26 September 2017

Campaign Mood - Save or Die and Game Lethality, Old School vs New

This is a revision and expansion of a post originally appearing here on the 7th of March, 2012. The links to D&D 5e playtesting articles on WotC's site are sadly outdated and dead.

This week (1st week of March, 2012) on WotC's site, the topics of discussion are Save or Die traps/monster abilities and Deadly Dice (the lethality of the game mechanics in general and whether character death is a good or bad thing). We'll start with the first topic, raised by Mike Mearls.

First, a bit of context (Following quotes are from Mike Mearls):
      First, to give you some insight into where I'm coming from, I take the idea of approaching the entirety of D&D's history very seriously. I'm about to start a new D&D campaign at the office, and I'm using the 1981 basic D&D rules as a starting point. As I plan the campaign and (eventually) run adventures, I plan on making house rules, adopting rules from other editions, and shifting the rules to match how the game moves along. In some ways, it's a reality check against the ideas I see proposed for the next iteration. Would I want them in my campaign? Do they work for my group?
He takes the task of understanding old school D&D so seriously that he intends to house rule and "frankenstein" the rules from day one, to create something that works for his group? That's fine and dandy for tailoring the game to your group, but it does almost nothing to advance an understanding of the old school game and what makes it special and unique. To me this is just more rulebook dropping to try and appeal to old school gamers who've abandoned more recent versions of the game, but anyway...
     If you came to D&D with 4th Edition, you might not have heard someone say "save or die." It dates back to the earliest days of the game, where some traps, monster attacks, and spells required a successful saving throw or the hapless target was instantly killed, turned to stone, reduced to a pile of dust, and so forth.
     The save or die effect represents an interesting point in D&D mechanics. On one hand, fighting a critter with a save or die attack is tense and exciting. Or at least, it can be. A good DM makes a fight like this into something that can grow into a gaming legend over the years. Players will remember how their characters valiantly fended off attacks and either hoped for lucky rolls or came up with a cunning plan to defeat or avoid the critter.
     On the other hand, the save or die mechanic can be incredibly boring. With a few dice rolls, the evening could screech to a halt as the vagaries of luck wipe out the party. A save or die situation can also cause a cascade effect. Once the fighter drops, the rest of the party's inferior AC and saving throws can lead to a TPK.
 I think this description of Save or Die (SoD) effects in the game is fairly simplistic, and overlooks one major component of a successful game; a good DM. While yes, the rules as written do provide for the scenarios that Mike mentions, I think a big assumption on the part of the designers was that a) players were playing their characters cautiously, with an almost paranoid approach to exploring, searching for traps, engaging new and mysterious monsters, etc. A good DM will reward this type of play and allow the careful player to usually avoid having to make that dreaded SoD die roll in the first place.

A thief who meticulously checks for traps before opening doors and chests, charging brazenly down a hallway or prying dust covered treasures from their resting places will have a very good chance of avoiding the SoD situation. A fair DM might even grant a small bonus to the save if it ends up being required if the PC has taken proper or extraordinary precautions.

Likewise, a party that carefully approaches impending combat can often pick up clues to the nature of deadly attack forms. Take the medusa as an example, her gaze means certain "death" for a low level party unequipped to reverse petrification. However, in almost all medusa encounters I've seen published in adventures, she doesn't charge out to attack without warning. The party gets a brief chance to observe her lair, noting the "exquisitely carved" statues of humans, demihumans and humanoids with looks of abject fear on their faces. Medusa lore isn't all that obscure, and observant players should expect something nasty. If the DM follows up with a first glimpse of the medusa herself in the form of a shadow or reflection she casts that is visible by the PCs, even better. Perseus knew the legend, we can assume similar folklore exists in a fantasy world regarding such a terrible beast and give the PCs a chance to know and act on what they've heard as bedtime tales as kids.

Mike goes on to comment in a generic sense on the pros and cons of SoD mechanics, and offer a "fix", where PCs with high hit point totals can avoid instand death and, I assume, just take some damage. Sounds good, except that it punishes low low characters and fixes nothing. High level PCs have access to Stone to Flesh, Remove Paralysis, and even Raise Dead type magics. They do not need protection from instant death mechanics. If you're opposed to instant death, SoD type situations, just remove them, don't reinforce the problem with a well intention but ineffective band aid.

