Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hit Dice & Hit Points

In my previous post I talked about redefining the nature of hit points arriving at a concise definition that hit points represent your ability to avoid a hit.  Any attack making it past your defenses would be considered life threatening unless you have hit points remaining to neutralize the hit.  Defining hit points got me thinking about how each class defines their hit points, the hit die (HD).  For those unfamiliar a HD is the type of die you roll to determine how many hit points you gain at each level ranging from the curious d4 pyramid to the mighty and oft neglected d12.

Looking at the way HD are assigned the smallest HD goes to the character least likely to be squaring off in melee, the magic-user, while the largest HD goes to the character you only expect to see in the melee going on and on about the lamentations of women, the barbarian.  A casual observation would seem to indicate that the ones doing the most fighting should have the highest hit dice while the classes that have a wider selection in solving problems have smaller HD.  Well alright, that makes sense to a degree but think about this.  If hit points represent your ability to not be hit, shouldn't the people who want above all to not be hit have the highest hit points.  Meaning that the wizard in his silk pajamas will be doing his best to keep out of the way of stray arrows while the berserker could care less how often he is hit.  Did I just blow your mind?  It's ok, take a moment to collect yourself before we ride this rollercoaster of insanity to the finish.

Wizards with larger hit dice than fighting mans, you can't be serious?!  Oh, but I am.  You see the Wizard isn't going to sit around while bjork the orc swings his radical axe.  He's going to grab his silly hat and hightail it before that axe has a chance to split him in twain.  Frank the tank isn't too worried about this bobbing and weaving nonsense, he's got the armor of his ancestors to look out for him while his vorpal blade goes snicker snack.  As we all know wizards don't wear armor, it gets in the way of their pernicious dance moves.  So it stands to reason in this topsy turvy bizarro world that the wizard should have more hit points than the fighting man because the wizard has a glass jaw!

Now you may be stroking your beard safe under the protection of your cthulu proof cap of tin foil (+1) preparing a counter argument.  Something about not being near an orc or in a melee to begin with.  Also, that men of a fighting nature are used to avoiding retirement ruining blows due to their combat focus.  To which I would agree.  So this is what I came up with.  Each class has a different attribute for hit points.

That's right, no longer is constitution (or whatever variant suits your fancy) the end all be all to hit points.  I initially thought of this when I redefined hit points to be only avoiding hits.  In that case your healthiness didn't completely correlate with that definition.  Sure it makes you more resistant to fatigue but it would make a lot more sense if your agility were boosting your values representing dodging thrusts and blocking slashes.  That got me thinking, wouldn't each class have their own method of avoiding death.  A spy would likely use their quick wits and charm to seize an opportunity and get away.  A magic-user would be shaping the winds to impact the arrows trajectory or shifting a puddle to turn the cobble stone slick prompting their attacker to slip and overexert themselves.  A berserker trusts only in his courage and battle rage to pull him through.  To that end I decided that each class should be using a different attribute to calculate their hit points.

Since I like simple solutions here is what I decided on.  You add your classes primary and secondary attribute modifiers to each hit die rolled.  I designed each class to have at least two attributes that really fit the theme of the class.  The skirmisher type relies on their superior agility to get out of the way and their marathon endurance to keep it up for as long as possible. The magic user relies on their ability to shape the elements to influence incoming attacks and their knowledge of the unknown to threaten curses on those that would attack them sometimes staying their hand.  The leader type relies on their brawn to lock swords with their opponents and either their knowledge of tactics or their courage to lead from the front to carry them through.  If you can't envision how certain attributes could be apply to hit points I've prepared a few examples of non-physical stats below that I think will help.

The Fearless Knight: “You see my lady, most knights will look away at the last minute as the lance hits them to protect their eyes. Not this one, he keeps his eyes on the prize the entire time and that is what makes him dangerous.”

The Inquisitrix: “Seeing the muscles in his neck tense up I knew he was about to do something foolish. His right foot swung out well before his fist did but by then I was already well prepared to intercept.”

The Tactician: “With a weapon that large I imagine most are so stunned that they don't have the chance to get out of it's way.  I bet it would do a lot of damage when it finally hits something but a weapon that size has its own disadvantages. For instance you can only reliably swing that either horizontally or vertically meaning that I've got a 50/50 shot of predicting and evading your attack.  Compound that with such a slow windup time and I'm practically untouchable.  Your move champ."

