Thursday, January 31, 2013

Brawn vs. grace


One of the peculiarities of old versions of D&D (I can't speak at all of the new ones, as I'm barely familiar with them) and similar games is the very high relevance of the Strength ability score to melee combat.  In fact, as I'll demonstrate shortly, a high Strength score is much better than an average one, and even superior to an equally high Dexterity in melee combat.

Fantasy fiction thrives on tropes like the immensely strong warrior who defeats his opponents by dealing mighty crushing blows.  But there is also the equally popular archetype of the quick and wily fighter, the swashbuckling swordsman or Robin Hood-type who, physically fit though he may be, is never depicted lifting wagons in a military press or tearing ironbound doors from their hinges with his bare hands.  Instead he overwhelms his foes with quickness, grace, nimble footwork, and skillful swordplay.  Quite often in fiction, in fact, this type of hero is portrayed as the superior combatant, though he may be painted initially as the underdog for dramatic purposes.

In D&D, it's the musclebound basher who is the odds-on favorite.  This stems from a simple quirk of the rules:  Strength adjustments apply both to the attack roll and the damage caused.  Dexterity applies only to AC.  It affects the opponent's attack rolls negatively, but does nothing else, either offensive or defensive.

First, let's take the case of a strong fighter vs. one of equal experience but only ordinary brawn.  We'll give them both AC5 mail and standard 1d8 swords.  The first one has an outstanding, but not superhuman, Strength of 16, for a +2 bonus to hit and damage, while his opponent has a perfectly respectable score of 12 which grants him no bonuses.

The base number needed to hit for either man is 14, but Brawny Bob's great Strength drops that to a 12.  He hits Average Joe 9 times in 20, or 45%.  Joe hits him 7 times in 20, or 35%.  When Bob hits Joe, he does an average of 6.5 points of damage - that's the 4.5 average of a 1d8 roll plus his bonus of 2 points.  Joe does only the sword's base 1d8 damage, averaging 4.5 points per successful attack.  Joe's average damage output per combat round overall, factoring in both hits and misses, is 35% times 4.5 points, or 1.575 points per round.  Brawny Bob, meanwhile, is dishing out 45% times 6.5 points, or 2.925 per round.  That's just a bit less than double what Joe can do.

Here's the spread for damage per round for each level of Strength, to complete the picture:
(Assume target is AC5, and attacker is wielding a standard 1d8-damage sword and using the 1st level line of the attack roll tables, with THAC0=19.  Remember also, penalties cannot adjust damage below 1 point; thus the wonky averages per hit for low Strength scores.  All results are rounded to the nearest thousandth.)

Str 3        -3 penalty   Hits 4 in 20 (20%)    Avg. damage per hit 2.25     Avg. per round 0.450
Str 4-5     -2 penalty   Hits 5 in 20 (25%)    Avg. damage per hit 2.875   Avg. per round 0.719
Str 6-8     -1 penalty   Hits 6 in 20 (30%)    Avg. damage per hit 3.625   Avg. per round 1.089
Str 9-12          0          Hits 7 in 20 (35%)    Avg. damage per hit 4.5       Avg. per round 1.575
Str 13-15  +1 bonus   Hits 8 in 20 (40%)    Avg. damage per hit 5.5       Avg. per round 2.200
Str 16-17  +2 bonus   Hits 9 in 20 (45%)    Avg. damage per hit 6.5       Avg. per round 2.925
Str 18       +3 bonus   Hits 10 in 20 (50%)  Avg. damage per hit 7.5       Avg. per round 3.750

As is clearly demonstrated here, an 18 Strength is not just a nice perk for a fighter; it's a monstrous advantage.  The guy with the 18 is dishing out, on average, 238% of what a person of ordinary might can do.  He's dealing out 170% of the punishment that a 15-Strength fighter - clearly no weakling himself - can manage.

Of course, there's sound reasoning behind both applications of the Strength adjustment; my question is whether the reason for applying them both at once is as sound.  The logic behind the damage adjustment is pretty obvious - the more muscle power you put behind your swing, the harder it hits, and the more it hurts.  The reasoning for the attack bonus isn't hard to grasp either - more force helps to penetrate armor.  The problem is that, applying the bonus both ways actually compounds it, and the result is essentially just a bigger bonus to damage per round.

