Friday, November 21, 2008

Blogging the Dragon: Morale

Issue 6 of the Dragon introduces Morale tables. Morale is an essential component of any combat system, since it can't be assumed that all parties will fight to the death (although many PCs I've seen will invariably do so).

In early editions of D&D, morale checks are sometimes made by the DM on behalf of the monsters to determine how committed they are in combat. The morale system presented in The Dragon Issue 6, however, designed for the Player Characters! In short, the DM determines the "Fright Factor" of the enemy. Then she determines the morale score for the adventuring party, which takes into account the party's racial makeup, character levels, the enemy's Fright Factor, and other variables. After deriving the morale score, the DM rolls a d10 and consults a table where the x-axis is the 1d10 result and the y-axis is the party's morale score. This generates one of four possible results: Break and Run, Hesitate, Stand and Fight, and Fight with no further chance of a morale check. And I thought my Fudge Point formula might have been overkill.

There is an ongoing debate between old-schoolers (which I consider myself ) and post-3e'ers over tactics versus role-playing. Generally, a tactical game is rules-heavy, with a game mechanic for just about anything. A rules-light game leaves more to the imaginations of the players and DM. Old-schoolers typically lay claim to more descriptive, role-playing oriented games, and abhor 3e and 4e for being too "by the book." Yet a survey of old issues of The Dragon reveals a table for just about everything: family background, tomb generation, random monster generation, physical appearance generation...and that's just in the first ten issues.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was largely pieced together from addenda -- a sort of Frankenstein system, where tables govern just about everything. The assertion that 3rd edition introduced too many rules is one point where I respectfully diverge from my fellow old-schoolers. What's simpler, a game which utilizes one mechanic -- the roll of a single d20 -- to resolve most actions, or a game where a low d6 is used in finding traps, a low d20 for attacks, a d% for picking pockets, a high d20 for saving throws, et cetera? I still despise Feats, but that's a subject for another day.

Anyway, back to the morale tables in issue 6: First of all, I don't believe morale checks are even necessary for monsters. Basic D&D used morale checks to determine if monsters would retreat from the PCs. This makes sense in a game which is essentially designed to attract newcomers. But in the "Advanced" edition of the game, the DM ought to be skilled enough to determine for himself when the party's enemies are driven before them. Good DM'ing means getting into the heads of all intelligent NPCs and making their decisions.

But morale checks for PCs? The proposal of the idea is somewhat insulting, because it betrays a lack of confidence in players' ability to appropriately direct their characters actions. Furthermore, it takes power out of the hands of the players, which is potentially a violation of the Rule of Fun.

Am I accusing the authors, Jim Hayes and Bill Gilbert, of poor judgement in offering morale tables? Not necessarily. Remember, D&D grew out of wargaming. Early players lived in a very dice-centric environment. It's not surprising to me that subjectivity was a big no-no in early D&D campaigns, which had a more tactical bent. But for today's gamers, such tables are almost meaningless.

I can only think of one possible use for these tables. In a session where the players are either very young or complete RPG novices, the DM could use this table to cue himself when to suggest something other than direct conflict. In this context, it is a coaching tool.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Critical Hits and Fumbles

First, allow me to express my general opinion on crits. Crits pretty much suck. Here are my reasons:
  • They often favor the enemy. In many encounters, the party is outnumbered by weaker creatures, like kobolds or stirges. This gives the enemy a greater chance of scoring crits.
  • It just adds more rules to the game. In a game with an abstract combat system, critical hits are redundant. It is already assumed that the standard damage roll represents the effectiveness of a successful hit. Critical hits, called shots, and other mechanics are all part of a sliding scale toward a combat system that is unneccesarily cumbersome.
  • They are too frequent. I already have a problem with using d20 instead of 3d6 for attack rolls, because of its lack of a bell curve. Add the fact that some weapons in 3.5 allow a critical threat with 19 or 18 and I get pretty uncomfortable with the odds that crits will happen. A crit should be a holy crap moment, like when Robin Hood pierced an opponent's arrow, or when Perseus succeeded in beheading Medusa, with limited visibility, in one swing. They should be the RPG equivalent of a grand slam, a four-point play, or a runner-runner inside straight.
If you must implement a critical hit system, then throw in some effects and balance it out with fumbles. Here is my suggestion for a crit/fumble system. I'll test it in my C&C campaign (I hope my players haven't yet found this site):


Rule Number One: Natural 20 does not automatically hit, and natural 1 does not automatically miss.

