Fighting the Situation

What are hit points?

Historically, they were a measure of health and toughness, but over time (much like armor class) that got more and more abstracted until you’re left with some incongruous trappings (like tying them to constitution) and a simple reality: They’re a pacing mechanism. They measure how long something stays fighting, which in turn is a yardstick for scene length. If you need evidence of it, look at how monsters were changed with Monster Manual 3 – the change to hit points was not because monsters had somehow been written up as too healthy, it was to address pacing issues.

In fact, you could probably get away with really simplifying hit points by just tracking the number of “hits” a monster took over the course of a fight. Hit him with a basic attack or an at will, or do some real on going damage, it’s one hit. Hit him with an encounter power and it’s two hits. Daily and it’s 3. Strikers by and large do an extra hit. Simple, yes, but such a fight would be virtually identical to a normal one from a player’s perspective (barring some sort of math nerd tracking all damage at all times) provided the number of hits worked out close to those of a regular fight. Players would still track damage (because, hey, they have the bandwidth) but the GM could more easily tune fights up and down with this system.[1]

The problem is that players wouldn’t stand for it. We _like_ rolling damage. One of the most established truths of D&D is that the roll to hit and the roll for damage are separate things. “Margin of Success” is one of those idea that may find root in other games, but which has no home in D&D. There are crits, and that is good, and one or two feats that can bleed across a little, but by and large the damage dice are beholden to none. A great hit can roll crappy damage, or a minor attack can max out. It’s just one of those things that makes it D&D.

And that’s the inversion I think we need. The instinct is to expand the scope of skill challenges, taking advantage of their structure because it’s intellectually exciting, but I think that’s too far removed from what excites people about D&D. We want to hit things with axes and roll for damage: Why not solve all our problems that way?

Which is to say, my not literally give challenges hit points, and let skill rolls do damage?

It sounds crazy on the surface, I know, but it’s actually a surprisingly workable model. Obviously you’ll have to call it something other than Hit Points – Challenge Points abbreviates to CP, which is already in use, so let’s say Situation Points, or SP – and damage might be called something like “Progress” but we all know a damage roll when we see it.

So that guard over there? He’s a 20 point challenge. Every time you beat him with stealth, you inflict damage (sorry, ‘make progress’) on those points. Say a simple rule of thumb: Untrained skills do d6 + Stat + 1/2 level damage. Trained do d8, trained plus skill focus does d10. Easy peasy. Your stealth guy is gonna chew up that challenge in no time, but if he fails, the guard goes active, but his hit points are still based on the remaining SP (which additionally allows for the small, skirmishy fights we were talking about). That’s one example, but it’s easy to see others, with skill use being freely interchangeable with actual attacks when appropriate, it becomes easy to think of the difficulty of skill checks as a defense: you don’t just roll to avoid the storm, you roll to kicks its ass (which is to say, to maintain control of the situation. Players may not _be_ more proactive in these situations, but they’ll like feel like they are.

Obviously, this requires a pretty drastic reconsideration of how these encounters are built and budgeted, but I am confident it can be done, and more, it can be done in a manner that continues to stay within the rules and spirit of 4e. More on that tomorrow.[2]

1- In doing so, the GM would effectively have just turned fights into skill challenges. The “hits” model is essential the same at its heart.

2- Unless I get totally sidetracked by my inspiration of how to make Hawkman awesome.

17 thoughts on “Fighting the Situation

  1. Dave The Game

    That’s a doozy, that’s for sure! Looking forward to some more on this as well. My initial concern would be if rolling the skill is interesting enough (my same concern with d20 skills in the first place.)

  2. Sageheart

    That is ingenious. I’m curious how you’d manage failures on challenges like the classic “crossing a desert” scenario that would normally cost players a healing surge after 3 failed checks? Perhaps on failed checks the DM rolls against the player’s stat and rolls damage on a “hit” with the attack bonus and damage dice used determined by the difficulty level of the challenge?

  3. Rob Donoghue

    @sageheart Short answer – You could do NOTHING with failures and still be on par with a default skill challenge. That, however, is absolutely an area where some improvement is called for. It is definitely on my mind for the series.

  4. gamefiend

    awesome stuff. Here’s my thought. What this needs is for the participants of the challenge to hit back. Each element in the challenge that hasn’t been taken out can then “Swing back” at the players. I’m picturing this challenge almost in stat block format with the elements acting as different powers. This gives the characters different targets to focus on/interact with. It might be more important to target the guards with the hounds if you really want to sneak, or to take out the really tough guards first if you’re looking to brawl.

