Sunday, May 17, 2020

Five Torches Deep Review, Part 3: Supply and Equipment

Previously, I discussed issues with encumbrance and dump-stats in Five Torches Deep.  Today, issues with supply and equipment.

Supply is almost a good idea and I want to love it.  I've been kicking around ways to make dealing with mundane equipment simpler and less book-keeping for some years now and something like Supply crossed my mind, under-specified adventuring equipment that you can make into concrete equipment during the adventure.

But this particular implementation of Supply is tied tightly to an ability score with an in-world justification that I really dislike, and it's highly dissociated.

As with Encumbrance, tying the resources you can bring into the dungeon linearly to an ability score means that if you rolled a low stat you're SOL and there's nothing you can do about it.  Only being able to pack 3 Supply is probably slightly less crippling than only being able to carry 3 Load, but you can't go over your limit with Supply in exchange for a penalty.  3 Supply is three fights worth of arrows, or three torches, or 1.5 spell levels worth of spell components, or three fumbles worth of weapon durability.  With a low Supply limit, I'm not sure what class options are really viable besides melee fighter.

Easy fix: set Supply limit to 10 +/- Int modifier, as with Encumbrance.  I think this might hurt mages pretty badly though, since they need to carry a lot of supply for spell components and on the high end you're going from 18 Supply to 14 Supply, so you're losing a second-level spell's worth of components.  So I don't think this is a great fix and think it might have unintended consequences, but it does make low Int less crippling.  I'm not really sure that spell components are necessary to limit casting under 5TD's default paradigm anyway, so maybe you solve this by removing spell components too, but more on that later.

Claiming that the Int limit on supply represents the character's ability to plan and pack really grinds my gears.  I strongly dislike the use of Int to represent general cognitive ability, versus magical talent and maybe education.  I think that this "Int=IQ" line of thinking leads to all kinds of horrible metagaming ("well my/your character wouldn't think of that") and runs counter to player skill and agency as pillars of OSR play.  Players should always be free to make the best decisions that they can given available information, and that includes being free to pack their gear for the trouble that they foresee.  Make low Int characters illiterate, fine.  Forbid them from knowing Church Latin or Draconic, and from taking Book Learnin' skills, fine.  But don't stop their players from making good decisions.

So I think the given justification for Supply springs from a pathology, and that almost all mechanics justified in this way delenda est.

Easy fix: don't relate Supply to Int at all.  The limit on the Supply you can carry is encumbrance and gold that you can spend on it.  I am not confident that this wouldn't have knock-on effects.

Finally, this Supply implementation is very dissociated.  5 Supply weighs 1 Load, or about 5 pounds.  The supply costs of items vary depending on rarity, value, and bulk.  It costs 5 Supply to replenish an antitoxin, not because of bulk but because of value and rarity.  How does that work in-world?  Did you pack a vial of antitoxin in 5 pounds of padding?  Is it a two-liter bottle of antitoxin and you have to chug the whole thing?  Are you brewing the antitoxin and then discarding the spent coffee grounds or solvents or whatever (presumably no, because that would be crafting, which has separate rules)?  Is Supply magical, allowing it to violate conservation of mass?

What happens if you convert a monster with a shatter ability and it gets used on someone carrying Supply that might be antitoxin or might just be torches?

And if crafting is the justification for turning 5 pounds of Supply into a vial of antitoxin (and I think this is defensible from the text on the basis of the Foraging rules - you're certainly not just finding a 2L bottle of antitoxin in the woods), then there's more explaining to do - how long does it take to turn Supply into stuff in game-time?  Why the distinction between crafting a new thing and crafting a thing you already have a copy of ?  I would not generally expect having a copy to yield much insight into how to make more of a thing - buying and drinking a beer imparts no knowledge of making beer (alas!).

Easy fix: haven't got one. A sensible (associative, mass-conserving) Supply implementation sounds like it would take some thought.

There's an ambiguity looming around acquiring new equipment in 5TD.  The only explicitly-stated ways to get equipment are character generation (determined by your class and rolls on the Sundries table) and crafting.  None of the weapons or armor (or misc gear) have gold-piece prices.  The only things in the book with gold-piece prices are Supply and retainers.  Are you stuck with your starting gear forever unless you craft?  Plus whatever you can capture from things that you kill? (not that monsters have gear listed either, just attack damage which might not correspond to any weapon)  Are you really putting parties at the mercy of the random equipment rolls that they made at 1st level indefinitely?  What if nobody rolls a light source?

Torches aren't even on the sundries table (though lanterns are), nor any of the class' starting equipment lists.  Is it just assumed that everyone has torches?  Or do I need to craft torches?

