Thursday, February 11, 2016

Heartbreaker: Attack!

It's another installment of Heartbreaker, my amateur RPG design sub-blog here at CFM. Remember, 1/72 fantasy news first, then under-qualified RPG-design musings below the fold.

Today's news is again from the 1/72 miniatures wall at We've been following upcoming sets from Alliance, Red Box's fantasy line and one of two manufacturers of plastic 1/72 scale fantasy figures. Here's a short but dense blurb with some more news, run through Google Translate:

"The promise of fantasy sets - it Amazons, Barbarians, a la Conan, trolls (4 sets) and Balrogs and orc Catapult."

We also get a new shot of the aforementioned trolls:

Good stuff! We already knew about the new Amazon, barbarian, and troll sets, but the "Balrogs" and orc catapult are news to me. One imagines the Balrogs as larger demon figures, like from the Lord of the Rings movies that Alliance is clearly borrowing from, but I suppose they could also include smaller human-sized devils. The catapult will also be interesting. I'm looking forward to more pics!

Now the RPG-design stuff. Just click the "Read more" link below.

Last time at Heartbreaker, we talked about expanding the idea of critical hits so that they have a few more possibilities. This expanded notion means that any check can have four results: failure, success, critical failure, and critical success. It might be worth reviewing some definitions from last time.
  • You earn a threat if you roll within the threat range of a particular die check. Earning a threat means rerolling the d20 and adding the result to your check.
  • We can define a threat range of x as any natural die result between [21 -x] and 20. So a threat range of 1 means a natural die result of 20 earns a threat. A threat range of 3 means a natural result between 18 and 20 earns a threat.
  • You suffer an error if you roll within the error range of a particular threat. Suffering an error means rerolling the d20 and subtracting the result from your check. An error is the opposite of a threat. Threats are good; errors are bad!
  • We can define the error range of x as any natural result between 1 and [0 + x]. So an error range of 1 means a natural die result of 1 suffers a error. An error range of 3 means a natural result between 1 and 3 suffers an error.
  • Any check has a difficulty class, or DC. A success means a total result (d20 + modifiers) that exceeds the DC. A critical success is more than twice the DC. Note that earning a threat makes a critical success more likely, but you can get a critical success without earning a threat, or earn a threat without getting a critical success.
  • A failure means a total result that does not exceed the DC. A critical failure is half or less of the DC. Again, suffering an error makes getting a critical failure more likely, but the two outcomes are not dependent.
If none of this makes any sense, do reread the last installment!

If it does make sense, you may still want to know how these concepts might apply in a game. Let's apply them to one of the basic encounters of any d20 game; combat. Not every RPG features combat, but I feel pretty sure that combat is central to any d20 system. The d20 concept evolved from classic Dungeons and Dragons, and D&D evolved from wargaming, so combat-free games aren't the best fit for a d20 system.

The basic ideas of d20 combat are probably pretty familiar even to those who've never played D&D. The attacker, lets say a player-character, has an attack score and an amount of damage for a particular attack, usually a die roll of some type. The defender, let's say a GM-controlled monster, has a defense score (often "Armor Class" or AC) plus a number of hit points. The attacker rolls to beat the defender's AC. If he does, he rolls to see how much damage he does, and the defender subtracts the result from his current hit point total. If the defender runs out of hit points, it dies or is disabled.

This system is pretty simple, but it wants for realism. One imagines high-level characters and creatures with a lot of hit points trading direct blows with mortal weapons and not being at all affected, until one arbitrarily collapses in demise. One wishes for alternatives, and some do exist. The most promising alternative for our purposes is the Toughness Save, an idea I got from Green Ronin's True20 system.

I've been trying to speak in generalities in these installments for the sake of those unfamiliar with d20 games, but here I'm going to have to introduce some specifics, namely the idea of Saves. Most d20 games have three saves; Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. Fortitude deals with resisting physical effects and Reflex the ability to dodge and avoid such effects (we'll talk about Will saves later). Fortitude seems to describe roughly the same thing as hit points, and Reflex the same thing as Armor Class (minus the armor). So let's scrap hit points and AC and use Fortitude and Reflex instead. The idea is that when attacking, the player rolls two dice, one for actually making the attack and one to see how much damage it does. And when defending, the player also rolls two dice, one for Reflex to see if he avoids the attack, and one for Fortitude to see how much he resists damage.

That Fortitude save against damage is basically the Toughness Save from True20. True20 features a rather complex damage track that tells you what failing these saves means at various times, but we can actually simplify things a bit now that we have the idea of four flavors of success and failure in mind. I'm going to call this Fortitude save a Damage Save. Here are the possible results of that Damage Save:

  • Critical Success: The attack deals no damage.
  • Success: You gain a hit.
  • Failure: You gain a wound.
  • Critical Failure: You are dying.

