The Noise Before Defeat

Sun Tzu once said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” I assume, then, that strategy with tactics is the quick, noisy way to victory, but I guess that wasn’t poetic enough for Sun Tzu to say directly.

Sun Tzu + Internet Meme = Bad Pun

Sun, I am disappoint.

I’m not going to try and improve on the Art of War, but you know what does need improving? The tactical positioning system used in D&D-style RPGs. Currently, D&D’s positioning system is plagued with legacy issues only a 2,500-year-old general could love. No disrespect to Mr. Sun, but this town deserves a better class of elf game, and it starts with updating one of the core fundamentals of the combat engine: the battle grid. Continue reading

Advertisements

A New Hope for Combat

Over the past two days I’ve had a bit of a break-through, or at least an idea that has captured my attention and hasn’t collapsed in on itself yet, so I consider that pretty good.  It’s a new take on the very basic premise of combat in RPGs.

Over on this thread on RPG.net’s forums, the OP asked why people seem to think that “do damage or do something interesting” is a worthwhile trade-off.  He was confused that someone would find damage uninteresting and “other stuff” interesting.  That, along with talking to people about FFG’s new Star Wars game, Edge of the Empire, and it’s…interesting…dice mechanics made me realize something:  Damage isn’t interesting.

And that’s not just because damage is the “default” effect that you do all the time, so you’re now numb to it.  No, it’s even more meaningless than that.  Damage, as an effect, doesn’t change anything.  Your raging barbarian swats away the puny enemy’s shield and swipes across the Orc’s chest with his battleaxe leaving a red (or black!) gash an inch deep…and the Orc, unphased, just gets back in his “on guard” position, totally unchanged from before the exchange.

There’s no opening to capitalize on, no opportunity to take advantage of, no new tactical information; you totally hit the Orc and it actually did nothing for you that you can tell.  When was the last time that was ever the case in a movie, TV show, comic, or book?  In fact, what does happen in the source material is usually a lot of positioning, a lot of harmless going back and forth, maybe one or two solid connections which draw blood, which finally ends in a decisive and sudden death for the unlucky one who must die to serve the plot.

The fight between Aragorn and Lurtz from the Fellowship of the Ring is pretty much one of the most intense battles in fantasy cinema, and has a lot of injuries/blows landed, but I think there’s a grand total of 7 actual hits exchanged, and that includes Aragorn’s tackle at the beginning, and both his running Lurtz through and decapitating him right at the end.  Most of what they end up doing is disarming, dazing, grappling, and knocking down (actually, those mostly all happen to Aragorn).  There are, AFAICT, 2 instances where damage is directly dealt for its own sake, and not along with another effect.  See for yourself:

Now I’m going to approach this from another topic, raised in this thread, which is that missing is also intrinsically boring.  Tactically, nothing has changed from before you attempted.  I’ll bet Aragorn wished he had that option!  The only fights where I can imagine nothing happening like that is a saber duel between two masters, like this:

And that included a lot of testing the other guy out and sportsman-like restraint (also note the complete lack of “damage”).

Posters in that thread claimed that tactics did change since you’ve spent your turn and that’s a resource.  That’s very true, and that argument is also technically true.  However, I think that is the most boring option available.  It doesn’t work that way in most games; even in Chess or Checkers, you can’t fail to achieve any change in the game on your turn.  I think RPGs, and in particular, After Next, will be helped by discarding the old Whiff Factor paradigm for one in which combat is far more dynamic, fluid, and full of effects.  Combat where failing is fraught with danger, and the tables can turn very quickly.

To that end I’ve got a rough working design, a very barebones framework that I have to expand upon and probably retool in the future, but so far the results excite me:

  1. No HP or any kind of health, at least not in the traditional sense
  2. Armor is rolled actively by the defender, but only when a Wound is triggered
  3. Wounds are triggered when the attacker’s attack total is at least 5 greater than the defender’s defense, and a Mortal Wound is triggered when the attack total is 10 greater
  4. If, however, the attacker’s total is 5 less than the defender’s defense, then the attacker triggers a Wound, and a Mortal Wound if 10 less
  5. There are other effects, based on weapon or character abilities, that can be activated depending on the margin of success that you roll (0-4 above, 5-9 above, or 10+ above)

So what this means is that if you have a +10 attack, and your target’s defense is 15, then if you roll a natural 20, you trigger a Mortal Wound, where they have to roll what is essentially an “Armor save” against a DC set by your weapon, or receive a mortal wound and die.  If you roll a 15 or higher, you trigger a regular Wound, which they still roll against the same way.  Once the target sustains one Wound, a second Wound counts as a Mortal Wound.  Wounds and Mortal Wounds happen in addition to another effect.