 The Alchemist Firebug: "I'd reconsider that if I were you.  On a day like today with the sun high in the sky on the thirtieth day of this damnable drought I can only imagine how hot it is in that armor of yours.  Now you see I've taken the liberty of super heating the air around me so that if you even think of drawing steel on me you'll be flinching in pain as the metal starts searing into you producing the same sound as bacon hitting a hot pan.  Those of you foolish enough to cut through the pain can look forward to your armor enjoying the same heat treatment and pretty soon you'll be cooking faster than you can tear that armor off.  So go ahead, draw steel on me and let's see how well that ends.

I briefly considered having different attributes apply to defense and reading the above examples you could certainly make a case for it.  However, I think it would be far simpler to keep a simple unified formula for defense as it would make it easy for players to remember and far easier to design monsters along that way.  Since each class already had two attributes recommended to players it didn't take much to have those two attributes apply to their hit points as well.  Fighting types will more than likely retain their larger HD but all in all I'm rather satisfied with this solution.  If you like feel free to use and adapt it for yourself.

Armor & Hit Points

I had been toying with an idea recently about changing the nature of how Armor would work.  I reasoned that having Armor's damage reduction (DR) apply to every attack could slow down the game by adding to the number of rolls on any given turn in combat.  Having magical weapons bypass non-magical armor would ameliorate the problem to a degree while simultaneously making magic items more awesome (something I'd like to do and move away from Christmas Tree effects.)  However, since the PC's are likely the ones to be packing magical heat all this does is eliminate the rolling for enemies who, when aren't humanoid, frequently do not wear armor.

I came up with another idea based on realism which is so often sought after by out of touch GM's and simultaneously reviled by players just looking to have fun.  Well hopefully this idea doesn't fall into that category.  See I considering having armor apply only to when your Wounds take damage.  [Wounds are discussed here]  Since armor exists to protect those valuable squishy organs and wounds are a reflection of how close you are to dying it goes to reason that armor should invariable be protecting your wounds pool.  This is all well and good but it prompted a discussion on the nature of Hit Points.

As I've always described them to my new players; Hit Points represent your ability to avoid being hit as well as your ability to turn any serious hit into a glancing blows.  It was a simple explanation and it worked but I never really questioned it until now.  For the first part of that definition if hit points represent avoiding hits then why should armor apply.  It certainly did in classic D&D when an attack that made it past your armor class (AC) reduced your hit points.  Looking at it from that perspective armor merely served to turn away all inconsequential blows while an attack that would make it past your armor's defenses prompted a reaction out of you.  Putting it into a narrative perspective this is represented by counting on your armor to absorb a blow but occasionally you will see an attack rapidly approaching a vulnerable point and it's up to you to duck under the beheading stroke.  Examining the abstract nature of hit points again it stands to reason that reduction in hit points can be seen as fatigue setting in.  It becomes harder and harder to parry, duck, dodge and weave until eventually the killing blow comes and that last hit point is mercilessly erased from your sheet.

Looking at it that way Armor could certainly be applied to hit points without the need for head scratching and lengthy explanations (except this one of course).  Let's move a step beyond that and redefine hit points a bit.  In the previous example Armor was the first line of defense turning attacks into a harmless clanging of steel on steel while hit points were a secondary defense occurring only when armor would be defeated.  Let's switch things up a bit and reverse their roles.  This time all attacks carry an air of lethality with them transforming hit points into your first line of defense while armor is the last barrier between you and death.

If this sounds familiar it's because I'm circling around an argument I made in my post about Defense regarding lines of defense.  I haven't forgotten about defense and organizing these three into a hierarchy it goes something like this.  At the top we have defense this serves the purpose of telling which attacks are considered a threat and which can be ignored and if you're feeling particularly bold laughed at.  Below that we have hit points which represent your ability to get out of the way of a potentially life threatening attack.  At the bottom we have armor which is there to stave off the attack that finally wears you down or in the worst case scenario the lucky critical that catches you off guard.  Where things get interesting are the interactions between these three.  Wearing heavier armor limits your Dodge defense which in turn means you are more likely to lose hit points and thus your armor will come into play faster and more often and vice versa.  In essence heavy armor justifies it's own existence.  Sounds silly doesn't it?  Well in a game system where heavy and light armors should be viable these trade offs become a necessary evil intent on squashing the foolish dreams of your full plate fighter with an 18 Dex.

I have some more thoughts on redefining hit points, hit dice specifically, but I will save that for a later post.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Let's talk Wounds.  My first experience with them was playing in the Star Wars RCR (Revised Corrected Revision or somesuch) where a player character had Vitality Points (Basically hit points that could also be used to power your Force Wizardry) and Wounds which equaled your constitution score.  Wounds represented how much actual damage you could take and not simply avoid.  For those situations where being hit was unavoidable.

