On Meaningful Weapons

Posted: 11 January 2013 in Game Structure
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I’ve been thinking about weapons in RPGs lately.

At a fundamental level, how your game treats weapons says something about what’s important to the game. Some games have flat damage numbers so that all weapons do, say, d6 damage; in this system being armed or unarmed is more important than whether you have an axe or a sword. Other games have flat numbers based on class, so that a Fighter will do d12 damage and a Wizard does d4 damage regardless of what weapons they’re wielding; here it’s more important what role your character is playing as opposed to how you decide to fill that roll.

It’s also worth noting that where your game puts detail tends to be where your players will expect focus. This isn’t always true, especially if you have a regular group and everyone understands the intentions of the game and the group, but if you pick up random players for a game with a lot of nuance to the combat system don’t be surprised when they expect a lot of combat.

For my part, I like a system that differentiates between weapons and between wielders – that is, i want to see a system where there’s a meaningful difference between an Axe and a Sword, and a meaningful difference between someone who’s trained to use the weapon and someone who’s not. Dungeons and Dragons does the former pretty well. Almost too well, actually, when you consider that there are dozens upon dozens of different weapons with different properties (and feats!)… it actually gets to be a bit more complicated for my tastes.

Others have discussed what number is the right number to have meaningful selection without too much complexity, and I’m going to randomly pick 16 for my Fantasy games: dagger, staff, short sword, longsword, 1-handed axe, 1-handed hammer, 2-handed axe, 2-handed hammer, 2-handed sword, halberd/spear, whip, sling, crossbow, short bow, longbow, heavy crossbow. These are the weapons that came to mind off the top of my head, and I think that any weapon I’ve missed can be caste as one of these without losing a whole lot (the one exception being the spiked chain, I think…). Weapons can be differentiated by damage, critical multiplier, range, attack speed (ranged weapons need to be reloaded, maybe a dagger can attack as a Move action), how they fare against armor and resistances, and possibly bonuses they offer to the wielder (maybe to-hit bonuses, armor bonuses, etc).

The second piece is differentiating a trained wielder from an untrained wielder.  Originally D&D simply said certain classes *couldn’t* use certain weapons. I think a wise DM would read that as “certain classes can’t use certain weapons effectively, as weapons” because any slouch can swing a hunk of metal, but that doesn’t mean the results are going to be mechanically relevant. Later there was a penalty to hit for being non-proficient, and then a bonus to hit for being proficient, and that’s about the extent of it – training with a weapon affects how accurate your attacks are, and that’s it. If I had to do it on my own, I would probably make a trained wielder actually be more effective with the weapon, taking advantage of what the weapon allows, rather than an across-the-board bonus or penalty to accuracy. That adds a bit of complexity, I guess, but again it makes weapons meaningful: being proficient with a dagger is different from being proficient with a two-handed axe, and they lend themselves to different styles.

Under the cut I try my hand at a first draft of my 16 weapons.  What do you think about weapons, proficiency, and the complexity of making this stuff matter?

Onward To Victory

The Gaping Wound, Part 4

Posted: 19 September 2012 in Game Structure
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Death and Dying

We’ve established that the average person in D&D has 3 hit points. They can take 3 points of damage before they collapse from their wounds, and they can supper a total of 13 damage (10 more than their HP) before their body gives up and they are dead.  Up to -9 HP it is possible for them to stabilize and recover naturally. 

According to the SRD, a character who is dying (fewer than 0hp) has a 10% chance per turn to naturally stabilize, or else they lose another hp.  At this rate (and understanding a D&D Turn to be 10 minutes), most people will be dead within an hour and a half.  Even if they stabilize naturally, unless they have someone to aid them they will lose hp every hour until he becomes conscious (again, 10% chance per hour), and even then he will not begin healing naturally for some time (10% chance per day, or lose hp). If there’s someone around to help, the character stops losing hp and start healing naturally as soon as they stabilize — pro tip: always travel with a group.

Having established that hit points are real measures of actual injury, this becomes a model for the body’s ability to repair itself; it is litterally a measure of how close your character is to death, whether he’s being pummelled or just bleeding out.

Natural Healing

Natural healing in D&D 3.X is 1hp per day, per level — or 2hp per day per level if you get complete bed rest.  Generally, any fight you can walk away from you can recover from in a day or two; this is partly because a hp is roughly 1/13th of a character’s vitality, and because an injury does not need to be completely-healed to be mechanically-irrelevant.  Bruises, scratches, and the like are too small for the coarse-grained HP system to track, and day-old wounds appear to fall in the same category.

