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Denver, Colorado, United States
I'm an old time roleplayer who became a soldier who became a veteran who became a developer who became a dba who became a manager who never gave up his dream of a better world. Even if I have to create it myself.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

One attack roll to rule them all

There's a lot of different attack mechanisms in modern roleplaying games.  I've spent a lot of time thinking about these, in between meetings and system outages and games and more meetings.  What is the nature of an attack in an rpg?  Let's dissect it.

Step 1.  Roll some sort of die or dice to determine how effective the attack is.
Step 1a.  (Optional) Roll some sort or die or dice to determine how effective the defense is.
Step 1b.  Compare attack roll to defense roll (or static defense rating).  Did the attack hit?

Step 2.  If the attack hit, roll some sort of die or dice to determine damage.
Step 2a.  (Optional) Roll or calculate some form of damage reduction.
Step 2b.  Compare damage to hit points.  Did the defender die?

Sound familiar?  If you play the mother of all RPGs, or any of its cousins, or any of the second-cousins twice removed, it should.  It's the basic roll-to-hit-then-roll-damage sequence.

But what does it all mean, double-rainbow man?

It means someone wasted a rainbow.  What would the care bears say about that!

We'll come back to that.  Let's talk about hit points, or whatever your system of choice calls them.  Most systems (not all, but most) see an increase in hit points as a character levels.  But what does this mean?  Does it mean that a character can now take twelve gunshots to the head instead of the previously sucky ten gunshots to the head?

Let's assume that it doesn't mean that.  Let's instead assume that it means the higher level character is just a little bit better at seeing the shot coming and dodging ever so slightly, turning it into a glancing shot instead.  Or in fantasy terms, he's a bit better at turning a mortal sword blow into a glancing sword blow.

So he's better at defending, right?

Wait.  Doesn't step 1 in our original flow chart already check defense ratings?

In most systems, higher level characters also do more damage.  Maybe they hit harder, or maybe their strikes are more accurate.

Wait.  Doesn't step 1 in our original flow chart already check attack ratings?

Let's simplify the flowchart into basic terms:

Step 1.  Check attacker skill.
Step 1a.  (Optional)  Check defender skill.
Step 1b.   Compare and execute results.

Step 2.  Check attacker skill.
Step 2a.  (Optional)  Check defender skill.
Step 2b.  Compare and execute results.

See?  A sad, pitiful, completely wasted rainbow.

It's not about the number of rolls - I am very aware that some systems combine attack/damage to a single throw of dice in some fashion - it's about wasted effort.  If a software engineer came to me with a great idea like, "Hey let's do that purely mathematical algorithm twice every time just to make the CPU feel important," I would have to seriously consider a corporate reduction in force centered around said engineer.  So why is this so rarely questioned in RPGs?

Because it's how we've always done it.

Incidentally, hearing "Because it's how we've always done it" is also a good reason to consider a few firings at work.

I have an idea.  Why don't we just:

Step 1.  Check attacker skill.
Step 1a.  (Optional)  Check defender skill.
Step 1b.   Compare and execute results.

See what I've done there?  That's why I get paid the big bucks.

Now which one do we keep, the all-or-nothing did-I-hit-or-miss roll, or the widely variant damage roll?  I have an idea.  Let's use empirical evidence.

"I rolled a one.  Again.  Egbert the Fierce is so useless."

Do you hear that sort of comment more often when a player rolls to hit, or when that player rolls damage?  I'll wager it's on the all-or-nothing roll, so let's assume completely missing is less fun than just rolling a small amount of damage.

If you scale damage and hit points with level, consider that you already increase attack power and defense power every level and have a way to reflect it.  And you already have a place to put plus or minus modifiers or half or double multipliers.  Surely that's enough to have fun with?

Now consider how interesting the attack roll really is.  It's sort of like HR at a lot of companies - a barrier between you and the fun.  In this case, the damage roll.  Wouldn't it be great if you could just tell HR to shove it and post a picture of a scantily clad woman on that savage orc?

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