Sunday, March 26, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons: "Defense" part 1

            I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years.  Lately, I have not had access to any other players and so I have just been kicking around ideas that normally would be in a game and instead I am just going to post them on my blog.  This is going to be a reoccurring thing as I just keep hammering out things and not all of them can be turned into elements in my “random fantasy novel ideas” folder.

Introduction: Last Week and This Week
            Last time I talked about the very soft and fluffy topic of slang, lingo, jargon, and language as it exists in fantasy settings.  I took an unpopular stance.  So, let’s just leave that behind and move onto a crunchier topic.  This entry started as one and as usual it got really long and so I decided to split it rather late in the process.  It may feel a little uneven (ultimately), but I ended up having a lot to say and so I wanted to give I the space it needed.
            Last week was about Language, but what happens when communications break down?  What if you don’t want to have to drink a shit ton of red potion after the inevitable fight?  What if you want your character to be the type who fears pain and wouldn’t want to take a hit that could be avoided?  What if you want to be a little defensive?
What a gorgeous and massively impractical structure.
Why do you need archer cover on the side that faces the 800ft cliff?
You fighting a lot of blimps?

What Have I Got: A Plea for Self Defense, and I’m not talking about the Castle Doctrine
            When attacked, characters have few options for defending themselves.  Unless you made the decision during your turn to utilize the feat Expertise or to fight defensively you do not have any active input for when someone attacks you.  This I feel is kind of mistake, but an understandable one.
            Armor Class (AC) is a mostly static number that serves a meet-it or beat-it barrier to damage (that is to say if the attack roll is equal to or greater than the AC it hits).  AC is simple to understand, simple to keep track up, and beyond the math of adding and subtracting various magical items or armor bits you don’t have to give it much thought.

Sure the pauldrons make it so I can't lift my arms, but it does let me show off all the sit-ups I have been doing.
            AC is calculated as such, 10 + Armor + Dexterity Modifier (to the limit the armor allows) + Shield + Natural Armor + Deflection Bonus + Luck Bonus + … Look, Armor has lots of little things that go into it and they all stack, but bonuses of the same type do not stack, so if you have magic bracelets that give you an armor bonus of 5 but you are wearing Banded Mail armor which gives a bonus of 6, you will only get the 6, the larger bonus and are better off giving the bracelets to the teams mage who does not wear armor.  Regardless, most of these bonuses are Item related.  Your armor bonus does not increase with level in 3rd edition, (IT DOES IN 4TH EDITION!) and there are few feats which give any sort of bonus to it except in specific situations (like running past someone with Mobility).
            Most combat oriented feats and combat actions put the emphasis on attacking, things like Weapon Focus, Power Attack, Rapid Shot, Mounted Combat, or Two-Weapon Fighting.  The game’s philosophy is more one of “the best Defense is a good Offense”.  In theory, this should make the game a lot faster as stronger attacks land more frequently and there are few ways to prevent such damage thru clever rules.  Think of it this way, two level 10 fighters with no armor fighting in a pit will hack each other to death in no time because their odds of missing with an attack are nearly zero.

"Sure it takes six squires working for 90 minutes to get me in this but it is totally worth it."
"Fight?  And get this all dirty?  Are you insane?"
            I have additional issues with how the feats are attack oriented, mostly in that they are still super boring, almost no status effects, limitations on number of times each day that the abilities can be used (Quivering Palm), way too many instances of abilities being super powerful in the early game and nearly useless after that (Cleave), and rules that are too complicated for quick implementation (Pelor’s mercy, the rules for grappling in 3rd edition require a 2-page long flow chart, PLY THAT).
            I am sure that in the future I will write a long complaining blog about how boring Fighters are because of how boring feats tend to be (though they are a wonderfully modular game mechanic whose value to the medium cannot be overstated, you could build an entire game around using feat acquisition as the sole means of leveling up).
            Today I am going to focus on the limitations of defensive mechanics in 3rd Edition and in the next entry I will try to point to some positive examples of active defense found in other games (Hello again “Bloodborne”).

