Adventures in Arithmetic

Or: Why D&D 3.5 is no fun.

I love my friend Russell like a brother, and I’ll gladly play any game that he wants to GM, but I’m so looking forward to him switching systems some time in the near future as he’s planning to do.  As long as we’re not in combat, the game and setting are entertaining as all get-out, but as soon as we roll init…ugh.  There’s just no part of “You rolled a 13, plus 11 for your Attack Bonus, plus 1 for the prayer, minus 5 for the Combat Expertise, minus 5 for it being your second attack is 15…you hit!” that’s exciting.  It’s possible that if we played every week, instead of about once a month for half a year, that we’d get so used to the system–or learn to take notes that pre-figure all the standard options we usually choose in battle–that it would be mercifully quick.   But it still wouldn’t be very exciting, in my opinion.  It has all the panache and tension of doing SAT practice problems.  Continue that sort of thing for a half-hour or more, and I’d honestly rather that we went system-less.

That’s not to say that my current favorite system, Savage Worlds, is without flaw in this regard.  I think that on the whole modifiers are a bit less common and tend to be applied more homogeneously (e.g. the penalty for multiple actions in a round applies to every action in the round, so at least you only have to figure it once at the beginning), and there is an actual requirement that certain kinds of maneuvers (e.g. Tricks) get a description to justify them rather than a bare announcement of the attempt, but on the flip side the die-rolling has the possibility of being more complex with the open-ended rolls and I could see it falling into a similar if shallower rut of “let’s all do some arithmetic now!”  At least in Savage Worlds, I think I see how to speed things along in combat and making the combat more dynamic and descriptive; with D&D 3e, I honestly think that the more dynamic the combat gets in terms of options for the players, terrain, facing, environmental conditions, spells, maneuvers and abilities, the worse it becomes in terms of arithmetic as the bonuses and penalties come and go and fewer things can be pre-calculated.  I don’t really see much of a way to improve that without stripping player options; stacking mods on a roll of a d20 is pretty much the essence of the system.

The bottom line is that with 3e, I end up hoping that we don’t get into any combats, so that we can continue to have a fun time.   That’s probably less than optimal for D&D.

12 thoughts on “Adventures in Arithmetic

  1. As you can imagine, we’re at different ends of this debate. I have no problem with math as such, and my homegrown used double digit addition/subtraction as a matter of course.

    In my defense however I think the math in AoH is easier than it is in D&D because much of it done before the game (anything from the player or NPC side) leaving only conditional modifiers (which are sought out due to the nature of combat and thus important to the player to find/determine).

    Often we just roll, from there it’s typically easy to determing if we even half to do the math or not. After the first round or two it basically disappears except with someone gets a bonus- and they’re normally so happy about it, that a little math at that point is taken in passing.

    Really, I think D&D would be more interesting if that math actually did something. But it’s for knocking a few more HP off something in most cases. So I end up asleep quickly.

    Thus the end result of the math comes into play. And I’ve seen people like more work in a game, if it got them something besides just a another little bit of damage.

    Dang, could have made this an article on my Blog. I may yet do so…

  2. Heck, if the modifiers directly translated to even a few HP here and there, that would likely be an improvement; as it is most of the modifiers just alter the probability that you hit at all.

    But my objection isn’t so much that there’s math involved, but that the process of adding and subtracting numbers is a boring one, so I don’t want it to take up any more game time than absolutely necessary. Things like weapon attack bonuses and AC modifiers don’t bother me much at all, because they can just be calculated and written on the character sheet (though I have a separate problem if they make chargen take forever).

    I tend to prefer systems like HERO and Savage Worlds that have interesting Status Effects (like Stunned or Shaken) to ones like D&D which have a simple linear “how close to defeat are you?” scale. Even if 3e has various ad-hoc effects like a Monk’s Stunning Blow, or various spells and spell-like abilities, that’s not quite the same thing; most combats still revolve around applying the modifiers to the d20 roll and repeating until the defeated bar fills…

  3. It sounding like we’re closer to agreement than I thought, i.e. math is ok if it gets us something interesting. Or at least can get us something interesting.

    A few points off a HP stack isn’t interesting.

    So really it’s D&D damage system that’s the problem. Not the math itself.

  4. You should try 4E. It’s largely the same in terms of math, but you aren’t making iterative attacks at lower bonuses, and many abilities (maybe most) have secondary effects like poison, dazing, and being knocked prone.

    I won’t argue that math is fun, but you can’t escape it unless you want to go diceless. D&D 4E even has the bloodied mechanic, taking it a step further away from what I think you dislike about the “defeated bar.”

    As an approximation of a facsimile of real combat, I think D&D does a pretty good job. Even 3.5 is pretty entertaining and versatile, until you hit the mid-high levels.

  5. Yeah, that’s one of the reasons my group swore off 3e. I don’t have any problem with doing the math quickly (though some of the others do), it’s remembering 6 different buffs spells, situational modifiers, assists from other party members, etc. that always caused things to bog down and become more like work than play.