Now, I really want to avoid additive bonuses in After Next.  I’d rather situational modifiers and bonuses and such be represented by stacking Advantage or other non-additive mechanics.  So, so far I have a short list of effects available for the three categories of 0-4, 5-9, and 10+:

  • Tier I (Margin of Success = 0-4) –
    • Knock Off Balance/Feint/Stun (gives Advantage to next attack against target)
    • Jab (gives target Disadvantage on their next attack)
  • Tier II (MoS = 5-9) –
    • Knock Back (Disengages the target from you, moves them away from you)
    • Grapple (Neither you nor the target can attack until ended)
    • Dis-Shield (Target loses any Shield bonus until they spend a turn to retrieve it)
  • Tier III (MoS = 10+) –
    • Knock Down (Target is knocked Prone; all attacks against the target get Advantage, and the target’s attacks take Disadvantage until he uses a turn to get up)
    • Disarm (Target cannot attack with that weapon until they spend a turn to retrieve it)

OK, so, besides the fact that Knock Back and Grapple need a little more context to be very useful, that’s a good starting list.

In case you got bored.

Shall we run a sample fight to see how it would go?

First, some rules contexts here;

  • Weapons
    • Longsword (Wound DC 14, +1 Defense)
    • Spear (Wound DC 15, Reach weapon)
    • Battleaxe (Wound DC 17)
  • Armor & Shields
    • Leather Armor (+2 Armor)
    • Chain Armor (+5 Armor)
    • Plate Armor (+7 Armor)
    • Buckler (+2 Defense)
    • Shield (+3 Defense)
    • Tower Shield (+4 Defense)
  • Offense
    • Expert (+7 Attack)
    • Average (+5 Attack)
    • Poor (+2 Attack)
  • Defense
    • Expert (+6 Defense)
    • Average (+3 Defense)
    • Poor (+1 Defense)

So, let’s put 2 heroes against 4 villains, 3 of which are mooks, 1 of which is their captain:

  • Hero 1 (the Knight)
    • Spear, Shield, Plate Armor, Average Offense, Average Defense
    • Attack = d20 + 5, Defense = 16 (10+3+3), Wound = 15, Armor = d20 + 7
  • Hero 2 (the Barbarian)
    • Battleaxe, Shield, Chain Armor, Expert Offense, Poor Defense
    • Attack = d20 + 7, Defense = 14 (10+3+1), Wound = 17), Armor = d20 + 5
  • Bandits (3)
    • Longsword, Leather Armor, Poor Offense, Poor Defense
    • Attack = d20 + 2, Defense = 12 (10+1+1), Wound = 14, Armor = d20 + 3
  • Bandit Captain
    • Longsword, Shield, Chain Armor, Average Offense, Poor Defense
    • Attack = d20 + 5, Defense = 15 (10+1+3+1), Wound = 14, Armor = d20 + 5

All right, I’m going to run this simulation.  Initiative is as follows: the Knight, the Bandit Captain, the Barbarian, then the Bandits.

Round 1)

The Knight attacks the Bandit Captain (d20+5 vs. 15 = 13, MoS = -2), but the Captain evades and knocks him off balance (Advantage on next attack against Knight).  The Captain then attacks the Knight, instead (d20+5 w/Adv vs. 16 = 6, MoS = -10), but the Knight easily counter-attacks (Armor roll, d20+5 vs. 15 = 20), and though the Captain is thrown to the ground, his armor protects him.  The Barbarian seizes the opportunity and attacks the Captain, as well, (d20+7 w/Adv vs. 15 = 25, MoS = 10) (Cap’s armor d20+5 vs. 17 = 21), but it only disarms the Captain, who is able to evade his attacks.  Bandit 1 attacks the Barbarian (d20+2 vs. 14 = 9, MoS = -5), but the Barbarian counters (B1 armor d20+3 vs. 17 = 5), leaving a painful gash on the bandit’s forearm.  Bandit 2 attacks the Barbarian, as well (d20+2 vs. 14 = 13, MoS = -1), but the Barbarian is able to knock this one off-balance (Adv on next attack on B2).  Finally Bandit 3 attacks the Barbarian (d20+2 vs. 14  = 15, MoS = 1), and is able to knock the Barbarian off his balance (Adv on next attack against Barb).

