There have been some fun threads kicking around on various blogs and forums about the various mechanics and benefits and methods for hitting and not being hit in D&D5 and even OD&D/OSR-based games.
I started thinking about this hard when +James Spahn linked to a post on shields in D&D over at Halfling’s Luck. That spawned some very thoughtful comments, and left me wanting to step back and come at this from first principles.
This was also spawned from my realization that the expanded critical hit range mechanic was pretty cool, and perhaps underused.
Hit and Miss – Mechanics
To thwack or not to thwack. Nah, there is no question. Smite low thy foe, and plunder his loot!
At present, without invoking optional rules (we’ll do those later), the basic defensive mechanics are pretty few.
Armor Class: Representing the basic resistance to being dealt an effective blow, where “effective” means “reduces your hit points.” It wraps up being nimble (DEX bonus) as well as the quality of your armor (base armor class).
Hit Points: This is the obvious one, in terms of avoiding death, but while the quantity is perhaps straight-forward, the narrative meaning is less so. Hit Points go up drastically with level.
Saving Throw: Some damage types (such as against spells, but a trap or explosion or a dragon’s fiery breath is a better example) allow an attribute-based roll to mitigate effects.
Evasion and Dodge: These class abilities allow a saving throw to mitigate damage. Evasion applies against attacks that require saving throws (half damage goes to no damage) while dodge applies to melee attacks.
Whacking someone is similarly straight-forward.
To Hit Roll: 1d20 plus bonuses, which may be granted by STR or DEX depending on the weapon. Also includes proficiency, which increases as characters gain experience.
Critical Hit Range: Usually rolling a natural 20 on your die roll invokes special rules, such as 5th edition’s “roll all the dice twice” method. Champion Fighters enjoy an expanded critical hit range as they gain levels.
Damage: The obvious offensive statistic, it tends to only improve mildly with level, as bonuses to damage are based on your attributes (DEX or STR, capped at 20 in most cases for a +5 bonus) and any magic or special abilities you can throw down.
There are certainly more house rules than actual rules. Here are some that bear thinking about, largely because I’ll invoke some of them later.
Armor as Damage Reduction: Several mechanics exist for this, but the basic gist of it all is that armor rather than making one harder to hit, reduces damage directly. I’ve seen both flat reduction (GURPS does this too, as the default way of doing things), as well as a recent suggestion to actually roll armor dice. That one is particularly intriguing.
Shields Will Be Splintered: Other than being one of the better quotes from Theoden King, there are various versions of this, including soaking/mitigating all damage from a melee attack that hits by declaring your shield destroyed. I’ve seen “shields provide partial cover,” though that’s really just the same as an AC boost. I could also see that having a shield means you are attacked at Disadvantage (which is a variable boost depending on your target number, up to +4 or +5 to AC).
Rules for Rules – Something of Value
One thing here, before we start. If I’m going to toss out the usual way of doing things, or modify it, I’d better have a care for what I’m replacing. To borrow a line that always stuck with me from grade school: ““When we take away from a man his traditional way of life, his customs, hi religion, we had better make certain to replace it with something of value” (Robert Ruark).
So hearkening back to my Rules for Grappling Rules, I will try and keep to the spirit of DnD combat, and acknowledge some of the rules:
- Use What’s There – right now hit points come from hit dice and a CON bonus. Attack rolls feature a 1d20, DEX/STR bonus, and Proficiency. Armor stats add to AC, and defenses are subsumed mostly into HP. STR matters for attack and defense, and CON influences HP. Care needs to be taken to preserve the feel of characters built using the old rules.
- Make it Interesting – If the new rules don’t make for interesting play, they have no purpose. If they add complexity for no narrative or mechanical gain, they are bad rules. In this case, I hope to add narrative consistency (which I think is good) and will generally make life more dangerous for PCs and NPCs/Monsters alike, which I think keeps tension high, and is therefore interesting.
- Reduce Book-keeping where possible – Right now, you roll to-hit, you roll damage, and if you hit, the damage comes off of hit points. Any new rules should keep the same general feel and not require tracking large and varied pools of points.