Alternative 1: Just roll more Dice or Change the way Armor Works
            There are of course rules to change the basic system.  In “Unearthed Arcana” they talk about the very simple addition of Defensive Rolls.  This has nothing to do with your characters’ actual ability to do a cartwheel in fullplate but instead is just a slight mathematical change to how armor is calculated.  Normally AC starts with 10 + Whatever Else, with Defensive rolls that 10 is swap out with a d20.
            So, when someone attacks you the attacker rolls and attack roll and you roll a defensive roll.  This is ‘meh’ to the power of 10.  There is no substantive gameplay or statistical benefit to rolling a d20 compared to taking a 10.  I mean technically it is a +.5 bonus to your armor when you project over the 100’s of rolls, but the amount of real time that is eaten up rolling those dice and waiting for dipshit player, Gary to do the basic addition necessary to figure out the hit or miss will drag things down.
            The only thing that could make this slightly better is the 5th edition concept of Advantage, in which you get two defensive rolls when in a favorable position, but that is ‘meh’ considering if you have a defensive advantage it means you likely have attacking advantage and suddenly the concept of advantage is starting to snowball and become too powerful.
            I suppose you could also look at Action Points.  The idea that you could add a small bonus at an opportune moment or take a reroll, this gives some tactical discussions to the mix, but not so much as to offset the burden of waiting for Gary to do math.  Fucking Gary.
This is the Unearthed Arcana I am referencing.
            Also in “Unearthed Arcana” is the idea that armor can provide Damage Reduction (that is to say rather than blocking the hit it makes the hit hurt less).  You would cut the armor bonus provided by a suit of armor in half and that number would become the damage prevented.  For instance, if armor would normally provide a +2 to AC it would then provide a +1, but would prevent 1 damage from all physical attacks, so a bonus of +8 would transform into +4 and 4/-.
            I actually like this on principle as it does provide another thing that can be adjusted in game.  You could even play with the idea of providing armor that was more padded and could absorb more damage or armor that was more deflective giving a higher bonus to AC.  But, having tried it in a game it felt like an unwanted condiment on a very typical sandwich.  It added something, but didn’t change the underlying problem of being something the player does not DO so much as being something the player HAS.  That is to say, the player doesn’t make any choices in combat to alter their AC or defensive options based on this new feature.

The Basics: The many layers of defense
            Before I go any further I have to cover somethings beyond Armor Class because Armor is not the only way to avoid getting hit.  There are several factors that contribute to Defense that most players do not strictly associate with the concept.  This seemingly overlong list will come back in the next entry, but it is important to understanding that defense is actually not just AC but instead several game mechanics that form layers and can be numbered (roughly) by the order in which they protect.

            First we have Protective Spells each with one or more protective effects.  This layer of defense covers a surprisingly diverse range of defensive capabilities.  Since I do not own every supplement ever I will restrict this talk to two specific spells Sanctuary and Mirror Image.  The first, Sanctuary is a ward that makes any attacker pass a will save to make an attack against the warded person, if they fail then they cannot make the attack and they lose that part of their turn.  Mirror Image by contrast creates a defense by creating a bunch of dummy targets for the opponent to attack in place of the real guy.

            Strictly speaking neither Sanctuary or Mirror Image has a direct impact on the defensive statistics of the caster, but they do have strictly defensive functions and as such their application is interesting enough to mention.  It is possible to use these type of spells as a guide for developing abilities that contribute to the defense of characters.

            Second we have Concealment, Displacement, and Miss Chance.  These factors represent a percentage chance of the attacker not being clear on where you are.  There is a small chance that the attacker slashes the space just to your left or right, or is shooting at a silhouette that is the same shape as you thru fog or glaring light.  I consider this one of the less utilized defenses (maybe your GG is a bigger fan of Displacer Beasts than I am so I might be wrong, I did not conduct a survey).
I must have seen 2 dozen images of these things.
Not one bit of art depicting their titular "displacing" ability.
            Mostly these effects show up with Obscuring Mist, Blur, Cloaks of Displacement, Invisibility, or the attacker just being blinded.  They are resolved with percentile dice, one of the few things players might use those dice for unless they have a Rod of Wonder.

            Third up is the most iconic things having to do with defense, Armor and Shields.  This layer is pretty self-explanatory; you use an object to block a hit and the hit does no damage. I am going to mention Deflection bonus, it is a type of forcefield that surrounds you and protects you from being struck, it makes sense as a magical defense that adds to your AC. 
            What is REALLY strange is a couple of the things they chose to put in this category in addition to suits of armor and trusty shields.  There are a couple things that don’t make sense here, first is that they put Dexterity Modifier here, I’m sorry, shouldn’t (logically) the ability to dodge an attack be in the “Miss Chance” category?  There is also Natural Armor, like a turtle’s shell or crab exoskeleton, those are not objects those creatures put on themselves, that is their body, if you hit them and do no damage because of their body’s ability to resist taking damage shouldn’t that be damage reduction?  Speaking of which.

            Fourth is Damage Reduction.  This is when a body is so tough that it just shrugs off damage.  Werewolves take less damage from non-Silver weapons, fey take less damage from non-Cold Iron weapons, and high level Barbarian characters take less damage from all physical attacks.

