Heretical DnD: More thoughts on the Stress Threshold

When last we left our heroes, they (me) had first given some stream-of-consciousness thoughts on revamping what hits and misses mean, as well as differentiating between Stress and Wounds, and slapping on Damage Resistance or an Armor Value as the typical last-ditch defense when the wounding threshold is exceeded and a weapon actually hits the target’s body. Only after all of that is injury suffered.

However, looking at the armor values themselves showed that my initial musings would produce results which, on the average, wouldn’t be consistent with the existing Armor Class progression. Is that a show-stopper? No, but if I can avoid it, I should.

In chatting with some friends the other day, I was forced (in order to make my own thoughts clear) to articulate some of the design goals for this project, and one of them was that when all was said and done, the mechanics needed to feel very DnD. To that end, what I want to accomplish here is to get to something that is narratively more satisfying than the existing mechanics . . . but I want to do it by adding no more than one additional die roll.

I might be able to git ‘r done without another roll. But giving myself the leeway and the limit of one more means I won’t wind up in crazy-town.

Note: this doesn’t mean that one can’t roll additional dice. I have already had one – legit – request to ensure whatever I do works with turning proficiency bonuses into dice. But there will be an attack roll, a damage roll, and a roll-to-be-named-later. Maybe. But no more than that!

So, back to mechanics.

Stress and Wounds

Just for heresy’s sake, wounds count up from zero: so zero wounds is ‘unwounded,’ while higher numbers are worse for you. Stress counts down, just like the HP they replace. 

Wound Maximum: CON + STR Bonus. Wound levels from 1 to half the Wound Maximum (round up) threaten the fighter’s capability. Wound levels higher than this, up to the maximum, threaten the warrior’s consciousness and potentially his life. Exceed the wound maximum and you start the death check process as written.

If you take wounds . . . 

  • If you are at less than half your wound maximum, your rolls have Disadvantage.
  • If you are at more than half your wound maximum, make a DC 10 CON check each time you’re wounded (but not every turn). Failure drops you unconscious. Each turn after, make a DC 10 CON check. Three strikes and you die . . . but any success stops the process. You’re KO’d but not dead.
  • If you exceed your wound maximum, start the usual Death Check process. Three fails and you’re dead.

Originally, I had penalties equal to half your wound level. But that got serious fast, and honestly, that made someone with 25 Wound Maximum liable to pass out at a lower percentage of their max than someone with 10 wounds. I could easily see alternate ways of attacking this. You fight, but at a penalty, at up to half your maximum. Or you take -1 to all rolls to a maximum of -5 as you go from 1 wound to half maximum. That sort of thing. I erred for simplicity here.

Stress Maximum: This is the fighter’s normally calculated HP. Hit dice and CON bonus. The “normal rules” way to play will be that so long as your stress total isn’t worn down to zero, you’re at full fighting capacity. If you have a shield, it adds 10 Stress Points per point of proficiency (so if you’re +4 proficiency, you get +40 Stress from the shield).

This is there to address the complaints that legitimately were asked about shields only being good for +2 to armor class.

The Attack Roll

The prior work established two notions. That of a level where rolling lower than this means that you either swing and completely whiff, or never even swing at all due to lack of appropriate openings on your foe (the second one really only works for melee). That was called (in the previous post) the Defense Threshold.

Calling it the Stress Threshold makes more sense.

Why? Because the upper threshold was the Wound Threshold, above which you start to be at risk of having that sword, axe, or arrow actually hit your body. Even so, because to do wounds a blow has to bypass any armor worn, wound threshold will be renamed Impact Threshold.

So we now have Stress Threshold and Impact Threshold.

Again, the prior work showed (well, showed me . . . I didn’t publish this result) that even without rolling to hit at all, certain armors were so tough they more or less dropped the expected damage threshold to nearly zero (or at least zero most of the time) even if you just stood there.

