Category Archives: Rules Design

Damage Dice Irrelevance?

This is a straight-up response post. I had too much to say to submit a comment to this article by The Id DM, and so here are my thoughts.

I feel it’s necessary, first of all, to explain my unique point of view that would make such a thing worth expanding beyond a simple comment and worth the time spent reading. I’m one of the few GMs that runs games almost exclusively online. Play by post games a bit, but more often combined with what I excel at, which is running games on virtual tabletops in real time. For a while now, my drink of choice has been Map Tool, and the majority of my experience has been with D&D 4th edition. The part about a virtual tabletop that makes my position unique, however, isn’t my credentials. What makes a VTT unique is that its random number generating functions, practically speaking as random as the best gaming dice outside of Vegas, are not even a little bit concerned with the logistics of dice rolling. It’s the work of mere moments to type something to the effect of /roll d20+d18+d74+24+108+1d12r3*d100 to get results from a mechanic that was surely so complicated it would’ve been laughed out of FATAL.

(For those curious, that would be equal to a brutal 2 d12 (reroll 1s and 2s) times a d% resulting in a quantity added to the static modifiers 24 and 108 in addition to a d20, d18, and d74 for good measure. Having just done it I got a result of 481).

The fact that the above dice expression can be calculated faster than you can type it, and you can type it in under ten seconds, coupled with the potential for linking to a button to repeat as often as I like, means that dice logistics are absolutely meaningless on a VTT; that’s right, dice logistics on a VTT are like the points on Whose Line. With that in mind, let’s examine the questions Iddy posed to the readers:

What are damage dice even FOR? What do they do for the game?

Damage dice, simply put, are the analog to “to-hit”s digital. Well, okay, they’re pretending to be analog, but they do a much more convincing job of things (not least of all because analog circuits often use ranges to represent discrete values rather than actually being used as the continuum they are). In some games, like Ars Magica or Spirit of the Century, the “to-hit” expression is a determining factor in damage every single time, not just on a critical hit. If you exceed the DC more you do more damage – makes sense, right? Not so in D&D, which is why having a more analog array of damage possibilities is important. Why is this sort of “analog” nature important in the first place? A few reasons.

  1. A game that involves very digital quantities, that is “on or off” quantities, is easy to predict and easy to “game”. Dice were purposely included in D&D as an element of luck, or fate, or whatever. I’ll get into that later, but for now all that matters is that it’s the case. A lot of people have said “I’d rather instead of a minion doing 6 damage on a hit it just did 3 damage automatically and that’s that”. Now that’s great for conserving your wrist muscles and saving some time at the table, but it makes the system eminently more game-able, which is something that was supposed to be avoided in the first place. Changing the amount of dice allows wider or narrower ranges of predictability to taste.
  2. A “feel-good” roll, or at least more of one than “to-hit” is, is good for player (and GM) morale. If you roll a 1 on your attack 3 turns in a row that’s some serious sour grapes, but if you roll a 1 on your damage 3 turns in a row while it may suck compared to max damage at least you haven’t missed and wasted your turn. Damage is the “everybody’s a winner” roll, even if some people are bigger winners than others.
  3. Finally, it should be noted that all of D&D’s original offensive and defensive jargon originated from an attempt to make a fun and fast facsimile of combat in a fantasy environment with too many strange variables to account for. Gygax, being an avid fan of tactical miniatures games, could’ve easily included more sophisticated rules, and said as much in his time on ENWorld, but felt that it was important to not do so. That to have a score that represents blocking, parrying, dodging, etc. (AC) against a roll for effectiveness (“to-hit”), and thence to have an abstract representation of physical hardiness, luck, and skill in slipping blows that seemed destined to connect (“HP”) to shield you against the actual damage if it is not entirely avoided would be sufficient.

Regarding point #3, the system could’ve just as easily been “did the blow hit you? Okay, you died because you have a sword in your gut”, but that was deemed, I suppose, too abstract. The “effective/not” and “degree of damage” system was selected as a good middle ground. It should also be noted that in Gygax’s eyes an RPG without dice would be more amateur theater than an RPG, so we should also keep that in mind whether we agree or not.

Why are we as DMs spending precious time calculating complicated damage rolls that can take over eight dice plus a static modifier to compute?

In this instance I am proud to say that, in fact, I am not spending my precious time calculating these; the VTT is doing all the calculating and it can do this trick in the blink of an eye where it would take me a few seconds at least. Presumably we are doing it for the above reasons, though for me the doing it is much easier than for people using pencil and paper with real dice.

Why not build monsters that deliver specific damage based on whatever attack they use against the player character(s)?

As covered in question 1, this is because it would be not only too gamey, but also treading dangerously close to “not an RPG”, much less “not D&D”, in the eyes of the creator.  In terms of monsters, of course, GMs probably appreciate that feel-good roll, too, though likely less than players do since GMs get to roll a lot more attacks than the players do, so being on a cold streak doesn’t hurt so much.

Why is the SOP in D&D one roll for attack and another for damage?

This is where I shall, as referenced above, call on the great creator. Typos and other such things have been preserved for posterity:

AC is the measure of how difficult it is to make an effective attack on a target subject. One might broaden it by including dodging and parrying, but those are subsumed in the single number, as is indicated by the addition of Dex bonus, thus obviating the need for a lot of additional adjustments and dice rolling. The game is not a combat simulation, after all.

Hit points for characters are a combination of actual physical health and the character’s skill in avoiding serious harm from attacks aimed at him that actually hit. This is a further measure of the defender’s increasing ability to slip blows and dodge, as mentioned above in regards AC. While AC increases mainly by the wearing of superior protectionm HPs increase with the character’s accumulating experience in combat reflected by level increase.

In combination the two give a base protection and survivability for the beginning character and allow that base to increase as the character increases in experience. It does not pretend to realism, but it does reflect the effects of increasing skill in a relatively accurate manner while avoiding tedious simulation-oriented considerations and endless dice rolling.

As someone who has designed a number of military miniatures rules sets, I could have made combat in the OAD&D game far more complex, including all manner of considerations for footing, elevation of the opponents, capacity to dodge, parrying skill, opponents using natural weapons, etc. Knowing that the game was not all about combat, I skipped as much of that as I could by having the main factors subsume lessers, ignoring the rest. It is a role-playing exercise where all manner of other game considerations come into play, not just fighting.

Oh, least I forget, when magic is mixed into the formula, getting anything vaguely resembling reality becomes wholly problematical ;)

There you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: precisely why D&D’s SOP is two rolls: to-hit, then damage. The TL;DR version (if such a thing could exist for a quote of Gary’s) is above under question 1 as reason #3.

How is it helpful to read about unique home rules by WotC staff who were prominent in building, designing and playtesting the game system?

I’ll answer this with another quote from Gary:

That calls to mind the incident that occurred when I was giving a seminar on AD&D to a large audience of dedicated players at a GenCon. Someone asked me howI’d handle a specific situation, and I responded. One fellow in the crowd objected, ‘but that isn’t what the DMG says…’

To that I respnded to this effect: ‘I don’t care what the book says. I wrote it, and I am not infalable. In the case just before us the material in the DMG is wrong–as it is anytime the DM over-rules it.’

The WotC staff are just as, if not more, fallable than the original. We may have learned a lot about RPGs and designing them since Gary’s pioneering journey into uncharted territory all those decades ago, but I’d be willing to bet this piece of wisdom still rings true. The WotC designers doubtless feel that their own rules may be wrong in places, but the majority disagreed at the time, or perhaps they were one of those who agreed but later had second thoughts, but for whatever reason the rules aren’t officially amended. Designers having house rules has existed since Gygax himself holding in disdain the rushed state of the psionic material, weapon vs armor tables, and weapon speed tables and stripping the lot from his home game of AD&D – if not from earlier!

So, now that I’ve gone on a bit of a tear, here’s the short answer: they’re helpful because it shows us what RPGs are all about, and have been about since their inception.

Didn’t you say something about “it’s not an RPG without dice”? What’s up with that?

Oh, right, sorry. Gygax was indeed noted to say that diceless RPGs were not RPGs (though they were still games where some great fun could be had), and whether I agree with him or not the point is that luck through the form of rolling dice is integral to D&D if not necessarily the RPG genre as a whole. Don’t believe me? Read for yourself:

Diceless and “storytelling” games are not RPGs, but that is not to say that they are not games, nor to claim they lack high entertainment value–fun! My complaint has been that these games hould not claim to be RPGs, nor should those that tour them claim any “adult” or “sophistication” merit becasue they have no random chance.

[...]

As for PA’s calling attention to the fact that many an RPG session has little or no random chance element interjected into a play session, this is so. However these RPGs can include that when needed or desired. In a private email I called his attention to this, and the fact that the “diceless” game can not to do, as it is not an RPG, has been emasculated by the excision of random chance

[...]

It ain’t an RPG without chance entering into play

And now to add one of my own…

Is Perkins’ idea good or not and why?

