Thursday, 15 January 2015

[D&D] Design diary: The One Death & Dismemberment Table to Rule Them All

In case it isn't obvious I'm a big fan of the Death & Dismemberment Table (if the name of this blog and the content of the first few posts weren't a giveaway). However I'd come across Death & Dismemberment tables (DADT) a number of times before realising just how cool they were. It was through reading some Actual Play reports of the impact of the Mortal Wounds table in Adventurer Conqueror King System that the idea the DADT finally grokked for me. There's a lot of things to like about the ACKS take on a DADT, it contains both a generic level of wound and then further randomizes with specific injury descriptions, and there's some great flavour text in it. However the table assumes a default result of unconsciousness upon dropping to zero hit points and leaves resolution of the actual wound until when medical attention is given. I really can't see why they went this way, frankly the only possible positives I can see is that it adds a certain level of dramatic tension and avoids slowing down the combat to address the fate of an out-of-action PC (but hell if it was my character's fate in the balance, I'd want to know now, drama and speed of gameplay be damned). 

Once my interest was piqued I started regularly noticing DADT's around the D&D blogosphere (see here, here and here for lotsa links). Whilst I love the concept of DADT's and there are plenty of well implemented tables around, I haven't found one yet that ticks all the boxes for me, so I set about creating The One Death & Dismemberment Table to Rule Them All (TODADTTRTA). Whilst it's likely this post is going to have a target audience of exactly one due to its specific nature,  I'm going to talk to myself out loud as it were about the design issues that I wrestled with (which may be of use for anyone looking to create or update their own DADT) and some of the decisions I've made in creating TODADTTRTA.

Probably the most fundamental assumption that any DADT is built on is it's understanding of what hit points represent.  Reader eyes glazing over in 3...2...1...  

Yes, that old chestnut. I'm not going to waste time defining terms, if you're reading a gaming blog I'm assuming what do hit points represent is well trod territory. DADT's tend to operate from the hit points as skill/endurance/luck/morale end of the hit point continuum rather than the meat end (i.e. hit points as not getting hit [badly] points). Although this isn't often spelled out it's inherently implied in the idea that any loss of hit points up until your last one in no way impairs your combat ability, however once hit points are reduced to zero you roll on the DADT and shit suddenly gets real (meaningful consequences in the form of wounds, dismemberment and death). If the wound results on the table have significant consequences and extended healing times, a DADT pairs really well with easily available (4E/5E level) hit point recovery, making a clear distinction between non-meat hit points and meat consequences on the DADT (this point often comes up in OSR bloggers' posts about DADT's, however any reference to 4E is usually avoided or is acknowledged almost shamefacedly as if the blogger risks losing their OSR cred!) Of course there's nothing that says hit points can't be interpreted as meat whilst using a DADT, however you need a logical explanation for why the meat damage suddenly has consequences once hit points drop to zero and not beforehand (two types of meat? Turducken hit points perhaps... no that's three!) I'd suggest that some sort of critical hit rules make a better fit if you want hit points as meat but with consequences and detail before they hit zero (or hell just go the whole hog and swap to Rolemaster - if you want an inherently risky combat system with the chance of debilitating wounds or death from any attack and are ok with death spirals Rolemaster does this much better than D&D). 

A related and more important consideration for DADT's (which I've not seen discussed anywhere suprisingly) is what do negative hit points represent? (if you are running Classic D&D with death at zero hit points feel free to ignore this section - hell, feel free to ignore any of my rambling in this post) 

