Saturday, February 9, 2013

I like hit points

There, I said it.  I like the concept of hit points as a measure of a character or monster's survivability, at least within the context of a game primarily focused on dungeon or wilderness crawls.

I've realized that I don't really care exactly what they represent, either.  Gamers agonize over it to the point of absurdity, but it's enough for me to know that they're just some unspecified amalgam of a creature's physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual vitality that keeps it going, and when they run out, either its body or spirit or both are too broken to go on, and it dies. 

Yes, I know hit points aren't "realistic."  That's not the point, either.  Hit points make the vitality of each character, and the party as a whole, a resource to be carefully managed.  In the real world, the greatest fighter who ever lived could theoretically be taken out by a stray arrow, a fall from a spooked horse, or a lucky stab from some grubby peasant with a kitchen knife.  In the real world, warriors seldom just accrue nickel-and-dime wounds until they run out of health and keel over.  One could enter a battle fresh as a daisy, and get cut down in the first clash.  Personally, that's not what I want from D&D.

One of the most important functions of hit points in the game is to act as a buffer against the radical uncertainty of the dice, and enable a certain level of planning and strategizing that makes an adventure work as a continuous long haul rather than as a series of vignettes.  In D&D, you go into battle with a pretty good idea of how much punishment you can take.  You know with a fair degree of certainty whether, and for roughly how long, you can stand against a given opponent before you'll be in real danger.  You know that if you have 18 hit points, you can last at least a few rounds against a couple of orcs, even if they get really lucky.  That's the way it's supposed to be, because one of the major strategic elements of the game is Resource Management.  You pick and choose your battles based not only on whether you think you can win, and what you stand to gain, but on how much it's going to cost you.  Especially at mid and high levels, there's little chance of a character's dying in any single fight in an adventure.  Instead, the entire adventure is a battle of attrition that will claim the lives of characters who squander their resources imprudently.  Of course the adventure may be punctuated with intense moments of great danger, and instances where a single bad decision can mean instant death, but the very term "crawl" (as in "dungeon crawl" or "hex crawl") strongly suggests that the bulk of it is of less intensity and more strategy.

This is Combat as War.  Hit points lend themselves well to Combat as War, precisely because of the resource management aspect, and their highly abstract nature.  Damage subsumes not just wounds, but all the fatigue, trauma, discomfort, and deprivation of dungeon-delving and wilderness exploration.  The fact that actual points of damage are usually accrued only through combat and traps is merely a point of convenience; combat and trap damage is usually a decent proxy for how much of a beating the PCs are taking from all the miscellaneous rigors of adventuring.  You can judge roughly how hard a time the party has had overall by how well it has fared in the various combat encounters it has had to face.   

Sure, you absolutely can construct a more specific and realistic system for dealing out combat injuries and do away with most of the abstraction of hit points.  Every attack could have some chance of killing a character outright, or inflicting some particular would to some particular body part for some particular effect or hindrance.  What you end up with is something which is much more radically uncertain than traditional hp-based combat. 

Perhaps a more abstract analogy would make the distinction clearer.  Imagine two different games of chance, each involving the rolling of a single ordinary six-sided die.  In the first game, you have ten tokens and the house has only five.  Each time you roll the die, you lose one token if you roll 3 or less, and the house loses one if you roll 4 or higher.  You're twice as likely to wipe out the house as you are to go broke.  It's still possible you could lose everything, but it's not going to happen all at once, out of the blue.  If you get a couple unlucky rolls in a row and start feeling anxious, you can cut your losses and walk away.

In the other game, you and the house both have one token.  Each time you roll the die, if you roll a 5 or 6, you take the house's token.  If you roll a 1, it takes yours.  The odds look similar, at least at a glance.  You're about twice as likely to defeat the house as the house is to defeat you, (anybody with more expertise in statistics or probabilities, feel free to verify or debunk that quick and dirty assessment,) but the perceived risk is higher.  There's a lot more riding on each roll of the die, and you could be wiped out all at once.  Whether or not you roll again or walk away is based entirely on intuition or blind confidence, because the first round that produces a definite result ends the game.

In RPG combat, things aren't quite that simple, of course, but a game with hit point-based damage tends toward the former example, and a game with a "realistic" system of severe wounds and possible instant death tends toward the latter. 

