Saturday, 30 October 2010

Looking at D&D combat rules again, listing the bothersome stuff

Warning, this is a very ranty post.

1. Hit Points
What's the reasoning behind a high level character surviving a 200 ft. fall? How is a higher level character able to take on more wounds than a low level one? It makes no sense.

Of course, someone is always ready with the "HP is an abstraction" excuse. "It doesn't represent actual health, but how long you're able to stand up in combat." While that made sense back in oD&D, I think it started making less and less sense as time went on. It still doesn't explain falling (ie. why does falling do "damage" to HP?) for example.

I've been using HP as "you aren't really hit until you hit 0" for a while now, and it kinda works, but, you know...but. It sucks when a player succeeds on his attack roll, and then roll damage and I have to tell him "well, you hit him, but his armour catches most of the blow" or something like that (because the enemy is still above 0HP).

People then tend to explain the random damage roll as "how well you managed in your intent to hit someone". If you roll high you hit them hard and they go down and if you roll your damage low, you just hit them with the blunt end of your sword, or they sidestep and you don't hit them with your full momentum, and while it makes sense as a rationalisation why damage works as it does, but here's my two cents:
1st cent: it works right only at low levels, say 1-3 when HP are low and "full hits" can really be said to harm the opponent. (roll 6 on that sword damage? that goblin is totally screwed. Compare that to when you roll 50+ dmg and the other dude is just like "oh, that? that's just a scratch")
2nd cent: isn't that the purpose of the attack roll? if the damage roll is "how well you've hit him", I mean, why the duplication? No no no. Uncool. But see below.

2. AC as an amalgamation of Dexterity and Armour
You know, I'm completely down with "first roll to hit, then roll to see how much damage you do". What bothers me here is the ablative HP that comes AFTER you hit, the fact that the quality of your hit has no impact on the damage (that's a separate roll, huh). What you get afterwards is attempts to rationalise HP as "luck, evasion, dodging, whatever" in short, "not taking damage until you do".

But then, hey, why do we have AC then?

Plus, armour doesn't really make you harder to hit, it just absorbs damage. What makes you harder to hit is your ability to move around, dodge, parry, block (you know your ability to FIGHT), and that can be scarcely interpreted as a simple DEX bonus to AC. Not to mention that "your ability to (stay in the) fight" is then interpreted as HP! It bears no relation to reality whatsoever and it's full of needles duplications and misinterpretations.

That said, I'm fine with the idea as an abstraction, but I think we've been brainwashed regarding what happens during combat.

The right way to do it: Roll everything, see the results, then interpret them however they make sense. (because otherwise they don't).

3. Initiative and Rounds and Multiple Attacks
I've already ranted a fair amount about D&D initiative. Again, we are victims of interpretations. If we read the initiative rules straight someone acts, then someone else acts, then someone else and so on. It's ridiculous. Imagine a football match where only one player could move at a time and then wait for the others. Imagine a tiger trying to catch a gazelle under the D&D initiative rules. The gazelle runs, then the tiger runs, then the gazelle...I've already written about this.

Initiative can be solved by interpretation again. State intent before your initiative roll. Interpret what happens after actions are resolved. Keep in mind that stuff's happening at the same time.

"Things happening at the same time" gets me to the length of a regular round and the attacks within it. A round is six seconds long. Swinging a sword, even if you take a lot of fucking time, takes about one second. So what are you doing for the rest of those five seconds? Well, you're circling, lounging in...wait, could it be that you're also parrying, trying to attack multiple times, swinging your sword around? Hell yes. That attack roll is just an abstraction of you trying to get in a solid blow. Just like HP isn't about actually tracking your objective injuries (which would be ridiculous), attacks are the summary of a whole meelee. What's a meelee? An exchange of attacks, shoves, punches, tricks, kicks, head-buts, heck, even grappling and tripping. Each meelee roll should be an abstraction of all of the above, depending on the player's intent. It's not just one sword swing "wooosh" and then nothing for five seconds.

That's why I feel that multiple attacks are pointless. At least (again!) interpreted as they usually are. I'm cool with you getting an extra roll for cleaving or a second weapon, or even a "double attack" every once in a while, but increasing the "number of attacks" with level? Nonsense, as long as you're tracking each roll as a single swing. It's not, it's a series of exchanges. Again, state intent, roll, interpret afterwards. You hit with three out of five rolls and did x damage? Explain it however you will, just don't tell me those were three slashes doing so and so "damage" each.

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If you're all "well, asshole, why don't you suggest something better instead of just bitching" now, I will. In a second.

First of all, as I said, everything can be "fixed" through interpretation applied after all the rolls are finalized. An attack roll is an abstraction of you trying to get in a hit (or hits). AC determines your chance to inflict harm. The damage roll compared to HP is how well you hit.
Two problems:
-in instances of a high HP enemy, it seems you just can't land a good hit (this is why I said it works well only at lower levels). Again this can be solved by narration. A high HP foe is just so fucking big and tough or just so fucking sneaky that even if you get to him, he's getting away with it. It starts stretching the imagination but it works.
-the second problem is bigger, because the nature of narration changes (roll everything, interpret later) it's quite hard to keep all that info in mind. In a party with three members the GM must co-ordinate some six or more different results in his head and make sense of it all. It's taxing. Which brings the inevitable question: is it worth it?

Maybe. I honestly don't know. Huizinga and Caillois both say that a cheater is better than the guy who questions the rules. If you question the rules you destroy the whole illusion, you fuck up the game, because the game (any game) never makes sense but what sense it makes.

It's like the rule of cool. When we were watching Solomon Kane there were plenty of moments where silly stuff happened. Every time one of us felt the impulse to point out the flaws in the internal logic of the movie, the others were all "Shut up! He has a cloak! And a hat! Don't question it!".

Which is why perhaps I'm more drawn to the oD&D combat system these days. The game takes LESS care to model real situations and hence makes MORE sense. Why? Because what sense it makes is based on the player's ability to imagine and interpret and judge. Humans are by default better at adjudicating "reality" than any set of rules.


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Other than interpretation, what else is there?

Well, rule fixes, obviously. House rules. But once you start changing the rules that much it's worth asking yourself whether it's just better to make a new game. Which is what Subterranean Adventures is supposed to be. It's a full blown fantasy heartbreaker. It's everything I like about D&D, with everything that I dislike thrown out.

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