Thursday, November 10, 2011

4EMOD: Ascending Math

Familiar much?
A few weeks ago I helped my friend, Raphael (mentioned in an earlier post), start a Star Wars campaign. This meant that a lot of people were interested in playing, and most had never done RP in their lives. Fortunately Raphael and I were up to the task, and we started teaching 6 of the 9 people who showed up that day how to make a character. One of them got flustered after a few minutes of working, so I asked what was wrong. She pointed at the level bonuses to everything, and said:

"This is more complicated than doing my taxes."

I was astounded, and quickly shut my jaw and moved on with teaching her how to fill out her tax form. I wasn't astounded by the dumbness of the girl in question, mind you. She had shown herself to be quite intelligent. I was astounded because someone had actually said something that I'd thought for a long time.

Why have ascending attack, defense, and skill bonuses? What's the point? It's so much work, and for what? Nothing! Spyder, have you lost your mind? It's because people get better at attacking and defending themselves!

I am quite sane, thank you. And we already have something for that. It's called damage and hit points. Let me explain. Hit points in Dungeons and Dragons have never been strictly health. They are a stat measuring the luck and health (physical and mental) of the character. Hit points represent the ability of an adventurer to turn a lethal strike into a graze or even a narrow miss. The only time that a real physical hit's talked about in Dungeons and Dragons is when a character is bloodied and when they drop to zero. That's it. The rest of it's narrow escapes scrapes. Damage, then is actually the measurement of not only how "damaging" the blow is, but how good the attack is to begin with. The actual attack roll only determines if you whiff so badly it's not worth notice.

But what about the whiff? Well, that's something that does change, if you keep it at that. See the houserules below on what you can do to fix that. Epic tier is epic tier for a reason, people who have achieved that level of awesomeness shouldn't be bothered by a bunch of kobolds! Hold your horses, I agree. Read the actual house-rules first.

But what about skills? Shouldn't those  go up? Yes, but not all of them at the level that 4th edition says they should. A friend of mine (we'll call him Spawn of Satan, he loves that nickname) rightfully pointed out that if a wizard's never seen water before how is he supposed to know how to swim? If he doesn't know how he just doesn't know how, and it shouldn't be a breeze for him to swim, no matter how high in level he gets. Also, the fact is this: the skill DCs increase with you at the same right as you level, meaning that nothing really changes. Can you jump farther? Oh yes! But convincing the guard that he should let you sleep with his mom still has the same chances. While most people will argue that the DC should stay the same, we all know that the numbers don't mean anything because all they do is change. Just because I've become a world class hammer swinger doesn't mean that my flexibility's increased enough to go beneath that stupid limbo pole. I'll probably still throw my back out for trying, knowing my luck (This isn't from personal experience of mine or anything, just from... a friend. Yeah. Actually a friend of a friend. On the limbo thing, not the hammer thing.).

Anyway, here's what you need to do to implement these ideas, in case you agree with me!

On the Player's Side
Take out  the half level modifier for all things that require it. Do not apply enhancement bonuses from weapons, armor, and magical items to attack and defense. To simulate that skills still develop over time, give the character a +2 to two skills every time you upgrade your stats. The skills improved in this way do not need to be trained. This means you get a +2 to two skills at  levels 4, 8, 11, 14, 18, 21, 24, and 28. Simple, right? Oh, but if you're the DM, just wait...

The DM's Side
This is where things get... painful. The DM has to remove all the ascending math so the players don't have to put up with it. While this doesn't affect the players all that much beyond their initial buy-in the workload for the DM is enormous, and really shouldn't be attempted unless you want your rule-books to be entirely written-over. Apply a half-level penalty to the monster's initiative and skill checks. But removing the half-level modifier doesn't actually make the defenses hittable, because the internal math of 4th edition doesn't operate on half-level for attacks and defenses, but on level; you have to try a different approach.

At heroic tier, apply a penalty of Monster's Level-1 to all of a monster's defenses and attacks.

At paragon tier apply a penalty of Monster's Level-2 to all of a monster's defenses and attacks.

At epic tier apply a penalty of Monster's Level-3 to all of a monster's defense and attacks.

You'll find that all the numbers you arrive at do not go higher than 25 at the very most. Most of the time a monster won't even have a defense higher than 20, which puts you at having to roll a 16 to hit a monster's defense at the very most. Crunch the numbers, see if they work. A lot of my monsters have been converted over, and honestly, it works out really well.

