Ask Angry: Inspiration, Death Spirals, and Balance

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All right, kids, here’s the deal. Due to a computer f$&% up, a couple of documents were lost. One of which included the feature for this week. You’ll still get it. I just have to reconstruct it. It’ll be up on Friday morning. Meanwhile, as a consolation prize, here’s a special edition of Ask Angry with three questions answered from the queue.

Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.

Triple A Asks:

You wrote in an Angry Rant that the sunk cost fallacy and bad movies had inspired your GMing by reminding you to cut your losses. I would like to know what, if anything, books have inspired in your GMing career. What are the best lessons you think GMs can draw from video gaming? How can the more open-ended tabletop RPG steal from and improve on the video game RPG?

Wow. I’m actually shocked because this is an actual good question about inspiration for once. Usually, when people ask about “where you get your inspiration,” they are usually asking “where do you rip off your characters, settings, plots, and other story ideas from.” And, while I can rattle off a list of books, movies, TV shows, and videogames that I’ve stolen various story elements from as readily as anyone, that’s hardly useful or instructive. It is a lot more instructive and useful to talk about lessons about how to run better games.

But that’s also a super complicated question. See, running games and writing adventures and designing campaigns and building house rules? Those all involve a lot of different skills, talents, and bits of knowledge. Running games is partially a matter of active game design, balancing adjudication and engagement, narration, acting, improvisation, and pacing. Writing adventures is half story-writing and half game design and involves understanding motivations, both player and character motivations, and also story structure, themes, and a variety of narrative tricks. Building a campaign involves the same bits as writing adventures plus learning how to develop a setting. And developing a setting involves understanding themes and tone but it also involves verisimilitude and consistency and so it relies on understanding how a world works. And those are just the basics. Because you can tack on any additional disciplines you want. A keen grounding in science or mythology can help you develop your world. Understanding economics or psychology helps you understand how people make decisions and allocate resources. Game design theory helps you understand how challenges are constructed and how to build engagement through interaction.

So… that said: what books have inspired my GMing career? Pretty much everything I’ve ever read. Especially non-fiction. I’m a consumer of non-fiction and I read a lot of s$&% on a variety of topics. I love hard science, but string theory and quantum physics rarely come up in RPGs. I love social science, especially day-to-day psychological and economic analysis. How people think, how they interact, how they make decisions, and so on. I just read Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy” and Ori Brafman’s “Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior.” I’ve also read everything in the entire Freakonomics series and I’ve just started a book on game theory (the branch of math, not on video games). I also recently read a book about the history of the video game industry in, like, thirty vignettes: “All Your Base are Belong to Us” by Harold Goldberg. Syd Field’s “Screenplay” and Stephen King’s “On Writing” are also invaluable. Also, check out “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. And, of course, “The Hero’s Journey” by Joseph Campbell. It’s cliched, Those last few are excellent analyses of story structure. But that’s just a quick, slapdash list of things off the top of my head.

The thing is, so much is applicable to some aspect of GMing that it’s almost easier to say “everything you read has value.” Even fiction has value if you read it critically. That is, if you analyze why the fiction is constructed the way it is, how it’s put together, and pay attention to the patterns.

And the exact same thing is true of video games. Every video game has something valuable to teach. Even bad games teach you what not to do. But only if you play games critically. Only if you train yourself to think about why the game designer did this or that. I’ll give you an interesting example. I had a conversation with someone recently about Final Fantasy X. I said that it had the best gameplay of the Final Fantasy series. And he disagreed.

Basically, in Final Fantasy X, like all previous FF games, combat was turn-based. You took your turn, selected actions like “attack” or “spell” and then the enemies took their turn. You had a party of, like, eight characters. Only three were active in combat at one time. The rest were not involved. That’s not unusual for FF games. You frequently had a larger party than could be active. And each game had various ways of explaining their absence. FFX though allowed you tag in different members. All of your allies were there, just off-screen waiting. One of your active party members could retreat to the back line and let a different member come forward. I thought this added a lot to the combat system. He disagreed, saying it didn’t serve any purpose and it was just a waste of time.

I pointed out that FFX was much more character driven than previous FF games and, more importantly, it was really about the relationships between the characters and how they worked together as a team. It was about their feelings for each other. Unlike previous games, the characters never split up. They were on one journey together, each experiencing it their own way but also experiencing it through the eyes of the other characters. So, there had to be a way to have all the characters able to participate at any time.