The ultimate litmus test of any rule tweak in an RPG is dead simple and two-fold:

  1. Is this rule as simple as it can be, but no simpler? And,
  2. Does this rule emulate the intended effect in a way that is at least as fun as what existed previously to emulate that effect?

Going back to the beginning…

Is this a good way to randomize damage? It’s fairly good, yeah. I’d tend towards slightly bigger die sizes than a d6, but having never really tried it I’m not sure if that’s really necessary. It obviously reduces your ability to tweak probability curves, but a similar effect can be achieved by simply varying die sizes. A smaller die size means a lesser variation than a bigger one, and that’s effectively similar to creating probability curves with multiple dice of varying sizes.

Is this a good way to maintain a feel good roll? Sure! Fewer dice slightly reduces its effectiveness, since rolling more dice means a higher chance to avoid minimum damage, but at the same time max damage’s likelihood is increased as well, so a bit of bad with the good.

Is this a good way to abstract the amount of damage that a character could take or avoid from a hit that is “effective”? Sure. A tighter range of results than what a fistful of dice is capable of producing may even be more realistic – if you’re hit “effectively” shouldn’t it consistently hurt an awful lot rather than swinging all over the shop? Possibly. I’m no expert in combat that involves magic, and I don’t think anyone else is, either. It seems as good as any other way in the abstraction department, with the exception that perhaps you feel it’s “too” abstracted… but as we already know, Gygax had a certain measure of degree that he enjoyed in abstraction, and other people probably have their own. This one is down to personal taste, I think.

Lowering the amount of dice obviously is reducing the complexity, so I guess the only question there is as above: does this reduce complexity too much in your taste?

My answer? It depends. In real life there aren’t any “magic bullet” solutions. I love using ridiculous dice expressions I could never even get a grip on in a game at a real table using real little plastic knobs with numbered faces because the logistics simply wouldn’t be there. For me this solution doesn’t really offer much in way of being compelling. Clicking the “roll the dice” button will be just as fast whether it’s “/roll d20+d18+d74+24+108+1d12r3*d100″ or “/roll d6+536″ in my case – I really have nothing to lose by using these ridiculous fistfuls of dice and everything to gain in terms of precise number curve control. However, in the real world, at a real table, the trade-off is extremely compelling. Saving yourself some time doing math without any average numerical effect on the game? Aside from the psychological wonder of dropping 200 dollars worth of dice on the table to represent how potent an attack really is, is anything of value truly lost greater than the value gained in time saved? I would say no. This seems to me to be, at the very least, a fair trade-off that every “real table real dice” GM should at least consider.

Adopting it, of course, depends on if you “care what the book says”… ;)

Happy Trails,
The Hydra DM

May of the Dead – Run away, run away!

Let’s face it, guys; when you’re fighting undead, sooner or later you’re going to want to run away screaming like a little girl. Well, alright, maybe “want” is the wrong word – “must” is perhaps more fitting. For a long time in D&D there hasn’t been anything approaching a robust system of fight or flight – only fight. No more! I present to you now, officially, my Spirit of the Century Chase Hack for D&D 4th edition.

What makes a chase good?

Foot chases, especially, all have some very common themes:

  1. They don’t last long in the game. A terror-induced sprint can only last for a short while, especially when you’re burdened by adventuring gear, armor, and weapons. Beyond this timer, generally the terrain and actions of the chaser and chasee result in one side catching or losing the other in short order.
  2. They shouldn’t last long at the table. A chase is fast, and it should therefore be mechanically simple so that you can keep up excitement at the table. There’s not a LOT of strategy here compared to something like a fight, but there is a lot of involvement.
  3. Speed helps, but it isn’t the MOST important thing. Relying on speed alone might simply make you run into the cart of cabbages the heroes flipped behind them.
  4. Innovation is key. A good chase scene is driven by actions besides “I run some more”, like parkouring over rooftops, throwing down caltrops, or swinging across a chasm on a rope.

So, what mechanics can we use?

As mentioned, these mechanics are lifted as closely as possible from Spirit of the Century, since they got chase scenes (admittedly for vehicles) pretty much correct from the get-go. Adapting it to the generally-on-foot nature of dungeoneers is surprisingly not very difficult. Here are the rules of the chase scene in handy bullet point format.

  1. Select a Trailblazer for both the PCs and their enemies (in the case of the PCs, let them choose their own). The Trailblazer of team monster will probably change over the course of the chase, but so far I haven’t had much luck with re-arranging who gets to lead on team PC (once you select a PC Trailblazer for a given chase scene you should probably just keep them unless you know the terrain is going to change drastically). Those of you shooting for irony can ask for a Pathfinder instead, but be warned that players generally react aversely to bad puns.
  2. The Trailblazer for the team being chased selects a primary skill. A common choice is athletics, but alternatives that also often come up are acrobatics and endurance, or sometimes even stealth. It is possible to switch primary skills between exchanges, but I haven’t seen it come up very often. Remember that skill rolls in a chase scene are predicated on good roleplaying of what the skill roll entails from a character perspective. The roleplaying drives the mechanics of the chase scene and vice versa – neither functions without the other.
  3. The party of the Trailblazer on the side of the PCs (the monsters do not do this, they’re not heroic enough and since they’re all played by you anyway there’s no need to enforce teamwork) can select one of their members besides the Trailblazer, who will be able to designate another skill as the secondary skill. The Trailblazer cannot be aided by the same person two exchanges in a row. They will, same as the primary skill, give a snippet of roleplaying for why this skill applies to the situation and how their character is using it.

At this point the rules diverge slightly based on whom is being chased and who is doing the chasing. If the PCs are being chased -

  1. The Trailblazer sets a single DC that applies to both skill rolls, then both he and the party member contributing the secondary skill roll make their skill checks. Remember, if they describe great success and the rolls come up as flubs, the opposition was just that much better and your description should match that fact. If either of these checks beats the DC then the PCs experience success, otherwise they experience failure (described below). Remember to apply any miscellaneous modifiers (described below).
  2. The monster Trailblazer (generally the monster with the highest bonus to the skill still in the chase since most monsters have low bonuses to most skills and will provide little challenge otherwise) attempts to roll against the DC using the primary skill. Remember this isn’t a one way street – you have to give a description, too! Again, below the DC results in some degree of failure, while above the DC results in some degree of success.
  3. Repeat.

If the PCs are the ones chasing -

  1. The monster Trailblazer sets a DC and selects a primary skill. Again, remember that your skill check requires a description to work. Make a check against this DC, with matching or above being some degree of success, and below being some degree of failure.
  2. The Trailblazer and the secondary skill contributing member of the PC team will make checks, with the Trailblazer using the primary skill as designated by the monster team and the aiding PC using a secondary skill designated by himself (again, this needs a good description – don’t be afraid to say “that makes no sense”). The usual successes and failures apply.
  3. Repeat.

These are some recommended values and methods for handling successes and failures. To wit I have used these in my West Marches sandbox campaign, which features generally only one or two combat encounters per session (if that), which means the penalties are a bit harsh in order to have a challenging game. If you want a longer chase scene, or you want to adjust it so that the penalties to the PCs aren’t as bad so they don’t need to take an extended rest as soon afterwards, you can easily do that by simply adjusting the number values.

  • If the PCs are being chased and equal or exceed the DC they set with at least one of their two checks they take no immediate penalty and (probably, see getting caught below) continue to flee at top speed. Top speed is assumed to be five times overland speed (speed 6 characters would be running at slightly over 15 miles an hour – something that I think is suitable for heroes at a dead sprint with gear, but you can adjust this to suit your own personal preferences), and a single exchange takes one minute. If you are in a small area and are afraid the chase might go outside of the area, you can reduce the amount of time an exchange takes to a matter of seconds rather than the full game minute, or alternatively you can reduce the movement rate due to it being a confined space.
  • If the PCs are being chased and both checks are below the DC, the higher check result is used. All PCs in the group lose a number of healing surges equal to the difference divided by 2 rounded down to a minimum of 1 surge. Adjusting this divisor to be higher can make chases less punishing on PCs, or lower can make them more punishing.
  • If the PCs are being chased and the monsters equal or exceed the DC with their one check, PCs each lose healing surges equal to the difference divided by 2 rounded down to a minimum of 1 surge. Again, adjusting this divisor to be higher can make chases less punishing on PCs.
  • If the PCs are being chased and the monsters do not equal or exceed the DC, they will take damage on their stress track (see The Stress Track below) equal to the difference divided by 4 rounded down to a minimum of 1.  Adjusting this divisor can make monsters easier to catch or escape as you please, and will have much the same effect as changing the divisor on lost healing surges.
  • If the PCs are chasing, and the monsters equal or exceed their own DC, the monsters will continue to flee at top speed (probably, see getting caught below) where top speed is determined the same way it is for the PCs.
  • If the PCs are chasing, and they equal or exceed the DC with either or both checks, the monsters take damage to their stress track equal to the difference of the larger result and the DC divided by 4 rounded down to a minimum of 1.
  • If the PCs are chasing, and both of their checks do not equal or exceed the DC, the PCs will lose healing surges equal to the difference of the larger result and the DC divided by 2 rounded down to a minimum of 1.
  • If the PCs are chasing, and the monsters do not equal or exceed their own DC, the monsters will take on their stress track equal to the difference between the result and the DC divided by 4 rounded down to a minimum of 1.