- Mechanical Simplicity is Best – I’ll add a fourth here, because it ties into #3 but is separate from it. The tendency will be to over-specify, and you will see that as I build ideas. At the end of the day, though, a D&D hit roll is a roll vs. a (single) target number. Stopping the game every turn as a player and GM roll repeatedly to see if that hit is successful is not part of the D&D experience, so should be minimized or eliminated where possible, while still considering such trade-offs so long as they’re familiar (#1) and interesting (#2).
So there. Those are my guidelines, which I will doubtlessly break as I fiddle, and then hopefully glue back together as I summarize.
Hit and Miss – Lights, Camera, Action Adventure Movie
So, you got thwacked, you’re bleeding, right?
Pretty much no. This was part of the discussion from nearly the get-go. In CHAINMAIL (and it’s precursor!) it took multiple simultaneous hits to eliminate a fighter, and Gygax put the following into the 1st edition DMG, p. 82:
It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage – as indicated by constitution bonuses- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the “sixth sense” which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.
OK, so that was AD&D, which is a nice historical reference point. That being said, it is a rare gaming table – in my experience – that doesn’t not describe a successful roll against a foe’s Armor Class as a successful strike against the foe’s body. In a game which uses HP as an abstraction of damage, that’s clearly problematic.
That explanation gets even more problematic when you consider the various healing surges and recovered hit points gained during Short and Long rests in D&D5.
Narration and Mechanics – Getting to the Point
So as not to confuse myself, let alone y’all, I’m going to define terms a bit differently along the way, but try not to reuse common D&D terms unless the meaning is clear. Hopefully I won’t go horribly pear-shaped.
The Quantity Formerly Known as Hit Points
Before we get into swinging swords and whatnot we will define a few basic quantities that will serve as replacements/augmentions for hit points.
Wound Points: Equal to your CON (full stat) plus your STR bonus. So big guys have more wound points than skinny guys, but your CON still defines the basis of it. This does get bigger as your stats change, but does not get bigger with level otherwise. A 1st level Mountain Dwarf with CON 17 and STR 16 would have 20 Wound Points. Joe Normal with STR 10 and CON 10 has 10. If you really were prioritizing other things you could start with as few as 8 (CON 8, STR 10) Wound Points at 1st level. Wound points are slow to heal, being regained at a rate of 1 per week.
If you want math and want to equalize things, 20 weeks per max wound points – so 25 wound points would heal back at 0.8 weeks per wound point, while 8 WP heal at 2.5 weeks per point. Yeah, that’s a while. Yeah, that’s what magic is for.
Stress Points: This is the traditional stand in for HP, and include what is usually rolled for starting hit dice and the normal bonuses to CON. So our mighty 1st level fighter with STR 16, CON 17, and 1d10 for hit dice would start with 13 Stress Points. These represent your skill, luck, fitness and endurance, and a measure of your defensive capability. Carrying a shield will add to your Stress Points, standing between you and harm.
The Attack Roll and the Stress Target – Melee Attacks
The first thing that you’re going to do is try and menace the target. This means that you have to see an opportunity, and also to get close enough to your target during your attack the foe has to react.
For a melee attack, this would be making an attack roll (the usual 1d20 + STR/DEX + Proficiency) against . . . I’m going to go with 10 + DEX Modifier.
The melee attack thing is important – please keep it in mind.
If you miss this roll, you either don’t seen an opening at all, or you swing and whiff. They dance out of the way easily, the distance is wrong, whatever.
But they do not make you parry, block, frantically get out of the way, or rely on a lucky break.
In normal parlance: you missed, whiffed, ix-nayed.
So, your Stress Target is 10+DEX Modifier. With the standard array, this means Stress Target will be, for starting characters, between about 9 and 14. If you meet or exceed the Stress Target, you may either Stress your foe, or potentially strike home.
