Ask Angry: It’s Okay to Have Damage Rolls

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Long Time Reader, First Time Writer Asks:

In reading your “Thinking Critically” article, the following caught my eye: “In point of fact, if you want to get really nitpicky, you could say the damage roll is actually really out of place in D&D and probably unnecessary. But let’s not go there.”

Could you please go there? That is to say, could you elaborate on how the damage roll may be out of place in D&D? Furthermore, if you were to remove the damage roll, and being the solution-oriented GM that you are, what would you replace it with?

You’re actually not the first person to ask this, but you’re the most recent, so you win LTRFTW. You get the credit. But it’s credit with a slap in the face. Because if you’d REALLY read the article carefully, you’d already have the answer.

The modern d20 system is built around this very simple idea of using a single die roll to determine success or failure. That’s why some shrieking elitists call it a “binary system” like that’s some kind of insult. D&D doesn’t care how much you succeed or fail. It doesn’t track progress. It’s concerned with the outcome of single actions. You state an action, the action succeeds or fails, end of story. Everything else – that is to say the actual consequences of the outcome and how the world changes as a result – is added by the DM.

But the damage roll is really a roll for progress. It’s a role to see how successful you were. And people will argue that “well, that’s because you can’t have a single attack roll kill someone or else combat becomes a mess.” And I sure do agree. But that assumes the outcome for an attack is either KILL or NOT KILL. If you assume, instead, that an attack either INJURES or DOESN’T INJURE, you can suddenly see how the idea of numerical progress is weirdly out of place. Even if a task takes a long time, in D&D, we don’t track the progress. We don’t track how many points you need to pick a lock, even though you sure could. It’s an extended task that could take multiple actions and you could realistically set a “health” on the lock and determine how much “damage” lockpicking did. It’d be abstract, but it could be done. Same with searching a room. Imagine if things hidden in the room were hidden at certain “thresholds.” Each period of time you search the room, you roll a roll for thoroughness and that determines what you find. You can keep rolling until you’ve added up enough points to find everything, with each roll eating up a certain amount of time. That’s essentially what hit points and damage rolls are in their most abstract. It’s a progress indicator on a task that can’t be completed with one action.

The funny thing is that D&D flirts with other progress indicators from time to time, and they never really catch on. For example, crafting in 3.5 worked like this: translate the cost of the item into SP, roll a craft check, and based on that check, mark off some SP. When you’ve “crafted” enough SP, the item is done. Each craft check cost time and materials. And no one liked it or used it. And it went away.

Skill challenges in 4E were basically another attempt to do the same thing: create an extended task and give it a certain threshold for success. Each check moved you toward success a certain number of steps. When you had enough success steps, the task was completed. But skill challenges were very divisive and a lot of folks didn’t like them and the implementation kind of sucked.

But if you want to see the real weirdness of the damage roll in D&D, look at the rules for breaking things. The current rules, in 5E, which you can reference on PHB 185, run like this: if you want to break an object, you can make an attack roll and the DM will set an AC and HP for the object and when it takes enough damage it breaks. Or the DM can set a DC for a Strength check to break and object. And if you succeed, it breaks. Now, I understand the basic point. If you’re trying to hack through a door with a spell or weapon, it should have hit points. Because you’re actually trying to destroy the object. But if you’re trying to bust a door open, well, that’s a one-and-done sort of thing. But it leads to some real weirdness. For example, if you try breaking a door down with a rapier, you’re probably going to end up with a shattered rapier. Seriously. They weren’t made to be thrust into solid objects. They bend and snap. And what about unarmed attacks? Sure, I can burst a door open by smashing into it. But what if I want to batter it down with unarmed attacks? What if I’m a monk? Shouldn’t that work? I’m not arguing that the game shouldn’t rely on a GM’s common sense. Because it totally should. What I’m pointing out is a spot where the binary system and the damage roll system rub up against each other in weird ways.

But I was also just trying to make a point about weird little vestigial things that don’t belong in the system and manage to endure. There’s no reason, if you invented D&D today, to have damage rolls in there. Imagine if you invented the d20 system and you had one die roll that pretty much did everything. And suddenly, someone said, “we should also add five other dice just so that, for this one situation, we can tack a second die roll onto the first to see how good it works?” It’d be a weird proposal. Kind of like the critical hit thing. And I wasn’t proposing that we remove them. I mean, in Thinking Critically, I came to the conclusion that it was okay to have crits and we could probably just leave them alone because we’d never be rid of them. Same with damage rolls. And, just like with crits, I personally LIKE damage rolls. To the point where I had a whole Twitter rant against a blogger who suggested I just use the static damage given in the Monster Manual.

