D20 Failure Modes, Part I

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Actually, you do not want to have to rely on these to save you.

It’s often called “Rocket Tag” – the premise being that when offense far outpowers defense, whoever strikes first tends to win , with all other factors becoming distinctly secondary.

Remember: even in d20 terms, a near-duplicate of your party as you were three levels ago – possibly with some cheaper items – is a “balanced encounter”. If that fight would turn out to be a disaster if the slightly-downgraded copies roll high for their initiative while the actual party rolls low… then your party has too much offense and too little defense.

In first edition a lot of the combat-encounters did wind up with player-character victories – but many did not. Unlike many current games however, that generally did not indicate a total party kill. A rather high percentage of the fights were concluded by one side or the other fleeing a battle that was going badly. Fights to the end were really pretty rare in most of the games I ran or played in.

That’s really what “hit points” were all about. “Hit Points” came along because the first steps into RPG’s were based on military games which used platoons and battalions for units – and units of that size were rarely eliminated by any one attack; individual members might become casualties, but the unit could usually take quite a few hits (presumably losing quite a few members) before it was entirely out of action and whether you called it “damage levels” or “injured” or “hit points” really didn’t matter.

That started turning into role-playing when someone relabeled a few units as “heroes”. Calling your tank group unit a “Mighty Knight with a Magic Bow” was easy, and opened up bar-crawling after the battle, but you didn’t have to change the combat mechanics one little bit at first.

In RPG’s, players rapidly became far more personally invested in their character then they had been in “Tank Platoon #4” – and hit points had a new purpose; when they started getting low your character was in danger of actually dying and it was time to fall back. Sure, you might get killed while doing so – but most of the time your character would live to fight again.

Eventually, of course, you started fighting monsters – such as dragons – which could do a LOT of damage in a single attack or had Save-or-Die abilities and falling back when your hit points got low started getting unreliable as a survival method – but by that time characters were more or less supposed to be relying on scouting, planning, and methods of escape rather than just charging in.

Many years ago I ran a very very long campaign, through which hundreds of characters passed – and I still find it pleasing that out of nearly a hundred character deaths, the players classed the vast majority as “suicide” (when someone decided to try something that was blatantly a hideously bad or risky idea), many as “heroic sacrifices”, a few as “executions” (by the rest of the party, since a few characters turned out to be unbearably evil or psychopathic), and a few as “old age” (since the game covered many centuries). “Killed in battle” was actually pretty rare.

Since then, however, all too many games have gradually drifted into rocket tag. As more and more spells and special abilities were published it became easier and easier to find an option in some combination of abilities that pretty much amounted to an “I Win!” button – and the notion that “the best defense is a good offense” got more support with each one, since the game masters were reluctant to use similar tactics.

That, of course, was because the players wanted to continue playing and if the game master hadn’t been willing to oblige them he or she would not have started a game in the first place. It made no sense for all the monsters and NPC’s to be relying on attrition-based tactics while the PC’s went in for one shot victories – but having the NPC’s act intelligently and use working tactics in such an environment turns the game into a series of initiative roll-offs to see who dies, which is no fun.

So the player-characters started easily walking all over their opponents. Battles no longer called for planning, and strategy, and careful calculation; you boosted your initiative as much as possible, took your turn, applied your special trick or tricks – whatever they were – and wiped out or incapacitated the NPC side.

Like it or not, if you want your NPC’s to use sensible tactics and be creditable threats, and yet the player characters are expected to both fight a lot and live a fairly long time, defense and escape have to take priority over attack in your game system. That’s why Eclipse offers rather a lot of defense-and-escape options. Sure, you can still build powerful attacks – but you can also give your character enough defenses to seriously frustrate the focused-on-attack characters.

Yes, this sometimes leads to complaints from players who see their uber-attack get stopped or evaded, and then find that their utter reliance on offense has left them wide open to an opponents relatively low-powered attacks. No, I don’t care; The “I Win!” button is extremely boring, and if someone can’t play without relying on it, they can go play a computer game in god mode.

Parts II and III will be covering the various defenses available in Eclipse – and why you might want them.

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