A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer


The Mathematics of Fixed Damage

Ever since I conceived the idea for creating A Night in Seyvoth Manor, I've been debating whether to use fixed damage values for the monsters and traps or not.

The general consensus is that using fixed damage values speeds up the encounter, primarily because mathematics becomes simpler. You don't have to read a handful of dice, add the modifier and figure out the total; it's one nice round number. No more fistfuls of dice!

The problem with using that premise in 4E is that the number is pretty much always the same. First off, when converting a monster's damage roll to a fixed number you kind of have to use the average of the damage; using anything other than the average wouldn't make sense (this is not taking "difficulty" in to consideration... we'll get to that later). But an inherent aspect of 4E is that, for any given level, all the monsters average the same amount of damage. That's by design in 4th Edition.

Damage, By the Numbers

As a point of reference, here are the average die values as presented in my 4E Dice Roller and in Sly Flourish's Die Roller:

Minion: 7 damage
Low: 10 damage
Medium: 14 damage
High: 17 damage
Limited High: 21 damage
Hardcore: 28 damage

Based on that, the first problem I have with using fixed damage would be that every monster would cause 14 damage, so for argument's sake let's make it a nice round number like 15.

Everything becomes 15 damage. Again, that's by design in 4th Edition; doing anything contrary to that risks unbalancing things. Sure there might be some exceptions to the rule - some things might do 10, some things might do 20 - but all in all it's the same average damage, over and over again. While creating my monsters for A Night in Seyvoth Manor, I actually got sick of writing "15 damage" in almost every stat block.

Critical Hits

One issue is how to handle critical hits. Gone are the days of the "ghetto crit" that could happen now; statistically speaking, a player is over three times more likely to roll maximum damage on a d6 (16.7%) than rolling a natural 20 (5%), so at low levels and players who may not have magical items a critical hit borders on being meaningless. So what do you do with critical hits and fixed damage? Double it? Add a die?

I thought about doubling the damage, but is that really "special"? With fixed damage, that's not much different than hitting twice. I tried to mitigate it by adding critical hit effects to monster powers, but sometimes  it feels like a lot of excess work.

Characters, By the Numbers

To figure out the effectiveness of fixed damage I decided to compare the above values to two different characters that would be playing such an adventure. Considering that it's a 6th level adventure, I created the weakest character I could think of (level 6 human wizard w/ 12 Constitution = 42 HP) and the toughest I could muster (level 6 dwarf battlemind w/ 21 Constitution and Toughness feat = 71 HP).

Using 15 as the base damage, it would take three shots to knock the wizard unconscious and five hits to drop the dwarf. That's arguably acceptable, but the problem becomes apparent when you realize that the wizard doesn't need a 12 Constitution... He could have a ONE as his Constitution (31 HP) and it would have the very same effect: he'd be at 1 HP after the 2nd attack and drop on the 3rd.

This means that the Constitution value - unless it's your primary stat - isn't as important. In the above case, if I knew the end result would be the same I'd consider leaving my Constitution as an 8 and boosting all my other attributes. After all, what's the point? It's not like a "lucky" damage roll might hurt... Spending the points to up my CON by 4 could be considered a waste.

I also compared the damage to the players Fourthcore game I'm currently participating in, who happen to be 6th level: we all have 60, 48, 51, 50 and 63 HP (average 54.5 HP). Using the 15 damage base rule, four out of five of us would get dropped in 4 hits. Despite the disparity in HP (12 points between the highest and lowest of the four that would be dr0pped), it all boils down to AC and not HP.

Time, By the Numbers

So, strictly from a mathematical perspective, I'm starting to not like fix damaged. But the question is: does it really improve play speed? With fixed damage do encounters blow by so quickly that it's worth the lack of randomness?

Many have pointed out that fixed damage improves combat speed considerably in epic tier, where you can expect pretty much any attack to use no less than 4 dice. And god help you if you crit, 'cause then you might be wheeling out five more dice. Oh and Sneak Attack, so there's four more. Or Hunter's Quarry. Or Warlock's Curse. Or assassin shrouds. Or this... or that... Bonuses galore. The days of throwing a bucketful of dice to determine damage are not forgotten. And it's not like past editions where the mage might have to roll 40d6s worth of damage every now and then... that's pretty much on every attack.

But we're not talking about epic tier here; we're talking about level 6. For the most part, all damage rolls end up bring at most two dice, maybe three. If everyone does what I do and rolls damage at the same time as the attack, does the math really take that long to do? I'm a mathematics and computer science major, so that math is pretty easy for me, but I can't speak for everyone else at any given gaming table. Help me out here... How long does it take you?

