Tag Archives: hit points

Secret D&D Games, Sharpshooters, Baby Orcs, and More From the DM David’s Comment Section

Time for another visit to the comment section. At the end, one reader tells a true story of how the Satanic panic drove a group’s Dungeons & Dragons games into secret, and what happened when concerned citizens learned of the underground game.

Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing

In Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing, I contrasted the moral dilemmas that reveal D&D characters against the baby-orc dilemma that dungeon masters should avoid.

Dan wrote, “The thing with the baby monsters from Keep on the Borderlands is that Gary Gygax never intended for the to be a moral dilemma. He assumed that all party members would be agreed on cleaning the place out, paladins included. When asked about it on the Internet in later years, he was somewhat incredulous that it even came up, stating that a properly-played paladin should view justice from a medieval perspective and would take the stance that ‘nits beget lice.’

Unlike Gary Gygax, today’s players often see humanoids as reflections of humanity. So tarring entire races of humanoids as irredeemably corrupt and worthy of extermination draws troubling parallels to the real treatment of real human groups.

Rasmusnord01 wrote, “I think of three things that can help avoid making the ‘baby-orc issue’ into a problem. (1) Have a leader of the group. In the hands of the right player, a designated leader can help resolve situations and keep the discussion from taking too long. (2) Avoid allowing mercy to come back to bite the players. (3) Make ‘evil’ humanoids more nuanced.

Teos “alphastream” Abadia wrote, “A friend of mine who used to write for Living Greyhawk said to me once that a great adventure teaches you something about your character. Over the years, that advice has stood the test of time for me. Great adventures help me better see my character’s personality and where they stand, and touch me emotionally or at a visceral level in some way.

Since that time, I’ve tried to write adventures where decisions (often but not always moral dilemmas) help you understand your character better. Maybe you swap bodies with someone else, so you see yourself from the outside and separate your personality from your frame. Who are you? Maybe you bring a spirit into yourself. What part of that personality do you accept or reject, and what is it displacing? Maybe you face a tough choice. Do you bring a child into battle if that child is an artifact? Do you sacrifice a few to save many? Maybe you have to choose between a sure thing that isn’t so sweet, and worse odds for a chance at something better?

Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse

In Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse, I suggested that framing monsters as natural creatures sometimes stifled the imagination. Lots of readers agreed but reminded me that developing monsters as creatures in nature can also fire the imagination.

It’s utterly absurd to suggest that natural creatures can’t inspire stories, because they have,” wrote greatwyrmgold. “And only slightly less silly to suggest that magical creatures can be more evocative than natural ones.

This article presents a false dichotomy between the fantastic and the naturalistic, between the magical and the dull. Creatures can be magical and dull when they pull from the same library of stock monster attributes as every half-arsed fantasy story in the past 60 years, but they can be fantastic and naturalistic with a bit of effort by the author.

Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves

An avalanche of comments to Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves noted that Assassins shouldn’t be killing for free and certainly not targeting their allies.

For instance, Carl Torvik wrote, “Assassins may the ONLY evil character you should allow in your campaign. They kill only when hired to kill. They have no reason to attack their party. They come with ready-made attachments to the NPCs and the world (guilds, contacts, associates of former targets, etc.) And they have a reason to want a gang of people around to protect them and occasionally even help them on a difficult hit.

Alphastream told how, in the 80s, friction between thieves and other evil characters broke up his game.

In my very first campaigns we had two players where one would play a thief. Before long, he would start stealing from us. The other would then back him up and threaten. It was a source of friction in our Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, but when we played Barrier Peaks, it escalated. Three of us tried to stop it and three wanted the freedom to do whatever they pleased. We separated, adventuring separately. That killed the game.

I can now look back on those events and understand what this was truly about. D&D was for me, as with many players, an escape from the social challenges of my normal life. When evil characters began to push their agenda, our D&D game ceased to become a collaborative escape from the everyday and became again a social challenge to which we had to respond. Bullying was again in my life, as were systems (here, the DM) that failed to make life better.

The worst problem with evil PCs or thieves stealing from fellow party members isn’t the lost items or even a death. It’s the impact it has on us as individuals, and how it upsets the very reason we came together to play and tell stories. We can introduce aspects that allow for party conflict, but when doing so we should look to find ways to mitigate that at the player level, or the game will suffer.

Quiiliitiila wrote, “Players who choose to create characters and then play them disruptively are to blame, not the classes. Any player who hides behind the class as a defense for their toxic actions is wrong and probably not suited to play in depth characters in the first place.

In the end, D&D and AD&D may have started as a simple hack and slash board game, but it evolved into a truly unique role-playing game where you get to experience adventure as a wizard or a cleric or even a blackguard! How you choose to play those characters is up to you, it has never been dictated by the rulebooks or class descriptions.

Alphastream agreed, but wrote, “As a designer I can choose to write mechanics that either bring people together for collaborative play or cause them to fight each other and disrupt party unity. I know which one I would rather see RPG companies design.

David’s article is examining how important names and other design elements are for play. They are extremely important. Often more important than we may realize. Any individual player or DM may or may not react to the design, but on the whole we are creating incentives for certain types of play. Assassins might be terrible at one table and not a problem at another, but what is more important is how they play overall. Overall, they caused problems.

When I design professionally, I’m often doing so for organized play, where I get to see how the design impacts hundreds to thousands of players. I can often see the impacts at a large convention and gain a really fascinating view into how the design works. Incentives that seem unimportant can end up being very important at that macro level. It’s good to go back and examine whether the design is encouraging heroic play, camaraderie, positive escapism, and other elements that routinely are cited by players as reasons to play D&D. Any individual group can always choose otherwise, but the overall design of D&D should point its incentives in that direction, because that’s what D&D is about.

Alert reader Dan realized that much of this post revisited a five-year-old topic. “Wouldn’t it have made more sense to link back to your previous post on the topic instead of copying the first half nearly verbatim, picture included?

Perhaps, but only about 1% of readers will follow a link to an earlier post. Reviving older posts sometimes helps me offer something every week. Many more folks read this blog now than did five years ago. Since few new readers browse my older posts, an old topic can still find interest.

I want to thank Dan and other dedicated readers who show enough interest in my posts to notice 5-year-old material. Your enthusiasm keeps me writing.

Sarah and Kaitlin Howard pictured with Lolth

Sarah M Howard wrote in to identify herself in the post’s photograph. “The drow priestesses in the picture are Sarah and Kaitlin Howard.” Thanks Sarah. Your costumes and the life-sized Lolth combine for an unforgettable photo.

Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points, Funny Dice, and Descending AC to D&D

The post Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points, Funny Dice, and Descending AC to D&D brought up THAC0, which led Erïch Jacoby-Hawkins to offer a bit of history.
Although THAC0 officially became a part of AD&D with the 2nd edition rule books, it was already being incorporated in some of the pre-2nd Edition modules in the mid to late 1980s, for example, modules I9 Day of Al’Akbar and I11 Needle from 1986 & 1987, respectively. I think THAC0 may have appeared in Dragon and Dungeon magazines around that time. The mechanic worked equally well in 1st as 2nd edition, as the AC system didn’t change, and the principle of the to-hit tables remained the same.

Perhaps I should have included Day of Al’Akbar in The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition. Can anyone identify the first appearance of the term THAC0?

Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History

The post Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History told how the outsized attention and influence of D&D’s earliest adventures elevated their reputation.

Bryce Lynch parsed a word choice in Dungeon magazine’s list of 30 greatest adventures. “I note that the use of the word ‘greatest’ avoids the implication that they are actually good.” Bryce pens a series of entertainingly cranky reviews where he holds adventures to impossibly high standards. His consistently looks for three qualities: “Usability at the table. Interactivity. Evocative.

The lack of accolades given to more recent adventures led to my list of the 10 greatest adventures since 1985.

The 10 Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985

The author of number 10, The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1996), offered more on his classic adventure. Bruce Cordell wrote, “Thanks for the review! Much appreciated. If you’re interested, I wrote about designing the Gates of Firestorm Peak a few months ago, and the associated creation of The Far Realm (which certainly got its name in Gates, but which I further highlighted in later adventures to strengthen its importance).” See http://brucecordell.blogspot.com/2019/03/origin-of-far-realm-in-d.html.

Teos “alphastream” Abadia praised number 6, Madness at Gardmore Abbey (2011) and recommended a follow up. “I love this adventure, especially in how it showcased how varied 4E adventures could be. I would also mention the prequel, Siege of Gardmore Abbey by Steve Townshend. Here, Steve takes us back in time to when the abbey first fell. It has a strong innovative take on a prequel with a variety of fun encounters built for a convention one-shot. It also has some super-fun pregens, some of which have great conflicts that are revealed during play. It’s amazing design. Siege can be found in Dungeon 210.

Teos also commented on number 5, Dead Gods (1997). “It’s also worth comparing it to other adventures of it’s time. It’s incredible how often adventures that should be amazing/fantastic (such as nearly every Planescape adventure) manage to be mundane. ‘Sure, you are in Sigil, now here is a guard duty assignment.’ More adventures need to really deliver on high fantasy.

I liked Vecna Lives for toying with some of those concepts (the opening scene is insane, the advice on running horror is incredible), but it stops short of attaining what it could. Same with Ruins of Castle Greyhawk. In 5E, Dungeon of the Mad Mage has some very strong parts, especially given the source material.

I admire that even the first-level adventures for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG include big, fantastic elements. Those adventures avoid caravan duty and rats in the cellar.

Responding to my list of The 10 Greatest Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Since 1985, Andrew wrote, “A key to the (good) 5e adventures is the Internet communities and third-party add-ons. By the book Tomb of Annihilation is good but falls apart here and there, but thanks to Facebook groups, Reddit and the great companion PDFs sold you can customize it with great ideas and fix weak bits really easily. Doing that back in the 1e days was quite daunting. Even a great module like Barrier Peaks was nearly impossible for me to run as a kid without any help.

Wraithmagus challenged my list’s methodology. “I am bewildered why you would create a list like this based on POPULARITY of all things, which is by far the least useful metric. If such a list is going to be useful, surely, they should be overlooked adventures, so that readers can have their attentions drawn to buried gems. Saying ‘Let me tell you about crap you already know about just so everyone can argue about how overrated it is is as unhelpful as it comes.

Although I did weigh each adventure’s reputation in my ratings, I consider that different from rating popularity. In the end, I cast my own judgement. My ratings won’t match anyone else’s, but a list like this needs to track the opinions of D&D fans closely enough to seem authoritative. As for finding buried gems, many readers had never heard of classics like Dead Gods and Night’s Dark Terror.

In Making the List of 10 Greatest D&D Adventures After 1985, I considered future lists of great adventures for high levels, from Dungeon magazine, and branded for a campaign setting.

Alphastream suggested some candidates. “The greatest high-level adventures from any era: I have to go with Throne of Bloodstone. While the design in many places is not exceptional, for a 1988 adventure it does a great job of showcasing how a truly awesome high-level plane-spanning adventure can work. It was very enjoyable as the end of my college campaign and took us to level 32-36 in AD&D play!

The greatest adventures branded for a campaign setting: For Dark Sun, Freedom does one of the best jobs at capturing a setting and introduces player well to the momentous events in the boxed set with the fall of Kalak. The same is true of the adventure included in the boxed set, which captures outdoor survival very well. Play those two and you get what Dark Sun is. Compare this to Dragonlance (or later Dark Sun adventures), where you feel like you get a bad version of the novels while the real stars are off doing the cool work.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits Opened Dungeons & Dragons to the Planes

The post Queen of the Demonweb Pits Opened Dungeons & Dragons to the Planes led Thomas Christy to write, “Great article! Check out these amazing maps by Jon Pintar! If I get to run this in the future, they will be great!

Alphastream recalled playing Q1 in high school. “The dungeon was very so-so. It did feel like a boring zoo or even a boring dungeon until the final level. It was then fantastic. The final battle was brutal. The party had a character with psionics… and Lolth does too. The old psionic combat rules had never been used until then. We looked them up, and basically everything happens in the first segment (part of a round). Party walks into Lolth’s room, psionic character drops dead as Lolth handily wins, and regular combat ensues! That was exciting!

Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D, But That Speaks Well of Fifth Edition

A few readers responded to Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D by describing the historical superiority of archers.

Todd Ellner wrote, “Think about it in the real world. The horse nomads of Central Asia from the Scythians to the Mongols pretty much swept all before them and replaced the style of warfare wherever they went. The life of the samurai wasn’t ‘The Way of the Sword.’ It was ‘The way of the Horse and Bow.’ Missile weapons are that much of a game-changer.

Although I like the historical perspective, D&D isn’t history, but a game where characters do fantastic deeds for the fun of players. A focus on fun leads designers like Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax to favor unrealistic, but fun things like hit points over realistic, not-fun things like sepsis and sucking chest wounds. Fifth edition pairs the intrinsic advantages of ranged attacks with the game’s two most overpowered feats to encourage situations where the sharpshooter player has fun and everyone else wonders why they showed up.

Some commenters raised the canard that archers tend to be “squishy,” lightly armored and vulnerable to attack. In this edition, fully-armored fighters also make the most efficient sharpshooters.

Some compared the damage dealing of sharpshooters to spellcasters. Certainly, spellcasters can shine for their ability to clear hordes of foes and for their utility. But most spellcasters really are squishy, and their spell slots force players to watch their resources.

Some cited certain melee fighting styles that can approach the damage output of sharpshooters. But melee types foster interesting fights because they stand in harm’s way and must move to attack. Meanwhile, monsters can surround their boss with enough protection for the mastermind to act before the barbarian can cut a path. Sharpshooters just turn potentially interesting encounters into point, shoot, and now it’s over.

Readers who see the trouble with sharpshooters offered advice to managing the archetype.

LordJasper wrote, “Start enforcing ammunition tracking. A lot of DMs let players get away with ‘forgetting’ to track their arrows and crossbow bolts. Make archers keep track of every bolt they fire.” The limit comes when archers capable of emptying a quiver in just a few rounds need to carry every missile.

Unfortunately, a 1 gp quiver of 20 arrows only weighs a pound, so players will argue they can easily carry 20 quivers totaling 400 arrows. Dungeon masters who rule otherwise will UNFAIRLY DESTROY an entire character concept—or so players will say.

