Spiking the Curve [D&D and others]

Over in an unrelated discussion, @NickWedig makes a good observation about one pitfall which can take place in D&D combats:
NickWedig said:


D&D fights often feel like a slog, because people use limited resource attacks early in the fight and then the pace slows down as they are reduced to using lesser attacks and the battle spends more time in the endgame where the outcome is clear but the HP totals haven't hit zero yet. So the curve of combat flattens out exactly when you would want it to spike toward one side or the other. (Some versions of D&D work to mitigate this issue to varying amounts of success.)

I've definitely seen this happen a lot in D&D games - and particularly in modern editions of D&D, where combat seems to be increasinly power/ability-based.

What are some other games where this kind of thing happens?

What are some good techniques for designers or players to reverse this effect?

I'm thinking, for example, of how in Tales of Entropy (a game some of us are playing right now), a character's Shadow meta-trait tends to grow over time. The "Shadow" trait makes a character more powerful in conflicts - in D&D terms, you might say they "hit harder" - but also makes them more fragile, and more likely to "fold" out of the story (not exactly the same as losing a conflict in Tales of Entropy, but it's at least partially in the same ballpark).

Someone recently posted about a house rule they were considering, where D&D characters in a fight accrue a +1 to hit for every round that goes by.

I *think* 4th Edition D&D had some rules where creatures could gain or lose abilities below a certain HP threshold, and, where those made the monsters more dangerous, that would fit this model.

It's interesting to consider some possibilities for design where uncertainty, danger, or "hitting power" increases as you approach the end of the conflict/fight/resolution.

Comments

  • edited November 2018
    Anima prime, Fate,
    and house rules (mine in Reve and Sandra's with bows in D&D) : every round you succeed a strike you can "save" it in the form of guaranteed damage or bonus (to aim hit location eg).
    I thought there was a "mark of justice" power that allowed to build a potent attack for Paladins in D&D but that's only by ear say.
    But the tactical challenge can get this result too. Raising stakes.
  • edited November 2018
    Paul_T said:


    Someone recently posted about a house rule they were considering, where D&D characters in a fight accrue a +1 to hit for every round that goes by.

    This is in fact the rule in 13th Age, for both PCs and monsters. It caps out at 6, as the escalation is based on a d6, where you just turn it to the next-highest number on the next round.

    In answer to your question, you could have a mechanic whereby, if an enemy has HP equal to or less than the max damage your character can do in a round, you can just narrate how that all happens, spending the resources you'd need to do that, as appropriate, and then it just happens and you suffer some sort of drawback (a loss of HP yourself, or a loss of another type of resource).

    This is less "spiking the curve" and more just accepting the dead pace as a sign that the fight is dead, but you can offer the players to have the fight end at some cost to their character's resources, as appropriate to the fiction and how much longer it "would" take to defeat the monster. So the fight ends but everyone loses 10hp, or the fight ends and the wizard loses a spell and the fighter one of his healing surges. Pick one, party. I'm pretty sure Eero does something like this in his old-school D&D play.
  • Another possibility might be to look at fight games and how do they work. In many of them, combatants gradually fill an energy bar, which they can empty to unleash powerful attacks.
  • I *think* 4th Edition D&D had some rules where creatures could gain or lose abilities below a certain HP threshold, and, where those made the monsters more dangerous, that would fit this model.
    Some Heroclix minis, especially various versions of The Incredible Hulk, do this too.
  • In 7th Sea 2ed, as you get more dinged up in an ongoing fight, the following things happen at different tiers of "wounds" (not all actually wounds):

    1 - You get a bonus
    2 - The bad guys get a bonus
    3 - You get a BIG bonus
    4 - The bad guys get a bonus
    5 - You're out
  • Morale was supposed to be the limiting factor, here! NPCs that are losing a fight tend to eventually fail a morale check, and the fight is over for good. Staying in a losing fight to the last HP should be an exceptional behavior reserved for the portrayal of dumb automatons, such as standard D&D zombies. Seriously! Morale checks severely need to be houseruled into any flavor of D&D that doesn't have them already, unless there's a definite purpose to (exceptionally!) not including them in a particular game.