So I've been trying to think of how to quantify this. Let's try to figure this out; please let me know if my logic is horribly , horribly wrong:

  • I assume the average combat takes four full rounds, and there are five players against three DM controlled monsters. That's, on average, eight attacks going on in any single round (I'm balancing lack of attacks - such as for Second Wind or other support duties - to compensate for opportunity attacks, granted attacks and minor action attacks from monsters). That's 32 possible attacks.
  • Let's assume 70% of those attacks hit. Given the attack bonuses, that seems like a reasonable expectation. Rounding up, that gives us 23 attacks that require a damage roll.

So time to do a little testing.

For testing purposes, I'm assuming the attack and damage rolls are made separately. And here's what I did:

Time Spent Finding Dice: If your weapon always deals the same die's worth of damage, that die should not be far away. So I'm estimating the time to reach over and grab one or more of these dice, separate from getting the necessary d20, at about 5 seconds.

That, in my opinion, is high - I spend that amount of time looking for the dice inside of my bag, so I can only assume you don't have an idiot player that stows his dice after every roll - but we'll roll with it.

My test subjects.

Rolling Dice and Adding: I grabbed my box of dice and picked some test subjects; I chose d4s because they are the hardest to read when thrown (they can't technically be read from directly above), and to compensate for the low number I got six of them. I also got one d20 that I will roll prior to starting the clock to determine the modifier I would be adding to the die roll; for example, if I roll an 11 on the d20 my damage roll will be 6d4+11.

After twenty rolls using this style, I averaged 8 seconds per roll. Because, let's be honest, math comes easy for me I'll double that number for the purposes of this test. So let's leave it at 16 seconds.

Applying Damage: The time spent to apply the damage does not change whether the damage itself is fixed or not, so it has no bearing on this test.

So let's round things off and say that for each damage roll the player spends 20 seconds. Let's add 50% and make it an even 30 seconds. Multiplied by the 23 attacks that hit you're looking at 460 seconds, or just under 8 minutes in every encounter.

Eight minutes an encounter, and that's a high estimate in my opinion... Is that really such a big deal, especially considering how long 4th Edition encounters take now?

Personally, I don't see that as enough time to justify it, but that's just me. I'd love to hear if anyone out there has had different experiences.


In the end, I'm still not sure. I'll continue to use fixed damage simply because I started that way, but it's not all that hard to change at this point.

What do you think? How do you feel about it, good or bad? Do you use it? Is it simply a matter that combat just feels quicker when there are less dice, even though it might not actually be significantly faster?


Go For the Eyes!

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

You know, I can't resist a good blog carnival.

When I saw the "Classics Return" blog carnival over at Daily Encounter, I wondered what to do for it. Quite honestly I don't remember much of the classics, at least at enough of a capacity to do them justice. And I can't re-do a classic adventure without treading the line with WotC.

I didn't have time to do what I usually do (an adventure or delve), so I threw something together in a crazy sort of way. Here I give you, direct from the Spelljammer campaign setting by TSR/WotC, the infamous Giant Space Hamster for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition!

Of course, in my usual fashion, I did go a little over the top. In addition to the basic monster I included several derivative hamster types, a new animal companion and the mother-of-all hamsters... Wooly Rupert, The Giant Space Hamster of Ill Omen!!!

Gnomes beware!!!

The Giant Space Hamster (PDF, 1.2Mb)


David and Goliath

On Twitter somebody - I don't remember who - said that if a lone fighter went up against a lone goblin it would be "impossible" for a goblin to survive. But the mathematician in me has a hard time with the word "impossible", so I figured I'd actually do the math and figure out what a goblin's odds are.

DISCLAIMER: I have not checked all the math here, but it seems about right. If you find errors, please let me know.


Contestant 1:
A 1st level fighter, as presented in the DnD Next playtest materials
published on May 24th, 2012.

Contestant 2:
A common goblin, as presented in the same playtest materials
(DnD Next Bestiary, page 12)

Combat rules: Initiative modifiers are equal (+1), so we're disregarding them for sake of argument. Also assuming that neither party has availability to any sort of healing.

Also not counting the fighter's "Slayer" theme. We'll get to that later.

Round one, straight up fight between the two. No advantage or disadvantage:

Fighter: 65% chance (needs 8 or higher) to hit the goblin with his greataxe. Damage is sufficient to be lethal on any hit (average 14 damage).

Goblin: 40% chance (needs 13 or higher) to hit the fighter with his mace, and 45% chance (needs 12 or higher) to hit with his shortbow. Average damage without advantage is 4 (mace) and 5 (shortbow), which means the goblin would have to hit 4-5 times to kill the fighter. That means the goblin has a 1%-3% chance to kill the fighter in five turns. The fighter has a 98% chance to kill the goblin in five rounds or less.