Without a damage bonus, each bonus to the attack roll equals an additional 0.225 points of damage per round, on average - just under a quarter of a point.  This rate is constant within the limits of the d20 attack roll, assuming a minimum chance to hit of 1 in 20 and a maximum of 19 in 20; as long as a 1d8 damage weapon is used, each +1 to hit works out to 0.225 points of damage per round on average.  If only a natural 20 hits, a fighter with Str 10 and a sword averages 0.225 points of damage per round, and one who only misses on a natural 1 averages 4.275 points per round. 

Without a bonus to hit, each +1 bonus to the damage roll increases average damage per round by 0.35 points, or a little more than a third of a point (for a 1st level fighter attacking AC5.)  Moreover, the greater the chance of scoring a hit, whether due to a better base THAC0 of the attacker or a poorer AC of the defender, the more the average damage bonus per round per point of Strength bonus increases.  Whatever the attacker's chance to hit is, expressed as a decimal, that's the increase to its average damage output per round per point of Strength bonus.  A fighter who hits 50% of the time adds 0.5 points average per round with a +1 bonus, a full point per round for a +2 Str bonus, and 1.5 points per round for a +3 Str bonus.

That's a lot of math, and I wouldn't blame you if you skimmed or skipped it.  The upshot of all this is that, while there are some significant differences in how they play out mathematically, both attack roll bonuses and direct damage bonuses increase the characters potential for damage per round.  This means that the Strength bonus applied both ways is a double-dip advantage. 

Now, just for fun, let's imagine an ultimate championship fight between two 3rd level fighters: Mongo the Mauler, a muscular bruiser of 18 Strength, and Nimble Norman, fencing master with a Dexterity of 18.  Once again, we'll assume that both are clad in AC 5 mail.  Norman's adjusted AC is 2, his damage per hit is 4.5 points with a normal sword, and he needs a roll of 14 or better to hit Mongo.  On average, he dishes out 1.575 points of damage per round.  Mongo also needs a roll of 14 to hit Norman, because his +3 bonus from Strength completely cancels out Norman's -3 AC bonus from his amazing Dexterity.  However, his mighty blows deliver 7.5 points of damage per hit, or an average of 2.625 per round.   Mongo is clearly the favorite in this fight, dishing out the punishment at approximately 167% of the rate at which Norman can give it back to him.

Of course, combat is just about the swingiest (no pun intended, though in hindsight perhaps it should have been) part of D&D, and so those averages are averages of a very wide range of possible outcomes. Mongo's big theoretical advantage in average damage per round could very easily not pan out for him if only a few attack rolls don't go his way.

I'm curious, though, how removing the attack roll bonus from Strength, and retaining only the damage bonus, would affect things.  Revisiting Mongo and Norman's match-up, Norman's average damage per round doesn't change.  He still averages 1.575 points of damage per round.  However, without Mongo's Strength attack bonus canceling out Norman's enhanced skills of evasion, Mongo needs a 17 to hit, and his average damage per round drops to 1.5.  Advantage, Norman!  Not by much, mind you, but it's a significant turnaround from the large advantage Mongo enjoyed when he got to apply his Strength bonus twice. 

Despite the fairly even damage per round averages, there are still significant differences.  Norman will hit more often, so on any given round he's more likely to inflict some damage.  Mongo misses more, but when he does hit, he makes it count in a bigger way.  Since attack rolls are far more swingy than damage rolls, Mongo stands to gain or lose more from the luck of the dice.  He could put a quick end to the ruckus with a couple fortuitous attack rolls coupled with his heavily augmented damage dice, or he could have a frustrating time as Norman methodically nickel-and-dimes him to death in a drawn-out battle.  As it turns out, this is actually a pretty good representation of what I'd expect a fight between a masher and a speedster to look like.

Is it worth changing a long-standing rule of D&D for what might amount to a minor impact in the game?  Are these ruminations anything more than rank pedantry?  I really don't know.  It was just on my mind, so I decided to crunch some numbers.  Make of them whatever you will.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

They're back!

