Saturday, October 7, 2017

Weapon properties

In my last post on initiative, I talked among other things about how I like to think of weapons in terms of Size and Type, and discussed some of the implications of Size. A broader discussion of these properties deserves its own post. So here we are! This is going to bring together a few different ideas from the aforementioned initiative post and this post on attack and damage. Hopefully everything begins to coalesce into something like a usable system!

First though, an important aside: I've talked a lot about threats, errors, critical successes, and critical failures. These concepts are integral to what I'm trying to do with my d20 system. One thing I haven't talked about is one of the slicker ideas from D&D 5e, that of advantage and disadvantage, and how they interact with these concepts. Advantage and disadvantage were developed to simplify d20 games' tendency toward way too many circumstantial modifiers, where you might have to juggle bonuses for things like flanking and magical blessings and penalties for curses and unfavorable terrain, all in a single check. Since few people like doing these sorts of sums every time there were favorable or unfavorable circumstances to account for, the 5e designers determined instead that whenever such circumstances obtain, you roll twice and take the higher (for favorable circumstances; i.e. advantage) or lower (disadvantage) result. You only ever roll twice, no matter how many things might give you advantage or disadvantage in a given situation (though advantage and disadvantage cancel each other out). This still provides situational interest without overdoing it on modifiers, and it's something I'd like to continue using.

So how might advantage and disadvantage interact with threats and errors? Mostly, nothing will change; if you have advantage on a roll, and one of your rolls is an error, you can ignore it because it's the lowest result; if it's a threat, you apply it because it's highest (and roll the exploding die once, not twice!). It's really no different than before. However, if you reroll for advantage or disadvantage and one result is a threat and the other is an error, the threat and error cancel each other out. You still take the higher or lower roll result as appropriate, but the result does not explode. The reason for this is that advantage or disadvantage increases the likelihood of getting a threat or error rather significantly, so this mitigates it somewhat.

Some of these weapon rules rely on advantage and disadvantage, so I had to clarify. Now onto the main course.

Weapon Size

Weapons have the same Size descriptors as characters and monsters. If we use 5e's sizes, then it would be Tiny, Small, Medium, Large, Huge, and Gargantuan. These sizes do no refer to the weapons directly, but to the size of the character using them. That is, a Medium sword is not the size of a Medium character, but a size that a Medium character can wield comfortably in one hand. A Small sword is like a longsword to a halfling, but like a dagger to an elf.

The ways that the relative Sizes of weapons and their wielders and targerts are pretty simple, but in the interest of simulation are just a bit quirky. I hope they make sense! They are:

  • If an attacker's weapon is larger than its target, the attacker gets advantage on the damage roll. If it is smaller, it gets disadvantage. Bigger weapons deal more damage, and bigger characters are more durable.
  • If an attacker is smaller than its target, the attacker gets advantage on the attack roll. If it is larger, it gets disadvantage (unless it can't move). Larger creatures are easier targets than smaller creatures. The smaller creature is usually wielding a smaller weapon, so often the attack roll will have advantage and the damage roll disadvantage or vice versa, which I hope balances out. A smaller character with a larger weapon tips outside this balance a little bit, but has other disadvantages, as described in the next point.
  • If an attacker is the same size as his weapon, he has a base speed of 6. If the weapon is one size larger, it has a base speed of 8 and must be wielded two-handed. If it is one size smaller, it has a base speed of 4. Usually creatures cannot wield weapons more than one size smaller or larger than themselves.
  • A weapon's size determines its reach; that is, a Large weapon usually has a Large reach. When a character wielding a melee weapon enters combat with another character wielding a melee weapon, the character with the largest reach attacks first
I'm also considering a rule that a weapon smaller than its wielder could always be thrown, but I haven't thought it through yet.

Weapon Type

There are all kinds of weapons with all kinds of subtle differences between them that the broad categorization I'm going to do will certainly gloss over. I'm hoping that doing so keeps weapons simple while still maintaining some interesting variety. Weapon types are:

