Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"No, Kid, not like that!"

I chanced on the weekend to be watching an original series episode of Star Trek, "Bread and Circuses."  And as I listened to Flavius Maximum bellowing at Dr. McCoy to keep his weapon up and to improve his stance, something occurred to me ...

Two rules I've not mucked with in the last thirty years are the combat tables as written in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, and weapon proficiencies.  I haven't simply because there's nothing wrong with them.  I have no need to reinvent the telephone.  For those gentle readers not overly familiar with them, I'll need to quickly sketch out the important details.

First and foremost, there are four combat tables for the players (we'll skip the monster tables, those are not relevant to this discussion).  Included is the fighter table, the cleric's table, the thieves' table and the mages' table.  At first level, fighters and clerics (along with paladins, rangers, druids and monks) hit AC 5 with a 15.  Thieves and mages (along with assassins and illusionists) hit AC 5 with a 16.  The tables don't specify bards, but I rate them on the thieves table (there must be some note in the Player's Handbook about what bards fight as, but since the bard there is seriously fucked up, I wouldn't pay attention anyway).

As fighters reach 3rd level, their combat proficiency on their table jumps two, so that they now hit AC 5 with a 13.  Clerics do not experience a similar jump until 4th level.  Thieves get their jump at 5th level (needing a 14 to hit AC 5) and mages get their jump at 6th.

In other words, fighters improve every second level (3rd, 5th, 7th, etc.), clerics every third level (4th, 7th, 10th, etc.), thieves every fourth level and mages every fifth.  This is obviously easier to understand if you're looking at the tables in the DMG.

I know that many people prefer to string out the combat improvement level-by-level, so that the fighter gets a jump every level, instead of every other.  Thus, the fighter would hit AC 5 with a 14 at 2nd level, with 13 at 3rd level, with 12 at 4th level and so on.  There's merit to this.  I've never done it because of the annoyance factor of keeping the separate divisions for all the character classes in my head during a combat (the way it is now, I can calculate any player's to hit chance from the first level fighter's).  I've also not had players who cared that much.  There's a pleasant feeling of achievement knowing that the player has reached a certain level and gains a better table ... I don't feel there's much to be gained in reducing that improvement by scattering it through the levels.  Others feel differently.  They're entitled to run it their way.  I'm only explaining here how I do it, because its relevant to the actual point of this post.  (Alternate combat systems are not, so please don't feel the need to explain yours)

Proficiencies, as I have always understood them, allow for a set number of weapons for the characters to use effectively, according to their class.  Fighters start with 4; paladins and rangers start with 3; most classes start with 2 and mages and illusionists start with 1.  More are gained as one increases level.

The Unearthed Arcana began a precedent where players could improve their hit ability by doubling up - or trebling up - on proficiencies.  To begin with, this never made sense to me on a rational level; I presume that to be proficient in a weapon meant already that you had trained with it to the point where you were the best you could be.  A professional musician who learns to play piano practices 8 hours a day already.  How exactly the pianist improves their piano playing by not taking up the oboe is a mystery to me.  Once the pianist reaches their penultimate ability, they don't lose it because they go to the beach for a few weeks ... they may have to limber up upon returning, but they do rise right back to their peak form after some effort.  Therefore, a pianist would have time to learn the oboe ... or anything else ... without that time interfering with their ability to play.  But the pianist wouldn't improve if they decided to, say, practice 16 hours a day.

To me, a fighter is fighting as best they can at first level, no matter how many proficiencies they happen to have.  But that is not logic that touches everyone, and the contrary rule was just too sweet for power players to ignore.  I'm not certain, not being steeped in 2e and 3e tradition, but I seem to remember hearing that this was a practice that was carried about as far as it could go.  In any case, I don't play it.  A new weapon proficiency, in my game, means a new weapon ... not the same weapon over and over.

With these perameters established then, let's return to Dr. McCoy.

I've seen other depictions of one individual coaching another in the heat of a battle, or as a trainer speaking to a novice ... and added to that many personal experiences with baseball, football and hockey coaches shouting at me from the sidelines in order to make me a better player.  So why not a similar rule in D&D?