Additionally, with non-hp tracking of injuries, unless you add on some other system to track the cumulative effects of fatigue, minor cuts and bruises, discomfort and all that, what you have is a game in which each fight is much more a free-standing mini-scenario of its own, and much less an integral part of a whole adventure.  Such a system treats a fighter who's been tramping through a dungeon all day and fought a dozen battles as essentially equal to one who has just woken up from a peaceful sleep in his comfortable bed, so long as their hides are intact and their bones unbroken.  In other words, as long as no serious wounds have been taken, the party enters each fight basically fresh.  I'm sure it's possible to design a system that would track a character's "energy" level separately from his significant physical injuries, and apply effects of high or low energy level to his combat ability and odds of being killed by the next attack against him, but I can't imagine it being anything other than a total logistical nightmare to run at the game table.

This isn't to say that a game with a more realistic system of combat injuries couldn't be as much fun as hp-based D&D, but it's a radical game changer.

Of course there are instances where hit points are a poor fit, too.  Some styles of gaming are just made for the swingier, more radically uncertain approach like the second dice game above.  A game of vignette-type encounters, in which the action cuts from scene to scene instead of crawling from room to room, probably demands that kind of uncertainty to be really exciting.  I can imagine few things more boring than a series of almost certain victories in stand-alone fights. 

I've also completely made peace with the idea of hit points increasing with levels.  It's just part of becoming a seasoned adventurer, and represents not only increased combat ability, but general toughness and tolerance for the rigors of an adventuring life.  It's an amalgamation of factors - part skill, part savvy, part plain old will to persevere, and all the host of intangibles that separate the novice from the professional and the merely good from the truly exceptional.  Sure, you could break it down, and try to tease out all the important elements, tracking and applying them individually - but why?  Unless it produces a hell of a lot of interesting choices and situations for the players, it's a waste of time and mental effort.  Sure, there are other ways of representing improving skill and experience, but hit points are a perfectly good fit for a game focusing on exploration, resource management, and Combat as War.

And besides, there are ways to inject a little more uncertainty into a hp system, without too badly diluting its virtue as a resource management element.  Optional mechanics such as exploding damage dice and critical hits allow for the occasional unexpectedly lucky hit, and bolt onto the hp chassis quite nicely.  "Death and dismemberment" tables (to be used either in the event of critical hits or dropping to zero hit points) provide the possibility of gruesome injuries, and again work just fine superimposed over a hit point system. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

There are games, and then there are roleplaying games

This is another one of those topics that's been bouncing around inside my skull for a while, but which seemed so...something...(Pedantic? Navel-gazing?  Pointless?  Already discussed to the point of futility on some gaming forum long before I took up interest in gaming again?)  Anyway, as I was saying, to be completely unworthy of wasting my time to post, or yours to read.  Well, screw it.  I'm posting it.  Whether you want to read it through is your call.

It seems to me that for the most part, people don't expect non-roleplaying games to "make sense," except in the most superficial and abstract of ways.  The rules are the rules, and that's that.  Nobody questions why a hand of 21 in blackjack wins but 22 is an automatic loser.  Nobody objects that Monopoly bears no resemblance to capitalism or real estate markets other than some loose terminology.  Why does the knight in chess move in an L-shaped pattern?  It just does, and nobody bats an eye.  Nobody ever asked why you would walk right past a ladder without climbing it, and then slide down the chute two spaces farther on, just because a throw of the dice said so.

If official rules are omitted, it's not because it's not realistic or because it's unbalanced, but because the rule is too tedious to remember or apply, or bogs down the game, or just generally doesn't contribute to the fun at all.  I don't ever remember using the official challenge rule in Scrabble; if somebody thought something wasn't a word, we'd look it up in the dictionary.  If it was there, it stood, and if it wasn't, the player took back his tiles and played something else.  I know there were obscure rules in Monopoly that we never applied.  As for chess, I never had much interest in learning the rules in the first place.  I just stuck with the much simpler game of checkers.

That was the attitude with which I began to read my first copy of Moldvay Basic too, because that was how I thought of games in general.  For the most part that was the attitude with which I actually ran the game during those first formative months.  It didn't matter to me WHY magic-users couldn't wear armor, or WHY clerics didn't get a spell at first level, or WHY movement rates were what they were.  Those were just the rules of the game.  The only thing in the rulebook that really struck me strange was the bit about fudging dice rolls at the DM's whim - for example, if a character with 3 hp is struck by a monster wielding a 1d8 sword, you just announce 2 points of damage and the game proceeds.  (Side note: I think that bit of advice was a poor one, and to the extent that my games of old eventually descended into PC-coddling, railroading, and Monty Haul-ism, this was at the root of it.)