In addition, when characters swapped in and out, they often had small bits of dialogue they would share. They would banter, joke, and rib each other. And that further drove home their relationships. They weren’t just allies in combat, they were friends. And that was what was most important. And because each character had unique skills that allowed them to deal with certain combat situations better than anyone, the system encouraged you to constantly cycle characters in and out. Unlike previous FF games, you couldn’t just have a favorite party and play the game just with those characters, forgetting the rest. Everyone was ALWAYS part of the game.

And that’s what I mean about playing critically. Here’s a mechanic. It’s different from other games. What does that mechanic do? Why that mechanic? Why not any other? How does it relate to the rest of the game? And that sort of thing takes practice. It takes a lot of reflecting on the game you’re playing. At the same time, anyone can do it. With practice.

That said, I find a lot of GMs take the easy way out when looking at video games. They get wrapped up in the idea that the only thing of value in an RPG is freedom of choice and therefore only video games that exemplify that are worthy of analysis. Those people point at games like Mass Effect and Bioware RPGs as pinnacles of GMing lessons. But Mass Effect is almost worthless because the choices are so limited and most of them are fake. Pretend choices. Tabletop RPGs can do choice infinitely better. Trying to learn about choice from Mass Effect is useless.

I’ll give you another example. I’ve recently been showing off Dead Rising 2 on my occasional Livestreams as an example of a game that handles choice wonderfully. The reason it handles choice so well is not because it has multiple-choice dialogue boxes. Instead, you have a limited resource (time) and a number of different goals (rescue survivors, find medicine for your daughter, explore the world, build better weapons, fight zombies, and prove your innocence of a crime) each of which is desirable for different reasons, and you can’t have them all. That’s a dilemma. And it’s far more interesting than just picking a motive from a list. And it is so wrapped up in gameplay, people don’t even realize they are struggling with the choice.

And THAT is a lesson that’s useful in RPGs. Give players multiple goals, desirable for different reasons, and make it impossible to have them all.

Jake Asks:

Could you elaborate on the idea of a “death spiral” and how those types of HP/damage mechanics affect a game, and how you would use them in your games?

I’m going to answer this just briefly because I have a couple of longer articles in the offing about rest and hit point mechanics.

For the uninitiated, a Death Spiral mechanic refers to a mechanic whereby, once you start to fail, it usually becomes harder and harder to succeed. A perfect example occurs in Savage Worlds. In Savage Worlds, as you become injured, you suffer greater and greater penalties to everything you do. That means, as you get hurt, it becomes more and more difficult to succeed at anything. That usually includes recovering from getting hurt.

You can contrast this with what TV Tropes calls Critical Existence Failure. That is, you are completely healthy and totally fine until you lose your list hit point. Then, you are dead. D&D and Pathfinder basically function under Critical Existence Failure. If you have 100 HP, you can lose 99 of them with no problem. But that last HP will kill you when you lose it.

Now, there are arguments for and against both models of HP.

The Death Spiral model is arguably logical. And logic is important, to some degree, in a role-playing game. Remember, we are trying to create the illusion of a real world with real people in it because that drives the decision making process. The world has to make sense to us as a world in order for us to be able to role-play properly. But logic isn’t the only advantage of the Death Spiral model. I’ll get back to that in a second. Because, the major problem with the Death Spiral model is that it causes the difficulty of any challenge to increase as the players fail. That is to say, the more trouble you are having with the game, the harder it gets.

Imagine playing a video game like that. Imagine you’re having trouble avoiding the goombas on level 4. And, every time you die, the game adds a few more goombas to the level. Basically, it’s punishing you for not being good at it by making it harder. That’s a very frustrating difficulty curve. In fact, a satisfying game is one that adjusts the challenge to the ability of the players. So, as a player struggles, the game helps them a little bit. Not enough to trivialize the game, but enough so that the player’s ability matches the challenge.

Critical Existence Failure, on the other hand, doesn’t create that increasing difficulty. Which is good. Ideally, you don’t want that. Because it leads to frustration and it also means that small errors snowball. It decreases the margin for error.

However, Critical Existence Failure does have a couple of issues of its own. First and foremost, it’s extremely illogical. It leads to the idea that any injury that isn’t deadly is trivial. And, that’s tricky for a game that includes living beings who have a survival instinct and an understanding of their own mortality. It also leads to a weird disconnect. Did you ever have a story in a D&D game where a character had a specific injury, like a broken leg? How does that fit into the Critical Existence Failure model. Yeah. It’s weird.

