Ok, there’s a bit of furor afoot at the moment about the idea of Damage on a Miss.
For the unfamiliar, it’s an idea I first encountered in D&D 4e, which figures prominently in 13th Age, and which is currently prominent because a build option in D&D next may allow it. A horrible, trollish rant was put up in opposition to it, but it is telling how much the idea bothers people by the number of people who are willing to disregard the nature of the communication because they also dislike Damage on a Miss. I’ve already written some about how this kind of rant is good for preparing yourself for playtest feedback, but I’m now going to engage in the monumentally foolish action of talking about the rule itself.
In short, the idea behind the rule is this: When you make a d20 style to-hit roll and miss, you still inflict some fraction of your damage, usually just your stat mod. I’m not going to speak to the specifics of the D&D Next implementation because it’s a playtest doc, and to pick certain kinds of nits would reveal a profound misunderstanding of what playtest means.
But I will speak to the idea of the rule because it wonderfully illustrates a host of ideas, the most important of which is (and this is a bit of a spoiler) that there is very rarely a truly bad rule, and even more rarely, a good one. Games are full of moving parts and tradeoffs, and understanding the strengths and problems of any particular rule technology is how you build a design that does what you intend. “Good” is a shorthand, not an analysis, and definitely not an outcome.
And with that in mind, I am kind of delighted by Damage on a Miss (DoaM from here on in) as a piece of rules technology because it illustrates the balance so wonderfully. And so, I shall now contradict myself with great abandon.
DoaM is a great rule because it avoids the sense of a “wasted” action for a player, especially when that action is part of their bread and butter.
DoaM is a terrible rule because it’s counterintuitive. It is easy to imagine a hit translating into damage of some sort, but having a miss do the same is difficult to visualize and explain. Hit points may be abstract, but they’re broadly understood, and this pushes the abstraction too far.
DoaM is a weird rule because it takes the premise that hit points are an abstraction and runs with it. That is both very logical and very disruptive, because hit points themselves are a tough foundation to build anything from.
DoaM is a great rule because it speeds up combat by guaranteeing that fights keep going forward, even if the dice are a bit whiffy.
DoaM is a terrible rule because it makes combat more boring. Not only are outcomes more predictable, the emotional satisfaction of a good hit can be diminished by the fact that you know there’s a consolation prize for missing.
DoaM is a weird Rule because it interacts oddly with other accuracy-increasing rules, sometimes to its detriment. For this one area, I will use D&D as a specific example, because increasing the number of attacks is another way to increase accuracy (or, to put it another way, reduce the whiff chance). If you’re making 4 attacks, odds are good one will hit, and that true “whiffs”, missing on all rolls, will be enough of an edge case that whiffs may not be a problem any longer. This does not automatically cut either way, but it’s something that merits inspection.
DoaM is a great rule because it actually makes armor a bit more interesting in its long term effect. That is, reduced chance to hit as damage mitigation has always been an awkward solution when implemented as a binary, but if you shift the premise to assume some damage, but that armor prevents serious damage, you generate an outcome similar to DoaM.
DoaM is a terrible rule because I can kill someone on a miss. Arguably, this is just another version of unintuitive, but it’s a very palpable example.
DoaM is a weird rule because absolutes are weird, emotionally. For some people the difference between a 0.000001% chance of success and a 0% chance of success is REALLY important.
DoaM is a great rule because it builds on D&D’s history. It was a great rule in 4e.
DoaM is a terrible rule because it contradicts every non 4e version of D&D.
DoaM is a weird Rule because it’s been in the game since the beginning with spells, but that potentially opens the other can of worms of what exactly saving throws are supposed to mean in fiction.
DoaM is a great Rule since it’s a gatekeeper. If it’s a game-breaker for someone, then they may not actually be a great audience for anything new for D&D.
DoaM is a terrible rule Because it alienates older players.
DoaM is a weird rule because it’s an unearned reward. Whether that’s bad or not has a lot to do with what one thinks players need to earn.
And that’s just the 101 stuff. This could easily go on all day, especially as you delve into specifics, like whether it’s an across-the-board rule or a specific build option (which have very different implications). And importantly, I think these things are all true.
I don’t say that to invite debate on specific points, but rather to highlight the nature of the argument is very different depending upon where you are coming from, and it boils down to this – If you cannot see the way a rule could work, then I am intensely suspicious of your opinion that it does not (and vice versa).
DoaM is an impressively emotional issue in this case because it’s easy to take as a proxy for what D&D really is. It hangs a flag on something that’s always been a problem (hit points) in a way that could be taken as killing a sacred cow (though exactly which cow may depend on who you ask). And I don’t intend to dismiss those emotional arguments – they’re important – but they’re not design arguments, and it’s important to separate these things.
Do I have a final conclusion on DoaM in D&D Next? Not really. The language could be cleaned up, and it may have problems interacting with multiple attacks, but those are largely fixable. More importantly, it’s a modular design element, and easily extracted (as opposed to being a far-reaching element, as it is in 4e or 13th Age). So I’m fine with it being there, but I’m not really invested in it.
And, importantly, if they drop it, it will be because they tested it and thought it through, not because someone on the internet got mad.