  • Swords: The default medieval fantasy weapon in most folks' imagination. This includes everything from daggers and throwing knives to large claymores and zweihänders, depending on the size. Attack rolls (including parry checks) with swords have a threat range of 2. Swords deal slashing damage.
  • Hafted Weapons: These include axes, picks, and hammers. Damage rolls with hafted weapons have a threat range of 2. Axes deal slashing damage, picks deal piercing damage, and hammers deal bashing damage.
  • Polearms: These include spears, glaives, halberds, and even quarterstaffs. Polearms count as one size category larger for the purposes of determining reach. Spears deal piercing damage, quarterstaffs deal bashing damage, and things like halberds deal slashing damage.
  • Dueling blades: These include fine, delicate fencing blades like rapiers and épées. Dueling blades count as one size category smaller for the purposes of determining speed. Most dueling blades deal piercing damage, though some may deal slashing damage instead.
  • Clubs: These include simple bludgeons and more sophisticated weapons like maces. Clubs can be used untrained without penalty. Most clubs deal bashing damage, though things like spiked clubs or morningstars deal piercing damage.
  • Bows: The classic bow and arrow. Bows can make ranged attacks (range increments TBD!). Arrows fired from bows almost always deal piercing damage.
  • Crossbows: Like the bow, the crossbow can make ranged attacks. Crossbows can be used untrained without penalty; however, they count as one size category larger for the purposes of determining speed. Bolts fired from crossbows almost always deal piercing damage.
  • Shields: Yes, shields are considered weapons here! Shields have an error range of 4 on normal attack rolls, but a threat range of 4 when making parry rolls. Shields also provide some armor protection (rules TBD!). When dual-wielding with a shield, the attacker still applies its Strength bonus to damage checks to his other weapon (unless the other weapon is also a shield) (see Two-weapon fighting below). Most shields deal bashing damage, though spiked shields deal piercing damage.
I think this covers most weapons, though specialized things like nets and whips aren't addressed here. Also, since I allude to it in the rules for clubs and crossbows: Being trained in a weapon means knowing how to use it effectively and consistently. You can always use a weapon untrained, but you suffer an error range of 4 on attack and damage rolls. And re shields and swords: There will probably be more detailed rules forthcoming, but basically you can use a reaction, or possibly even an attack, to parry, making an attack check in place of a defense roll. If you score a critical success, you can riposte, making a free counter-attack.

Two -Weapon Fighting

I still haven't quite decided how I want to do two-weapon fighting, but it ought to be something like this: If a character is wielding two weapons (including a weapon and shield), each weapon's size is treated as one size larger for the purposes of determining speed. Also, such characters normally do not add their Strength bonus to damage rolls, though there may be character options to change this. Otherwise characters can use either weapon at any time, so long as they follow the rules for weapon speed and initiative.

I believe I've gone over nearly everything needed for a viable combat system, but it's all a bit jumbled and disaggregated across the blog. Maybe next time I should do a combat example.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Initiative Count Up, Simplified

In my last post, I talked about initiative, taking my cue from Brandes Stoddard's and Mike Mearls' coincidentally presented alternative initiative systems. I mentioned Hackmaster's Count Up system as the most innovative and promising alternative to traditional initiative systems that I've encountered, but that it suffers in my opinion from being too fiddly. So here's my promised attempt at simplifying the system.

Some theorycraft

There are two basic weapon stats in Hackmaster that affect the Count Up. Speed says how many seconds it takes to attack with a weapon after attacking an opponent with it for the first time. Reach says who goes first in melee if two attackers try to attack each other at the same time. The unnecessarily complicated part, in my opinion, is that every weapon has its own unique speed (measured in seconds) and its own unique reach (measured in feet, which is especially odd since tactical movement is measured in 5-foot squares). So a dagger has a speed of 7 and a reach of 1', a longsword a speed of 10 and a reach of 3.5', and a spear a speed of 12 and a reach of 13'. These stats aren't even based on predictable series; it seems like any possible score within a certain range is represented in these stats. It's all rather extreme, complex for the sake of simulation, I presume, but seemingly for the sake of complexity.

We could eliminate this complexity by just making all weapons have the same speed and reach, but that's pretty boring. There should be a middle ground between extreme simplification and the extreme simulationism that Hackmaster favors. Thankfully, there's an answer: combinatorics!

All I mean by combinatorics here is that by combining qualities from two or more small sets, you can get the same sort of complexity as one longer set, but with much less to keep track of. So if one set has numbers from 0-9, and another has letters from A to J, and you combined them so you have a new set from A0 to J9, that gives you as many items as a single set of 100 arbitrary symbols. But keeping track of two smaller sets is much easier than one longer set. A familiar application of this principle in d20 games is the alignment chart:

There are nine alignments, but no one really thinks of them that way. They think of the two axes, with each alignment being a combination of two points. Two sets of three is much easier to internalize than one set of nine, plus there's a pleasing symmetry that other alignment systems, like 4e's unloved 5-alignment remix, lack and suffer for. This is a good general trick for simplifying complexity in RPG design, by reducing a long list (like the list of weapons in Hackmaster) to two simple dimensions. And for weapons, the qualities I like to think of are Weapon Type and Weapon Size.

