Creative Corner > Game Design

Gradual & Binary Defenses

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While the point of D&D is to accomplish some goal by performing the right actions, the mechanics of D&D can be seen as a way of acheiving a multitude of states, or conditions.

To exist in certain conditions, particularly the conditions "alive" and "able to take actions freely," there are myriad defenses in place; these include hp, saves, AC, and ability scores.

HP and ability scores are very basic defenses that protect against the dead and disabled conditions, and the helpless condition, respectively. Saves are defenses against a host of conditions, as well as a defense for the other defenses, at times, in the case of ability damage and HP loss for blasting spells. AC is more of a defense against needing to worry about any of the above, and is often skipped by spells; as such, I will not discuss it at length.

What they Are:
Now is where I make my  first point: While conditions are binary in nature, the defenses against them are not necessarily. These non-binary defenses are gradual defenses, as I have come to call them.

Let's start with an example of a binary condition caused by a binary defense, for simplicity's sake. The condition "blind" might be caused by the blindness spell; you are either "blind" or "not blind," that's a binary condition (as all are). You make a Will Save to avoid becoming blind. Now, if you fail your Will Save, you become blind; however, if you succeed, there are no ramifications besides an opponent's lost spell slot. A Will Save is a binary defense.

HP are the classic gradual defense in 3.5. HP defend against the conditions "dead" and "disabled." You are either dead, disabled, or neither, these are binary conditions (as all are). However, HP itself is a gradual defense: If your HP is high enough, an attack will not kill/disable you; however, the next attack is more likely to kill you because your HP are fewer, and your defense is consequently lower.

In short, the difference is this: gradual defenses become weaker as they are assaulted, while binary defenses do not.

While taking ability damage hurts your power, no conditions are truly gained until they reach zero (unless your STR lowers enough to increase the severity of your load). As such, they are gradual defenses.

HP and ability scores are gradual defenses, and Saves and AC are binary defenses.

Why You Care
It is my firm belief that the primary imbalance of D&D comes from a twofold error by the designers based on a single problem: binary defenses inflict status effects immediately, or they don't; as such, attacks on binary defenses are universally more dangerous.

Keep that in mind.
The two errors made by WotC are these: Magic attacks binary defenses more often than gradual defenses, and the only time mundanes attack binary defenses, they have relatively weak conditions to inflict.

This means that magic as a whole has more chances to inflict the conditions of dazed, stunned, paralyzed, confused, dazzled, prone, cursed, charmed, dominated, and even dead, all of this without having to worry about how strong their oponent is. Each spell carries the full chance to inflict one of these conditions, based only on their opponents' saves. As long as they have enough spells to throw, they will eventually get one in.

What do mundanes get? They get to occasionally inflict the conditions of prone, grappled, stunned, and sometimes dead (in the case of coup de grace), if the conditions are right, and if they specialize enough to do so successfully. A lot of those even allow opposed checks! (Why don't casters need to make opposed checks to inflict conditions?) Otherwise, they are forced almost unilaterally to assault only gradual defenses. This means that each of their attacks carries less weight than most non-blasting spells, because the condition of "dead" is harder to reach in principle than any spell-caused condition.

That means that, action-by-action, mundanes are mechanically less effective than casters from the start.

By making casters bypass gradual defenses, WotC made casters pack more punch than mundanes with every attack. The only solutions to this would be either making mundanes attack binary defenses with more potent conditions more often (as Tome of Battle took a step towards doing), or to make casters attack gradual defenses more often (as 4E did).

Either way, you have helped level the playing field. However, since their are literally thousands of spells and only one little book full of maneuvers, neither solution has been fully realized, and we can see the effects of that in play with any fairly optimized game past 10th level--any game past 15th level without maneuvers.

D&D is inherently imbalanced, in my opinion, as expressed above. I welcome your opinions, however, on the issue.

Is D&D balanced to you? Am I giving ToB less credit than it deserves? Am I giving magic too much credit?

What other binary and gradual defenses have you seen, from any game? Do they work well? I am always interested in experiencing new things, new takes on familiar ideas.

Give me your thoughts!

You're entirely correct.  On the other hand, we should note in D&D's defense that D&D is hardly the only system to suffer this particular flaw, and D&D isn't totally terrible about it.

What we really need is some mechanical fix for this.  Any suggestions?