The Stress Track

Monsters, unfortunately, do not REALLY have healing surges. I mean they technically have one per tier, but that’s a pretty lousy amount of surges to use as a progress bar. Therefore I have lifted the concept of the Stress Track directly from Spirit of the Century. Each 4 minions contributes one box, each standard monster contributes one box, each elite monster contributes two boxes, and each solo monster contributes five boxes. Each box is sequentially numbered left to right starting with 1. When a monster team takes damage to a stress box, that number box is filled in. If the box is already filled in, the empty box with the next highest number is filled in. When the “box” above the highest actual box on the track is “filled in” the monster team is defeated (see below). As an example, if they take damage to the 1 box, the leftmost box is filled in. If they take damage to the 1 box again, the leftmost EMPTY box (2 box) is filled in. If they take damage to the five box, but their stress track is only four boxes long, the monsters are considered defeated. Additionally, if all of the boxes are filled in the monsters are considered defeated (since each box correlates to a remaining monster, with no boxes left there should be no monsters left). If you want to be really involved mechanically you can have monsters give fewer boxes if they’re injured, but I’ve never found that to be necessary.

Getting Caught

The PC team is considered “caught” if any of their members takes at least surge value HP damage from losing surges with no healing surges remaining (contrary to normal surge loss, losing surges in a chase will eventually result in losing surge value hit points if you have no surges to lose). Running yourself ragged like this is obviously a measure of desperation, and it is often advisable, if it looks like you will be caught, to simply end the chase as a PC. You can stop fleeing at any time, and begin to fight. Whenever you are caught or choose to stop and fight, you must complete a full round of combat before deciding to attempt to flee again. Aside from this stipulation of a necessary round of combat, the PCs may choose to flee at ANY TIME it is a PC’s turn (and so the same for monsters respectively). You may flee at zero surges remaining, but if you take surge value or more damage from losing surges with none remaining you are once again caught. Monsters are considered completely caught when their stress track overflows or is full (as described in the last section). It is recommended that for inconsequential monsters (i.e. not solo monsters, or named villains) that when their contributing stress box is filled they are overtaken and defeated in a manner you allow the PCs to describe to you, or, if the monsters are chasing rather than being chased, that they fall too far behind or otherwise give up or are taken out. If powerful monsters or named villains are overtaken it is advisable that you use personal discretion in figuring out a reasonable impairment to their combat ability, similar to how PCs would need to engage in combat with fewer or no healing surges remaining. Spending their “big punch” powers such as recharges, encounters, or dailies and having those unavailable, or else having them take automatic damage (like bloodied value as an example) or suffer some other disabling condition like weakened or dazed (until short rest) is what I’d recommend, but really it’s up to you and your best judgment for what would make the best dramatic conclusion to the chase scene in such a case.

Miscellaneous Modifiers

It is highly recommended that you include some miscellaneous modifiers in your chase scenes. If the minimum speed of one group exceeds that of the other, the faster group should get a +1 to all checks for each unit of speed they are faster. A speed 7 group entirely made of elves, therefore, against a speed 5 group made of plate armored fighters would give the elves a +2 to all checks. Alternatively, you can match the average speed of the groups together instead of the minimum speeds, although I find minimum speeds to be easier. If you want speed to be more of a factor, such as in open terrain like a field, you can increase the potency of speed, but I wouldn’t put it above +5 per unit no matter what the terrain is like. Speed is important in a chase scene, but not the MOST important. Heroes escape guard dogs all the time, after all, and dogs are pretty fast compared to humans!

Other modifiers include the familiarity with terrain type, and perhaps even plusses or minuses depending on the primary skill selected and how well it suits the terrain. Miscellaneous modifiers is your way to adjust the basic framework presented here to fit whatever situation it’s placed into.

Using the Spirit of the Century modifiers for group size (2-3 = +1, 4-6 = +2, 7-9 = +3, 10-12 = +4, etc.) for the monsters seems to work well, too, since monsters are usually only trained in one or two skills and tend to have lower modifiers than the PCs at that. In the event of solo or elite monsters you could consider giving them modifiers based on number of boxes contributed to the group (so an elite counts as two for purposes of group size, or a solo as five). Whether minions grant bonuses for size based on the individual number of them or based on the amount of standards they are worth/boxes they contribute is up to you, but I generally base it on the amount of standard monsters they should be worth, same as elites/solos.

I recommend, further, that the spending of a daily power should allow the person expending it to make a check of a skill related to that power even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense in the chase scene. A good example would be a wizard who wants to use Arcane Whirlwind, his level 1 daily power, to roll an arcana check as a secondary skill check. Consider giving better modifiers, such as +1 per level of the power, for higher level expenditures. I also considered allowing encounter powers for this, but there were simply too many encounter powers versus the length of the chase so I wouldn’t recommend it unless you want your players to go hog-wild with checks that don’t make a lot of sense.

Chases using Mounts or Vehicles

These will function in an identical manner to the above framework, although the skills used will probably be different, or at least the roleplayed descriptions. Athletics can be used to adjust the main mast, acrobatics to avoid falling off the rigging as you climb to the crow’s nest to get a better view, or nature to coax your horse into jumping across a pit.

Example of Play

Eravan the Eladrin Wizard, Rhovan the Human Warlock, and Lilac Sear the Human Blackguard are adventuring together when they’re set upon by a handful (3) of Maydeath Ghouls. Knowing that they are unable to combat such terrible foes without the divine protection of a Cleric or Paladin they immediately turn and flee the cliffside temple they had been exploring.

Eravan: Oh, hell.
Lilac: Right, we run away. I’ll be Trailblazer.
(The DM doesn’t have much of a choice here since all of the ghouls are the same; he selects one at random to be the Trailblazer for the monsters).
Rhovan: I’ve got a killer Arcana check, I’m going to shoot my Flame of Phlegethos daily power at the Ghouls to help cover our retreat.
Lilac: Alright, well, since this is a caldera I’m just going to say that we run as fast as we can across the overgrown garden and back to the entrance hallway, where we can start climbing back down the ropes we left from the ascent. DC 21.
DM: Go ahead and roll, guys.
Lilac and Rhovan (simultaneously): I got a 23!
DM: Haha, alright, the Ghouls come after you with their supernatural speed hungering for your flesh! (Knowing the Ghouls are speed 6 and Lilac’s armor slows her down to speed 5, the Ghouls get a +1 bonus to their check, and since they are a group size of three they get another +1 bonus). 16! Ah, looks like the Ghouls take a hit to the (21-17=4/4=1) 1 box. (This DM is being transparent about the mechanics, you don’t need to announce which box is struck if you don’t want to). The flames of Phlegethos carve into one of the Ghouls and it’s too busy being on fire to chase any further, but the other two are right behind you! Your minute long sprint takes you across the garden and back into the entrance tunnel full of graffiti – you can see the door out to the cliffside from here. (If the Trailblazer was the one that was removed from the chase, the DM will need to select a new one).

End of First Exchange, beginning of Second Exchange
Lilac: Hm, well, we’re going to have to climb down the ropes; athletics is generally the skill used for climbing and I’m not good at much else that will be useful so I say that we’ll descend the ropes as fast as we can, hoping that the Ghouls don’t know how to climb. DC 22.
Eravan: Is there any way I could maybe use Perception to find the quickest way down? (Eravan has a very high modifier to perception and wants to try to use it in a reasonable way).
DM: No, the ropes are anchored where you left them – you’ll have to just use them as they are unless you fancy a free-climb down the cliff-face.
Eravan: Well, that is definitely not something I fancy. Hrm. Alright, I’d like to use Nature to try to figure out if Ghouls can climb after us so we’re ready to jam when we hit the bottom if they can?
DM: That seems reasonable to me. Roll ‘em guys.
Lilac: 21, drat!
Eravan: 20, not really any better.
DM: Alright, you guys each lose 1 healing surge (22-21=1/2=.5, minimum 1). When you reach the bottom of the cliff, however, it seems as though the Ghouls aren’t interested in pursuing you outside of their lair (they decided to stop chasing, which they can do at any time just like the PCs). You’ve escaped… for now, at least.

Closing Thoughts

I find that the above framework tends to work very well, and so do my players. It’s very fast since it only involves a small handful of rolls, it’s roleplaying rich since roleplaying is required to make a check, and unlike a skill challenge there is no contrived “X before Y” designated ending point with the heroes instead in full control of how much effort they want to devote to running or chasing. Speed is a factor, but not the most important one, with innovation (roleplaying your checks) being at the forefront. The chases don’t last too long at the table (generally only about ten minutes in my experience), and they get everyone involved due to secondary skills. They let the dumb muscle character get his chance to shine – a fighter only gets three trained skills, but chances are two of them are Athletics and Endurance, which are both perfectly suited for a chase scene and use either his primary ability score or a secondary one. What’s more, the use of secondary skills allows the PCs to not just follow the villain’s footsteps, but to employ their smarts to cut him off at the pass using a different skill. And, not only that, but the seemingly useless monster skills are finally relevant! Hooray! Finally, they don’t penalize characters who are naturally bad at running, like a wizard, since the wizard doesn’t need to be the one rolling Athletics as Trailblazer.

