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.)

8 thoughts on “Changing the balance of power

  1. Charles Brown

    Hey DMDave,

    The problem may not be in the power curve, but the way Armor Class (AC). In the game, AC is treated as a force field that defends against ALL physical attacks, but in reality a person can only simultaneously defend against 1 or 2 attacks, top. I would limit the number of attacks that AC can handle equal to the number of attacks that the PC has, after that PC is considered knocked prone to the remaining attacks.

  2. Charles Brown

    I can’t believe I just wrote the above. Let me try again.

    The problem is in less in the power curve and more in the way Armor Class (AC) is being handled. In the game, AC is treated as a force field that defends against ALL attacks against the Player Character (PC), but in reality, a person can only defend against 1-2 attacks at one time. I would correct this problem by limiting the number of attacks that AC can defend to the number of attacks that the PC is capable of per round. After that, the PC is considered to be knocked prone to the remainder attacks.

    1. DM David Post author


      You make a terrific point. D&D has never realistically handicapped a single defender beset by multiple opponents. Flanking doesn’t approach the true disadvantage of being outnumbered. (Systems such as Runequest that feature active defenses like blocks and parries handle these situations more accurately.)

      I’m certain D&D’s designers shied away from realistic, but punishing mechanics like the one you suggest to keep often-outnumbered heroes alive.

      If D&D’s combat rules granted mobs more of an attack advantage based on their numerical advantage, then even dramatically more powerful heroes could find themselves threatened. The Axe of Dwarvish Lords adventure took this approach by granting the goblins to-hit bonuses as their numbers increased.

  3. S'mon

    “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.”

    Naw, not really. A typical 5e mook has ca AC 13; if he has AC 18 like a hobgoblin he’s super-heavy armoured. The 10th level Barbarian IMC is attacking 3 times/round in a serious fight (2 if not) at +10 to hit, and if he wants can go Reckless for Advantage. With his +2 longsword he does d8+9 damage, less than a Fighter, and will typically cut down several 11 hp mooks every round.

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