Wednesday, February 17, 2016

More swings

Naked Man and I are having some interesting discussions right now about critical hits and fumbles in DnD.  He favours fumbles existing, and the option of open ended critical hits.  I don't prefer either of those, largely because I like difficult fights.  To my mind really swingy abilities and mechanics tend to make fights really boring because they need to default to really easy or you wipe out the party regularly.

Think of it like this:  Imagine a fight between a hero and a villain who each do 1 or 2 damage every round.  If the hero has 10 HP, the villain definitely can't have 9+ HP because the hero is going to die a lot.  However, if the villain has 5 HP, they die pretty trivially.  However, you can give the villain 6-7 HP and make sure the hero feels threatened but stands a very small chance of being killed.  The result of the fight is predictable, but the hero feels like they were in a dangerous situation.

Now imagine instead that the fighters sometimes roll badly and fumble, losing not only that action but also their next action.  Also imagine that they score critical hits, enabling them to do a lot of damage sometimes.  I model this with damage totals randomly chosen from between -1 and 4.  If the hero has that same HP of 10, the villain can easily kill them in 3 hits.  Not most of the time, mind you, but it is a real threat, and 4 hits is no problem.  Because of this if you want the hero to win you have to give the villain a really low amount of health, say 3 or 4, to make sure that the hero comes out on top.  Problem is, that means that the hero is often going to kill the enemy on the first or second turn and will rarely feel threatened.

In DnD fumbles don't occur on every fourth swing of course, and neither do crits.  However, the presence of extreme swings in combat really forces the GM to scale back the power of enemies if they want their campaign to have a lot of longevity.  This is exactly how most hardcore dungeon crawls worked in the old days - players were constantly encountering a handful of orcs, butchering them instantly, and moving on.  There isn't anything necessarily wrong with fights being really easy, but it does mean that players are going to experience an awful lot of seemingly trivial encounters before something really bad happens and they are seriously worried about dying.

That situation of general easiness is especially difficult with big serious encounters against bosses and such.  With really swingy combat you have to accept that the players are going to die a lot, or that they risk blowing up the boss on the first round and being really disappointed.  It is much harder to achieve an epic feel when blowouts like that occur.

I think some people really don't mind that style.  They feel okay if they end most fights having taken no damage and having just mashed their opponents.  Some people really do like just waiting until the dice break against them to find their excitement.

Heck, some people enjoy every encounter being a near death experience and constant player deaths and party wipes.

Neither is really my thing.  I like battles where the key turning points are decisions moreso than luck.  I would prefer that the outcome is far more dependent on which abilities I use and which the enemies use than which of us rolls 20 on two d20s and explodes someone in a shower of gore.  I like fights that use my resources and make me feel like I had to work for it.  That doesn't mean every fight has to be 'balanced' but it does mean that the ones that feel tight and challenging really get me going.

I just don't get much value out of boring decisions creating huge effects based on the dice breaking weirdly.  For me, that means that critical hits and fumbles are mostly a negative experience because they either wipe out the party, make potentially interesting fights into trivial affairs, or mean that the GM only serves up easy stuff and I feel more like a exterminator than a hero.


  1. I have no plans of serving up easy encounters, as you've probably noted.

    I don't adjust the encounters at all - we're exploring the world together and whatever shows up, shows up! (just be prepared to run)

    I think your math is wrong if your calculations show that the GM must scale back encounters. It's not like a critical hit or fumble are instant death. They aren't vorpal weapons! Now *that* has the impact you're describing.

    As an aside, in the "old days" (just like the "new days"), the earlier encounters were to deplete resources, much like they are in video games, and to build anticipation.

    If I can summarize: My 10 vs. monster 9 is bad. My 10 vs. monster 4 is bad. It must be my 10 vs. Monster 6/7. That way it depends on my skills and an completely unfair fight against someone much weaker. If you're fighting a 6, are your choices what's making the difference, or are you winning because you're a lot stronger?

    Separate from that particularly telling point, how about a 10 vs. a 7...with a 5% chance of being an 8 or 9? Well now, suddenly we've got some excitement! *Now* we have a tight battle with some challenge - you're not pushing over a 6, you're tackling a 7 as fast as you can because you never know when it might turn into an 8 or 9 (or 10!). And when it does, it's going to feel glorious when you beat it!

  2. Of course characters are winning because they are a lot stronger. They *have* to be a lot stronger, since they are expected to fight constantly and almost never lose. By definition!

    Thing is, I enjoy feeling that the fight is interesting, that the enemies accomplish something, that I don't just mulch them.

    I am curious though what you mean by a 7 turning into a 9. Can you give a more concrete example?

    I also find the whole depleting resources over many encounters thing kind of silly. Sometimes it works, for sure, but most of the time it requires stuffing all kinds of nonsensical encounters into the adventuring day just to accomplish it. I almost always feel like the concept of the adventuring day that must have four encounters in it to be functional is a ridiculous thing.

  3. I find the concept that "an adventuring day must have 4 encounters" absurd as well. Must be something from 3rd or 4th edition because you keep mentioning it, but I have no experience with it.

    Note that in your current quest, there have been absolutely no limits on how many encounters you have in a day. :-) I've never run an adventure that has been more convenient to walk away when you need a break. There is definitely no resource depletion.

    ...yet you still get worked up that the fights are 9s...or 10s...or maybe that one battle could be considered an 11. Now *that* encounter required skill, teamwork, and strong decisions to win.

    Which battle? Exactly! What an epic adventure that every fight is an 11!

    Re: 7 turning into a 9

    In your example, at 8hp, the hero doesn't need to fear anything. They are at no risk of dying. With critical hits, there's always a risk, no matter how small. Unpredictability adds tension. It makes decisions harder. Sometimes much harder - variable values are hard to fit into the equation. You need to have a broader answer set to handle all the scenarios and pathways. You have to weigh risky vs. conservative plays differently.

    I'm interested in the actual math behind your example. It seems faulty. Could we convince Nick to graph it out?

    It is *possible* that someone can die in 3 hits when damage is -1 to 4, but it's extremely unlikely. It's not as if critical hits happen all the time. Or even very often. And sometimes they just double the 1hp blow to a 2hp blow. And the variance is higher in single combat, but if there's a group of people fighting a group of monsters, the variability will even out overall, while still adding specific threat risk to individuals. It also balances out in that the players do critical hits as well and sometimes win faster than expected.

    That being said, I do see now how combining fumbles and criticals means you're doubling (sort of) the chance of an extreme because two checks are done each round instead of one - you could fumble and get hit for double damage at the same time. I'll have to think about that.

    So by "turning 7 into 9 5% of the time" I mean that by adding low probability criticals, you can still have a bunch of 7 encounters and nearly all of the time they will be tight, challenging 7 encounters that you love. Occasionally they will be a 5 or a 9 because of those the dice fall. And you'll never know which one it's going to be until it happens. Just like life!