I could see it working this way:  if a particular character fought on a higher combat table, and was in fact coaching a character using a weapon in which the 'mentor' was proficienct, the character fighting upon a lesser table ought to get a +1 to hit.  That is, IF the mentor fought on a table that gave him at least 2 better than the lesser character, and IF the lesser character was within a certain distance ... say, ten feet.  That could be shortened to 5 feet if the mentor was also in combat, and shouting things over their shoulder, or increased to 20 or 30 feet if the mentor was doing nothing else at the time except coaching.

It would be an interesting rule to build up comaradarie between players, with the newer players choosing to take the same weapons as higher levels in a party, and then wanting to fight side by side with those higher levels in order to increase their effectiveness.  At the same time, higher levels might be more tolerant of having the lower levels around if they can bestow some of their fighting prowess.

I think there would probably have to be other limits: a mentor could hardly coach more than one player at a time; and if a mentor was critically wounded, or in some other way severely tried, the lesser character would have to be on their own at that point.  But from a roleplaying point of view, this offers a strong sentiment.  The lesser player, suddenly without a tutor, must do their best anyway ... and killing the beast handily!  Only to hear, of course, the mentor on the ground, bleeding, shouting at him not to strike for the chest.

- "What in hell were you thinking?"
- "But I killed it!"
- "You were lucky, kid!  Listen to what I tell you."

What's also interesting, I think, is that the application does not need to apply only to fighters.  A high level assassin versed in long sword ought to be able to coach a low level fighter; a cleric using a quarterstaff ought to be able to coach a mage.  The only criteria for who can coach who has to be the ascendant combat ability, with the stipulation that it be a proficient weapon - and NOT the class of either the mentor or the student.

Dr. McCoy, after all, obviously wasn't a fighter.


James C. said...

How about if the mentor is actually engaged in combat he or she suffers a -1 if coaching? Certainly worrying about whether the FNG is holding his sword correctly amounts to some distraction or reduced capability, yes?

Alexis said...

I'm not sure it would; my experience playing sports seems to allow people to handily play their own game while staying involved with others.

But of course, every DM is entitled to play the idea as they see fit. I don't see any part of it as written in stone, game-to-game.

James C. said...

True, but likewise I don't see a -1 as necessarily exclusive to handily fighting. A particularly skilled fighter (one that is more than just one hit-chart above the protege') might absorb that -1 with little problem.

The 5th level fighter instructing the 1st level neophyte might not think twice about looking over his shoulder when engaging a group of orcs. The frost giant might present a different circumstance, however.

Either way, it's an interesting proposition.

Oddbit said...

Honestly, I think my concern with the -1 is it turns a method of working as a unit with lower level characters into a rare tactical opportunity to spread the attack bonus when one character hits handily and the other will have trouble.

Yes it seems 'overpowered' in that the players will try to use it all the time, but consider this. They already have the drawback of having to be within a certain range (Fireball anyone) and secondly they have to work with someone weaker than themselves and *gasp* rely on one another.

The main issue is the cross class benefits, since fighter is higher on the track, they can help the paladin, ranger or thief of equivalent level. While this makes plenty of sense, it means it will be used a lot more frequently, but would definitely encourage the party to employ fighters....

James C. said...

Oddbit, I would offer that the rule proposed doesn't actually provide a bonus for "teamwork" per se. Rather, it specifically provides a less-skilled member of a team a bonus based on receiving instruction from a more skilled partner. It's not a synergy so much as a fringe benefit.

With or without the penalty, though, I don't really see the cross-class issue as a problem. Fighters of a given level should be the best fighters.

Oddbit said...

@James C

I believe the description you gave after telling me it wasn't defined as teamwork was in-fact stating it was teamwork. Without the higher combat effectiveness player, there would be no bonus for the lower one, therefore as they are aiding a team member, that is teamwork.

If Joe Shmoe is in the office and working on a memo, and John Doe comes in and gives him pointers on memo formatting, that's teamwork.

If the offensive player points out that a midfielder should pass to him as he's open, that's teamwork.

John Doe wont get a promotion and his report wont get any bonus, the midfielder wont score a goal, but the team will benefit. That sir, is teamwork.