Just like in Scrabble or Monopoly, we didn't embrace every rule in the book.  I mostly handwaved stuff that just bogged down the proceedings, at least in my view at the time.  Encumbrance was a load (heh) so we ignored it - everybody had a movement rate of 120' (40') and whatever treasure they found they could cram into their packs and carry away.  The Caller rule seemed to be a needless procedural thing rather than a rule that really affected play (sort of like the Banker in Monopoly) so we ignored that too. What we didn't do was to argue whether a rule best represented how something would really happen.  We didn't quibble over realism.  In other words, we played it a lot like a board game, if the game pieces had had personalities and goals.

The crazy thing is, it worked on both levels.  We played by the rules, because they were the rules, but we also played out heroic quests and adventures.  We imagined characters and monsters, not game pieces, and caverns and ruins, not game boards.  Characters developed and prospered, and characters died, and some of each were quite beloved by players and DM alike.  Some of each were forgotten, too, either retired and discarded or killed in action to be replaced by a more compelling persona, but when was the last time anybody EVER felt a thrill for the Top Hat token when it just missed landing on Boardwalk with a hotel, or lamented the loss of a particular pawn on the chess board? 

I guess the thrust of my whole line of inquiry here is, how granular and how "realistic" does a system need to be in order to foster that kind of imagination-centric experience, rather than just a contextless contest of tactics and probabilities like chess or blackjack or Scrabble? 

A secondary question (or is it the primary one?): Why do RPG enthusiasts obsess over these things in a way that even the most ardent chess or poker player does not?  Why, for example, the endless debates over what "hit points" are and what they mean in the game, and whether they ought to be replaced with some sort of realistic wound system?  Nobody puzzles over how many "men" a checkers game piece represents, or whether defeating it on the game board represents slaughter or capture.  To be honest, I have no idea what the hell, if anything, poker hands could possibly represent.

The major difference between a roleplaying game and a plain old game, as I see them, is that the former expressly encourages imagination on the part of players (including the DM/GM) as an integral and essential part of the game experience, while the latter does not.  You can play chess or checkers without giving a flying rat's ass on the lower east side of hell what these armies are fighting about, the personalities of the commanders, the terrain of the battlefield, or what's at stake for the potential winner and loser.  Nowhere in the rules of those games or in the culture of players who play them is there any very strong suggestion that such games are anything more than gridded boards, some tokens, some bits of stiff paper with numbers and symbols printed on them, etc.  Drawing a royal flush in poker means nothing more than that you hold all the cards of a particular suit from 10 to Ace, and it beats any other hand.  A hard 8 in craps is just that, a number.  In an RPG, though, getting hit for 8 points of damage means something more.  As such, it's completely natural for the player to want to know what that means beyond mere numbers.  Does taking 8 points of damage and surviving mean your character just got run straight through with a sword (max damage, after all) and sucked it up like a badass, or did he get just get grazed, or did it just rattle his confidence? 

Another facet of most RPGs is that they expressly state that the rules in the book do not cover all possible actions of the characters/"game pieces," but rather that they cover the most often encountered situations.  That's in direct contrast to most games, in which all possible moves are prescribed by the rules.  The pieces on a chess board each may be moved in a certain way, and no other.  In blackjack, you stand or hit.  In D&D, the actions your character may attempt are limited only by your imagination and the context of the setting.  That naturally leads to a mentality that every nuance you might be able to describe in stating your actions should have a mechanical effect in the game.  For example, shouldn't leaping from a shoulder-high wall and driving your sword point at your enemy be different somehow from just swinging at him in toe-to-toe combat?  There's a certain impetus toward extreme granularity of rules, to uniquely accommodate every action a player can imagine. To what degree should that impetus be resisted, and to what degree should it be indulged or even encouraged? 

I'm as guilty as anybody, and perhaps more than most, of compulsively putting rules under the microscope to see if they conform to my ideas of how combat and other elements of a fantasy world should behave, and of proposing new or modified systems or sub-systems to enhance the game experience.  Perhaps it's the nostalgia of seeing B/X officially revived, but I'm starting to rethink all of my design tinkering, or at least my motives for engaging in it.  I do think that there can be value in deconstructing and analyzing a system, figuring out exactly what the rules do and whether it's what they purport to do, and what to do about it when effect and purpose don't match.  I think there's value in codifying house rules to deal with recurring situations that come up in one's own game that perhaps the game designers didn't anticipate, or that are just more important to one's own game than the original designers contemplated.

