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Introduction to Each Post in This Series
On Friday (July 23, 2021), I mentioned that I was relearning AD&D 1st Edition (“1e“) with the intention of running it. As I read through the Player’s Handbook (“PHB“), certain mechanics or text will strike me as odd or surprising, but in either case worthy of discussion. In fact, the most surprising thing I’m experiencing is that I’m finding a lot more great ideas in 1e that we’ve since abandoned. I find myself asking, “Why?” As a result, I’ll be writing several posts over the next few weeks. I’m sure everything I’m thinking has been discussed before — sometimes be me — so perhaps my questions have been answered, and my concerns resolved, years ago. My experience with RPGs is relatively limited in scope, having played a small number of games, so I’m sure a lot of what I’m going to say has been incorporated into games I’ve never even heard of. (Some have certainly been addressed by future editions of D&D themselves.) Nevertheless, bringing this directed conversation to the public is new to me, so here it goes.
Posts in this series: | My Playlist | Campaign Settings and Pantheons | Languages | Level | “Dead Levels” | Division of Labor, Distance, and Time | Initiative | Combat Subsystems | Armor Class Ratings | Alignment and Reputation | The Feel of a School of Magic | Boring Magic Items | Ability Score Bonuses and Skill Rolls | The Problem with Democracies | Hitting More Frequently | Encounter Balance and Shooting Yourselves in the Feet |
During the last in-person Winter Fantasy (2019), I play-tested Delve RPG, which was run by my friend, Stephen Radney-MacFarland. As sometimes occurs, I let him know what I thought about game design, but he had no choice but to listen. My sole purpose to being there was to criticize. I pointed out that my understanding (at least in the D&D world) was that characters should, on average, expect to hit on a d20 roll of 9. According to Stephen, 11 was the magic number. At least for 1e, looking at the matrices, it appears he’s right. No surprises there.
The Magic Number
My position is that the magic number should actually be 7. Any miss can be frustrating depending on the timing, but for the most part no one gets too upset if they miss on a 4 because they expect that roll to miss. On the other hand, missing on a 9, or even worse on a double-digit 11, can be especially frustrating. You expect to hit on those rolls, but if 11 is your average, then particularly tough creatures will require even higher rolls than that.
Even worse, the greater the range rolls that miss, the more often it occurs, which means you’re more prone to very frustrating bad streaks. How many times have you seen a player have ridiculously bad luck at the table? That can derail an entire session for that player.
What I suggest (and am doing) is adjusting the amount of damage a character can withstand so that the increase in hits averages out to take down an opponent in the same number of rounds. The combats are no faster or slower, but they’re always more dynamic. In this case, dynamic = fun.
So what about the NPCs? Should they hit at the same rate? Well, more or less, yes. On this flip side, getting hit a lot adds to the tension of combat even if the net result is mathematically the same. You just don’t know if you’re going to make it. Accordingly, a game designer should make the same adjustments to PC stats to account for the increased hits.
Of course, as I’ll explain tomorrow, not all encounters are perfectly balanced for a wide variety of reasons. However, this baseline would still improve most of those encounters as well, or entire campaigns, that are written to be either more or less difficult. The level of threat the GM wants doesn’t change; just the feel of the game.
I prefer a game that’s dynamic.
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