As for my concern on cross class benefits, a lower level fighter at some point will be more capable than a higher level mage, rogue or possibly even paladin. If you base this on combat ability, a paladin can bring a lower level but higher combat ability fighter along and reap rewards.

Presumably this could be nipped in the bud early, or even encouraged, but it's an interesting position. Of coarse maybe I'm missing something in the definitions as I don't really run off of earlier rule sets and am not as familiar.

Alexis said...

A sixth level mage wouldn’t be able to coach even a 1st level fighter; the mage would hit AC 5 with a 14, whereas the 1st level fighter would need a 15. This is why I stipulated, 2 higher than the lesser weapon-user.

An 11th level mage could mentor a 1st level fighter, as the 11th level would hit AC 5 with a 12. But as soon as the fighter hit 3rd level, he’d be close enough in combat ability to the mage to stop the effect.

So for the most part, fighters would be the mentors ... but that’s how it should be. Other classes might have a brief day in the sun, but the fighter moving up through levels is going to ultimately be the teacher, though once the student.

Oddbit said...

Yep. I'm just noting how once that fighter reaches something like 7th level? he can be mentoring an 11th level mage. It's an interesting relationship.

Perhaps I am very poorly conveying my observation.

James C. said...

Fair enough, Oddbit. I see teamwork as being more of a two-way street, though. Consider the striker that wordlessly takes the pass from the midfielder... nay, appears where the pass is going to be because each saw the same weakness of the defense and reacted to it. In my view, that's teamwork.

Call it something else if you like but the semantics aren't important. The point I was trying to make is that having to point something out to somebody while being right in the middle of it might help the person getting the pointer, but can't be optimal for the person now expending resources on the pointing.

Alexis said...

No, you've got it right Oddbit. By 7th level, the fighter would mentor everyone.

Alexis said...

Ah, but James, it isn't a two-way street, is it? This is a teacher-student relationship. There's no need to punish the teacher for helping the student, not for my needs.

You make the point that a -1 wouldn't be much of a loss, and I agree with you. But the +1 isn't much of a gain, either. I'm not concerned, as you seem to be, that there isn't a balance in this situation ... balance is not all it's cracked up to be. That it isn't 'optimal' for the mentor doesn't seem something that I'm anxious to punish the mentor for.

When you consider that I suggested one of the bonuses was that it would encourage old players to help new players, your modifier would steal a point from the upper players ...which, if you know players like I know players, they would hate losing. HATE. More likely, the upper player would resist the tactic on the basis of pure selfishness.

That's not an attitude I wish to encourage. As a DM, I don't see one or two lower level characters per combat round getting a +1 bonus per round being something I feel negative modifiers have to be created for. This is a playability consideration, for me ... not necessarily a crucially simulationist one. If I can make both upper and lower level players happy with a free bonus, I'm happy.

But I repeat: play it however you like.

James C. said...

We might just know different kinds of players, Alexis. My goal isn't so much to be simulationist as it is to provide a chance that a meaningful decision be made.

Does my character spare some bandwidth to instruct or do I focus solely on the matter of killing? Is the survival of this neophyte more important to me than my own individual success in this fight?

Different situations would call for different approaches. I'm not striving for realism with the penalty, as I question somewhat it's basis in reality. I'm just looking for a meaningful choice in it.

James C. said...

P.S. by questioning the basis in reality, I'm lumping the bonus and the penalty together. The whole situation. The kinds of fights we're talking about are messy and chaotic things unless one or both sides are in tight ranks and all of that.

Alexis said...

I can see how it might be viewed as a choice initially, James, but the first time your higher player misses a crucial hit by one point - resulting in the death or near death of a character - they'll never mentor again. Which will kill the rule idea.

By making it 'free' to the upper levels, they'll never resent it.

Oddbit said...

Your meaningful choice can be summed differently, "Should I rush the rear archer, or continue to stay within 10' of my neophyte so he can handle the forward fighter."

James C. said...

I suspect that neither one of us will convince the other, but feel a need to explain my case regardless. I'm not trying to sell you on the idea that my crew is brimming with selfless paragons of virtue. But there are some tactical thinkers amongst them. Some of them are former military, so passingly familiar with small group tactics. Some are just good at math.