    The next thing I see as needed is challenge-specific hit points. The elements of the challenge can deal damage to these HP as well. so say the party has a stealth HP that guards can make a patrol attack against. (vs Stealth rank?) and drain those HP too.

    Overall, I see a good extension that can be done in this system.

  5. Gregor

    Rob, two things by Vincent that you can check out:

    Terrain is treated as a “monster” in Storming the Wizard’s Tower. Passing it (perception for a labyrinth, toughness for a desert, stealth for enemy territory, strength for a briar patch…) deals “damage” to it. The terrain also deals “damage” (getting lost, getting discovered, taking actual damage etc.)

    Likewise, a storm in the Poison’d pirate game is treated as an enemy ship, mechanics-wise. A disease is treated as an enemy crew “climbing aboard” and “fighting” your crew.

    Essentially what you’re doing here.

    Ignoring the minis, the D&D combat system is what makes it D&D, so yeah, why not apply that system to everything else.

  6. Rob Donoghue

    @Gamefiend To you, I merely waggle my eyebrows conspiratorially and touch the side of my nose.

    @Gregor Yah, the “Things as characters/monsters” model has crazy long legs.

  7. Craig

    This has some great ideas. I think I’d probably look to go with 2d6 for Trained and then 2d8 for Skill Focus, because while rolling bigger dice for damage is nice, I find my group prefer rolling MORE dice as a slight preference (until they start getting to silly numbers of polyhedrals, at least).

    This gives some nice way to handle those “auto-failures” that is a little better too: Damage Resistance to certain skills. So, rather than any attempt at Intimidation being an outright failure, give the Resistance 5 or 10 to Intimidation. Maybe even give a “power” of Spiteful Retort to the Skill Challenge to strike back?

    I think a fairly key idea in making this fun, rather than just more dice to roll, will be to encompass some “manoeuvres” to employ, especially given the more dynamic flow of combat in 4E to go beyond the standing in one spot and rolling again and again for a basic attack.

  8. Reverance Pavane

    Interesting idea. Although I’d like to see reversability (ie an NPC or a PC using a skill challenge against another PC). [“Yes, I know this violates the spirit of 4e where all players a members of a single party that gets along well, but I like competitive (agonistic?) campaigns.”]

    At first glance you could complicate it horribly and have separate hit point pools for everything, but I think it is probably sufficient to use a character’s normal hit point pool for everything.

    The only fly in the ointment then is the Con bonus to hit points. But why not take the final step away from “hit points equals physical injury” and allow the character to choose which characteristic provides their hit point bonus. So a Con bonus would represent resilience and endurance, whilst a Dex bonus would represent being able to roll with the attack, and an Int bonus would anticipate the attack. Or if the attack is say, a diplomatic “attack,” then the muscle-bound clod is very stubborn, whilst the Con dude can outlast you, and the Wis dude knows the standard arguments.

    Instead of going to “negative” hit points damage is taken by the appropriate characteristic. [This is actually standard vs Con for my games; feel free to ignore.]

    [In this case I’d also like to see the “weapon die” being to some degree based on the characteristic that the opponent chooses to augment their hit points.]


  9. Discordian

    I’ve tried this (and written about it in the skill challenge workshop thread on RPGNet), and I think it works quite well.

    My version had the party trying to escape from some giants chasing them. I used two “progress tracks”, one for the party’s efforts to stay hidden and the giants’ attempts to track them, and one for distance travelled. The first was a back-and-forth thing while the second had competing scores for the PCs and the giants. Every ten units of distance I rolled on a table for a random event, which could be a possible combat encounter, modifiers to future rolls due to a change in the terrain, a chance to take a short rest or something similar.

    I used 1d6+(choice among two ability scores, Dex or Wis for Stealth for example) with a static +2 bonus for being trained, but that was mainly because I wanted something simple where I couldn’t screw up the math too badly. (I did that anyway, but in a different way.)

    Anyway, I think this is a good way to make challenges more interesting, not least because it opens up the possibility of weighing the chance of success (which was previously the only dimension available) against amount of success – “If you take a -2 to your roll you get +1d6 effect” – and a better method to add some variant of tactical positioning that has effects beyond pure chance of success – “You get a +2 to your Bluff check if another character’s Intimidate effect roll was 10 or higher”.

    (The other thing I’ve wanted to add to skill challenges is some variant of status effects, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet.)


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