Whilst folks are generally happy to embrace abstraction in how they view hit points, negative hit points are usually conceptualised as a much more concrete and meat-ish entity. This makes sense in a game that tracks negative hit points, as the combatant will usually be unconscious when at negative hit points, rendering combat skill or morale moot and I'd suggest that the Death's Door rule (combatant does not die at zero hit points but is instead unconscious and dying up until -X hit points at which point death occurs) heavily informs the common interpretation of what negative hit points represent. However when you look at how Death's Door is implemented across editions (not to mention in house rulings and retroclones) there are significant differences: the original AD&D version extends hit points to -10 before death occurs; 3rd edition kept a 10 hit point buffer but made exactly 0 hit points still conscious, but disabled; 4th edition expanded the death's door buffer to -[max hit points/2]; and 5E further still to -[max hit points]. Lots of old school house rules go the other way and limit Death's Door to the -2 to -5 hit point range. Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a good example of this with unconsciousness occurring at 0 HP, mortal wounding at -3, and death at -4. A quirk of AD&D's (through to 3E's) Death's Door rule is that higher level characters are more likely to die if dropped below zero hit points. The concurrent scaling of character hit points and damage inflicted by opponents, makes the static 10 hit point buffer between unconsciousness and death increasingly small in relative terms and more likely to be exceeded if hit points are reduced below zero. By linking the Death's Door buffer to the character's maximum hit points, 4E & 5E fairly successfully address this issue, however to retain a sense of risk they then added in Death Save mechanics as an additional source of death. 

This all points to the problem inherent in negative hit points - whilst they feel like they represent a concrete entity, in most regards they are as abstracted as normal hit points, they only differ in that they most definitely fall to the meat end of the hit point continuum. This brings up the question, if you are using a DADT to determine the meat consequences of being reduced to zero hit points should you also use the Death's Door rule? (or track negative hit points and apply them as a modifier to rolls on the DADT, which in effect is the same thing as using Death's Door e.g. a roll of 2d6 modified by 10 for being at -10 hit points will generate a minimum result of 12. If the only result possible for 12+ on the DADT is death you are effectively operating with an AD&D Death's Door rule). Whilst it makes intuitive sense to track negative hit points and have a cutoff where death occurs, doing so alongside a DADT intertwines two mainly independent systems, one abstracted, one much more concrete, to measure the same scenario - how much meat damage has the combatant taken and how close are they to death. Using both systems means extra book keeping, and unless you draw on a 4E/5E approach to Death's Door you will have the effect of making your game increasingly deadly as characters level up - both from the Death's Door cutoff as mentioned above, but also if you apply negative hit points as a modifier to the DADT it will have the same effect of making the table deadlier as the level of the PC's and opponents increase. Applying modifiers to a DADT based on negative hit points may also skew results on the table in unforeseen ways unless this has been well factored into the spread of results on the table (see Billy Goes to Mordor's brief analysis of his DADT for a good example of this).

Why have I bothered with this mini analysis of negative hit points? - because the majority of DADT's use Death's Door concurrently or track negative hit points and apply them to the DADT roll. I to'ed and fro'ed on tracking negative hit points in my draft of TODADTTRTA a number of times, simply due to the intuitive sense that going further into negative hit points should influence the result on the table. However I've decided to jettison negative hit points and their tracking, adopting the table as the sole mechanism for determining what happens once hit points drop to zero. Rather than relying on modifiers from negative hit points to amplify the risk of a nasty result on the table, I'm planning on simply making the table a bit more deadly. By forgoing modifiers and only using a single die for rolls on the table the probability spread will remain flat, allowing control over how the severity of results such as dismemberment or death are distributed. To increase the risk from repeated rolls on the DADT I will be using an add dice, take lowest approach (read Disadvantage but with more dice than two allowed). I'm contemplating adding dice for attacks from opponents of Large or greater size too, so that the potential for real wounding based on the physics of an attack (as opposed to abstracted hit point damage) increases risk on the DADT. I'm also wondering if the concept of Bloodied from 4E might be useful here, essentially it's just a tag for being at half maximum hit points or below, but might be useful as a further source of dice on the DADT roll. The current spread of consequences I'm looking at is split 25% each for minor wounds (no effect or stunned), serious wounds (debilitating but non lethal and unlikely to cause ongoing problems), critical wounds (potentially life threatening and likely to have significant ongoing consequences) and deadly wounds. 