That’s it from me, but I’d love to hear how people use and adapt this framework to their own games when chases occur. I had to use it about a half dozen times to narrow in on the divisor values that worked for me in terms of Stress Track and Surges lost, though, so I’d recommend the first time you use the system you keep in mind that you may need to step in as the DM and say “alright, these values aren’t correct, I’m just going to narratively end this chase scene and we’ll adjust them after the session to something we like better.”

This post is part of the May of the Dead Blog Carnival. For more great content regarding Halloween in May, head over there ASAP!

May your undead have the PCs flee in terror,
The Hydra DM

The Final Puzzle Piece: PC Damage

So far there have been articles about power options (non-damage riders on powers) for both PCs and MM1 and MV monsters. There have even been articles on monster damage. So if we’ve taken care of status effects, and we’ve taken care of monster damage, what’s left? To-hit and defenses scale pretty much statically all the way to level 30, so what now? PC damage. If power options are important but vastly insignificant compared to to-hit, defenses, and damage, and to-hit and defenses are static, that leaves damage. We’ve already investigated what makes monster damage tick (or the lack thereof), so that leaves PC damage. How does PC damage scale by level, especially as compared to monster hit points? Read on to find out.

The first, and most obvious, problem with determining PC damage by level is there isn’t really an expected value, or if there is, it’s difficult to find. There are so many variables, as Mr. Ross mentioned in the comments section of my last article, that to tackle this problem you would need untold hours of dedicated analysis work – it would be so time-consuming that no single blogger could possibly do it.

Or could we?

Thankfully, one group of many individuals has, in fact, already done the work of determining what expected player damage looks like! They are members of the Character Optimization board, who, while I don’t generally approve of the concepts of “builds”, are pretty well versed compared the majority of people about how to create a PC that can do things – such as damage. Rather than having to re-combinate the thousands of magic items, feats, paragon paths, powers, and epic destinies that exist on the dozens of classes, I can instead simply reference their handy-dandy DPR by level threads (in this case I will be using “DPR King Candidates 3.0″).

But wait! “Stop HydraDM, you’re crazy!” you say? “You shouldn’t use optimized characters like that!” you say? Well, actually, this isn’t a problem like you would expect. Why isn’t it a problem? Because: I am not comparing player damage to anything else, I am comparing player damage to itself as it relates to monster hit points. Comparing player damage to monster damage will come later and use “expected” values rather than solely values submitted to a thread designed to be about damage-per-round.

So, before I start on the damage, first I need to determine the average suggested monster hit points for a given level. Using our handy-dandy DMG (and updated tables where appropriate), this comes out to… well, actually there is no standard amount. The problem here is that despite damage, attack, and the defenses all using crisp and easy to use formulae, hit points on monsters arestill determined by constitution score. Blegh. Come on now 4th edition, you’re letting me down here. Anyway, a quick browse of the compendium (and my previous data on the matter) shows that we are given 213 standard monsters in MV and, just to round things out, 228 standard monsters in MM3 (I’m using modern monsters because this is an analysis of modern damage – no point in including MM1 stuff here). Therefore, consider total standard monster count to equal 441. This set of monsters is composed of 85 skirmishers (19.3%), 84 soldiers (19.0%), 84 controllers (19.0%), 55 artillery monsters (12.5%), 54 lurkers (12.2%), and 79 brutes (17.9%). Ignore the fact that we’re missing .1% from rounding error here – my actual calculations use the entire number.

Using this information, we acquire some figures: 7.86 (approx) base hp for any given monster, plus 7.86 (approx) hp per level, plus constitution score. So what the heck is the constitution score going to be? “On average, the highest ability score of a [Non-AC Defense's ability score] pair is equal to 13 + one-half the monster’s level.” So, if Constitution is the higher of our STR-CON pair that means, what, 13 hp at first, 14 at second, 14 at third, 15 at fourth etc.? Sure, why not, let’s go with that. It’s as good a guess as any, and really we only need a yardstick. Being a handful of HP off shouldn’t be too bad, assuming there’s actually a noteworthy problem to be found.

One final assumption: I am going to ignore area damage. There is no way to tell how many monsters might be hit by such attacks, and thus calculating their expected damage value is frankly difficult at best.

The following values are Damage-Per-Round (DPR) that can be continued indefinitely. I will therefore equate this damage with the Monster Single-Target Damage expression. The values posted in the practical DPR Kings thread (done by averaging submissions) are for levels 1, 6, 12, 16, 24, and 30.

Expected % of Expected Monster HP (practical) -

  • Level 1: 68.4%
  • Level 6: 51.9%
  • Level 12: 54.4%
  • Level 16: 56.1%
  • Level 24: 69.2%
  • Level 30: 161.8%

So, from our practical submissions, what seems to be the pattern here? Well, your given DPR Kings submission seems to do quite well at level 1 (I imagine this is because of the plethora of experience concentrated in optimizing level 1 characters), then dips down (again, probably due to less experience), and rises steadily until it reaches level 30, at which point it spikes off the charts primarily because of a few ridiculous character concepts, such as the one that expects an average DPR of 3,857 (yes you read that right) currently holding first place for level 30. This particular build, as a result, is technically speaking a statistical outlier (outside of 3 standard deviations from the mean; in this case it is at around 5), but I have included it anyway because I think despite being a statistical outlier it is also very important. The “smiley-face” nature of these numbers (high at the start, high at the end, kind of low-ish in the middle) seems to reflect that the center of the graph should be higher than it is, except that very few people use those levels as a target goal in comparison to level 1 or level 30. So, while we might be wise to ignore the outlier at level 30, we also might be wise to include it. In this case I have kept it included. A special thanks to commentor “Sentack” for pointing this oversight out to me :)

Something else important to note: a “fair” striker is considered one that can sustain an expected DPR/Monster HP of .4, or killing 40% of a standard monster per round, every round, indefinitely. At 20% you are considered “garbage” compared to standards of play they have established, and at 60% you are considered “optimized”. 80%-100% and above is suggested to be particularly impressive and potentially necessitating an adjustment by WotC due to its power relative to the majority of builds. As a cursory example of this in action, a Warlock at level 1 using Eldritch Blast with an ability score modifier of 4, accurate implement for +1 to hit, and attacking a cursed target will deal an average of 8.8 DPR, which translates to 27.5% of an expected monster’s HP at level 1 (roughly) – not quite “fair”.

So, yes, as expected PC scaling increases faster as the level gets higher. But what, then, does their damage look like compared to monster damage? Thankfully I happen to already have those numbers, so let’s have a look (In % opponent hit points):

Level 1

Monster Single Target (Normal): 34.3%
Monster Single Target (Brute): 42.9%

PC Single Target (“Fair”): 40%
PC Single Target (“Optimized”): 60%
PC Single Target (Practical): 68.4%

Level 6

Monster Single Target (Normal): 27.6%
Monster Single Target (Brute): 34.5%

PC Single Target (“Fair”): 40%
PC Single Target (“Optimized”): 60%
PC Single Target (Practical): 51.9%

Level 12

Monster Single Target (Normal): 24.7%
Monster Single Target (Brute): 30.1%

PC Single Target (“Fair”): 40%
PC Single Target (“Optimized”): 60%
PC Single Target (Practical): 54.4%

Level 16

Monster Single Target (Normal): 23.6%
Monster Single Target (Brute): 29.5%

PC Single Target (“Fair”): 40%
PC Single Target (“Optimized”): 60%
PC Single Target (Practical): 56.1%

Level 24

Monster Single Target (Normal): 21.9%
Monster Single Target (Brute): 27.3%

PC Single Target (“Fair”): 40%
PC Single Target (“Optimized”): 60%
PC Single Target (Practical): 69.2%

Level 30

Monster Single Target (Normal): 21.4%
Monster Single Target (Brute): 26.8%

PC Single Target (“Fair”): 40%
PC Single Target (“Optimized”): 60%
PC Single Target (Practical): 161.8%

In chart format, that looks a little something like this (with high single target brute limited damage tacked on for scale; it says maximum, but it’s the average of that maximum set of dice and modifiers) -

Eugh. That looks kind of gnarly, doesn’t it?

Tune in next time for the capstone article of the series, which will combine expected damage and expected power options into the ultimate graph of monster versus PC (by-the-book) power.

Proficiency Problems

This is post is going to be short. It’s going to be hard-hitting. It’s probably only going to be read by an amount of people I could count on one or two hands. This post is about proficiency bonuses, and how they’re killing esports D&D.

