Tag Archives: Fifth Edition

D&D 5e: Hit Points

Another in my highly irregular series of “crap I wrote on WOTC’s board that I’m reposting here in order to pretend I have content”.

OK, first of all, you need to read this, which is Mike Mearls’ take on hit points in 5e. Not “D&D Next”. Please. “5e”.

So here’s what I wrote in reply:

Mrrrm…. I sort of like the concept, but I have a few issues. First, while it’s mostly a matter of narrative, we’ve always tended to describe injuries as dramatically increasing in severity as we approach 0 hit points, not “He’s a little battered” right up until he goes negative. Sure, that’s a matter of habit and custom and 35 years of DMing, but it’s a hard habit to break. 🙂  Perhaps more importantly, if you define hit points this way, then how does a DM narrate, say, an impaling attack that causes someone to be pinned? (Many 4e powers do this, as do many 3e special abilities.) Acid, cold, fire, lightning… it’s going to be hard to narrate all of those convincingly as just scratches and dings.

Second, I think 5e’s design is too concerned with pick up games and one-off games and small party games. Making this kind of healing a module is a fine idea; making it core is more problematic.

Third, I suppose I’ll have to see the mechanics, but how do healing skills help with this? Does a ranger who knows “healing herbs and poultices” give a bonus to his allies, for instance, or a wizard who has studied anatomy?

If hit dice represent mundane healing, will mundane factors (no bandages, filthy conditions, etc) reduce this capacity? Probably not for everyone, but it would be a good optional rule for gritty games where resource management counts.

I think you can do a lot of mechanical tricks with the “hit dice” concept, which is a bonus.

I’d like to keep “bloodied” in as a conditional modifier. It’s a good idea and one of the “Top 10” innovations from 4e, IMO. It’s even migrated to our PF campaign. It has no mechanical effect there, but a player will call out “bloodied!” to let us know he’s wounded (well, his character is. Usually his character. Almost always.), or the DM will use it to let us know we’ve finally managed to really hurt the monster. (To a chorus of “What, you mean we JUST bloodied it?”)

I also wrote this, a little later:

I suppose I should ask this… if the system is designed so that you can expect to survive fights without an in-combat healer (cleric, warlord, druid, bard), then, what is the benefit to having them? They will have to be designed so that their healing abilities represent part of their “value”, but if that value is not needed due to how encounters are expected to be designed, then, they’re going to be underpowered in their secondary role. Further, if you argue that “Well, it’s a lot EASIER with a cleric”, that’s fine, but then how do you design an adventure which can “work” with both magical and non-magical healing? (By this I mean, “If you have magical healing, you won’t need to rest for a day after 2 fights, so we can set up the scenario to occur in a shorter span of time. If you don’t have magical healing, you’ll most likely need to camp after the first two encounters, which means the orc shaman has time to summon Cthulhu while you’re napping.”)

This latter one might need some expansion here (see! Real content!), to be more clear, and because I never say in a hundred words what I can say in a thousand. Or more. If “healing after the fight” and “no need for a cleric” (which, at this stage of the playtest, means “no need for a healer”, as only the four core classes are being developed, so please don’t get nitpicky and say “Oh, but not needing a cleric doesn’t mean you don’t need a healer at all”, because, right now, at this point, at the stage the game is currently at, the only healers are clerics) are core mechanical concepts, this implies that basic fight design is going to assume you can survive to heal after the fight without a cleric. The “standard, balanced” encounter will not require in-combat healing to survive.

Which means:

a)Those parts of a cleric’s design which are devoted to healing are not needed by the basic game design; those parts which aren’t are, by definition, secondary. That is, if we want to say a cleric is “Half healing, half melee”, then, if the healing isn’t actually needed to survive a fight, then you’ve got half a fighter when you could have a whole fighter, or a whole wizard, or whatever.

