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Greetings gamers!

I’ve been away from the blog for a bit, focusing on real life random encounters that have taken time away from both blog writing time and actual gaming time. But I haven’t stopped thinking about D&D and I’ve been mostly pondering the mechanical side of the game. Today I want to write about the base mechanic in D&D and offer a different way of doing things.

The current mechanic is simple to grasp: Roll a d20, add your modifiers and try to meet or beat a target number. Higher numbers indicate a harder task, whether it’s attacking an enemy or making a skill check. The basic mechanic for representing adventurers becoming more powerful is to give them a higher modifier on their d20 roll. This in turn requires a higher difficulty number to ensure that the level appropriate monsters and challenges are in fact a challenge. As the target number of the task increases (Difficult Class for skill checks, Armor Class for attacks) the adventurers must continue to increase their own bonuses in order to keep up with the tasks facing them.

So of the three parts of the equation (d20 + modifier > or = target number) the only numbers that are increasing at the modifiers and the target numbers. The d20 roll remains the same in that you’re always going to roll between a 1 and 20.

There’s a few problems with this setup. One problem is the possibility that target numbers and modifiers don’t scale at the same rate. If the target number is increasing by +2 each level but the adventurers only gain a +1 modifier each level, it will be increasingly harder for them to succeed at tasks. The reverse is also true. If the modifiers are increasing at a faster rate than the target numbers then tasks will become trivially easy. So it’s important to maintain an even relationship with respect to both of the numbers advancements.

If those numbers aren’t advancing evenly then a player may be forced to spend character resources (such as feats) in order to fairly compete with monsters of appropriate level. A number of the feats in 4th edition are referred to as Math Tax feats, as they usually provide simple +1 bonuses to attacks with certain weapons. Adventurers without these feats can find themselves falling behind their allies that do have them when attacking monsters, through no fault of their own except for failing to take a feat that works to correct a flaw in the progression of modifier/target number advancement.

Gamma World takes a different approach and simply has the adventurers add their level as a bonus on attack rolls. This eliminates the need for Math Tax feats (indeed, there are no feats in Gamma World) but doesn’t fix the need to make sure the modifier/target number advancement is even.

What I’m proposing is something similar to other task resolution mechanics, such as the one used in the Serenity RPG. In that game you roll your dice, add them up (rarely do you add a modifier), and see if you’ve beat the target number for the task you’re attempting. The target number is assigned by the GM prior to attempting the task and it follows a scale with an adjective description of the difficulty rank. Easy tasks have a target number of 3, Average tasks are a 7, Hard tasks are 11, Formidable tasks are 15, and so on. The scale continues with Heroic, Incredible, Ridiculous, and Impossible, adding +3 each time to the target number.

One key aspect of this system is that’s level independent, which is a good thing as Serenity RPG doesn’t have character levels. So whether you’re a greenhorn just out in the black or a seasoned veteran that fought on U-Day, an Easy task is always difficulty 3. Hard tasks are always difficulty 11. Without levels, character advancement is handled by increasing the die type you roll for attacks, so if you roll a d10 for Shooting Things and you advanced your characters Shooting Things ability, you’d be rolling a d12 when you Shoot Things.

The advantage of this system is the consistency of the target numbers for the different degrees of task complexity. What I want to do is take that idea and use it in D&D.

Here’s a chart.

1 – Automatic Failure

2,3,4 – Simple

5,6,7 – Easy

8,9,10 – Common

11,12,13 – Average

14,15,16 – Tough

17,18,19 – Hard

20 – Heroic

Rule 1: Level Appropriate tasks are Average.

Rule 2: Tasks above the parties level increase the Difficulty Rank by 1 rank per level above party. Ex: Level 6 monster vs a level 5 party: The monster is +1 rank, so it’s a Tough task. Level 7 monster vs a level 5 party: the monster is +2 rank, so it’s a Hard task.

Rule 3: Tasks below the parties level decrease the Difficult Rank by 1 rank per level below the party. Ex: Level 4 monster vs a level 5 party: The monster is -1 rank, so it’s a Common task. Level 3 monster vs a level 5 party: The monster is -2 ranks, so it’s an Easy task.

In order to succeed on a task, the adventurer must roll equal to or higher than the difficult rank. So if it’s an Average task, he needs a 11 or above to succeed. For Tough tasks, he needs a 14 or above.

Note: This applies whether it’s the player making the roll or the DM. Monsters use this to determine how hard it is to hit the adventurers as well. More on that later.

So now the base mechanic looks like this: d20 versus difficulty rank. There’s no modifiers to add, no armor classes to configure. If it’s level appropriate, you need an 11 or higher. Lower level tasks are easier and higher level tasks are harder. To answer a question some of you may be asking: What about a monster that is 3 levels about the party, thus making it a Heroic task? You need a 20 to succeed. In the cases of monsters that are higher than 3 levels above the party (off the chart), you can only succeed on a natural 20 (and you probably shouldn’t be fighting that monster anyway). For tasks that are more than 3 levels below the party, you still need a 2 or higher: 1 is always an automatic failure.

There’s the main mechanic. It scales with levels in the sense that higher level monsters are harder to fight, but the target number for task difficulties don’t change. You don’t need to have math fixes in order to give your character a boost to attacks or worry about whether a particular monsters armor class is fair for the given party level. This mechanic works for any kind of task resolution, including attack rolls (versus armor class and the other defenses), skill checks, and any other d20 check you might need to make.