  • Paul_T said:

    Over in an unrelated discussion, @NickWedig makes a good observation about one pitfall which can take place in D&D combats:

    NickWedig said:


    D&D fights often feel like a slog, because people use limited resource attacks early in the fight and then the pace slows down as they are reduced to using lesser attacks and the battle spends more time in the endgame where the outcome is clear but the HP totals haven't hit zero yet. So the curve of combat flattens out exactly when you would want it to spike toward one side or the other. (Some versions of D&D work to mitigate this issue to varying amounts of success.)

    I've definitely seen this happen a lot in D&D games - and particularly in modern editions of D&D, where combat seems to be increasinly power/ability-based.

    What are some other games where this kind of thing happens?

    What are some good techniques for designers or players to reverse this effect?

    I'm thinking, for example, of how in Tales of Entropy (a game some of us are playing right now), a character's Shadow meta-trait tends to grow over time. The "Shadow" trait makes a character more powerful in conflicts - in D&D terms, you might say they "hit harder" - but also makes them more fragile, and more likely to "fold" out of the story (not exactly the same as losing a conflict in Tales of Entropy, but it's at least partially in the same ballpark).

    Someone recently posted about a house rule they were considering, where D&D characters in a fight accrue a +1 to hit for every round that goes by.

    I *think* 4th Edition D&D had some rules where creatures could gain or lose abilities below a certain HP threshold, and, where those made the monsters more dangerous, that would fit this model.

    It's interesting to consider some possibilities for design where uncertainty, danger, or "hitting power" increases as you approach the end of the conflict/fight/resolution.
  • Paul_T said:

    What are some other games where this kind of thing happens?

    This used to happen a lot in BRP games: early Runequest and Call of Cthulu. I don't know if later versions have fixed this (I haven't played on in a long, long time), or whether it is even considered a flaw by those who played and perhaps still currently play these versions of the BRP system. But at the time, we found combat to a morase, and often tried to avoid it--even as rune-level characters.
    Paul_T said:

    What are some good techniques for designers or players to reverse this effect?

    Early BRP games had a work-around: special impaling hits (max damage + rolled damage) and critical hits (direct damage with no armor), but they only happen 20% and 5% of the time, respectively. There were also fumbles that happened 1% of the time. So this was/is their work-around, but combat could still go on for 10 rounds.

    Pendragon (a later BRP game with distinct genre tools baked-in) got around this problem differently: (a) weapon damage was epic (high), (b) a character/monster could suffer a major wound if they suffered damage equal to 1/5 of their CON, and there were knockdown hits (related to SIZ and CON (or STR, I forget). Pendragon combat was usually short and devastating.
  • ...because in Pendragon, HP were related to CON and never increased. A character could be easily killed or out of action in one or two rounds of combat.
  • I really haven't found this to be true. I use several breaking points for morale rolls and a wider middle part than the 2d6 curve with the most common result being "do what seems appropriate" which in the case of a fight which is already decided in the favor of the players an ordered withdrawal from the monsters.
  • Paul_T said:


    I *think* 4th Edition D&D had some rules where creatures could gain or lose abilities below a certain HP threshold, and, where those made the monsters more dangerous, that would fit this model.


    4th edition D&D had "bloodied" as a condition, where a creature was below half hitpoints. That often triggered effects of different abilities and such. So some monsters did more damage while bloodied, or gain additional attacks. This was advised in the monster creation guidelines, especially for solo boss monsters, but it wasn't consistent across the board. Some monsters became less dangerous when bloodied, which made this problem worse.

    (13th Age also uses the same idea and the escalation die to speed up the end of combat.)
  • One cause of this is that there is no incentive to hold back on your big attacks. When you enter into a combat, it is always to your advantage to unleash the biggest attack (that you will use this fight) as early as possible. If this fight is worth spending a 3rd level spell slot on, it's much better to use that 3rd level slot early in the fight. Throw down your fireball early and you hit the maximum number of targets, take out a couple orcs and weaken up the rest. If you start with magic missiles and then move to fireball, then you hit fewer targets, probably overkill some enemies, and do less damage overall. Similarly, sleep and hold person can remove opponents from the entire fight, so they're best used early in the fight for maximum effect.