The leading experts on character optimization (if you think they’re full of it you can tell them so but I warn you they’re rather testy) seem convinced that, in terms of their “Gold: Why haven’t you taken this yet? A defining choice for a build, or even the whole class.” rating system, the Weapon Expertise feats (effectively a +1 to-hit, plus some slight other bonuses) are worth that gold rating. Setting aside that “+1 to hit” should not be a defining choice for a class (*cough get to work Wizards cough cough*), the experts here seem to believe it’s rather important, among the very most important things, in fact. So, what then if I told you there were feats that granted you +2 or even +3 to hit with certain weapons without any other conditional statements? What would those be rated? Gold+? Platinum? (Astral) Diamond? In fact, these feats exist: the weapon proficiency feats.

Now that I have established the grave threat (clearly!) of weapon proficiency feats, why do we care as DMs? Shouldn’t the players be allowed to pick a weapon to specialize in? Well, we need to care because magic weapons only come in two categories: “useful”, and “for sale, 80% off”. But surely a magic weapon would be useful, would it not? Then consider the following: a level 1 player with a +4 ability score bonus to hit wielding a +3 proficiency weapon with a 1d8 damage die, and that same player wielding a +1 magic equivalent he is not proficient in. The theoretical damage per round may be higher for the magic weapon off the bat, but the problem is that damage relies on you feeling like a rockstar 5% of the time and like a baked potato the other 95% of the time (assuming critical hits exist, expected damage per round for a basic attack is going to be 5.28 and 6.8 respectively; assuming critical hits don’t exist, expected damage per round changes to 5.1 versus 4.75). Not only is your damage actually markedly worse for 95% of the attacks you make (well, okay, ~45% since you miss the other 50% of the time and it’s hard to do worse than 0 damage), but you don’t get to apply any on-hit effects that extra 10 or 15 percentile points of the pie you’re missing from the lack of a proficiency bonus. And, as The Id DM has shown in great depth, almost all player character attacks have some kind of rider attached, and a great many of those are on a successful hit.

This leads to a very, very obvious problem: a player would often rather use a mundane weapon with which they are proficient than a magic weapon with which they are not despite the magic weapon costing an order of magnitude (or multiple orders of magnitude) more.

DMs often want to include magic weapons of a particular variety; for instance, DMs may wish to include a great Dwarven mordenkrad, powerful and mighty! Used to slay giants and other foul beasts! It truly rings of heroism. Just enough heroism to be marked 80% off and put up for auction because nobody is proficient with mordenkrads.

Basically, what I’m saying here is this: it’d be nice if instead of +2 and +3 bonuses, proficiency was +1 and +2. It’s great to be a specialist in a certain kind of weapon, it makes you feel unique, but really there’s no reason for weapon proficiency to be such a comparatively large bonus. Nobody should want to pawn Excalibur because “it makes me hit too infrequently, I’m not proficient”. That’s just lame.

Until Next Time,
The Hydra DM

Power Options, Status Effects, and Mutual Assured Destruction – Second World Edition, Part 2

And now for the conclusion to my two part series exploring the power options of monsters in D&D 4th edition. This article will focus on the contrast between later monster creations (monster vault) and earlier monster creations (MM1) as well as how monsters contrast with players. For those not in the know, you can read the last article I wrote here, and discover the original premise behind power options with The Id DM’s article here. Much like one probably wouldn’t get Space Balls without first having seen Star Wars, you likely won’t understand this article without reading at the very least the originator of power options as a codified concept, and preferably my last piece on the matter.

I’m going to endeavor to keep this article more to the point than the last one, as shorter tends to be sweeter.

The Findings

Before I start, I’d like to bring up a few changes I’ve made in the power option process.  I have added categories for Insubstantial and Invisible (since they were prevalent last time) as well as a new category called “Free Attacks”, which is exactly what it sounds like: attacks that are granted by the power, not unlike commander’s strike or direct the strike do for a warlord. Finally, because Monster Vault was extremely skimpy on epic tier monsters I had to pull those from Monster Manual 3 (which, again, is still considered a “well made” Monster Manual that was created after the math changes. I would’ve used the even more recent Dark Sun Creature Catalog, but it, too, was fairly skimpy on epic tier material, so MM3 it was).

Monster Class Definitions

To begin, I’d like to pick up where I left off last time: monster class associations with certain power options. The classes seem to have a few, minor, differences since we last saw them, with Controller being much the same (it can do anything), Lurker being reduced in its Blinding, Unconscious, and Bonus categories, the Artillery monster remaining basically the same (although having lost its emphasis on Dazed and Dominated), Soldier losing Grabbed and gaining Immobilized and Stunned, Skirmisher being just plain Movement, and finally the Brute is still pretty much just Prone. All in all the monsters are pretty similar to what they were before, but Controller seems even more all-encompassing, Skirmishers focused much more just on movement, and Soldiers getting a bit of a buff in terms of their inflictable conditions. In other words, the monster classes are, on the whole, pretty much identical to what they were two years ago.

The Most Glaring Finding that Started it All

What is it? Well, on Twitter a few weeks ago I sent Mike Shea (of Sly Flourish) a message in response to something he put out there: that monster power increases ~linearly while player power increases ~exponentially. Well, as I had since learned, using the Power Option AEDU structure PC power increases much more closely to logarithmically than exponentially (in large part due to power replacement in paragon tier and up as well as not counting paragon paths and epic destinies, nor magic item powers, assuming again only the AED part of that without the U nor paragon paths, feats, and epic destinies). Of course, even if you don’t allow the PCs to take paragon paths and epic destinies, nor to have magic items with powers, it’s still a pretty brutal curve rapidly accelerating as they approach Paragon tier, then continuing to pull up slowly as they head towards level 30. The monster graph, meanwhile, was not so forgiving. The graphs of total power options available to your average PC versus your average monster looked something like this -

The regression lines are 3rd order polynomial, mostly because I liked how they were fairly smoothed out not for any real statistical reason. As you can see, monsters as of Monster Manual 1 do indeed increase approximately linearly (it’s a bit of an S-curve, actually, but on the whole it’s fairly flat). Meanwhile players shoot up, up and away. While the monsters gain only ~1 power option each by paragon tier, the PCs have gained around five. By level 30 the PCs have gained around 7 while the monsters hover at a mighty 2. Of course, since we all know Monster Vault monsters are much better designed, we should expect to see MV/MM3 monsters do much better, right? Well, about that…

As it turns out… Monster Vault and MM3 didn’t seem to do a lot for our Standard AEDU Power Option structure. In fact it looks like they even gimped epic tier! That certainly doesn’t fit expectations, does it? How could bigger numbers make up that much of the design? So, in an effort to resolve this inconsistency, I had to delve deeper and expand the Standard AEDU Power Option structure to include also Minor and Triggered actions. One of the big complaints, after all, with early MM1 monster designs is the lack of action efficiency, especially on Solo monsters. With new things to do using their minor and out-of-turn actions perhaps our new MV monsters are better designed after all?

As a result, I took to gathering some facts and figures about the amount of minor and triggered actions per monster; lo, and behold, the results were as expected!  This is to say nothing of traits and auras, of course (and classifying those is, frankly, nearly impossible under the Power Option system since they rarely fit into a single category neatly like powers do). With that in mind, I created an adjusted graph that displays cumulative power options between MM1 and MV/MM3 monsters using minor actions and triggered actions. The results are, frankly, much more what one would expect -

- but unsurprisingly is not entirely “enough” to really make sense. Even if we assume auras cancels out both feats and utility powers, and we don’t include paragon paths and epic destinies in this analysis,  all of which are very hefty assumptions, the cream of the crop MV/MM3 monsters only have as many options as a level 1 PC at level 17. Monsters get as complicated as they can possibly be at level 29, but this is still only equivalent to a level 5 PC. I mean, yeah, okay, monsters can be minions, but really?

Speaking of minions, that was actually the next thing I investigated. To wit, MM1 has 38 minion monster types in it, which were not included in this study. Meanwhile, in MV/MM3 where they were included, there were 44 minion monsters. Unsurprisingly, minions resulted in a net decrease of minor and triggered actions, although triggered actions were within 4 percentile points of average (minor was significantly lower, at roughly .1 per monster compared to the .4 per monster average). This means that, realistically, the MV graph should probably be adjusted upwards by a bit, but not significantly more (less than 1 power option/monster average).

Now, all of that is great and all, but where’s the REAL comparison graph of power options? Where’s the feats and paragon paths and epic destinies and utility powers? That’s a good question, and unfortunately one I’m not going to be able to answer, at least in whole. Anyone out there who wants to join the Power Options train and hook us up with the data on feats, utility powers, and magic items for the Fighter, Rogue, Cleric, and Druid you are more than welcome to pick up where I and, my predecessor, TheIdDM left off. But, what I can do is to use a single example paragon path and epic destiny, and slap those on. I’ll pick two of the most popular paragon paths and epic destinies: Kulkor Arms Master and Demigod. They might not have a lot to offer a Druid, but they’re pretty typical of a strong set of paragon and epic tier options.