Monte Cook's column on Deadly Dice, the lethality of the game, segues from Mike's discussion into a more general discussion of how deadly the game should be, or whether PC death should factor into the game at all.
      The play-by-the-rules level of lethality in the game has changed a lot over the years. The general trend has been to make the game less lethal overall, although an argument could be made that the game has become slightly more lethal at the higher levels since it was more common to end up with an unkillable (unchallengeable) character at the upper levels in older editions.
 This is really a non-point. Most, if not all lamentations of the lethality of the game are focused on low level characters. 1st to 3rd level characters in Classic D&D or AD&D 1st edition can be, as Monte goes on to note, a dime a dozen. Death waits around every corner, and making it to middle and high levels is an accomplishment.
     I remember way back in the earliest days of the game how someone told me that people didn’t even bother naming their characters in their campaign until 2nd level because there was so little chance that a 1st-level character would survive. As silly as that might sound, the feeling of accomplishment at surviving such a lethal game, even for a little while, must have been great.
Exactly! It does feel great. In the first campaign I played in, a typical dungeon crawl in the Caves of Chaos, the minotaur and owlbear caves vexed us. Our party of 4 players, no henchmen, went through a total of 14 characters before we bested both foes, with my thief PC being the sole survivor when the minotaur finally fell! I'll remember that win for as long as I play the game! When death is not only possible, but fairly likely, surviving and conquering the challenges is a big deal.

Of course, one could argue that the D&D game isn’t about feelings of accomplishment. It’s about creating characters and developing fantasy stories. Characters perhaps shouldn’t die unless circumstances dictate it, rather than when the dice go against them.
I don't buy this argument one bit. I love story and role playing as much as anyone. Heck, I probably put a lot more value in it that most other old school and "OSR" players do. But, here's the BIG POINT, the story evolves as the game unfolds. The game does not get twisted and bent out of shape to cater to whatever amateur novella I'm trying to pass off on my players as the new campaign.

Besides, this is heroic swords and sorcery fantasy. Death is every much a part of the story as life and victory. Death snatched Thorin Oakenshield from the seat of victory. Boromir fell, giving his companions more focus and motivation. Sirius Black and Obi Wan Kenobi died, inspiring their proteges to buck up, face their fates and conquer evil. If there is no death, or at least no real chance of death, you aren't playing a game, you're not even really telling a story, you're just mentally masturbating about how cool and powerful and untouchable your pet character is. Put the dice down and start a D&D fanfic blog!

There is another component of the shift toward "invincible" PCs in the game. The impact of video games on the hobby.

In most video games, there are save points, reloads, respawns, or some other mechanics to allow you to return to where you left off, or close to it, in the event that your character dies. To me, the need to import this mechanic into a table top rpg is based on flawed thinking.

In a video game, at least early on, and somewhat still in single player console games, the whole venture is a solo quest. While you may have a party of a handful of characters, there is generally only one player. If the game never lets you die, it quickly becomes boring. On the other hand, if you have to start over every time, the game becomes tedious to the point of frustration and quitting, considering that some modern games have hundreds of hours of play time.

Even in newer, multiplayer games, such as the World of Warcraft mmorpg, having to start over at level 1 every time your "guy" dies would ruin the fun, since you're part of a guild of players who will continue on if they didn't die. The game simply can't adapt to having a low level character running around with a bunch of high level characters without killing the new guy every time a monster shows up.

D&D and table top rpgs in general have a unique feature that all video games lack. A DM. The DM can tweak things to fit a replacement character back into the action. Or variant rules such as Hackmaster RPG's mentor/protege system can be used to make the replacement character something more than a 1st level whelp. An existing henchman or NPC ally can be promoted to full PC'hood. etc. The flexibility of the rules means that one, or even all of the characters dying does not mean that the entire story has to end and reboot from the start.

Even when we suffered a TPK delving the Caves of Chaos, the overall story continued. We found the bodies of our doomed predecessors. We heard tales of their fate from bards and travelers, etc. The story moved along, and we stepped back into it.