Stress, Shields, and Wounding Threshold
If you do overcome positioning and throw a blow that might inconvenience your foe, it will cause him Stress. This is the direct analog of HP, but does not in any way imply a blade (or whatever) physically impacting the target. If that happens (more on that later).
But to do that, you must exceed the wound Threshold, which is potentially the higher of two quantities. Your Wound Threshold is your Stress Threshold plus your Shielding Bonus plus your Proficiency Bonus. If you meet or exceed your foe’s Wound Threshold, you actually strike home.
Shields increase Wound Threshold – it’s harder to get past them. It should be significantly harder, too, because the type of shield that most D&D players will wind up carrying is what GURPS would call a Medium shield, or a heater shield. It’s going to be about three feet tall, and two or three feet wide. Maybe circular or rectangular. It might even be a Kite shield, which seem to be narrower (perhaps 20″ wide at the largest) but longer (3.5-5′ long, I think). Such things are going to be very difficult to bypass.
Your Shielding Bonus is equal to twice the usual bonus to Armor class due to either a shield – so +4 instead of +2. It defines your Shielding Threshold, which is the Stress Threshold plus your Shielding Bonus
Yeah, I’m defining a lot of quantities. They are figured once, though, so shouldn’t slow down the game at all, and should mostly remain static.
Note that if your shield gets hit, it may be damaged or destroyed. So yeah, it’s great to hide behind it, but they don’t last forever.
Note that if you exceed the Stress threshold, you will do Stress to your foe, shield or not. What you won’t do – yet – is strike his person. At least until his Stress Points drop to zero.
I should note I’m torn here. I also like the idea of shield providing Stress Points (formerly known as Hit Points). They absolutely represent a store of defensive capability that has to be dealt with before you can lay sword, knife, axe, or club on your foe. Some literature and film shows heroes utilizing a shield to ward of spells or dragon breath as well (consider the movie Dragonslayer, which features a mundane shield made with dragon-scales; alternately it’s a shield made of magical material made by mundane means). I will likely return to this concept – I think it has value. I’m thinking that a shield should provide something like 5-10 Stress Points x Proficiency Bonus. That way a shield will give the equivalent protection against 1-2 blows from a good fighter – 1d8+3 damage per blow. Two blows will be 4-11 points each, or 8-22 damage, averaging 15.
For a fighter of level 1-4 and a +2 Proficiency, it might be dangerous to game play to give 10 points per proficiency level. 20 extra “HP” for picking up a shield at level 1? You’d be foolish to do otherwise! And yet ultimately those extra 20 Stress Points represent a few blows only from your foe. So they’ll extend combat by a couple rounds. Against a quality foe with 2-3 attacks, it will be that much faster. A high-level fighter should get more benefit from using his shield defensively through dint of skill, though. Doing it by level would be kinda ridiculous (even though Stress/HP go up every level). So perhaps having it be 10 Stress per proficiency bonus works overall. At high level you get 60 extra Stress, which is maybe the equivalent of 3-3.5 HP extra per level. At low level, shields are worth 20 Stress, badly needed, and worth 5-20 stress per level. There are diminishing returns for having a shield as you get more skilled. I’m not sure that isn’t cool rather than bad.
Oh, and if you don’t have proficiency with the shield? You get no extra stress points, but you do get the shielding bonus, as it does provide cover, though you’re not using it skillfully.
That’s a lot on shields, but then, this entire post started from shields, so it’s to be expected.
Once you get past the natural nimbleness of a fighter, and any shields in the way, your foe is going to have to do something about your blow or else get struck. The point at which you actually see blade connecting with body is the Wounding Threshold. It’s equal to your Shielding Threshold (and yes, that’s also equal to the Stress Threshold if you’re not carrying a shield).
This should be simple. If you exceed the Wounding Threshold, roll damage, compare to armor, and apply hits directly to the foe’s Wound Points.
If you have exhausted your Stress Points, any remaining or additional hits go right to wounding (though armor still protects).
Failed CON saves from 0 Stress to half your Wound Points risk unconsciousness. If you’re wounded for half or more of your Wound Points, you risk death.