My two favorite D&D-themed web comics, that is.  This may be old news, but in case you're one who gets discouraged checking for updates after a long stretch of nothing new, you might be interested to know. 

A big thumbs-up (irony intended) for Order of the Stick which has posted a couple new strips recently.  Rich Burlew's maimed thumb seems to have recovered sufficiently for at least the occasional update, and hopefully for both him and the fans who've missed his wit, that trend continues. 

My other favorite, Marvin the Mage, had been stalled seemingly forever on issue 41 for reasons unknown.  It looks like he's got a new gig with Gygax magazine now, and two new strips.  The graphic on the page says "Also appearing in Gygax magazine," as in additionally rather than exclusively, so it looks like those of us who've been following him on the web won't be left out in the cold. 

That's it for this post.  Just wanted to spread the word, in case there's some remote corner of Internet Game Geek Land where the news has not yet reached, and to proclaim my own elation at their long-awaited return.

Monday, January 28, 2013

REALLY missing the mark

As you may or may not have noticed, I've been out of the blogging loop for a few weeks.  As is its frustrating tendency, real life intrudes, and I've barely had even a stray thought about gaming during that time.  (In case you're curious, the real life intrusion was the sort of anxiety breakdown that might afflict a Charisma 7 social phobic introvert with ADD tendencies who works a customer service-intensive retail job.)  But I'm better now, mostly, I think.  At least, I'm having ideas about D&D again, and the focus to write about them.  Without further ado, here's one of them...

Everybody's familiar with the idea of critical hits and misses - the notion that rolling a natural 20 or a natural 1 produces some special result beyond just a garden-variety hit or miss.  The usual method of handling critical hits is to allow for extra damage.  Sometimes (probably most commonly) it's as simple as doubling the normal damage roll, or it can kick things over to an extra roll on a table of gruesome results which can be as complicated as players and GM are willing to endure for the sake of some vividly descriptive splatter effects. 

But I'm not here to talk about the awesome effects of critical hits.  I want to talk about the fumbles, the bumbles, the airballs of RPG combat.  Doing some extra damage is just fine for a well-placed hit, but what do you do for a critical miss?  There's the dropped weapon, the broken bowstring, some unspecified mishap that causes the character to forfeit his next round of actions, but those get old fast, even if they do only happen once in 20 attacks.  I'm pretty sure I've seen critical miss tables out there too, but I really don't like rolling on extra tables.

The last couple game sessions, I had been using a rule that when an attacker misses with a natural 1, it must save vs. paralysis or drop its weapon.  My new idea, inspired by the Simple Combat Maneuvers rule from Telecanter's most excellent document, is this:  Let the player decide what happens when an opponent attacks the PC and fumbles.

Melee combat is all about trying to outmaneuver your opponent.  Sure, a natural 1 could just be bad luck or clumsiness solely on the part of the attacker, but it's even more likely to be a blunder made under pressure from the opponent.  How often do you think a skilled basketball player dribbles the ball off his foot when he's not under pressure from a defensive player?  How often does a quarterback miss his receiver by a country mile when he's playing a leisurely game of catch, without a 300-pound dude bearing down on him like a freight train?

So, why not give the player some say-so as to what sort of blunder he's maneuvered his opponent into making?

How severe the effect of a critical miss might be depends on the lethality of your game, but in general, minor but colorful is probably a good default assumption.  The opponent might lose a round of actions, or be forced into a less advantageous position, or just humiliated or embarrassed.  Remember that the player doesn't get to decide the ultimate effects, only the immediate effect of the fumble, so you're well within your rights to set the game mechanical effects at whatever level is comfortable.  It doesn't hurt to remind the players that you'll be using similar tricks against them when their d20s come up 1s too.

Some examples of possible player suggestions, and how I'd handle them:

"I duck just in time, and he sticks his sword in the tree behind me."  I'd require a Strength check to wrench the weapon free again, taking one or more rounds.  Or the attacker can draw another weapon and just lose initiative next round while leaving his blade quivering in the bark.

"I lurch aside, and she lunges too hard, resulting in a Wardrobe Malfunction of her chainmail bikini top."  Well, that's just good comedy.  Depending on the personality of the unfortunate warrior maiden, she might just keep fighting and no further special effect occurs, she might withdraw to cover herself, or she might explode in rage at the PC.