Round 2-

The Knight goes to finish off the Captain (d20+5 w/Adv vs. 15 (sans Sword bonus) = 25, MoS = 10) (Cap armor d20+5 vs. 15 = 14) and plants his spear into the Captain’s chest.  The Barbarian attacks Bandit 2 (d20+7 w/Adv vs. 12 = 17, MoS = 5) (B2 armor d20+3 vs. 17 = 5) and leaves him wounded, in addition to a little dazed (Dis on B2’s next attack).  Bandit 1 attacks the Barbarian (d20+2 w/Adv vs. 14 = 14, MoS = 0) and is able to keep him off his balance.  Bandit 2 attacks him, as well (d20+2 (Adv and Dis cancel out) vs. 14 = 17, MoS = 3) and manages to keep him off balance.  Bandit 3 attacks him, as well (d20+2 w/Adv vs. 14 = 13, MoS = -1), but the Barbarian turns the tables and leaves him off balance.

Round 3-

The Knight attacks Bandit 3 (d20+5 w/Adv vs. 12 = 23, MoS = 11) (B3 armor d20+3 vs. 15 = 10) and spears him in the gut.  He falls to the ground.  The Barbarian attacks Bandit 1 (d20+7 vs. 12 = 14, MoS = 2) and gets a jab to his face (Dis on B1’s next attack).  Bandit 1 attacks the Barbarian (d20+2 w/Dis vs. 14 = 5, MoS = -9) (B1 armor d20+3 vs. 17 = 17), and though the Barbarian counter-attacks, he is only able to knock him off balance (Adv on next attack against B1).  Bandit 2 attacks the Barbarian, as well (d20+2 vs. 14 = 19, MoS = 5) (Barb armor d20+5 vs. 14 = 11), slashing him deep across the arm.

Round 4-

The Knight attacks Bandit 1 (d20+5 w/Adv vs. 12 = 19, MoS = 7) (B1 armor d20+3 vs. 15 = 7) and similarly manages to spear him through the chest.  The Barbarian attacks Bandit 2 (d20+7 vs. 12 = 9, MoS = -3), but the Bandit is prepared and leaves the Barbarian off-balance.  Bandit 2 makes a last ditch effort against the Barbarian (d20+2 w/Adv vs. 14 = 21, MoS = 7) (Barb armor d20+5 vs. 14 = 12), and scores a penetrating blow into the Barbarian’s side, leaving him on the ground.

Round 5-

Enraged at his friend’s demise, the Knight attacks the Bandit (d20+5 vs. 12 = 8, MoS = -4) but the Bandit is able to turn it around and knock the Knight off balance (Adv on next attack against Knight).  The Bandit attacks the Knight (d20+2 w/Adv vs. 16 = 22) (Knight armor d20+7 vs. 14 = 15), which leaves him shield-less, but unhurt.

Round 6-

The Knight again attacks the Bandit (d20+5 vs. 12 = 18, MoS = 6) (B2 armor d20+3 vs. 15 = 18) but only manages to land a jab (Dis on B2’s next attack).  The Bandit uses his turn to pick up the Knight’s discarded shield!

Round 7-

The Knight attacks the Bandit (d20+5 vs. 15 = 21, MoS = 6) (B2 armor d20+3 vs. 15 = 4) and despite the shield’s help, is able to run the Bandit through.  It’s over!

Wow, that took an obscenely large number of rounds.  Bandit 2 was way too lucky, I gotta say.

But this helped me realize one glaring flaw in this system, and that is when it’s more likely that less-powerful enemies will hurt themselves rather than hurt their target, their optimal choice is indeed to not attack, which I don’t want.  I mean, I suppose that’s a good time for a flee mechanic to come into play, but even that would mean once the captains (the ones supposedly keeping the weaker ones fighting the heroes) are gone, everyone flees, ergo killing captains is all that matters.  I suppose that’s an option, but it isn’t something I initially planned for.  That and the non-damage effects are a little weird.  Those need some serious work.

I’ll continue to tinker with this idea, but I do feel like it makes for far more tense combats, and more cinematic ones (if I ever manage to figure out how to do the non-damage effects right).