But apart from that, Critical Existence Failure also encourages the players to push their luck and prevents them from recognizing emergencies until it is too late. In D&D, for example, it’s very unclear to most players when their character is in trouble until the moment they actually go down. The fact that injuries do not hurt the character in any way keeps the characters fighting long past the point where they should recognize there is an emergency and consider a defensive strategy or a retreat or surrender or some other way to get out of the fight. Death Spirals encourage the players to make survival-based decisions before they are on the brink of death. That’s part of why PCs always seem to fight to the death. And why parties never seem to agree on when it’s time to retreat even if they are willing to do so. There’s nothing in the system that motivates you to remove yourself from the combat until it is too late to do so.

Personally? I really wish I could have a system somewhere in between. And when I first heard about the Bloodied condition in 4E, I was hoping that would be it. But Bloodied didn’t do anything. I’d love to have a system that encouraged the player to remove their character from combat or make defensive decisions before they passed a point of no return. But, at the same time, one that didn’t lead into a full death spiral.

Imagine, for example, if at 0 HP, you didn’t fall unconscious and start dying. Instead, you remained conscious, but you could only move. If you took any action at all, you had to make a save to stay conscious and not start dying. But if that action was to recover yourself, you could recover. That way, your character still had some options but absolutely couldn’t fight usefully and if the character tried to fight, they knew they were screwed.

Just a thought.

As to what I’d do if I were writing my own RPG? Well, I’ve thought a lot about this problem. And I think I have some potential solutions. But I’m not ready to talk about them yet.

Patrick Asks:

What is your opinion on having players roll for their Ability Scores? What is your opinion on handing out “+1” items to players? Really, the crux of what I’m asking is, what is your opinion on preserving “game balance”?

Frequently, I see people on the internet trying to tell other DMs to never let their players roll for ability scores, and to never hand out “+1” magic items. They argue that these things will ruin the game balance (they don’t, typically, expand upon how that will cause players to stop having fun, so they must assume that balance is a thing that must be preserved on its own?).

This makes me frustrated.

From where I sit, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to not want to roll for Ability Scores, and plenty of legitimate reasons to not want to hand out +1 items – but breaking the balance doesn’t seem like one of them.

First of all, no matter what these internet-people are saying, a +1 here and there is tiny. There is no way they are running fights so finely tuned, that a rogue dealing 15 damage instead of 14 is going to throw things off. More importantly, people seem to assume that in the absence of these things, the game will somehow be perfectly “balanced”?

I included almost the entire text from this e-mail because I find it hilarious. By the last paragraph, Patrick is already having a hypothetical argument with the answer I haven’t given yet. Do you want my answer, Patrick, or do you want to lecture me about why yours is right? Because, let me remind you, you don’t need my permission to run your game any wrong way you want. If you’re coming to me for validation, you’re in the wrong place for the wrong reason. Just run your game. I don’t care.

But let’s talk about game balance. I’ve never personally heard anyone say “don’t give out +1 items, it’ll break the balance,” but I do know that lots of people (myself included) do advise against handing out mechanical bonuses willy nilly without considering the balance in the system. A +1 bonus in D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder certainly isn’t going to break anything. But it definitely has more impact in 5E or 2E or 1E. Just because of the way the numbers line up. I’m not saying your 5E game will get broken by a +1 magical sword. But an entire party with +1 swords and +1 armor at very low levels in 5E would definitely be noticeably unbalanced.

But what does that MEAN? What IS game balance? Well, in this sense, game balance refers to how likely the party is to succeed at a given task or challenge based purely on the numbers without regard to the decisions they make. That is, you can say that if a person has an attack bonus of X and a damage of Y and AC of Z and HP of Q, they will probably last this many rounds against that foe and take this manage damage before the foe is dispatched. What use is that? Well, it allows the GM to set a baseline level of difficulty for the game. And D&D and Pathfinder even provide tools to help the GM set that level of difficulty. Of course, those tools assume certain mechanical numbers.

Now, the impact of any given deviation from the expected numbers varies from system to system and deviation to deviation, as I noted. Some are minor. Some are major. +1 swords? Pretty minor. Rolling for ability scores, though, can be pretty major, because those ability score bonuses and penalties determine the baseline odds of success for absolutely every die roll in the game. Of course, even rolling for ability scores, it’s unlikely to get any extreme deviations. But the right mix of minor deviations throughout the party can add up to a problem.