    If you use your big limited-use abilities early in the conflict (as is tactically the best) then your damage output in the first round or two will be high. But after that is resolved, you fall back to weaker abilities you can use more often (1st level spells, darts, at-wills attacks, etc. depending on level and edition).

    If you graph out your damage output over time, the curve spikes up initially, but then slows down as time goes on. But the uncertainty and tension in conflict goes down as well, which is why is feels like a slog.


    This is sort of like the "why doesn't the giant robot use the energy sword finishing move right away" issue, but in reverse: in fiction the heroes often have a big fight before unleashing their finishing move, because doing it the other way would leave you with a boring fight. D&D can often lead to these boring fights, because there's no reason to to unleash the big attack right away.


    If you had a rules set where there was an incentive or requirement to wait with your big attacks, then you could avoid this issue. (In theory, 13th Age's escalation die is an incentive to wait with big attacks and unleash them later in conflict, but in practice I haven't seen it change player behavior in this fashion.) You could build a fantasy game where each round you are allowed to use bigger abilities: in the first round of combat, you can only use 1st level spells. In the 2nd, you can use 1st or 2nd level spells. In the 3rd, you can use 1st-3rd level spells, and so forth. This would create a system where the curve is reversed: small attacks early on, then bigger attacks finish the combat quickly as it reaches a point of less interest.
  • Rafu said:

    Morale was supposed to be the limiting factor, here! NPCs that are losing a fight tend to eventually fail a morale check, and the fight is over for good. Staying in a losing fight to the last HP should be an exceptional behavior reserved for the portrayal of dumb automatons, such as standard D&D zombies. Seriously! Morale checks severely need to be houseruled into any flavor of D&D that doesn't have them already, unless there's a definite purpose to (exceptionally!) not including them in a particular game.

    I've been recently playing some 1st ed AD&D with morale, and in my experience, that rules hasn't helped the issue much (if any). The same cycle applies. Morale is just a different lose condition. We still make more progress toward victory in the first two rounds than we do in the next 5 rounds put together, and the outcome is usually clear before the enemy blows their morale check and runs.

    Your experience definitely could be different than mine, though.
  • Ironsworn has a "momentum" mechanic, where you can spend the first few rounds of a fight building up momentum in order to finish your foe later on (and some moves even make you choose between accumulating momentum and inflicting damage).
  • Just wanted to reiterate on a few points others have brought up.

    13th Age's escalation die incentivizes you to wait to use your big guns but also interacts with the system in ways others haven't mentioned yet. What makes 13A pretty neat here is the way in which the escalation die interacts with several of the class abilities. For example, with a feat the Barbarian's rage feature (which is normally a recharge 16+ power) automatically recharges at the end of a fight if you trigger it when the escalation die is 3 or higher. Other class powers can only be used when the escalation die is an even number or 3+, or at the very least are more effective when certain escalation die triggers are met.

    D&D 4E has the bloodied mechanic and there are a lot of interesting abilities, for both players and monsters, that trigger when first bloodied or can only be used while bloodied. Some dragons, for example, will automatically recharge their breath weapon and immediately use it the first time they're bloodied in an encounter. There was also a common house rule for 4E that all damage is automatically maximized against bloodied foes (so incentivized you to wait to use your big guns until your target was bloodied), but I had mixed results with using that one honestly.

    Also, in my own 4E games I use morale saving throws for monsters and NPCs (triggers the first time an enemy is bloodied, when their leader is defeated, or when 1/2 of their side is defeated), which was also a pretty common house rule. Its worked wonderfully in my experience.

    Something that hasn't been mentioned yet is Tenra Bansho Zero, which has a sort of anti-death spiral to it for both PCs and notable NPCs. Whenever you take damage, you get to choose whether its a light wound, moderate wound, or heavy wound. Light wounds don't give a bonus but go away at the end of the fight, moderate wounds are more difficult to heal but give an extra die to all your rolls, and heavy wounds are difficult to heal (and cause ongoing damage for the rest of the fight) but give two extra dice to all your rolls.

