Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Dying to play 4e -- and then stabilizing

I just finished reading the Design & Development article on Death and dying and amazingly, I have an opinion.

If you haven't read any previous posts, then you should know that 95% of the time I'm the DM in our campaigns, so my views on death and dying in D&D are from a slightly different viewpoint than the players. My goals are a little different than the players'.

Player death has got to be more inconvenient, for me as a DM, than it is for the players. If one or two members of the party die, then it's up to the party to either find a way to get them resurrected (unless they're playing a race that can't be resurrected, but who would do that, Griff?) or the party loots their fallen comrades and hope to stumble upon some new adventurers that would like to join their quest -- the newly rolled-up characters to replace the dead. Both of these situations have to be dealt with, and even anticipated, by the DM: the party will now turn around and start the long journey back out of the Underdark, dragging their friends' bodies (or toes, if they're morbidly aware of the resurrection spell's requirements), back across the plains, back into town, and then in search of a high-level cleric, undoing the progress they just made on the way to the Undercity of Doo'oom; or, you've got to quickly come up with a situation where the now-being-rolled-up characters are going to be encountered, in about 15 minutes of playtime, so they can join up with the remaining party. In this latter case, you hope there's a nice convenient you - stumble - upon - a - [insert monster here] - camp - where - they - have - captured - some - adventurers - and - conveniently - left - them - alive - and - their - belongings - in - that - chest - over - there encounter already planned, just around the corner.

The What We Hated part of the article definitely hit home. I have observed exactly what the devs point out -- that the -1 to -9 range is too small at higher levels -- and have fudged monster damage more than once to avoid the above-mentioned situation. That's right, players, I've pulled my punches on a few occasions. Once or twice you even accused me of doing so, and yep, I lied to you when I said I hadn't. But once it looks like a party wipe is inevitable, I pull no punches -- at that point I don't want that ONE party member to get away. Oh yeah, new house rule: no more winged races, you bastard.

The point about characters having 'no way to "lose" a combat except by being killed' is definitely a big problem -- on the occasions where I've pulled a punch so a character is only dying, not dead, I immediately start figuring out if the "classic scene of the characters being captured and thrown in a cell from which they have to escape using only their wits and a pack of chewing gum" will fit into the adventure and what flavor the chewing gum will be.

Above the inconvenience of having to deal with dead characters, though, is the fact that I, too, have become attached to them, even as the DM. Unless we've started at 15th level, as we sometimes do, chances are that I've watched these characters grow just as much as their players have, have learned their personalities, and, with Dungeon Master prescience, know what the Fates have planned for them. I feel like I've raised them, my adventuring children, and it, frankly, sucks when "I" lose a character, too. Don't get me wrong, though -- I do still relish killing them, if the dice tell me to.

This new negative threshold seems like it will work. There's still the very real possibility of dying, even in one hit with a lucky critical or powerful spell, but it's not a foregone conclusion that the next hit to any party member hovering around 0 is going to be certain death. This was a voiced concern on numerous occasions, where, with a little metaknowledge about their health and the mechanics of the world, a party member would back out of combat because they just know they will not survive another hit. This new range will allow characters to be heroic, as they ought to be, by risking it all to try and get that one last lucky blow in before they fall.

I'm not sure about this 'no "negative hit point tax"', however. As a DM, one of the edge-of-my-seat moments is when a character is at -8 or so, and the cleric has rushed over with his last cure light wounds spell: will the spell bring the character to consciousness, allowing the cleric to get back to the fight, and the character to drink his or her own potion? Or will the spell disappoint (them, not me) and only stabilize them at -2, occupying the cleric even longer as he rummages for a potion to pour down the throat in an agonizingly long full-round action? Now, as mentioned at the end of the article, the CLW will "set" their hit points, so instead of healing 11 points, it sets the dying character to 11 hit points.

I'm also not too sure about the "[m]onsters don’t need or use this system unless the DM has special reason to do so" part. While on the one hand, I hope that every monster gets smacked down to -10 and beyond because there are times where the party wants to question one, and I, frankly, don't want that to happen. Failure to diplomatic doesn't mean to get to fight and ask questions later! Well, not always, but of course there are times where I need a foe to survive to be questioned, or to scream out their final threat and telling clue. And I'll admit that it has happened (at least once, less than a hundred times) where I've fudged the number of hit points on-the-fly, so that critical max-diced sneak-attack didn't quite kill him -- oh, and he quickly takes a free action to tell you that his master, Evil Boss #3, will avenge him! While this is covered by the "unless the DM has special reason to do so", I think it's best to just let the rules play out as they should -- let the monsters have their negative-hitpoint range as well.

One last thing about the new negative range. Is it always half-of-your-hitpoints, in the negative? Does that mean that your 1d4 wizard with no constitution has a life-range of +4 to -2? Ouch. Or, as hinted below, is there a minimum range?

The article ends with a Try It Now! section, on how to try 4th-edition-LIKE rules, which they do say are not quite the 4e system. It suggests using -10 or one-quarter of hit points (to account for less damage in 3e rules). Hopefully that -10 is in 4e, to help out the poor wizard.

If you're dying, roll d20. I never understood why it was percentile in 3e - 10% chance of stabilizing is still doable on d20. But now, less-than-ten makes you worse, and three times without stabilizing and you die. I think this is a really good way to do it - it gives a good amount of tension to dying, as intended, but your odds aren't as clear-cut (I'm curious about the odds using this method versus the 10% stabilizing, but am too lazy to figure them out).

Unfortunately, this system doesn't stop the meta-knowledge that the players give to their characters, which is how quickly they need to run to the aid of their fallen friend. You haven't rolled under ten yet? I've got a round or two before I'll worry. Let me just smack this guy a few more times. That was your second under-ten? I'm on my way -- roll high if I don't get there in time! It does change things a little, because they can be dead in three rounds regardless of their hit points, whereas 3e allowed you to finish the fight if they were only at -1. I've considered keeping the state of dying hidden from the players, where only I know how low they are, and only I know if they've stabilized or not, because I make the roll. But when it comes down to their character's survival, who wants to leave that up to the DM's evil dice when they've got their lucky d20 warmed up?

But it's the roll of the 20 that I strongly disagree with.

20: You get better! You wake up with hit points equal to one-quarter your full normal hit points.

How do they rationalize this? Heroic stability? Take a feat. I don't think this has any place in the rules. I don't care if there's only a 5% chance each turn for this to happen; Collins himself says earlier in the article that "[b]elievability isn’t the same thing as realism—an error which has ruined more games than I can count", and this rule defies both believability and realism. Make a 20 reset how many under-tens you've rolled. Make it set you to -1. Make it stabilize you. I just can't imagine a power-gamed barbarian with his heaps of hit points not only fighting down at one hit point (because he knows that he can go to -50 safely) but then waking up, out of chance, with 25 hit points after he does go down?

Overall, I like the new death-and-dying rules, but I'll need some convincing that it's completely right.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

You know I have been using a whitewolf/Starwars/heros of horror vitality point/Wound point/Life point combo of my own design. It isn't as complex as it may sound but it gives you everything you need, the heroic champion who crawls 2 miles in the mud to get help, the poor sap who is knocked out in one punch, and criticals that mean it. D&D dying and physical damage rules lack a lot of desired realism, a sword should hurt.