The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

Rules Quirks – Called Shots

One thing that 2E explored in greater depth than any other edition was the notion of called shots – choosing where on the target’s body you would like an attack to hit; other editions have either only mentioned the concept in passing or ignored it all together.

But even though 2E spent a fair bit of text explaining all the details of called shots, they didn’t really use them, by which I mean that it was so inefficient to make a called shot that other than to exploit a weakness of a specific creature or to role play, a player was a fool to use them. And to be honest, that’s the way it should be.

Called shots either take over your game, or are completely useless.

The entire foundation of the D&D combat system is based around the notion that very complicated situations can be boiled down to a single number. A defender’s AC combines every aspect of his defense. An attacker’s to hit bonus combines every aspect of his offense. An attacker’s damage bonus combines every reason he might be able to injure opponents. A defender’s hit points combines combines every reason he might be able to stay alive. One thing D&D, or any system that combines many concepts into nebulous numbers, does not do well is explore ideas that require breaking those nebulous numbers into component parts.

In order to make a called shot on an opponent’s leg you need to first know the AC of defender’s leg.

  • Is it higher or lower than his body as a whole?
  • Does he have more armor down there, or less?
  • Is his weapon is one that defends well on low shots, or it is one that is vulnerable down low?

Then you would need to know how capable an attacker is at making low attacks.

  • Is his weapon designed for low blows, or weak at them
  • Is the attacker carrying anything that would limit his ability to strike low?

Then you would need to know just how difficult it would be for the attacker to specifically choose to make a low attack over just attacking at whatever it open.

  • What are the relative heights of the combatants?
  • How large are the defender’s legs compare to the rest of his body?

Finally you would need to know just how many hit points the defender has in each leg?

  • How many of the defender’s hit points are stamina and how many are luck?
  • How much of the defender’s stamina exists in one leg?
  • How much of his luck is in one leg?

As you can see, when you start opening up D&D’s black boxes you are left with a whole lot of questions that just cannot be answered. Because of that, I don’t recommend called shots either when playing 2E or any other edition. If a player has a long term desire to do called shots, I think the best thing to do is to figure out what the end result is that he is trying to achieve, then find other rules will allow him to achieve that; for example, if his is looking to hamstring opponents to keep them from escaping, use powers (4E) or feats (3E) to let him do just that.

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.


January 4, 2011 Posted by | 2nd Edition, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs, Rules Quirks | , , , | 3 Comments

A New School Answer to Memorize-Cast-Forget

I find it funny to realize that something which seemed to be a permanent fixture is gone, and has been gone for some time. There was a time when playing D&D seemed to be almost synonymous with arguing over the mechanics of the spell system; it seemed in the 90s I couldn’t form a group that didn’t have at least one person who absolutely hated the idea of memorize-cast-forget.

Maybe this would help magic users.

Surely a big part of the death of this argument is the development of 3rd and 4th edition. In 3rd edition there were options to be a spellcaster that didn’t rely on this mechanic. In 4th edition spells that get cast once per day are but a small part of a wizard’s repertoire. Even though many players continue to play older editions, I suspect there are few old school gamers who really hate those mechanics; after all, why go old school if you don’t like it?

Spell Points Were Not a Balance Issue

When spell mechanics were a hot topic, I eventually came around to enacting a spell point system in place of memorize-cast-forget; it placated those who disliked the rules as written, and giving casters more flexibility never seemed to be a balance issue. But if flexibility is not a balance issue, then why not go one step further, and give casters an even greater flexibility?

That’s what I am aiming for today, a set of spell mechanics for old school game that makes makes magic users feel like guys who actually use magic, hopefully combining the best of 4E with what came before it. Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to play test these, they are just out of my head really.

Eliminating Memorization the 4E Way

This idea was basically based on the assumption that the longer a caster has access to a spell level, the less those spells affect game play, and therefore the less need there is to limit them.

Basically eliminate memorization – instead all spells are daily, encounter or at will based on their spell level. A caster can cast either one or two spells per day (depending or whether he just gained access to a new spell level, or gain access last level) from his highest available spell level; though never more than once per encounter. A caster can cast either one or two spells per encounter from his second highest available spell level (based on whether it just became his second highest spell level this level or last). Finally any spell that is two spell levels or more below the casters highest spell level is available at-will.

So if you had a 6th level magic user he could cast

  • As many cantrips and first level spells as he pleased.
  • Two second level spells in every encounter.
  • Two third level spells every day, though not more than once per encounter.

