Monthly Archives: February 2013

Changing the balance of power

(This post continues a discussion I started in “What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?”)

Axe_of_Dwarvish_LordsSkip Williams‘s second edition adventure Axe of Dwarvish Lords staged a type of battle no Dungeons & Dragons adventure has tried before or since. This adventure pitted 13-15 level characters against a warren full of goblins. As you might expect, the warren’s individual goblins typically only hit on a 20, and only because everything hits on a 20. If one earned a lucky shot, he would inflict minimal damage.  With any edition’s standing rules, 13th-level character faced with goblins would simply grind out countless attacks against inconsequential resistance. With any edition’s standing rules, this scenario fails. So Skip cheated, I mean, he designed new rules. The adventure adds two pages of rules for group tactics that allow the goblins to do things like volley arrows in area attacks, and to combine melee attacks to earning bonuses to hit. In this fourth-edition era, we’re used to monsters making exceptions to the rules, but not in 1999. Back then, monsters broke the rules because a bad DM thought he could win D&D. Personally, I liked the way the new rules enabled an otherwise unplayable confrontation, but when the goblins start breaking the rules as previously understood, I can imagine some players calling a cheat.

For the first time in D&D’s history, the next iteration attempts to enable playable confrontations between powerful characters and hordes of weak monsters, without resorting to special rules. The key, as I discussed in “Hitting the to-hit sweet spot,” is arranging everyone’s to-hit bonuses and armor classes into the small range that grants everyone a reasonable chance to hit.

D&D Next hits the sweet spot by limiting the to-hit bonuses characters gain in exchange for greater bonuses to the damage they inflict.

This exchange intentionally shifts one aspect of the game’s balance of power.

Low-power combatants benefit against high-power opposition

Mobs of weak monsters can threaten higher level characters, still be able to hit, and let their numbers overcome the characters’ higher hit points. On the flip side, the dungeon master can pit parties against fewer, more powerful monsters, without having to select monsters specifically designed as a solos or elites. This re-enables the sort of sandbox play where players can choose a difficulty level by plunging as deep into the dungeon as they dare.

High-power combatants lose against low-power opposition

When your legendary hero faces goblins, the damage each blow deals hardly matters, because dead is dead. But your hero’s chance of hitting a lowly goblin rarely improves. Your hero feels like a zero.

Meanwhile, in the DM’s chair, if you want to pit a single giant against a party of lower-level characters, the fight can go badly. The giant’s one attack often misses, but when it hits, it kills. As a DM, I still prefer a solo with lots of attacks, each inflicting lower damage. If monster designers look to give brutes alternate attacks that threaten many targets at once, then we enjoy the best of both worlds.

Fighters suffer the most

The accuracy-for-damage trade matters most to fighters. Fireball and Blade Barrier work as well as ever. The rogue remains content to sneak up on the goblin king. But fighter-types should hew through the rabble like grass until, bloodied and battle worn, they stand triumphant. Instead, they wind up muffing to-hit rolls against one mook.

The game could stick with logarithmic power curves and narrow tiers of level-appropriate monsters, but I think better fixes exist.

For example, cleave-like maneuvers help by spreading damage across a string of attacks, but if your fighter’s first attack misses, your turn finishes and all the goblins laugh at you. Next’s whirlwind attack maneuver lets a fighter attack several adjacent enemies with a single attack roll, but fanning a bunch of goblins somehow seems even less heroic than missing just one.

Is the medicine worse than the disease?

Earlier editions of the game offer a solution, a solution so odious that I hesitate to mention it. If fighters gain multiple attacks per round, the misses matter less because there’s more where that came from!

Multiple attacks stink because resolution takes too long, especially if the fighter must roll damage and resolve each attack before moving on to the next swing. Also, D&D’s designers have struggled to parcel out extra attacks as fighters gain levels. Jumping from one attack directly to two results in a rather sudden leap in power.  Instead, AD&D gave fighters extra half attacks, and a need to remember half attacks.  Third edition traded half attacks and the memory issue for weaker attacks and fiddly attack penalties. Yuck.

Multiple attacks also solve a problem Mike Mearls mentioned in a tweet.  “Ability mod to damage unbalances at low levels, is irrelevant at high levels.” Without multiple attacks per round, a high-level fighter’s strength bonus to damage becomes inconsequential. With multiple attacks, each attack benefits from the bonus.

If D&D Next’s designers can find a good way to allow fighters and brutish monsters to gain multiple attacks against weaker opponents, then a key piece of the Next design puzzle falls into place.

Next:  Tracking initiative (I’m done with theory for a while.)

D&D Next trades to-hit bonuses for enhanced damage

(This post continues a discussion I started in “What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?”)

As I discussed in “Riding the power curve,” the next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons attempts to straighten out fourth edition’s logarithmic power curve by refusing to let characters benefit from both steep bonuses to hit and big increases to damage. Instead, characters mostly get increases to damage.