Attack a guy in plate (average protection 7.5 points of damage, or 1d12+1) with a dagger at 1d4+2 and if you don’t roll for armor, only a critical hit (2d4+2) will get through, ever. If you do roll for armor, accounting for crits on a 20, 1d4+2 against 1d12+1 will come up with zero damage 78% of the time, and when there are wounds, will have a median of 2 and an average of 2.12 (and a maximum, of course, of 8).

So just by virtue of the armor itself, that’s roughly the equivalent of an AC of 16 or 17. You don’t even need anything else – defenses, nimble footwork, or whatever – to stand against that.

That’s not a bug, in my mind. Dagger vs. full plate should be a smackdown unless you have an unaware or unresisting or untrained foe. What about the other end? A 1d12+4 weapon? You can get some seriously ugly wounds (up to 26 HP) through the armor, and if a blow strikes, you’ll do at least one wound 70% of the time. So don’t bring a knife to an axe-fight, and you’re OK.

Stress Threshold

Let’s hit some design goals, narratively speaking.

It seems to me that my pre-determined “you miss” results either mean that you do swing and you biff it, or you never really get a chance to strike at all.

Now, all of that assumes two mobile, aware targets. Never get an opening assumes some maneuver and posturing and feints and footwork, yes?

That seems like Proficiency should play a role, then. More experienced fighters should be harder to force into a position where a strike is even possible. OK, the minimum bonus for proficiency for Level 1 characters is +2. Goes up to +6. Good to keep in mind.

What about DEX? Should natural nimbleness make it harder to put you into a position where a strike is possible? If you say “yes,” then for PCs you’re looking at a usual range of about DEX 8 (lowest number in the standard array) to DEX 20 (usual maximum), or -1 to +5.

If you say that dancing about is stressful (or exhausting), and that any use of proficiency involves motion and skill, then all fights have the same target number for a miss. That doesn’t seem quite right, though it’s defensible, I suppose.

On the other hand, the range of both DEX and Proficiency goes from +1 to +11. That could mean that if you’re adding that to a base of (say) 10, that you won’t even cause stress (which are basically HP, renamed, with some slight contextual differences) unless you can roll 11 or higher (50% chance per turn of either no-strike or swing and a miss) on the novice end, or as high as 21 (!) on the high end. You can’t even lay a figurative glove on this character even with his high-leveledness weaponless and shieldless.

The stress threshold implies that below this figure, you’re not even trying hard enough to exhaust skill or luck or stamina. You just don’t bother, effectively.

I’d think this number should be low. Maybe very low, at least for low-level characters with poor stats. I was going to work through various possibilities, but I think I’ll just cut to the chase: Use a base value of 6.

Base value 6

A base value this low means that Joe Average, Level 1 PC with all stats of 10 (+2 proficiency and nothing else), or wearing armor that neutralizes a DEX bonus, will have a Stress Threshold of 8. 65% of the time, he’ll have to react to a foe rolling 1d20+0, and against a fighter who’s purpose-built at first level (STR 16, for 1d20+5) will only be save 10% of the time. That seems legit. 

The worst-possible category will be a net -5 bonus (STR 0 or STR 1, no proficiency) which means you can still miss by rolling a natural 1. That puts the “always miss rolling a 1” and “what’s the worst could happen?” as congruent, which pleases my sense of symmetry and ‘no special cases.’

That might be pretty easy, but then, proficiency-only and crappy stats isn’t a credible fighter – so maybe that’s OK. Our notional beginner fighter with DEX 14 (+2) and 1st level proficiency (again +2) will wind up with a Stress Threshold of 10 in up to medium armor. Again, a 6th level fighter (+3) with STR 18 (+4) will only fail to stress this guy by rolling a 1 or 2.

So two first-level guys in medium armor going after each other will be 1d20+5 vs. a Stress Threshold of 10. Eight times in ten, an attack will cause the other guy to suffer stress. 

What about the high end? DEX 18 and a +4 proficiency in light armor means your Stress Threshold is 6+4+4 = 14. A non-combatant (1d20+2) will threaten this guy 45% of the time, and a decent fighter (1d20+5) will threaten him 70% of the time. 