In addition, game balance also ensures that each of the characters in the party has a similar impact on a given challenge. That is to say, none of the characters is wildly more or less powerful than any of the others. And that’s important to GMs because, again, a single underpowered or overpowered character can disrupt your ability to create meaningful challenges and predict the likely outcomes. And, again, the delicacy of that balance depends on the system and the deviation. It varies.

So, why is any of this important? Well, it’s important that the GM creates a game that is neither trivially easy nor frustratingly hard. Basically, the GM needs to provide the right level of challenge to satisfy the players. BUT… how important that is varies from group to group and player to player. Some players and some groups value the challenging aspects of the game. They like to be challenged and to feel like they’ve achieved victory through their own good decisions and their own character’s abilities. In order for that to work, the challenge level needs to be pretty finely tuned. For those players, if the level of challenge is too low, the game is boring. Players who are less interested in challenge can tolerate the difficulty being too low, but if the difficulty gets too high, they tend to get frustrated. That means that every group of players has a sweet spot that defines the proper window of difficulty. And, for some groups, it can be a very narrow window.

Meanwhile, there’s some things true of all groups. First of all, no one likes to feel useless. And this is where the ability score thing tends to come up a lot. If someone rolls particularly low ability scores, they will tend to fail a lot at various tasks compared to the rest of the group. And that can lead to sense of worthlessness. Moreover, the group will tend to rely less on the low-ability-score character, marginalizing them. And then, of course, there’s the possibility that low ability scores make the character more likely to die. Which is no fun for anyone, really. On the other hand, if someone rolls particularly high ability scores, that can lead to the rest of the group feeling marginalized. And both of those situations make it more difficult for the GM to design appropriate challenges that fall in the “sweet spot” discussed above.

That said, there’s no rule that game balance has to be perfect. In fact, game balance is rarely perfect and some imbalance actually improves the game. There’s a bunch of reasons for that. Me? I don’t worry too much about minor bonuses, but I don’t allow for rolling ability scores or hit points anymore. And I also make sure I understand how the system is balanced before I start f$&%ing with it. The last thing I want to do is frustrate, bore, or murder my PCs because I f$&%ed up. I want those things to be intentional.

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19 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Inspiration, Death Spirals, and Balance

  1. Thanks for the answers, Angry. Quick follow up – you mentioned not letting players roll for hit points. Do you take the average of their Hit Die and add their Con modifier or do you use another system? Additionally, are you a point buy guy or an array man for Ability Scores?

    Aside from those, I wanted to say that I’m really excited for your upcoming articles on Rest and HP. Even if I don’t end up using some of the systems you suggest, understanding how to mechanically tweak the game improves my Dungeon Mastering exponentially.

  2. I also have had a lot of good experiences with the book “Save the Cat”. I can’t recommend it enough.

  3. When we rolled ability scores in 3.5, I don’t think anyone ever strictly went with 4d6 drop lowest six times – this would typically provide an array topping out at 14-15 which wouldn’t count for clear lack of 18. The least offensive cheat here was rerolling the entire array until satisfied, the most offensive/common cheat was rolling a long string of ability scores and picking the six in a row with the highest numbers. This just led to relatively high-power games, and with short sessions and often homebrew poorly-designed monsters there was plenty of challenge to be had.

    I don’t recall having this problem with rolling hit points, since there are more rolls for those to average out, but I also don’t recall starting at level 1 too often. Getting low rolls on your first couple of levels would leave you with a very squishy character, so I do recall later on having the rule where you would roll but values below the midpoint (rounded down, so 4 on d8) would be bumped up to the midpoint.

    One of the design decisions I liked most in 4e was the wholescale removal of randomness from character generation, with point-buy/arrays as the standard method for ability scores and no mention of hit dice in favour of fixed HP per level. These existed in 3.5, but point-buy was buried somewhere in the DMG, and after cheating on rolled scores the fair arrays always felt horribly low. I’m a bit annoyed at the return to rolled stats as standard for 5e, though the point-buy is right there so it’s easier for groups to recover from the effects of bad random ability scores and recognize when they’re way out of ‘intended’ range.