But fine, as an exercise, let’s pretend we decide that damage rolls have to go. What could we do in the d20 system to leave them around?

Well, the most obvious answer is just give everything a fixed damage. A longsword does 4 + Strength modifier damage on a hit. A greataxe does 6 + Strength modifier on a hit. And so on. Or, if we’re talking about D&D 5E here, you could even adjust for level. Like a longsword does 2 + Strength modifier + Level damage. Or whatever. I’m just spitballing. That’s just the most obvious solution. But the damage doesn’t vary.

If varying damage is something important to you, but you still want to get rid of damage rolls, what if damage was based on the difference between the modified attack roll and the Armor Class. If the orcs AC is 14 and you roll a 19 to hit, you do 5 damage. Or some base damage plus 5.

Or, honestly, you could do away with damage altogether. And I’m going to bring up Savage Worlds here, even though it technically DOES have a damage roll. Because that damage roll is COMPLETELY unnecessary. The system for damage could be used to get rid of the stupid damage roll. Let me explain.

In Savage Worlds, after you hit a target, you roll a special test called a damage roll. It’s rolled against a target number, just like any other roll. If you succeed, the target becomes Shaken. You hit it hard enough to cause it distress. If the target was already Shaken, you kill it instead. That’s it. Either you hurt it or you don’t. If you hurt it and it’s already recovering from another blow, you kill it. Done and done.

PCs and powerful villains in Savage Worlds, though, add a little bit more to that. If you hurt a PC or villain, it becomes Shaken. If you hit it again before it recovers, it suffers a Wound. The fourth Wound will kill anything. But the idea is the same: either you hurt it or you don’t.

There’s no reason you couldn’t have a system like that. A hit causes an injury. If a creature suffers a certain number of injuries, it dies. Basically, every hit always does exactly one hit point. Think of how much easier that would be to track.

There’s actually a little more to Savage Worlds than that, but the point is the damage roll is just another type of success roll in the game. It works the same way as everything else. And it does have some degrees of success, but so does every roll in Savage Worlds. So it is possible to hit an opponent and kill it outright or deal multiple wounds in one shot.

But, thing is, I don’t really consider the damage roll to be a problem. Again, that was just an idle remark. I was trying to illustrate a point. And I’m not clamoring for its removal. But, I’ll bring up another parallel between crit systems in that article and the damage roll. Remember how I said the 3.5/Pathfinder system of confirming a critical kind of sucked because all it ever really did was rob you of a crit. Well, in some sense, damage rolls do the same thing. When you miss, you miss. Done and done. But when you hit, you either do solid damage OR you might roll such sucky damage that you barely hit the creature at all. And that second thing is a pain in the a$&. You roll a really good hit, right when you need it, and you roll a 1 on the damage die. Sucktastic. And, while you can argue that the reverse is true, that you can roll high damage when you need it, I’ve pointed out several times that human brains overvalue losses compared to gains. Rolling low damage feels like more of a screwjob than rolling high damage feels like a success. But the effect probably isn’t strong enough to care about.

That said, IF I WERE MAKING AN RPG, I’d probably dispense with the damage roll from the beginning and find a better way to make damage follow logically from the attack roll. That is to say, if you roll a good, solid hit, it does good damage. If you barely succeed, you barely do any damage. And, if you miss, you miss. Something like that. Ideally, IF I WERE MAKING AN RPG, there would actually only be one type of die roll in the entire game and EVERYTHING would follow the same basic rules.

But, I’m not saying I’m making an RPG.

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33 thoughts on “Ask Angry: It’s Okay to Have Damage Rolls

  1. Cypher System also has another solution: everything has static damage (around 2 to 8) but if you roll 17 or higher on a d20, you get bonus damage.

    17 – 1 bonus damage
    18 – 2 bonus damage
    19 – 3 bonus damage or minor effect
    20 – 4 bonus damage or major effect

        • Well, technically there’s only two…

          But, to be fair, you’d not lose much even if you dumped 17 & 18 rolls. Applying effort for damage (3 extra) does more than that.

        • Oh yeah, there’s actually 3. 19’s, 20’s, and when players roll 1’s for the monsters to crit them or do something horrible.