Simple right? Except gah, what's this wound and hit business? More terms to learn? Don't worry; they're pretty simple. A hit means that you increase the error range of future Damage Saves by one; the more hits you suffer, the higher the error range until they can be removed. Hits represent scrapes, glancing blows, and other lucky breaks that don't slow you down but can add up to trouble. A wound means that you increase the penalty for all future dice checks by 1. Wounds are more serious injuries that are harder to shake. An easy way to measure hits and wounds is by handing players white or red poker chips (cheap dollar store plastic ones are fine). When the damage is healed, they just hand the chips back.

(Skip this paragraph if you don't care about potential ways to vary this idea. But we could make combat grittier by increasing the penalty to 2, or make it more heroic by making the penalty only apply to Damage Saves and not to all checks. I like the idea of damage having actual effects on one's character, but some players don't like the "death spiral" similar systems feature. But it's optional either way.)

So for succeeding and failing Damage Saves, we've got two different types of damage, both of which impact future Damage Saves in various ways. I get that, you are saying to yourself (hopefully!). I also see how hits and wounds both make critical failure and "dying" more likely, whatever that means. And I see how the error range of these Damage Saves increases based on the number of hits you've suffered. But what's with critical successes equaling no damage at all? And why haven't we talked about threat ranges at all?

Both these questions have the same answer: The threat range of your Damage Save is determined by the armor you are wearing.

As a designer, one thing I'll have to keep clear in my mind is the difference between increasing a bonus (+1 to your check!) and increasing the threat range of a particular check, and why I might pick one over the other for a particular effect. I think that increasing the threat range generally means taking advantage of equipment or some other resource. That's certainly the case with armor. You can almost picture it; if rolling a twenty-sided die is like getting a weapon swung at you, then hitting that threat range range is like your opponent hitting the spot where your armor is doing the most good, like you're some sort of dart board and the dart-thrower just hit a "1." Light armor might have a threat range of 2 or 3, while strong armor could go as high as 10, though it would have other drawbacks.

Now we see what the results of a Damage Save really mean in the game.

  • Critical Success: Your armor absorbs the attack, or you otherwise roll with the blow. No effect.
  • Success: The blow glances off you, leaving you shaken but for the moment unaffected. You gain a hit.
  • Failure: The blow connects, dealing a significant injury. You gain a wound.
  • Critical Failure: Your accumulated injuries have caught up to you, or you have suffered a particularly grievous blow. You are dying.

It's worth pointing out that if you are dealing damage instead of receiving it, the results of that Damage Check are basically the opposite of a Damage Save. Just switch "success" and "failure" above, and replace "you(r)" with "your opponent('s)."

There are other issues that I haven't addressed here, like what attacking and defending are like, and just what dying means. Next time!

(By the way, if you are reading and enjoying these Heartbreaker posts, do let me know! I'd like to hear what people think of these, or if I'm just lecturing at myself.)


  1. I'm a big fan of Hit + Wound systems like this, its much more narrative than simply whittling down HP. I'd be interested in your take on player deaths, as I think everyone can agree those are the most memorable moments in a tabletop session.
    I'm very interested in how you approach defending as well. I've yet to find a system for parrying, shield blocking, and/or dual wielding that just felt exactly 'right'.

    1. Thanks for the reply! I like hit and wound systems too, and I was hoping to make them less fiddly. I'm trying to explain things carefully at the possible risk of over-explaining, but I think it's pretty simple once it clicks. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

      Player death: as stated above, "dying" is a sort of condition that happens when you critically fail a saving throw against damage. If on your turn you are dying, you make a Fortitude save Dc 10, or possibly lower pending playtesting! It's like a damage saving throw except without an improved threat range from armor. If I remember correctly, this save vs. death can have these results:

      Critical success: you stabilize and don't have to make any other death saving throws.
      Success: Nothing happens., but you need to make another save the next round.
      Failure: You take another hit.
      Critical failure: you die.

      You could maybe mellow this by saying you have to critically fail twice to die, but that's the basic idea. I think it makes dying a lot more dramatic, as you can never quite be sure when the curtain will fall.

      Parrying, etc.: I haven't paid a ton of thought to this, but I like the idea of using what 5e calls "reactions" (think opportunity attacks) to make an attack in lieu of a defense check when attacked. Maybe a critical success means you can riposte! I also like this idea of shields that basically are bad at attacking but great for parrying and other maneuvers.