Type, Size, and Speed

By Type, I mean categories of weapons like swords, bows, axes, polearms, etc. Each Type would have its own simple rule to make it unique, but the particulars aren't terribly important for now. Size obviously refers how big the weapon is, but the frame of reference is not the size of the weapon itself, but the size of the character wielding it. That is, a Medium weapon is designed to be wielded one-handed by a Medium-sized character, like a spear or longsword. A Small Sword might be a dagger to a human, but a longsword to a gnome. A Large Sword has to be wielded two-handed by an orc, but a Large troll could use it with one hand. (In 5e, Small weapons are basically "light," and Large weapons are "two-handed", for those wanting to adapt these rules to conventional D&D.)

Like with Type, weapon Sizes have their own rules, but since we're talking about Hackmaster initiative and Count Up rules, we only have to worry about rules related to speed and reach. Here they are:
  • A weapon the same Size as its wielder has a base speed of 6. If it's larger than than the wielder, its speed is 8. If it's smaller, 4.
  • If two characters attack each other in melee on the same count, the one with the larger weapon has the larger reach and goes first.
  • Polearms count as one Size larger than they are for the purposes of determining reach.
  • An unarmed melee attack usually has the same Size as the character making it.
I'll talk about other rules for weapons in another post, but that's everything we need, and it's much easier to keep track of than Hackmaster's fiddly weapons tables.

The rest of these initiative rules are similar to Hackmaster.

Rolling Initiative

At the start of combat, characters roll a d20, subtracting their Dexterity and Wisdom scores from the check. The GM begins the Count Up, with characters acting when the result of their initiative check is called. Before their turn is called, they are flat-footed; they continue to do what they were doing and can only act to defend themselves. Afterwards, they can move, attack, cast a spell, make a skill check, or do anything else so long as they have time. A character is no longer flat-footed and may act two seconds after taking damage from an attack, unless her initiative count would allow her to act sooner.

Surprise Attack

Instead of rolling a normal initiative check, players may opt to roll a skill check to make a surprise attack. They may roll Stealth if they are hiding in ambush, or roll Deception if they are out in the open and feigning helplessness or passivity. This works like a normal skill check, except you subtract from your d20 roll as if you were making an initiative check. If your check is lower than any other hostile characters', you act on Count 1 and gain advantage on both attack and damage* checks against any flat-footed opponents. If not, however, you are flat-footed until your turn on the Count Up comes up, as though the result of your skill check were your initiative check. In addition, you have disadvantage on both defense* and toughness* checks until your turn on the Count Up comes up. (*These rules are discussed in this article. Adapting these initiative rules to 5e D&D should not require them.)


Characters can move one or (if their speed is greater than 1) two spaces at any time. They may also move up to their speed, but only if they moved two spaces on the previous second. To slow down, they must move two spaces. Note that moving while engaged in melee may provoke reaction attacks from your opponents. Some actions, like drawing or picking up a weapon or other item, can be done instead of moving.


Ranged attacks can be made at any time. If two characters attack each other with ranged attacks at the same time, they may resolve their attacks against each other as normal. For melee attacks, an aggressor must get in range of a defender. When they are in range, the character with the greatest reach (usually the largest weapon, see above) goes first (unless the defender is using a ranged weapon, in which case the attacker goes first every time). If their reach is the same, they may attack at the same time and resolve those attacks against each other as normal. Afterwards, these two characters are engaged in melee, and are so engaged until one is incapacitated or retreats. Moving away while engaged may provoke reaction attacks from your opponent; see below.

After making an initial attack, a character must normally wait a number of seconds equal to his weapon speed before attacking again. When a melee engagement a character is involved with ends, this time is reduced to zero, meaning he can freely engage in a new melee at any time.


Certain actions may leave an opening for opponents to attack. This may include moving out of a melee without properly withdrawing, attempting to cast certain spells next to a melee combatant, or critically failing an attack roll. This is called provoking a reaction. If a character adjacent to you provokes a reaction, you can take the reaction to make an immediate attack. You can only make a reaction attack if a number of seconds equal to half your weapon speed has gone by since your last attack. Making a reaction attack also resets your count in the Count Up, meaning that you have to wait your weapon speed to make your next attack, unless someone provokes another reaction, as per the above rules.

Some final considerations

These rules are pretty rough, but should give some idea how this could work in game. One big change I could make is to turn the Count Up to a Count Down, in which case characters add their initiative score when making an initiative check. The Count Down would then start at the highest result and proceed down. This would have the advantage of making initiative checks more like other d20 checks in contemporary D&D. The disadvantage is what to do when the Count Down reaches 0. Bounce back up to 1? Continue into negative numbers?