"He misses me and hits the rope that holds up the chandelier."  If it's an edged weapon, I can't think of any good reason for that rope not to be cut, and that chandelier to come crashing down in epic fashion.

"He swings wide, and I take the opportunity to pull his visor over his eyes with my off hand."  The opponent spends a round blinded while he fixes his visor.

 "As the gelatinous cube comes at me, I dodge, and it suctions itself to the wall."  The cube can't move for a round, until it pulls itself free, but it could still attack anyone already in melee range.

"The golem punches the shelf full of alchemy jars."  Holy hell, is this ever going to be fun, and I will love this player forever!

"The ogre swings and I duck under and past him, so now he's the one next to the edge of the cliff."  That certainly puts the ogre in a compromising position, should the PCs find a way to exploit it next round.

"The goblin whacks himself in the knee with his mace and hops around in pain."  The goblin loses a round.  I'd allow this to succeed automatically, because the consequences are both amusing and limited in scope.  Compare to...

"The goblin hits himself (or an ally) with his mace!"  I wouldn't make this automatically successful.  Instead, the goblin makes a second attack roll against himself or the ally, and if it misses, no further effect occurs...unless I decide that the ally in question reacts very badly to being an inadvertent target of friendly fire, even if it doesn't hit.

"The orc king misses me and bashes his sword into the stone wall!"  I'd have the orc roll damage, and if he rolls high (meaning he hit the wrong thing and hit it HARD) his sword breaks.

"He trips on that ridiculous beard and falls on his face."  The opponent falls prone, and spends a round getting up.

My rules of thumb:

The proposed result must at least have an air of plausibility.  (No cutting ropes with a club, no elaborate Rube Goldberg effects, etc.)  This condition must be met before any further consideration.

If the effect is colorful or amusing, but has no game mechanical effects, allow it!

If it causes a loss of one round of actions or similar inconvenience, allow it.

If it chews up the scenery in some way that is entertaining and/or injects some chaos into the battle, allow it.

If it results in a shift in positions of relative advantage and disadvantage, allow it.

If it would cause damage roughly the equivalent of a normal attack or less, allow a possibility.  That could mean an attack roll, saving throw, or some other check; if this goes in the victim's favor, no effects are suffered.

The more aggressive and daring the attack that fumbles, the more consequential the results can be without requiring a check.  If a fighter rushes an opponent standing in front of a window with intent to push him out, and rolls a 1, I'd have no problem allowing the opponent to say, "I duck and he rolls off my back and out the window himself."  If two combatants are fighting on a narrow ledge over a chasm, and one of them fumbles, the other could perfectly reasonably say that the attacker dropped his sword and I'd allow a pretty good chance that it falls into the abyss.

Allow a reasonable amount of time for the player to think of something, but no more.  If no suggestion is forthcoming in five or ten seconds, the attack just whiffed.

That's pretty much it.  You allow the players to exercise their imaginations and exert a little creative control over the dramatic flourishes of the battle, while avoiding falling back on a small set of bland results or referring to tables, and tailoring the results to the unique scene and situation far better and more interestingly than any pregenerated list ever could. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Pondering "plus" paradigm of magic weapons

One of the first things in D&D with which players and DMs become jaded, I think, is the "plus something" model of magical weapons.  At least, that was and is true for me. 

The whole "plus something" weapon mechanic smacks strongly of what I've come via the OSR to understand as an effect-first mechanic.  It exists not to model any particular fictional power of a weapon, but to grant bonuses to attack and damage rolls.  While that does allow DMs and gaming groups to decide for themselves in post-hoc fashion what exactly those bonuses represent, that's addressed barely or not at all in the rule sets with which I'm familiar.  Moreover, any +1 weapon is as good as any other +1 weapon of the same type, regardless of the "fluff" any particular DM or setting attaches to it. 