What we’re really dealing with here is Base + DEX + Proficiency on defense, and 1d20+ STR/DEX + Proficiency on the attack. For equal-level fighters, this will tend to favor the attack by 1-2 points, and the odds of having to not do anything other than footwork are low. Basically 1d20 vs an effective target of 4 or 5, or about a 15-20% chance of a total whiff.

DEX  Bonus and Proficiency Bonus Considerations

The DEX bonus is conditional in vanilla 5e – if you wear certain armor you are capped at a max of 2, or don’t even get the bonus. 

On the other hand, you must be proficient to even wear armor. Proficient. You could certainly have someone strap plate armor on to you, and assuming you are strong enough to move the weight of the armor, it will certainly protect you from blows. 

If I hold to the DEX bonuses from the Player’s Handbook, that means that a fairly expert fighter (say, Proficiency of +4) in plate (no DEX bonus allowed) will have a Stress Threshold of 10. A Rogue in studded leather (full DEX bonus allowed) of the same proficiency may well have a Stress Threshold of 15. Harder to hit, but if you do hit, much less protected.

Impact Threshold

Above the Impact Threshold, an attack will bypass defenses of any sort and strike home. Such a strike, whether rolled naturally (attack roll exceeds impact threshold) or as a result of whittling down the foe’s Stress Points, results in an Impact. Protecting against such is skill-based, so it means proficiency.

Anything that raises Armor Class that feels like defense and active skill needs to show up somewhere. Things that make sense to defend against blows, such as shields and off-hand weapons, need to show up somewhere. Martial prowess from the Monk’s martial arts abilities need to show up.

I’m going to start by saying that you get your proficiency bonus for each weapon or shield (up to two) that is capable of defending against blows. A beginner sword-and-board guy? That’s +2 for the sword, and +2 for the shield. Impact Threshold would thus be 4 higher than the Stress Threshold. The same would go for a guy with a rapier in one hand, and a shortsword or main-gauche in the other.

Two-handed weapon users – greatswords, great axes, and polearms, would only get the single bonus. 

Bows and crossbows? Lacking some sort of close-combat expert Feat, you get no boost over your Stress Threshold for these.

This means that a fighter with sword and shield in Medium armor with DEX 14 (+2) and a +5 proficiency bonus will be looking at a Stress Threshold of 13 (6+2+5) and a Impact Threshold of 23 (13+5+5). Assuming that same fighter has STR 18 or 20, he’ll be attacked at a minimum of 1d20+9, maybe even +11 or +12 if he’s managed to put his hands on a magical weapon. So a high-level fighter has a reasonable chance of bypassing his rival’s defenses and laying his weapon on his foe’s body.

The Impact Threshold is equal to 6+DEX Bonus+3*Proficiency for the most heavily defended fighters. This will be countered by 1d20+STR/DEX Bonus + Proficiency.

The DEX bonus will tend to be lower than the attacking bonus (not always; Rogues and archers will have high DEX, but this will often be countered with lightweight armor). Still, you’re looking at 6+DEX+2*Proficiency vs 1d20+STR/DEX (uncapped).

This favors the defender a tetch. Let’s assume two 20th level characters (hah!) with STR and DEX both of 20 (hah, maybe?) and no magical weapons or armor (dubious, but we’ll see). Stress Threshold will range from a low of 6+0 (armor DEX bonus capped)+6 = 12 to a higher of 6+5+6 = 17 (no armor cap at all). Impact Threshold can be as low as 12 (heavy armor shooting a bow) and as high as 29 (studded leather and two rapiers).

On the attack, our notional 20th level character will roll 1d20+11. This still has a 15% chance of overwhelming the highest possible rapier-dancer Impact Threshold, and will only fail to strike home against a heavily-armored guy with a bow if he rolls a natural 1.

A 1st-level fighter attacking the same two foes (1d20+5) will have a decent chance of causing stress on both of them, but will be unlikely to fight past the foe I’m calling the rapier dancer, but could also represent a viking type with axe, shield, and studded leather armor. Again, this doesn’t strike me as instantly broken.