If you're adapting these rules to 5e, I wish you luck! I would consider turning Extra Attack into a -1 enhancement to speed every time it's earned. The same goes for each attack to a monster's Multiattack if it's making the same attack more than once. For spells, a round of casting converts to 6 seconds, so you could just make that the default casting time for such spells. Recharge times for monster powers could be done a few ways. It takes an average of 6 rounds for a Recharge 6 power to recharge (and 3 rounds for a Recharge 5-6, I think), so you could give such powers a speed of 36 and 18. Or you could let the powers recharge as normal whenever the monster makes a "normal" attack.

The default weapon speeds in Hackmaster seem really slow to me. The speeds I picked are much quicker, based on the standard of one attack per "round" (which equals 6 seconds) in normal d20 games. But maybe there's a good reason for such slow speeds?

I haven't dealt with two-weapon fighting yet because there are still some things to consider. But one key will be that dual-wielding means that weapons count as one size larger than they are for purposes of calculating speed. Shields count as weapons here. Whether both weapons attack at the same second or one after the other, and which weapon takes precedent if the latter; all that needs to be worked out.

There are probably some things I haven't thought of yet. Please ask questions so I can consider them, or comment if any of the above seems weird or confusing!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Take the initiative, please!

I've been a bit stymied about what to discuss next in my series of posts that I've tagged "me-20;" my self-indulgent hack of d20 gaming. I've been inspired by a coincidence: First, Brandes Stoddard publishes an article about some alternative initiative systems on his blog. Then, shortly after, Mike Mearls publishes an article on WotC's Unearthed Arcana blog about the initiative system he's been using for his 5th edition group. So suddenly talking about initiative seems like a good idea. Apart from kismet, it actually makes sense: I've talked a lot about how combat and other systems could work in general, but not offered a specific example of them in practice. And what better way to begin talking about encounters than by starting at their beginning? It's a very good place to start, as the sages say.

RPG veterans may skip this paragraph, but perhaps the reader may wonder what I'm talking about. Basically, in an RPG encounter, like other sorts of games, there must be a way of figuring out who goes first. In American football, it's determined by a coin toss. In baseball, by who the visiting team is. In many RPGs, it's a special roll called initiative. Every player rolls a d20 at the start of combat or other encounter, taking into account special modifiers (faster players often react faster) and situations (being ambushed usually means going last). The GM does the same thing for individual monsters or groups of monsters. The character with the best initiative result goes first, whether it's the PC's ranger, the GM's archvillain, or a mob of NPC orcs. The next highest initiative goes next, then the next highest, until the lowest-scoring player goes and the top-initiative roller goes again.

Pretty simple, right? Everyone goes in the order they roll, like people waiting in line with numbered tickets at the deli. Why would anyone want to futz with this? Well, as Stoddard point out in his article, it's actually a bit of a slog trying to figure out who goes in what order. Yes, there are apps and more analogue hacks like index cards that make it easier, but you still have to go around the table, figure out how everyone scored, then record it somehow. It's a bit of dreary data-entry that kills the dramatic momentum of what should be an exciting event.

It's a cosmic coincidence that Stoddard and Mearls took up the subject of initiative systems at around the same time, but their approaches to the problem couldn't be more different. Stoddard offers a few radical simplifications: the first is by adapting the "first player button" that changes hands in many board games and doing away with initiative rolls entirely, the second by replacing initiative rolls every encounter with a single initiative roll every session (i.e. once every afternoon or evening of play). Mearls, on the other hand, attempts to make the tedium of calculating initiative more interesting by adding more tactical variety to the roll. So characters roll different dice depending on the actions they want to take, with a ranged attack being quicker than a melee attack, and either attack being slower if you want to both attack and move. Mearls makes no bones about the added complexity here, but the hope is that this complexity makes the process of determining initiative more relevant and engaging.

Mearls' system has some interesting concepts, but overall I agree with Stoddard's take: that the added complexity is kind of arbitrary seems less likely to engage and more likely to frustrate. That said, Stoddard's systems seem a little bland. The "First Player Button" has little to do with character skill, which is something I want expressed in any RPG activity. And while initiative once per session by necessity reduces bookkeeping, it's a pretty ruthless, cut-off-your-leg-to-stop-a-cramp solution. It seems that both designers are kind of stuck on the idea of what initiative and taking your turn actually means in RPGs, and that we could benefit from a more fundamental reimagining of the idea. And that brings us to Hackmaster.

Hackmaster has kind of a weird history, finding its conceptual origins not in any real gaming group, but in the world of the cult RPG parody comic "Knights of the Dinner Table," as the old-school-D&D stand-in the protagonists play. But as is often the case with fictitious games, eventually someone had to design and market the real thing, in this case the publishers of the comic, Kenzer and Company. The style is true to the gritty old-school feel of the comic, with lots of granular combat mechanics like facing and individual weapon speeds and "threshold of pain checks." It's all a bit too fiddly for my tastes, but the one unique idea that I love is "the Count Up."

