Tobold's Blog
Monday, July 06, 2015
Accuracy and reverting to the mean

Talarian has a very niche post up, discussing accuracy in games. The chance to hit with an attack that is, not whether the things depicted in those games are accurate, which is a completely different can of worms. Talarian points out that if the game is designed around a few, decisive attacks, you are more likely to feel the effect of randomness. If there are many small attacks, missing a few doesn't matter so much, and is felt much less.

I found that interesting because it pretty much describes my main point of contention with 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. I prefer 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, whose combat has with some justification been described as "slow". Basically in 4E everybody has a lot of hit points, and you need several good hits to bring an enemy down. In 5E the characters have a lot less hit points, deal more damage, and thus fights are over much quicker. But because of what Talarian describes, the 5E combat is much more likely to produce random results. In 5E it matters less whether the player has good tactics or otherwise made good choices, he can be downed in round one by a critical hit before he even acted. Fast, yes, but for me that speed comes with too much of a price.

I especially hate critical hits in 5E. In 4E a critical hit deals maximum damage. Only at later levels, when you have magical weapons, do you get additional dice to roll. In 5E you get double the dice on a critical even at level 1. So a simple arrow dealing 1d6 damage does 6 damage in 4E, and 2d6 damage in 5E. Which very much opens up the chance of the high attack roll being followed by a high damage roll, for up to 12 points of damage. Which knocks out most level 1 characters.

Of course the early death of a key player can create some good narrative. But it also removes damage potential from the player's side, so makes the combat slower again. From a social point of view it is awkward having a player just sit there, not able to participate, just rolling death saves for the rest of the encounter. Especially if it is due to no fault of his own.

I guess that is a typical example of me putting gameplay over narrative. I would like the outcome of a combat to be determined by tactics, not by chance, even if that makes the game more predictable and less fast.

I used to be one of those players/DMs that enjoyed elaborate insta-kill mechanics (natural 20 followed by another natural 20) and "critical failures" house-rules. But I remember reading an article that turned it all around for me, as it pointed out that swingy critical hit mechanics are always worse for players than enemies. The life-span of any given monster is usually one encounter long; conversely, players tend to stick around. Thus, over time, players will be on the receiving end of a lot more brutal, disabling attacks over the course of a campaign.

From a social point of view it is awkward having a player just sit there, not able to participate, just rolling death saves for the rest of the encounter.

This is always the worst, especially if you stick to the old rules which required 10,000g worth of diamonds as a material component for resurrection. Then it's not just the encounter that they're down, but possibly the entire session. Or if you let them reroll a replacement character, you're faced with that awkward scenario of giving them enough gear to be comparable to the current party, who wants to keep the dead guy's gear too.

Sometimes it makes you want to just say "rocks fall, everyone dies" and start over.
I'd read the same article Azuriel did, regarding the odds on crits favoring the NPCs over the PCs in any given period of time. While it sounds compelling, I think it's a fallacy of thought that things are supposed to be equivalent on this level...just like any monster (at least in 4E and 5E) is not statistically as robust as a PC, the PC has more tools, abilities and "get out of jail" cards than the NPCs do (or should).

When I played 4E what I found was that the consistency took away from the game...those unexpected moments in play where a lucky strike brings glory or doom were missed by the players...the predictability of 4E was hard on long term interest. After about 100 sessions in my two groups I was losing my players and we had to jump ship to Pathfinder to keep it lively. I have my issues with Pathfinder, too (and it's frankly TOO swingy at high level) but 4E's problem was that it was too orderly. Obviously YMMV and some prefer that predictability in their games. For me, 5E hits a great balance and makes for a more engaging experience...players are more likely to think of interesting approaches to an encounter to gain an edge rather than just wade in and assume the mechanics will provide a comfort zone of certainty that their course of action will mathematically play out a certain way.