To begin, Kulkor Arms Master at level 11 offers its first benefit: any enemy you hit that grants you Combat Advantage subsequently grants EVERYONE Combat Advantage until the start of your next turn. I am going to assume that you will always be able to get combat advantage to trigger this benefit, as by level 11 if you can’t have somebody daze the monster or flank it or something you’re doing something wrong. This increases the power options of each and every AED power by 1 because it can now grant combat advantage. The other two always-on benefits don’t actually grant any power options, so that’s easy on me. Finally, the power at level 11 grants a mark (+1 power option) and the level 20 daily power grants prone (+1 power option).

Demigod, thankfully, doesn’t actually grant any Power Options. Just straight numbers buffs. This was hard enough already, whew. So, now let’s look at the

Holy SMOKES! What HAPPENED? Kulkor Arms Master adding Combat Advantage to every At-Will, Encounter, and Daily power is what happened. These are the sorts of options players can take, and regularly do, and it’s no wonder people feel that monsters just aren’t up to snuff.

But, then, why can a squad of monsters beat up on a squad of PCs… ever? Why can’t level 5 PCs, who have access to just as many power options in their inventory as level 30 super monsters, take the heat? Sadly, the answer is pretty obvious: their numbers aren’t big enough. They can’t hit target defenses, and they can’t take the damage the monsters dish out in return.

This illustrates just how powerful damage is in 4th edition combat, to change gears, and therefore how important the role of “striker” is to trivializing encounters. You’ve doubtless heard the stories about the mid-paragon parties who dish out 1200 damage on the first turn and annihilate any boss monster in their way? I didn’t expect to end my analysis here, but I have – the ultimate conclusion of this analysis of power options in PCs and monsters, as far as I can tell, is that the amount and potency of power options are, at the end of the day, completely eclipsed by damage, hit points, and defense scores – even excluding the reasoning that most of your power options require you to hit the target first before they take effect. Is it any wonder that magic items of armor, neck slot, and weapon/implement are so highly vaunted? Is it any wonder that the static +to hit feats are so popular? You can have two or three times the Power Options at your disposal and still get turned into creamed corn by a squad of monsters at level + 6.

If you’re familiar with me on other venues for my thoughts, you might be familiar with me speaking to the potency of the condition ladder from Star Wars Saga Edition. It, in essence, takes the place of every one of these effects except for Prone. By virtue of the debuffs being triggered by a damage threshold in addition to things like stun weapons or Force powers, even your regular old soldier can inflict status conditions pretty regularly in that system, and at the bottom of the ladder, when you’ve had too many conditions piled on top of you, you wind up unconscious. Even if you have health left, you just fall unconscious for an extended period of time and the encounter is over. On the other hand, in 4th edition, even if a monster is Dazed, Stunned, Weakened, Unconscious, Removed, and Prone it’s only going to be gone until it makes its saving throws – a couple rounds, tops. The fact of the matter is Power Options don’t win fights in 4th edition, damage does, and that brings us to the questions, some things that I think would be interesting to muse about:

Questions

1) Should Power Options contribute to winning the fight via permanent unconscious the same way damage does in 4th edition or should they remain as tasty, supplemental, and totally unnecessary additional conditions?

2) Should monsters be more complex than they are in terms of Power Options or weaker?

3) Do Power Options contribute to the “feel” of Paragon and Epic tiers significantly enough to withstand the sort of Power Option bloat that exists by the end of Heroic tier and onward? Do you think it would be possible to still feel like a Paragon or Epic PC if your attacks didn’t lay on Power Options like thick whipped cream on hot cocoa?

Falling back in love with Experience Points

Basically everyone knows what experience points are and what they’re supposed to represent – they’re a number on a scale that represents approximately how good your character is, generally acquired from practice-makes-perfect behavior. But, with the advent of 4th edition especially (although this behavior began primarily in 3rd edition, similar to how the removal of wandering monsters as a concept began in third edition and was more or less finalized in 4th), I’ve been noticing that a lot of people running closed table narrative driven campaigns have completely ditched experience points. The characters just level up every other session, or every third session, or if they have a particularly long continuous arc every 4th session. But what I’ve also noticed is a drastic increase in the amount of new reward mechanics, like fun points, or other ways to give out small bonuses for good player behavior. If it works for Pavlov (assuming good RPG behavior is reflexive at least) or Skinner it should work for us, right?

Well, that’s just the thing, actually. I got down to thinking about general game design the other day and I’ve realized that experience points in the campaign I’m running right now (very open table and sandbox, based very heavily on the concept of West Marches, even going so far as to lift the name and cardinal direction in homage) have an extremely important role to play. And, looking again at the way experience points worked in second edition (the first place I came across listing them, and those values more-or-less agree with how they were in 1st edition as well), I come away with a distinct impression. Experience points are the DM’s most powerful method of behavioral reinforcement or modification. Levelling up is basically the biggest boon you can receive in a game of D&D, often times even more useful than a powerful magic item, and especially in recent times when magic items have had the significance of their plusses reduced (back when everything was a D6 damage a +1 was a lot more useful than it is on a D12), and been stripped of a lot of their most awesome powers (just look around and you’ll find the complaints that “magic items are no longer magical” abound – while I don’t entirely agree, for sake of argument it’s a good idea to indulge them for now). With experience points you can assign a reward to all sorts of tasks (just like fun points), and they can be the primary rewarding factor. For instance, in second edition as I mentioned, a rogue would get experience points for looting treasure while a wizard would get experience points for researching new spells. These directly encouraged players to follow the kind of behavior their role was designed to do. Now, you may say, what if the player wants to play more of a Han Solo than a Robin Hood? Well, that’s surprisingly easy to deal with: simply change what he gets rewarded XP for from one thing to another. Maybe whenever he resists the temptation to engage in his rogueish behavior he gains experience, creating an interesting (and challenging) choice: do I want to level up or get the most loot? Obviously this is not a blanket statement to “return to the old school” since some things that were once awarded XP (personally delivering the killing blow to a monster) wouldn’t fly in some newer games (like 4th edition, where strikers would thusly be wallowing in XP), but still I think it’s worth consideration.

Basically, experience points answer the question “how do I reward goal-seeking behavior?” They’re what allows a DM to sculpt a particular campaign (or even adventure or arc) into the thematics that they (and/or the players) envision. In my case, since West Marches as a concept is about player initiative and exploring history from an outside-in perspective, I make sure to give out experience points for whenever players take that initiative, whenever they explore the history and try to piece it together, and, of course, whenever completing these goals puts them in the path of dangerous foes, wicked traps, and/or cunning puzzles. And you know what? I’ve got players making all sorts of maps and recording down the dialog of sessions and putting together the things they learn, exactly as I intended. What systems like fun points look to emulate is, in essence, the reward structure that experience points have given us all along. The only problem is that we’ve suddenly decided that we’re too good for them, and that the party all always contribute equally so that they should all always be the same level in the cooperative experience. This leads us to another problem, which is the hypocrisy of systems like fun points (not to say that they’re bad, just ironic) – they grant in-game rewards like bonuses, and they accumulate when players do “good things”. In other words, they’re experience points by another name.

While a rare campaign might benefit from “non-experience point experience points”, and some may find they have no need for such a carrot at all, I think that maybe we shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel here, and we should also think twice before we throw it away. Give experience points, assigned in ways that aren’t necessarily split evenly among the PCs, a second chance in your game – you may be surprised at the results!

Cheers,

The Hydra DM

Exploring Complexity (Player Characters)

Hello again!

Much like another recent article I wrote, I wanted to take some time to expand on a topic that a fellow blogger (or several, although in this case just one) came up with. Specifically, a piece that The Id DM wrote titled “Player Characters Are Gods“. In that post, which I highly recommend reading for yourself in addition to my short summary, he basically puts forward that the number of options, and the power of those options, make player characters in Paragon tier and beyond get completely out of hand, potentially slowing combat to a halt with analysis paralysis and option overload (link courtesy of an old article written on the topic of option overload by AngryDM) in addition to their numerical superiority (in the sense of more plusses) to monsters. I will be focusing on expanding the former claim rather than the latter.

In this article, I’d like to take the example set by The Id DM and take it to its logical conclusion. While he presents J’hari Wrex (his level 12 dragonborn rogue scoundrel) in a fashion that did not include quite a few of his options, most notably those not related to combat I’ve decided to go whole hog and steal liberate a core fighter (also known as the weapon master) build from the 4th edition character optimization forum for sake of having a “good build” (i.e. a pretty reasonably strong level 30 character that you might expect a good player to make if he had a lot of time on his hands and happened to enjoy character optimization in addition to following the “recommended wealth” guidelines in the DMG). I also built this same character as a level 1 version of himself to see how the stat blocks compare, and made sure to include all of his powers and various options. For sake of thoroughness, since I included traits that were granted by feats, I also included traits such as the base proficiencies, etc. Are you ready to see the difference in complexity between a level 1 and level 30 character? Here we go:

Level 1

Level 30

Before I go on, I’d like to apologize for the inability to include one of the paragon path powers in the level 30 stat block, which if you take the time to read it thoroughly you may notice. The monster builder tool actually couldn’t manage to wrap itself around such a complicated power (with a tertiary attack) without crashing, so an approximation will have to do. I could have included a few other things for clarity (like a specific opportunity attack power), but most monsters rely on traits to tell the DM about changes to their opportunity attacks so I followed the same sort of paradigm here as best I could.

