Tuesday, December 14, 2010

3 D&D Standards That I (Surprisingly) Do Not Miss in 4th Edition

The 4E campaigns are still rolling along (I plan to post some more session summaries this month) and I've noticed some things that were concerns of mine at the beginning have just washed away. Here they are:

1 - Random Ability Scores

I was 3d6-roll-em-in-order guy for much of 1st esition (and Basic/Expert). Hey, that's the way the book said to do it and it was part of the game. Eentually I came around to the 3d6-in-any-order method as this kept scores reasonable but still allowed players to have some say in what type of character they would play, making for happier players. By the time 2nd edition came out I had been converted to the 4d6-drop-the-lowest method as thats what other local DM's used and it made sense to have one standard for our wandering players. Plus it did dramatically cut down on the number of weak characters and if people get excited over having a 15 in their tertiary stat instead of a 13 then why should I really try to block that - it's not going to make much of a difference in the game.

Now when 3rd edition came out we were strictly 4d6-drop-the-lowest and we stayed that way throughout 3E. I was intrigued by the alternative point-buy method in the PHB but my players wanted no part of it, even as I listened to intermittent whining about how so-and-so's character had much better stats than this other character and it made him much more effective. I offered it up as an option in my last 3E campaign if everyone would go for it but no one really wanted to change at that point.

So then 4E comes out and the standard method for generating ability scores is a point-buy system. I balked at first but since so much of the system is built around balancing PC's with each other we went ahead and tried it and...the water is fine. I really don't care how you got that 18 Str -it's still a high D&D strength score. Having played Champions, GURPS, and Shadowrun for years (all point-buy systems) probably helped too as I liked point-buy character creation anyway already, I just didn't do it in D&D. Now when we play Basic or if I finally get my 1E TOEE campaign off the ground, we'll be rolling stats just like we always did but for 4E I really don't feel the loss.

2 - Random Hit Points

From Basic D&D through 1E, 2E, and 3E we always rolled for out hit points at each level. Fairly early on we came up with a "reroll 1's" rule for hit points that just kind of stuck through all of our games as nothing kills a player's enthusiasm faster than rolling a 1 for HP's. Ever seen fighter with 1 hit point at 1st level? It's bad. It totally short-circuits what a fighter is supposed to do so he ends up becoming a very fragile archer. Somewhere in the 2E era we decided that 1st level characters should start with maximum hit points and this really made a difference as no longer did you have a chance  that the mage would have more hit points than the fighter when rolling up a new party. This was canonized for 3E so we just kept doing what we were doing. Theoretically, having different hit dice for each class will demonstrate over time that class X is tougher than class Y. That goes out the window with a bad roll and so defeats the purpose of having the different die types in the first place. It's small consolation to a player to know that he could have had 6 more hit points than the wizard if he ends up rolling a 1 or a 2.

Mechanically this is most important at 1st level as that's when a few hp's means the difference between living and dying even with the first incoming sword blow but it's important to remember that a series of low rolls in the medium levels was still quite painful. It's also good to remember that a character only rolled for hp's up to about 9th or 10th level = after that it was a fixed (and low) amount for everyone of that class. So a character only had about 9 die rolls to build up their total. If one fighter averaged a "7" while another averaged a "4" then you have a 20 hit point difference where an average 10th level fighter is going to have less than 100 hit points - that's a pretty big gap.

So 4th edition has a fixed (and much higher) number for starting hit points. All characters get their Con score plus an additional amount determined by their class role. Fighter types get +15, while wizardly types get a +10 and in-betweens like  clerics get +12. As they level up the Con bonus no longer contributes, it's strictly a fixed amount. Fighter types get 6 per level, Clercs 5, and Wizards 4 - this is effectively like the higher level progressions in 1E just implemented earlier in the character's career. The net outcome is that one character of a given class can still have a different hit point total than another character of the exact same class but now they do not have to worry about being gimped by a few bad die rolls along the way. It works well in practice and in the end HP's are still a value on the sheet that goes down during an adventure and goes up when you level up, and the fighter still has a lot more of them than the wizard does. I don't even think about rolling them anymore with 4E.