That which doesn’t seem broken may actually still be broken in play. I’ll later on work out how many turns one would expect to spend getting various foes unconscious given various inputs, and see if it works out more or less satisfying than the current rules. Even if the results are different, it might still work out if one doesn’t take a trip into crazy-town.

Critical Hits and Desperate Defenses

There’s a temptation to look at a natural 20 as an automatic strike at your foe’s body, but I’m going to resist that. Instead, leave the rules as they are, and simply apply these two principles:

  • A critical hit (natural 20) doubles rolled damage dice. This subtracts first from stress, and when stress is gone, is applied as an Impact. It is possible – even likely – that a natural 20 (plus attack modifiers) also exceeds the Impact Threshold, in which case the full damage roll – including doubled dice – will be applied as an Impact.
  • All is not lost! If you have the stress to spare, you can declare a desperate defense, and absorb double the rolled damage (including any adds) as Stress. If you can’t absorb that increased damage fully (and that might be doubled!), you cannot select this option. 

This is to avoid “take damage rolled, double it, subtract that from stress, and then as stress hits zero, halve the remainder and apply it to wounds. That’s a lot of fiddle. Doable . . . but fiddly.

Example: A natural 20 on 1d8+3 would roll 2d8+3 for damage, for 5-19 points of damage. A desperate defense could be declared if you have the stress remaining to absorb 10-38 points. Otherwise, you suffer a 5-19 point Impact.

Impact Resolution

Once you have made an Impact on your foe, you take the damage and subtract armor from it. If using the highly-suggested random die roll for armor, take any hits that impact the foe, subtract armor, and take the rest as wounds.

Parting Shot

The upshot is that one will pre-calculate some basic figures as characters are generated, and other than tracking Stress and Wounds, most actual play should be pretty straight-forward. Roll to hit normally. Compare to Stress and Impact thresholds. If the Stress Threshold is exceeded, roll damage. If an Impact is scored, subtract armor and take the rest as wounds.

The only extra roll is the armor roll, so my original design goal has been achieved. It would not be insane to treat any instances of the Proficiency Bonus as dice – even on the defense. Since that number varies from 2 to 6, double it as usual and roll that die type. 1d4 for Proficiency +2 up to 1d12 for Proficiency of +6. That puts some luck in play, while still more-or-less retaining the same results.

Here are some mundane Examples, simply presenting three Champion Fighters of various levels. No Feats, just attribute bonuses, emphasizing CON and STR because it’s assumed that the initial armor is chain mail, so DEX bonuses are lost anyway.

There are, of course, other types of characters that are challenging here, and Barbarians and Monks come to mind instantly. Still, if the system breaks for the bog-standard DEX-based and STR-based combatants, there’s not much point in proceeding. Nothing above instantly looks crazed, though the addition of shield-based Stress Points pushes those totals higher, the lower Stress Thresholds mean you will take “HP of damage” more frequently. 

3rd Level Sword-and-Board; Chain mail

STR 16 (+3); DEX 14 (+2); CON 15 (+2); Proficiency +2
Melee Attack: 1d20+5; Melee Damage 1d8+3
Wound Maximum: 18
Stress Points: 28 (hit dice and CON) + 20 (shield) = 48
Stress Threshold: 6+0 (Capped for heavy armor)+2 (Proficiency) = 8
Wound Threshold: 8 (Stress Threshold) + 2 (Weapon) +2 (Shield) = 12
Armor Value: 1d10

9th Level Sword-and-Board; Plate armor

STR 20 (+5); DEX 14 (+2); CON 16 (+3); Proficiency +4
Melee Attack: 1d20+9; Melee Damage 1d8+5
Wound Maximum: 21
Stress Points: 85 (HD and CON) + 40 (Shield) = 125
Stress Threshold: 6+0 (Capped for heavy armor)+4 (Proficiency) = 10
Wound Threshold: 10 (Stress Threshold) + 4 (Weapon) +4 (Shield) = 18
Armor Value: 1d12+1

15th Level Sword-and-Board; Plate armor

STR 20 (+5); DEX 14 (+2); CON 20 (+5); Proficiency +5
Melee Attack: 1d20+10; Melee Damage 1d8+5
Wound Maximum: 25
Stress Points: 169 (HD and CON) + 50 (Shield) = 219
Stress Threshold: 6+0 (Capped for heavy armor)+5 (Proficiency) = 11
Wound Threshold: 11 (Stress Threshold) + 5 (Weapon) +5 (Shield) = 21
Armor Value: 1d12+1

Just looking at the high-level guy, his former AC would have been 20. Attacked by his equal and opposite, he’ll be hit 55% of the time for 1d8+5, but he’ll crit 10% of the time. It’ll take about 29 attacks to bring him to 0 HP (neglecting Second Wind).