The Conclusion

Not only do the number of options increase (even with many powers being replaced by better ones instead of supplemented by them at higher levels), but their complexity does as well as many of them begin to become triggered actions, which is a common complaint among some of the more prominent bloggers like Mike Shea and Robert Schwalb (that is, the complaint is about too many out-of-turn actions slowing combat way down in epic tier).

The Numbers -

Level 1 Fighter

Traits – 7

Standard Action Options – 6

Triggered Action Options – 1

Other Options – 1

Level 30 Fighter

Traits – 31

Standard Action Options – 12

Move Action Options – 1

Minor Action Options – 7

Free Action Options – 6

Triggered Action Options – 6

Other Options – 2

The grand totals?

Level 1 Fighter – 15

Level 30 Fighter – 65
A level 30 fighter, although this might be a bit presumptuous, looks to be around four times as complicated as a level 1 fighter, going with the definition of complexity as being “number of parts”. With a character four times as complicated, it’s reasonable, then, that perhaps it can take up to four times as long to figure out which one(s) to use… and that hypothesis seems to bear out, according to the experiences of several epic tier running DMs.

Plan of Action

How can you reduce the ridiculously overbearing complexity? Well, there’s really only a two notable options, both of which came out closer to now than they did to 4th Edition’s launch, which bodes well for the designers recognizing some of the big problems.

1) Essentials material.

Essentials characters do not get this complicated, that’s basically just how it is. There are a few exceptions, like the Mage, that can… but most don’t. This, of course, has the drawback that players will feel somewhat slighted as you are stripping them of potential options. Of course, whether we know it or not, sometimes fewer options is better. In fact, sometimes having no choice at all is the best thing for us, whether we believe it or not!

2) Fixed Enhancements/Restricted Magic Items.

With some vigilance, you may note that of the 65 options that exist to the 30th level fighter, 6 traits, 2 standards, 2 minors, 5 free actions, and 3 triggered actions of those (for a total of 18 options, approx. 28% of the options, and further 5 of the 8 added out-of-turn options that were gained since level 1) are directly related to his complement of magic items. That’s quite a lot! Cutting down on magic item options may make you somewhat more popular with your players than cutting down on class options.

Put together, the two of these can seriously reduce complexity at epic tier, which can result in seriously enhanced play because there is much less of an issue with the players being so overwhelmed with options they don’t know which end is up.

Summary

A level 30 fighter is, approximately, four times as complex as a level 1 fighter and that can cause a lot of issues as the players become overwhelmed in a deluge of options. A lot of these options come from the At-Will, Encounter, Daily, Utility (AEDU) design structure of the first three Player’s Handbooks, and a lot of them come from the absolute downpour of magic items that is normally accumulated (per the DMG’s suggestion, at least) by level 30. By removing these two major contributors to the ballooning of complexity (or at least one of them) you can drastically improve the play experience in epic tier. In theory, anyway.

Cheers,
The Hydra DM

Extended Rests, Or: Where I offer discourse on a topic eight months out of date.

Recently (and by that I mean not that recently) a hot topic among the game designers/game masters of the blogosphere was definitely that of the short and extended rest (for the grammar nazis among you: I’m treating the two rests as a singular topic, hence the lack of pluralized state of being verb). It all started over at the AngryDM’s blog, where he  ran an article titled Tearing 4e a New One: Short Rests and Encounter Resources. Over the following months there were numerous other posts dealing with the topic of resting PCs and how to deal with them.

This discussion piqued my interest when I realized that the game, 4th edition in this case, wasn’t precisely designed to take full advantage of the “hero arrives at the boss battered and bloodied and must overcome insane long odds to achieve victory” schematic it claimed to promote.

However, before we delve in depth into what I think some potential solutions may be, there is definitely one topic we need to cover first: the death of the wandering monster.

If you don’t want to go read all of the above links then I’ll summarize – basically, a lot of D&D’s great independent minds have noted some issues with the “we shoot all our daily powers and now we take a nap” problem, also known as the 5, 10, or 15 minute workday (or by various other low increments of time). The reason this has historically been a problem started to become obvious (though as the AngryDM notes it originated earlier than that) back in 3rd edition, so far as I can tell, precisely with the death of the wandering monster table and other methods by which PCs could now achieve relative safety while catching a several hour long siesta to recharge their spellbooks. As the article from The Alexandrian covers so well, basically players began to achieve tempo control. This isn’t a bad thing by any means – controlling the tempo of encounters is a hallmark of the players having control over the pace of the game. Unfortunately, a side effect of this is that players are resting whenever they please and thereby able to hit every encounter totally fresh, which means only a drastically overlevelled encounter will grant them a true challenge.

So, there’s the history. What do we have to work with right now? Well, a few things.

First of all, PC healing is now much easier between encounters. You can take a shorter rest and gain fewer benefits (no dailies recharged and no action point reset), but you do regain your encounter powers and your health bar thanks to healing surges. This definitely helps to create longevity between periods of extended rest, but also causes some more issues as we’ll see later.

Second of all, milestones were invented as a way to encourage PCs to press on despite the advantages that (extended) resting might bring. Every two(ish) encounters you’d get an action point as well as a daily item usage. Some other benefits can be related to milestones (like some rings) but they’re fairly rare and far between.

These are good starts on the so-called 15 minute workday problem – a milestone gives a PC a benefit for pressing on without rest, and the healing surge/short rest mechanic ensures that a PC is never without reasonably powerful special abilities and a full health bar for quite some time.

So, let’s break down what each of these two benefits results in, behavior-wise:

The Milestone -

The milestone gives you two primary benefits and one fringe benefit. The use of another daily item power is a concept that isn’t terribly up to date, but it is pretty nice on its own. You can’t blow all six of your item daily powers in the first encounter because, hey, you need some time to ramp up. That helps to discourage 15 minute workdays because, simply put, if you can’t blow all your spike damage immediately then you have no incentive to rest as you have some of your “big guns” left. It’s like if the BFG-9000 had 5 shots but you could only shoot one each time you got into an encounter with a few bad guys – you’d go “well, I still have 4 left, I may as well keep going because that’s not so bad.”

The fringe benefit is a bit specious since it relies a lot on class features or very specific magic item types, namely rings.

The action point is a bit redundant. If I go take an extended rest right now I can get an action point after only one encounter, not two. Resting is mechanically superior at getting action points compared to milestones (in a vacuum where time is not of the essence).

Of these three mechanics, it’s pretty clear that the action point needs the most work. Frankly you can get an action point by just taking a nap, which is faster (in real time, not game time), less dangerous, and provides other superior benefits like refreshing all of your daily powers and healing surges. Fringe benefits like ring milestone bonuses are nice, but too rare to be reliable (especially in heroic tier where possessing magic rings of milestone based class features is very uncommon indeed!), and finally the daily item power idea seems to be the most solid. It forces you to continue if you want to keep using all of your magic items as efficiently as possible, but even then you could always just take a nap and start the day with, you guessed it, a magic item daily power use – just like the action point!

What, therefore, is the problem? Milestones do not provide any useful benefits that extended rests do not.

But why is that a problem? Well, it has a lot to do with making meaningful choices. That link leads to another article by The Alexandrian, notably on what makes a choice a choice. It’s a good read, I recommend you check it out.

If you are unfortunately too busy to read what makes choice meaningful at length, here’s the short version: if it is impossible, within a reasonable time limit, to tell which choice is going to be better, logically, in the long and/or short run, then those are meaningful choices.

The problem, of course, is the cost:benefit of an extended rest against a milestone is obvious. Let’s go over it comparatively -

Milestone – Once every 2 encounters, 1 action point, 1 daily item use, fringe benefits mainly in paragon tier and up

Extended Rest – Once every 18* hour period, sets action points to 1, sets daily item use to 1 (though that depends on the tier), sets healing surges to full, refreshes daily powers

*This isn’t necessarily the case for things like elves.

Given those benefits, assuming you had the option to fight another encounter and get a milestone or rest immediately and get the benefits of an extended rest, which would you pick? I know which one 99% of all people would pick in a vacuum, and that’s the extended rest. It gives you the same action point, it gives you the same daily item use, it gives you full healing surges and all of your daily powers back! In heroic tier the choice is even more appealing to take a nap instead of, well, being heroic!

In other words: milestones are not a meaningful choice because they are strictly inferior to extended rests. Without even thinking about it taking an extended rest is going to be way, way better. Therefore, how do we resolve the problem of people choosing to rest all the time? Do we “nerf” resting? Or do we “buff” milestones?

