Fiat and Rulings (rather than Rules), but I think they should be used sparingly, and only to fill in the gaps where the rules don’t accurately model reality.  If your target is a mortal, a dagger to the throat should kill him, regardless of what damage rolls and hit points say.  That’s a gap in the rules and should be handled appropriately.  The same can and should be said in other places where the rules present non-intuitive results.  But if Rules are the result of consistent Rulings (which I believe they are), there is value in developing new rules to address these gaps when we can (to the extent that it makes sense).

Those “rules to address gaps” is what this blog is directed toward.  Since I know 3.X and Pathfinder that’s where most of my effort is focused currently, but I’m interested in discussing other systems as well (especially as I broaden my horizons).

Crit Die

Posted: 24 July 2012 in Toolbox
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As a follow-up to my quick note on combat, here’s the idea of the Crit/Fumble Die. I had a discussion about crits with my players, and where I like having a cit-confirmation system, they almost all preferred a natural-20-always-crits system.

My preference stems from the math and what we end up modeling.  With cit-confirmation, when you roll a 20 you get an auto-hit and then roll again to confirm, hitting the creatures AC again (doesn’t need to be another 20) means you get a critical hit.  This means that there’s always a 5% chance to hit your opponent (auto-hit on a natural 20), and additionally that 5% of all your hits are going to be criticals.  You’ll hit weaker enemies more, and thus get more crits on them, and tougher enemies will be hit less and have proportionally fewer crits.  I’m building a similar system for fumbles because I like using them, but “always fumble on a natural 1” just adds in too much chaos (5% of all your swings are dismal failures).

Counter-wise, a 20-always-crits system means that 5% of all your swings (not your hits) will be critical hits.  You will crit as much on strong enemies as you do on weak enemies, and if you have auto-hit on 20 as well you will *only* crit on tough enemies.  That means 95% of the time you can’t touch the guy, and the other 5% you’re landing devastating blows.  That just feels wrong.

But all my players see is that they roll a 20 and then I “rob” them of their crit when they fail to confirm.  And I can see the logic in that.  The Crit/Fumble die is my proposed solution, divorcing the “did I hit him” roll from the “did I crit him” roll.  Each attack rolls 2d20, with one designated as the hit-die and one as the crit-die.  If the hit-die beats the target’s AC, you hit and deal damage; if the hit-die is a natural 20, you auto-hit regardless of AC, but it has nothing to do with a critical strike.  If you hit and the crit-die is a 20 (regardless of what the hit-die was), then it’s a critical strike.  If you roll a 20 on the crit-die but miss with the hit-die, it was a good swing that just didn’t connect.  And of course, if you miss with the hit-die and the crit-die is a 1, you just fumbled and something bad happens.

You’ll have 5% of your hits be critical, 5% of you misses will be fumbles, and 5% of your attacks with be auto-hits and auto-misses.  But hopefully the perception that failing to confirm a crit “robs” the player of anything.

Dr. Gentleman has a series of posts about Combat that I’m trying (and mostly failing) to read.  This post isn’t really about anything I’ve read there, but it has Combat on my mind, and Gnome Stew just posted a little trick about color-coding your dice that I thought was neat, and all that reminded me of a trick of my own that I’d been meaning to mention.

People complain about the speed of combat a lot — roll d20 to hit, what did you get?, that hits now roll damage, what did you get?, describe results of the attack, next action.  With even a handful of players it gets bogged down quickly, especially if there are NPCs (enemies and/or allies) involved.  But it doesn’t have to be this way, really.

A simple trick that I’ve used, and that I’m surprised doesn’t get used more, is to chuck a handful of dice.  Instead of making each piece of the attack sequence a separate roll, grab a d20 and whatever damage dice you use and toss it in one throw.  If the d20 hits the AC damage is already on the table, and you haven’t wasted any real effort if you miss.  I’ve considered adding a Crit/Fumble die to the mix so that crits are confirmed in the same throw as well.  With a little color-coding, you can quickly see hit-die, damage-dice, backstab-dice, crit-die and so on.  It becomes a lot more roll-and-go, especially if DMs aren’t coy about monster ACs (which I don’t think they should be, in general). If people start thinking about their next action before it’s their turn (something my players need practise doing), it gets even smoother.

