Wednesday, 13 March 2013

High Numbers Should Mean Something

From the halcyon days of 2008, and the workshop of 4th Edition, comes this testimonial to the Ever-Rising Statistical Treadmill as design principle:
For example, we strongly disliked the inability of 3rd Edition D&D’s negative-hit-point model to deal with combat at higher levels—once the monsters are reliably dealing 15 or 20 points of damage with each attack, the chance of a character going straight from “alive and kicking” to “time to go through his pockets for loose change” was exceedingly high; effectively, the -1 to -9 “dying” range was meaningless. 
Okay. You've already survived two or three blows that would have pasted a lesser character. You are still on your feet and alive. And you are irked that the next blow certainly would kill you dead. You feel entitled to more, somehow, as a hero.

Think of it this way instead:

  • When, as a low level fighter, you are one wimpy blow away from permanent death - you are at -5 hit points or something, unable to move or do anything else.
  • When, as a high level fighter, you are one mighty blow away from permanent death - you are on your feet, able to flee, distract, negotiate.
This is known as a qualitative difference between low and high level play. It's what makes a giant's tree-limb club truly scary, rather than being just a force-multiplied kobold shillelagh.  Or to be (urk) simulationist about it - if negative hit points represent the wracking of your body instead of the wearing away of your heroism, how the hell does your twelfth-level body attain the durability of titanium, as in 4th Edition with its negative hit point threshold based on half the positive total?

Let's take another failure of imagination:
Ask any high-level fighter whether he’d prefer the second-to-last attack from a monster to leave him at 1 hp or -1 hp; I’d put odds on unconsciousness, and how lame is that?
Hold on. This preference has to be based on monsters who you know will rationally leave alone the fallen heroes to go after the living. In the world of Wizards D&D, are no creatures sadistic, hungry, bent on kidnapping, or mindlessly corrosive? Shouldn't you be just as worried about ending up on the floor in a dungeon fight as in a bar fight?  Don't some monsters save their second-to-last attack to see what your head looks like when it pops like a coconut?

What's more, we are also imagining heroes who at 1 hp, or even 10 hp when fighting an average 20 damage dealer, irrationally fight on, instead of realizing they are near death and they need to go home NOW. If being unconscious is so great? Then fall down and fake it after the blow that turns you into a 1 hp fighter. The monster will go on to the next guy automatically and you probably won't even have to make a Bluff check.
Whatever system you're in, as I've mentioned before, approaching combat like a Rock'em Sock'em Robots toe-to-toe battle game is to blame for these absurdities. Fighting should be deadly, cruel, guileful - and it should not feel the same when you're battling orcs at level 1 as when you're battling giants at level 8.


  1. As an experienced martial artist ... I stick to guns and horses , now them I am in late forties, I am surprised that SIZE plays minimal role in RPG combat ..
    . ..
    “There are some reports of smaller numbers beating a larger army in a toe-to-toe. Well someone went back into history gathered up the exact number of times that happened. It amounts to about 3 percent of the time. The other 97 percent of the time, the weaker side lost. On a much more personal level, the son of a bitch who tells you size doesn’t matter is lying out of his ass. When size doesn’t matter is when skilled meets unskilled. I speak from experience on this one. As a skilled fighter against an unskilled bigger opponent, I kicked ass. As a skilled smaller fighter against an equally skilled bigger opponent, I got my ass kicked. That’s why I lean toward weapons. ‘God created all men equal; Smith & Wesson TM guaranteed it.’ If size didn’t matter, there wouldn’t be different boxing weights.” Marc MacYoung, 1992

    1. Love the Animal quote! And I got to say this is one of my bigger problems with modern D&D- if you're character is not bitch-slapping dragons and able to carry the town in a bag alongside his vorpal sword, then somehow that is now seen as "bad". I remember D&D all about figuring out how many different ways a 10 foot pole and flask of oil could keep you alive. And scarey, hardcore combat with death as a possibility combat is part of that.

  2. I put a lot of thought into this, myself. I cover some of what I've come up with here. Basically, being dropped to 0 is a "Dying" status which starts a 3-strike save count. Failing the third save results in Death.

    Also: Healing grants a bonus Save -- as long as you're not Dead yet. It doesn't automatically brings you back to Living.

    And: the Systems increments a "Wounds" score that kills you if it equals Maximum Hit Points.

    I think the main problem with the system you mention is the fact that Healing will immediately raise you without any consequence. A quick fix (IMHO) that utilizes a portion of my own system would be for healing while Dying to allow a bonus stabilization save and healing UP TO -1, but no higher.