With the newer system, it’s more lethal. The rate-limit on survival is wounds, not stress, and the “take double stress instead of wounds” rule will come up reasonably frequently – it seems only 10 attacks are required, more or less (my spreadsheet isn’t quite right yet) instead of 29 without that rule.

So more lethal for equal fighters, despite armor as DR. I need to work this more, but my biggest worry was the system would prolong combat, and I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen.

I’ll run more scenarios and get better numbers, but I think things got more interesting rather than less.

6 thoughts on “Heretical DnD: More thoughts on the Stress Threshold

  1. Thanks for continuing the exploration. One of the critiques I've heard about D&D is the attrition battle effect or hit point slog. Do you feel like the added Stress points might contribute to making fights take a lot longer?

    1. My very preliminary numbers (prelim because not all cases were properly considered, even with my own rules) showed that two 15th level fighters would typically drop each other after something like 30 attacks. Using the system I did above, but not including the very important 'desperate defense' option, it only took 10 attacks.

      This might be bollocks, because of incomplete consideration. I'm refining and improving the spreadsheet so I can get a proper average time for one fighter (or monster) to kill another. But right now, with two first-level guys . . . they're pretty fragile.

  2. Though I appreciate quicker combat and generally am a fan of a little increased lethality in combat, PCs may end up with the shorter-end of the stick and succumb to the numbers (eventualities) more so than with the standard system, based on the 5e standard encounters.

    It also seems there may be scenarios where an attack that hits, always skips Stress Threshold and will never have a chance to be applied to Stress unless the player always opts to take the double-damage to stress option. 1 Example: A case where the user is unarmed or has a 2-handed weapon and is disarmed (thus unarmed) and is not proficient with being unarmed. This may even increase the value of maneuvers like disarm.

    1. You may be right about this, which is one of the reasons I want to simulate it. I was worried that the opposite would occur – that armor would be nigh-invincible, and simply have combatants pinging off of each other and fights taking forever. That'd be hard to tune down.

      But it looks like, in fact, it's the other way. That's "easy," in that if I increase the base number for stress threshold from 6 to "more than 6," I can make fights take longer.

      So it should be tunable, and I'll run hundreds of thousands of iterations (attacks) and kill a lot of paper men to come up with a set of numbers that work.

      Heck, I more-than-half expect that my "base Stress Threshold" number will actually need to be a function of combatant proficiency instead of a flat rate.

    2. OK. VERY limited, but I got all sorts of math wrong my first go around. Firstly, it only should take a 1st level fighter about 9 attacks on the average to drop a fellow 1st level foe. Using the same armor, shield, and stats (plus the 10HP x Proficiency thing), using the base of 6 and the rules as I've written them it takes about 11 attacks to kill the same foe, and a much lower time until they're wounded.

      The sensitivity to the base rate is quite low at this level. I'll want to try other combinations and see what happens. But to first order, first level fighters will stay living the same amount of time, but there will be more variation of effect with the new method.

      Also: key bit. Stress happens regardless of armor. That is, armor serves to mitigate *wounds*, but not stress. That means you can't just take it on the armor stress-free – you always fight and maneuver. The typical wound is 35-40% less serious when it does strike home against flesh, which is why I think it balances out.

  3. I'm finding 5e combats to be OK, duration wise. If your system doesn't make them noticeably longer, that's a win in my book.

    Were you planning any discussion of unarmored monsters, and/or large monsters? I've found that's where some systems similar to yours break when modding D&D.

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