The Purpose Of This Blog

Posted: 24 July 2012 in Administrivia
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So it’s been a couple of months now, and I wanted to reiterate the purpose of this blog; partly because I have lots of new readers (I assume, since my daily pageviews are about double what they used to be), but mostly to remind myself what I’m trying to do.

So first, a little bit about what this blog is not.  Contrary to a number of my posts, it is not a blog for apologizing for Dungeons and Dragons. I find myself doing that a lot because (1) to address the topics this blog is about I need to set down what my assumptions are, and (2) there seem to be a lot of people who want to knock D&D over because of it’s flaws.  It is a flawed system (that’s a big part of the motivation of this blog), but I like it and feel that there are a lot of things it does very well.  I also know that I was anti-3.X for years because of misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the system, and I’m hoping to help others who may be in a similar spot.  If you don’t like D&D that’s fine, I don’t think you’re a flawed human being and I’m sure we can both find games we like and talk about general RPG elements we hold in common.  D&D isn’t even the only system I’ll talk about here, though it is one that I’m most familiar with and my go-to system (especially if you consider Pathfinder to be “D&D”).

Also, contrary to how some future posts may sound, this blog isn’t really about reviewing RPG products, particularly setting material or adventures.  There may be bits in both that I pull out and look at, and some products address the same things I’m interested in and might get something closer to a full review.

What this blog is about is the various gaming systems and structures, and the fact that many of the RPGs on the shelves are missing large pieces of what I feel should be included in an RPG system.  Specifically, I’m looking to make this a kind of “toolbox” for DMs to come and find the right tool for their campaign needs.  I’ve been DMing for years, and often felt like I was fighting with my players, my setting, and my system to make interesting things happen.  Reading through The Alexandrian, it struck me that missing game structures was at the heart of almost all my problems (with the tension of player agency being a close second).  I’m interested in talking about the hobby, discussing differing preferences and play-styles, and in general geeking-out about Role-Playing Games (fantasy and otherwise).

But in the end this should be a place I can go to find a system for falling damage, or a system for overland travel, or a system for diplomatic negotiations — and preferable a nice variety of each so that I can season my games to taste. And if others benefit from it too, so much the better.

The Preamble

In the comments on my post about Falling Damage, Brenden mentioned his mechanisms for making falling “always scary” but allowing good luck to save you from even extreme falls.  I liked the system but noted that I don’t think falling is always scary, because eventually the PCs are at near-god levels, and Superman isn’t afraid of falling off a building or two.  From there, Dr. Gentleman posted this:

I think the idea that higher-level characters in D&D are akin to demigods is one that makes the system make more sense (and actually makes me want to look at 3e again), but I don’t think that’s the intent of D&D. Heroes go on adventures, gain experience, skills, abilities, and treasure, but they’re still essentially human (elf, dwarf, or whatever). The idea that an exceptional person can gain experience and thereby become the equivalent of a demigod or superhero is not a basic assumption when it comes to D&D, which leads to a lot of complaints about realism. I think that’s a pretty fundamental difference in assumptions, and needs to be explicitly cleared up straight away in these types of discussions.

Except that I think that this is the intent and, if a little buried, that it is fairly clear when you look for what the system ask for. (more…)

Making Magic

Posted: 23 July 2012 in Game Structure
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So I’m going to start off by saying that I’ve never quite understood the major complaints of Vancian magic.  And maybe it’s just that I’ve never seen them presented clearly, but a quick moment of googling before starting on this post didn’t help clear things up.

