Monday, January 18, 2016

Battle of wills

I keep meaning to expound more on the topics of character classes in my fantasy heartbreaker, and on campaigning with micro-settings, but sometimes a new idea pops into my head that's just too intriguing (to me, at least) to wait.

One thing about the D&D magic system that's always bothered me a little is the standard saving throw.  Unless an effect causes direct harm through hit points of damage, it's usually a starkly binary outcome: Fail the save and the spell has full effect; make the save and the spell has no effect at all.  That means that a spell-caster takes a huge risk in casting a non-damaging spell, especially if it's at a single target, because if the target makes its save, the spell is simply wasted.  And since saving throws depend entirely on the level or HD of the target, and usually not at all on the skill of the caster, even a high-level wizard is hesitant to use a big-ticket spell on a particularly formidable opponent (and at the same time, reluctant to waste potent magic on a low-level pushover.) 

Most of the time, in fantasy fiction, a hero doesn't just fall under a spell instantly, nor does he just shrug it off.  There's almost always a great battle of wills between the hero and the villainous wizard or priest.  Sometimes it's shown as a battle inside the would-be victim's head; others, it's depicted outwardly with alternating shots of hero's and villain's faces grimacing with the tremendous effort of overpowering the other.

Hmm...overpowering.  Thinking of it in those terms reminded me of the grappling system I cooked up for G&G.  It's essentially one character trying to overpower another, except mentally/spiritually/magically rather than physically.

Here's the idea:

Whether the saving throw is made or failed, unless with a natural 20 or 1, respectively, a spell can result in a battle of wills between caster and target. 

If a save is failed, then the target may continue to resist, and if the save is made, the caster can continue to force the spell on the target.  The "loser" of the initial save must overpower the winner for a number of rounds equal to the difference between the number needed to save and the actual result of the roll. 

For instance, if Monfort the magician casts a charm spell at Wilfred the warrior, and Wilfred needs a 12 to save but rolls a 9, Wilfred may still fend off the charm if he can resist Monfort for three rounds in a battle of wills.  If Wilfred made his save with a 16, Monfort could still force the effect into Wilfred's mind by overpowering him four rounds in a row.

Each rolls 1d6.  The caster adds the adjustment for his or her Presence ability score (Charisma for standard D&D) and half his or her level of experience.  The target adds its adjustment for Wit (use Int or Wis in D&D) and either its level (for spell casters) or half its level (for non-spell-casters, rounded down.)  High total wins.

If you like, use the target's Might (Strength or Constitution) for spells which affect the physical body, like polymorphs.   For monsters, use half the creature's Hit Dice plus whatever adjustment you deem suitable for its mental strength, or just its full HD for body-affecting spells. 

Also if you like, the target may take damage when losing a roll, either psychic/subdual damage or real physical damage, depending on the nature of the spell, at a rate of 1 point per point of difference in the magical overpowering rolls. 

During each round of struggle, the caster and the target are limited in their actions.  The caster must maintain concentration, may move at only half speed, and cannot attack or cast other spells.  The target may move at half speed and engage in combat if it wins the round's overpowering roll, but at a -4 penalty to its combat rolls (or attack rolls, for D&D.)  The caster may abandon the spell at any time.  The target may likewise give in and allow the spell to take effect, which is a viable option if damage is inflicted on a failed roll. 

If the caster's concentration is disturbed, such as by an attacker making a successful combat roll, the target automatically wins the round.  If the caster is targeted by another spell, he or she may abandoned the overpowering attempt to defend against the other spell, or may maintain it while defending, but adding only half level to the 1d6 rolls.

This is all sort of hastily cobbled together, so of course feel free to point out fatal flaws or suggest tweaks or revisions.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. If I'm part of a party outnumbering a spellcasting foe, I should always try to throw off the spell no matter how badly I fail the saving throw, because the wizard either concentrates on me to the point that my peers can gank him easily, or gives up on the spell even though it "would" have succeeded under the old rules.

    By the same token, if I'm an evil wizard with a bunch of henchguards, I might consider throwing a spell at the strongest enemy, and then contest their save for as long as necessary for my allies to take down the rest of the party with its core member distracted.

  3. Same question here, it seems like it almost favors the warrior to roll low if they really want to avoid having the spell go into effect. It gives them more time for their allies to go stick a sword in the wizard.

    I very much like the gist behind the idea, magic in D&D as it stands very much pushes spellcasters into damage mode because any other spells are just too risky for combat use when they can cost so much action economy to go poof.

    What about allowing the wizard to continue to try to assert the spell by concentrating, but the spell's DC drops 1 point per round while the duration keeps ticking down (or maybe even halving each time?). The spellcaster can then still get something out of a spell, while the defender gets time to go punch the wizard in the face or at least gets reduced effect for having resisted the effect initially.

  4. Either I didn't explain my intent very clearly, or there's still a hole in my scheme. Let me know if this addresses the issue(s) in your estimation:

    The number of rounds the contest can go on is capped at the number by which the save was made or failed. Also, the person "losing" the initial save must win all the contested rolls after that. So as soon as the guy who failed the save blows a contested d6 roll, the spell takes effect, and as soon as the caster loses a roll against the guy who made his save, the spell is shrugged off. So the struggle can't be prolonged as long as one side might wish for tactical reasons.

    Rather than granting some bonus to the rolls for the margin by which the save was made or failed, I'm relying on the fact that the initial loser must win ALL the rounds of struggle after that, so the margin of success or failure does drastically affect the odds of prevailing.

    Anyway, I think it may be time to bust out the virtual dice and run a few simulations to see how well my assumptions bear up.

    1. Oddly enough, instead of being too much of a game-changer, so far it's looking like a lot of dice rolling for very little difference in outcomes. Out of 20 test-runs, only once has it reversed the outcome of the saving throw, and only a couple times has it extended the struggle beyond the first round.

      I'll give it a few more test runs, but it hasn't impressed me yet.

  5. Respectfully, I think you have the mechanism exactly backwards:

    * Roll the Contest first.
    * If the PC is resisting and wins, Saving isn't required for X turns. Both are half-move, or whatever Concentrating dictates.
    * If the PC is casting and wins, the target is penalized on their save.

    If the PC loses, I wouldn't exacerbate it.

    1. That's an excellent idea! Time to run some more dice simulations and see how it works out when it's not backward. Thanks!