This is where game mechanics poorly reflects reality,” Jason Oldham wrote. “Drawing on personal experience, an average quiver MIGHT hold 20 arrows. They are bulky and need to be packaged with at least some consideration for the delicate bits. Bolts are slightly more accommodating but only slightly. I personally enforce some rather strict house rules as far as how much a player can pack around and how readily accessible equipment may be. But that’s just me, I like to make my players suffer just a little bit.

Some readers suggested spells that hinder archers.

Oniguma wrote, “I’ve found one little, often overlooked spell that does wonders to diminish the potential of ranged attackers: Slow.

Sapphire Crook elaborated. “Slow is a rare spell that doesn’t require sight. You just pick six targets in a pretty large cube, and they have to pick a god and pray. Fireball can kill, but Slow can save lives.

Eric Bohm suggested Wind Wall. “‘Arrows, bolts, and other ordinary projectiles launched at targets behind the wall automatically miss.’ I don’t like using it because it is such a hard shut down, but it is useful for letting the rest of the party contribute.

The prospect of using Wind Wall against a party dominated by archers excites me. Still, many commenters blamed any trouble with sharpshooters on DMs who fail to prepare custom encounters to thwart the archetype. I prefer to avoid D&D games where the players bring scissors, and then the DM always prepares rocks. That approach creates an adversarial dynamic and robs the game of variety. DMs who run Adventurers League can add total cover, monsters, and hit points as I suggested in the post, but we can’t remake adventures to vex archers.

Number Monsters to Stop Wasting Time Finding Them on the Battle Map

In response to my advice that DMs number monsters to stop wasting time finding them on the battle map, Scott suggested using a 3D printer to make numbered bases that cup miniature figures.

The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character)

My post on The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character) ranked the popularity of D&D’s feats.

The relatively low popularity of Resilience surprised some commenters. For spellcasters who try to stay clear of attack, Resilience (Constitution) beats the most popular feat, War Caster. By the way, according to the letter of D&D rules, if you take Resilience for one stat, you can’t take it again for a second, different ability.

The popularity rankings of feats invited comparisons to each feat’s actual power. Thinkdm wrote, “Here’s some poll results I ran to break them down into tiers. You see the ‘broken’ feats aren’t even the most popular. Likely because they are suited to specific play styles. But, it’s still interesting.

Little-known D&D classics: Fez

In reply to Little-known D&D classics: Fez, Matt wrote, “I’ve never been to Gen Con, and in fact only came to AD&D when I was in middle school in the early 1990s. I found the Fez adventures about ten years ago when I was combing Amazon for out-of-print, non-Wizards of the Coast, and pre-d20 game materials.

They immediately changed my world.

I would spend the next decade reading, absorbing, and preparing to run Fez with my own group of gamers whose frame of reference for D&D only begins around the year 2000 or so. I’m happy to report that we finished the first Fez adventure back in May, and I’m preparing to go into Fez II, which is really the best in the series, in defiance of the law of sequels.

When I ran Fez I, I modified the game to accommodate some of their expectations: The players saw their characters’ stats, but they began as amnesiacs. Still, even with that change, the Fez formula engaged them immediately.

Fez has become one of our most memorable adventures. I highly recommend that anyone out there with a gaming group pick up these gaming classics and run them.

The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods

The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods prompted a funny exchange.

Joel Orsatti: “Any idea why the Finnish mythos was dropped?

Brent Butler: “They may have simply run out of K’s.

More likely, TSR dropped the mythos to fit the abbreviated book within a smaller number of signatures—groups of pages printed together.

The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America

In The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America, I explained why Gen Con in the 80s came to ban live-action games, and the change in attitude since. Spoiler: Today, some folks accept that playing D&D can prove beneficial.

Alphastream (again. Thanks, Teos!) wrote, “I wish I had a screen shot of an old post on the Wizards of the Coast forums by Mike Mearls during the 4E era. 4E era, mind you! That’s long after this event. In it, he briefly mentioned that when WotC was looking at the design for 4E organized play, there was a push to eliminate LARP and town-fair style play. It was due to the effect it has on the perception of the game.

I mention this not because I think WotC was necessarily wrong. (Okay, they were, but they were trying to gain acceptance for the game.) I mention it because LARPing was still seen as problematic as recently as 4E. And, because it is ironic that what has helped RPGs become mainstream during the 5E period is acting, both on livestreams and in media (Stranger Things, etc.). It is now very welcome to have people in costume, and WotC staff get in costume for livestreams and big events such as the Descent marketing event. It’s a remarkable change that has come only very recently.

Timothy Park shared his positive tale of clear-headed parents, pastors, and teachers seeing the game’s value and encouraging play.

There were a great many people using their intelligence and common sense and noticing and saying good things about D&D. They and their reasonable perspective won out. If it hadn’t, well, would you have this blog?

That story, the positive side, needs more press than the sensational bits.

As for the sensational bits, I finish this post by relaying the account from chacochicken.

My hometown was a regular hotbed of D&D and Satanic panic. In fact, the dangers of D&D was still a contentious point there until not that long ago.

I come from a small town in rural West Virginia. Evangelicalism had completely overtaken the town in the 50’s and 60’s. My grandparents moved there in 1952 and were not church going types. Strike one. My mom was an unwed mother. Strike two. My uncle got the Holmes basic set while he was in the navy and introduced my friends and I to the game. Strike two and half. It was an open secret that my navy vet uncle was gay. Strike Five.

To set the scene, it was summer 1986 and my friends and I (fortunately most kids don’t care much about the above nonsense) played a ton of D&D, but we had to keep it a complete secret from basically everyone. Our town was small enough that everyone mostly knew everyone’s business. A ring of people were in charge. The bank manager was the pastor. The pastor’s brother was the county sheriff and the high school baseball coach. Nepotism all the way down. Well these folks decided that they were going to control the behavior of the whole town more or less.

So we played that summer. A few other kids knew but none of our parents at that point. We were known to have played before, see above uncle, so everyone was wary of us. My friend Dustin, yes his name was Dustin, his parents ransacked his room and found his character sheets, dice, and some D&D ads torn our from his comic books. I’m not exaggerating, they burned all of his toys, all of them, on the front yard as he basically had a nervous breakdown. He was not allowed to speak to us again and they couldn’t risk us meeting at school so the next year he was home-schooled.

We were torn as to whether to play anymore or not because we were afraid of the possibility of punishment. Our defiance won out and we kept playing in the loft of an old barn next to my uncle’s house. He vouched for us playing regular old board games, fishing, and running around in the woods.

Then terror struck. A dog went missing somewhere close. Then a second. Then an older man “disappeared.” People went crazy. “It was Satanists!” The Panic hit full bore. The school confiscated anything to do with heavy metal music. Prayers before baseball games asking for protection against the devil worshippers that invaded our town. D&D was the primary suspect.

To be fair, as kids, we were scared too. We just knew D&D didn’t have anything to do with it. My uncle reassured us that most of the town were a bunch of crazy backwards hillbillies. He wasn’t wrong. He made a critical mistake however. I’ll never forget what happened on August 2nd 1986, a Saturday. My uncle threw a big BBQ for some of his navy buddies. We were invited to so we got some food and headed over to our barn for D&D by lantern light. My drunk uncle let slip to a friend’s wife that we were playing the devil’s game and she called her father, the aforementioned county sheriff.

