Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Does Combat Feel Different Across Levels? And Is That Good?

A parody of adventure game design - almost like the old Dungeon! game, or the present-day Munchkin game - would base combat and skill outcomes on a die roll, factoring in the character's level, the challenge's level, and different outcomes for different end numbers.

Well, I say parody, but such a super-abstracted combat actually shows up in other games that emphasize exploration and interaction over the minutiae of combat, starting with Chainmail, proceeding through Tunnels and Trolls, and following through in a myriad narrative-oriented games that keep a long arm's length from wargaming.

And this is how 3rd edition D&D handles skills. As a result, using skills at high levels feels just like using them at low levels. At level 10 you are picking the super-titanium-elder-dwarven-riddle-lock with exactly the same odds and procedure that you used to pick the rusty old peasant lock at level 1.

But in all versions of D&D, combat at high levels works qualitatively differently than combat at low levels. Skipping over the math and simulation aspect, the executive summary is that low level combat is short and deadly, high level combat is long and grindy, and it relies heavily on magic to keep it from being even more long and grindy. This is because:
  • Monster chances "to hit" pretty much keep up with frontline PC armor class, assuming steady acquisition of magic shields and armor
  • Monster damage rises more slowly than PC hit points (example, a 1st level fighter vs an orc compared to an 8th level fighter vs. a hill giant; the giant does twice as much damage but the fighter has 8 times as many hit points)
  • PC chances "to hit" rise more quickly than monster AC, especially factoring in magic weapons, as shown here.
  • PC combat damage rises much more slowly than monster hit points (example, from 1st to 8th level a fighter might get at best +3 on his or her average-5.5-damage sword from magic, so damage increases 55% while monster HP increase by a factor of 800% or so.)
  • As shown here, the only thing keeping pace with monster HP is damage from spells. Additionally, spells like sleep, hold, charm, polymorph other and so forth have a chance to speed up combat by taking opponents entirely out of the combat. 
Two things are clear from this.

First, without a wizard-type, high-level combats risk being lengthy grinds. This is doubly true of the situation where higher-level characters face a horde of low-level monsters. I remember in my first year of playing AD&D how the party - by then third level and equipped with magical gear - faced a conga line of about 50 kobolds coming through a 5' doorway. Needing a 20 to hit our frontline fighter, the kobolds provided possibly the least fun ever seen in a D&D combat, even applying the multiple fighter attacks rule (which presumably had been put into AD&D precisely to speed up this kind of situation).

Second, while the PC chances to hit rising are more or less balanced by monster damage rising, the leeway available before character death leads to another source of qualitative differences. Low-level combats are deadly because a lucky monster damage roll can knock characters down to zero HP easily. In high-level fights, standard damage is more easily dealt with over the course of many rounds, and deadliness comes from save-or-die effects and the occasional massive damage source like dragon breath.

Both of these qualitative differences, I think, work to the detriment of higher-level combat, taking the basic workings of the system from quick, deadly and exciting to long, slow and predictable. Combat needs to be goosed up with blast 'em spells or deadly monster powers, and this means that when you don't have those elements it turns into a slog.

Next: solutions for high-level combat, old and new.


  1. But, you should factoring too that some monsters upgrades a lot of spells to, so they have the spell factor. Some of the better monsters uses magic and are strongly anti-magic (i.e. beholder, illithids). In fact, a warrior have a lot more chances to defeat a beholder that a wizard. A death knigth can use their infamous fireball to char the wizard in the first round, but the warrior will prevail. Finally, stealth monsters like the invisible stalker can quickly destroy any mage-user.

  2. Good analysis - looking forward to hearing what you have to say about solutions.

    Personally, I'm finding myself more drawn to games with health pools that grow much more slowly (if at all) and instead of adding raw power as the character grow, adding more options and more reliable abilities.

  3. Short version: I agree and I look forward to your solutions.

    Longer: I reckon the fundamental problems here are:

    a. too many HP for PCs at high level (the one extra hit dice per level rule has a massive distorting effect on the whole game - it's the element that has most often led me to try to rewrite it from the ground up)
    b. no mass damage weapons except for a few spells, special breath weapon. Swords and bows get left behind as murdering tools (leading to system-breaking backstab hacks etc).

    Fixing (a) is the most elegant solution, but also the least satisfying if stupid Conanesque wuxia is a flavour you love in your dnd (and I have to say, getting that extra die of hp at 2nd and 3rd level is very satisfying). It's just not very awesome.

    Fixing (b) has potential and could be easy - weapon damage could keep pace with HP (I've toyed with xp for weapons before - the more HD of monsters you kill with your axe, the higher its damage goes - discourages dropping your faithful old sword for a flamethrower). Pokemon does this and falls into the obvious trap - it's hard to tell a high level battle from a low level one.

    I suggest more special moves and more tactical decisions at higher level, to shorten combats. Not a giant feat-spew, but pressure to go for crits that can deliver exploding damage - extra-risk-taking moves that triple damage, magic weapons you have to deploy carefully with tactics aforethought, CoC-style magic bullets for taking down just this legendary beastie.

    Zzarchov does all this in some very interesting ways: spells that can power up another character, special weapons (notably kegs of gunpowder - the dragon-hunter's oil flask), modes of attack that bypass the HP mountain (eg social combat, usable by PCs as well as monsters)... I'm planning to spend some time picking his stuff apart to figure out what's really going on, but the 2 times I've played in it, it's been a gonzo, confusing, sometimes wonderful experience. And levels wind up not mattering that much (something I've noticed with G+ games in general).

  4. Combat feeling different across levels is good, otherwise there's no point to having them.

    You could eliminate it just by giving every character and monster 1HD and have every attack do 1dX damage. Wizards would still be able to toast many monsters at once, but you won't get the feeling that "I couldn't survive this before and can now" which is the key desire in systems of stratefied power.

  5. @Mandramas: It's true some monsters get decisive abilities too ... but should combat *have* to involve magic on either side to be fun?

    @richard, Matthew: I'll consider your suggestions (E3 D&D maybe?) in my follow-up post.

    @Matt: I want combat to be different too, but in a good way; not sure that's always the case right now.

  6. You've missed something MASSIVE out of your analysis.

    Multiple attacks.

    A fighter with 4 attacks per round is not getting +3 damage with his +3 sword. He's getting (5.5+3) x 4 = 34 potential damage per round if all of his attacks hit.

    That's PER ROUND.

  7. @Recursion: That's true, but not for all editions of D&D. I'm a little biased because I base my game on Basic, which didn't give extra attacks. Even in AD&D it takes a long, long time to get to four attacks/round.