Friday, May 15, 2020

Five Torches Deep Review, Part 2: Encumbrance and Dumpstats

Continued from part 1, where I ran through the contents of Five Torches Deep and provided an overview of its subsystems.

As I noted there, I do not like Five Torches Deep.

There are two types of failures: failures by excess, and failures by deficiency.  5TD's failures by excess are more glaring so I will talk about them first.

5TD is over-committed to "toiling Souls-like grindhouse" / "travel and resources", to "no dumpstats", and to "magic is haphazard", I believe to its detriment as a game.  I would have less of a problem with these over-commitments if 5TD were unlikely to be mistaken as representative of OSR thought; then it would be merely a system which is disagreeable to me, of which there has never been a shortage, instead of a system which worries me.

Just about every element that 5TD borrows from the OSR, it makes more punitive than I would consider typical for OSR systems.

Mechanics that 5TD adds to 5e that I have significant complaints about:

...  might have to break this up into multiple posts.

Encumbrance: The encumbrance system has two problems.  One is that it is unusually bad for characters with very low Str scores.  The other is that the degradation of capability for being over-encumbered is too steep and overly broad.

A character with 3 Str in 5TD can carry 3 points of Load - a one-handed weapon and leather armor, or fifteen points of Supply, or some combination thereof.  A character with 3 Str cannot generally carry his starting equipment without being encumbered and suffering Disadvantage to all rolls.

I think this is a consequence of an excess of No Dumpstats.  I feel similarly about the other systems that rely on ability score values as limits (Supply and Resilience - lack of Retainers from low Cha seems less crippling).  As far as I'm concerned, the objective of No Dumpstats was achieved as soon as stats were rolled on 3d6 in order, and anything beyond that change is overkill.  If you don't have the means to dump a stat, to make a choice to sacrifice a stat that you don't care about in order to boost another, how can dump-statting be a problem?  Only humans have any capability to dump a stat in 5TD, and even that is very limited - if they're using the swap to move a bad stat to somewhere that hurts them less, they're probably not using it to move a good stat to somewhere that enables a class that they want to play.  It is a much more constrained problem than either point-buy or roll-and-assign.

They also have to roll a bad stat in the first place, and given a bad stat roll, it has to go somewhere.  This is another reason that I think 5TD's changes aimed at No Dumpstats are misguided.  Nobody chose to take a 3 Charisma to get more points to put into other stuff; it's uncompensated.  A low stat is something you get stuck with and have to deal with.  What purpose does making the game more punitive of bad starting luck serve?

Easy but unnecessary fix: remove the ability score swap that humans get.  If you want to play a particular class, or to have relatively safe and predictable stats, play a nonhuman.  Playing a human is a gamble and you never know what you're gonna get.  This removes any possibility of dumping particular stats.

I think that OSR systems generally understand better that if you are going to roll stats in order, game systems should not be too punitive of low stats.  A 3 Con is pretty crippling because of low HP, a 3 Dex is quite bad for low AC and init, but other than that, a 3 in any one stat is usually workable.  And I think that's good.  It's the dual of "cunning over crunch" as applied to high modifiers: you shouldn't trivially win because of high numbers on your character sheet, but you shouldn't trivially lose because of low numbers either.

(It's worth considering OD&D's approach to dumpstats for comparison with 5TD's.  In OD&D, you rolled your stats in order and then picked your class.  Str, Int, and Wis each only gave you bonuses in combat if you were a Fighter, Magic User, or Cleric, respectively (no, really - no Str bonus to hit and damage for Clerics), with little to no penalty to members of other classes for having a low score, while Dex, Con, and Cha gave bonuses and penalties that were intended to matter about equally to characters of all classes.  This meant that you could almost totally ignore / "dump" two of the six stats, depending on your choice of class - in expectation one of Str, Int, and Wis would probably be around 13, one around 10, and the last around 7, so you pick the class that you rolled best for and ignore the other two.  I tend to think this is a decent design, and it certainly doesn't lack for OSR credentials.  Then the Thief was introduced and ruined everything forever by making a class based off a stat that was meant for everyone)

In comparison with 5TD's encumbrance system, no OSR system that I have seen ties encumbrance to Str nearly as strongly as 5TD does.  Old School Essentials (and presumably B/X) and Lamentations of the Flame Princess's encumbrance systems don't factor strength in at all.  ACKS and Swords and Wizardry's encumbrance systems tie it in just a little.  Dungeon Crawl Classics' encumbrance system is "here's a comic making fun of people who carry unreasonable amounts of stuff, don't be that guy".  OSRIC was the one on my hard drive that cared most about Str, where a 3 Str character can carry 35 lbs less than a 10 Str one...  but a 10 Str character can carry 150 lbs, so a 3 Str character can still carry 115 lbs, which is very playable, and about 70% of what the 10 Str character can carry.  A 3 Str 5TD character can carry only 30% of what a 10 Str character can.