My next consideration was what balance of abstraction and detail to have in the results on the table. I believe the key here is to create detail without adding too much complexity and to keep the table clean and simple by pushing detail onto a supporting handout through the use of subtables and conditions. Given that DADT's are something that may only see occasional use and that only the specific result rolled needs to be considered in any individual usage of the table, there's scope to have a fair bit of detail and variety in results without making it overly complex. One of my issues with the Fisher / Trollsmyth model of DADT (of which there are many direct hacks, and lots of other DADTs which have been inspired by these) is that the severity of wound automatically links to a certain hit location. For me thee are two problems with this: 

1) combined with the fact that most tables of this ilk use 2d6, there will be a high repetition of certain results. I think a DADT becomes much more exciting if you are really uncertain what the likely result will be, and I prefer there to be a wide possibility of injuries (picking on Trollsmyth's version - because I like it, not because it's bad! -  a roll of 5-6 is a broken bone and 7-8 is knocked out. There are a whole range of injuries of comparable severity that could be included for these levels of severity, alternatively a broken bone result should span varying levels of severity depending on the location).

2) in some situations the location of wound taken will be determined by the nature of the damage (e.g. falling, placing hand into acid) or the damage will be quite abstracted and not correspond well to a hit location (e.g. AoE spell, psychic damage). With limited results on the table this becomes harder to model or falls back to DM ruling (which is totally ok, but some players - and DM's - are going to feel more comfortable with a DADT if they are at the mercy of a standardised table rather than what the DM feels is a good call at the time). 

One of the most common workarounds for this in DADT's is to separate the wound severity from hit location. This is certainly my preference for TODADTTRTA, and my plan is to also include a generic wound result for each severity to model non-specific damage, where hit location may not be appropriate. When using hit locations the question then becomes what level of specificity to include for each severity of wound. For example a moderate wound to the torso might be broken ribs - should the result specify this or just include penalties concomitant with this but open to interpretation as some other similar wound such as a very shallow stab wound or a painful but superficial cut across the belly? I'm inclined to have each result focused on the in-game effects and leave description of the actual wound up to the DM. That said, half the fun in a DADT is having bloody and blackly humorous descriptions for wounds sustained (Lost Pages' Internal Organs are Supposed to be Internal table is a particular fave for just this reason). Certainly a flavour text generation table could work well alongside more generic results. A number of DADT's also have separate tables depending on the damage type (e.g. slashing / piercing / bludgeoning / magic / fire etc.). At this stage I'm not sure I want to go down that path, I think by keeping enough abstraction in the results and also having a generic damage result this level of detail becomes unnecessary - and I think having wound severity, hit location and damage type all as variables would make the table too big. And yet, the Rolemaster fan in me quietly urges, "a separate DADT for each weapon, do it, do it"...

There is various other cool shit I want to include in TODADTTRTA, robbing from the many excellent tables on the internets, making them mine, all mine, my precious... Ahem. Definitely up for inclusion is the Adrenaline Surge entry from Trollsmyth's DADT, and I'm looking for a way to make it a possible result alongside other (possibly mortal) wounds to allow for heroic last stand results. I also really like how important his table has made helmets and would like to find a way of rolling Shields shall be splintered into the table, cos' its way cool but I'm not sure I want it as a separate system for avoiding death at zero hit points.  I'd also like to include options for equipment damage and scarring which are not tied to specific wounds and have a probability of occurring at any time.

A sub-goal for TODADTTRTA was to try to match up the wound categories on the table with the various Cure Wounds spells. Firstly in name, just for forms sake, but given that I plan to pair the table with easy hit point recovery, I'd like to switch the role of healing magic into addressing the wound results from rolling on the table. Natural healing for wounds will be slow, or not possible for some results, making healing spells really important, just not as a routine stock up of all the cleric spell slots. A scroll with a single CCW or Cureall will now be really useful, not just something that saves an extra day or two of resting.

