Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Hit Points, Skills, AC and Genre

In his recent Legend & Lore article Mike Mearls talks about hit points and the influence on genre. He goes on to discuss about "dials" that can be turned to allow for different "styles of play and genre". The "dials" are set around recovering hit points and not losing them. I find this to be not only a terribly bad decision, but one that actually limits the options available in regards to "styles of play and genre".

As I move from developing a game set around medieval Europe and turn to developing a prehispanic Mesoamerican game I find the gamble of developing a whole new combat mechanism to be paying off. The game is called Era precisely because its goal was to be able to represent any epoch. This doesn't mean its goal was to be a universal system, but rather that different epochs in human civilization could be easily represented with a great deal of realism. That meant that combat in an unarmored, iron less setting was to be a possibility. One that was not only survivable, but also enjoyable and challenging to the player.

A few design criteria were taken early on:

  • Hit points are fixed for life.
  • Loss of hit points can mean an incapacitating wound.
  • Stamina points act as a shield around hit points, but only a fraction of such points can be used at a given time. Making strong characters still susceptible to strong hits.
  • Stamina points can be increased through training (aka level progression).
  • There is a to hit roll challenged by a parry/dodge roll.
  • Hit and parry/dodge rolls are made using the non linear 2d10 vs the linear d20. This creates a diminishing return on training and skill improvement.
  • If a hit is attained a weapon damage vs armor soak roll is made to see if damage is actually done.

What are the repercussions of this?

  • Skill counts a lot more than armor. Actually it's all about skill and not getting hit rather than taking it on as man. The added complexity of the damage and soak rolls is minimal as you're not usually getting hit.
  • There's little chance you'll end up with one hit point and still be in fighting condition. Your character will most surely have passed out by then.
  • Monsters (and characters too) can be killed with one good well placed hit. This may be very unlikely in some situations, but possible. This adds up to the excitement and epic realism of an encounter.
  • Players are much more concerned about their tactics than in "hit point wall" configurations.
  • It is possible to play without armor, be good at the game and actually enjoy it a lot.
So what's the issue I see with hit points, AC and skills? Well back in the day when I started playing D&D there was only hit points, AC and levels. Your character got better and had a better toHit roll or THAC0. Then skills and specialization and feats were added. Then extra healing to compensate for the extra damage, etc.

What happened is that an already existing overlap of concepts became even more overlapping. Armor class represent the difficulty in hitting and doing damage. Hit points represent the life force of the character, but also the possibility of not suffering damage, luck, and skill. A 10 hit point loss to a character with 100 hit points represents a flesh wound, while being a deadly wound for a character with 8 hit points.

D&D has added more rules and more detail over the years. More skills and modifiers to weapons and armor based on attributes and weight and what not. Yet it has not addressed the issue of these mangled definitions. As such I find it very difficult to "dial" in settings in the current D&D rules as Mike Mearls proposes. Dialing into the recovery rate is a stop gap solution to the underlying problem. To create different game styles and genre with D&D you need to dive neck deep into AC, HP and skills. Just adjusting recovery rate does not fix a setting without iron and without armor. Hit points, armor class and recovery are simple way too coupled to allow a simple "dial" to fix the situation. How would you go about implementing an armor less setting in D&D that was survivable and fun for the players?

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