Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Sustainability

That's probably a ridiculous title (considering I can't even sustain regular blog posting) but it's the one that's been in my mind for the last week or so, so I'm sticking with it.

[jeez...did I miss the entire month of April? So much for this year's A-Z challenge!]

Over the last couple-four years my B/X focus has clearly waned here at Ye Old Blog and the main reason (just in case it ain't readily apparent) is some of the ways in which I've found the system wanting. Some of these complaints are pure silliness (making battle axes more "desirable"), some are readily tweak-able (thief skills, various class functions/scaling), and some are harder-to-fix design "flaws," like the treasure-XP-advancement ratio.

But over the last month or so I've made peace with a lot of these things...or out-and-out reversed my opinion/stance on them. Adjustments for ability scores, for example: one of the reasons for my dalliance with Holmes was a general disgust with the inflation of ability importance coupled with (and this is important) and inability to adequately justify these adjustments and what they model in-game, especially the "combat" abilities (strength, dexterity, and constitution).

Well, I've gotten past that (and will hopefully write about them in a future post), though only recently...like, in the last couple months. But doing so has helped me make peace with myself and the game, helping me to rekindle my love affair with the B/X system and many of its "rules as written." Which is kind of awesome. So long as I can justify things in-game, then I won't feel like a damn hypocrite when I write about the game with the authority I do (based on my years of experience with and analysis of the system).

Still, there are some issues for the game that, at this point, do require some "house rules" in order to provide some stability to the system...or rather sustainability. Because the essential thing (per my current point of view) is creating a game environment that sustains long-term play, so as to keep the players engaged and interested and coming back for more. To engender in players a love of the game, and of the hobby, in order to grow this thing that I call "fantasy adventure gaming."

SO...here are the issues (as I see them at the moment), that face the players with regard to the rules as written:

  • Lack of survivability in relation to both A) interesting challenges, and B) consistent world environment, and
  • Lack of minimal requirements of competence/effectiveness for some classes (specifically magic-user and thief) based on desired play style. 

A much lesser problem is one of distinction (differentiation) between classes, but that's addressable with things like exceptional traits, overlays, and the creation of new classes like those found in The Complete B/X Adventurer and similar works. The first two points are more pressing issues in need of being addressed.

It's no secret that D&D as written is a difficult game to play. Part of the basic challenge is one of survival; part of the satisfaction comes from seeing one's character grow and develop over time as it survives. But B/X as an edition is especially deadly to low level characters, for a number of reasons. Hit points for a first level character tend to be lower than those found in other early editions (OD&D and AD&D), while monster hit points and damage output tend to be higher (OD&D monsters use D6s for hit dice instead of D8s, and with a couple notable exceptions, are limited to 1D6 damage per attack). In addition, unlike earlier editions, B/X traps have a proclivity to the "save or die" variety...and given the very low chance of trap detection, their inclusion as suggested have the potential to wipe out any characters not being "one-shot" by the standard monsters.

Over the years, numerous ideas have been employed by folks attempting to offset this inherent lethalness, all of which I dislike for one reason or another. Fudging dice rolls. Providing a few healing potions at the outset of an adventure. Allowing "shields to be splintered." Increasing the starting hit points of a 1st level character (usually double or triple). Allowing player characters to start at some level higher than 1st.

Gary Gygax himself was known to play modified OD&D (the closest edition to B/X), and was purported to start all new characters at 3rd level. While this wouldn't change beginning saving throws, OD&D (as I described in that previously mentioned post) is inclined to have fewer death-dealing traps...and 3D6 hit points (plus CON bonuses) to start would allow beginning PCs to absorb an average of 2-3 blows before expiring...plenty of time to flee once discretion was determined to be the better part of valor.

[Gygax's house rules are important from this standpoint: at the time of his death, few could boast that they had run the D&D game for more years, or logged more hours behind the DM screen, than Gygax. As such, his opportunity to experiment, tinker with, and fine tune the game for maximum playability would have been second to few, if any]

In one of my recent (not yet published) projects for B/X, I took a page from Gygax's book and included rules that new PCs would start at 3rd level...however, much as I see the practical value of increasing survivability to that allowed by such an experience level, in principle I find it distasteful: I want players to have the full experience of beginning at zero and "paying their dues." Starting at 3rd level...even though the benefits provided are few (extra HPs, higher thief skills, bonus spells)...is a bit of a cheat. Or, to look at it another way, what's the point of having a 1st and 2nd level if it's going to go unused?

The point, of course, remains survivability in order to better sustain the campaign...and I have no interest in going the Hackmaster route of giving everyone +20 bonus hit points to begin (nor including extensive critical rules as an offset). But how can you increase hit points while maintaining 1st level? Using a character's constitution score as a base (it is "3D6" after all)? But then, do monsters need to determine CON? Are we going to throw standard definitions for systems like hit dice out the window? That's a crappy idea if one is hoping to maintain design consistency (which I am...for the sake of learning an already tricky-to-learn system if not elegance).

For me, I've come up with an idea that is outside the normal B/X "box," synthesized from multiple RPG designs (both my own and others). I call it Fortune points, and it works like this:
Player characters (and only player characters) begin their career with a small amount of good fortune to represent their inherent specialness and importance as protagonists. A first level PC receives two fortune points at the beginning of each game session, which may be spent as follows: 
- one fortune point to change a successful opponent attack to a "miss"
- one fortune point to change a failed saving throw to a success 
Any fortune points not used in game session may be cashed in for a straight bonus of 100 experience points. Fortune points may not be saved and "banked" between sessions (use it or lose it). 
As PCs advance in their career, this beginner's luck gradually diminishes: a second level PC receives only one fortune point at the beginning of a session. A third level (or higher) PC receives no fortune points. Player characters reduced in level due to energy drain, curses, etc. do NOT receive a larger number of fortune points; once they've advanced beyond the beginning levels, their luck has effectively "run out."
I will address the other issue of character class effectiveness (for magic-users and thieves) in a later post.