I have to admit that I’m surprised to read that an Nth-level character heals N times faster than other people; given three characters stabilized at -9hp, the 1st level character is on his feet in a week (6 days at 2hp/day), the 2nd level character is on his feet in a few days (3 days at 4hp/day), and the 3rd level character is on his feet in only a couple days (2 days at 6hp/day).  One way to explain it would be to say that a higher level character recovers quicker even if he doesn’t actually heal quicker, but that undermine’s my intent of “1hp means 1hp, a wound is a wound,” and I’d probably scrap the idea in my own games — characters heal 1hp per day regardless of level. (As an aside, actually healing quicker makes sense for a evel 5+ character, and below that level it might be easy enough to handwave the difference.)

Magical Healing

A major benefit of “hp is wounds,” in my opinion, is that it makes magical healing more reasonable.  This is more important than the quirks of natural healing because it’s concievable that a higher-level character actually does heal quicker, but more particularly because in most games natural healing doesn’t come up.  With access to Clerics and potions, most groups will take the time to refresh themselves to as close to full health as they can as often as they can.  Asserting that “hp is wounds” normalizes magical healing, so that it affects people the same way regardless of Class or Level.  A 1st Level Wizard and a 5th Level Fighter recieve the same, objective benefit from a potion of Cure Light Wounds, rather than having the Wizard’s sucking chest wound close up while the Fighter’s cuts and bruises just sting slightly less.

This also lets us talk objectively about the Cure spells and what they mean.  Cure Light Wounds does 1d8+1 points of healing, about 5 on average.  “Light” in this case is something of a misnomer, as 5hp is enough for most people to be dying.  Cure Moderate Wounds does 2d8+3, or 12 on average.  “Moderate” wounds are enough that most people would be on death’s door.  Cure Serious Wounds does 3d8+5, 18 on average; Serious wounds put a trained fighter into his grave.  Finally, Cure Critical Wounds does 4d8+7, or 44 on average.  That’s more than three mortal wounds for regular people.

Closing

I think that wraps up the notion of hit points as actual wounds.  By the book there are three factors to consider: how long you can fight (positive hit points), how long you can survive (negative hit points and death threshold), and how quickly you can recover (whether 1hp/day or 1hp/day/level).  Regular people can sustain 12 and 14 damage, with trained soldiers weathering as much as 17.  Higher level characters can fight longer and survive more serious wounds, and may recover from their injuries quicker.  A few points of damage are enough to put someone out of the fight (it’s a coarse-grained system), and 10-13 points of damage can be considered a mortal wound.  Scratches, superficial cuts and bruises, scars, and the like are too small to be tracked by hp, and the actual details of any given wound/attack are abstracted into the damage roll.  If you know what the wound is (ie, slitting someone’s throat), the hp system probably isn’t appropriate.

Part 3

Baseline

When my last post ended, we had established that there was a baseline in D&D that 14 to 20 points of damage is enough to kill a man, with 4 to 8 generally being enough to ‘drop’ him and cause him to start dying.  This is based off of die type and Constitution score and (importantly) assumes a Level 1 character.  That most people are Level 1 is one of my guiding principles, and I believe it will serve us well here.

Let’s take our notional baseline and put a finer point on it: the statistically average Level 1 Commoner (human, for what it’s worth).  His hit die type is a d6 and he has a 10 CON, so his (statistically average) hit points are 3 (rounding down) — he will begin dying after just a few points of damage and will be dead after a maximum of 13 damage.  A Warrior will, on average, have 5 hp and die after a total of 15 damage, making them a bit more resilient but still in the same ball park.  PC classes are comparable.  Extra points in CON effectively add 1.5 points to the total damage a character can take before death, so a tough Warrior might be able to survive up to 18 points of damage, but he’s still down after 6.

So far we can make sense of this.  Hit points represent the body’s ability to sustain damage.  After so much punishment, you will begin dying and, eventually, you body will beyond the point where it can recover; you are dead.  If you’ve been hurt and survived, rest and medical attention can, over time, return you to health.  Hit Points only measure the proximity to death; they do not track scars, broken bones, pulled tendons, torn muscles, etc. except in as far as those things bring a character closer to death.  Hit Points on their own can not tell you if you lose a limb, or an eye, or threw out your back.  Hit Points (on their own) can’t track bruises, fatigue, hunger, or exposure to the elements.  they just tell you how close you are to dying in a coarse-grained kind of way.  But for that, they do a pretty good job: some people are tougher than others, but everyone is effectively within a few points of each other (with the exception of extreme Constitution), and everyone heals at the same rate.

The real problem comes from scaling hit points with level and, perhaps to a greater extent, random hit points.