  4. I like rolling for abilities myself. I like the idea of “regular joes” starting off on their careers with only the abilities the gods gave them. However I like the Rules Cyclopedia system, wherein after rolling you can lower other stats to boost your prime requisite (old-school haha) at a 2:1 ratio, excluding adjustments to Cha and con, so no dump stats. Also, you could never lower stats below 9, and obviously, if someone didn’t like their rolls they could re-roll a new set and start over. This was all part of an experiment to try running od&d for players, through levels 1-11 or so, using the rules right out of the book. It’s worked out well, and has even flavored our home villiage with a incredibly simple-minded, reject cleric affectionately named Strump the Struck, that no one wanted to play haha. I totally get the problems random rolling causes tho, and when I added another player a couple years down the road, I simplified his process, making sure he balanced with the randomly generated characters. As for +1 items: I like balancing finds like that by making them “masterwork”, so they have the plus to dmg and hit, but don’t count as “magical” for striking magical creatures or saving vs destruction, and even encumberance. The idea of master smiths making exrtaordinary, but non-magical items, adds great flavor to the world, I’ve found it be so anyway. And it’s a good way to give young parties bonus’, while still being relatively easy to get rid of them if becomes a problem (rust monsters, grey oozes, hits from giants etc.). Great posts Angry, even on days where your not prepared you still spread the wisdom around!

  5. For a little bit, I used a deck of cards to randomize ability scores while keeping them somewhat balanced. It involves taking 18 cards between A(1) and 6 and shuffling them around and drawing three for each ability score; I can’t remember the exact set of cards right now, but you could re-balance it based on where you want the average to lie. I also had a floating 2 that the player could add to an ability score as long as it didn’t go over 18.

    As for D&D hit points, I go with the rule that anything less than half just gets half of the hit die. This rules in favor of the PCs but doesn’t automatically inflate them so that I don’t need everything do 50% extra damage to keep the pacing on par (like you would if you just maximized every die).

    This keeps the random elements that the players can’t help but eat up and but keeps a reign on the more permanent aspects of a player’s character. Complete random ability scores, hitpoints, (and death spirals) are work fine in games where character creation is swift and you can cycle to a new character; However, all of those things are terrible when you invest a lot of time into character creation, because all of that gets wasted and/or you’re wasting time playing a character you’re unhappy with. Tabletime is very valuable to a great many people, and it’s just not worth it to be wasting all willy nilly.

    • The “let them roll, but they can’t get lower than half” rule for hit die seems odd to me. I’ve encountered it before, but mathematically that actually has a fairly significant effect on the average hit points a character will receive. Obviously it won’t affect things as much as just assuming max rolls, but its effect will still be noticeable. (By level 20, a member of a d10 based class with +3 CON can expect to have around 175 HP on pure dice rolls, whereas with the “can’t get lower than half” rule the average will be up to nearly 195. That’s not insignificant for balance considerations.)

      I understand your instinct, I think; players can feel frustrated and resentful if they roll badly and become a seriously squishy character early in the game. But the whole point of dice rolling is that there is built-in risk. I can’t see what you gain by basically telling your player “you can either do well, or really well.” If you’re going to pick up the dice at all there should be a real risk of “failure,” in HP rolls as much as anything else.

      Personally I give my players the choice; they can take the average roll as per the PHB, or they can roll for it. And if they roll for it, they have to deal with the fact that it could go either way. If they want to play it safe, they can take the average. But if they want the possibility of getting a high roll, they have to also deal with the possibility of getting a low one.

      • Personally I’d rather not roll for hit points, but of course the players will have none of that.

        They want that chance to get a high number. Like really, really just want that chance. The goddess of luck will light their way, that is up to the point where they roll 1s on the die for 3 levels straight and ask if they can get a reroll and then roll 2s. I really just want to prevent the situation where a “squishy wizard” ends up with more hit points than the “hardy” warrior because of a couple of bad rolls. It’s a quick and easy compromise, without players wasting everyone’s time with tough decisions on stupid shit.

        Warriors are expected to be able to take hits. That is a function of their class. I don’t need to be running a game that’s screwed because the warrior got gimped in the metagame event of leveling and can no longer fulfil the role that he is meant for. It’s not like wizards are rolling to see for every single spell to see if they’ve actually learned it (anymore). Rogues don’t have to roll to see if their sneak attack improves. Players ALWAYS think they can handle whatever comes at them, until they fail, repeatedly. However, it’s not worth ruining a game over.