What I can't deny, though, is that, warts and all, I never had more fun playing D&D than when it was just good old B/X D&D, and at this point in my gaming and blogging "career" I think I may soon be shifting my focus away from so much rules tinkering, and toward my philosophy of DMing, of building atmosphere in a campaign setting, and similar topics. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

More monkeying with combat

If you've been reading (or browsing, skimming, or offhandedly glancing at) this blog for a while, you might remember this, in which I posited that rather than continually escalating attack matrices vs. more or less static Armor Classes, we might extract a character or monster's attack bonus from the chart, and then, in a fight, apply the difference between the attack bonuses of the combatants to the attack rolls of the greater. In other words, opponents become easier to hit not based on the attacker's absolute skill, but on the difference in skill between attacker and defender.  This means that a fighter with a THAC0 of 3 (an attack bonus of 17) dueling a fighter with a THAC0 of 5 (AB 15) doesn't hit his AC3 plate-and-mail clad opponent on a roll of 0 (i.e. missing only on a natural 1 as per the rules.)  Instead, because his attack bonus is two points better than his opponent's, he'll hit on a roll of 14, and his opponent will hit with a 16.  (We're using the line of the attack chart for 1st level characters to determine what number is needed to hit each AC.)  If the fighter with the attack bonus of 17 is up against a fighter with a bonus of only 5, then he'll add the difference in his favor of +12 to his attack rolls, not simply because he's a high-level fighter in an absolute sense, but because he's a LOT better than his inexperienced opponent and capitalizes on every mistake the other fellow makes in battle.

Further Thoughts

Since composing that particular ramble, I've decided to drop the "attack bonus" terminology, and refer to this derived stat as Combat Rating, or CR.  It also seems like a good idea to modify how ability scores affect combat.  This is both to prevent extreme ACs right out of the starting gate (a level 1 halfling with plate, shield, and 18 Dex would be AC-1, and thus nearly unhittable to any opponent of similar level), and to tone down the massive advantages of high Strength (bonuses to hit AND damage make an 18 Strength fighter vastly more effective in melee than one with a 13.)  The character's Dexterity adjustment should apply directly to his CR, and Strength adjustments apply only to damage rolls.  This means that a Dex adjustment counts for both offense and defense, or more precisely, it affects the balance between the total (offensive and defensive) combat skill of both combatants.  The 18 Dex, level 1 halfling has a CR of 4 (1 for his level, +3 for his Dex adjustment) and an AC of 2.  The 18 Str, level 1 fighter has a CR of 1.  He's raw and ungraceful in combat relative to the halfling, who with his net +3 CR advantage will be zipping in for quick slashes more often than Mongo is going to land a clumsy haymaker on him, but when Mongo DOES hit, he's going to mess the little guy up pretty badly with that +3 bonus to damage. 

One interesting implication of this is that natural coordination and grace can to some extent make up for a lack of experience, and conversely, long experience and drilling of combat reflexes can make up for a lack of natural quickness and agility, but pure physical might is entirely its own thing.  You just can't learn brute force.  (As I used to hear a lot, back when I followed NBA basketball more closely and some team would take a chance on an awkward 7-footer, "You can't teach size.")

One option I've thought about is, instead of automatically applying the difference in CRs to the attack roll of the greater, how about the one with the higher CR gets to choose whether to apply that difference to his attack or to his defense?  The more skilled dancer gets to lead, so to speak.  

Of course, you still can have actual attack bonuses, whether those comes situationally (+1 for attacking from a position of superior height, say), or a magical bonus such as that of a sword +1.  That would make these bonuses especially valuable to the lesser combatant.  A CR 2 fighter against a CR 5 fighter who gets a +1 bonus to his CR will find that he can defend himself a little better.  It affects the other fellow's hit rolls, not his own.  If he gets a direct bonus to his attack roll, he actually stands a better chance of hitting.

CR and Climbing on the Dragon's Back

Another possibly interesting consequence of this combat system is that it makes the system of climbing onto really big monsters, first formulated by Scrap Princess and modified by Zak S., into a very valuable tactical option.  I don't think it's too uncommon for parties of 4th-6th level characters to take on a red dragon, but using the CR system, none of them are going to have an advantage over teh dragon - in other words, no bonuses to hit vs. its AC-1.  The dragon will have a little tougher time hitting the fighters than it otherwise would, but they're going to have a devil of a time dishing out any damage on it.  What to do?  Use those rules for climbing aboard and getting close to the vulnerable spots!  (Zak's adaptation of the idea seems to fit a lot better with my underlying system, IMO.) 

