Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Two Classic D&D Elements I Can Live Without

As a follow-up to my post earlier this week on what ought to be in a new all-inclusive version of D&D I thought I would note a few things that I would be happy to see left out of a new version:

Item 1: Level Drains
Yes, it strikes fear into the players, but it also strikes fear into me as a DM because it effectively erases hours and hours of play. A 7th level party walks into a graveyard, and a party with levels ranging from 1-7 walks out - now we have to deal with that meta-game problem somehow.

Levels are how we measure progress in the game (and in non GP=XP campaigns they took a looong time to acquire). Reversing this progress is a pretty drastic form of damage, especially when it happens on a single roll of the d20! Hit points heal back quickly - levels typically do not. Death provides a nice clean break point - to raise or not to raise? In some campaigns that not even an option, so it serves as a definite thing to be avoided with a clear measure of status in hit points. Levels are fewer in number, more difficult to heal, and unlike hit points as levels drain away the character becomes measurably less effective.

Now if there is an easily-available low-level spell that can reverse level drains then it is quite a bit less of a problem. It also makes level drains significantly less scary, which was one of the main points of having them in the first place. So maybe another mechanic would work instead of the classic permanent level drain. There was a mechanic in 3E called "Negative Levels" that imposed a set of negative modifiers on a character and something like that might work. Make it a standard condition like what you find in 4E and it should be easy to implement. I think the goal here should be a significant short-term impairment that wears off over time.

Item 2: Save or Die
Another classic, one we all lived with back in the 80's, but one I'm less in favor of now. The main problem is that character death is the ultimate penalty in the game - "you can't play this character any more". In my opinion, there should be another clause attached to that "...because you screwed up and he died". Screwing up should not include things like trying to open a chest (poison needles you know) or fighting giant spiders just because they happen to be spiders and not some other monster. Characters roll a lot of dice in their careers, and sooner or later they're going to roll a 1 - better hope it's on a to-hit roll and not a saving throw or it will cost you your character. I think instant death effects should be extremely rare, and when they turn up on poison needle traps, dart traps, on spiders and scorpions and centipedes all in a 1st-3rd adventure module, then they aren't rare and it's a problem.

Now one way to make this a scary ability but somewhat less punishing is to change up the way save or die works. I've experimented with this in my Basic D&D games like this: Failing a save-or-die save means the character drops but is not instantly dead. The party basically has hours = to Con score to do something with weaker poisons or lower level spells, minutes = to Con for stronger ones. This keeps it simple and still takes a character out of a fight but leaves some room for the party to do something - like find a healer. Plus you see things like this in myths and fairly tales where a magical curse is laid on someone and there is a race against time to find a way to save them. With this maybe the death spell is now "death curse" and the allies of those affected only have minutes to save them.

Another simple option for things like poison is to just have poison do damage, likely based on the hit dice or level of the monster. How about this: Poisons do hit point damage = to the Hit Dice of the monster per round beginning on the round the wound is inflicted. It works like ongoing damage in 4E with a chance to save each round. In a fight against something like giant scorpions, this makes the back and forth of stinger hits, damage, and saves a lot more interesting than hit = death.

A slightly more complicated option is to follow the method used for petrification (among others) in 4E and also for the Affliction power in M&M 3E: List a set of 3 conditions in order of severity from least to worst for each type of attack like this. Attack is made, it hits, target fails to save, 1st condition. Next round if a save is failed, the 2nd condition takes effect. Next round, if they fail again, then the 3rd condition is imposed. For petrification in 4E this was typically Slowed/Immobilized/Petrified. For evil old school DM's thinking this is watered down, well, watching a player sweat that next save as they struggle to fight on is every bit as satisfying as "Fail! Stoned!" is, because it takes longer. Giving players more time to think about it adds an element of suspense beyond the single die roll.

Note: I actually don't mind turn to stone effects in old school D&D because there are specific spells and magic to help with that - it's not exactly save or die. It's close but I usually give it a pass when going retro. Poisons and magic are the ones that have problems.

Finally, we could leave all of this stuff in pretty much as-is with the addition of one extra mechanic: Hero Points. If players had a per-session or per-level way to do something as simple as say reroll a die then many of the problems of these mechanics are mitigated, especially if one can also be used to avoid death. Maybe you get 4 +1 per level, so a starting character gets 5 of these Luck Points. I can make an argument that they should be much lower, maybe 1 per level, but I could also argue that the lower levels are when they are needed most. Maybe 2+ level would work too. Savage Worlds goes with 3 per session, which eliminates the need for tracking them between sessions, but D&D players tend to like some resource management  so a per-level allotment is probably fine. Uses would be to reroll any d20 roll, take one extra action, to regain a lost level, or to be a zero hit points and unconscious instead of dead. I can see an argument for an automatic success instead of a reroll, but I think the heart of D&D is tied to rolling that lucky 20, not auto-passing a check. Very few things are automatic in D&D, especially older editions of D&D, so I personally feel a reroll is more fitting for this game.

I've tried out a system like this in my Basic game with the Apprentices and it makes a huge difference - they know that fighting crab spiders at 1st level is dangerous, but now a random encounter in a hallway doesn't mean instant death for half the party - but you can bet they will be more cautious when they know they just burned through 2 or 3 Luck points. It gives them a chance to find out just how dangerous something is without dying from it - at least the first time.

Another benefit is that it also puts the burden back on the player, or to phrase it differently it gives them another interesting choice to make. Some players will burn them up on offensive choices, re-rolling attacks to take out the bad guys and then have nothing left when the wraith starts slapping them around for two levels per hit. More cautious types will use them only defensively and level up with several left in their pocket - and that's OK! My goal here would be to give players some ability to smooth off the sharper edges of fate and they can choose to spend it as they see fit. This might also be flavored as "enough rope to hang themselves" and if it goes that way, it goes that way.

Anyway, there are some things to ponder when it comes to D&D old and new.


The Landlord said...

About save or die, I think it's good to keep that possibility/threat there, but it doesn't have to be common, and there's room for all these other ideas too. I like your hours=Con and dam=HD ideas. I just made a poison post over at LL forum -
I usually stick with monster poisons as save or die, and use these other type things for traps and weapons.

Blacksteel said...

I think it has a place, I'd just like it to be a smaller place than in 3E and earlier editions. I'll take a look at the LL forum.

The Angry Monk said...

Very good article. I agree with you about Save or Die and Petrification. After listening to the Penny Arcade guys play 4e D&D, I was enjoying the Death saves they were making in that game. Thanks for your thoughts.