Mechanically, theres a bunch of options naturally, each with their own flaws:
-Everything gets the option to go after binaries, or hit gradual defenses so hard they turn binary. This is the 'stock' CO option to optimization problems, pretty much every optimized mundane build achieves massive glorious overkill. It leans towards rocket tag.

-Binaries only inflict lesser statuses. The route 4e took. Everyone goes after the same unified gradual defense, with the caveat that said defense needs to be tough, to withstand all the incoming pounding. Its highly consistent, but needs a careful hand on the numbers to avoid rocket tag or sumo.

-Ignore the basic defense and go after the conditions. This is the route that M&M takes. You turn all conditions into gradual conditions, and unify the defense into a triple or quadruple faceted range of potential effects. It varies by the condition type, some conditions make it much harder to resist acquiring other conditions for example.

Graduals themselves take multiple forms too.
You have 'soft' ablatives, where the defense is a pool of points that suffer attrition from attacks. Number of successful attacks directly increase the rate of attrition and prevention is far more significant to mitigation. This is D&D health.

You have 'hard' ablatives, where the defense itself is compounded with an attack reduction mechanism. Damage is always reduced, so you must meet a certain offense threshold to even penetrate...until the defense has been compromised by powerful attacks. However, a compromised defense would shatter against a powerful attack.

Well, Satori, I believe that more spells should be made to fall under the jurisdiction of gradual defenses. You saw my post on mind-effecting spells, which I shall spoiler here for others:
(click to show/hide)A good solution would be for people to have willpower points based on their Wisdom or CHA, and on HD or CR. When they reach 0 Willpower, you achieve your desired effect.

Change Charm to instead do a small, limited amount of willpower damage (perhaps 1d4/level, max 10d4, depending how big willpower gets) and Dominate does more willpower damage and has no cap (maybe 1d6 per level, no cap). Charm cannot reduce someone's willpower to below zero.

That way it takes multiple Charms to charm someone big (Charm is really for minions, anyways!), Charm can't Dominate, and it takes two or more Dominates to Dominate someone of equal power. People of lower level than you are easier to get an immediate effect on, and people of higher level are much harder.

Now that the encounter-killers are dealt with, most other spells in the enchantment school are okay. You can get rid of immunity to mind-effecting abilities, as long as you have all other encounter-enders work off of willpower points instead of based on binary defenses. Definitely limit the amount of willpower damage done by the spell-level, perhaps capping all spells below fifth, maybe sixth.
And you can definitely expect me to at least get a second draft of that done, going over a few of the PHB spells.

Other spells that could be converted into gradually-defended are SoD spells.

Gaze attacks would not inflict paralysis after a save.
Instead, after a failed save you would take 3d6 temporary DEX damage (which would recover at an accelerated rate, perhaps all of it after an hour. What is the effect of having 0 DEX? helplessness. Fluff that as being frozen in place as a statue, and viola. When you reach 0, you only get 1 save every day to recover 1 DEX. Remove paralysis removes that condition.

Disintegrate would not kill instantly after a save.
Instead, it would deal 3d6 damage per level on a failed save, half if you make it. If the spell kills you, it would have the added benefit of turning you to dust, making resurrection more difficult.

Sleep does not put you to sleep after a save!
Instead, it deals 1d8 per level (max 5d8) nonlethal damage to all creatures in the area. What happens when a creature takes too much nonlethal damage? It falls unconscious, goes to sleep one could say. Just say that the nonlethal damage from a sleep spell goes away if someone gets woken from the magical sleep.

I am firmly of the opinion that there should be a willpower hp and a health hp gauge. It might be a little more to keep track of, but it would let things like Charms work on a more gradual level, as well as other effects. Willpower points would recover a lot faster than hp, though.

For instance, Bestow Curse would not curse you on a failed save.
Instead, you would take a bunch of willpower point damage on a failed save. When your Willpower points rand dry, you would be cursed as normal.

Confusion would only confuse you after you ran out of willpower points.

That is the only way I could make a lot of spells inflicting mental conditions work on a gradual level.

The only conditions that leave me a bit stumped are the slowed, stunned, nauseated, and dazed conditions. Perhaps base those on ability damage? Not many gradual defenses give similar effects to those conditions when depleted.

Maybe those special conditions would wrack upo their own kinds of points: "daze points," "Nausea points," "slow points." When these points equal your level, then you become dazed, nauseated, or slowed, respectively.
After all, we can't have willpower points be depleted by things having little to do with willpower...



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