There are occasions when it will be desirous to allow the younger fighter more actual hits knowing the elder fighter might incur a rare miss as a result. A large group of lesser monsters, for instance. A +1 isn't a +1 isn't a +1, as you know. It's all about the percentage chance to hit and what percentage of a chance a +1 equates to.

When the dragon shows up I would expect that the mentor will be too concerned with his own survival to point out that the student should adjust his stance.

Your idea is worthy of some testing out either way, so thanks for that.

James C. said...

I do see that your scenario is a valid choice, Oddbit, I just want more.

Oddbit said...

It's actually an interesting phenomena in balancing that comes up frequently as an answer to powergamers and other abusers of rules. In an attempt to reduce the desire to specialize or focus on one rule, the ability to enhance a particular trait beyond default or average ends up costing more than the benefit. This results in rules that say, grant +1 to intelligence checks and -1 to con AND dex. This way the player will have their +1 but has to sacrifice so much along the way they become the typical glass cannon.

I understand the necessity, but without playtesting with an abusive crowd, or your target audience anyway, it would be hard to honestly know how much would be necessary. Given this is only an additional +5% to chance to hit it seems a less invasive change to play with. I personally think it adds an interesting dimension to Fighters, eventually they can just give +1 to one person near them every round. A little change from just attacking something with a sword really well. (Oversimplification, but compared to spellcasters...)

Alexis said...

I really like the way you put it, Oddbit.

The fighter decides who.

Alexis said...

Hey James,

It was just suggested to me by one of my players that rather than a -1, maybe the solution is to limit the mentor's movement that round ... they can't back off or move forward while in combat.

How about that?

James C. said...

I like it. Alternately, one could just half their movement. While I know I said that I suspected we wouldn't sway one another, upon reflecting further this afternoon I was leaning more toward your direction anyway.

Strix said...

I thought that the metric used to track a characters skill, regardless of the current skill being used, is via XP.

Your +1 to hit theory is like saying a student forgets what they've learned once they leave the classroom. (I think I know your counter argument to that).

My point is that any bonus needs to be applied to the appropriate statistic and in a manner consistent with the mechanics of the game. In this, I think you've missed the mark with your +1 and have forgotten that other classes out there could benefit from coaching as well.

I think a more appropriate bonus would be a +10% to XP for the encounter.

Coaching through a combat round is one brief moment, but debriefing after an entire encounter could also be taken into consideration. To extend your sports analogy, the coach and other players will often pick apart the play of the rookie and offer advice after the game. If you look at it from that perspective, it doesn't matter which class is coaching or what skill is being taught. Coaching could have a bonus for more than just fighters allowing other classes to catch up with the rest of the party faster provided they had a coach.

Which leads to another issue - a party created out of nothing but fighters. Fighters level faster. Coaching (either +1/0 or +10%XP) raises them even faster. It creates a negative feedback cycle where it's faster to level up provided you have a coach so players choose characters they can get coaching for.

My point, however still stands. Make sure you apply your bonus to an appropriate statistic. In the case of training, I believe XP is the best metric.

As for the benefit to the character doing the coaching, well... that's open for negotiation between the two. The same goes for higher level NPC's and opens the door to specifically hire on a trainer.

Alexis said...


I don't really follow the logic. In any case, since I give hit points by participation and success in hitting, the +1/0 bonus would wind up producing more experience for the secondary.

I doubt very much that players will turn to fighters for the reasons you suggest. That seems very thin. People do not choose to play classes based only on combat ability. Personally, I love monks. They ascend very slowly and they're not particularly combat proficient. I just love them. I love running them.

Oddbit said...

When Alexis said Hit Points he meant XP.

Alexis said...

My god, yes I did!

I hate that you can't edit comments.

Strix said...

I already knew that would be your answer as we've discussed it before.

I dropped D&D some time ago because I never agreed with the XP system and your post here about coaching and/or training reminded me of why and several failed attempts to fix it. But we've discussed that as well.

I would like to know how your players are using this rule. I have a suspicion they're giving that +1 to their henchmen and an XP bonus wouldn't help quite as much when, given their roll as canon fodder, they have a very high mortality rate.

Personally, it's a rule I would see myself abusing in just such a way.