The last bit, to deal with fighting monsters ten levels higher?? Give the target of the attack Damage Resist 10 All for each ten levels it's above the attacker. If that attacker deals zero damage to the target then it counts as a miss. Effect lines in powers still happen as normal, as do miss lines (do NOT apply the Damage Resistance to damage from the Miss line.)

Example 1: Colin is a level 5 warlord fighting a level 11 drow. The drow is in paragon tier, so it gains Resist 10 All against all of Colin's attacks, since he's one tier higher than Colin. He rolls his damage dice and gets 12 damage. That damage is 2, instead. Whatever effects Colin wanted to happen go off, because he dealt damage.

Example 2: Martha's level 6 psion is fighting the Tarrasque, a level 30 solo. Martha shouldn't be in this fight, her character doesn't have a snowball's chance in Hell. The Tarrasque receives an additional Resist 20 All (And since he has Resist 10 All already, which puts it up to a 30!), since he's two tiers above her character. She rolls 11 damage, which is reduced below zero. Normally any additional effects wouldn't happen either, but Martha used a power that has an Effect line. No damage is dealt, but the effect happens anyway.

However, if the target of an attack is 10 levels below the attacker then the target gains vulnerable 10 against that attack per every 10 levels they're below the target..

Example: Colin has advanced his warlord to level 11. Yay for Colin, he survived fighting the drow! He's attacking a kobold. Kobolds are dumb, they need to be squashed. Since the kobold's level 1, it gains vulnerable 10 to Colin's attack. Colin rolls 12 damage, which becomes 22 because of the vulnerable 10. Holy crap, if the kobold's not dead already it better run!

Example 2: Remember Martha, and how she was fighting the Tarrasque? Yeah, she's still fighting that thing. Martha goes to her happy place as the Tarrasque rolls his attack roll and hits. The Tarrasque rolls his damage. 36 damage, right? Wrong, it's 56 because Martha has vulnerable 20 to all its attacks! Martha needs to start rolling death saving throws. 

One thing that you must do is use the Monster Manual 3 damage figures for all monsters; it's the only way make them a legitimate threat. I've gone through and started writing the new figures into my MM and MM2 books, and man do they look nasty.

Other Changes
Another part that has to be changed are feats that give attack and defense bonuses that scale with level. Personally I'd get rid of all the Expertise feats; they're a pain in the butt and an unnecessary feat tax. The same is true of the defense feats pre-Essentials, and can be removed without much trouble. Scaling damage however? I'd actually encourage improving those feats by a +1 at heroic tier, a +2 at paragon, and +3 at epic tier. Speeding up combat is a good thing, particularly in 4th, and you'd be surprised how useful that +1 to damage is with every single hit. Especially if someone can tell you "Hey, fire's my specialty! See how much more damage I do with it!"

Skill DCs
Skill DC's are pretty easy to fix, actually. Keep them static. Here's the DC's I use.

Easy: 8
Medium: 12
Moderate: 19
Hard: 23
Master: 30
Heroic: 34

You may not benefit from Aid Another at Master DC and up, since that level of difficulty is so balls-hard that it's almost sheer dumb luck to achieve it, even for a god.

Since the players are only going to be truly good at one or two skills they'll have bragging rights on the ones they're good at, with holes that the rest of the team can cover, all without having to edit that damn sheet every two or three sessions. The numbers will actually mean something, since they change so little! There's an actual sense of scale and growth as characters slowly increase their abilities and get gradually better at their skills.

The last session I DMed for my level 11 rogue was proud of rolling a 34 (+12 I believe, rolled a nat 18 and was aided twice) and convincing a Pit Fiend they hadn't roughed up the criminal whose soul the thing had come to collect: the nice angels who were trying to kill him had done it instead. The rogue then excused himself as the pit fiend tore into the angels instead of him.

This is the most easily ignored part of 4EMOD, although I think it's an incredible little fix. Unlike the rest of the system, which depends on balancing the classes against each other, the ascending math house rule is modular and doesn't need to be implemented to get the effects of 4EMOD. I included it first, however, because I'm working from general to specific.This is a pretty good indication of what's to come, folks. Hope you enjoy it!

Next Thursday we'll cover races, ability scores, and how to improve role-play opportunities with both.

EDIT 1: Modified the DC's a bit, added in an additional level of difficulty. Tweaked the Aid Another Rules
EDIT 2: Changed things from tier to 10 level increments as suggested by Little J. Thanks for the input!