  6. 4E may well be a fun miniatures game (though I suspect in practice tracking who has marked what would annoy me), but I think it’s completely unsuitable for my purposes as a combat engine for a roleplaying game. The thing that I most desire is to be able to describe what the characters are physically doing and quickly translate that into the rules in order to resolve it. 4E works in completely the opposite direction, you invoke various rules and the characters may or may not be physically affected depending on the interactions of the rules in play; the flavor text is not intended to be any sort of guideline towards reasoning about the game-world effects of applying a rule.

    And I disagree completely about not being able to escape math (if by math we mean long sequences of arithmetic calculations in the middle of combat) without going diceless. Lots of RPGs manage to do it, including every edition of D&D prior to 3.0.

  7. Could be worse – you could be playing White Wolf’s Scion. 3.X D&D is almost elegant compared to Scion.

    I definitely agree with you about the general sentiment, though. Most RPGs have way more modifiers and conditionals than they need. One of things I really like about Savage Worlds is how well the Trick systems and a couple simple modifiers/options cover so much ground painlessly – but even SW has about 15% more crunch than I want. Sadly, the next step down (in terms of complexity of system) is REALLY light. Feels like there’s a big unexplored region of game design between the light and medium complexity levels – a much larger gap than between medium and high complexity.

  8. I suspect that you could shave 15% off of the crunch in SW pretty easily, just by not using minis (or any other way of carefully tracking position). Most of the modifiers would then fall away unless deliberately invoked: “I duck behind the wagon for cover” instead of checking the line of sight and seeing that the wagon ought to provide cover.

  9. One thing that experienced D&D 3 players do is roll first, then compute. Most of the time, a glance at the roll is enough to determine success, and you only have to worry about +1 or +2 if you are near the border. But with your group, they’re not trained with ballpark estimates of what a reasonable value is. Even when I’ve precomputed total bonuses for the most standard options for them, the players need me to stop the game and point out where it is on the character sheet. I agree it does bog down.

    Having unusual circumstances and spell effects isn’t just a matter of different bonuses to attack rolls. I guess I’ve been emphasizing the normal to try to get you guys used to the standard procedures. I should vary things up a bit. However, I have to admit that one of my problems with D&D 3 is that even advanced players had trouble keeping track of all the modifiers. (Generally, it’s a version of the Peter principle. Strategic players introduce bonuses until they can no longer compute the odds.)

    But I don’t think that switching systems is going to be a perfect fix, unless we go to completely systemless. Savage Worlds to me seems to have an equal number of conditional bonuses, and also a large amount of apparatus that slows the game down (e.g., the cards for initiative, the chips, etc.)
    I don’t find it any more exciting to make an enemy miss a turn than to do some hit point damage. (Actually, it would be an improvement if they just automatically missed a turn, rather than use game time to roll dice to see whether they miss a turn.) As it is, SW combat seems to involve a high level of abstraction, and take a long time, as chits are spent to undo damage. We still are in the training process, so we really have to review the mechanics every time we take a turn.

    By the way, I love you, too, man.


  10. Leaving aside whether SW really has as many combat modifiers as D&D 3e, the fact of the matter is that we’ve got two or three GMs who are committed to using SW and only one using 3e…so to the extent that familiarity with the rules speeds things along we’ll eventually get better at SW. I don’t see that happening with 3e, now or ever.
    Honestly, if you’re not going to either go system-less or change systems, I’d recommend that you take everybody’s character sheet away and do all the rolling yourself. You can give the spell-casters a 3 x 5 card with a list of their spells, and everybody else a list of their magic items, and call it a day. If you’re not stuck in the mode of trying to teach people, I expect you could move things along at a much brisker pace.

    For my part, I like the Shaken mechanic quite a bit. It’s not as simple as you lose one turn, since you can still move half your pace (e.g. to seek cover)…and the reason for the roll is that you could be Shaken for multiple turns, and indeed that becomes pretty likely as you get more wounded unless you have quite high Spirit/Guts or applicable Edges. Shaken characters also no longer get the free attack against somebody leaving melee with them, which opens up certain tactical possibilities. Those factors give you a decision to make about where and when to spend a Bennie to un-Shake, and where and when to try tricks and tests of will (and possibly spend Bennies to reroll) to shake an opponent. You could probably substitute a suitably weighted single roll for duration, at the cost of having to track another timer. You could also just make it automatically lose 1 turn, period, making it more like the HERO Stunned condition, though that cuts down on decision points and character build possibilities slightly.

    But the larger point is that my complaint isn’t that combat takes too long, but that too much of the time it does take is dead time, performing intrinsically boring activities (arithmetic in particular, though also looking things up on character sheets, or worse, in rulebooks). If people were excited and engaged by the actual process, I’d have no problem with combat taking even longer than it does.

  11. I’m not sure if it’s actually a game flaw or just my general fear of numbers or what, but I have to admit that I am having a terrible time trying to keep track of what applies when. I’m not even sure any more about my baseline numbers, since they’ve changed so much — probably incorrectly, too. I’m sure it’s at least partly my fault for not spending more time reading the rules for overall comprehension rather than for immediate fact-finding, but honestly… I can’t say I’m much inclined to put in a lot of time poring over D&D stats right at the moment.

    I wouldn’t mind doing the math if I thought I was doing it *right* — it’s never having any idea whether I’m using the correct numbers or not that makes me crazy.

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