Save or Dies in After Next

Hey, folks.

My work on After Next (and this blog in general) has been completely side-lined this semester, and I apologize for that.  Hopefully I’ll have more time to devote to it in the future, but until I’m more sure, I’ll try to keep posting shorter things that arise out of what I see on forums or my thoughts on network TV shows or who knows what.

Joker from TDK - coin flip

Today I want to talk about Save or Die/Lose spells in games like D&D; an ability (often a spell) which takes out a target in one shot, usually with a lower probability of success than a less lethal ability.  In D&D the target rolls a Saving Throw to try to avoid some or all of the effects of spells, hence the name.  The classic example is the Medusa’s gaze attack which turns on-lookers to stone.  These tend to be somewhat controversial in game circles.  I want to briefly consider some different implementations thereof and talk about the issues they raise for designers and some theoretical implementations that would address some of those issues.

In older editions of D&D as I have come to understand it*, powerful magic, including SoD spells, had a chance of backfiring or otherwise harming the caster.  This dramatically increases the risk associated with using such magic, with the payoff being dramatic, powerful effects like instant death or petrification.  In addition, due to their lower save DCs and higher save bonuses for many classes, SoDs were a large gamble to cast and likely to fail regardless of the risk of backfire.  This about evened-out their utility to casters, PC and NPC alike.

D&D 3.5 ported over the spells from AD&D 2e without much alteration, but changed both the way spell DCs were set (now based on the spell level and caster’s stats) and the risks associated with casting powerful magics; namely, it was all removed.  Casters in 3.5 had the risk removed and the chance of failure increased so that SoD spells were superior to almost any other choice of spell.

So, many people advocate simply going back to the AD&D paradigm, where casting spells was risky and the enemy made their save and negated the attack entirely more often than not.  While that would be a step forward, balance-wise, I think it’s kind of missing the point.  Casters didn’t like how that worked in AD&D, hence 3rd Edition changed it.  By focusing on just the spell’s odds of success/backfiring, we’re either putting arbitrary mechanical frustrations on the caster, or, by removing them, on the targets of those spells.  There’s an alternative way of looking at this problem, which I believe solves all of those problems while simultaneously making the game actually more interesting to boot.

The inspiration for this train of thought came from Extra Credits, which did an episode on a relevant topic a few weeks ago, called “Counter Play.”
The main thrust of the idea is this:

When designing an ability or a mechanic, you can’t only be thinking about how to make that ability or mechanic interesting for the player who gets to use it, you also have to think about how its interesting for the players its used on. And on a more rigorous level, it’s the idea that a mechanic or ability in a multiplayer game should increase the number of meaningful choices available both to the player using it and the player its being used on.

TTRPGs are not considered multiplayer games, but the psychology and importance of this principle is true because at the combat round level, they function exactly like one; the DM is one player controlling a single monster on any given turn (mostly), and the player is controlling their one character, and they are slinging these abilities back and forth in a way that is essentially indistinguishable from a competitive multiplayer game.

This tactical genius leaves grown men crying. Don’t ask about the grown elves.

EC goes on to make the point that abilities that are an interesting tactical option for the user but not for the target is a good way to create frustrated targets. However, when you consider both sides of that equation, you create a richer play experience for both. So the question of whether or not SoDs are cool for the SoD-user is not the only consideration we have to take into account when designing SoDs. We also have to account for the SoD receiver’s experience and what options SoDs provide to them. Obviously, the only tactical implication of a traditional SoD for a target is “jack up that save modifier in your build!” That is one-dimensional (it’s not really a choice if it’s the only way) and irrelevant in combat (the decision is made outside of combat and nothing in combat will change it). This is not an enriching option as-is.

So SoDs need to be counter-able by the party, whether that’s by beginning an SoD at the end of one turn and then casting on the next and where taking any damage in-between either negates or greatly diminishes its effect if cast, SoDs only working on targets below a certain HP threshold, or something else that gives the opposing party/character an actual tactical option it can take in the midst of combat to attempt to prevent or counter it.

A third consideration for these mechanics in a TTRPG, I would say, is how it interacts with the user’s allies. You want abilities that interlock with the roles/actions of others, and gives them interesting options on their turns, too. The mundane half of the party’s contribution to the battle can’t be meaningless with one successful SoD. The mundanes have to contribute to SoDs somehow, whether that’s as simple as protecting the caster from having their concentration broken during casting, or contributing to meeting the necessary HP threshold for the spell to work, or some other combination of tactics.