Armor as Damage Reduction
For the purposes here, I’m going to just make the leap and say wearing armor no longer makes you harder to hit. It makes blows that exceed your wound threshold or otherwise strike your body less damaging.
I’m partial to giving each armor dice to roll, subtracting from a blow. In roll20, as an example, this could be built right into the die roller, perhaps even in secret, where both the armor value of the foe and the damage value of the PC are treated as variables, and the program reports only the difference if damage is greater than armor.
So a 1d8+3 (STR 16 with a longsword, a classic combo) damage blow strikes a chain shirt – a nice middle-ground armor. it resists with 1d4+1. Dice are 1d8-1d4+2. Slight possibility of no damage getting through, and up to 9 points. of injury, enough to bother nearly anyone given that comes right off Wounds.
If you don’t want to roll dice, take the average Fixed Value instead of subtracting a die roll. That makes more armors kinda the same. As you can see, the method is a max protection of 2+Current AC bonus for Max Protection, and Fixed Value is Max Protect/2, rounded down. Round up if you’d like!
Let’s look at a few example fighter builds.
- The Commoner – All stats are 10, with no proficiency in aught but simple weaponry. We give him a spear, leather armor, and send him to die in drives. Pity.
- The Beginning Swordsman – level 1 fighter looking at sword-and-boarding.
- The Intermediate Great Axe Fighter – level 7 Champion with a two-handed axe and lots of ‘tude. I’ll add a level to my Level 6 Champion Fighter that I wrote up a while back.
Easy enough to do.
Wound Points: 10; Stress Points: 4; Defense Threshold: 10; Shielding Threshold: 10; Wound Threshold: 12.
Threatening him with a sword at 1d20+5 (attack by a 1st-level character with a 1d8 weapon and STR/DEX 16) will result in an 80% probability that at least stress will be done, and 70% of that time it’ll go right past stress and hit the leather armor. Damage of 1d8+3 will meet armor of 1d4-1, doing 4-11 points of damage against 0-3 points of armor. Resultant wounds will be 1-11, An equal probability of 4-8 wounds means that the expected outcome of a single exchange is a foe who is either unconscious or dead. 10% of the time the foe will throw up a feeble parry, quickly exhausting his 4 Stress Points and still leaving him anywhere from terrified to risking death.
The Beginning Swordsman
Classic 1st level human fighter. STR 16 (+3), DEX 14 (+2), CON 15 (+2). 1d20+5 with a longsword, doing 1d8+3 damage (sound familiar?).
Issue: The Defense fighting style adds +1 to AC when wearing armor. Where does that go? Into DEX? Shielding? Proficiency? I’m going to put it in proficiency for now, assuming that this is using your skill effectively to ward off blows.
Wound Points: 18; Stress Points: 12+20; Defense Threshold: 12; Shielding Threshold: 16; Wound Threshold: 19.
Calculations: Wound Points are CON + STR bonus. Stress Points are 10 (basic start for fighter) +2 CON bonus) +20 (10 Stress x 2 proficiency from the shield). Defense Threshold is 10+2 (DEX). Shielding Threshold is 16 (12 Stress threshold +4 for the shield). Wound Threshold is 19 (Shielding threshold plus 2 for proficiency and +1 for Defense fighting style).
Threatening this one with his equal, there’s about a 35% chance of getting past his guard right to his armor, 15% chance of bypassing the shield and engaging the warrior directly, and the usual 20% chance of hitting the shield. The chain absorbs 2d4, so 4-11 points attack meet 2-8 on defense. One time in four, no damage will penetrate his armor.
Issue: OK, so shielding pushes off the Wounding threshold, which is good. But does it do anything else? I’m thinking it would be good to have shield strikes (above Defense, up to Shielding) cause damage to the shield itself, in addition to stress. Either tracking number of hits, or giving the shield an armor value itself. Both violate rules – my own rules. Book-keeping and added complexity. But if you want shield to be splintered, something like it will be necessary.