The "plus something" model also contributes to inflation of the power curve and the devaluation of magical weapons in general.  You stick a +1 sword in the dungeon, and the party finds it.  That +1 to hit and damage seems pretty trivial right now, but remember that it applies to pretty much every opponent the sword's wielder might face.  It's universally effective.  There's little or no reason why anyone might want to use a different magical weapon based on in-game circumstances.  So where do you go from there when you roll up the next treasure hoard with a magical weapon?  Once everyone in the party who can use one has a +1 sword, any further one you might place is just redundant, and you either have to allow them to sell it or make excuses why they can't and have them accumulate closets full of weapons for which they have no practical use.  ("Another sword +1?  Just put it with the others.")  One solution is simply to be very, very stingy with magical weapons, but unless there are cool non-magical things on which to spend loot with purely monetary value, a dearth of magic makes finding a hoard of treasure a ho-hum experience.  Or, you could grit your teeth and start placing +2 swords...

Sure, there are other powers to add to weapons, especially in the Expert Set and onward.  They certainly add some welcome variety, but in the rules as written they're always applied to a platform of plus-something.  You don't just have a sword that flames or extinguishes flames, you have a sword +1 of flaming or a sword +2 of extinguishing.  In other words, it's just more power creep as powers are stacked on top of bonuses. 

Instead of starting with an assumption of pluses to hit and damage, what if we started with none at all?  Attack and damage bonuses wouldn't have to be done away with entirely; they simply would not be present in every magical weapon by default, nor would an attack bonus and a damage bonus necessarily be present in the same weapon.  Attack bonuses, damage bonuses, and other mechanical effects can then be applied to weapons based on a meaning-first construction.

For example:

Hero weapons:  Formerly wielded by great heroes (or villains), these weapons have absorbed some of their wielder's combat prowess.  When used by a new wielder, this knowledge is imparted subconsciously - he finds himself able to anticipate his opponent's moves and counter them with techniques of a more seasoned warrior, conferring a bonus of +1 to +3 to attack rolls.

Rune weapons: Inscribed with the runic true-names of particular species or types, which hold power over those creatures, these weapons deal +1 to +3 damage against the appropriate creature type only.  A dragonbane sword does extra damage against dragons, while one inscribed with the rune for ogres does extra damage against them.  The runes can be deciphered, and thus the weapon's properties deduced, with a read magic spell.

Flaming:  The blade or striking surface of the weapon will burst into flames (possibly strangely or spectacularly colored) on command or when a specific condition is met (i.e. the sun is out or undead are near.)  The flame causes extra damage (either +1 to +3, or double, or roll twice take highest) to creatures notably vulnerable to fire, like yetis and white dragons.  It may also ignite flammable materials (10% chance per hit in combat).

Holy:  The weapon can strike unholy and blasphemous creatures, such as undead, which are immune to normal weapons.  

Wolf-bane: Made of enchanted silver with the durability of steel, and capable of  harming any creature that can be harmed by ordinary silvered weapons.  Especially appropriate if ordinary silver weapons in the campaign are subject to damage or wear

Enemy detection:  When hostile creatures are near, the weapon emits a glow or vibration, the intensity of which is proportional to either the magnitude of the threat or the proximity of the enemies.  May also be a feature of rune weapons, indicating the presence of its target creatures.  The swords in Tolkien's Middle-earth which glow when orcs are near are a good example.

Bound spirit:  The weapon holds a bound spirit of some sort, such as a demon, angel, ghost, or elemental.  Powers conferred on the weapon could be nearly anything, and the bound spirit may exert influence or control over the wielder, either subconsciously if the spirit is dormant or non-sapient, or consciously in the manner of an intelligent sword.

All sorts of other effects are possible, of course, greater and lesser, combat and non-combat.  Light, invisibility, energy drain or defense against it, charm, detections of various things, stunning, paralyzing, poison, fear, and more are all viable, useful, and interesting powers for weapons.  There's no reason at all that these couldn't stand on their own, without the need for an underlying plus-something bonus.  Rather, they should be on equal terms with attack bonuses and damage bonuses, with none considered "must have" or essential to the very concept of magical arms.  In doing so, the potential for variety is expanded, and the potential for power creep is lessened.  A "hero" sword with +1 to hit is distinct from a "rune" sword with a +1 damage against orcs or a flaming sword with no pluses at all, without any being objectively and universally "better."