For me the final decision has been which particular iteration of D&D to optimize the table for. My favourite D&D is Basic/Expert (I don't really bother distinguishing between Moldvay/Cook and Mentzer, we houseruled the shit out of our game well beyond it mattering anymore) and I'm a fan of where ACKS goes with B/X. However there's a lot of things I like about 5E. The fifth edition rules fairly explicitly state that hit point loss only represents significant injury when they are reduced to zero or below, making them a good match for a DADT. 5E's Death Saving Throw mechanic, whilst elegant and great for creating tension, produces no lasting consequences even if the combatant goes within one negative hit point of the death's door cutoff and fails two death saves. The 5E DMG introduces Lingering Wounds as an option to address this, but runs them concurrently with death saves. I don't think this works effectively as the two systems are not integrated and a scenario can occur such as a Lingering Wound result of Scarring but the character then fails three death saves, or the character can lose a leg, roll a 20 on their death save and potentially be back up and fighting. In short 5E could really use a DADT to completely replace it's existing unconsciousness, dying and death rules. There's a couple of other good reasons to go with 5E at the moment: it's enjoying a fair degree of flavor of the month even amongst some OSR folks, and there's only one other 5E specific DADT at the moment (I'm not counting the DMG's Lingering Wounds as a DADT). Whilst I'm not sure I would run 5E as is, most likely I will add in some 5E components to a Basic D&D game. I'm creating TODADTTRTA primarily for myself but it's still a nice idea to make it useful for the most possible people, and I can stat up TODADTTRTA for 5E but make things loose enough that it can easily be used in any edition (hell, I don't think inter-edition translation is half the thing some people bemoan it to be anyway). I've got TODADTTRTA pretty close to how I want it to look so hopefully should be posting it (eventually) on the next week or two.

Ok, so there's been a whole lot of talk in this post and not much action, so I'll pay a Joesky tax 

Monster: The Turducken

My lame crack about Turducken hit points up-post got me thinking about a monstrous Turducken, created by a mad wizard long ago in a vain attempt to combine his three favorite meats (Turkey, Duck, Chicken) into the one creature. Unfortunately the experiment got out of hand, creating a giant three headed fowl which then turned on its creator (oh the fate of mad monster-mashing wizards, so predictable). 

Whist the real life Turducken combines three meats, the monstrous Turducken is thoroughly meta and has three types of hit points (meat, skill and morale) and can only be slain by reducing each total of hit points (each of 3HD) to zero. For any hit on the Turducken roll 1d3 to determine which of its hit point totals is damaged - 1: Meat, 2: Skill, 3: Morale (this will definitely work better if you ham up descriptions of what type of damage is being dealt). 

There is a 1 in 6 chance per round for each of the three heads that they will use their special attack instead of biting. When a Turducken head uses its SA it also regenerates all hit point damage to the corresponding hit point total. If none of the heads use their SA there is a 1 in 6 chance the Turducken will lay an Egg of Doom.  The SA effects are as follows: Quack of Cracking- as Horn of blasting, Gobbling Gobble - opponents hearing the gobble must save vs spells or be under the effect of a confusion spell, Crow of Victory - opponents hearing the crow must save vs spells or be under effect of a fear spell, Egg of Doom - upon hatching (time to hatching as the DM sees fit) it unleashes campaign ending or other seriously messed up mojo - go wild (Egg of DOOM people).

Monstrous Turducken (1)  AC 7 (12), HD 3*, #AT 4 (beak/beak/beak/claw rake) 1d6/1d6/1d6/2d6, SA Quack of Cracking (meat), Gobbling Gobble (Skill), Crow of Victory (Morale), Egg of Doom, MV 120’(40’)

To fully appreciate the mindset of the author whilst writing this blog post it is best read whilst listening to: Shellac- At Acton Park & 1000 Hurts