Also, giving mundanes SoD abilities certainly couldn’t hurt, either. At some point a rogue should be able to just sneak up and stab a guy through the heart, and the fighter should be able to cut off the monster’s head with one mighty blow, so long as those have tactically interesting mechanics backing them up.

I’ll come out with some samples, but first I think I want to talk about the tactical mini-game. Grid-less tactical mini-game, as has been described previously.

*My understanding of the specifics of older D&D editions, I admit, is pretty lacking, so this is going off of what I have come to understand from others.

After Next Core

I know last time I said I was going to go into some resource management systems, but I realized that in order to do that, I need to lay down the ground rules of how the basics of the game work. Don’t worry, they’re coming. But first, the core mechanics of D&D After Next:

Like all d20 games, AN will primarily use a d20 + modifiers to resolve actions. I’m going with the standard 6 Abilities, with their modifiers as-is. The three familiar saving throws are joined by a fourth, Perception, which keys off of Wisdom. I’m still debating if these will be rolled every time or be a static 10+ Ability mod defense value. Both of these approaches have their advantages; rolled saves make it more interesting for the PCs and helps them feel like they have ownership over their fate, while static defenses help speed things up and make things easier for the DM. My first instinct is to go with the latter, but I’m starting to fear that I haven’t given players much reason to pay any attention on other’s turns, and this is one thing that will keep them engaged throughout the combat. I’ll keep stewing on that one. Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Going one step further into new territory, Healing Surges will be renamed Stamina, and be equal to your Constitution score for now. These are not recovered after a night’s rest and serve as a long-term, strategic-level resource (you might recover 1 per night’s rest, I’m thinking). As in 4e, expending Stamina allows you to heal outside of combat, trigger a second wind, and also powers certain abilities. One ability is to expend Stamina to replace a natural d20 roll’s result with the relevant Ability score value*. So if you roll a 4 on your Stealth check, you can spend one point of Stamina to replace that nat 4 with your Dexterity score, likely 10 or more. I’m still not sure if using this ability will trigger, say, a critical hit on an attack roll. If you have an opinion on this, leave a comment. This mechanic helps to mitigate the effects of using the d20 as an RNG: You can get lucky and roll high, but if you find yourself on the other end of that probability distribution, you can spend a Stamina to do better when faced with a situation that’s too dire for failure.

After Next will use a version of the popular Vitality/Wounds variant rule. Instead of having HP, characters and monsters have Vitality Points and Wound Points. Vitality Points represent your ability to avoid the worst of a blow, as well as shake off minor bumps and scratches, while Wound Points represent your tolerance of more serious injuries. Vitality is easier both to lose and to recover than Wounds. Normal attacks only deal Vitality damage; only crits deal Wound damage. When a character runs out of Vitality, they pass out but are not in danger of bleeding out unless they have less than half of their Wound points remaining. Any damage they take like that is dealt in Wounds. A full night’s rest completely restores your Vitality, but only 1 Wound (possibly 2 or more with a successful Healing check). Right now Vitality is calculated by class (max + 1 HD at level 1) + CON mod, while Wounds are equal to your CON score.

OK, now the larger steps away. I’m going to break AC into Defense and Armor. Defense is the static number that represents your ability to parry, weave away from, or otherwise stop or avoid your opponent’s blows. Armor, on the other hand, is what helps absorb some of the blows that hit and protect you from hits that connect solidly, aka critical hits.

Here’s what I mean; Defense is equal to 10 + Base Attack Bonus + Dex modifier + Shield bonus. The BAB is added to represent a skilled fighter’s ability to parry or otherwise use his weapon to protect himself. Also, it means that a fighting-type’s defense scales along with its offense, something missing in previous editions. When your attack roll overcomes your target’s Defense, you deal a static amount of damage based on your weapon, + STR modifier. If you roll much higher than your target’s Defense, you can increase your damage. Medium and Heavy Armors typically soak some of this damage. If you roll a successful crit, your target makes an Armor check; d20 + Armor bonus + Fortitude, against a DC set by your weapon. If they fail the Armor check, then you roll your weapon’s crit die (d4, d6, d8, d10, or d12), and add your STR modifier; this is how many Wound points the target loses. Again, their Armor’s soak applies (unless they fail their Armor check by a lot).

