Tobold's Blog
Sunday, May 27, 2012
Length of combat in D&D

The level 1 wizard in the D&D Next playtest has a constitution of 14, resulting in him having 16 hit points. In 1st edition AD&D a level 1 wizard with a constitution of 14 would have had between 1 and 4 hit points (rolled randomly, although we used house rules that gave him 4 points at level 1). A level 1 wizard in 4th edition D&D would have 24 hit points. Compared to these big differences in hit points, the damage numbers that for example an arrow does aren't all that much different in the different editions. You could kill a 1st edition wizard with 1 arrow, but you need several arrows to kill a 4E wizard. As a result combat in 4th edition D&D takes more rounds than combat in previous editions, and D&D Next is trying to shorten it somewhat again.

Living in a world where pretty much everybody has attention deficit disorder, many people discussing D&D think that combat which is shorter is automatically better. I do believe that it is good for a DM to keep the time for 1 combat round short, which means managing the flow of combat well, being well prepared with monster cards and initiative riders, and not having to look up rules in the middle of combat all the time. I do not believe that a combat having less rounds is better than a combat having more rounds.

My reason for my preference for combat with a certain minimum number of rounds stems from my knowledge of math and statistics. Most people can calculate that if they have a character with a 50% chance to hit a monster and they do 2d6 damage, they will on average deal 3.5 damage per round. What they might not be aware is that for an "average" to have any meaning, you need a sufficiently large sample size. Imagine that character with the 50% hit chance and 2d6 damage facing a monster with 10 hit points. You "average" calculation only tells you that it will take 3 rounds on average to kill that monster. In reality the result is far more volatile: You could kill the monster with one hit in the first round, or you could take 6 rounds or more of low dice rolls.

MMORPGs, who did a lot to speed up combat, usually work with a to hit chance above 90%. But D&D, and that is true for all editions of it, usually uses around 50% to hit chance in the majority of fights. If you plan for fights with only a few rounds of combat, that creates a lot of volatility. In my campaign we had a fight of the 6 player characters killing 10 rats (MMO joke), in which one character rolled only misses for 6 rounds, and another hit only once, in spite of a 50% hit chance. Fortunately we have so many player characters in my campaign, which reduces statistical volatility, but if you run with a group of 4 or less such a streak of bad luck might well wipe your group. Then the DM gets into the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether he should let the group die just because of a streak of bad luck, or whether he should start fudging dice or coming up with a deus ex machina miracle save.

Of course I don't want the group having fights with 20 rounds of combat. I think in 4E some high level monsters have a bit too many hit points, which then got errataed downwards with the D&D Essentials material. But the D&D Next adventure has a lot of fights in which a character can one-shot a typical monster like an orc or hobgoblin. And those are the fights in which a few lucky or unlucky rolls can take the combat all the way from total party kill to being far too easy to be enjoyable. I find combat which is a bit slower but less random, less statistically volatile, is better.

This is something I always found to be a major flaw in D&D (and in some D&D derivatives, MERP/Rolemaster with its "all-or-nothing" criticals comes to mind). The choice of a D20 for the to-hit roll makes it so that the volatility is extreme. I find Champions' 3D6 to be a lot more reliable.
Add the low number of hitpoints and you have the recipe for *required* DM intervention to have fights which are non-trivial and which don't end up with 1 or more characters dead each single time.

In the end you're the DM, so you can choose to use/dump any of the rules as you see fit. Approaches which work well are those which separate short and long term damage (Champions' STUN and BODY), and which make easier to knock someone out, but hard to actually kill him. Another approach is the "incremental critical", where you must be brought to 0 HP multiple times, every "death" being in fact one wound, the first one being small, the following ones being more and more serious/imparing/fatal.
Well if the first level wizard has 16 HP that's a lot closer to 4th than 1st edition. As for the monsters, you can always just ramp them up by a fixed percentage to give them a little more staying power. I suspect the intent, though, is that there would simply be more of them to blow away. In 4th the one-hit-to-kill monsters fill out the ranks. Has that been retained here? I suspect not, they're probably going for larger numbers of small hit point critters not mechanically distinguished from their fellows.
> Of course I don't want the group having fights with 20 rounds of combat

If the players are enjoying themselves then there is nothing wrong with 20 rounds of combat, but it has to be interesting through the entire duration. Meaningful player decisions and maintaining suspense by having the outcome remain in doubt matters a great deal.

One of the places where DnD goes wrong is that the HP mechanic is a predictable countdown to zero. Critical his are underwhelming and combat outcome is obvious well ahead of the last blow. At higher levels the combination of higher HP pools and increasing number of wound dice (with the resulting steep bell curve) tends to reduce combat to repetition where actions do not vary from turn to turn.
The most common player emotion after a dice roll is disappointment (on a miss) or boredom (average damage again).

There has been a great variety of attempts to resolve this in other systems (narrative combat, aimed shots, critical hits, combination moves, knock-out values etc) but it seems unlikely that DnD will ever really evolve due to locked-in customer expectations.
Just some interesting mechanics that come to mind.

- If you want to make bad luck less frustrating, you don't have to necessarily use dice with more reliable distribution. Instead, you could give players some kind of tool to reroll or otherwise influence the outcome and negate bad luck.
In Arkham Horror (which is a boardgame with some rpg elements), players spent clue tokens to manipulate luck, but the same clues were also used to seal the bad guy and beat the game. Each time a player tried to influence his luck, his chances of overall success in the game decreased - looks fair and intriguing.

- I also like how HP was partially or completely left out of some implementations of FATE rpg system.
When characters take damage, bad consequences like broken ribs and shaken morale just stick to them for some time and generally make their life harder. Minor consequences are easily healed, but the longer players decide to stay in the fight, the more they risk to eventually take a consequence which will hurt them for a session or more. Instead of a fear of immediate death (which GM probably wouldn't want anyway), fear of getting huge problems in foreseeable future. Scary. Sometimes the smart move is to bail out or even to negotiate with bad guys.
Of course, it's narrative-oriented stuff and it wouldn't be useful in tactical combat, but it's pretty smart mechanic I wanted to share anyway.
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