Or:

b)Healing without magic is time consuming and limited; your total daily fighting capacity is much less. This is strongly implied by the article, and I guess we’ll know for sure in three days. (Why they’re being so coy when the playtest is public and three days away, I don’t know. Just tell us the actual mechanics you’re using, dammit!) I do not object to this at all; it’s a very good way to distinguish between magical and non magical healing. But… this means that a party with a cleric might be able to complete a particular task or quest in one day while a party without one will not, which means any adventure designed without exact foreknowledge of what the party makeup will be risks being either too easy (you build it for a non-cleric party) or too hard (the party has to battle several times to get to the end goal, which is going to happen at a specific time; if they nap in between, they miss it.)

I should note a pretty good answer to ‘b’ is “Well, then the party better find a clever way to avoid some of those encounters” or “The DM should change the adventure!”, and that’s fine for a lot of cases. It’s problematic in any kind of structured play, where you don’t want DM subjectivity giving one group an easy out because he like their cunning plan, while another DM thinks their cunning plan is Baldric-quality and doesn’t let it work.

Further, it’s emblematic of a common thread I see running through a lot of Mike’s pronouncements, the idea that the game will run the same no matter what rules modules you’re using, and, frankly, given how smart Mike is, and what a good designer he is (and those two statements were not sarcasm, irony, or any such thing; I mean them absolutely and sincerely), I’m really finding it hard to understand how he can think this. He knows, he knows very, very, well, how much subtle changes to rules change how the game is played. A feat, power, skill, or spell can become overpowered, or useless, based on which modules might be used. Changing how often characters can recover resources changes how much they can do in an in-game day, which changes how the DM has to structure events. Even in a sandbox game with as much player freedom as possible, the amount of “stuff” a character can do before needing to turn in for the night greatly impacts how you design the sandbox, how far you can expect players to explore, how clever they need to be to exceed the expected limits. In a more structure adventure, it becomes even more important to have solid expectations of what you can do.

FantasyCraft has options and dials you can set for an adventure, or for a campaign, and these have a mechanical impact that ripples through the system. Dials that make things easier for players increase the resources the GM has to build encounters, and vice-versa. I’ve not seen a hint that 5e intends to do this, though it’s so early in the process I might be making false assumptions. Nonetheless, the message from Mike’s posts is “Everyone gets to play the D&D they want to play, all at the same time, and it all works!” is the design goal — and I frankly can’t see that being possible. A modular system is great, but then you need to have tools to adjust and tweak each encounter, NPC, etc, to be balanced with the modules you’re using — not at all impossible, but counter to the “Sit down, open the box, and just PLAY!, dammit!” design goal.

I’ll probably have a lot to say in three days…which means I’ll get around to saying it in thirty or forty.

Beginning: Comments On 5E

Race, Class, Theme, Background

Well, since a lot of my writing time (i.e, time when code is compiling, tests are running, etc) is being taken up with occasional rants on the 5e boards, it seems to me that I could kill two birds with one stone (I took Weapons Focus (Sling), Weapon Specialization (Sling), Improved Critical (Sling), Manyshot, Avian Hunter, Improved Avian Hunter, and have a +2 Birdbane Sling and Bracers of Archery…er…Slingery…Slinging…whatever) and copy and paste some of them here, thus adding to illusion that this site has “updates” and “content”, which, in turn, helps create the illusion there are also “readers”. I feel a lot like Jeremy in Yellow Submarine, creating my own world for my own consumption. Solipsists of the world, unite!

OK, Background on Backgrounds

First, you need to read this post. (http://community.wizards.com/dndnext/blog/2012/04/06/beyond_class_and_race )Really. Nothing below is going to make sense without you doing so. “Who’s Pete?” you’ll ask. “Who’s Laura?”

So, having read that, here’s my initial reply to, as copied when I wrote it, meaning, even more typos than usual. (Hm… if over 50% of my posts are prefaced with “more typos than usual”, and it sometimes seems as if they are, doesn’t that de facto make them contain “the usual number of typos”, and my “edited” posts have “fewer typos than usual”?)