    In all honesty, though, I don't see this is a game mechanics issue but an encounter design issue. Too many encounters in D&D-style games are fights to the death or simple contests of hit point ablation, with 100% of both side's contestants being present at the start of the fight. That's fine every now and then or for trivial battles, but in my experience its pretty boring as a standard operating procedure. Give players something to do other than Kill All The Monsters or, alternatively, don't begin The Real Fight until certain fictional conditions are met and all of this is way, way, way less of an issue.
  • I suppose it depends whether you want "narrative" combat to express characters' style, in which case the rules may well be lacking, or if you want strategy, in which case some work is necessary. But even then, simple rules like in a wargame (materialize goals on the battlefield, for instance, or accumulate X victory points) can be seen as lacking in the rules.
  • What I bring home from the last few comments is that D&D combat is often the opposite of raising stakes / escalation of risks & dangers. How depressive!
  • I find combat in old-school D&D (at low levels) very exciting, because it's deadly, unpredictable, doesn't last long, and Morale rules kick in before it gets boring if it does drag out.

    But those are just balancing factors; they don't change they basic format of combat in the rules.

    What happens in ablative power combat games?
    NickWedig said:

    One cause of this is that there is no incentive to hold back on your big attacks. When you enter into a combat, it is always to your advantage to unleash the biggest attack (that you will use this fight) as early as possible. If this fight is worth spending a 3rd level spell slot on, it's much better to use that 3rd level slot early in the fight. Throw down your fireball early and you hit the maximum number of targets, take out a couple orcs and weaken up the rest.

    This has been my experience with - for instance - 5th Ed. D&D.

    In theory, handling resting and number of encounters should counterbalance that, but that's hard to achieve (and especially hard to achieve organically).

    I do remember some game (sadly, though, not the title - I think it was being developed at the Forge), where characters got special combat powers which were numbered. The higher-numbered combat powers were stronger, flashier, and more impressive, but you had to use them in order: for example, you couldn't use your Stage 3 power until you'd used Stage 1 and Stage 2.

    It seems like that would recreate a dynamic "save the laser sword for the big finish" kind of effect, but at the cost of being rather predictable.

    I'd prefer a looser coupling, personally.

    Vincent Baker's Poison'd had nice rules for fights and escalation, where the stakes would rise with each "round".

    Perhaps losing the first round would leave you "bruised", losing the second would leave you "wounded", and losing the third would leave you "dying" - something like that. That has a pretty satisfying decision matrix - are you willing to risk being wounded in order not to get beaten up by this opponent?
  • I haven’t played dnd since 3.5 and even back then I was just entering the hobby, so I don’t have any experienced based ideas or commentary, but I do have some ideas.

    I once saw a youtube video from the Drunkens and Dragons show that explained how to use a d4 as a timer to count down to a threat coming during a battle. Be it reinforcements, bombardments, ... The d4 was rolled in the beginning of the combat and counted own each turn/round, giving the players incentive to finish things quickly.

    If combat gets boring because an outcome is already sure, why not handwave it and say that it is resolved and maybe roll a die to see how well it is resolved, like making it a move in a pbta game or a skill challenge like I think there’s in fourth edition? Something like that? What is the benefit of continuing the fight? If there are none, neither for the players or the gm, then why drag it out?
  • edited November 2018
    ... because the table has chain-committed themselves to the rules. They feel the situation has to be persistent - good or bad - to feel real. I gather they don't want to make it "just a game/toy" (remember the "skip the end" rule doesn't exist !) and they don't want "just a film" and zoom out. It could be their style of play. It solves some problems, gets them something, but has its own problems.
  • This is what happens when you try to simulate something, instead of actually thinking how to make an engaging combat mechanic.

    However, when I made my game based on descriptive challenges, I realized that people can only describe their actions in a vivid way for about seven turns (because things are used up in the decriptions). After that, they instead starts to focus purely on game mechanics ("I did 4 damage"). So I implemented a rule that said that combat ends after about seven turns, and then something happens.

