Wednesday, March 4, 2009

EGG and Levels

Well, as most of you are quite likely aware, this is the first anniversary of Gary Gygax's passing. So tip your hat, lift a pint, or roll some dice in remembrance. Either way, let's all just have a bit of fun for The DM.

Now, on to "levels". I was having a discussion with a pal of mine the other night and he was saying that he's not particularly enamored of the mechanic of level advancement. For some reason that just didn't sit right with me, but I couldn't put words to my discomfort at the time.

He explained that he wasn't keen on a character advancing to such a level as to negate the danger of a single knife thrust between the ribs. Or that one should NEVER come across any kind of a dragon and feel confident enough to actually take it head on. I don't actually know what I might call this, but I'd tend towards the term "realism" I suppose.

I was thinking about this and a few things come to mind. Has anyone heard of Bob Munden? He's a fast-draw gun specialist that holds 18 world records. His speed and accuracy with a handgun are not to be believed...until you see it. Well, he didn't attain that type of mastery through osmosis. No, he practiced and practiced. Getting better with time and a lot of patience.

The things he can do with a gun seem almost magical...he's THAT good. I can imagine that the things that a 8th level fighter might be able to do would seem like that to a 1st level fighter...he's THAT good. But there's another facet of leveling that I think my friend is uneasy with and that's hit points.

Combat and therefore character level are abstracted in Dungeons and Dragons. This has always been the way that it's worked. It's part of the "game". And personally I like that there's a built in mechanic for change in the game. But I can see my buddy's point as well. How can ANYONE ever walk straight up to a dragon, expect to go toe to toe, and not wake up sitting in the company of their god? Or fall 70 feet, stand up and walk away?

Sure, I've always been a little uncomfortable with that aspect of the game. Especially the falling bit. But to be truthful, it's a game after all, it's about surviving, growing and succeeding at whatever it is that you've put your sights on.

Going back to the gunfighter example, most, if not all, of the gunfighters throughout history were slain by a shot in the back. Could you do that to an 8th level fighter and expect the same results? No, probably not. At least not with one strike. And I'll agree, that's a bit unbalanced. If you're going to be scrapping and scraping for your life then that fear always has to be there.

I like levels actually. But that's me. And I do see where my friend takes exception to that specific mechanic. While I love a gritty game as much as the next person, I also like the evolution of a character, that they can eventually take on a dragon...maybe not toe to toe, but that eventually they can certainly expect a 50/50 shot of getting out of the scrap alive.

And that brings up another point. One of the built in mechanics of the game that keeps the wheels moving is the relationship between adventuring, finding treasure, and advancement. Sure it's gamist, but that's alright.

Consider for a moment that fighter that we've been talking about, he's out there stomping around day after day with his pals, hoping that some day he'll have enough stashed away to purchase that land from the Baron and start his keep. BUT, he needs to be 9th level and have enough money to do so. See the connection? Take that away and I'm not sure you've got the same game.

I can think of a few things that might work towards making that more "life like".

  1. Hit Points increase very slowly and in small increments. e.g. 1st level 1d6 w/ +1 / level thereafter. High Constitution might give you a point more at each level.

  2. Anyone that gets a knife from behind has a chance of dying. Maybe a save versus death after the HPs are applied.

  3. A mechanic that allows for the fighter with a lot of experience to have the chance to dodge fate. His survivability quotient has risen to such levels that it's hard to kill the guy. He's got eyes in the back of his head, or has the presence of mind to reach out during his 70 foot fall and grab that stray root. Something maybe that's tied to level? Fate points maybe...

  4. A different concept for armor. It can now absorb hit points as well as protect you. For instance, leather armor will still provide an AC of 7, but it will also provide for a total of 2 hp / strike of protection. (up to 30 hp maybe) Plate mail would be much more advanced and also MUCH more expensive. You wouldn't likely find someone under level 6 wearing a suit of this stuff. But it's THAT much better. And also costs THAT much more to fix. Now this isn't a new concept, and the thing I don't like about it is that it totally increases bookwork, for someone, and that in turn draws combat out unnecessarily.

Well, I'll have to do a bit more thinking on this. But to be completely truthful, I like the way characters advance in Dungeons and Dragons. I think it's up to the DM to keep that level of challenge commensurate with the advancement of the party. A good DM will keep you on the edge of your seats at all times. I don't see an issue with goblins being a non-threat as things advance. Unless of course it's a goblin blade in the dark from behind. ;-)

Late Edit: Another concern of mine is that a game that uses rules that make death a very sudden event (more life-like) conditions players for certain play styles. I realize that this is what my friend was looking for (ahem, he actually said this and I forgot to mention it). It also adds an enormous amount of risk if you have only a few players. You have a hair-thin safety margin when playing w/ only a couple of characters and you lose 1/2 of them in one round due to poor rolls.

I can totally understand the attraction of having a character act in a cautious, non-super heroic manner when confronted with a dangerous situation. That's cool. But, that threat of an immediate / sudden demise also forces characters into more desperate options. You're taking away half of their arsenal when you introduce that type of mechanic. They now act like mice in nearly every situation...and while this might create a sense of realism and grit, it also detracts from the fantasy portion of the game.

Again, more thought needs to be put into this.


Scott said...

A fairly simple way to reintroduce the fear of a knife in the back or applied to the throat when sleeping, without making characters too timid in regular combat, is to introduce a form of 'split' HP akin to the split between HP and Vitality points in Star Wars D20. Your 'real' HP are those you get from your initial hit die and Con bonus, no more. Everything you gain by leveling up after that is an abstraction of you being able to desperately dodge, escape the brunt of, parry, or otherwise escape real injury from attacks against you. If you are *completely* incapacitated or taken by surprise (Sleep spell, crossbow sniper, completely successful backstab perhaps), damage goes right to your 'Basic HP' and can very easily do you in.

As a sort of recompense for your additional HP (or whatever you decide to call it - actually, Luck might not be a bad name) not 'counting' with regard to certain attacks, you could let it recover faster, like subdual damage. Easy come, easy go...

Gamer Dude said...

I like that...a lot. I've only ever played d20 Star Wars once and I don't recall that aspect of the HP system. But I certainly think it's a great idea.

Thanks for the tip Scott.

Timeshadows said...


In the game I am designing, I do use Armour that stops damage (Light: 1d4, Medium: 1d6, Heavy: 1d8), and it has made the difference for both PCs and NPCs.

Next, I've made it clear (and actually re-named them) that Dodge Points are not major body damage, but the Gygaxian descriptor for skill, luck, divine providence, etc. Only once you go 'negative' do you start to actually bleed-out, etc.
To that end, I have extended the negatives to (Constitution score + Str mod.)

As far as making things more deadly, and that leading to anti-heroics: Consider SWAT and Soldiers -- they have to be cunning when able, and gutsy when need-be to get the job 'done'. Often, there are casualties/fatalities, but the 'party' lives on.