This was pretty cool since people get maimed and chopped in half in Star Wars happened all the time.  It did have one tiny problem though.  You see a critical hit meant that you ignored Vitality and did damage straight to wounds.  Well that's not too terrible provided weapons did not do in excess of 10 damage per hit (they did, frequently).  Now your constitution was anywhere between 3 and 18 if you were a real man or  in the 8-18 range if you rely on point buy tomfoolery.  So when that 3d6 blaster pistol deals damage directly to your 3d6 generated constitution, well, things generally didn't end well.  In the first session of our first campaign the resident sniper critically hit Darth Maul and successfully atomized his head.  We decided to stop using wounds after that.

Still that was not the end of wounds.  In my homebrew game I've been fiddling around with ideas that allow people to navigate through the tumultuous tides of hit points to successfully sucker punch someone knocking them out or to allow an assassin to take out unsuspecting victims without relying on percentage based mechanics.  In my game all heroic character have wounds equal to two stats representing health and hardiness (Non-heroics including minions and mook generally have lower stats and no hit points making it likely for even the begging player character to one shot them without relying on 1HP monsters).   In most cases a character's wounds just acted as additional hit points improving survivability of starting characters without relying on the Triple hit dice SAGA uses.  However, wounds have a much more insidious purpose; whenever you critically hit a target on a surprise attack you deal damage directly to wounds. Replicating the mechanic but adding another requirement (surprise attack) changes this from random death blows to planned random death blows.  A small difference but still a difference.

This allows anyone with a great deal of luck to take out even an important or legendary figure.  Since there are a few ways to initiate a surprise attack outside of the surprise round the odds of these wounding attacks can be improved by careful allocation of character resources lending credence to certain archetypes (Assassin, Spy and Scoundrels spring to mind.)  There are also a few other ways to deal damage directly to wounds, poisons, coup-de-grace and mortal wounds (think uber crits) also fit the bill.

Sum it all up and it introduces a healthy dose of lethality to the game.  I hope this rendition addresses the flaws in the previous encountered incarnation but the only way to find out is to test it out on my players.  I'll consider it a success if they grant me the title of killer DM again.


Here's a quick  house rule for Saga edition players looking to add wounds back into their game and increase the perceived lethality of a lightsaber.

A character's wounds are equal to their constitution plus their heroic character level.
Optional: You can set first level HP to the maximum of a single classes HD.
On a critical hit a lightsaber deals half of its damage to the target's Wounds.
Note: Lightsabers do not benefit from a Strength modifier to damage.
Lightsabers deal maximum damage to targets with 0 Hit Points.
Optional: Mooks (Non-Heroics) do not have Hit Points merely wounds.
This turns the lightsaber into a weapon of awe against minions as it hacks droids in two and takes the arms off of walrus men at cantinas.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Static Defenses

One of the things I was most impressed with in Star Wars Saga Edition, aside from the keep it simple and straightfoward (KISS) design approach, was how they had handled saving throws.  Third edition of the world's most popular roleplaying game condensed the numerous saving throws of editions past into three main categories, Fortitude, Reflex and Will.  SAGA, and later 4E took this a step forward by turning Fort/Ref/Will into static defenses much like armor class.  SAGA actually omitted a defense stat, instead it was absorbed into reflex so that your reflex defense was pinnacle in dodging blaster bolts and lightsabers alike.

I liked the approach, it made saving throws something other than "roll well or suffer some nasty consequence" as well as integrated them further into basic gameplay elements.  Want to wave your hand and mind trick someone?  Beat their will defense.  Want to knock someone over or put them in a headlock?  Beat their Fort defense.  This was a world simpler than the inherent complexity of grappling rules and touch attacks.  Most importantly by featuring them as static defenses it sped up combat by eliminating an entire side of rolling.  This intrigued me the most as my combats were getting slower or more drawn out each session.

I adopted this approach into my game.  It worked quite well, combat went much faster and the players enjoyed how straight forward it was.  However, there was a growing discontent that we had trouble understanding or even explaining.  Turns out it was simple.  We liked rolling saving throws.  We liked the suspense of whether or not the roll would mean life or death (or mind control, don't forget the mind control!)  So saving throws reverted back to the way they were.  In exchange defense was split in two to retain some of the variety of differing defenses.  The two categories of defense are guard (think parrying and blocking with your shield) and dodge or getting out of the way.