With the Count Up, players and the GM roll for initiative as described above, with lower rolls being desirable. But instead of the GM killing the excitement by going around the table and recording the results, he revs the excitement into high gear. "One! Two! Three!" he counts, each number announcing a second of time going by. At this point, the players are waiting for their initiative result to come up, hoping the monsters don't come up first. That's because any character is considered surprised before his or her initiative count and can't do anything but rather weakly defend themselves. But after their count comes up, the players can act as they wish, whenever they want, so long as they have the time to do so. Walking one space takes a second, or one step of the count, and you can move whenever you want. Attacking takes a certain number of seconds, depending on a number of finicky factors, your weapon's speed being principle among them. The same is true for casting spells. The result is that attacks and spells sort of adhere to the traditional round-by-round structure of many combat RPGs without being bound by it. And it seems like it can be very exciting: check out the combat example in the free basic version of the game, starting on page 136.

A lot about this is very brilliant, even beyond the way jumping right into the Count Up reduces the annoying bookkeeping of most initiative systems. The absence of traditional turns means players are always engaged even as they wait for the next chance to attack or cast a spell. The option for any player to move at any time makes play more dynamic and reactive. The various "tie-breakers" (ranged-vs-melee-vs-spells, weapon reach for melee attacks) for simultaneous attacks make a lot of sense. Making surprise part of the core initiative system is much more elegant than the rather clumsy "surprise round" rules found in many d20 games*.

Sadly, there's a lot about the system that's pretty kludgey. Each weapon has its own unique speed and reach. Each spell has its own unique casting time as well. Even something as simple as moving depends on a bunch of factors like the character's size, race, and preferred pace (There are four different movement rates!). But this is all a result of Hackmaster's old-school philosophy, where complicated tables are part of the look and feel of the game. The basic idea of the Count Up system works even when other parts of the system are greatly simplified. Someone just has to do it.

This post is running long, but next time I'll take a crack at exactly that!

Saturday, March 18, 2017


[NB: Further reposts of older Heartbreaker posts from back when I did them on my minis blog.]

Last time at Heartbreaker, we talked about expanding the idea of critical hits so that they have a few more possibilities. This expanded notion means that any check can have four results: failure, success, critical failure, and critical success. It might be worth reviewing some definitions from last time.
  • You earn a threat if you roll within the threat range of a particular die check. Earning a threat means rerolling the d20 and adding the result to your check.
  • We can define a threat range of x as any natural die result between [21 -x] and 20. So a threat range of 1 means a natural die result of 20 earns a threat. A threat range of 3 means a natural result between 18 and 20 earns a threat.
  • You suffer an error if you roll within the error range of a particular threat. Suffering an error means rerolling the d20 and subtracting the result from your check. An error is the opposite of a threat. Threats are good; errors are bad!
  • We can define the error range of x as any natural result between 1 and [0 + x]. So an error range of 1 means a natural die result of 1 suffers a error. An error range of 3 means a natural result between 1 and 3 suffers an error.
  • Any check has a difficulty class, or DC. A success means a total result (d20 + modifiers) that exceeds the DC. A critical success is more than twice the DC. Note that earning a threat makes a critical success more likely, but you can get a critical success without earning a threat, or earn a threat without getting a critical success.
  • failure means a total result that does not exceed the DC. A critical failure is half or less of the DC. Again, suffering an error makes getting a critical failure more likely, but the two outcomes are not dependent.
If none of this makes any sense, do reread the last installment!

If it does make sense, you may still want to know how these concepts might apply in a game. Let's apply them to one of the basic encounters of any d20 game; combat. Not every RPG features combat, but I feel pretty sure that combat is central to any d20 system. The d20 concept evolved from classic Dungeons and Dragons, and D&D evolved from wargaming, so combat-free games aren't the best fit for a d20 system.

The basic ideas of d20 combat are probably pretty familiar even to those who've never played D&D. The attacker, lets say a player-character, has an attack score and an amount of damage for a particular attack, usually a die roll of some type. The defender, let's say a GM-controlled monster, has a defense score (often "Armor Class" or AC) plus a number of hit points. The attacker rolls to beat the defender's AC. If he does, he rolls to see how much damage he does, and the defender subtracts the result from his current hit point total. If the defender runs out of hit points, it dies or is disabled.

This system is pretty simple, but it wants for realism. One imagines high-level characters and creatures with a lot of hit points trading direct blows with mortal weapons and not being at all affected, until one arbitrarily collapses in demise. One wishes for alternatives, and some do exist. The most promising alternative for our purposes is the Toughness Save, an idea I got from Green Ronin's True20 system.