So… basically, all you’re doing is providing a set of pre-chosen selections of skills/feats/powers from a larger set, and calling them “themes” and “backgrounds”? The reason this couldn’t be done in 3e, 3.5, and 4e was… ? (Hell, it WAS done, in all of them, it just didn’t get beyond first level in most cases.)

I am not seeing a whole lot of advantage here. Someone who picks a “theme” still had to read through all the feat descriptions to learn what they do, comparing one theme to another theme and so on. As characters level up, they’re going to discover they don’t like the way some part of their background/theme works and want to change it, so, really, you’re basically saying, “Here, pick this pre-defined list of stuff that goes to 20th level, except that, by third level, you’ll be ignoring it completely.”

The only reason “Pick race, pick class, boom, done” worked in the pre-3e days was that there were no other options; people who wanted detailed characters who changed as they grew played Rolemaster, GURPS, Hero, etc. If you have a game that has enough feats and options to satisfy the “Lauras” of the world, “Pete” is going to realize he’s getting the shaft. He won’t be happy with the boredom of not having any choices to make as he levels up, because the designer made them for him. On the other hand, if themes/backgrounds are the only way to get certain options (“You can’t have Thieves’ Cant unless you take the Thief theme, period.”), then people will be rightfully pissed, because that basically makes it impossible to mix-and-match, so you’re left waiting for WOTC to release the “Sort of a fighter but he can speak Thieves’ Cant” theme.

Try to remember that the 1980s didn’t happen in a vacuum, that everything occurs in a context. Just because people paid 400.00 for a machine that only played “Pong” in 1975, and it was a lot of fun THEN, doesn’t mean you can market that same machine today and say “Hey! It was fun in 1975, right? So it’s still going to be fun now!”

3e finally caught D&D up to the rest of the gaming world. 4e had some genuine innovations and actually advanced the state of the art in many ways. Both had strengths and weaknesses that are well documented. Build on their strengths and correct their weaknesses. Prior to 3e, though, D&D hobbled through the 1980s and 1990s with a design philosophy stuck in 1975. 5e needs to be a game for 2012, 2013, and beyond, not a nostalgia trip.

In Which We Explain Further

So. Here’s a longer explanation. Basically, I think what WOTC wants is for D&D to be a beer& pretzels pick up game. They envision this:

Bob: Hey, gang! We’ve got about three hours. Do we want to play Settlers of Cataan or D&D?

Gang: D&D!

Bob: Great! Everyone, pick a race card, a class card, a theme card, and a background card, and fill in your character’s name. All done? Great! Here’s the adventure, “The Cryptic Crypt Of The Crypt King”. The box set comes with 10 adventures, and there’s lots more for sale for only 5.99! I’ll be the DM!

Gang: Whee! Let’s play!

And, I ought to be clear: This isn’t a bad concept for a game. Indeed, it’s a good concept. So good, it’s been done by lots of successful games: Heroquest, for example. Talisman. Heroscape, to some extent. Dungeon. Descent. Loads I probably haven’t heard of.

It’s probably a great idea to use iconic D&D characters, monsters, settings, and terms, too. There’s tremendous value tied up in the D&D IP. Games of this type have a large market and pursuing that market is something any smart company should do, if they think they have a niche and it won’t be seen as a “me too” product hastily rushed to market (cough Spellfire cough).

But it’s not D&D the RPG, and 5e is supposed to be the “unite the tribes” edition of D&D.

So, What’s Wrong With Themes, Etc?

Absolutely nothing. I love them in 4e; they should have been part of the core. I love Pathfinders “archetypes”, which serve a similar role, changing aspects of how the character acts, removing some abilities and granting others. Backgrounds, which help better shape a character’s origin, and give them greater ties to the world and/or minor skills from their upbringing which either enhance their primary role or give them useful tricks you might not expect, are also good. On the surface, making these things core in 5e is undeniably a good thing.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that WOTC seems to see think that the main problem with D&D is that it takes too long to make a character, that there’s too many choices, and that if you could just “start playing”, it would be great. What’s wrong with that?