(To be fair with credit where credit is due - at least 5TD did what ACKS and LotFP did with encumbrance, where it's tracked in bigger quanta than the pounds that the AD&D-lineage games used)

What I'd change: set encumbrance limit to 10 Load plus or minus Str modifier. This allows low-Str characters to still carry their starting gear generally, while keeping the total amount that a party can carry very close to the same in expectation.  Also pare down starting equipment lists to about 6 Load, except Fighter's which is probably reasonable to leave around 10 Load.

Being encumbered in 5TD is also much worse than being encumbered in OSR systems, where generally it just reduces your speed.  Reduction of speed is really important strategically, because the faster you go the fewer random encounters you have, but you can still win fights if you're slow.  Disadvantage to all checks is both a severe combat penalty and somewhat dissociative - being encumbered makes it exactly as much more difficult to command my retainers, decipher an ancient inscription, or pick a lock as it does to leap over a chasm, dodge a trap, or climb a wall?  Does that seem right to you?

Easy fix: being encumbered applies disadvantage to Str, Dex, and Con-based checks.  It's still a blunt instrument but hey I did say it was an easy fix, not a good fix.

To put disadvantage in perspective: it's about a -3 on a d20 roll in expectation.  Going from 1st to 9th level, your proficiency bonus goes up by 2 points and you might get another +1 or +2 on a check due to stat increases.  So it you compare a 1st level character and an encumbered 9th (max) level character, their numbers on proficient checks are going to be similar.

You can't even count on your casters to save you if the party is fighting encumbered, because they have to roll to cast.

The way in which 5TD imposes the encumbrance penalty also strikes me as odd.  Up to Str score, you're fine.  But if you go a point over, bam, disadvantage to everything, and then the speed penalties scale up gradually after that.  This strikes me as the sort of penalty-gradient which will mostly incentivize players to just carry their Str score in stuff and avoid being encumbered at all.  By comparison most OSR systems don't make "how much should I carry" such an easy choice - encumbrance penalties begin at much lower weights and scale up gradually.  The question is less "should I be encumbered or not?" than "how encumbered should I be?"  Shallower penalty-gradients seem likely to produce more nuanced and thoughtful play than very steep ones like 5TD's.  These sort of difficult choices are especially seen with treasure in OSR games, where you've toppled a lair and taken their stuff and now you have to make hard choices about how much treasure to leave behind to avoid random encounters due to the speed penalty increasing the time it takes to get back to the exit.  It is very much gambling; do you take more treasure and hope to get lucky with the extra encounter rolls that result?  5TD players probably don't have this dilemma to the same degree - any fight with disadvantage to all rolls is something that you badly want to avoid, so if there's any possibility of a random encounter on the way out, you just go up to your Str and maybe dump some Supply points to make room.

Easy fix: instead of imposing disadvantage when encumbered, give a penalty to AC or initiative or something per Load over max, in addition to the 5' reduction in movement speed.  The problem with this solution is that both movement speed and AC/init matter nearly-only in combat, whereas the old disadvantage to all checks penalty makes being encumbered relevant to non-combat tasks in exploration.

Good fix: bring higher-granularity time-tracking to exploration and have encumbrance gradually reduce inter-combat speed, generating the classic OSR tradeoff with random encounters.  This preserves the relevance of encumbrance to non-combat tasks, but limits it tightly to an area that makes sense (movement speed) and also allows it to scale up gradually.  This also relates to one of 5TD's failures by deficiency.

5TD's encumbrance penalty is just... unsubtle, ham-fisted, not fully thought out.  I feel like a lot of 5TD's systems share this characteristic.

Next post: problems in supply and equipment

1 comment:

  1. a, it sounds like 5TD complicates the encumbrance in a different way than 5e does. Honestly they should have just done slots. Piece has X number of slots, Each point of strength above X give you an extra slot of encumbrance each (or every other) point above this number. Belts, backpacks, etc give extra slots as well.
    Runquest has a similar system to slots I've noticed and unlike some game they also do gold per slot as X amount of gold takes up one slot. They don't call them slots but its essentially the same thing when you get down to it.
    I don't agree with you about, "the objective of No Dumpstats was achieved as soon as stats were rolled on 3d6 in order, and anything beyond that change is overkill". But that's more about expectations and preferences. So its not a bog deal. Personally, I like to see - no matter what class or character type I play - the majority of the Stats be useful and needed. I like when I really have to decide between several stats, if I get to place the numbers where I want them. Its stops being a dump stat when it effects how you play the character and what choices you make.