We were right in the middle of the game when the sheriff and four deputies arrested us at gun point. They pointed guns at 5 kids playing a game. They were sure we were a Satanic cult cell. They put three of us in one car and two in the other. The entire drive they kept asking us about Satanism and if we killed the dogs. They didn’t take us to our parents or the police station, they took us to the church so the sheriff’s brother could rebuke us while we were in handcuffs. It was completely insane. There were 5 of us and we were all terrified except for my friend Nathan, who thought this was hilarious. His laughing and mocking the pastor helped a ton actually. We got our wits back and demanded to see our parents and told them they had just kidnapped us and we were going to call the FBI.

The sheriff took us home after that with a stern warning and a veiled threat asking me and my friends if my uncle had ever touched any of us. The next day my mom filed a formal complaint and my friend Matt’s father challenged the sheriff to a fist fight. He did not accept. The old man that “disappeared” wasn’t dead. He was on vacation in Maine or some such that summer. One or both dogs were found. We took a break from D&D for a while, but picked it back up when the Forgotten Realms grey box came out the next year. The pastor finally died in 2012 and the newer younger pastor now let’s kids play D&D other TTRPGs and board games in the church annex on Thursday nights.

So that’s the story of how D&D destroyed the brains of the people of my town for two decades because of the the media furor.

Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points, Funny Dice, and Descending AC to D&D

In 1972, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Dave Arneson introduced his Blackmoor campaign to co-creator Gary Gygax. The campaign stemmed from Gary’s Chainmail rules, but Dave’s game transformed the rules for miniature-figure battles into something new and irresistible—something that broadly resembled D&D.

My last post explained how Dave shaped a combat system that featured hit points, 2d6 to-hit rolls, damage rolls, and armor classes where higher numbers represented better protection.

Based on Dave’s demonstration, feedback, and notes, Gary added his own contributions to make the D&D game that reached print. In Pegasus issue 1, Dave recalled that Gary and his Lake Geneva group “had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules.”

Gary changed Dave’s combat rules in 3 key ways:

  • Hit points became less realistic and more fun.
  • To-hit rolls switched to a twenty-sided dice, creating a new market for funny dice.
  • AC ratings flipped to make lower values better, forcing awkward, negative ACs on players.

Unrealistic hit points

Gary’s changes let characters gain hit points as they leveled. In Blackmoor, Dave wrote, “As the player progressed, he did not receive additional hit points, but rather he became harder to hit.” Dave based armor class on armor, but fighters gained better saving throws. By the Blackmoor rules, saves applied to weapon attacks, so fighters could avoid damaging blows. “Only Fighters gained advantages in these melee saving throws. Clerics and magicians progressed in their own areas, which might or might not modify their saving throws.”

In Chainmail, a hero fought as 4 ordinary soldiers and a superhero as 8. D&D translated this scheme by making heroes 4th-level fighting men and superheroes 8th level. When Gary reconciled Dave’s rules for hit dice with the notion of heroes that fought as several men, he probably decided to give characters more hit dice as they leveled. The mechanic seemed unrealistic. After all, nobody gets 10 or more times more durable through experience. But rising hit points helped power the game’s success. They boosted the positive reinforcement of leveling. Plus, heroes capable of unrealistically surviving many blows supported D&D’s combat-intensive, dungeon-bashing style. These advantages helped make the game so appealing.

Every “realistic” system to follow D&D echoed Dave Arneson’s original method of using hit points to measure a character’s body’s physical capacity to survive injury. In D&D, hit points rise as characters advance, and that turns hit points into an elegant damage-reduction mechanic. As characters level, they essentially reduce the damage they take from blows.

Using hit points for damage reduction boasts a number of virtues:

  • Combat plays fast because players do not have to calculate reduced damage for every single hit.
  • Although damage is effectively reduced, the reduction never makes a combatant impervious to damage.
  • Once characters gain enough points to survive a few blows, hit points provide a predictable way to see the course of battle. If a fight begins to go badly, the players can see their peril and bring more resources like spells and potions to the fight, or they can run. In a realistic fight, things can go bad in an instant, with a single misstep resulting in death.
  • Most attacks can hit and inflict damage, providing constant, positive feedback to players while everyone contributes to the fight. Realistic combatants do not wear down from dozens of damaging blows; instead each hit is likely to kill or maim. In more realistic systems like Runequest and GURPS, when two very skilled combatants face off, they block or dodge virtually all attacks. The duels turn static until someone muffs a defense roll and lets a killing blow slip through. This model may be realistic—it reminds me of those Olympic competitions where years of training turn on a single, split-second misstep—but the realistic model lacks fun. No popular sports begin as sudden-death competitions where the first to score wins.
  • Battles can gain a dramatic arc. Fights climax with bloodied and battle-worn combatants striving to put their remaining strength into a killing blow. No one likes to see the climactic battle fizzle with a handful of bad rolls, especially at their character’s expense.

Bottom line: Using hit points for damage reduction enables a combat system where you can hit a lot, and hitting is fun.

Funny dice

When Dave adapted the Chainmail rules for his Blackmoor campaign, he kept using ordinary 6-sided dice. He later explained, we had “no funny dice back then.”

The twenty-sided die may not have reached Dave’s corner of gaming yet, but Gary had funny dice and they enchanted him. At first, polyhedral dice only came from vendors in Japan and the United Kingdom, so getting a set required significant time and money. But by 1972, polyhedral dice started arriving from domestic sources. Gary recalled buying his first set from a teacher-supply catalog. In 1972, Creative Publications of California started selling 20-sided dice in a set of polyhedrals, and word spread among gamers. By 1973, Gary wrote an article touting funny dice. “The most useful are the 20-sided dice,” he explained. The original d20s came numbered from 0 to 9 twice, so most gamers rolled twice to generate a percentage from 1-100. Gary noted that gamers could do more. “Color in one set of numbers on the die, and you can throw for 5%—perfect for rules which call for random numbers from 1-20.” As an example, he mentions being “busy working up chance tables for a fantasy campaign game.” Gary found his new d20 so irresistible that he changed Dave’s 2d6 to-hit tables into D&D’s d20-based system.

Descending Armor Classes

As Gary reworked his attack table, he discovered that switching to descending AC numbers created a mathematical elegance. Game historian Jon Peterson describes how this system appears in a draft of the D&D rules. “If you were a first-level fighter rolling to hit, the number you needed was equivalent to 20 minus the armor class of your target. To hit AC 2, you needed an 18, to hit AC 3, a 17, and so on. Armor class descended to make it easy enough to calculate your needed roll that you wouldn’t even have to consult a table.”

If D&D had settled on this system, we might now be rolling a d20 to hit, adding the foe’s AC, and trying to reach a target number based on our character.

D&D reached players with a muddled system that kept descending armor classes, but hid any reason for the scheme. So players wondered why lower armor class represented better protection. Usually, bigger is better.

What happened?

When Gary expanded D&D to account for a greater range of levels than 9, he lost the mathematical simplicity. While the draft rules just present to-hit numbers for fighters up to level 9, the published D&D rules extend the table up to level 16 and beyond. To keep a steady advancement over a greater range of levels, Gary reworked the table and broke an elegant design. This left a system where players just used armor class to reference a row in a table and where intuitive, rising numbers could have worked just as well.

