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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.