Weapons and CR

A while back, something I read on Charles's Spells and Steel blog got me thinking about the relative merits of different weapons.  One of the points of the post was how bizarre it is that, in D&D, it's no more difficult to hit a trained fighter holding a sword and a peasant with nothing but his fists if both are similarly armored.  Same goes for one fighter with a sword, and another with a dagger.  In a real fight, it's quite as possible to kill a man in a single hit with a dagger as with a sword, but it's going to be tougher, all else being equal, for the dagger wielder to land a hit against the swordsman.  Damage potential itself isn't so much an issue; it's the fact that the swordsman has a great advantage in reach, and he's got not only a sharp point but two or three feet of blade that has a chance to catch his opponent and deal some damage.  The dagger wielder has to get in a lot closer, and to get a really good lick in, he must thrust with the weapon's point; slashing is far less effective.  In other words, all else equal, bet on the swordsman.

Well now, what if, instead of variable weapon damage, different weapons added different bonuses to the wielder's CR, based on reach, ease of use, and defensive capabilities?  A barehanded character fights with only his base CR, i.e. with a weapon bonus of zero.  A dagger might add +1, a sword might grant +4.  A two-handed greatsword might grant +5.  Short swords, with less reach, might give CR +3.  Maces and hammers, being heavier and less elegantly balanced, might be +2 to CR overall, but grant +2 to hit against medium and heavy armor, representing their purpose of defeating those armors with impact damage.  (These numbers have been pulled out of the air with relatively little consideration.  Perhaps a wider or narrower range might be more appropriate, but I haven't fully math-geeked out the details yet, much less consulted with folks more knowledgeable than I about the merits and demerits of medieval weaponry.)

Let's say a hypothetical rebellious peasant has gotten his hands on a sword, and caught a mercenary of the corrupt town alderman unarmed.  Both are unarmored (AC9.)  Under ordinary D&D rules, the 1st level mercenary fighter actually has a slightly better chance to land a blow against our sword-wielding peasant rebel (attack rolls for 1st level classed characters are 1 point better than those for Normal Humans.)  Mercenary needs a 10 to hit AC9, peasant needs an 11.

Now let's try the CR system with weapon adjustments.  Mercenary has a base CR 1, while the peasant's base CR is 0.  Now put the sword in the peasant's hands, and add its +4 CR bonus.  Peasant now has a total CR of 4 (0+4) and a net bonus of +3 over the unarmed mercenary, and the upper hand in combat.  He can apply his bonus to attack, meaning he'll hit the mercenary on an 8 or better, or he can apply it defensively, and force the mercenary to roll a 13 or better to hit him.  (But of course, not both at once.)

CR and Monsters

For monsters, the correlation of Hit Dice to escalating attack rolls in standard D&D wouldn't have to be modified at all.  If a creature's Hit Dice are a function of its size, like a bear, dragon, or giant, then the corresponding CR represents an advantage in reach.  If the creature's HD are more attributable to superlative skill at dodging or supernatural resistance, like a cockatrice or a wraith, there's no good reason we can't apply that same rationale to its ability to fight, too.  Monsters who commonly use weapons can benefit from the standard CR bonus for weapons.

And finally, there's the issue of grappling, and of animals and other monsters with natural attacks mowing over weapon-wielding adventurers.  As has been noted on another blog (which is utterly escaping me right now, so if it's yours or you know whose it is, please drop me a comment so I can give due credit!), it's pretty tough to bring a sword to bear on a wild boar that's goring you or a mountain lion that's jumped from a crag to pin you to the ground.  But suppose that once you're grappled or successfully hit by an enemy in brawling range (i.e. occupying the same space on the combat grid, if applicable), only small weapons still grant a bonus to CR.  Medium and large one-handed weapons convert their normal CR bonus to an equal penalty, and two-handed weapons are just unusable under those circumstances.  A dagger is a lot more handy than a battle axe when a wolf has pounced on you and is going for your jugular.  I'm thinking this just might be enough to counteract the advantage that creatures using weapons, and receiving a CR bonus for it, would seem to have over monsters that use natural weapons and get no CR bonus for them.  The initial advantage will belong to the weapon-wielder, but once that wolf is tussling with you hand-to-paw, the advantage of holding a sword is less than nil, and you'd best let go of the sword and focus your efforts on throwing the wolf off, or stabbing it to death with your dagger.

I'm not at all sure that I'll actually use any of this in play, but it's fun to speculate and play with the numbers.