14 comments:

  1. Most people I have played with over the years start PCs at max hit points at 1st level. thats been true over all the editions I've played. Ive settled on an even more generous method. I allow starting hit points equal to your constitution (+CON modifiers) plus the roll of your hit die. I've never felt that this "overpowered" the PCs. What I do like is not having to "fudge" damage rolls at low level when using this method.

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  2. What about 'nerfing' monsters and traps instead of buffing players?

    You see... The system seems nice but the world keeps crushing the low level players, so... Maybe the Orcs do only 1d4 or even just 1 point of damage (unarmed orcs, why not?), or they have HD 1d6 instead of HD 1d8, or at the first level dungeon they are to close to the light and have that -1 adjustment in all rolls.

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    Replies
    1. @ G. B.:

      Or why not just have them fight giant rats or bats with no disease? Or normal goats like those found in 5E’s “basic rules?”

      Look, it’s not about scaling encounters...we saw that in 4E and I don’t want to play that minion-threat-boss thing. An orc is an orc, an owl bear is an owl bear. Creatures that strike fear in a low level adventurer should seem tame(r) to the experienced adventurer. They don’t just start weak and then *poof* reality morphs upon obtaining greater levels.

      Nope.

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  3. @ Nathan: I don’t think that’s “over-powered;” in fact, I used that exact system in one of the games I was designing (CON + HD).

    The problem is, doing that goes against what HPs model/represent (one HD worth o HPs being the amount o damage to inflict one mortal wound on one human). If the PCs get a bonus equal to their CON, well, I think I’m safe in assuming all humans have some type of Constitution. And then does every mortal man, adventurer or not, have the ability to sustain multiple mortal wounds? And what about the character’s CON bonus?

    No, I just need something to help the PCs survive to a higher level. No bonuses.

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  4. I'm tinkering with a type on CON & HP system, but no chance to test it yet. Most of it comes from various blogs.

    Only PCs get this or important NPCs. When out of hit points, they become unconscious for 1d6 turns. Extra damage reduces CON. HP fully recover with 8 hours rest if the PC has no CON damage. After rest, roll undamaged CON score or less on d20 to heal 1 CON damage.

    You could use exploding damagd die to bring back some lethality.

    Poison would do 1d6 CON damage each round until save. Falling would do CON damage. If the target is a monster, damage is 1d6 per 2HD or part thereof to hit points.

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  5. @ DLR:

    My thoughts on poison are fairly similar, though that deserves it's own post. In brief, my thought is that all poisons should do HP damage (representing a weakening of the character), but poison damage that exceeds a character's total Constitution score would prove lethal.

    As I once read: "One rattlesnake bite usually isn't fatal, but three or four? Good luck with that!"

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  6. You'll remember that I use a combination of the extra mass die roll (which might only add 1 hit point), and the cushion of negative hit points.

    The latter, I think, is the best method; lower level characters tend to die because they won't run away. They get their teeth into a fight and will throw themselves full bore at it, perhaps because they're first. The negative cushion is often only four more hit points of consciousness, followed by probable unconsciousness ... and just as death is a way of telling characters to slow down, the possibility of death becomes crystal clear once a player drops below zero and can feel real consequences to those negative numbers.

    The fortune points concept worked in a game called Top Secret that I played long ago, much the way you propose, JB. It worked pretty well. The points gave a sense of confidence, but again, when they were gone, it was a wake up call to the player. That's why they worked. Not because they kept the player alive, but because their absence was distinctly NOTICEABLE. The real reason why 1st level characters die is because they won't run away.

    That's why 6th level characters die, too, but it doesn't seem as wrong for some reason.

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  7. Top Secret is, of course, one of the games from which I’m borrowing the concept (that’s specifically where the name comes from). The “luck” attribute in the game Cascade Failure is another inspiration.

    I think it feels okay for 6th level characters to die because we believe that such characters should “know better” than to get themselves into non-survivable situations. Of course, this isn’t necessarily true (when one bad save roll can mean the end)...but again, higher level characters tend to have more resources to use to offset penalties (like death).

    Low level characters...well, they’re deaths can seem like whimsical crap shoots sometimes. A lot of the time.

    Off-setting two successful attacks is (on average) the same as providing a character with two extra hit dice. By the time they lose their fortune (at 3rd level), they’ll have earned those extra HD...and will (hopefully) have the gaming experience such that they won’t be putting themselves in untenable positions. That’s the idea anyway.

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  8. Personally, I don't think it's a problem of the rules. I think it's that players expect the first PC they roll up will be their only PC.

    Your fortune mechanic should work well, or negative hit points, or 5E style death saves would work to help the players realize they don't have plot immunity or a save button.

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    Replies
    1. @ Dennis:

      This really isn't about players bitching and moaning.Addressing PC survivability allows the DM (i.e. me) to open up the play field a bit more at low levels.

      5E death saves...which are continuous (rather than a finite resource) and persistent (still present at higher levels) are too far the other direction.

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    2. Fair enough. I find plenty of opportunity for a variety of play at low level despite the mortality rate. Players I've gamed with don't always appreciate how death can be a fun part of the game.

      Maybe leave things as they are and pitch it as having Game of Thrones level of plot immunity, and challenge the players to see which PCs are Ned Starks and which are Tyrion Lanisters?

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  9. Replies
    1. That weird ass cryptic line at the beginning actually has some gaming potential.

      And shit, if I ever need tape of any kind while in Pakistan, you got me covered, spam dude.

      Delete
    2. @ DMW:

      You took the words right out of my brain.
      ; )

      Delete