Using this system a caster could cast any spells he would normally have access to at any time, so long as he had the ability to cast spells of that level still available to him. It would lessen the need to track spells that have become largely mundane to the party. Finally, it would make clerics much more useful because they would not have to be always memorizing all healing spells.

The Potential for Abuse

Admittedly, I can already see the biggest impact this would have on games; as soon as Cure Light Wounds became an at-will spell you would have a very 4th edition like feel where the party would get totally healed up after every battle. This might even happen at first level if you are playing an edition with cure minor. But if its a concern there would be a simple fix; keep cure spells limited to the same numbers they have by the book rules. Its not ideal, but probably necessary if maintaining that old school feel is important to you.

Even with the aforementioned hiccup, I think this would bring the best of old and new spells together; the massive spells lists of old, with the cast as much as you like from new.

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.

November 9, 2010 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs, Rules Quirks | , , | 6 Comments

Rules Quirks – Multiclassing

There was a great deal of disappointment around the time that 4E came out about the direction that multiclassing rules had taken; everything about the multiclassing in 4E screams “go away, we don’t really want you to do this”. The barriers that have been erected to multiclassing seem very odd to me because 4E, more so than any other edition, is a game that is perfectly built for multiclassing.

Old School – Broken All Over

In AD&D and 2E multiclassing was almost like a consolation prize for being a demi-human. Sorry about the level caps, but here’s a way you can be cooler till you hit the caps. But the way multiclassing was set up was clunky, and it gave mixed results.

If you wanted to play a fighter/thief because you wanted a thief with a bit of muscle, then you were set. On the other hand if you were playing a fighter/thief because you wanted your fighter to be able to sneak around you were going to be disappointed at how much you were giving up (particularly in the hp department)

Actually, I think its fair to say that as long as you weren’t planning on being a front line fighter, most multiclass combinations were broken in the direction of being too powerful. The fact that they would generally be a level behind the rest of the party did little to fix this.

Meanwhile the dual class option was so absurdly limiting that few players actually ever used it; in all the years I played and DMed AD&D and 2E I only once saw anyone use it. (it was me actually, and the circumstances involved were very unusual ones)

3rd Edition – Not For Spellcasters

In 3E a degree of balance and sanity came to multiclassing. Though there were still a few hiccups in the rules, I certainly didn’t see a lot of players abusing those issues. The biggest problem most people had with the multiclassing rules in 3E was that if you were playing a spellcaster you were sacrificing so much to take a level of anything else. I experienced this first hand when my very first 3E character (a sorcerer) picked up a couple of odd ball levels. Suddenly my spell casting ability was two levels behind where it should have been, and for the rest of the campaign that was a huge liability for the group.

This brings us back to 4E. Fourth edition has a very powerful tool that no other edition has ever had – a way to easily compare the powers of different classes. Now we don’t have to wonder how valuable being able to do one thing, and what kind of compensation a character who chooses not to do it should get – its built right into the rules. And yet – multiclassing is all but gone.

The Fix

I don’t think any harm would be done by just telling players to pick a class to get the features, then its open season on powers – they can take powers from any class they like. I think rules wise you would still have a balanced game. I think some players would never be able to make up their minds given so many choices – but I don’t think it would be imbalanced.

Far easier to manage would be a situation where a character chooses two classes from which he get his powers from. This would allow a lot of variety, but not get out of hand. A more open alternative would be to allow a character to take any powers that use the same power source.

October 21, 2010 Posted by | 4E, RPGs, Rules Quirks | , , , | 3 Comments

Rules Quirks – Intelligence vs Wisdom

in·tel·li·gence [in-tel-i-juhns] –noun
1.capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc.

wis·dom [wiz-duhm]–noun
1.the quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight.
2.scholarly knowledge or learning:

In the older editions of D&D there was a degree of ambiguity in what constituted intelligence and wisdom. I had countless players ask me over the years specifically what each was, and I generally gave the same canned answer:

Wisdom is knowledge; Intelligence is problem solving ability.

This made sense to me because that is how those two words are used in common language. Further there was nothing of importance to contradict me because the uses for those two stats in early editions were limited.

However, with the advent of 3E the definitions of Intelligence and Wisdom were revised, clarified, and ingrained in the rules as never before. In 3E (and 4E) Wisdom is common sense while Intelligence is “book learning”.