House Rules - Tweaking the Class Weapon and Armor Restrictions

Especially with the advent of later editions of the D&D game, as well as the influence of video games, recent fantasy films and other factors, many players will wish to play Cleric, Magic User or Thief characters that break the standard Classic D&D model of those archetypes. Sword wielding Clerics, Magic Users adventuring in armor and other odd combinations are likely requests from players creating new PCs for a campaign. The first reaction from many a DM, including me, is to say no and demand everyone play by the rules as written, however, I've slowly come to the conclusion that the players should be able to create the character they want, within reason, and the rules can be slightly tweaked to allow these weird PCs.

Fighters, Dwarves and Halflings are allowed (almost) any weapons and armor. The only exception to the rule is the use of very large weapons by halfling PCs. This should just be a matter of common sense, I won't waste time combing through the weapon lists in detail, but suffice to say that from the Basic rulebook weapon list, the Battle Axe, Long Bow, Two Handed Sword, and Pole Arm should be barred to Halflings. At the DM's discretion, a very strong (Str 16+) Halfling PC in a life or death desperate situation could possibly wield one of these once in a while using an "untrained" penalty (explained below) of -1 to hit and -1 to damage. I recommend discussing this possibility in advance with the DM and other players, to avoid arguments within the game.

Thieves are well rounded combatants, skilled in the use of many weapons and armor types. The restrictions placed upon the class tend to reflect a preference for light, quiet weapons and quiet, nonrestrictive armors that do not hinder any of the class abilities. In the event that the player wishes his thief to wield a weapon not normally allowed to the class, I impose an "untrained" penalty of -2 to hit and -2 to damage. STR bonus or penalty to damage is still applied in addition to these modifiers.
In the unlikely event that a thief character wishes to don heavy armor, I would allow it, but with some dire consequences. First, the character operates with a -4 penalty to DEX, and is unable to use any of his thief abilities while wearing any outlawed armor.

Clerics are the least restrictive class in combat, outside of the Fighter group. With a choice of any armor type, the only request you're likely to encounter is the use of a barred weapon.
In a campaign that uses a specific Mythos or Pantheon of gods, each with a detailed portfolio, mythology and iconic weapon used by that deity, I allow the cleric a choice, to be made at character generation and unable to be changed later without 1d6 months of "offstage" training time and the loss of one level of experience. The PC may either use the normal cleric selection of any blunt weapon, or forgo those weapons and be trained in only the specific weapon of his deity.
For Example: Artemy, a Cleric of the god Ares, might decide to forgo the use of the normal selection of blunt cleric weapons, allowing him to train in the use of the Gladius (short sword), the favored weapon of that god.
In the event of a god like Ares or Athena, where two or more weapons (short sword and/or spear, in these cases) might be considered iconic, the cleric must still choose only one of those weapons to be trained in. A Cleric who uses a weapon forbidden to him suffers the same untrained penalties a thief does; -2 "to hit" and damage, and must additionally make a successful WIS ability check each time the forbidden weapon is used or face the wrath of his god and lose all spellcasting and undead turning ability for 24 hours. Desperate, life or death situations may warrant a modifier to the WIS check, at the DM's discretion, and repeated willful violations may invoke harsher punishments, again, at the DM's discretion after a proper omen or warning is given by the cleric's god.

Magic Users suffer the harshest restrictions on the weapons and armor they may use, as well as the toughest penalties when violating those restrictions.
In the event that a magic user wishes to don armor, I would allow it, but with some dire consequences. First, the character operates with a -2 penalty to DEX, and is unable to cast any spells while wearing any armor.

are somewhat trained to use magic while wearing armor and do not suffer a DEX penalty for wearing armor, but each time they cast a spell while armored, they must make an INT ability check to successfully complete their spell. A failed check means the spell is interrupted and lost from memory.

When attempting to use a weapon barred to their class, Magic Users suffer the usual untrained penalty of -3 to hit and -3 to damage, coupled with their likely penalty to damage from a low str score, if applicable.

The other thing to keep in mind when characters, such as Magic Users or Thieves, with low STR scores attempt to equip bulky armor and heavy weapons is the impact on encumbrance. Even in campaigns where carrying capacity is handwaved, I suggest a DM use common sense and not allow situations where a STR 6 Magic User is toting around (though perhaps not actually wearing...) a suit of plate armor and a couple long swords, in addition to his spellbooks and other adventuring gear.

Any thoughts? Feedback is welcome!