    I made a strategic combat system once, that were two pages long, with more strategic depth than D&D4/WFRPG3. That game consisted of two meta-phases: 1. figure out what the opposition's strategy. 2. Do something about it. When 2) happened, the combat was basically over. Wish I would finish that game some day. Of course, the players didn't know about the meta-phases but it was something that emerged through game play.
  • edited November 2018
    My thought was, what about adding in a move, like in a PbtA game, where when a certain criteria is met (when there is no more chance for the enemy to win) you roll 2d6 plus a stat, or just a pure 2d6 because I’m not sure what stat would be relevant, (maybe it’s dependant on how they want to go ahead?) and dependant on the result you end the encounter? Like: On a 10+ you win and gain the loot. On a 7-9 you win and choose one: you get more injured before it’s done (everyone roll one more damage die from the enemy creatures)// you destroy or lose some of the loot// one of them gets away, intent on revenge. Or something like that, just a brainstorm.

    Fate has a mechanic for ending a fight more quickly when the winner’s clear. It’s a mechanic where the losing party gets to lessen the impact of the loss, but the winners get rewarded for doing this by gaining FP. It’s called conceding
  • @Rickard

    Do you have design notes on that 2 phase game anywhere?
  • edited November 2018
    Osu ! It would be The Fit for an anime about combat / competition !

    An idea for distinguishing various types of solutions :
    Having a way of converting all combat values into one equation leads to a whole category of answers. This is doable with points (quantities), but then each conversion rate potentially leads to economical loopholes. You then run the risk of making the optimal move (notably at character creation) detrimental to the game. A solution to this was provided one month ago or so for a certain game : agreeing on a table of possible losses, and not letting it known to the players, so they just have to push their luck or accept such and such losses.

    A whole other category is converting into words : requalifying the combat into a conflict. This is common since, what ? the 2000s ?

    Another category, heavily represented in the thread, are time dependent. Observing that at a certain point, the combat gets boring, the solution is to change the procedure at a given time. "Time" here can be counted in turns or in resources drops.
  • I'm surprised not to see a mention of Anima Prime here.

    In that game, you pretty much HAVE to start out by doing nondamaging "maneuvers" to build up your dice pools for the Strikes that do actual damage (ideally augmented by a Charge Power). It very thoroughly mitigates the problem of "do all your big attacks first" because you literally can't. Combats in my experience didn't go super long, because once people DID build up to their big attacks, things tended to go down pretty quickly.
  • edited November 2018
    Cf my first post. ^^
  • Does the Advantage/Disadvantage die as seen in Whitehack and 5E help this math sort itself out a bit?
  • Lots of good thoughts and suggestions here.

    I just wanted to point out something:

    A lot of people are suggesting ways to cut the combat or conflict short once it's clear who the winner will be. That's fine for some things, but it's not really the crux of the issue. First of all, that doesn't solve the problem (it still turns combats - or whatever procedures - into anti-climactic affairs where the "cool stuff" happens first), and, second, it doesn't help you if the outcome still isn't clear. (In a lot of D&D fights, we still don't know who's going to win, but - as Rickard notes, above - we have done most of the "cool stuff" already.

    Various mechanical means to create heightened tension/stakes are possible. I've heard of three or four so far (in this thread):

    1. Create some value or marker which can only increase. This value increases the participants' fragility, their damage output, or both. (Like Shadow in Tales of Entropy.)

    I haven't seen many games do this.

    2. The best "moves" you have need to be set up first, or they're likely to fail. You are better off making less dramatic "moves" first, to build up to the "big" ones.

    3. Your maneuvers/moves are prescripted, so they have to go in "ascending order". (I've yet to see a good implementation of this, with the possible exception of Kagematsu, which seems to do this really well for seduction/intimacy.)

    4. Some form of fictional stakes/escalation, as some of Vincent Baker's games have. Poison'd and Dogs in the Vineyard both do this nicely.