I don’t like the newer distinction because its not very clear where the line between the two falls. Why do any illiterate creature have any “book learning”? Why does Healing fall under “common sense”? (other than that they want clerics to have that skill)

Now, having said that I don’t like the newer definition, I have never felt motivated enough about it to impose my definitions on the new editions – to do so would require a huge reorganization of the skills section. And I am not sure the end result would be balanced.

Just off the top of my head the skills for 3E might look like:

  • Appraise – INT
  • Craft – WIS
  • Decipher Script – INT
  • Disable Device -INT
  • Forgery – INT
  • Heal – WIS
  • Knowledge – WIS
  • Listen – INT
  • Profession – WIS
  • Search – INT
  • Spellcraft – WIS
  • Spot – INT
  • Survival – WIS

Actually, that’s much more balanced than I expected, though its still probably more work than its worth; sometimes game terms just don’t make sense and you just have to roll with it.

October 8, 2010 Posted by | 3.x, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs, Rules Quirks | , , | Leave a comment

Rules Quirks – Infravision/Darkvision

The advent of 3E brought a major overhaul to the way certain non-humans get to see in the dark; infravision (and its lesser known cousin ultravision) was replaced by low-light vision and darkvision. Ostensibly this was removing some of the confusion that surrounded how infravision worked. While I was never one to be confused by applications of infravision, I may not be a representative sample (I was a physics major in university).

By and large I was quite happy with the represention of infravision in the early versions of the game; it made perfect sense to me that a fantasy creature might have eyes that can see lower frequency EMR than a human can. I was not nearly so happy with the strict distances that infravision was limited to, and so never enforced them (though they are easily justifiable). I liked infravision because it had a very distinct flavour to it; when a character found himself relying on his infravision the world looked very different. On the one hand some things that were completely invisible to a human became obvious, but at the same time many things obvious to normal vision could not be seen.

Low light vision is also a rule that I quickly grew to like. It is easy to apply and makes perfect sense to me; a race with low light vision just has more cells in its eye (not unlike felines).

On the other hand darkvision has always rubbed me the wrong way. Darkvision is never really explained in a way that makes sense; a character can see visible light even when there isn’t any? At first I thought the black and white aspect of it was the authors trying to demonstrate an understanding of the varied roles of rods and cones, but if that were the case then darkvision would not work in total darkness. Clearly this was not a matter of biology, and more likely it was the authors envisioning the races of the underdark having nightvision goggles built into their eyes.

So from my perspective this was taking two mechanics which serve the same purpose, and trading the one that had both flavour and a degree of believibility and trading it for the one that was bland and unrealistic.

The Remedy

The simple fix for the newer editions is to treat darkvision as infravision. Much more time consuming (in terms of figuring out who has access to it), and as yet untested by me, is a way to put low light vision in to old school games.

September 15, 2010 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, Rules Quirks | , , | Leave a comment

Rules Quirks – Movement

I don’t know if there really is a good way to do movement rules but, I feel that every version of D&D has left a lot to be desired. Since Wizards took over the speed of an unencumbered human has seemed somewhat reasonable, but the amount a person can carry before being slowed down is unreal. The TSR versions of the game suffered the opposite problem; characters moved along at barely a crawl.

The origins of these two quirks are video games and war games. Over the years D&D has become more and more entwined with computer games (each copying the other), where movement is fast and carrying capacity can be anything. But historically D&D grew out of war games which carried a very different attitude.

War games are a slow methodical experience; even those times that everyone playing is full of excitement, the games transpires very slowly. It is expected in a war game that everything will move slowly. In a war game it is not nearly as important that a rule be realistic as it is that it be fair. This is especially true for rules regarding time; during a war game nobody worries about time except in turns.

So, in early versions of D&D it wasn’t considered at all odd to say that a character could travel 120′ in a turn, even though a turn was 10 minutes. The explanation for this absurdly slow rate of movement was that characters were busy doing other things while they traveled (like mapping).

In a war game this rule makes perfect sense because in a war game if you have time allotted for an action either you take the action or you lose the time. But in reality, or an rpg, this rule is total nonsense.

First of all, it makes no allowance for times that characters aren’t taking the actions that are meant to be slowing them down. Second, even if they are taking them the amount of time alloted for these actions is grossly exaggerated. Third if character were spending so much time on these secondary action then a character’s speed (as determined by encumbrance rules) shouldn’t actually affect how far they travel in a turn.

The Remedy

The simple fix is to make one turn equal one minute for movement purposes.

September 8, 2010 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs, Rules Quirks | , , | Leave a comment