It might be worthwhile to cobble together an alternative magic weapons random table using this philosophy.  Is there any interest in such a thing?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

New spell

Spiritual Hammer

Cleric, Level 4
Range: 0 (Caster only)
Duration: See below

While this spell is in effect, all creatures living, undead, or artificial are unable to make physical contact with the caster. 

The spell lasts as long as the caster continues to chant, "Can't touch this!" and perform the requisite somatic gyrations. 

(I know I probably should have saved this for April 1st, but that's SOOOOO far away...)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Fantastic small wildlife

Fantasy roleplaying games are rife with fantastic hybrids and magical creatures.  It's probably to be expected, since danger and risk are such critical parts of such a game, but virtually all of the fantastic creatures you find in the typical RPG dungeon or wilderness are of the huge, monstrous, and at least potentially aggressive variety.  I've wondered at times, though, why the gods and wizards of fantasy worlds would limit their creations to big scary things.  Yes, wizards often want powerful creatures for pets and guardians, and deities create monsters to inspire followers and frighten the faithless.  Surely, though, in the long history of the average fantasy world, there would have been inquisitive but peaceful wizards whose interests in magical breeding and hybridizing were a bit broader than making owlbears to terrorize the non-magical populace.

Even among "normal" creatures, the ones that get statted up in RPGs are the ones that pose a clear and present danger to humans - the lions and tigers and bears (oh my!)  A trek through a real world cave, ruin, or wilderness, however, would feature a lot more little harmless things - rabbits, songbirds, mice, lizards, frogs, garter snakes, squirrels. It's understandable that harmless creatures get short shrift in the RPG rulebooks.  Stats are rarely or never necessary for them, but that doesn't mean they should never appear in-game.  Just like terrain, vegetation, weather, and any other element of scene and setting, used well, harmless creatures add charm, atmosphere, and depth.  And just as a setting can benefit from fantastic scene dressing, like talking statues, glowing pools, and shrieking mushrooms, it can benefit from the addition of a few fantastic but harmless creatures, too.

As I mentioned above, I've pondered this topic from time to time.  A link to a page called Hex001, posted on Google Plus by Tim Shorts of Gothridge Manor, brought it back to my mind today.  Included in this one-hex setting is a flying cat.  Not a lion or a tiger, but an otherwise ordinary tabby with wings.  True, it is given a stat line, but as a combatant it's pretty negligible.  It's pretty much completely unable to threaten even a normal human, let alone a party of adventurers, and it can't do much for them in battle either.  As a bit of campaign flavor, it's delightful.  Where did it come from, and why does it exist?  Is it the only one of its kind, or are there more out there somewhere?  What is its niche in that one-hex mini-environment - does it swoop like a hawk to catch mice below, or does it chase birds on the wing?  And what a cool mascot for the party lucky enough to befriend it!

My own initial inspiration, years ago, came from a little wooden ornament of a winged frog.  Imagine a quiet pond in a remote valley inhabited by tree frogs with white feathery wings, flitting through the air in pursuit of flies.  They're too small and fragile to fly over the icy peaks around the valley and escape into the wider world, but the druid who also calls the valley home sees that they are protected. 

Fantastic harmless critters might be limited edition creations of a wizard, god, or spirit.  They might be isolated sub-species, whether of natural or magical origin, as in the example of the frog pond above.  They could be legendary, thought either to have died out or to be entirely mythical.  Or they could be common and widespread in the campaign world, much like griffons, owlbears, and wyverns are considered to be in many settings.

The possibilities are limited only by imagination.  You could easily have tortoises with bright plumage like tropical birds, or rodents with tortoise shells on their backs, lizards with retractable eyestalks, duck-billed pygmy deer that forage in muck, sheep with blue fleece, rabbits with ram horns, blind flightless birds that skitter about the floors of dungeons like mice, long-necked toads, water squirrels with sleek oiled coats and webbed toes, aquatic lemurs with fish tails (some evolutionary offshoot of the merfolk line?), carnivorous snails that spin sticky webs of their slime, furry snakes, rats with antlers, chickmice (hybrids with the heads of chickadees and bodies of mice, diminutive seed-eating cousins to the owlbear), little chimerae with the bodies of raccoons and heads of raccoon, rabbit, and lizard...