        • Fair enough, but then I don’t really see what rolling actually adds. Seems like if you don’t want to allow failure (for the very good reasons you’ve cited) then just force them to take the average. They’d get over it. Probably.

          But that’s me. And I don’t mean to be contrarian, just to point out the math and balance concerns.

  6. Do you realize that in the paragraph talking about “if at 0 HP, you didn’t fall unconscious and start dying”, you actually did describe the exact rule for the “disabled” condition in d&d 3.5. The thing is, the overwhelming majority of people ignore/forget that rule (for several, albeit understandable, reasons).

    The major problem with this in D&D stems from the sheer size of the numbers being thrown around — landing at exactly “0 hp” is so rare that it’s not even worth tracking the special rule for it.

    (I could go on for pages on this; but I think that leaving it at that is sufficient)

    • Which is exactly WHY I didn’t discuss it. It almost NEVER actually comes up. So it’s actually not useful at all. Thanks for not going on for several useless pages about a mechanic I purposely did bring up because it actually doesn’t fix the problem I was discussing.

      • Touche.

        Sorry, I apparently misunderstood what you were going for. (I had thought it might have been one of those “I have this great idea – how come nobody has thought of this before? Oh, wait …” type of things.)
        Looks like I need to learn to read gooder. ;-P

        We now return to your regularly scheduled brilliance. 🙂

  7. There’s a saying that’s thrown around at our table (well, arrangement of couches) from time to time when people complain about low hp rolls: “the only hit point that matters is the last one”. And it’s true. Things out there like save vs death, or turn to stone or being turned-into-a fish-when-no-water-is-around-for-miles, exist, and often, even if they don’t know it, players are in much more danger of things like that than any physical damage (though I’m not discounting that threat). If they’re so worried about a lack of a few hp ruining their whole game, chances are they aren’t thinking hard enough about all the other things out there, including their own actions, that can kill them. Ultimately, if the players I know wanted padded hp, id let them know that everything they face will also have padded hp. At times I’ve seen characters go down who’ve had double the hp of characters who’ve survived a particular battle, and no one ever said “that shouldn’t of happened because she had really high hit points”. I feel that the range from “squishy” to “tough” has to be somewhat randomized and unknown, because thats part of the challenge with encounters: knowing that a group of 20 orcs all have say, 4 hp, is waaay different than knowing they could have from 1-8 hp (od&d I should specify), and that informs the players choices about risk. And it goes both ways. I like to not know exactly how much damage my players can take either, because it encourages me to not let feelings get in the way when I unknowingly roll a death blow against one of my close friends characters (obviously I have a general idea). At bottom, no one ever complains when a Orc drops from one damage, and I believe orcs have rights too damit. As a dm I’m not picking sides with hp. My personal exception is giving max hp for first level, because I’m sure we all agree that characters with 1hp dying from bruises incurred in a 5 foot fall is pretty lame haha.

  8. I tend to think many inferior models of damage are based around a lack of knowledge on the mechanics of violence. A truism in sword fighting was that it was more important to not lose than to win. Many times through history has the victorious side in any fight later perished from their injuries in said fight. This is seen in the modern world in bow hunting. A mortal wound is typically not instant and the animal will be active for some time after being shot, often requiring tracking after the fact to find the fallen animal.

    So how does this effect the game? You need a way of determining if instantly lethal blows are something you want to entertain and if so than you must determine who they will apply to (NPC’s only, mooks only, everyone, etc). From there you have to seperate mortality of a wound from its ability to incapacitate (by rendering unconscious, disabling sections of the body, etc). Something like Stun (nonlethal force which knocks you out) and body (go negative your score and you are dead) from hero system can accomplish this. You than have the basic metrics for tracking how close you are to unconsciousness and death without one nearly necessitating the other.

    Of course there are other mechanics out there like the wound ranks of Star Wars saga edition or the wounds and critical wounds of warhammer fantasy 3rd. Your hero system method has no inbuilt penalty that characterizes death spirals, but allows you the possibility of staying active after most systems have passed their point of no return (allowing a hasty retreat or other tactic). Warhammer does a good job of portraying the long term nature of certain injuries and the difficulty inherent with overcoming them (not just taking more time to heal, but showing th full array of recovery options including things like infection).