Not impossible... but highly unlikely.

Round two, fighter has disadvantage:

Goblin: Percentages remain unchanged.

Fighter: Chance to hit drops to 42.25% each round. He still has about an 93% chance to hit the goblin in the next five rounds.

Goblin's chances are improving!

Round three, goblin has advantage:

Fighter: Original values remain unchanged.

Goblin: Now has advantage, which means his hit chance increases to 64% (almost identical to the fighter's) and he deals additional damage (dirty tricks trait), increasing his average damage to 7 (mace) and 8 (shortbow). He now has about a 26% chance to drop the fighter in three turns, but the fighter can drop the goblin in three turns or less 95% of the time.

Round four, goblin has advantage and fighter has disadvantage:

Using all the figures above, the goblin can drop the fighter in three rounds 26% of the time. The fighter has an 81% chance to drop the goblin in the same three rounds. Hardly "impossible"!

The Trump: The fighter's "Slayer" theme.

The fighter does have an ace up his sleeve, though: the "Slayer" theme. As documented, the fighter causes a minimum of 3 damage even on a miss, which means that it's impossible for a single goblin to survive beyond two rounds even if the fighter rolls a natural 1 on every attack. During those two rounds a goblin, assuming he hits twice (16% to 40% chance, depending on advantage), he will score on average between 7 and 13 damage (the latter is with advantage). The fighter will live to see another day... or will he?

But wait! Assume the goblin has advantage... If one of those hits is a critical hit, the goblin causes a flat 12 damage. If his second attack hits, if the damage is above average (average is 7) it *is* enough to drop the fighter! That could happen 2% of the time! And if the goblin scores two critical hits (0.25% chance), the fighter would be CRUSHED and dying at -4 HP!

Conclusion: If the goblin is a lucky bastard, he's hardly a pushover. Also keep in mind that it's one goblin, those are fairly decent odds.

But we're not asking the important question... how often do you come across just one goblin?



May of the Dead: The Reanimated

My big surprise, if you will, for the May of the Dead blog carnival is scheduled to be published in about a week, but I figured I'd do something unscheduled and show off a bit of a teaser that's still appropriate for the event.

The following is an excerpt from a campaign currently in development. I give you The Reanimated...

     A powerful necromancer’s greatest asset is that he is never alone; he is constantly surrounded by bodies of creatures that have died and can be easily raised to do his bidding.

     But bringing a creature back from the dead has its problems. Sometimes, depending on how they died, they may not have sufficient mental capacity to follow instructions or obey the necromancer’s commands. In those cases, there must be something more in place to control these creatures more effectively.

     An animus wraith is just such a creation. Under direct command of the necromancer, they enter the body of the fallen and effectively take control of it. With their spirits merged with the dead, the creature now becomes a “reanimated” creature that is under the complete control of the necromancer and the animus wraiths that manipulate it from inside.

     The following is a template that can be used on any non-elite creature in order to create a “reanimated”. Usually the best targets of such an infusion of necromantic energy are big creatures, creatures that are meant to do the heavy lifting and grunt work while the real soldiers fight the hard battles. Necromancers have been known to reanimate war elephants as mounts, ogres to serve as defenders of their lairs and even larger creatures to plow across the battlefield.

     Once a reanimated creature dies, the animus wraiths that empowered it are released. Given an opportunity they will seek out other creatures that have fallen and immediately bond with them in a similar manner, or they may attempt to bolster another reanimated creature currently involved in the same battle.

The Dark Mistress Saga, Supplemental:
The Reanimated (PDF, approx 1.8Mb)


The Blink Dog

Woof! ... *Ninja vanish!*

Earlier today, someone joked on Twitter that "the new edition of D&D better have blink dogs!"

Prior to that post, I had never realized that the blink dog didn't exist in D&D 4E. Of course I remember it, and I've actually used it on more than one occasion. In 4E I actually created a similar creature in my campaign The Coming Dark, only it was a panther and not a dog. The fact that it didn't exist in 4E is, to be honest, quite surprising.

So in five minutes I created one.

I couldn't do a convincing conversion because in 3.5E the dog's Blink and Dimension Door abilities are free actions, which just doesn't fit in to the 4E mechanic. So I decided to make Dimension Door a move action (similar to the wizard's power of the same name) and the Blink ability a rechargeable minor action.

I haven't bothered doing additional lore on it, but as per the D20 SRD these little beasts are capable of communicating with each other using their own language which... well... sounds like dogs barking.

You are free to do with this as you wish. Suggestions are welcome on this one, and if you do decide to use it or modify it in some way I'd like to hear about it.

Filed under: 4e, DnD, Monsters, RPG 5 Comments