The Tangled Origins of D&D’s Armor Class, Hit Points, and Twenty-Sided Die Rolls To-Hit

In 1977, when I first read the Dungeon & Dragons basic rules, the way armor class improved as it shrunk from 9 to 2 puzzled me. Shouldn’t higher numbers be better? Players just used AC to find a row on a table, so rising ACs would have worked as well. Magic armor introduced negative ACs, making the descending numbers even more awkward. Also, many of the demons described in 1976 in the Eldrich Wizardry supplement sported negative armor class.

D&D’s designers seemed to think rising armor classes made more sense. The game rules stemmed from co-creator Gary Gygax’s Chainmail rules for miniature-figure battles. Chainmail rated armor from 1 to 8, with better armor gaining higher values. Co-creator Dave Arneson based his Blackmoor fantasy campaign on Chainmail. His campaign developed into D&D. In Blackmoor, higher armor classes represented better armor.

So how did the first D&D rules set the puzzling convention of descending armor class?

The answer lies toward the end of the genesis of D&D’s combat system.

In the original D&D rule books, the combat system that everyone used appears as the Alternative Combat System. “Alternative” because players could just use the combat system from Chainmail instead. When Dave launched Blackmoor, he tried the Chainmail system. But it focused on battles between armies sprinkled with legendary heroes and monsters. For ongoing adventures in the dungeon under Castle Blackmoor, the rules needed changes. Original Blackmoor player Greg Svenson recalls that within about a month of play, the campaign created new rules for damage rolls and hit points. (More recently, Steve Winter, a D&D designer since 1st edition, tells of playing the original game with the Chainmail combat rules.)

Much of what we know about how Dave adapted the rules for his Blackmoor campaign comes from two sources: a 2004 interview and The First Fantasy Campaign, a raw publication of notes for his game. Most quotes in this post come from those sources.

Chainmail’s melee combat matrix

To resolve melee combat, Chainmail used a combat matrix. Players matched the attacking weapon or creature against the defender, rolled a pair of 6-sided dice, and consulted the table for an outcome. “That was okay for a few different kinds of units, but by the second weekend we already had 20 or 30 different monsters, and the matrix was starting to fill up the loft.”

Dave abandoned the matrix and extended Chainmail’s rules for missile attacks to melee combat. In Chainmail, ranged attackers rolled 2d6, and tried to roll higher than a target number based on increasing armor classes. Blackmoor gained melee to-hit rolls.

Chainmail’s man-to-man combat and ranged combat tables

In Chainmail, creatures lacked hit points, so a single hit killed. But with extraordinary individuals like heroes, wizards, and dragons, a saving throw allowed a last chance to survive. For example, the rules say, “Dragon fire will kill any opponent it touches, except another Dragon, Super Hero, or a Wizard, who is saved on a two dice roll of 7 or better.”

Under rules where one hit destroyed a character, Dave tried to spare player characters by granting saving throws against any hit. “Thus, although [a character] might be ‘Hit’ several times during a melee round, in actuality, he might not take any damage at all.”

But the system of saving throws still made characters too fragile to suit players. “It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters, and they wanted something detailed which Chainmail didn’t have,” Dave explains.

Chainmail battle on a sand table

“I adopted the rules I’d done earlier for a Civil War game called Ironclads that had hit points and armor class. It meant that players had a chance to live longer.” In a Chainmail battle that featured armies spanning a sand table, hit points would have overwhelmed players with bookkeeping. But the Blackmoor players liked the rule. “They didn’t care that they had hit points to keep track of because they were just keeping track of little detailed records for their character and not trying to do it for an entire army. They didn’t care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn’t want the monster to kill them in one blow.”

When players rolled characters, they determined hit points. For monsters, hit points were set based “on the size of the creature physically and, again, on some regard for its mythical properties.” Dave liked to vary hit points among individual monsters. To set the strength of a type of monster while rolling for an individual’s hit points, he probably invented hit dice.

Dave said he took the armor class from Ironclads, but the concept came from Chainmail and the term came from its 1972 revisions. I suspect Dave meant that he pulled the notion of hit points and damage from a naval game that featured both armor ratings and damage points. Game historian Jon Peterson explains, “The concepts of armor thickness and withstanding points of damage existed in several naval wargames prior to Chainmail.” Still, nobody has found the precise naval rules that inspired Dave. Even his handwritten rules for ironclad battles lack properties resembling armor class. Perhaps he just considered using the concept in a naval game before bringing the notion to D&D.

In Blackmoor, Dave sometimes used hit locations. Perhaps naval combat inspired that rule. When ships battle, shells that penetrate to a boiler or powder keg disable more than a cannonball through the galley. Likewise, in man-to-man combat, a blow to the head probably kills.

Dave’s rules for hit locations only reached D&D in the Blackmoor supplement, which came a year after the game’s release. But hit locations made combat more complicated and dangerous. Realistic combat proved too deadly for the dungeon raids in D&D. So D&D players never embraced hit locations. Even Dave seemed to save the rule for special occasions. “Hit Location was generally used only for the bigger critters, and only on a man-to-man level were all the options thrown in. This allowed play to progress quickly even if the poor monsters suffered more from it.” Dave ran a fluid game, adapting the rules to suit the situation.

By the time Dave’s fantasy game established hit points, 2d6 to-hit rolls, and damage rolls, he showed the game to Gary Gygax.

Next: Gary Gygax improves hit points by making them more unrealistic, and then adds funny dice

Would Dungeons & Dragons Play Better If It Stayed Loyal to How Gary Gygax Awarded Hit Points?

In a typical fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure, characters will reach every battle with full hit points. Healing comes too easily to enter a battle at less than full health. Above level 10 or so, spells like Aid and Heroes Feast mean parties routinely pass their day with hit point totals above their ordinary maximums.

By the time characters near level 10, few monsters inflict enough damage to seem threatening. Except for a few outliers like giants, foes lack the punch to dent characters at maximum hit points. If round of combat results in a gargoyle hitting a 90-hit-point character 6 damage, then the fight seems like a bookkeeping exercise. “At this rate, I can only survive 14 more rounds!”

The fifth-edition design limits the highest armor classes so weaker monsters can attack stronger characters and still hit on rolls less than a natural 20. This design aims to enable hordes of low-level monsters to challenge high-level characters. In practice, the hits inflict such pitiful damage that the hero would feel less pain than the bookkeeping causes to the player. It’s the pencils that suffer the most.

The obvious fix to high-level creatures and their feeble damage is to make monsters’ attacks hurt more. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea routinely makes creatures inflict maximum damage on every hit.

But what if the solution doesn’t come from the monsters? What if characters at double-digit levels just have too many hit points?

If high-level characters had fewer hit points, high-level monsters with their puny attacks would suddenly become a bit more threatening. Lower-level monsters could pose more of a threat high-level heroes without becoming too dangerous to low-level characters. High-level PCs would still rip through weak foes, but the survivors could deal enough damage to seem dangerous rather than laughable.

D&D no longer focuses entirely on dungeon crawls where characters judge when to rest based on their remaining store of hit points and spells. The game’s move to storytelling means characters often face just one fight per day. Healing comes cheap and easy, so characters start fights at full hit points. Lower hit points at high levels would suit the reality that characters enter every fight at maximum health. In more battles, foes would seem like credible opponents.