Saving throws went through another big change but that's time for a later post.


Since Armor was no longer providing a deflection bonus so to speak, it came time to replace armor class with a different score, simply named defense.  Defense was dependent on the characters level as well as the relevant attribute (Dex, Agility, Reflexes etc.)  and as such scaled nicely with attack bonuses.  However, playtesting soon showed that the combination of a few abilities could allow Defense to skyrocket making it nearly impossible to hit.  Those lucky monster that could hit then had to punch through the character's damage reducing armor.

This realization led to three things, first when changing major game mechanics many an ability need to be reevaluated.  Secondly, I decided to scrap attack and defense being on two different progressions of BAB and Level respectively.  Both would be dependent on BCB, or Base Combat Bonus which would be a default stat added to any attack, defense, or damage roll.  Lastly, I realized that if the player character were to receive a double dose of protection from attacks, namely defense and armor, then it suggests that neither of these should afford such protection as to invalidate the other.

I decided that since armor was readily available to most character types that it take a priority over defense.  Characters who wanted to prioritize defense would certainly be able to but they would need to invest character resources to do so rather than have it by default.  This was accomplished by setting BCB to increase every other level rather than every level.  By halving level based attack and defense bonuses other bonuses to attack such as from attributes and feat choices would have a more significant impact proportionally.  This led to more attacks landing which see's armor getting more use while simultaneously lessening it's impact since HP was decreasing at a more frequent pace restoring the fear or mortality in my players.

Defense went through another batch of other changes but I'll get to that in a later post.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Armor & Damage Reduction

In my past game I used armor as a form of damage reduction rather than the traditional deflecting of blows Armor Class represents.  I liked it, as did my players did but there's always room for improvement.  Let's start with the basics.

Each armor set provided an armor die that you would roll to determine your damage reduction.  The heavier the armor the greater the die size ranging from the mild mannered d4 representing leather armor to the mighty d12 representing plate mail.  The rest of the armor's statistics were rooted in their 3.x counterparts with armor check penalties, maximum dexterity, spell failure with minor alterations.  My players enjoyed the extra layer of protection to their fragile characters, especially the characters who were restricted to light armor in a game where attacks and armor class did not scale well.  The combination of defense and damage reduction resulted in a few complications but I'll get to that in a later post.

Armor dice provided an elegant solution for damage reducing armor but I wanted a way to further differentiate different armors for a few reasons.  The biggest concern was that most character classes fell into two categories, those that were proficient in light armor and those that were proficient with all types of armor.  This distinction left medium armor ignored mostly as the former could not equip it and the latter would always choose heavy armor due to it's larger die size.  To solve this problem I implemented two modifications.  The first and simplest was that medium armor would give a smaller penalty to speed than heavier armor.  In the world 1 square inch grids and  6 squares of standard miniature movement this meant that heavy armor would reduce your speed by 2 and medium armor would reduce your speed by one.  {Although recently I've been considering losing the speed penalty entirely for medium armor provided you had a hefty physical attribute score.}

The second modification proved to be much grander in scale in attracting the player's hard earned cash.  Flipping through my old arms and equipment guide I remembered how fascinated I was with the different descriptions of armor when I was younger.  I decided that rather than have a simple spectrum where one armor would arguably be the best while the rest were degrees inferior (AC 8 through 2 I'm looking at you,) instead certain armors were be designed, nay optimized for certain types of combat.  Doing cursory research on how different armor sets evolved and were used historically I decided that chain mail would be optimized vs piercing weapons, scale mail would be optimized vs bludgeoning weapons and lastly lamellar (a heavier armor) would be optimized vs slashing weapons (the most common damage type in my games).  This was represented mechanically by the simple rule that the armor die would be maximized versus the type of attack the armor was optimized for.  This simple addition convinced at least one player to purchase a set of chainmail after feeling the sting of a hydra's many fangs.

To wrap things up I decided to drop a number of 3.x paradigms and streamline the armor process slightly.  Spell Failure was dropped entirely, since with only one spell casting class if they want to wear heavier armor and spend the resources to do so then there is no point in further penalizing them.  Armor check was simplified to a standard value per size category. Lastly the maximum bonus one could receive from dexterity (later agility) was 1/2 for medium armor and none for heavy armor.  These rules of thumb made it easier for myself and my players to remember the drawbacks of armor without upsetting the relative balance of the system.

Up Next:  Defense, Wounds and Hit Points