Friday, 23 March 2012

High-level D&D Combat: Existing Solutions

How to make D&D combat between hit point juggernauts different from combat between glass-jaw first-levels, but fun at the same time?

One option for reaching a Conanesque height of excitement in every fight is just, you know, don't play D&D. Play an abstract system like Tunnels & Trolls where any level of combat is over quickly. But the trouble with T&T, as we discussed, is that the fights are not detailed enough to give a sense of evolution over time.

Immortal level: was this any fun?
 OK, so play a fixed-hits system like Runequest where every fight could be a character's last if the dice roll badly. But the trouble with fixed-hits systems is that players actually want to protect their high-level characters with the Kevlar of massive hit points. Now, this goal can be achieved by having something like "fate points" that are spent only in the most mortal bind. Indeed, realistic-combat-plus-safety-net is a design solution that most systems converge toward once they leave hit points behind. It's easily enough implemented in a D&D framework, but it also takes the game away from one of the defining characteristics of D&D.

I know they're much reviled among the Old School, but the Wizards editions of D&D were developed with an eye toward player experience at all levels, and their solution was to give higher-level characters more feats and options in combat. In 3rd and 4th editions, you're too busy using your great variety of combat moves to realize that this fight has taken 20 rounds as you go to town on a 200 hit point colossal dire wombatborn ear seeker. Dismiss it as you may, I think I'd rather play that way at high levels than just step up, roll d20 and swing for 20 rounds.

But why should the combat take 20 rounds? The E6 approach to 3rd edition aims at making big monsters a bigger challenge by capping hit point advancement at level 6, while allowing the addition of feats and skills to give the sense of some kind of advancement, as well as the aforementioned qualitative increase in combat options. If you're facing something really terrible - like going up solo against a stegosaurus - you're still going to want to grab at all the dirty tricks you can. Hell, I'm not sure the actual Conan stories are set in anything more than an E3 world.

Of course, loading up on feats has disadvantages for those who want a quick and easily improvised game, where you can just drop a 6th level fighter into the mix without worrying what exactly his epic smorgasbord of moves looks like. Can we get a feat list that's shorter, not longer, than a wizard's spell list? Are there any other ways to speed and spice up high-level combat without leaving the assumptions of D&D?

More on that next.


  1. I like where this is heading. Your evaluations of a T&T style game and the RQ/WFRP type of system are spot on.

  2. I see what you mean, especially regarding WFRP, where in my experience the safety net was quickly blown through by the bold.

    I do like Rich Burlew's E6 approach and have been noodling in that direction, of late, but like you, find the feat list indigestably large. The solution I've been gravitating towards is replacing feats with attribute advancement (capped at 18), based on a strict 3d6 starting point (in order, but with limited swaps).

    Boosting stats gives relatively direct advancement in potence, not too far out of line with the relative benefits of any given feat, but it is way easier to remember. Since I'm also against easy magic item acquisition and starting from a base that would be considered low-powered by 3e standards, I don't think it has much runaway potential

    looking forward to seeing your solutions. Your 1 page system has been very influential on my thinking

  3. Interesting. I'll have to check out E6.
    I'm not crazy about feats. The number of feats available seems to be in inverse proportion to the amount of awesome things that players make up on the spot in game. but a lot of players do like 'em...

  4. Well, 4th ed might have solved the feat question by the way that they handle "powers". Give the players a small amount of feats to choose from each level. The power of the feats available rise as the levels increase. Which would actually be a bit like the wizard's spells.

    Make the utility of the feats wide (like "you can use improvised weapons effectively") and you could also use them to make up awesome things on the spot.

  5. I like the idea of feats, if not their execution. I did try to write up something usable for older editions a while back, expanding on what FrDave had done. But, the E6 way looks interesting. I have been meaning to try it, but have a lack of players to use it on.

    I do have a small addition to your characterization of T&T combat. While true to a point, I'd like to point out the addition of Spite Damage from 7th ed. While many prefer the older editions, I think treating sixes as passing armour is a great idea. Add to that the excellent addition by Fiery Dragon of using those sixes to power special abilities and T&T combat is not so abstract and bland any more. Worth checking out.

    Your point and the thrust of your argument still stands, of course.

  6. a small hack that might help: give the player the option of "all-out attack" or similar - allows them to do their own hit dice in damage this turn, with the proviso that they open themselves up to similar damage from the enemy.

    What level range are you trying to accommodate? I tend to try to invent Platonic solutions that would work for all cases at any scale, but I've also recently been convinced to cap everyone at 8th level and treat everything beyond as exceptional, and I find it nicely focuses my thinking.

  7. ...and I'm now seriously considering adopting E3 for my own, non flailsnails, game.

  8. ...the point of that hack is that it's elective, BTW: high level effectively buys you the option of feeling out your enemy, gauging parameters during combat, thinking tactically. But with the hack you don't have to be straitjacketed into that slow approach: you can gamble like it's first level again and if it works, take down the wyvern in one swing.

    Maybe that's already covered in feats? Sorry, 2 was the last edition I looked at.

  9. All good ideas - some of them I cover in the next post!

  10. I dislike three things about feats, one of which I realize is entirely idiosyncratic.

    1. There are way too many available at first level (100+)
    2. Many have zero flavor and are just number inflation
    3. The name is silly (a feat is an accomplishment)

    Number 3 is obviously the idiosyncratic one. :-)

    The funny thing is that there is an easy way to solve these problems: give feats levels like spells. So, there would be something like 10 choices per level, and you could choose lower level feats if you wanted too. Or, there could be 8 general feats per level and 4 class-specific or class-group-specific feats, leading to 12 possibilites per level (still a bit high, but tractable for someone who is not interested in "system mastery").