Of course, no one has ever argued that low-level characters sport too many hit points. New characters feel as fragile as soap bubbles. Before level 5, don’t get too attached to your hero. As characters near level 10, they begin to seem stout. They rarely go down in anything short of a slugfest, so they feel like superheroes, but not invulnerable.

But in double-digit levels character hit points keep rising at the same steep rate until DMs resort to letting monsters routinely deal maximum damage. D&D might play better if, somewhere around level 10, characters stopped gaining so many hit points.

When I first considered this notion, I dismissed it as too big a break from the D&D’s conventions. For nearly two decades, characters have gained a full die worth of hit points at every level.

Except for most of D&D’s history, somewhere around level 10, characters stopped gaining so many hit points.

From the original game through second edition, when D&D characters reached level 9 or so, they started gaining hit points at a much slower rate. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, fighters rising above 9th level gained 3 hit points per level with no bonus for constitution. Other classed gained even fewer points. Continuing to let characters gain a full hit die plus constitution bonus at every level defies D&D’s origins.

The original limits to hit dice served as co-creator Gary Gygax’s way of putting a soft level cap on D&D. The cap kept the game’s link to the Chainmail mass-combat rules, where the best fighters acted as “superheroes” who could match the power of 8 soldiers. Gary wanted a game where crowds of orcs or goblins could still challenge the heroes.

Admittedly, when I started playing D&D, I disliked how characters’ hit points topped out. Gary and his hit-dice tables seemed to punish players of high-level characters—especially fighters.

Although the soft cap on hit points lasted 25 years, the cap on the other perks of leveling started to disappear as soon as the first Greyhawk supplement reached gamers. While the original box topped out at 6th-level spells, Greyhawk included spells of up to 9th level. Gary never intended player characters to cast the highest-level spells, but that didn’t stop players.

By the time designers started work on third edition, they aimed to deliver perks to every class at every level from 1 to 20. The soft cap on hit points must have seemed vestigial. The designers felt the game’s math could handle a steep rise in hit points past level 10. The design abandoned any aim of making groups of low-level mooks a match for high-level heroes. Besides, a steady rise in HP made the multi-classing rules simpler.

Today’s D&D game does a fine job of awarding every class—even fighters—perks at every level. Nobody leveling into the teens gets excited about another helping of hit points. Reverting to smaller hit point advances doesn’t spoil anyone’s fun.

Fifth edition keeps levels and monsters at power levels broadly similar to those in original game. This loose compatibility makes adventures written during D&D’s first 20 years continue to work with the new edition. In theory, a DM can just swap in monster stats from the new game and play. In practice, higher-level characters have more hit points, more healing, and the creatures fail to do enough damage to keep up. Story-centered adventures make the mismatch worse.

Suppose Gary Gygax had hit points right all along. Would D&D play better if characters stopped gaining so many after level 9?

D&D’s Designers Can’t Decide Whether Characters Must Rest for Hit Points and Healing, but You Can Choose

In the original Dungeons & Dragons game, ordinary monster attacks inflicted just 1d6 damage. Yet characters still died, frequently. Clerics gained far fewer spells and much less healing than today, so most damage took a trip out of the dungeon to heal. Heroes mounted dungeon expeditions, fought as many battles as they dared, and then hoped their mapper could lead them to safety and healing.

To threaten full-strength characters in a climactic fight, monsters needed unique attacks that did massive damage, like a dragon’s breath weapon, or save-or-die effects like a beholder’s eye rays.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons granted clerics more healing spells, so characters entered more fights at full hit points, but damage still taxed resources that only a rest could regain. If the cleric squandered spells on something other than cures, the party hollered.

Third edition changed that equation. Without anyone ever needing to rest for spells or healing, characters could regain all their hit points after every fight.

A 2nd-level character who had gained the 900gp of treasure recommended in the Dungeon Master’s Guide could buy a 50-charge Wand of Cure Light Wounds for 750gp. At 2nd level, the party might share the cost. In just a few levels, characters gained enough gold to make buying in bulk a minor expense. Of course, dungeon masters could limit the purchase, but by 5th level, PCs stopped needing a magic shop. A cleric could take the Craft Wands feat and make wands at half price.

Third edition’s Living Greyhawk organized-play campaign enabled PCs to craft and purchase healing wands. Most characters bought Wands of Cure Light Wounds and loaned them to the party cleric for healing between battles.

In a standard third-edition campaign, savvy characters stopped needing rest to recover hit points.

Third edition’s designers probably overlooked how the low cost of healing wands would erase D&D’s 25-year-old limits on hit points and healing. The fourth-edition designers noticed. Their edition kept magic healing available for purchase, but also limited healing between rests. Rested characters gained a limited number of healing surges, and then healing magic let characters trade surges for healing. For example, healing potions just let characters spend a surge in the heat of battle. Fourth edition’s treatment of hit points and healing ranks as one of the edition’s best innovations.

At a glance, fifth edition seemed to keep D&D’s tradition of limiting hit points and healing between rests. This presumed limit made the introduction of the spell Healing Spirit seem like a game breaker. With a mere 2nd-level spell, everyone in the party could regain 10d6 hit points in just 1 minute. Casting at higher levels increases the healing, so a 3rd-level spirit could restore 20d6 to every PC in the party.

Blogger Merric Blackman summarized the concerns, “One of the major objections to the healing spirit spell is that it turns all the assumptions of hit point recovery in 5E on their head; suddenly we’re in a 3E-style game of ‘hit point loss isn’t important’ rather than the 5E-style of ‘hit point lost drains resources.’”

While Healing Spirit outshines other out-of-combat healing spells so much that druids need sunscreen, the spell doesn’t shatter any standing limits on healing. When the Player’s Handbook offered healing potions for sale for 50gp, the fifth-edition rules freed characters of any need to rest for healing or hit points. Unlike in early D&D, characters can buy potions. Unlike in fourth edition, potions work without a limit imposed by healing surges. Characters who gain a typical amount of treasure can easily afford all the potions they need. Most PCs gain tons of gold and have nowhere else to spend it.

Savvy characters can recover hit points without ever resting.

Dungeon masters who want to capture D&D’s original limits on hit points and healing between rests need to limit both healing potions and Healing Spirit. Such limits restore hit points and healing as a resource to manage through an adventuring day.

If you want to keep healing potions readily available for 50gp each, I suggest adopting a version of the fourth-edition limit: Drinking a potion lets characters spend a Hit Die for healing as if they had rested. To avoid doses that just heal a point or two, make potions heal an extra 1d4 hit points per Hit Die spent. Stronger potions spend more Hit Dice. With this house rule, make stronger healing potions for sale at higher prices. Although these potions spend hit dice, they still bring the advantage of granting healing in the heat of battle.

Potion of Healing
Potion, rarity varies

When you drink this potion, you spend hit dice up to the maximum listed on the Potions of Healing table. For each Hit Die spent in this way, the player rolls the die plus an extra 1d4, and then adds the character’s Constitution modifier to the rolls. The character regains hit points equal to the total.

Whatever its potency, the potion’s red liquid glimmers when agitated.