If defender is already at 50% max hp or less...
1. Threat on natural 20 (only if 20 hits).
2. Player re-rolls 3d6 for 2x damage (two damage rolls, not a multiplier).
3. If re-roll is natural 18, DM re-rolls for chance to use effects table. A hit scores.

Effects (d20):
1 Attacker breaks bone (failure to describe target negates).
2 If head wound, blood from eye socket blinds defender for 1d4 rounds.
3 Defender is stunned during next round.
4 If head attack, defender suffers trauma. Con save vs. knockout for 1d6 turns, 1d4-1 Int. points lost.
5 If head attack with piercing or slashing weapon, loss of eye - results in stun for 1d3 rounds, -4 circumstance penalty for subsequent actions during combat.
6 If flame attack, subject catches fire. Suffer fire damage until extinguished.
7 At DM's discretion, a companion is distracted by the carnage for one round.
8 Defender loses balance. Dex save to avoid falling on back and starting next round prone.
9 Defender recoils blindly, stumbling into whatever is within 5' behind him.
10 Defender crippled in specific spot (must be called); on subsequent rounds, the attacker may exploit the area with called shots, by trading up to 4 to penalty points for an equal amount of extra damage.
11 Defender involuntarily drops weapon.
12 If slash attack, defender loses appendage; called shot required. DM's discretion for specific penalty.
13 Massive blood loss results in Con check vs. unconsciousness every round (Dex check +4 for attacker to avoid slipping on blood).
14 If head shot called, vision is affected. Defender fights as if attacker is behind 50% cover until he gets a one-round break.
15 Defender's weapon is broken. Swords unlikely, wooden handles etc. better.
16 A possession other than the defender's weapon, like arrows in a quiver or a potion vial, is broken.
17 If slashing, an article of clothing is rended. Defender suffers -2 to hit penalty due to entanglement.
18 Something besides the defender's weapon - like a backpack, belt, or helmet - falls to the floor. Dex checks every round to avoid tripping, plus possible breakage, AC penalties and other effects.
19 Bladed weapon buried so deep, retrieving causes another damage roll, halved.
20 Attacker succeeds quickly enough to be granted a second attack at -2 (no crit chance).

If defender is above 50% max hp...
1. Threat on natural 1 (only if 1 misses).
2. DM rolls 3d6 privately. If the result is 3, DM rolls secret to hit for player. A miss results in a fumble.

Fumbles (d20):
1. Attacker drops weapon.
2. Attacker hits self for 1/3 damage, 1/3 subdual damage.
3. Attacker must succeed in a Dex check or lose footing, and be flat-footed for one round.
4. If attacker wears helmet, the helmet shifts, resulting in partial blindness for one round.
5. Attack overcommits and is off-balance, with flank or back exposed. Defender gets an Attack of Opportunity.
6. If near a post, soft ground, clay, trees, or anything else that can be pierced, a piercing weapon gets stuck. It takes a move action to remove the weapon.
7. The attack is wild; Those in adjacent squares must succeed in a Dex check or be hit for 1/3 damage.
8. Weapon clashes against armor, shield or environmental object, causing it to break.
9. If ranged attack, those in the rear of the defender must make a Dex save versus 1/4 damage.
10. This round is exceptionally tiring. Attacker is temporarily out of breath, and his limbs tremble from the repeated impact. 1d2 subdual damage, plus minus one Constitution point until the end of the battle.
11. Attacker gets tangled in his backpack straps, overcoat, or other loosely worn gear. A move action will cut the offending material free, or the attacker must succeed in a Dex check every subsequent round to avoid a minus one penalty on hit and damage rolls.
12-13. Blade dulls. Attack rolls reduced by one until sharpened. This effect is cumulative.
14. Blade loosens from hilt. Attack rolls reduce by one until secured or replaced. Not cumulative.
15. If the attacker used a ranged weapon, the weapon is broken beyond repair.
16. The attacker's fingers get pinched. 1d3 subdual, Dex check versus dropping weapon, with circumstance penalty of -4.
17. Attacker hits nearby environmental object for full damage.
18. Attacker gets sweat in eye. Blinded for one round. Dabbing brow is a partial action.
19. If the attacker is holding a weapon or spiked armor in his off-hand, he hits himself for 1 point damage.
20. The sound of combat alerts a wandering monster, local habitat permitting.