I've been trying to speak in generalities in these installments for the sake of those unfamiliar with d20 games, but here I'm going to have to introduce some specifics, namely the idea of Saves. Most d20 games have three saves; Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. Fortitude deals with resisting physical effects and Reflex the ability to dodge and avoid such effects (we'll talk about Will saves later). Fortitude seems to describe roughly the same thing as hit points, and Reflex the same thing as Armor Class (minus the armor). So let's scrap hit points and AC and use Fortitude and Reflex instead. The idea is that when attacking, the player rolls two dice, one for actually making the attack and one to see how much damage it does. And when defending, the player also rolls two dice, one for Reflex to see if he avoids the attack, and one for Fortitude to see how much he resists damage.

That Fortitude save against damage is basically the Toughness Save from True20. True20 features a rather complex damage track that tells you what failing these saves means at various times, but we can actually simplify things a bit now that we have the idea of four flavors of success and failure in mind. I'm going to call this Fortitude save a Damage Save. Here are the possible results of that Damage Save:

  • Critical Success: The attack deals no damage.
  • Success: You gain a hit.
  • Failure: You gain a wound.
  • Critical Failure: You are dying.

Simple right? Except gah, what's this wound and hit business? More terms to learn? Don't worry; they're pretty simple. A hit means that you increase the error range of future Damage Saves by one; the more hits you suffer, the higher the error range until they can be removed. Hits represent scrapes, glancing blows, and other lucky breaks that don't slow you down but can add up to trouble. A wound means that you increase the penalty for all future dice checks by 1. Wounds are more serious injuries that are harder to shake. An easy way to measure hits and wounds is by handing players white or red poker chips (cheap dollar store plastic ones are fine). When the damage is healed, they just hand the chips back.

(Skip this paragraph if you don't care about potential ways to vary this idea. But we could make combat grittier by increasing the penalty to 2, or make it more heroic by making the penalty only apply to Damage Saves and not to all checks. I like the idea of damage having actual effects on one's character, but some players don't like the "death spiral" similar systems feature. But it's optional either way.)

So for succeeding and failing Damage Saves, we've got two different types of damage, both of which impact future Damage Saves in various ways. I get that, you are saying to yourself (hopefully!). I also see how hits and wounds both make critical failure and "dying" more likely, whatever that means. And I see how the error range of these Damage Saves increases based on the number of hits you've suffered. But what's with critical successes equaling no damage at all? And why haven't we talked about threat ranges at all?

Both these questions have the same answer: The threat range of your Damage Save is determined by the armor you are wearing.

As a designer, one thing I'll have to keep clear in my mind is the difference between increasing a bonus (+1 to your check!) and increasing the threat range of a particular check, and why I might pick one over the other for a particular effect. I think that increasing the threat range generally means taking advantage of equipment or some other resource. That's certainly the case with armor. You can almost picture it; if rolling a twenty-sided die is like getting a weapon swung at you, then hitting that threat range range is like your opponent hitting the spot where your armor is doing the most good, like you're some sort of dart board and the dart-thrower just hit a "1." Light armor might have a threat range of 2 or 3, while strong armor could go as high as 10, though it would have other drawbacks.

Now we see what the results of a Damage Save really mean in the game.

  • Critical Success: Your armor absorbs the attack, or you otherwise roll with the blow. No effect.
  • Success: The blow glances off you, leaving you shaken but for the moment unaffected. You gain a hit.
  • Failure: The blow connects, dealing a significant injury. You gain a wound.
  • Critical Failure: Your accumulated injuries have caught up to you, or you have suffered a particularly grievous blow. You are dying.

It's worth pointing out that if you are dealing damage instead of receiving it, the results of that Damage Check are basically the opposite of a Damage Save. Just switch "success" and "failure" above, and replace "you(r)" with "your opponent('s)."

There are other issues that I haven't addressed here, like what attacking and defending are like, and just what dying means. Next time!

[Bonus: Reader Alex Macey asked some questions about how dying and defensive maneuvers like parrying might work with this system. Here's my answer:]

Player death: as stated above, "dying" is a sort of condition that happens when you critically fail a saving throw against damage. If on your turn you are dying, you make a Fortitude save DC 10, or possibly lower pending playtesting! It's like a damage saving throw except without an improved threat range from armor. If I remember correctly, this save vs. death can have these results:
  • Critical success: you stabilize and don't have to make any other death saving throws.
  • Success: Nothing happens, but you need to make another save the next round.
  • Failure: You take another hit.
  • Critical failure: you die.