I wouldn't be so worried about this if the crafting system weren't lousy.  Four independent chances of failure per crafting attempt, each of which takes half a day, and failure on any destroys all of the materials (but the price of materials is unspecified anyway).  easy fix: Why is this not a single roll at DC 20 or so that takes a single day on failure or two days on success?  That would be pretty close to mathematically equivalent and would save a lot of wasted time rolling.  I can't tell if this is overcommitment to "DC11 Core Mechanic" or to "toiling".

Maybe the intended way to buy gear is to hire Laborer retainers and have them grind away at the crafting system in the background while you adventure.

Maybe the intended way to get new gear is by either handwaving it, or by using prices from some other book that you were converting monsters from anyway.  Maybe I'm being too hermeneutic about all this - but this is a review of the text and its implications.  I feel like the existence of the crafting system, in such a short and terse book, is evidence against that proposition.  The crafting system gets as much space as two full levels of mage spells (not just spell lists, full spell descriptions), as much space as XP and Leveling Up.  It ought to be important.  But it's not great.

Easy fix: import item prices from other systems, make it explicit that players to buy items in addition to their starting gear, and ditch the crafting system.

Finally, weapon and armor durability.  If I were to compile a list of red flags for bad tabletop systems, having to repair your weapons and armor due to normal wear-and-tear would be on it.  Weapon durability can exist in two kinds of tabletop RPGs.  If bolted on to D&D like it is here, it's an isolated demand for rigor which is badly mismatched with the rest of a combat system that is operating on the level of abstraction of hit points and armor class.  If part of a system where everything is operating at the same level of detail / realism as considering the durability of weapons, where it isn't an isolated demand for rigor, then you end up with things like hit location tables and armor by location and attack-maneuvers with names like Morderhau and Zellringen (although that system is actually more like an isolated demand for rigor in techniques, while still using high-abstraction HP and AC) and every combat takes four hours.  Neither of these states is desirable.

I get why this is here.  The authors said they wanted a Souls-like game and Dark Souls has weapon degradation and repair.  But Dark Souls is a videogame and there is a computer to track that shit for you.  Of all the parts of Dark Souls worth copying, that was the one you picked?  As a DM, am I supposed to track durability for all the weapons and armor used by NPCs, because players operating in an equipment regime where they can't buy things and where crafting takes forever and where equipment degrades will be desperate for any source of equipment they can get?  Is it at all reasonable to assume that (say) orcs keep their weapons in good repair?  I've got enough on my plate already and now you want me to think about the durability of every weapon in the game that is not currently in the hands of a player character?

To which DMs from a certain school might reply, "What no, humanoid monsters and NPCs don't have lootable weapons or armor, just look at their stat blocks, there's nothing listed," to which the cranky OSR DM might reply "That doesn't make any goddamn sense, are they supposed to be doing d12 damage with their bare hands?  If my players make friends with one of them and hire him as a retainer, is he still doing d12 damage with a weapon that never degrades?  What if a PC dies and their player wants to take over the retainer as their new PC?  Does his gear suddenly magically start degrading?  Internal consistency is important! Where do you draw the line and how can you justify its existence other than laziness?  I'm lazy too, but I don't think you need to sacrifice consistency for it."

In conclusion, I will never condone a system where tracking weapon and armor durability is a normal part of combat (not the product of rare Sunder special maneuvers that almost never get used).  If you want to have weapons save-or-break on a fumble, fine.  But don't ask me to track an extra unsigned integer on every item in the world.

Easy fix: on a natural 1 on attack, Dex check or weapon breaks and can no longer be used.  When opponent scores a crit, Dex check or shield breaks and can no longer be used.  If you want, let metal weapons have Advantage on the check, and magic weapons have double-advantage (roll three times and take the best).  These same rules apply to monsters and retainers breaking their weapons.  Having armor go from totally functional to totally broken doesn't make much sense and doing it well is more hassle than it's worth.

Next post: Resilience, maiming, and corruption

1 comment:

  1. On a purely thematic level, I really like the idea of weapon breakage being a risk in combat. The visuals of a knight's sword shattering on an enemy's shield or a scavenged axe getting stuck in a monster's hide have strong aesthetic power. I've never seen TTRPG rules for breakage not turn into bookkeeping nightmares, though.

    Durability in Dark Souls 1 also ends up being pretty pointless; it's just a small periodic tax to repair. The sequel reworks the system so that durability now acts as a limitation on how much fighting you can do in a single day. So less pointless but still not very fun.