This is the core chassis that this game will be running on, combined with the ideas talked about last time (Areas, static initiative, active defense, simultaneous action, etc.). Very soon I’ll be able to put up the resource management systems I’m fiddling with, which will begin to shed some light on what different classes will look like. Leave a comment if you have any suggestions or see any glaring issues with the above.

*If this proves to be too limited in use, or too easy to abuse, I can just make it a re-roll, take the better result. I guess I could just add 10 for a point of Stamina, but I’m trying to avoid temporary arithmetic modifiers as much as I can.

Devil in the Die Rolls

So, previously I talked about what I want to see in a new D&D, which I’m calling D&D After Next. One of my primary goals for After Next is to speed up play; I want to be able to run a full mid-size adventure in a single 2-3 hour session. D&D will never be a party game, but I want it to be something you can convince your friends to try once and actually show off how an adventure goes, complete with an ending. I don’t want D&D to necessarily be an entire evening’s project. I want gamers to play an adventure in D&D, but then still have time to play an hour or two of Smash or Halo or some other game. The TTRPG demographic tends to be a bit older; we have a lot going on. School, work, friends, family, watching hours upon hours of syndicated television on Netflix, getting on the internet and complaining about games, etc., etc. Anyways, enough of the why, let’s talk about the how.

How do you make D&D a 2-hour affair? The answer is simple; combat. Combat in D&D came from table-top wargames, and was born in era when hobby games didn’t have much competition. So combat in D&D looks and feels like a wargame, complete with complex turns, measurements that need to be accounted for, and a long list of specific effects which must be learned independently. While much of the industry has moved away from this, the poster boy for the entire genre, Dungeons & Dragons, languishes in the past because it is convinced that it just needs to recapture some elusive, mystical quality from its glory days by going back to those mechanics. I disagree; the real secret to D&D’s early success, besides the absolute lack of competition, was Gary Gygax’s salesmanship. I will save more on that for another article about marketing your game, but for now here’s my brilliant theory; what makes D&D familiar is not what makes it fun. D&D needs to be willing to re-examine some of its fundamental assumptions and discard ones that don’t help it get where it wants to be. One of those old assumptions is the complex combat, which focused on tactical decisions to the point that it takes a very long time to kill 5 kobolds.

The major contributors to D&D combat’s sluggish resolution time are as follows;

  • Initiative; rolling it and keeping track of it (or more, forgetting it and having to remember whose turn it is, and ‘oh, we skipped so-and-so, let’s go back,’ and such)
  • Turn structure; between movement and combat maneuvers and spells and free actions, swift and/or immediate actions, standard actions, full-round actions, you are going through 5-6 lists of stuff you can do and choosing one from each list to make the optimal combination. Keeping track of all these actions and phases is not difficult, but it does take time.
  • Die rolls; A bog standard attack takes at least two rolls – to-hit and damage – and a crit takes many more than that. That’s not counting Opportunity Attacks, or multiple attacks on a turn, or grappling.

These have largely remained untouched for decades of D&D’s history, and I don’t think that’s healthy.

After Next’s combat system will not be grid-based, initiative order will not be so quickly forgotten, it will have a simplified turn structure, and it will reduce the number of dice you have to roll. Let’s take these each separately.

Non-grid-based Combat

The grid was a perfectly fine way to make D&D for wargamers who had the stuff to make grids handy. That is a much smaller portion of the D&D-playing populace now, though, so we need a new way of seeing the combat. Many modern RPGs have highly abstract location systems, where there is literally no objective way to tell how far one thing is from another; it’s entirely based on how the player/GM is imagining it. When those two disagree, though, confusion and sometimes conflict ensues. So, we need an objective way of seeing everything; Areas.

Areas just mean that the environment is chopped up into different regions or zones or whatever you want to call them, and that is the finest level of positioning detail we care about. Not all areas will be the same size; an area may be as small as a narrow staircase or as large as a spacious field, and that’s OK. The borders of an area will be based on the features of the map; walls, hallways, possibly furnishings or other stones, anything that breaks up an even surface.

