Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ditching the damage die roll

A common complaint about 4E is the length of fights. There are a lot of suggestions to curb combat length, but something I often see neglected is the variation in damage that PCs do. To me it has always been an odd mechanic that how well you hit has no effect on the damage inflicted. You can just barely hit a creature and max out damage, or get a solid hit (just below a critical) and flub your damage roll with a 1.

How minions deal damage has a nifty idea there. Minions do a steady amount of damage per hit. No die rolling. Perfect for the 1 hit creatures they are, but that concept of a steady state of damage output with less overhead in running them has some appeal when streamlining combats.

Another game comes to mind where damage output was less random is Star Fleet Battles. This was a tactical space combat game set in the Star Trek universe that first came out in the late 70s and hit its stride in the early 80s. What was interesting about the game was that many weapon systems had a flat damage rate, it just depended on whether you hit based on a D6 roll. Other systems (like phasers) had effectively no ‘to hit’ roll at all, they just did a random amount of damage. However the closer you were the less random the damage output was, effectively shifting a damage roll from 1-4 at long distance to 5-6 at broadside range.

What I particularly liked was that certain ranges had a sweet spot where the variation in damage output was minimized, and got better as you closed the distance. It was very predictable. Risky long range shots sniping at a target across the map was exactly that, risky and did little damage. Closer in, you could predict how much damage you could inflict (and take yourself). The game came down to pre-planning moves, maneuvering, and efficient energy allocation.

So with D&D I found it odd there is this huge disconnect with damage and to hit rolls. They are completely independant from each other. On top of that a series of rolls is needed with each effective strike. It’s a lot of manhandling of dice and steps to resolve combat. So why not consider dropping the idea of random damage altogether if fights are dragging?

Write down 4 typical damage rolls beforehand – Take the normal die roll a player would make and replace it with an average damage, or a simple mean of the potential die outcomes. Additionally make a limited damage value being 25% of the potential damage from the same die, and an improved damage value calculated as 75% of the potential damage. Don’t forget to include the max damage roll from critical hits too.

With those 4 values, add the bonuses to damage due to feats, enhancements, ability scores, etc. and you’ve got a simple list of damage numbers a PC does with each attack. If extra bonuses come in from other player’s powers they can quickly add it to those totals.

Average damage is the default – Any powers or abilities that do multiple weapon hits are just multiplied by this number, just follow up and add the various bonuses to damage from feats, etc. This is the bread and butter output from attacks.

Critical hits work as before – Roll a 20 and you max out damage. Nothing changes.

Limited Damage on an even hit – If a player scores a hit roll that evenly matchs a creature’s defense, he uses the limited damage value. Just a little variation to the damage. You barely get a hit and in turn do less than average damage.

Improved Damage at one less from a critical hit – Typically on a 19 (but may be different for some characters that can expand the range of successful critical hits), but this is a hit that would do a bit more damage from normal yet still not quite the max damage from a natural 20.

With a little prep time, the players have their turn streamlined a little. Additionally, there is a small amount of variation in their damage output. The big, and less than optimal, hits are there. More importantly, they are tied to how well you roll to hit. Also, different damage output is tied to some simple conditions (i.e. score an even hit roll with a monster’s defense and you do less damage). If anything, I think this could work out well on the DM side of the screen for handling monster damage.

I’ve yet to to try this out with my group. I expect most players will balk at the idea of dropping an opportunity to roll a damage die. I think most will still want to roll that 1D12 rather than agreeing to constantly hit at 6 damage (plus all the bonuses). Still, if combats are dragging this might be something for groups to explore.