Personally, my preferred approach is that Blizzard supposedly uses to balance their games – don’t nerf awesome things, buff weak things. The fact that you can take an extended rest and get topped off to a “full tank” like that is great – it allows adventurers to start any adventure feeling pretty much ready to roll complete with all their powers, surges, a daily item use and an action point! After all, if you just got up from a good night’s sleep you’d feel pretty good, too, right?

But, what can we do to make milestones more appealing?

Let’s start with the thing that needs the most work – the action point. The single most obvious change that could be made? Adventurers don’t start their day with an action point. As you “warm up” you start doing more impressive stuff, hence the action point. Extra actions help to make up for the daily resources you’ve probably expended – it makes pretty good sense. You can even do some more things to action points like giving them other things they can do (I’m a fan of “spend an action point when it’s not your turn to use an action as though you had readied it, or the old version of an action point, add a d6 to any roll). Still, “nerfing” extended rests is not the optimal solution, I think.

How about the daily item use benefit? Simply put – milestones should have a greater effect than extended rests if you want to discourage extended rests. If you fight two encounters, now you can use two daily item powers in the next one, whereas if you rested you’d only get one. That’s at least parity, and that’s something.

Finally, how about milestone fringe benefits? I think that these could be expanded a lot. If your items and powers got riders based on the number of milestones you’ve had today, suddenly people would have a choice to make – do I use the milestones to build up my “momentum meter” (per se) and start doing wicked damage and such, or do I take the safe way out and stop being so battered with an extended rest? Similarly to how monsters are supposed to become more dangerous as they become bloodied, so, too, should heroes become more powerful as they become more bloodied. If you get stronger in way X by pressing on, and get stronger in way Y by stopping for a rest, and ways X and Y have no overlap, then the choice is no longer really mechanically comparable. Once we reach that stage, I think, we can truly fix the “15 minute workday” forever by giving players a meaningful choice about whether to press on or not.

What are some other possible solutions?

Well, I’d say simply “use your imagination” but I’d be a pretty crappy game designer in that case. The next thought that came to my mind is something based on an action point, but more potent. It’d have a similar “ramping up” effect and could be added to a milestone. It’d be the thing that gives you an action, and +2 to any roll in that action, and you can do it blindfolded with one arm tied behind your back, etc. The specific things this “hero point” (a name I’ll give it so we don’t get confused) can do are pretty inconsequential for the scope of this article. The simple point being made here is, as above, a milestone is a great idea – as you press on you get benefits to help make up for the fact that you aren’t taking a siesta. The problem is the original milestone doesn’t achieve that strongly enough to be considered a choice – the extended rest is still, simply, “more powerful”. By giving the milestone more power, and making those powers unique to the milestone, we can instead create a meaningful choice – do we keep going despite our dwindling surges and daily powers because of the bolstering of milestones, or do we just really have to rest or we’ll end up dead or worse? In an ideal world, that question wouldn’t have a “right” answer.

Now, that was all from a strictly mechanical standpoint, of course. There are other ways to avoid the 15 minute workday, like reinstating wandering monsters, or else putting your story based campaign on a timeline – if you don’t reach the lowest level of the dungeon by tonight the princess will be sacrificed to Lolth! However, my goal here is more to provide a “general fix” than it is to give you DMing advice. The beauty of tabletop roleplaying games is, like Gygax did, we can and should tweak them in order to provide the best possible play experience on a personal level. That being said, one would hope in an ideal world that the system in place is perfect already and requires no tweaking – hence my thoughts.

Short Rests -

This topic segues nicely into the other part of resting – short rests. Extended rests are supposed to be counteracted by milestones, right? But what, then, is the mechanic for counteracting short rests?

Well… uh… there really isn’t one. You always take a short rest between encounters, generally speaking, with a very rare exception like wanting to keep temporary hitpoints rather than recharge an encounter power.

But, why is that a problem? Is it a problem at all?

The AngryDM, as I linked to at the beginning of this article, seems to think so. Why? Because, simply put, hitpoints are no longer a daily resource. Well, they are, but their significance has been stretched very, very thin through the use of healing surges. Now, at the end of every encounter, you can recover your hitpoints to full. Most characters can get from zero to full hitpoints around two to three times at level 1, which makes it much more akin to an encounter resource than to a daily resource – once per encounter (or in this case, before it) you can regain your hitpoints to full from 0. Limit 2-3-ish times.

So, why is that bad? As the AngryDM basically elaborates – it means that encounters have, really, only a couple outcomes. 1) Everybody continues on with a couple less healing surges, or 2) somebody is dead. Nobody enters a battle truly “beat up” anymore – you may have no action point, and you may not have any daily powers left, but the new short rest mechanic (when I say new I mean it about the same way I would mean me talking about this topic is “timely” – that is to say, it’s not new in the general sense, but new in the sense that it is specific to 4th edition) means that you’ll be there with full hitpoints, more likely than not, and a whole battery of encounter powers (definitely).

So, is that really such a big deal? Maybe, maybe not. Because the PCs will always be at about 70% max strength (arbitrary number, I have no idea what % of their strength daily resources actually make up) at the minimum it makes designing encounters really quite a breeze in terms of intended balance. That’s a great tool for DMs to have, knowing how powerful your battle is likely to be. The problem with that, though, is unfortunately it is pretty much impossible to make a battle “challenging enough”, rather than “pretty easy” or “somebody is dead”. The fights do chip away at a daily resource – healing surges – but being low on healing surges is very rarely a factor in an encounter. Where in previous editions you might enter an encounter with fewer than max hitpoints (which is a directly measurable impact to the way the encounter BEGINS, not how it plays out when you want to heal after two or three rounds), in this edition you rarely do. This means that all of that daily resource whittling is much, much less impactful than it used to be. Now, I’m not one to wax poetic over the glory days of older editions, but I have to admit this is a compelling argument coming from the AngryDM, and one I’m inclined to give a nod to, if not outright agree with. The battles where the PCs were DANGEROUSLY low on surges, even if they weren’t the most challenging encounters, have always seemed, to me, to be the most exciting. Think of how much more impactful that might be if they began the battle with fewer than maximum hitpoints to boot!

Do I have any “solutions” for this? Not very solid ones at the moment, at least not ones I’ve tested (unlike the ones I listed above for the Milestone). However, something similar to Angry’s mechanic of “you can only spend X healing surges between encounters without an extended rest” might be a place to start, as well as something like having monsters that cause damage to the PC’s healing surges more directly (that way you are attacking their daily resource in a direct way – you can only heal 9 times a day? Okay, now you can only heal one less time, rather than “now you have to heal 15 damage during one of the 9 times you heal”). Manipulating hitpoints as a daily resource is a lot harder to do in 4th edition because of the power of the short rest and healing surge mechanic, but I’d be willing to bet it’s possible with a little work. 

Closing Thoughts -

What are some other things that could be done? Well, there’s all sorts of ideas out there. Stuff like bringing wandering monsters back to frequently pester inappropriately sleeping PCs, adjusting encounters on the fly to cope with better rested PCs than intended, or, heck, rather than fixing milestones to be comparable to extended rests, simply removing extended rests entirely and assigning a proxy of their daily-resource-rejuvinating effects to milestones (last I heard it was something along the lines of “you regain some but not all of your powers and surges every 2 encounters”, though your mileage may vary). Really, if you find you have a problem with the resting mechanic being lopsided, like I did at times, then I’m sure there’s a plethora of other things you can try so long as you remember the key to good game design and balance in this regard – give the players a real choice to make. Resting needs to be an equally valid choice when compared to not-resting. As long as you remember that then you can really do no wrong (well, okay, maybe you can – run it by your players first).

Summary -

1) As a result of players controlling the pace of the game, extended resting has become of a bit of an issue since it is such a powerful mechanic.

2) Milestones were created to counterbalance this mechanic by providing an incentive for continuing without resting but failed because they were not an equally valid choice to make if you were given the option of “get a milestone” or “take an extended rest”, mostly because milestone benefits and extended rest benefits had such an extreme overlap.

3) In order to fix the perceived imbalance in the dynamics between pressing on heroically or resting because you judge you simply cannot press on any longer it was necessary to have milestones provide benefits that were distinct from, and mechanically as valid as, extended rests.

4) Since short rests are not balanced against anything like a milestone is against an extended rest, it is possible that the short rest mechanic may need some work, too (as a result of it not having a meaningful choice – very, very, very, VERY rarely will you not take a short rest if offered one), with its primary symptom being PCs who too infrequently feel the chipping effects of repeated encounters. They need to feel markedly weaker in one way (notably defenses and daily powers) to counteract the strengthening (usually offensive) that milestones give them, such that by the end of the adventuring day they are not the same as they were at the beginning by a discernable margin. Much like monsters, I feel that this should be the “more dangerous when bloodied” aspect, with the trade-off being their dwindling “ace up my sleeve” daily assets like surges/hitpoints, powers, and magic items.

5) There are a lot of ways to achieve these effects, pick the ones that work best for you. If you don’t think there’s even a problem after reading all of those other posts and this one, then good on you for having a brain of your own and not just taking our word for it. If we can offer critical analysis of a game mechanic then so can you!

Cheers,

-The Hydra Dm

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