Potions of Healing

Potion of … Cost Spend up to …
Healing 50gp 1 Hit Die
Healing Moderate Wounds 300gp 2 Hit Dice
Healing Serious Wounds  750gp 3 Hit Dice
Healing Critical Wounds  1400gp 4 Hit Dice

Potions of Greater Healing, Superior Healing, and Supreme Healing can remain unchanged as long as they keep their rarity and only appear in treasure. These potions bring the precious advantage of healing without costing Hit Dice.

James Haeck listed a couple of house rules for limited Healing Spirit. For instance, designer Jeremy Crawford suggests having the spell end once it restores hit points a number of times equal to twice the caster’s spellcasting ability modifier.

Of course, none of these house rules apply to organized play. Authors who write adventures for the Adventurers League should expect characters to enter every fight at full health and to never run short of healing between battles.

Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?

Have you heard of dungeon masters who keep character sheets from players and who make all the die rolls? Instead of revealing hit points, these DMs say, “Your character feels badly injured and close to death.”

To improve a TV audience’s immersion and to avoid numbers, the Dungeons & Dragons games on Community adopted this style. The creator of Community, Dan Harmon, brought this style to his HarmonQuest live-play show. For performance, the style makes sense.

Some real DMs also took the style for simulation and immersion. They explained that the characters’ don’t know their numbers, so why should their characters? In theory, hiding the mechanical guts of the game lets players focus on the game world and on immersing themselves in their characters.

In practice, when a DM takes such measures, players see a control freak. Players worry that the DM will fudge numbers to force a plot. But even when players trust their DM’s impartiality, the hidden numbers create discomfort. The game rules serve as the physics of the characters’ world. When the DM hides numbers and mechanics, the players lose some ability to make good choices for their characters. They feel robbed of control.

Also, everyone likes to roll their own dice.

Aside from performing D&D for an audience, most stories of DMs hiding the game’s numbers date from role playing’s early days. Then, gamers experimented with styles of play that no longer seem appealing. In White Dwarf issue 75 from 1986, an article titled “Gamemanship” recommended preventing players from reading the game rules. “Players who haven’t read the rules will be unable to spring anything ‘new’ on you.” The author, Martin Hytch, aims for better role playing, but he seems like a control freak.

Nowadays, tales of DMs who hide the game’s numbers from players seem like legend. Any DMs committed to the style probably wonder why no one wants to join their game.

But every DM weighs how many game numbers to share with players. My research turned up contemporary game masters willing to hide a character’s hit points from their players.

Martin Hytch would approve. “Telling a fighter he has lost eleven hit points can have a totally different effect if the DM says, ‘The beast strikes you in the face, breaking your nose.’” I suspect few players share Martin’s devotion to immersion.

A mere description of damage leaves players confused about their characters’ conditions. The broken-nose example falls particularly short. In the DM’s estimation, does the injury leave a character halfway to death, or just a little battered? The DM knows. In the game world, the fighter knows. Only the player feels baffled.

The characters see, hear, smell, and touch the game world. They sense more of their world than even the most vivid description shows the players. The characters bring years of training and experience. They know nothing of hit points, but hit point numbers provide a measure to bridge the information gap between a character living the battle and the player at the table.

DMs rarely hide hit-point and damage numbers from players, but most DMs conceal difficulty classes. Until recently, I kept DCs to myself, but now I typically share them.

As with hit points, the difficulty class number helps span the gulf between a character’s vivid sense of the game world and a player learning from a DM’s description. When a rogue decides whether to climb a wall, she can see the bricks, mortar, and slick condensation. She can compare to walls she has climbed. At the kitchen table, a DC just sums a character’s experience.

Some folks object to sharing DC numbers because they feel numbers hinder immersion. But hiding the DC leaves plenty of immersion-foiling game in the check. The player still looks up numbers on the character sheet. They still roll a dice and add the result to a number on their character sheet. What’s another number?

In games like Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, and GURPS, players make checks by rolling under a skill number. These games put a chance of success on the character sheet and make hiding difficulties cumbersome. These games still thrive. Even though players almost always know their chance of success, no one accuses Call of Cthulhu of undermining immersion.

Characters might have more trouble telling the odds of making a saving throw than the difficulty of a jump or climb, but the benefits of revealing save DCs encourage me to reveal them too.

Especially with a high-stakes save, revealing a DC heightens the drama of a die roll. When a character’s fate rests on a roll, when a roll seizes the table’s attention, a player can figure the number they need before throwing the die. A known DC tells players that the DM can’t fudge the line between success and failure. Then the moment the die lands, everyone knows the outcome without asking the DM for an interpretation. By revealing a DC, the DM sides with the players. No one sees where the next roll will take the game. Only the dice decide.

As a DM, revealing a DC frees me from any urge to nudge the narrative by moving a hidden target to land a success or failure. My transparency shows players that their characters’ fate rests on their choices and the luck of the die rather than on a DM’s whims.

Revealing DCs also speeds those situations where several players need to make a roll. Instead of forcing each player to report their role to learn an outcome, just announce DC and let them figure the result.

None of this applies when the characters can’t know the difficulty of a task. Don’t reveal DCs for checks…

  • made to gain information using skills like Insight and Perception.
  • involving a non-player character’s state of mind, such as with Persuasion and Deception.
  • where characters know too little to estimate a difficulty.

The rest of the time, try sharing DCs. I think it makes my game better.

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

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

Hitting the to-hit sweet spot

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

Through the evolution of Dungeons & Dragons, the game uses two mechanics to determine an attack’s damage output: to-hit rolls and damage rolls.

In D&D, hitting is fun, while missing feels like a bummer, particularly if you waited a while for your turn. Why not remove misses from the game?  Once characters gain enough hit points to survive a few attacks, D&D could drop to-hit rolls and─with a few adjustments─still work.

Skipping damage rolls

Back in the third-edition era, Jonathan Tweet advised dungeon masters to speed high-level fights by substituting average damage for rolled damage. In fourth edition, first-level characters have enough hit points to make this approach possible at any level. In a The Dungeon Master Experience post, Chris Perkins explains how he uses nearly average damage plus 1d6, added for a bit of flavor.

The Chivalry & Sorcery game (1977) skipped damage rolls, assuming “that the damage inflicted by a particular weapon in the hands of given character will be more or less constant.”

The notion of dropping to-hit rolls may seem strange but here’s the crux: Against high hit points, to-hit rolls just turn into another damage-reduction mechanic. In fourth edition, everyone but minions has fairly high hit points and everyone hits about 60% of the time. The damage dealt in combat would work out about the same if we just assumed everyone always hits and multiplied everyone’s hit points by 1.67.

Of course, your to-hit percentage varies from a set percentage, because armor can make hitting more difficult. How can a system without to hit rolls account for armor class? In my post, “The brilliance of unrealistic hit points,” I explained how hit points in D&D function as an ingenious damage-reduction mechanic. Virtually every tabletop role-playing game that aimed for realism made armor reduce damage. In our hypothetical rules variant, why not use D&D’s damage-reduction mechanic to represent protective armor? Suppose different types of armor multiplied your hit points. Suppose high dexterity increased hit points, giving more ability to “turn deadly strikes into glancing blows,” just like the game says.

Does abandoning to-hit rolls seem crazy? It has been done.