Scaling Hit Points

The way D&D does hit points is that you get X hit dice of type Y, where X is the level of your character.  So a Level 1 Commoner (on average) has 3hp, but once he hits level 2 he jumps up to 7 hp!  It’s worth noting here, though, that this isn’t really twice the vitality; he has 7hp, but he’s still dead at -10, so instead of dying after 13 damage he’s dead after 17.  It’s not a huge leap in those terms, but it does mean that he can take a lot more punishment before he ‘drops.’  What’s more, the average Level 2 Commoner can take more punishment than the average Level 1 Warrior, both before he drops and before he’s dead.  That is to say Level matters, which I think is appropriate.  The difference between Level 1 and Level 2 in many respects is more important than the difference between Warrior and Commoner; the Level 2 character is better than the Level 1 character fundamentally (though a Level 2 Commoner who says that to a Level 1 Warrior is unlikely to ever see Level 3).

Does this mean that the Level 2 character has more meat to them?  That their bones are stronger, that they’re more resistant to decapitation?  The answer is no: hit points don’t track those sorts of things, and if they’re important hit points are the wrong tool to use.  All it means is that the Level 2 character can keep fighting despite more severe punishment and that he can recover from graver wounds.  After 13 damage the Level 1 Commoner’s body can’t keep up and shuffles off this mortal coil; the Level 2 Commoner has taken the same punishment but is still holding on, and may yet recover.  The Level 2 character is more resilient.

At Level 3 the Commoner would have 10 hp and survive up to 20 damage before dying, and it starts to become clear that such a character can keep fighting despite having taken wounds that would drop a lesser man.  In fact, when the Level 3 Commoner has taken enough damage to drop, the Level 1 Commoner is on death’s door and fading fast.  The Level 3 character is truly heroic, though still within ‘normal’ bounds.  By the time he reach Level 5, though, he has 17 hit points and can sustain 27 points of damage before his last gasp; he fights on after receiving a wound that would kill other men outright.  He is on the verge of the superhuman.

Random Hit Points

But what if he’s not? This assumes that a character could increase in level without significantly increasing their resilience, but I don’t think that’s much of an assumption at all.  First, it’s easy to imagine a Wizard who becomes a better Wizard without becoming noticeably tougher.  Second, it’s already coded into the way we do hit points: statistically unlikely though it may be, that Level 5 Commoner could have only 7 hp (if he rolled ones for every Level after the first). And in terms of the purpose of the Hit Point system I think this flaw may be the worst because it does damage to the purpose of hit points: it divorces them from the character they’re meant to represent.

I think I get why we do it.  Dice are a thing that gamers love, they’re fair, and they help us determine otherwise uncertain things.  But my contention is that hit points are, in one sense, not uncertain.  The character either is or is not getting more resilient, and either by a lot or a little.  In a way, it’s as important as whether he’s a Wizard or a Warrior, a Gnome or a Half-Orc, Lawful or Chaotic.  It talks about his ability to act beyond his old limits; it is deliberate.  Determining this randomly causes problems because now anyone can suddenly be twice as resilient without a firm connection to the fiction; it’s random.

There’s not really a good ‘fix’ for this, and in many cases I’m not sure a fix is desired, but I think it’s important to recognize. If you don’t acknowledge that your character’s hit point increase is tied to the fiction then the mechanic is going to become divorced from the character’s reality.

Part 2
Part 4

It’s been about a month since I first opened the topic of hit points in D&D.  Although I still haven’t had the time to get in to the meat of it, I did want to look at a little bit of history of hit points.   That being said, I didn’t enter the hobby until the late ’90s, so none of my history lessons come first-hand.

In Chainmail, as near as I can tell, there was no notion of hit points; a unit was hit or not and, once hit the unit was dead.  There was apparently a set of rules made to model Civil War era ironclads (as noted by Roles, Rules, and Rolls), where the structure of a ship could take so much damage before being sunk.  According to the interview RR&R references, those rules were incorporated into D&D in order to ease the harshness of sudden, random death that Chainmail would have otherwise. This let D&D players act and feel like heroes.

Anecdotal evidence (the first comment, not the linked post) suggests that hit points for humans were originally set at 7, but player complaints lead to an increase.  Though, it seems like OD&D had starting hit points ranging from 1 to 7 (d6+CON), and 0 hit points was dead.  Then in AD&D, various hit dice were introduced based on class, with a range of 1 to 9 (depending on class and CON) for first level characters.  Again, evidence suggests these numbers were historically meant to represent regular people; the average joe.