When we compare D&D Next to early editions, Next limits the to-hit bonuses characters gain as they advance in exchange for greater bonuses to the damage they inflict.

Before I delve into the benefits and drawbacks of this exchange, I ought to address two practical objections to trading to-hit bonuses for damage.

Should skill increase damage?

Some argue that a more skillful combatant’s blows should not deal more damage. After all, a crossbow bolt always hits with the same force, so it should always strike with the same damage. Personally, when I’m struck by a crossbow bolt, I care deeply about where it hits. Maybe that’s just me.

Miyamoto MusashiAs I explained, in “The brilliance of unrealistic hit points,” hit points in D&D work as a damage-reduction mechanic. As characters increase in level, their rising hit points reduce the effective damage they suffer. Reasonably, as characters increase in level, they could also grow better at inflicting damage by overcoming defenses to strike vulnerable places or to apply more force to a blow.  I’m no Miyamoto Musashi, but I’ve earned enough bruises sparring with practice swords to know that finding an opening to tap an opponent demands less skill than finding enough room for a kill strike─or even a cut.

And if you worry about unusual cases of oozes struck by crossbows, adjust at the table.

“The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.” Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

Hits inflict more than damage

In D&D, a hit can bring the threat of poison, level drain, and many other secondary effects. In these cases, the attack’s damage matters less than dealing the hit. A higher level character’s chance to hit improves less, so their chance of inflicting secondary effects sees little improvement.

This matters, but it matters less than you may think.

First, to-hit rolls take a much smaller place in D&D Next than in 4E. D&D Next switches from non-AC defenses back to saving throws. Virtually all spell attacks return to skipping the to-hit roll entirely.

Second, attacks versus AC return to focusing on damage. To an extent, I liked how 4E added tactical richness to combat by devising interesting attacks. However, for my taste, too many effects appeared in play. I grew tired of seeing combatants perched on stacks of Alea markers, unable to do anything but stand and make saves.

In D&D Next, as in early editions, weapon attacks mostly inflict damage, and the attacks that threaten something like poison or level drain usually come from monsters.

carrion crawlerThird, the saving throw returns as a defense against bad things other than damage. In 4E, hits against AC can inflict crippling effects without saves. Just getting hit automatically subjects you to poison, or paralysis, or whatever. In older editions, when the spider bit or the ghoul clawed, you took then damage but you also saved versus poison or paralysis. I appreciate 4E’s streamlined system, but dropping the defensive saving throw contributed to battlefields bogged down with more conditions and other markers than even the designers anticipated.

D&D Next brings back saving throws as a defense against effects like poison and level-drain. We no longer need to rely on to-hit rolls as the final test of whether a poisoned dagger drew enough blood to overcome your constitution. Because monsters make most of the attacks that poison, paralyze, drain, and so on, most players should be happy to see the save return.  Plus, despite the extra roll, the save probably speeds play by reducing the number harmful conditions that take effect.

Despite these three points, in D&D next, your high-level character is weaker when she makes attacks versus AC to inflict crippling effects. If I were to design, say, a poisoner class, I would make their chance to hit nearly automatic, and focus on saving throws as the principle defense against poison.

Next: Changing the balance of power

Bounded accuracy and matters of taste

(This post continues a discussion I started in “What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?”)

In my last post, I wrote about how to-hit and damage bonuses contributed to Dungeons & Dragons’ power curve. When we compare D&D Next to early editions of D&D, we see a key trade off: The Next design reins in the to-hit bonuses characters gain as they advance. In compensation, characters gain greater bonuses to the damage they inflict. This trade off stems from something the designers called bounded accuracy, which spurred controversy. While most of the discussion focuses on bounded accuracy’s place in combat, in “Two problems that provoked bounded accuracy,” I wrote about bounded accuracy and ability checks.

Months ago, I wrote to explain that the influence of ability bonuses was too small for ability checks, so you might suppose I would like to see characters earning big to-hit pluses as they advance levels. But characters engage in many combats and make countless attack rolls, so even small bonuses earn big payoffs, and I’m fine with that. However, I understand that aspects of the bounded-accuracy controversy hinge on matters of taste.

In fourth edition, as characters leveled, they enjoyed steep increases in to-hit bonuses matched with continuing increases in the damage each attack dealt. This led to characters increasing exponentially in power. If you hit twice as often, and each hit does twice the damage, than you boast four times the power. Of course, monsters follow a similar power curve, so you never notice unless characters face creatures outside their narrow level band.

In character, your logarithmic increase in power feels exciting as unbeatable monsters and impossible challenges quickly become possible, and then easy.

Repainted town guardIf you want to keep suspension of disbelief, do not dare to consider the world-building implications of the 4E power curve. I checked the stats for a town guard in a heroic-tier Living Forgotten Realms adventure. As scaled for party level 10, this rank-and-file guard has AC 26 and 106 hit points. Where were these super guards a few adventures ago when the goblins attacked the town? The goblins could only hit AC26 on a 20, so they would have needed to make an average of 262 attacks on each guard to earn a kill. Of course, you can suppose that in your world, you have no super guards, but what happens when you reverse the roles, and a lone giant shows up to defeat an army?  Obviously, many players never consider this balance of power, so the game hums along. Those of us who cannot help thinking of such things find it all distasteful.