All that said when the 1E game finally starts we will be going with max hp at 1st, roll after that - hey, that's one of the reasons to play the old school games because they are mechanically different.

3 - Level Drains

Hoooo boy I will say right up front that level-draining undead in Basic/Expert and 1st edition AD&D were my most hated monsters as a player and my players' most-hated monsters when I DM'd. There was no comparison. We would rather be killed and lose a point of Con being raised than get hit by a spectre and lose two levels. I will also say that each subsequent edition has made them less scary and that's not a totally bad thing.

By the time 3rd edition came around they only inflicted "negative levels" instead of actually draining character levels. Neg levels were a fixed set of penalties (-1 to hit, -1 to skill checks, -5 to mak hit points) that were annoying and inconvenient but were not the player kryptonite that the old method proved to be. All it took was a 4th level cleric spell to remove one so it wasn't difficult to clear up. This was easier on the PC's but if you were fighting multiple level-drainers it could get pretty nasty as there was a direct impact to combat effectiveness, leading to a death spiral where the characters are less and less effective in combat as the fight progresses.

One variation that happened with some undead creatures in 3E was the ability drain where characters could lose points of strength or con or whatever. that was rough too as most characters have less than 20 points of an ability to lose. This resulted in a similar death spiral effect as losing Str affected to-hit and damage numbers while losing Con reduces a PC's hit point total.

For 4th edition they did away with level draining and ability damage altogether. "Pansies!" I can hear some of you say and yes, it does make undead less reputationally scary (and yes I made up that word just now). Now some undead inflict various conditions like Weakened (half damage to all attcks) and that works well, but the new trick that some undead have now is that they drain healing surges. I know some of you hate the concept of healing surges but they work in some interesting ways. For one, there is a finite number of them per day and that number does not increase with level, outside of increasing your Con score. So, a Wizard gets 6 + Con mod per day at first level (so probably 6 or 7) and will have that same number of them at 25th level. A Fighter type gets 9 + Con mod so probably 10-12. That may sound like a lot but the most common healing effects (Potions, Cure Light Wounds, etc.) use up a healing surge. Some skill challenges are set up so that if the party is say, crossing a desert and fails their survival type skill checks then everyone loses a healing surge. It's another resource to manage besides hit points and powers.

I can tell you now from experience that players are very conscious of the number of surges they have left. During a typical battle an active player may burn 2-3 surges, typically one from Second Wind (the heal self action that can be done once per encounter) and one or two more from some outside heal or a potion. When they run into a pack of wights who do reasonably strong claw damage and also drain a surge on every hit, they get concerned. One or two hits is OK, but if 3 or 4 land claw hits in one round there is a definite morale impact on the player. However, there is no immediate combat impact - the fighter doesn't suddenly have a -3 to hit or 15 fewer hit points on top of the claw damage - but he can feel his life force slipping away and there's nothing he can do about it! There are no spells to restore surges to a character who has lost them - you have to sleep it off. It's a mechanically elegant solution that solves the issue in a much more subtle way than raw draining and it still inspires the proper attitude in the party. After running some of the beasties I'm very impressed with how well it works in play. I see no need to force back in some kind of level draining mechanic because the replacement for it works very well.

Anyway those are my game-mechanical thoughts from the last few sessions. Summaries are coming soon.


Greg Christopher said...

Interestingly, I managed to include both 1 & 2 in my game, along with a damage system that ensures more people survive early level combat but that they might get maimed or something.

Blacksteel said...

Well random abilities are still an option in the rules, I just decided to go withthe new standard of allocation as I wanted to try out 4E "as intended".

I can see some ways to do random hit points but I don;t really feel the need for it in 4E - it does solve some of those "He rolled a 1" problems

Early level 4E combat hasn't been as deadly as some of the older editions. The fights take longer but there are more safety nets in place to prevent one-shot kills on the PC side. In some older editions I have used a system where if you went to negative hit points you could stop the bleeding yourself but you would be scarred or marked in some way by the wounds you had taken. Some players loved it, some hated it but I thought it was cool.