He's scary.
            Damage Reduction is only looked at when an attack connects.  If your players took the time to research what they were fighting and planned ahead of time then it will almost always be bypassed if they have the resources to readily retrieve the Silver, Cold Iron, or an appropriate magic weapon.  This is almost certainly a better place to put “Natural Armor” as a concept rather than making it another layer of Armor Class, but that does make things more complicated.

            Fifth is the combination of healing and resistance known as Regeneration.  This hovers in the strange middle between Damage Reduction and Hit Points.  The ability to heal back any damage not caused by a specific type of energy or weapon.  You could classify Regeneration as more of a variant on Damage Reduction that is kinder to player groups that are more about lots of weaker attacks rather than single big hits.
            For instance, if a group of players can make 20 attacks for 5 points each and they were to attack a werewolf with damage reduction 5/silver, they could land 20 hits and do ZERO DAMAGE.  Conversely, werewolves had Regeneration 5 (silver) the party in question could make 20 attacks to deal 100 points of damage, probably knocking out the werewolf and allowing them to chain it or secure it in some way, but the werewolf would start to heal back to full strength at 5 points per turn.  Conversely, if your party has 5 attacks that do 20 points each, they would prefer to fight the Damage Reduction werewolf, because they would do 75 points of damage and there would be no healing, they would likely kill the beast in spite of his resistance to non-silver weaponry.
            Regeneration is an ability that is most comfortably in the hands of monsters and only in limited instances like Transmutation spells should players get a grip on it.  I perhaps think of it as more powerful than most people.

            Sixth is the single most basic concept in defensive statistics, Hit Points.  This is the one I think people will have a harder time accepting.  People (gamers) tend to think of health and defense as separate to the point of never conflating the two.  “Hit Points are health; Defensive stuff is how I protect that health.”
            In spite of this mental cleft between the two, it is still possible to imagine a game system in which there is no roll to hit a character, you only roll for damage, and rather than there being a miss chance or armor to block the attack the enemy simply has more hit points to represent their ability to resist harm.  Sufficiently large hit points can stand in for high Armor Class, Damage Reduction, and other defensive statistics, they have just never been used that way because each of these layers (Hit Points included) represent a nob with which the designers and players can fine tune the game.

Think of how many game bosses just get hit incessantly.
Whose only defense against death is the sheer size of their health meter.
            Let me give another example, some games use a variant called Stun Points which represent not physical damage but a character’s ability to avoid harm, they then have Hit Points which represent receiving real physical harm.  Recovering Stun Points takes only rest, but recovering Hit Points requires medical attention.  Adding Stun Points to Dungeons and Dragons and other RPG’s is a popular variant (I think) and adds an element of “Realism” to the proceedings.  It explains how taking “injuries” from a sword does not always lead to lingering death like most feudal societies in the real world (and yes I know that DnD has magic, but if you start using magic as an explanation for everything… that way resides madness).

            Seventh on this way too long list is Fast Healing, which is thankfully quick to explain.  Fast Healing allows for healing quickly hits that have already been taken, but doesn’t help to avoid the hit or to tank the damage to begin with.  As Master Chief will tell you, the ability to pull back, fully recover, and then press theattack again is a helpful “defense” against death.

            Eighth and final on this list comes all other forms of healing.  Is there a cleric somewhere boosting everyone’s hit points via Mass Bear’s Endurance?  Or are they just healing their allies in general?  Healing is a topic I have covered before, and when you look at how long that blog entry is you have to realize that I could probably write nearly as much for each of the 7 other entries on this list.
            Generally speaking I think that Healing as a mechanic is lacking in 3rd Edition and much of it can be addressed in lots of ways, but this blog is more about avoiding having to get to this eighth layer.
This is probably the angelic equivalent of sweat pants.

Next Time and the Beg for Attention
            Now that I have covered the basics of Defense as an entire realm of game mechanics that I feel are underutilized and offered the first of 3 variations on these mechanics (the other two variations will come next week).
            I know that I missed the boat in a lot of ways by talking so much about 3rd Edition in this blog.  That while Pathfinder and 5th Edition borrow heavily from the D20 system and there is still so much material floating around out there (because printed material hangs around, for instance 3rd Edition was the last edition to get support from the Magazines Dragon and Dungeon, of which I own many copies that have been re-read to the point of falling apart).

            I present my experiences with this system almost as catharsis for the numerous little issues I have had over the years and in hopes that it can serve to teach others from my observations and mistakes.  Hopefully these are entertaining to read and they provide you, dear reader, with some useful ideas for your own game.
            Have Fun!

            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

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