Friday, July 19, 2013

On Falling Rules in D&D and Realism...

Apologies for the lack of updates - had a new baby girl and have been pre-occupied!

What follows here is taken from a series of posted replies over on the Grognardia blog, which has not seen updates in several months owing to the owner taking a long hiatus (indeed, I fear his blog may disappear altogether, which is part of the reason I'm making this post here). The post started as a discussion on falling damage, but I feel there is more to this. To quote myself:

"There is a point here that I think has been missed. It is not that the rules need to be perfectly realistic, but rather that they avoid being ridiculous.

I have no objection to characters (esp. higher level ones) being able to survive (and even walk away from) falls from high places, on occasion. What I find ridiculous is the automatic *expectation* that they can survive, based upon comparing their hit point total against the total dice of damage they have coming... munchkinism at its finest.

Look, no remotely rational being, sans appropriate anatomy, magic or gear (i.e. wings, feather fall spell, or parachute, etc.) stands on the edge of a precipice, coolly evaluates their stamina, hardiness, skill, luck, divine favour et al vs. the distance to the bottom, and simply jumps. That is absurd on its face – and any game system that promotes such displays a serious shortcoming.

Since surviving a fall of such magnitude is really more a matter of luck or divine intervention then skill, simply assigning gobs of damage dice is the wrong approach. Hit points work best when used to represent resilience in combat, where the full definition as given by Gygax in the 1E DMG is a good fit. In cases like this one, though, whether you are 0th level or 20th level really does not matter so much – the laws of physics apply equally.

Happily, the solution is fairly simple. Falls simply should be treated more like, for example, poison – save or die, essentially. Under such a system a 0 level figure actually has a chance to survive a 30 foot drop (which can happen in real life but is logically impossible under the current rules) while a 20th level figure has a good chance to *die* from the same (again, rather unlikely under the current rules assuming no prior damage, etc.), though of the two the 20th level figure obviously has better odds of surviving. It’s just not *automatic* anymore, nor can they rationally expect to survive just because the fall is so many feet and they have so many hit points.

The basic approach, in outline, would simply be a save vs. breath weapon, or maybe petrifaction. If you save, take a token d6 of damage – you are assumed to have landed on something that broke your fall enough to avoid serious injury, the Hand of God caught you, whatever. If you fail, though, you are assumed to be at 0 hit points (N.B.: I consider 0 hits to be more incapacitated then necessarily dead – basically you are out of the fight, as it were, even though you may be conscious). Then make a System Shock roll – if you succeed you are simply incapacitated and very injured. If you fail that then you are actually dead.

Obviously, there is room for and even need of some modification. For example, one might want to distinguish between short falls (i.e. 10-20 feet or whatever) or falling down a flight of stairs which are unlikely to be lethal, vs. falls that are much higher and would be difficult for anyone to survive. Or falls on jagged rocks vs. soft loam, etc. One could then modify saving throws or system shock rolls, etc. accordingly.


There were some additional replies to this post, wherein I clarify some of the points I made above:

Re: hit points as luck, et al. You are right to a significant degree, but again I submit that they also represent skill and experience, which is irrelevant to surviving a fall. Gravity is gravity, in this case, and while your luck and divine favour are superior, this is already reflected in having a better saving throw. Your hit points should not really factor into whether or not you survive.

Note that the system shock roll is not absolutely necessary. I put it in though because (1) I wanted to give those that fail their save a chance to survive and (2) to come up with a way to use the concept a little more, rather than just surviving being turned to stone or being resurrected.

It should be pointed out that hit points are a fairly good abstract representation for combat purposes. Indeed, the 1E AD&D combat rules, if all of them are used, are modestly realistic. I might quibble about some details regarding damage, weapon vs. armor adjustments, and so forth for certain weapons, based on my extensive knowledge on the subject, but it is in outline a pretty good simulation (I am of course setting aside how utterly unwieldy, slow and futzy the system is...) Having a lot of hit points due to your high level means that you know how to gauge your foe, roll with the punches, use superior speed and footwork to dart in and out of range, etc., which turns what would be a lethal blow into a bruise or gash. I have no strenuous problem with that approach. My main complaint about hit points is that it conflates several quite disparate concepts (physical robustness, skill/experience, luck, divine providence, etc.), which is fine for human (or demi-human/humanoid) types fighting one another with medieval style arms and armor, but breaks down in most other situations such as fantastical creatures, or situations like what we are discussing here. In this respect Metagaming’s “The Fantasy Trip” game system did a much better job of handling this sort of thing, since each concept was separate (i.e. your “hit points” were simply your physical robustness – skill and experience were represented by talents that allowed you reduce damage or made your opponents roll more dice in order to hit you. There was nothing for “luck” but such ).

Keep in mind what motivated me to come up with such a radical rethink of how to handle the consequences of falling was the fact that what are effectively “0” level people do in fact survive such falls from time to time. Not as often as they die, of course, and they usually are pretty f-‘d up even if they do live, but the point is that it is at least possible. Under the D&D rules as written, that is usually outright impossible. That, and of course the whole “ridiculous” aspect of a 10th level or higher fighter surviving falls from any height... Note that I have made similar observations in the past – on Delta’s Blog in the comments to a posting he made about the Lightning Spell a few months back, I provided some research I had done into statistics regarding surviving natural lightning strikes, and how once again the D&D model breaks because normal people cannot meaningfully survive, even though it happens in the real world all the time. Throwing gobs of D6’s creates a serious problem, in this regard (though my solution for lightning/fireball is very different from what we are discussing here)

(Parenthetically I would also point out that throwing many D6 damage dice means you have to take time to evaluate and calculate the final total damage. Not complicated, as such, but futzy, and while once or twice is not a problem having many of these does tend to slow game play somewhat. Hence why I’d prefer a slight increase in game system complexity that translates into swifter game play over the current mechanic that, whilst quite simple, tends to slow things up)


The above discussion points out some of the systemic flaws in the D&D rules, which betray not merely somewhat clumsy implementation, but also misassignment of rule mechanics to various situations. Plainly throwing a bunch of D6's to resolve falling damage was inappropriate (though it is apparent how one might be seduced to follow that path)

Note also that none of this is about the pursuit of realism as a goal in and of itself; rather, it is an attempt to avoid absurd or ridiculous situations that do not comport with real world observations (as least as pertains to real world situations; magic, fantastical creatures, etc. are beyond the scope of this discussion).

Bottom line: while no one rule or subset of rules is necessarily bad in D&D, one has to treat each as a specific tool with a narrow range of functions, and then match appropriately to each game situation. It was the failure of Gygax, Arneson, et al to really think things through that has made the D&D system much more obtuse and less coherent then it ought to have been.

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