This guy also has some choice words on the subject. Check out his site.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Blogging the Dragon: Statting Gandalf

Hasn't every D&D player, at one point in his life, tried to reconcile parts of Tolkien's mythology with the D&D rules system? What do you suppose Gandalf the Grey's record sheet looked like? In issue 6 of The Dragon, Bill Seligman imagines the same. His conclusion is stated clearly in the article's title: "Gandalf Was Only a 5th Level Magic-User."

Seasoned D&D'ers are already aware that Middle Earth is a low-magic setting. But does Seligman's evaluation surprise you nonetheless?

In his article, Seligman lists all the occurrences of Gandalf's use of magic in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. I was rather surprised, once having seen all the relevant instances listed back-to-back, to notice that Gandalf relied very heavily on light and fireball-related spells. All in all, his abilities never require a character level beyond 5th.

How is it that a 2000 year-old Istari has only reached 5th level? Seligman offers possible reasons in his closing paragraph:

So how do we reconcile our intuition with the bare facts? Well, for one thing,...the universe of LOTR was magic-weak. It is easy to assume that it was run by “ a very tough DM” who rewarded experience so slowly that it would take 2000 years for a pseudo-angel to get to the 5th level, and 6000 years or so for an EHP to reach 12th. But it is still unsettling. I would rather place the blame on the scale we are using: the D&D magic system. It seems a more likely thing for Gygax and Arneson to misjudge the spell levels. So what can we do? Change the spell system, the experience system or the levels of the spells, or all of the above? What is your response?
Well, the obvious response is that D&D is not supposed to be compatible with Middle Earth. There isn't anything broken about the rules system if it doesn't work with a specific setting that wasn't designed for D&D. He uses the word "blame" as if Gygax and Arneson screwed up. The D&D world is clearly not intended to be an equivalent to any other fantasy world. It is only derivative in the sense that it shares the most common elements of high fantasy -- monsters, spells, treasures, and such.

This issue does call attention to something I've always believed: That low-level adventures need not be boring. In fact, they're my favorite kind. Considering that level advancement is so slow in Middle Earth, we can assume that the events in the Lord of the Rings comprise a low to mid-level campaign; yet look at how rich a variety of action the characters experience. DMs, take note: If your low-level adventures are nothing more than kobold hack-fests, serving only to provide the XP needed to advance to more "interesting" levels, then you might want to audit your adventure writing methods. If Tolkien can place such weak characters in such epic-scale adventures, then we know the same can be done in D&D.

In fact, in D&D I've always been pressed for ideas when characters get into higher levels. Under the latest three rules revisions, the Challenge Ratings, while useful, become increasingly meaningless at higher levels.

So the lesson to be learned from this Dragon article is: Even low-level characters are way more powerful than average people. Provide an extraordinary gaming experience, and your players won't care what level their characters are.

Oh, and by the way: After 3e, we can more correctly refer to Gandalf as a Sorceror, since I don't recall ever noticing that he carried a spellbook. Perhaps a multi-class with druid or fighter. He does carry Glamdring, so either he wields it with a non-proficiency penalty or had some martial training. I would bet on the former.