You could maybe mellow this by saying you have to critically fail twice to die, but that's the basic idea. I think it makes dying a lot more dramatic, as you can never quite be sure when the curtain will fall.

Parrying, etc.: I haven't paid a ton of thought to this, but I like the idea of using what 5e calls "reactions" (think opportunity attacks) to make an attack in lieu of a defense check when attacked. Maybe a critical success means you can riposte! I also like this idea of shields that basically are bad at attacking but great for parrying and other maneuvers.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Rethinking the critical hit

[N.B. The following is a repost from the brief period when I did my Hearbreaker blogging on my miniatures blog. I wrote this for an audience of people who were mini painters but not necessarily gamers, so if it seems like I'm over-explaining basic d20 RPG concepts, that's why. I link to my first real Hearbreaker post; I'm not going to repost it here, but feel free to take a look if you're interested in some design manifesto kind of stuff.]

My preliminary Heartbreaker post was pretty squishy—big on theory, light on substance. Now begins some actual substance. Let's begin with the critical hit. d20 players are very familiar with how these work, and even non-gamers may have heard the term "natural 20." "Natural 20" means when you roll your twenty-sided die (or "d20"), and a "20" shows on the die (instead of the die roll + modifiers equalling 20). This usually means that you automatically succeed at whatever you were testing, no matter what the actual result. Likewise, rolling a "natural 1" often means automatic failure, again no matter how good the roll might be otherwise. These results can be called "critical successes" and "critical failures." When attacking, a critical success might also result in increased damage, while a critical failure might mean you've dropped your weapon, accidentally stabbed an ally, or worse, depending on the caprice of your gamemaster.

You can see why these rules were put in place. No task is so impossible that success might never transpire through a stroke of luck. And no hero is so competent that he might not suffer the occasional setback. But it seems that a 5% chance of fluke success or failure is a bit much to ask. Even I might play the lottery if there was a 5% chance of winning, and I don't believe anyone would ever step on a plane if it had a 5% chance of crashing. Luckily, there's a way to capture this idea without such wildly swingy odds.

Remember that in d20 games, you roll to beat a certain score, called the Difficulty Class or DC, that is higher or lower depending on the difficulty of the task. Let's redefine "critical success" and "critical failure" around this concept. A critical success is a result that is more than twice the DC of the task at hand. A critical failure is less than half the DC. So I'm attacking a goblin with a defense DC ("AC", for you D&D veterans) of 10. If the result is higher than 10, I've succeeded, but higher than 20, and I've critically succeed and get double damage. Huzzah! But if the result is lower than 5, I've not only failed, but critically failed, and stab myself in the foot. Curses! You can see that a character with a really high attack score is going to get double damage against that goblin all the time, which is already pretty neat and obviates the need for "minion" rules and suchlike. But how would even a mean peon ever score a critical failure?

Let's add a rule that I've heard called the "exploding 20." This isn't my idea, but it goes like this: When you roll a natural 20, you roll the d20 again and add the result to your total. So your modifier is +8, let's say. You roll a natural 20, so your total so far is 20+8=28. You roll again because of the natural 20 and get, say, a 13. So your grand total is 20 (initial roll) +13 (second roll) +8 (your modifier)= 41. Fantastic!

Likewise, you can have an "exploding 1" where if you roll a natural 1, you roll the d20 again and subtract the result from your initial total. So in the case above, if instead you started with a natural 1, your grand total is 1 (initial roll) -13 (second roll) +8 (your modifier)= -4. Against our goblin with a defense DC of 10, that would meet our definition of a critical failure. Better go see a podiatrist.

You could, if you liked, allow for an infinite chain of exploding 20s, creating the theoretical possibility of infinitely high rolls. Let's call this a "chained explosion." You could do the same for exploding 1s, but I find that the most sensible approach—by which natural 20s explode after the initial natural 1—is kind of hard to explain and usually overkill, as 1 -20 +modifiers is usually enough to guarantee critical failure anyway.

Here's another wrinkle; D&D players will know that for certain weapons, you can get a critical hit even if you don't roll a natural 20. A rapier, for example, might do double damage on any natural roll between 18 and 20. Let's call this a threat range of 3. A magically "keened" rapier does double damage on a natural roll between 15 and 20; it has had its threat range increased to 6. If you roll in your threat range, you have rolled a threat.

For our new system, we should say that any natural roll in a threat range should explode. A threat range of 1 works just like our "exploding 20" above, triggering a reroll as described, but a check with a threat range of 3, like an attack with a rapier for example, would also trigger that reroll on an 18 or 19.

We should also consider the opposite concept. An error range of 1 works just like the "exploding 1" above, but an error range of 3, perhaps for an attack with a cursed or poorly-made weapon, would also trigger the reroll for a 2 or 3. If you roll in your error range, you have rolled an error.