But...and to be fair....I've been using double damage crits since 1E so it's obviously a preference issue. But I do not see the "woop scrit you're dead" phenomenon in 5E at all. It seems almost as hard to kill 5E characters as it was in 4E, actually.
1st level D&D characters in both 4th and 5th are pretty damn fragile. It's pretty easy to kill a PC with a couple of archers in both games (though admittedly, slightly easier in 5th), but that's a side effect of WotC deciding to use linear power systems and making the starting point as low on the totem pole as they can be. If players started at equivalent level 3 or even 2 rather than 1 (so they have more than single digit hit points) this would smooth out for lower level players pretty quickly.

That being said, some randomness is good, and I don't think Tobold is saying take it all away. But I bet there's a happy medium between super swingy Pathfinder/D&D5 and super consistent D&D4. but as a DM it was fun coming up with new monster tactics/mechanics to put the fear of the DM into the players in our 4th edition game. Oh, this monster temporarily reduces your maximum hit points? Whelp, make sure we range 'em down quick. Hm, this monster has a massive AoE pulse? Oh it does less to melee, Ranger might not like it, but everyone in. I found ensuring that we had interesting mechanics and combats kept my players' attention, even after 20 levels in a single campaign. On the other hand, I do get that constant plunk plunk plunk does get tedious after a while.
While I am with you on preferring 4E, I do understand why people would prefer 5E. 4E combat can feel inevitable, like it would take far too many bad things happening for full on failure to be at all likely. 5E does fit better with storytelling, that you don't know what will happen and sometimes things don't go like you want.

The central problem is that there is really only one type of failure: death. This makes most DMs quite hesitant to allow that failure (and makes highly random systems problematic).
I'm okay with death as the result of either heroic sacrifice or a tactical blunder. I don't like character death as a result of a random critical hit from a random trash mob. Even from a narrative point of view that just doesn't make for a good story.
I think that randomness and lucky/unlucky hits add a key component of what I call crazy-fun to a tabletop evening and those might be the moments that you reminisce about. Having said that it goes best when the penalty for a negative crazy-fun moment is minimal.
I'll just reiterate that 5E is about as innoculated against death as 4E is....perhaps moreso, at least after level 5, roughly. It's almost a joke now in the current group; as long as someone is left alive at the end of the fight, a DM has to go out of his way to permanently kill a PC....the dying mechanics in 5E are as generous, if not more so in some regards, than 4E.

But, 5E reintroduced meaningful long-term effects with diseases and other condition states that were effectively absent from 4E, as well as lingering wound issues as optional rules, so it's possible to have storylines which involve actually being injured in 5E, something that I couldn't do with the rules as given in 4E, an intensely frustrating experience for a long-time DM like myself who preferred at least a touch of realism/verisimilitude in my D&D games --the old "I'd like to say you were actually stabbed with a sword and are bleeding out, but since I know you'll just pop a second wind and burn a healing surge I can't do that" conundrum of narrative DMs in 4E; 5E at least makes provisions for this which make better narrative don't burn it dice until you're actually resting, for example, and you don't replenish them quickly, either; and you can always go "gritty" if you want for a more realistic feel.
@Tobold: are you mostly at lower-level in your games? Levels 1-3 om 4E are where you see fragility, but even in 4E you have to take -HP in damage (or is 1/2-HP? I forget...) before dying instantly. In 5E the same is true, which really only puts PC death as a likelihood at levels 1-4 in my experience, after that it's increasingly unlikely death will be a real risk unless you as DM specifically play for keeps (i.e. monsters take the extra round or two to finish off a dying/unconscious PC, for example). I don't think this problem is as egregious or evident as you think it is, and I am speaking from experience now having two campaigns that have hit level 12. The threat of bring knocked unconscious from hitting 0 HP in 5E is about as consistent as it was in 4E....and the chance of death afterward about the same. Mechanically this element remained pretty consistent from one edition to the next; most of 5E's changes relate to the resource management. Sure, the damage expressions are higher....sort of....but this is an illusion. If you look at the level 1-30 range on damage and HP advancement in 4E and compare it to 5E it's not all that different, just truncated into 20 levels instead of 30.
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