What if there are no super guards? Nowadays, the D&D rules specifically limit players to non-evil characters. In the early days, no such limitation existed. D&D focused more on killing things for selfish gains than on heroically driving back the darkness. I remember players musing that it made little sense to loot the dungeon when easy pickings lay in town. What happens when a player decides to “role play” his evil character by singlehandedly massacring and looting a town full of level-0 folk? Fortunately, my players always honored the social contract and returned to the dungeon.

Beyond the exponential power curve, players have other preferences. How high a level do you need to be before you should be allowed to hit Asmodeus on a 19? (Keep in mind, since first edition, a roll of 20 always hits.) How much of a bonus should attributes provide as compared to your per-level bonuses? I don’t think I can sway you on these matters any more than I can coax you into a new favorite ice cream flavor.

Next: D&D Next trades to-hit bonuses for enhanced damage

Riding the power curve through D&D’s editions

(This post continues a discussion I started in “What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?”)

Signed Greyhawk CoverIn the very first set of Dungeons & Dragons (1974) rules, every weapon dealt 1d6 damage. Short of magic, characters could only improve their damage output by improving their bonus to hit. More hits equals more damage. Soon, Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975) gave different weapons different damage dice and introduced the strength bonus to damage. Since then, each edition seems to give characters more ways to hit for more damage.

By the fourth edition, as characters leveled, they enjoyed steep increases in to-hit bonuses matched with unprecedented increases in the damage each attack dealt. This contributed to characters increasing exponentially in power. It explains why 4E monsters only remain effective for narrow bands of levels, and it explains the nervous ticks of every DM who has run an epic table. In past editions, only the wizard saw that kind of power curve, and the non-wizards eventually grew tired of serving as wand caddies for the Wiz.

D&D Next aims to create a power curve in line with earlier editions, while preventing the runaway power traditional for wizards. If you prefer the exponential power curve created in 4E, then you might have to look for a legendary hero module in Next, or stick with 4E and bless any dungeon master eager to run a high-level game.

Greyhawk also introduced Weapon Armor Class Adjustment, a chart that granted bonuses to hit based how well your particular weapon worked against a style of armor. The table only makes sense because, in the original game, armor class really represented a particular style of armor, such as leather or chainmail. Obviously, dexterity and magical bonuses to armor class quickly turned the table into nonsense. (If you want to make sense of the table, you must apply the dexterity and magical modifiers as penalties to the attack roll.) In practice, no one used the table and the “class” in armor class lost significance.

While D&D Next thankfully steers clear of weapon armor class adjustment, the system returns to the older practice of making armor class a measure of actual armor, or at least something equivalent.

The D&D Next approach brings back a problem that has bedeviled every edition of the game except fourth. In D&D, to-hit bonuses rise automatically, level after level, while armor class remains roughly the same. Sure, as characters acquire better equipment, armor class improves a little, and in most D&D editions AC starts a little ahead. But characters gain to-hit bonuses automatically, and eventually, inevitably, to-hit bonuses outrun armor class. Everyone begins to hit all the time. As I explained in “Hitting the to-hit sweet spot,” D&D works best when combatants hit between 30% and 70% of the time.

Fourth edition fixes the problem by granting everyone automatic increases to AC to match their automatic increases in to-hit bonuses. Now armor class becomes a function of a character or monster’s role and its level. Any reasonably optimal character would boast the same AC as peers in the same role. Armor exists as the flavorful means that some characters used to reach the armor class dictated by their role. This kept armor classes on par with bonuses to hit, while making monster design simple.

armorD&D Next attacks the old problem from the opposite direction. Instead of matching automatic increase with automatic increase, D&D next limits to-hit bonuses so they never overwhelm the relatively static range of armor classes.

In 4E, in defense as in offense, characters increase exponentially in power. The fixed AC bonuses that 4E granted with each level combined with rising hit points to grant everyone steady increases to two forms of defense. You automatically get harder to hit even as the hits do less effective damage. If you’re twice as hard hit and you can sustain twice the damage, your defenses are four times better.

D&D next attempts to straighten out the logarithmic power curve by refusing to let characters double-dip. Rather than gaining steep bonuses to hit along with increases to damage, you just get increases to damage. Rather than gaining constant improvements to armor class along with additional hit points, you just gain addition hit points. Of course, I’m simplifying to make a point. Characters still gain bonuses to hit as they advance, but they gain at a fraction of the rate seen in third and fourth edition.

When we compare D&D Next to early editions of D&D, the design reins in the to-hit bonuses characters gain as they advance. In compensation, characters gain greater bonuses to the damage they inflict. Like any design decision, this strategy makes some trade offs, which I will explore in an upcoming post.

Next: Bounded accuracy and matters of taste