Skip this paragraph if you get the concept and don't care about precise mathematical definitions. But for the sake of precision, let's define a threat range of x as any natural die result between [21 -x] and 20, and an error range of x as any natural result between 1 and [0 + x]. A roll within a threat range triggers a threat, a reroll with the result added to the total, while a roll within an error range triggers an error, a reroll with subtraction instead.

Here might be a good place to add that if you are going to use the "chained explosion" rule, the error or threat range of the second reroll is always just 1. That is, if the threat range is 3, and you roll a natural 19 and then a natural 18, the first roll explodes but the second doesn't. Also, if you roll a 1 on the reroll after a threat, you don't then trigger some sort of error within the threat check. That's just silly.

And here's one more quick idea to really expand our minds around the implications of this new way of thinking, which I got from the surprisingly good Swashbuckling Adventures book. You can increase the threat range of any check by up to five, but you also increase the error range by the same amount! So you can gamble to increase the odds of a success or even a critical success, but with the increased chance of critical failure.

So where does this leave us? We basically now have four possible result types for any check: success, critical success, failure, and critical failure. We have the related concepts of threat and error ranges, though it should be noted that you can have a critical success without rolling a threat or a critical failure without rolling an error (and you can roll a threat without getting a critical success!). This makes the simple d20 check a lot more interesting than simple success or failure. But what might these results actually mean in the game? We'll consider that next time!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Anti-Vancian thoughts on the 5e Artificer class

This poor blog is even more neglected than my minis blog, but I'm trying to get back in the swing of hobby blogging, and the newest Unearthed Arcana article gives me an opportunity to do so. It's an Artificer class! Previously the concept was addressed as a UA wizard school, but enough Eberron fans clamored for a unique class that Wizards obliged. Brandes already has a thoughtful review of the class at Tribality, but there was one thing about the class in particular that grabbed me.

The core class gets free magic items, some utility spell casting, and a few other features. Pretty basic, and not especially revolutionary. But take a look at the subclasses, particularly the Alchemist (the other sublcass is the Gunslinger. Seems like it could use some more subclasses, but this is a playtest after all, plus I love the approach of rolling a bunch of Pathfinder class concepts into a single class). How does alchemy work? You get a satchel of components that lets you create one of several alchemical effects, or "formulae". The effects are about what you'd expect; some offensive, like alchemical fire, alchemical acid; and several utility draughts for things like healing and speed. As I was reading, I kept looking for some kind of per-rest limit on these, and that's when I discovered a surprise.

For the most part, there aren't any! There's basically no limit to how often you can create an alchemical effect. For an anti-Vancer like me who's tired of reading the phrase "once per short rest," it's remarkable.

Now just because there's no per-day limit to these effects, that doesn't mean there aren't limits; they're just a lot more clever and interesting than the typical Vancian stuff. For the offensive powers, the alchemist must use a formula the round he creates it, or it "disappears." The fluff here is a little weird—how about the concoction harmlessly destabilizes, or something quasi-sciencey like that?—but the idea is that the alchemist Artificer can't just create infinite firebombs for him and his allies. The utility powers also have a limited shelf life, though over one minute instead of one round, though this seems fiddly and unnecessary to me. Better to me would be that you can only have a few unused formula created at any one time. It's basically the same sort of limitation with way less bookkeeping.

Another interesting limit, for the healing power, is that a creature can't benefit from the effect more than once per long rest. This is a little Vancian, but I'm not sure there's a way to do completely non-Vancian healing, and this way the limit is not on the character using the power, which feels a lot more powerful than an arbitrary cap.

The healing power and other utility powers have some other limits; for example, the "Swift Step Draught" lasts a minute once taken, and the description ends "After using this formula, you can’t do so again for 1 minute." This sounds Vancian, but what it's really saying is that you can't create a formula that's already being used. I don't know why they didn't put it that way, as the way they put it makes it sound like you have to do twice the bookkeeping you actually have to. (By the way, what ever happened to 4e's "roll a dx; the effect ends when you roll a 1"? It seemed like a great way to keep from tediously counting how long all each effect was every round.)

So there are quibbles for the anti-Vancer to make, but it's interesting to see Wizards considering different approaches for managing powers besides the thoughtless "once per short rest." I'd be interested to see if they explore these concepts for other classes.

(By the way, a good non-Vancian homebrew of the Artificer concept is this Engineer class, where powers are basically devices you wear, sort of like magic items. In other words, the limit is based on what you can carry, not necessarily how often you use the effect. It could have gone even further in that anti-Vancian directoin, but it's still pretty cool.)