    • Hmm I like the idea of a hit does average damage + modifer bonus and then everything above the armor class adds to the damage. A critical hit does 2x max damage + modifier bonus. One roll to attack. Nice.

  2. I love the idea of Savage Worlds specifically: the “Fast” combat they claim to have. But I hate all of the calculations they still retain. Savage Worlds looks calculation “LIGHT” at first. (Roll a die, and if it beats 4 you succeed!) But then they go ahead and add things like -X penalties based on wounds, fatigue, sitational modifiers, edges and everything which slow the thing down. Not to mention the sheer number of tables dictating those situational modifiers.

    Personally I love 5e’s Advantage and Disadvantage, and I would love to see a Future Savage Worlds that takes advantage of that. That way instead of rolling once and trying to calculate all of the cover bonuses, plus situational modifiers and then edge modifiers. You can just roll twice and take higher or lower die rolls.

    I don’t like it when die rolls become THE GAME.

  3. I think the damage roll also ties into the difficutly management thing that you wrote about recently on MAS (“D&D is too easy”.) I don’t know cr@p about difficulty and challenge levels and whatnot, but I would assume hitpoints and damage do strongly factor into that.
    So I guess if you were to remove damage dice completely you’d need to take that into account too. but it’s probably easier if you are writing an RPG than if you try to fiddle with an existing system. Even fixed damage can sort of mess thing up a bit. I played in a game this weekend and the DM used fixed damage and it felt far more dangerous to know that if that monster hits me it’ll 100% be 6 damage. Yeah, if you roll, it could be a 12, but also a 1. And I’m too tired for statistics now, but I’m sure there is a difference in the chances (life expectancy if you will) there.
    (and now I’m tempted to do the math for this.)

    • This is an interesting point. If an ogre always does 10 damage, and you’re level 1, you know that it will straight up kill you if it hits you at all. Makes judging a fight’s difficulty quite a bit easier. I don’t think it really *changes* the difficulty, though. But maybe.

      • On the other hand, that makes battle less immersive, as you lose the chaos of combat and instead can precisely plan out exactly how much damage you can take.

        • The random element of the to-hit roll is still there though, so you can’t plan everything, but yes, I guess you can plan more than with damage rolls. Actually, thinking back, I did take that into account with my chocies in combat. “Well, that harpy always hits for 5, I better stay out of the way.”

    • This is exactly how combat challenge is figured though. You assume the monsters always hit the average of their attack roll. So I don’t really see it changing the process at all.

  4. Numenera dispenses with damage rolls in favor of static values. 17 or better on the attack roll is extra damage (+1, +2, +3, or +4) with the option of applying some minor or major effect (stun, disadvantage, etc.) on 19s and 20s in lieu of extra damage.

  5. The D&D Adventure Board Game Series (or whatever those games are called) uses a single roll system. Any attack does a fixed amount of damage (typically 1 or 2 points). Most enemies have 1 hp, so they are “hit and done”. More challenging enemies have 2 hp. There are a very, very few with more than 2. But it absolutely follows the “one roll” method of success or failure. It is pretty slick and makes for a fun board game. It is nice to use those games to introduce people to the concept of RPGs as well.

  6. I’m getting antsy waiting for SMAFARGE. Not Song of Ice and Fire antsy, and definitely not War Against the Chtorr antsy. But antsy.

    Incidentally, if Angry ever wanted free editing services for any SMAFARGE manuscript he may or may not be writing, a certain part time editor would be delighted to donate and sign an NDA in exchange for an early shot at playtesting.

  7. And people will argue that “well, that’s because you can’t have a single attack roll kill someone or else combat becomes a mess.” And I sure do agree. – See more at:

    Why do you agree? John Wick’s Blood & Honor does a one hit kill any time someone gets hit with a katana. Don’t like it? Don’t get it fights you can’t win. How lethal combat is will set a tone for your game. I can easily see that a good portion of games won’t want that kind of game. If you want a game about politics, it would seem an excellent idea to deter the players from fixing all their problems with violence. As mighty as they could ever be, they will never be lucky enough to win every roll. If you go around picking fights you will eventually lose… that is if they don’t hit you with a surprise attack first (which in blood and honor allows no defense).

    • While it uses the same die roll (2d6) that everything does in that game, I would argue that the damage roll system works essentially the same way that D&D does it:

      Roll to hit, roll to see how many hit points you subtract. Replace DEF with AC and ARM with Damage Resistance, and everything fits.