  • You could implement a cost for the more powerful abilities that has a direct negative effect that manifests during the fight. I guess that's mostly your "2", with the caveat that you can still use them right away, but that potentially leaves you even more vulnerable if you jump the gun.

    The Log Horizon RPG does this by powering all its special abilities with "Hate," an MMORPG-like aggro meter that increases the more you use your powers, but which makes you more likely to draw attacks and functions as a modifier to damage you take. Games where spells physically weaken you (like in Shadowrun, for example, or some variant D&D magic systems where spells cost HP to cast) are in the same vein.

    I guess the big problem there is that you risk the opposite problem: if you're too cautious, the combat never goes anywhere because, while everybody wants to be the one to start the snowball rolling down the hill, nobody wants to risk screwing up and having it roll down the hill towards themselves instead. Judicious--or brash, as it were--playing of the non-PC side can probably be used to modulate this factor though. If all the goblins charge at once, the combat's going to be over soon one way or another.

    Although when I put it that way, maybe "Make everybody a glass cannon" is, I guess, another potential solution. Rework the numbers so you don't have to grind down bloated HP totals. Iron Kingdoms RPG's combat can be pretty rocket tag-like in that way, somewhat fitting with it's parent wargame's mentality of bring it hard, bring it fast play.
  • Spellbound Kingdoms' combat mechanic is totally amazing and perfect in every way (for dealing with these issues) and I really fucking hope the Kickstarter of new material actually materializes someday.

    You have a "style sheet" for each set of weapons or spells your character knows how to use. Each move is a circle on the sheet. You can only access some circles from certain other circles, and there's a limited number of circles where you can start. Various attacks can also force you to go back to one of these starting points rather than continuing to progress. Almost all styles have at least two branches to pursue, that can sometimes be jumped between and sometimes not, so it isn't predictable. And, obviously, the best / biggest attacks take at least a few moves to get to.
    Judd said:

    Does the Advantage/Disadvantage die as seen in Whitehack and 5E help this math sort itself out a bit?

    Yeah, a bit. If you need to do some clever maneuvering to get Advantage on an attack, or impose Disadvantage on a foe's saving throw, you might be better off waiting a few rounds to fire off your big spell or attack sequence.
  • Looks like those old duel booklets (Lost worlds, Ace of aces) mechanic.
  • I think Epidiah Ravachols upcoming Lincoln Green is similar to @Paul_T s 3rd or 4th point.
  • I found some notes on Anima Prime. It seems like a very promising game for combat choreography! It seems almost a little like a more story-game-like and lighter version of D&D4E in that regard.

    Here's a very positive review, as well:

    https://mythcreants.com/blog/anima-prime-is-elegant-and-exciting/
  • It is not bad. Uniformity is its blessing and its curse. Tons of power to compensate this.
  • @Paul_T Anima Prime is pretty good! I was a bit disappointed a couple totally useful essays on how to play were left out of the final version. My recommendation is: freeform it as you go, with no big plan, sort of like Archipelago; intersperse with conflict scenes (violent or otherwise) when you feel like so.
  • DeReel said:

    Anima prime, Fate,
    and house rules (mine in Reve and Sandra's with bows in D&D) : every round you succeed a strike you can "save" it in the form of guaranteed damage or bonus (to aim hit location eg).

    To be clear, this is represented by the enemy HP being subtracted immediately.

    Example:

    I roll a hit with the bow. We subtract the 1d8 damage from the monster as usual. But instead of saying "I shoot an arrow into it" I say "I take a second to breathe and steady my aim at it. Getting all that closer to unleashing that killing arrow." And only once the monster does go down to 0 from my "attack" I let it go.

    I have to report that this house rule has completely backfired. I came up with the genius (urm…) idea that only killing blows cost actual arrows. Players are free to describe every hit as an arrow fired, or as just steady aiming, it's up to them. The end result in resource expenditure is the same. And what they went with was spamming thousands of arrows instead of going with my cool "steady aim" idea. My players suck so much :cry:

    PS it would be cool to also apply my rule to things like eldritch blast. "I start building up the horrible glamer power granted to me by the fair queen Titania" and unleashing it once the monster HP hits 0.
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