A character in any given Area will be able to melee against any target in that Area, no matter how many people he might walk by in doing so. The idea is that the characters in an Area are not at fixed, stationary positions, but rather are moving around in reaction to the other combatants, so you can attack who you like. Now, you still need the idea of a front-line and a back-line, so let characters in melee form up and essentially hold the aggro of a number of foes. As long as there aren’t more melee enemies on the Area than that formation can hold, the enemies can’t attack the ones the formation are protecting.

For instance, if a Wizard, Paladin, Barbarian, and Ranger are in one party, and they’re fighting a bunch of goblins, then the Paladin and Barbarian could form a line, protecting the Wizard and Ranger, and prevent goblin attackers from being able to attack the latter two. For now I will tentatively set the limit that N number of melee characters in a formation can prevent 2N-1 enemy attackers from targeting the back line. In layman’s terms, the front-line can hold off anything less than twice their own number, but more than that can get past them. So a 1-man line can hold off 1 opponent, a 2-man line can hold off 3, a 3-man line can hold off 5, etc. Of course there would be feats or abilities which increase this. That’s enough for formations now, but I have more ideas for them later.

Initiative & Turn Structure

Rolling up new Initiative every fight is really just a time-waster. It randomizes the slight tactical advantage that going first brings with it, but I don’t think it’s worth the time we waste rolling it, figuring out the order, and then forgetting it and figuring it out again multiple times per fight. So, to keep it simple, we could just make Initiative a static number. Then suggest that the players would sit in order of initiative, so we can just go around the table. That’s an option, in case you really want to speed up play. Your total initiative bonus is now just your initiative, so if Bob goes before Sally and after Paul in one fight, the order is still Paul, Bob, Sally in the next fight.

As for turn structure, we’ll lay the ground rule that a round is not 6 seconds of combat, it’s a single narrative beat, which might be 2-3 seconds or 30 seconds or more. During this round you typically get 1 significant action. Whether that’s an attack, a spell, or breaking down a door or climbing up a rope or moving into a new Area, you can do one thing this turn. Now, there’ll probably be several ways to cheat on this rule, and that’s fine; if you Charge you can move into a new Area and attack, for example. Anything less than that – switching weapons, moving around in your Area, grabbing an item (if uncontested), talking, etc., are simply free actions.

On your turn, you first resolve any on-going effects, like taking poison or environmental damage, rolling to resist a charm or other debuff, etc., then take your action, attacking or moving or whatever it may be. This way there is only one phase of the turn where you have to remember what conditions are affecting you, and the exciting part of your turn, the action, is also the climax.

Rolling the Dice

Choose your Weapon - Dice

All the above is nice, but it still falls short of really bringing a typical combat down to the 15-minute benchmark. When I’m late for something and I need to cut down on transit time, I try to speed, even though I know that the # of lights is a far greater indicator of how long it takes to arrive. If I really want to cut out chunks of my travel time, I need to cut out the number of lights on my route. Similarly, in After Next, to really cut down combat time, we need to cut out die rolls.

The easiest thing is to do away with separate to-hit and damage rolls. I don’t think damage rolls contribute that much in the first place; yes, it’s kind of exciting to roll max damage, but it’s also really frustrating to only get a 1 or a 2 on your d8 or d12. So, I think moving to fixed damage values for weapons, +STR mod, works just fine. Now this isn’t the whole story, as I plan to implement degrees of success; beat the enemy’s AC by enough and you deal more damage, so there is still some variance to how much damage you deal, but it only requires one roll.

Another problem is critical hits. I have a critical hit system that changes some fundamental aspects of the game, taking a hint or two from The One Ring, the latest Lord of the Rings RPG, which I’ll explain in the next article in this series, but suffice it to say that crits won’t take 4-6 rolls (attack roll, crit confirm roll, damage roll, damage roll 2, damage roll 3, etc.) anymore.

Those two things will cut down on resolution time, but there’s two more larger changes that will have far-reaching implications for the combat engine. First, allow what I call ‘Active Defense.’ When you are attacked by an opponent, you have the option to sacrifice your next turn to roll an attack against your assailant, opposing their own attack. These two attacks are rolled simultaneously and whoever wins deals damage and whatever else their hit does as normal, and play proceeds. This will go through 2 turns in 1, It changes the dynamics of the combat somewhat, but I think it’s a solid idea to build on.