So originally (for some value of “originally”) something around 4 points of damage were enough to kill a man (on average), but a burly fighter might be able to withstand twice that.  This is a rather coarse-grained system in that it can really only measure one quarter of a man’s vitality — anything less is too small to be measured.  This was alleviated a little bit with the addition of “below zero” rules, where a character was incapacitated (and dying) at 0hp, but they weren’t dead until -10 — it effectively takes 14 points of damage to kill the average man and 19 to kill a burly fighter, which is a much closer ratio than 4:9.  This addition makes the system a bit more granular and levels the playing field a bit (fighters are no longer taking two mortal wounds before they die). With 15 to 20 points of granularity (though, less than half of those count as “action-ready”), there’s a lot more room to address ‘lesser’ wounds, but we’re still talking about the sorts of things that are going to leave a mark and require a bit of time to recover from.  A busted lip is probably not hit point damage.

Hopefully it won’t take me another month to address ‘modern’ notions of hit points (I don’t think current systems stray too far from the historic baseline, at least not at first) and the contention that hit points are incoherent, that they are explained as “luck, divine favor, etc” but treated as actual physical wounds.

Part 1
Part 3

On Chases

Posted: 4 September 2012 in Toolbox
Tags: ,

Role, Rules, and Rolls posted a “Simple Chase Rule” a couple weeks ago, where a character can forgo their normal movement rate for a turn in order to roll for a random movement rate.  In D&D/Pathfinder terms, a character who moves 30′ in a round can move 10d6′ instead (or I guess you could simplify it to 6-spaces and 2d6-spaces if you cared to).  This gives a range of 10′ to 60′ (with an average of 35′) which is a huge range to represent bursts of speed or mishaps/stumbling.

Right off, I like the idea that Roger is going for here: with static movement rates, you can determine the results of a chase before anyone moves anywhere; the faster party wins, or in the case of matched rates whoever can outlast the other.  That’s rather dull, and adding in a roll shakes it up a bit.

That being said, I’m not sure it actually works, at least not in D&D and not with characters or groups who have different speeds.  For example, a human can move 30′ or average 35′ (at the risk of moving only 10′ in a turn).  A kobold can move 20′ or average 23′ (rolling 6d6+2), hoping to get as much as 38′ at the risk of only going 8′.  Assuming a Human is running from a Kobold and chooses to NOT random-roll the chase, he will move away at a steady 30′ pace.  If the kobold doesn’t random-roll the human will pull away at a relative 10′ per turn and the kobold has no chance to catch up.  If the kobold DOES random-roll, he will average a speed of 23′ and the human will pull away at a relative 7′ per turn, and the kobold has no chance to catch up.  Only early on, <i><b>if</b></i> the human and kobold are within 10′ of each other, does the kobold have a chance of catching the faster human, and then only if the koblod gets a particularly good roll and the human doesn’t put any special effort in to running.

Of course, this is all moot given that D&D/Pathfinder has a full-round “Run” action, where the character throws caution to the wind (granting combat advantage) and moves at a rate of 4x their normal speed (120′ instead of 30′).  Combining these would give something silly like 40d6′ (between 40′ and 240′ depending on the whims of the dice) and it breaks down from there.

A short little post while I chew on bigger problems.
Unofficial Games has a post up about using a stealth system to help determine the occurrence of Wandering Monster events.  It’s a neat idea and something that I already do in a loose way: ie, if the PCs do something noisy I have the world around them react, and in certain environments that reaction can be guards showing up to see what’s going on.  Zzarchov seems to imply that there’s a more-formal system he’s using that tracks “suspicion” points, and he doesn’t go into details of how the system works (except generally that noisy things generate suspicion and at some point that suspicion becomes an encounter).  It’s not clear if there’s a threshold, or if it works like old Mage: The Ascension Paradox in that the GM can choose to slowly “burn off” suspicion in smaller encounters or let it build up into something Big and Bad.

I think it would be interesting (and it’s again something I implement informally) to use a similar system to track whether the PCs become aware of wandering monsters, whether it’s a sneaking goblin raiding party or a lumbering ogre looking for a meal.  Not sure exactly how you could translate that to this “suspicion points” system — either you’re telling players “he’s gained enough points, you’re suspicious that there’s something just a couple passages away,” or you’re dropping hints each time the creature gains points and waiting for the players to decide they’re suspicious enough to check it out (“an innocuous sound?  The GM said it, it must be important!”).

Dungeons & Dragons Documentary

Posted: 23 August 2012 in The Hobby
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As a general rule I don’t intend to plug various Kickstarter (or IndieGoGo, or whatever) projects on my blog; that’s not what the Toolbox is about.  But I wanted to mention this one because, whether you love it or hate it, I feel like D&D is a piece of our cultural heritage as Role-Players.  If you can support the project, I encourage you to do so.