The change in mechanic brings up other questions, such as: If everyone is the same difficulty rank to hit, where’s the differentiation between the classes? In other words, how can this system represent different class abilities, like Fighters being able to hit in melee better or Rogues being able to dodge better. In brief, this can be accomplished by class abilities that shift the difficulty ranks around. For example, let’s say that a Fighter has the Weapon Focus class feature. It allows him to attack creatures as if they were one shift in rank lower. So if he’s swinging his sword at a Hard ranked monster, he only needs to succeed on a Tough difficulty to hit. If you don’t want to shift a whole rank, you could add a bonus to the roll. So now Weapon Focus adds a +1 whenever he attacks with a weapon (Note: this modified system isn’t opposed to using modifiers on d20 rolls, but it doesn’t use them as the main mechanic for determining a characters ability to succeed). It doesn’t change the difficulty rank a whole shift, but now he can hit a Hard creature with a roll of 16.

For that fast Rogue, his ranking could go up one shift when he’s attacked. Say he’s attacked by a Hard monster (monster is 2 levels above the Rogue’s level); the monster normally only needs a 5 to hit the Rogue (since the Rogue is two levels below the monster, the Rogue is an Easy task for the monster), but because of his Rogue ability Uncanny Dodge, the monster treats him as one level higher, making the Rogue a Common task for the monster (thus needing an 8 or higher to hit the Rogue).

One immediate consequence of this change is that it is relatively easy for higher level creatures to attack lower level creatures. Any monster 2 or more levels above the party is a serious threat. Conversely, any monster 2 or more levels below the party is barely a challenge.

Another consequence is that a lot of the class features and abilities from classes become relatively meaningless. I’m aware of this and specific class features is something I’ll be talking about in a future post. In the meantime, I’d like to know primarily whether this makes sense and secondly whether you think it’d be a good mechanic.

Last Friday my group finished Act 1 of the Reavers of Harkenwold adventure. They’ve done very well so far, enlisting the aid of the riverboat halfling clan, the farmers of Tors hold and the forest elves in their quest to rid the Harkenwold of the Iron Circle menace. They’ve suffered only 1 PC death ( paladin of the Raven Queen) and he was brought back as a Revenant.

Act 2 opens with a massive pitched battle between a hundred Iron Circle mercenaries & the rebel alliance at town of Albridge. The adventure book calls for 3 separate fights for the PC’s during this battle, each taking place away from the main fighting. I’ve talked on here about my plans to play out the battle itself using homebrew wargaming rules instead of doing the 3 fights. My players are onboard for this and I’ve run two playtests of the battle. Its a hard fight and both times the rebels lost, mainly due to improper troop placement before the battle. It’s a deceptive fight because the players naturally want to setup defenses on the north side of the rivet spanning bridge and force the Iron Circle to cross the bridge, but the Iron Circle has better ranged attack units and in each playtest have drawn the rebels south across the bridge where they were slaughtered to the last man. So if the players hope to win they have to position their troops south of the bridge.

One of the players was in one of the playtests and really wants to tell the group what they should do, based on his playtest experience. Thankfully he asked me first and I told him no. That’s direct meta-gaming, but I do want to feed the players some clues, in-game, about how they might best position themselves. I’m thinking a skill challenge type structure, using History and Nature to determine what kind of advice or plans I’ll give the players.

We were planning to do the battle this Friday but one of the players is going to be at an anime convention (MTAC), so we’ll push the battle to next week. Which means that this week I need something for them to do that isn’t covered in the adventure book.

I don’t know the statistics on whether DM’s prefer their own adventures or published adventures, but I usually run with my own adventures. This is actually the first time I’ve used a published adventure and I mainly choose to do so this time because I’m still new to 4th edition and wanted to run something that I assumed would be balanced as my first major foray in the 4th edition. I like making up my own stories and adventures though and I recently started a bi-weekly Sunday night game set in my own homebrew world. So I don’t mind gaming outside the published adventure lines, to borrow a metaphor.

What I decided to do is to have the session be an extended RP session with th PC’s organizing the town’s defenses over the course of 2 or 3 days before the big battle. The group likes to RP and we’ve had limited time for that recently so I think they’ll enjoy an extended RP session. But at its heart D&D is a combat RPG so I want to have them fight something during the session as well. There’s been talk on various D&D blogs lately about ignoring the XP budget when designing encounters and instead building them more for aesthetic  and story purposes. Theres merits and drawbacks for both ways of doing it, but I do use the the XP budget when designing encounters. If I’m pulling together a random encounter with monsters from the Monster Vault I’ll check the budget and pick ones that fit both with the story and the budget.

But if I’m custom making the monster, as I did for this Friday’s session, I generally ignore it and just make something that’s cool and fits the story. For example, this is the monster I made for the game Friday, the dreaded Vampire. He’s a level 5 solo brute that can dominate and drain healing surges in a single turn (The PC’s are 3rd level, by the way). The vampire will sneak into the town during the night, killing a few rebel pickets to get to the PC’s house and then try to kill each of them in their sleep. Realistically it won’t kill anyone in their sleep but it will start the combat with biting the PC while their sleeping in bed. A great opportunity to give them the heebie jeebies, and they’ll probably be fighting in the combat without their heavy armor on (since it’ll be attacking in the middle of the night). The PC’s might set a watch, but their sleeping in town with the whole rebel alliance guarding the town. They’re not that paranoid. Yet.

In other gaming news, one of my players is an old friend of Robert Schwalb and encouraged me to start using Robert’s forum as a place for OOC chatter and IC RP’ing when we’re not at the table. Though I’m an experienced PbP’er, I haven’t done much with on this forum aside from setting up the OOC thread. One of the players has started an IC thread as a continuation of the RP that we ended with last session.

I think it’s a neat idea and I encouraged the players to log on and post whatever they want. I don’t know how much I’ll be able to keep up with the forum threads as much as I’d like to, but it’s an interesting alternative to Obsidian Portal (which I use as well and like, no complaints here) and it’ll allow the players to RP some more, as we are limited to a 4 hour time slot at the gaming store.

Good gaming!