    I suspect that the method chosen will have to be tailored to the feel of the game desired. How much simulation you want and how many rules you want to deal with will be big contributing factors for sure. Gritty realism games are likely to have a more severe spiral than pulp games. I’m interested to see the implementation that Angry uses and what balance he will settle on.

  9. Conceptually, I always liked splitting damage up into armor vs health. Initially during fights you would take armor damage that wouldn’t diminish character abilities. Once the armor was gone the character would start taking damage and would warn them the fight was going poorly. This also lets you do lots of cool things with damage types, poison bypasses armor, acid does double armor damage, and other damage types could do 1 or 2 health damage through armor. Just makes sense to me and has some fun options you can customize.

    • I play Battlelords of the 23rd century an old game that does exactly that. It’s massively complicated as a result and very slow to play. There are also two side effects: 1- players now have a ton of ‘hit points’ that they can buy as armor, so the damage progression just shifts, once they run out of armor, they die quickly. And 2- players never go anywhere without their armor and helmet on. It’s quite silly. I don’t recommend it.

  10. I loved the death spiral question.

    When I am not playing D&D I am playing Advanced Squad Leader. Personally, I believe every game is a RPG, only the amount of RP varies from a minimum in Snakes & Ladders to a maximum in D&D. In ASL the “role” you play is a military commander of company to regimental level depending on the size of the scenario.

    Within the mechanics, infantry (depicted at squad level – as expected given the name) have a death spiral ranging from “good order” through “pinned”, “broken” to KIA plus some side cases; part of playing the game well is to cause your opponent to fall down this ladder. However, armour which is represented by individual units do not (in general) have a death spiral; they are fully functional until they get blown away. This is even more extreme than the D&D case because (again, in general) a hit either kills or has no effect whatsoever. There is a lot of discussion about the unreal invincibility of armour and/or the fact that infantry are sometimes not responsive to command.

    Personally, I find no merit in the arguments either way; I take the game on its face vale and accept that sometimes things are the way they are because that’s the way they are. Just like in the real world: if I drop a hammer on my foot it’s going to hurt; sometimes a lot, sometimes not so much.

  11. What do you feel about using Critical Hit decks (both when crits are rolled or when certain percentages of damages are dealt) that cause things like stat damage/effects because a player “broke their arm” or something of that effect?

  12. RE: “If someone rolls particularly low ability scores, they will tend to fail a lot at various tasks compared to the rest of the group.”

    That doesn’t seem to be true in my experience with 5E. If someone rolls low ability scores, they make a character who depends less on ability scores. (Moon Druids are very popular; tanky fighters in heavy armor and with quirky personalities are also somewhat popular.) If they roll high ability scores, they take the chance to make an unusual concept like a Barbarian/Warlock. Both kinds of characters wind up contributing, they just do so in different ways.

    The nature of 5E game balance is such that most abilities are gated behind class features, not ability scores. That Moon Druid with 11 Wisdom can still conjure animals, cast Greater Restoration to fix you up after getting perma-stunned by a Mind Flayer, or turn into a giant crocodile. That Sorlock who rolled only Cha 14 as his highest stat may have a crummy AC due to poor Dex, but he can still cast a mean Careful Web that provides the melee guys with a safe place to fight in. Etc.

    • The problem with 5e is that in most cases the dice roll matters more than your stats. To the point that a commoner that’s never touched a canvas can make a masterpiece painting, or a master artisan can fail to make a drawing a child could do. On the other hand as a side effect every +1 matters because it gives you that 5% extra chance to hit the masterpiece.

      Then there is giving a +3 shield and +3 plate to a character in 5e. If they get that, they are nigh untouchable. The few times they get hit will be marginal enough that they will have destroyed all the enemies before it matters.

      Its a double edged sword.

      Ability scores actually matter quite a bit in 5e because class ability save DCs (spells, maneuvers, etc…etc…) as well as attack bonuses depend on them. In the play test they promised us the monsters stats wouldn’t go up, yet when you look at them they neatly go up by level. This leads to characters that take feats only, being gimped later on because they can’t touch monsters stats. Of course 5e is the ‘DM fix it edition” where if you get low stats the DM is obligated to ‘fix it’ by giving you magic items or just ‘magically’ increasing your stats. I can rp in checkers and chess if I want. 5e is no different.

      Also, on an unrelated note don’t ever criticize 5e on the 5e subreddit. You’ll instantly earn -100 karma and get banned…

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