Protip: use Divination to help prepare tomorrow’s spells

As near as I can tell, Vancian casting is the sort where a Wizard has to prepare spells ahead of time, and one fired off he needs to take time to rest and ‘recharge his batteries.’  A common complaint seems to be that a Wizard has to predict what sorts of spells they’ll need at the beginning of the day and if they guess wrong, oh well.  That could be pretty frustrating, but as far as 3.X/Pathfinder goes (which seem to get the brunt of the complaints) that’s not actually the case.  From the SRD (emphasis mine):

When preparing spells for the day, a wizard can leave some of these spell slots open. Later during that day, she can repeat the preparation process as often as she likes, time and circumstances permitting. During these extra sessions of preparation, the wizard can fill these unused spell slots. She cannot, however, abandon a previously prepared spell to replace it with another one or fill a slot that is empty because she has cast a spell in the meantime. That sort of preparation requires a mind fresh from rest. Like the first session of the day, this preparation takes at least 15 minutes, and it takes longer if the wizard prepares more than one-quarter of her spells.

In many places, the text talks about “preparing spells for the day”, the need for 8 hours of rest followed by 1 hour of preparation, and so on, but the above text notes that a Wizard can leave some slots flexible for when they do know what they’re up against.  The Wizard still needs time to prepare, which is a key differentiators between them and spontaneous-casting Sorcerers, but it isn’t a “hope you guess right” situation.

Fire and Forget

Another common complaint seems to be that it doesn’t make sense* that a Wizard needs to re-memorize his spells each time he wants to cast them, that the memories of the spell are somehow ‘burned’ out of his mind as he casts.  I did see someone note that this is a pretty interesting thing to think about, and kind of creepy, that casting spells can actually rip thoughts out of your head, or that a spell is a kind of entity that moved out of the mage’s mind and in to the world when cast.  I agree that those are neat ideas, but I think they’re also unnecessary.

In many places, the rules talk about a Wizard needing to “memorize” spells, but they also use the term “preparation.”  In a lot of ways it seems more reasonable that a Wizard essentially half-casts his spells during preparation, leaving the final 3-second trigger to be completed when he actually intends to use the spell.  Under that interpretation it’s not that he forgets the spells he uses, but he has to set them up again.  And part of the measure of a mage is how many different spells he can “hold” in that half-cast state at a time (and total, in a day, before being sapped of energy).

Spell Slots vs Mana

The last complaint seems to be that spell slots don’t make sense.  This comes in two flavors: the one that argues that magic energy should recharge evenly over time, and the one that argues that you should be able to ‘fit’ more lower-level spells in a higher level spell slot.  I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with either of those systems, it’s just those aren’t the assumptions that D&D Magic makes.  it’s a fairly modular system, and you can pretty easily pull out Vancian magic and substitute any other system in it’s place without changing the rest of the game much t all.  But I think spell slots are just as reasonable as any other system.

In the D&D mechanics, magic doesn’t recharge evenly over time; accessing those energies is taxing, and a Wizard needs an extended period of light activity or sleep before he can recover, mentally and physically, to work magic again.  I’ve seen mana-point systems that work similarly, where mana won’t regenerate during combat, etc, and it’s really just a design choice.  You could easily have X spell slots recover over Y hours if you want and essentially have the same thing as mana.

The question of how many spells should ‘fit’ in a spell slot is a matter of what that slot represents.  If a spell slot is a quantum of energy, then I would agree that a slot which can power a 3rd Level spell should contain enough energy for several 1st Level spells.  Instead, I think spell slots represent the Wizard’s capacity, both in terms of how many half-spells he can hold at a time and how much casting he can perform in a day.  Higher level spells are restricted to the slots they ‘fit’ in because they’re harder to handle and maintain so the Wizard can only manage a couple at a time.  And regardless of the spells cast, he can only channel so much energy in a day before he’d tapped out, likely drained physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Final Comments

No system is going to satisfy everyone, because we all have slightly different goals and preferences.  I’m not saying that no one should dislike Vancian casting, but I am making the case that Vancian Magic is not less valid as a system than any of it’s competitors.

*While I do talk about the need for game systems to be realistic and “make sense” in order to facilitate role playing and decision making, there are limits — we’re talking about a world with dragons and demons walking the earth, and where a pinch of sulfur and a few hand motions makes a fireball; is it that much more difficult to accept that magic burns away memories as it’s cast?