Monday, January 23, 2012

Defenses - Missing The Point?

There are several philosophies to Defenses in D&D, and unfortunately they rarely work well together. They generally require completely different stats and mechanics, and this means balancing something to work for different systems is very difficult. So the challenge for the designers of D&D Next is to come up with a system that will work for all players no matter what level of complexity and tactics they wish to use.

Who should determine the success of an attack?

In the past, hitting something with a weapon attacked their Armor Class and casting a spell required the target to make a Saving Throw depending on the type of magic used. This is an overly simplistic description, but holds true for most of the history of D&D.

This system worked for a long time, but that doesn't mean it was good. My biggest issue with it was the Saving Throw. Once a character attacked with a spell they then had to wait for a defensive dice roll to see how effective it was, this meant the resolution of the attack wasn't done by the player. They didn't have a target to hit, they just threw the spell at something and waited to see what happened. It didn't feel like their skill with magic or their actions really had much impact on the result.

In the current edition of D&D all creatures have defensive stats for different types of attacks. Then your attack will designate what defense you have to overcome to successfully hit. All of the dice rolls to resolve an attack are made by the player. I feel this is a better system because instead of the player waiting for the DM to tell them how their attack went, the player tells the DM. It's a small distinction, but has huge impact on player involvement.

Whatever system we get in D&D Next I hope it keeps the results of the attack in the hands of the player.

He current system used in 4E is great in this way, but in many others it really misses the target. The four primary defensive stats (AC, Fort, Ref, Will) work in concept, but they frequently failed in practice.

The concepts are:
• Armor Class (AC) is how hard it is to land a hit that gets through the armor of the target. Eg, hitting someone with a sword.
• Fortitude (Fort) is how hard it is to land a hit that strikes someones physical core. Eg, a disease or poison attack.
• Reflex (Ref) is how hard it is to land a hit that someone has to dodge. Eg, hitting them with a bolt of magic energy.
• Will is how hard it is to land a hit that effects someone's mind. Eg, a charm or fear effect.

These make sense and seem like a good idea, so how do they fail in practice? Well, the lines blur a little too easily, and way too often.

Frequently you get powers, either character or monster, that seem to attack the wrong defense. Other times you get monsters who's defenses don't match the concept they are trying to convey.

Let me try to explain with an example.

You are facing four monsters. One is wearing plate mail and a shield and is wielding a sword. One is in leather armor and had two daggers. One is in chain mail and has a mace and a holy symbol. The last is in cloth clothing covered in magical symbols. Pretty much the standard archetypes.

You would expect the plate mail and shield guy to have the highest AC by quite a bit, but in practice in there is likely to be very little difference in the AC of the monsters. You would expect the leather wearer as a rogue type to have a higher Ref than Fort defense, but generally they are almost the same. You would expect the cleric or wizard type to have a higher Will defense than the others, but again  not so much.

The reason for this was because of the limit to the type of attacks that PCs had, and the chase for the almighty balance point where everyone was on equal footing. In the DMG it goes as far as setting the non AC defenses for a monster as all the same when you create a monster, showing how little the defenses really meant. So every PC type had an equal chance, the defenses got closer and closer together, and the number of attacks that attacked defenses they shouldn't got more and more.

I can accept a fighter being able to use encounter or daily powers that target Ref and Fort, but mostly they should attack AC and maybe occasionally have an ability that targets Will; I know having a guy in heavy armor tossing around an axe dripping gore yelling at me would scare the hell out of me. But there should be a reason for these attacks to not focus on AC, and generally there isn't.

I can accept a wizard having different types of attacks that could target almost any of the defenses. A rain of sharp needles of ice could attack AC, a rolling ball of fire could attack Ref, a blast of freezing cold air could attack Fort and a domination spell could attack Will. But there should be some obvious reason for it, not just because they were due a power that attacked a certain defense.

What I feel a player should be able to do is look at an enemy and make some sort of educated guess as to which sort of attacks would be more effective, and have the person who has those types of attacks use them to exploit the weakness. A weapon against a wizard should be more of a threat than spells against him. A spell against a warrior should be more effective than a weapon. Sneaky attacks should work better against bigger foes. We all know the stereotypes, and those stereotypes exist for a reason.

4E, I assume in an attempt to maintain balance, broke all those stereotypes so you can rarely look at something and say what sort of attack would be most effective. And I feel this is one of the main things that breaks the concept of storytelling in fights.

So I suppose what I am saying is I hope D&D Next uses a system of target defenses, and that those defenses make sense to the concept of the enemy being fought. Balance the system, and allow for the moments for each character to shine to come from those characters having differing effectiveness versus different types of enemy. This should come as much from defenses that make sense.

One suggestion I have discussed with my players, and have used in a simplistic way is starting all the defenses at the same point, and then buying one point increase in one defense with a point from another. Generally AC buys Ref, or visa versa, indicating that the more armor you have the harder it is to move. Then Fort buys Will or visa versa, indicating the difference between physical and mental prowess. At the end of this process, AC goes up by 2-4 depending on the role of the monster, to indicate that 4E is currently balanced around AC being easier to hit. You only need 2-3 points each way for each enemy to feel quite different. Special enemies may trade in different ways, but this has generally worked quite well.

Still, I think that there has to be a better system than this possible, and I hope I see it in reality as the play testing materials come out in the coming months. For me I will look at what the designers have come with, compare it to me concerns listed here, and see if they managed to fix these issues. As long as attack resolution stays with the player making the attack.

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