Tunnels & TrollsTunnels and Trolls (1975) stands as the one early system that defied RPG hobby’s early mania for realism. Ken St Andre, T&T’s designer, aimed for greater simplicity. T&T drops the to-hit roll entirely. Combatants simply weigh damage rolls against each other. Like Tunnels & Trolls, most RPG-inspired video games seem to drop anything equivalent to a to-hit roll. The damage simply rises as you click away at your enemy.

Drawbacks of always hitting

While undeniably simpler, and probably about as realistic as D&D, the you-always-hit approach suffers three problems:

  • Especially with ranged attacks, rolling to hit fits real-world experience much closer than assuming a hit and skipping straight to damage. Technically speaking, skipping the to-hit roll feels bogus.
  • The two possible outcomes of a to-hit roll offer more drama than the mostly-average damage roll.
  • The to-hit roll provides intermittent, positive reinforcement to the process of making an attack.

You know all about positive reinforcement. It makes you stay up late chasing one more level when you should be in bed. Reinforcement that randomly rewards a behavior is more powerful than reinforcement that occurs every time. In a casino, the best bet comes from the change machines, which pay 1-for-1 every single time. Intermittent, positive reinforcement drives people to the slot machines. As the Id DM might say, “The variable ratio schedule produces both the highest rate of responding and the greatest resistance to extinction.” In short, hitting on some attacks is more fun than hitting on every attack.

Although D&D uses a d20 roll to hit, the game plays best when the odds of hitting stand closer to a coin flip. At the extremes, the math gets strange. For combatants who almost always hit, bonuses and penalties become insignificant. For combatants looking for a lucky roll, small bonuses can double or triple their chance to hit. Also, the game plays better when your chance of hitting sits around 60%. When your nears 95%, the roll becomes a formality. When your chance dwindles toward 5%, then the to-hit the roll feels like a waste of time, especially because beating the long odds probably still earns minimal damage.

When the chance of hitting stays between, say, 30% and 70%, the game reaps play benefits:

  • The to-hit roll provides intermittent, positive reinforcement to the process of making an attack.
  • Many attacks can hit and inflict damage, providing constant, positive feedback to players while everyone contributes to the fight.

So D&D designers face the challenge of arranging to-hit bonuses and armor classes so to-hit rolls require a result between a 6 and 14, a precious small sweet spot for all the levels, magic, and armor classes encompassed by the game. In practice, designers like to push your chance to hit toward the top of the 30-70% range, because while missing remains part of the game, it’s no fun.

The Palladium Role-Playing Game (1983) recognized the play value of the to-hit roll, but it avoided D&D’s problem of finessing to-hit bonuses and armor classes to reach a sweet spot. The game simply declares that “any [d20] roll above four (5 to 20) hits doing damage to the opponent.” Armor in the game takes damage, effectively serving as an additional pool of hit points.

In upcoming posts, I’ll discuss the very different steps the D&D Next and 4E designers took to find the to-hit sweet spot.

Next: Riding the power curve

The brilliance of unrealistic hit points

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

After the role-playing game hobby’s first 10 years, designers turned from strict realism and began to design rules that both supported a game’s flavor and encouraged its core activities. Runequest‘s realistically lethal combat systemParanoia 1st edition game fit the fearful world of Call of Cthulhu (1981), as did a new sanity system. Paranoia (1984) built in rules that encouraged a core activity of treachery, while giving each character enough clones to avoid hard feelings.

Today, this innovation carries through stronger then ever. Dungeons and Dragons’ fourth-edition designers saw D&D’s fun in dynamic battles and showing off your character’s flashy capabilities, so they optimized rules that heightened that aspect of the game, possibly to the expense of other aspects.

When Dave Arneson mashed rules for ironclads into Chainmail, he probably gave little thought to supporting the D&D play style that would launch a hobby, but he created some brilliant conventions.

Chainmail gameThe best idea was to give characters steadily increasing hit point totals that “reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage─as indicated by constitution bonuses─and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the ‘sixth sense’ which warns the individual of otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.” (Gary wrote this rationale for hit points in the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.)

Every “realistic” system to follow D&D used hit points to measure a character’s body’s physical capacity to survive injury. In D&D, rising hit points work as an elegant damage-reduction mechanic. Using hit points for damage reduction boasts a number of virtues:

  • Combat plays fast because players do not have to calculate reduced damage for every single hit.
  • Although damage is effectively reduced, the reduction never makes a combatant impervious to damage.
  • Once characters gain enough points to survive a few blows, hit points provide a predictable way to see the course of battle. If a fight begins to go badly, the players can see their peril and bring more resources like spells and potions to the fight, or they can run. In a realistic fight, things can go bad in an instant, with a single misstep resulting in death.
  • Most attacks can hit and inflict damage, providing constant, positive feedback to players while everyone contributes to the fight. Realistic combatants do not wear down from dozens of damaging blows; instead each hit is likely to kill or maim. In more realistic systems like Runequest and GURPS, when two very skilled combatants face off, they block or dodge virtually all attacks. The duels turn static until someone muffs a defense roll and lets a killing blow slip through. This model may be realistic─it reminds me of those Olympic competitions where years of training turn on a single, split-second misstep─but the realistic model lacks fun. No popular sports begin as sudden-death competitions where the first to score wins.
  • Battles can gain a dramatic arc. Fights climax with bloodied and battle-worn combatants striving to put their remaining strength into a killing blow. No one likes to see the climactic battle fizzle with a handful of bad rolls, especially at their character’s expense.

Bottom line: Using hit points for damage reduction enables a combat system where you can hit a lot, and hitting is fun.

Critics of inflated hit points still had a point. Using hit points as a damage-reduction mechanic can strain credulity, especially when you cannot explain how a character could reasonably reduce the damage he takes. Why should an unconscious or falling hero be so much more durable than a first-level mook?  Why does cure light wounds completely heal the shopkeeper and barely help a legendary hero? Over the years, we’ve seen attempts to patch these problems. For example, I liked how fourth edition’s healing surge value made healing proportional to hit points, so I’m sorry to see D&D Next turn back to the traditional hierarchy of cure spells.

D&D maintains a deliberate vagueness about the injuries inflicted by a hit. This abstraction makes possible D&D’s brilliant use of hit points as a damage-reduction mechanic. Fourth edition exploits the ambiguity more than ever, making plausible the second wind and the healing power of a warlord’s inspiration. 4E explicitly makes hit points as much a measure of resolve as of skill, luck and physical endurance. Damage apparently exists as enough of an abstraction that even if a hit deals damage, it doesn’t necessarily draw blood.

Even as 4E aims for the loosest possible interpretation of a hit, it makes the hit roll more important than in any prior edition. In 4E, melee hits can inflict crippling effects without saves. Just getting hit automatically subjects you to poison, or paralysis, or whatever. In past editions, if the spider bit or the ghoul clawed, you took the damage, but you still got an immediate save.

In the early days of the RPG hobby, many games attempted to fuse D&D’s fantastic setting with a more realistic model of combat damage. Although a few of these games enjoyed success, none recreated the combat-intensive, dungeon-bashing play style pioneered by D&D. At the time, no one seemed to realize that the clever damage-reduction mechanism built into game enabled the game’s play style.

Video game designers figured it out. Virtually every video game that combines fighting with character improvement features D&D-style rising hit points.

Next: Hitting the to-hit sweet spot