The second game-changer is the option to jointly attack a single target. If everyone is going to attack the big troll anyway, just have them roll it all simultaneously. There are a few strings attached, namely that you can only do this on the turn of the last participating character in initiative order. So if Paul, Sally, and Bob all want to attack the dragon, they can all do so, acting on Sally’s turn (the last in the initiative order established previously), and resolve their actions simultaneously. This way you can resolve three turns in the space of one (give or take).

In addition, attacking with others will bring more added benefits. Has anyone ever played Chrono Cross? In that game, each character had special abilities that only they could perform, and when they were in the party with certain other characters, those special abilities were converted into Dual or Triple Techniques, for a big boost in power. After Next would give little incentives for attacking with other characters, since you have to use the lowest initiative score. These would be class-based, and you’ll be able to purchase different effects. For instance, a Fighter might be able to add his STR bonus to the damage of characters attacking with him, or a Warlord might give companions a bonus to the attack roll, a rogue might get an automatic sneak attack, a sorceror might change the damage others deal to fire damage or simply add fire damage on top, and a Cleric might bless or heal those who attack with him. Of course the lower level effects would be the weaker ones, and the higher level effects would be more powerful. This would accelerate combats, as you’re basically folding a lot of buffs and things into an attack action.

It sounds pretty impressively powerful right now, and it would require a lot of number-crunching in order to find the right balance points for these things, but I think that these two things would actually help the party feel like it’s working together, give a more visceral, action-packed feel to combat, and most importantly, cut down the time it takes to kill a Minotaur or a Medusa in half.

OK, this one was pretty long, but hey, resolution time is a beast right now. I wanted to cut down as much as I possibly could to leave time for role-playing and socializing, while still having relatively in-depth combats. I think these designs will achieve that. Leave a reply telling me what you think, ideas to use these new approaches in interesting ways, or problems you see rising from them. In my next After Next article I’ll be exploring alternative resource management systems for different classes, to create a unique feel for different types of characters which are all fun, not just picking a place on the spectrum between ‘Gouge my eyes out boring’ and ‘Casters: the Accounting.’

D&D After Next

Continuing on from this post.

So, what design goals do think would help the D&D After Next (D&D AN) be a better game? First, a note on what I mean by ‘better.’ I want a new edition of D&D to lower the barrier-to-entry of the hobby, to expand the market, to make new gamers, not just pander to old ones. I want it to get at the core of what makes D&D fun, not what makes it familiar.

My mantra for this project will be; does this idea make the experience cleaner, faster, or richer? If it doesn’t do one of those things, it’s not going to make it into the game.

Cleaner-

I want the game to be simpler than some of its editions, and not simply by relying on the DM to make up most of it. I want a reasonable first-time player to feel fairly comfortable playing after their first session. I want to make the DM’s job as easy as possible. I want the rules to be clear and concise, and I want them all very easy to find; preferably all in one place, or in extremely handy places – no more flipping through chapter upon chapter of text trying to look stuff up. So, I want a simpler, streamlined D&D, in both presentation and content.

Faster-

My ideal session of D&D AN would last about 60-150 minutes, and cover a complete mid-sized adventure without feeling rushed. I don’t want to have to choose between spending time with family and friends and playing D&D; besides the obvious possibility of doing both simultaneously, I want to be able to do both in the same evening. Resolution time needs to be cut down by a significant margin; combats need to be shorter without being much more lethal. I aim for a combat to take between 10-25 minutes, not 30-40. I want less die rolls per action wherever possible. I have a lot of ideas for this that you’ll see in the next post.

Richer-

At the same time, I want a richer D&D: I want tools that emphasize the story-telling aspects, and meaningful, yet balanced character options. D&D AN needs to play to its strengths, considering the competition from other hobbies, and I think the story-telling aspect is one of the big ones. D&D AN will strive to help you craft and live your character’s story, with all the thrills, disappointments, and achievements that come with it. But besides story-telling, there needs to be a great amount of depth and range of character options. I will use the principles described here and here to make balanced, situationally beneficial options. No more trap classes or feats! No more pigeonholing race + class combos! No more identical class mechanics! And not just in the dungeon; I will make meaningful non-combat rules that have depth while keeping everyone able to participate (more on that soon).

Those are my broad goals. Specific benchmarks and ways to achieve them will be brainstormed and hashed out right here, for your entertainment/enrichment. My next article will focus specifically on how much faster it needs to be and how to get there.

Please leave a reply with your comments, ideas, or criticisms! Agree or disagree? What do you think D&D AN needs to be?