  8. I just wanted to point out the story teller system that is used for the white wolf table top games.
    You roll a certain amount of d10 depending on how many points you habe in the attribute and skill (literally just count the dots ) and a success in a roll is 6. Hot only be 1 success to hit but then you do damage based on weapon. However any dove above what is necessary for hitting roll over and count as extra dice for the damage, to represent an exceptu ally good hit.

    Dodging adds in an extra step so it’s not the perfect one roll solves everything but I really like the way it represents solid hits or grazing blows.

    • IMO the oWoD system is even more problematic because of the way the damage is rolled; you can score a spectacular hit, but then do no damage because you rolled no successes on the damage roll. Exalted reduced the excessive dice rolling by having your dodge or parry be a passive “Defense Value,” but that still didn’t eliminate the aforementioned problem. It wasn’t until nWoD came out that they truly made combat into a single-roll affair in which a better attack roll automatically translated to more damage.

      • I don’t know new world of darkness but I will say in all the white wolf games (which are not just world of darkness) that i have played what you mentioned comes up so in frequently it’s hardly worth mentioning. If you just barely hit and don’t give your self any extra dice and you use either no weapon or a very weak one and have very low strength in order to minimize your damage pool you may do no damage, but that is appropriate since even if my 10 year old punches me and connects it probably won’t hurt. Not only because of my stamina but because he has a combination of bad technique and no strength to make up for it.

        In actual pay even when you barely hit your almost always going to do at least one damage ( before soaking). But I sup pose that is just my opinion based on my experience.

  9. Damage = Excess of attack roll over the defending AC + Str/Dex + Weapon damage.
    A weapon that did 1d4 damage (dagger) adds no additional damage, 1d6 (short sword) adds 1, 1d8 adds 2.

    Example: Sally wields a long sword (1d8) and has a strength modifier +2. With all modifiers her attack roll is 18. She had to beat an AC of 15. She beat it by 3, so her damage is 3 + 2 Str + 2 weapon (1d8 category) so 7 damage. If she made
    the same attack with a dagger (1d4) she would have done 5 damage.

    Dagger attack beat it by 3, so she deals 3 damage

    • Ignore that last line, typo.

      Essentially you get to keep weapons in different damage categories (being hit with a great axe tends to do more damage than a dagger) while still keeping the randomness of damage being dealt by using the attack roll.

  10. Just to lend something here, as I agree the additional roll should not have been there in the first place. I respect what they were trying to do in adding depth or that ‘wiggle’ in how you performed in ‘pacing’ or in opposition but it can be terribly disappointing. In addition, I have always thought the whole ordeal to be problematic for several reasons.
    1 – I hit and I did minimal damage or did not really do much to affect you
    2 – I hit you and was very effective and you are not bleeding or hurt but I will get you yet. Not only that but where did I almost hit you?
    3 – I hit you and have a two handed sword that I swing once and it brings you down ‘x’ where ‘x’ is 3 times the amount of a dagger, when on average you get 3x hits or more with a smaller more maneuverable weapon
     Sure you can do more ‘damage’ when you ‘actually hit’ with the big sword but the frequency of hits in the moment you’re close enough to do so or doing so on hand to hand or small weapons makes the damage roll more so moot whereas it should be replaced by an effect roll.

    I’m not saying FATE is right nor is D&D. I mean sure you can sell yourself anything but it is more my ‘belief’ that a hybrid of sort is more effective. A weapon identified for its strengths and advantages not for what it might do to hold you off (pacing) or actually harm you (bleed, knockback, gutting, etc). I do believe if all advantages are there and properly set a person can be assassinated or killed in one attack, hence the term to be assassinated. This can usually only be done through advantages and modifiers set by GM or in the game. So let us get rid of extra dice, define what happened within an action, and roll the d20. If we exceed expectations, we do more and better. If we reach a certain point, we do amazing no crit chart needed. I’ve always like calculus, trigonometry, algebra, and mathematics as much as the next, but when making the game move smoothly, have found it works best when it is defined into how it worked against the character so choices can be made.
    “Crap I’m bleeding I need to back off.”
    “Crap I’m bleeding, screw it, charge!”
    This has worked best for me when using wounds and stress. Numbers are great, and you can see a measurement as it decreases but it lacks a great deal of substance found when you ‘role’ not necessarily when you ‘roll’.

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