Saturday, February 7, 2009

Mass & Experience

Now, technically, I don’t play D&D. Running a single, developing world for 21 years has meant going beyond merely producing house rules, it has meant a massive refabrication of the game—which has proven to be surprisingly easy to explain to people who decide to come play. Nevertheless…

As time goes on, I realize that less and less of the DMs Guide or the Player’s Handbook continues to be relevant. Oh, I have rewritten sections of both, which I have on my laptop or printed out for the player’s benefit. I could reproduce them here rather easily, except that copyright is an issue. Not that I’m not willing to break copyright, occasionally, in small amounts, as any of us do in printing pics on our blogs…but I’m not ready to go whole-hog on it, not yet.

Still, sometimes I wonder how far I dare go. Once I had a fairly definite sense of what it was from the Game that would get left alone, and what I was willing to change. That line has gotten very blurry.

Beginning with August of last year, I began thinking of drastically changing the manner in which monsters were constructed. This has long been taboo for me. Nevertheless…

Oh, I’ve rewritten the monster manual and the fiend folio before. This became necessary as there were hundreds of notes I had from other sources, my own monsters, stuff from Dragon magazine, etc…and I just got tired of looking in four different places whenever I wanted a monster. The final comprehensive tome was just over four hundred pages and worked well—until it got destroyed by pure malevolence. Most of the material within has never been recovered, and while I have steadily rewritten the manuals again, it is on my desktop and not printed out. Why bother?

In the months leading up to August, however, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated by having massive, five-ton monsters that went down too easily, and with the overall relationship between leveled fighters and intelligent monsters with a lot of hit dice.

To solve this, I suggested in a post awhile back that HD should relate to a monster’s mass, while Experience Levels should relate to a monster’s education. This would mean that a 3rd level Bugbear fighter wouldn’t have 3d10 hit points; nor would the fighter have 9d8 hit points (3rd level = 9 HD), which was something I tried. It’s fine for bugbears and hobgoblins, but it just doesn’t follow for giants. And how much would a bugbear need to go up that level, hm? How much would a giant need?

I did not like, at all, the rather lame system of sub-chiefs and chiefs suggested in the Monster Manual. This seemed to be fine when I was playing 20 years ago, but lately my political system demands that the overlord of a massive empire filled with half a million hobgoblins be ruled by a “king” which has a few more than 6 hit dice. I realize that Gygax didn’t conceive of a massive empire such as this, being focused on tiny game adventures, but I need high-level hobgoblins and ogres and trolls just to make my game dynamic work.

Also, my players were VERY unhappy with race limits, and demanded a decent explanation for their existence. And after a lot of thought and argument, I had to admit that, well, there just wasn’t any reason except that the humans had to have something that made it worthwhile being human. Otherwise, why would anyone ever play a human character? Just so they’d get along with human NPC’s? That seemed awful weak.

But considering the mass vs. experience concept, why not give humans more hit points. They are bigger. So, too, are other races. I have a half-orc fighter who, just by chance, wound up with a character who is 6 feet tall and weighs 313 lbs. Since by definition I believe all players to be “in the trim” due to their training, this is the half-orc’s “fighting weight.”

I sat down and worked out a series of die rolls for mass, and made my party happy by A) giving everyone more hit points…hit points that would reflect their mass, their previous hit points being for experience only, and B) eliminating race limits.

Yes, a first level fighter might begin with 20 hit points, as the half-orc did. So what? “Hig” got lucky, he’s ugly as sin and he has no special powers vs. creatures. Everything balances. I like that a human mage or a dwarven cleric might do better for hit points than an elf or a half-elf, which balances out the +1 sword and bow, the surprise and the find secret doors very nicely. It makes players consider a wider choice when making their initial decision.

It worked very well with the gnolls, also. The eighth level cleric got 2 hit dice + 8d8 hp, for mass and for level. I should have thought of this years ago.

But…it still wasn’t solving my huge mass monster problem.

My first instinct (or attempt) was to give the big monsters more hit dice. And until last week, that was still something I was fighting with. It wasn’t working, for a number of reasons.

The first being that I would have to reassign a new hit dice number to every monster in every book. Argh! And this would mean that huge numbers of them would have more than 16 HD, based on their mass vs. humans, which in the DMs Guide combat tables would give them far too easy a chance to hit. I considered insisting that dumb animals fight as 1 HD monsters, but one combat was enough to convince me that wasn’t going to work.

And then I hit on the moment of genius. Well, genius for me. I’m starting to get a feel for the readers of this blog by virtue of the comments and every time I get too technical or mathematical readers evaporate. But I know a brilliant stroke when I find one, and this was definitely right outside the box.

Why does a “hit die” need to be a 1d8?


  1. You may want to take a look at the FUDGE concept of scale. Rather than piling on hit points (which is fairly alien to FUDGE anyhow), much larger creatures hit harder and are harder to damage. In a D&Dish setting this is a bit harder to represent, but the idea might provide some inspiration.

  2. So would you have hit die be be based entirely on the race's mass and have nothing to do with character class?

    Do you have a formula/guideline that you use, or do you just assign hit dice based on mass on a case by case basis?

  3. mthomas,

    I shall have a look. Thanks for the heads up.


    This is the first in a series of articles. I will be publishing the formula/guideline on Monday.

    Yes, the hit die would be based entirely on the mass, as the character class hit points (and other abilities, of course) would be added separately.

  4. Very interesting. D&D's abstract Hit Point concept wroks quite well with humanoids, but for huge monsters it just falls apart. So I'm really looking forward to your solution.


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