Great Axe Fighter, 7th Level Champion
Selecting two attribute increases for the purposes of simplicity, our 7th level fighter has +3 proficiency and STR 18, DEX 14, CON 16.
Wound Points: 20; Stress Points: 67; Defense Threshold: 12; Shielding Threshold: 12; Wound Threshold: 16.
Here we see that there’s a big trade-off in leaving off the shield. +1 for Defense fighting style and +3 for Proficiency, but it still leaves a significant chance of simply striking home.
Issue: Well, this is a thing. There needs to be a way for a skilled fighter to mitigate, parry, defend or otherwise not just take it. Either taking double wounds as stress (a desperate defense), or a fighting style providing Stress Points would do it. 10 points x Proficiency (but no boost to shielding) would be depleted faster than that of a shield-wielding fighter – the lower Wounding Threshold relative to a shield-wielding fighter would cause defenders to choose the double-stress option more frequently. So less capable than a shield, but not nothing either. This would boost the Stress Points for this fighter to 97.
The greataxe fighter with STR 18 does 1d12+4 for 5-16 points per hit, twice per turn, for 10-32 points of stress potential, striking on the attack at 1d20+7.
Good and Bad, and Left Out
So I think the good here is that it’s still basically straightfoward and recognizably D&D. The concept of clean miss, stress, and wounds makes sense.
The bad news here is that while invoking double-stress to avoid wounds might be a solution to the problem, it seems too easy to bypass the defenses of a foe and strike his hide, especially for higher level fighters. It also seems like it might be just too easy to cause stress to begin with, but I don’t think so.
The narrowness of the proficiency bands suggest that something like double-proficiency might be done here (let’s ignore shields for a moment). Or even something like
- All characters add Proficiency to their Defense Threshold
- If you are fighting with a weapon or shield, you get your proficiency bonus with each weapon or shield you’re using.
So a fighter with +2 proficiency with sword and shield and DEX 14 (Defense Threshold 12) will add +2 for raw skill, +2 for sword, and +2 more for shield. That makes our first-level fighter with Defense Threshold 12 and Wounding Threshold 18. A fighter with +3 proficiency and the same kit is Defense Threshold 12, Wounding Threshold 21. Sword and Dagger? That’s a defensible weapon in each hand, so same deal. Makes sword-and-board equivalent to two-weapons from a hit-probability perspective, but the additional stress you get from a shield will make it a bit better.
2-Handed Weapon fighters get the defensive shaft here, but get increased damage (but not a ton). Pick the right Feat and perhaps you can defend with them better.
So, not done. And the biggest challenge here will be tuning the process without invoking more than one or two special rules. You want something that goes easily at the table. Roll dice, compare to something simple, roll damage and/or armor, boom, done.
But I’m not there yet, even if I think some of the concepts are workable.
The other question that needs to be asked is “are ranged weapons treated any differently?” The answer may well be – and should start out – as not just “no,” but “hell, no.” Don’t invoke special rules unless they’re needed. But I’ll think about it anyway.
The rules here preserve the core meaning of hit points as stress points. They allow bypassing or depleting stress so characters and players know when they’re bleeding, or when their tired. Healing surges and short rests would recover Stress, and I’d think that would be less contentious than if there’s a hint of “you sat down for an hour and your sucking chest wound is gone.” Things like Lay on Hands would be great for healing actual wounds, and thus truly miraculous. Healing potions could be distinguished between those that restore stress and those that restore wounds.
The stress points provided by shields and some weapons should be interpretable as an increased, but limited, store of resilience. And you know I’m going to suggest at some point that if you’re striking or shooting at someone caught flat-footed, and totally by surprise, that if you hit, damage comes right off of wounds (though armor would still be assessed).
D&D5 provides a nice solid rules base for these explorations. But I do just enjoy playing the game straight-up, so when all is said and done, anything new accomplished here needs to be at least as good as what it replaces. Something of value must be provided. I’m not there yet . . . but as I noted, I don’t think it’s a forbidden destination.