First, you don’t have an awful lot of choices at first level, even in modern editions, unless a DM stupidly hands someone every supplement ever made and says “Pick a class”. For a first timer, the core classes and races ought to be enough.

Second, if one of the goals of “themes” is to collect useful choices that work together well into a bundle, this has been done since 3e; there’s always been “starting packages”.

Third, and this is really the issue here, D&D isn’t about making a character to start the game. It’s about advancing a character. It’s about playing his journey from “zero to hero”. It’s about taking him in unexpected directions as the game unfolds, both in terms of personality and game mechanics. Each level up is a chance to learn some new skills, choose new powers or spells, pick a feat, swap out old abilities, and so on, reflecting what’s happened to the character in the past couple of games.

Saying “Here’s your race, here’s your class, here’s your theme, boom, done!” works if you want a pickup game and just want to jump in. However, it’s contrary to the absolute heart of D&D, and that is the character’s ongoing story. D&D’s revolutionary idea, the concept that created the entire genre of role playing games, wasn’t “one figure equals one man”, or the integration of magic and monsters into tabletop wargaming, it was the idea of a continuing character who exists from one game to the next, growing in power and ability, trailing a story behind him. (And, importantly, not following a story laid out in front of him!)

Rules concepts like background (social skills, job skills, training, initial position in the world, cultural traits, minor bonuses and penalties from one’s upbringing and schooling and childhood and family), and themes (specializations, unique abilities, variant talents, unusual paths, esoteric powers) are great. They add tremendously to the class-based system, and help avoid the problem of drawing all character options from a single resource pool. However, and this is crucial, they must be bolt-ons to a core class system that is itself extremely flexible and capable of expressing a wide variety of character concepts and ideas within a single class. The game design, as a whole, needs to be centered around the campaign, around the ongoing adventures of the characters and their growth and progression — not on isolated adventures designed to be begun and finished in a single evening, with no continuity from one to the next, and no character growth.

But That’s Not What They’re Saying!

At this point, someone’s getting ready to point out that WOTC isn’t saying “No more campaigns” and that they’re talking about long term play, with themes offering pre-selected choices at each level, yadda yadda. Ah, but here’s the thing. The only time “too many choices” ever matter is at the moment of character creation, and then, only for very new players. If a player is intrigued enough to stay beyond a game or two, he’ll learn the rules, and want to make his own choices. The utility value of a theme, as a means of simplifying the game, diminishes rapidly with level. (This is not the same as the utility value of a theme as something which offers “out of the box” abilities or unique specializations or skills.) So, there’s a problem here. The “theme” player, if he just lets the theme run its course, is less involved in his character, and in the game, than the player who actively selects their abilities each level. He is disenfranchised, cut off from most of the game’s options, and each mechanic that allows him to ignore a theme pick and choose a non-theme pick undercuts the concept of the theme itself. Why bother with  20 level theme, if no one’s going to pay too much attention to it past fifth level? Of course, there’s nothing that says a theme has to make every choice; a theme could only come into play every four levels, or whatever, but, again, this goes against the idea of “simplifying” choices.

Of course, we’re at a very early design stage in 5e. It’s hard to say what the final form of “themes” or “backgrounds” will be. WOTC is doing 5e right, in the sense that we (the customers) are being shown the design in progress, along with the reasoning for it, instead of being told “Our professional funologists have determined that you’re not having fun. Our new game increases your fun by 78.6%. Play our new game. Have fun, Citizens. Serve the Computer. The Computer is your friend, unless you’re a commie mutant traitor.”, which was basically the 4e marketing pitch. The main test balloon WOTC is floating now, across several different columns/blogs, is “We’re thinking D&D ought to be a casual pickup game, not a long-term campaign game.” It’s time to start tossing some +5 flaming keen javelins at that balloon.