Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Five Torches Deep Review, Part 4: Resilience, Corruptions, and Maiming

Previously, I discussed my complaints about the supply and equipment systems in Five Torches Deep.  Today, issues with the resilience system, maiming, and corruptions.

Is this even a review anymore?  Maybe I should've titled this project "Fixing Five Torches Deep".

If you've been reading the previous parts of this...  series, several of my issues with Resilience should be predictable.  It sets a cap based on a stat's score, and sometimes you're gonna roll low and it's going to really shorten your adventuring life.  With 3 Con, you can only adventure for 3 hours before you have to start making Resilience rolls (at -4 from your bad Con, so you're going to fail about 2/3 of the time), and when you fail one, you're done.  You're going to be dead before the rest of the party even has to start rolling Resilience.  The penalty-gradient is even more severe than 5TD's Encumbrance's, much steeper than the fatigue rules in either 5e or any of the OSR clones that I'm familiar with.  Typically in B/X-derived games you have 10-minute exploration turns in the dungeon, and you have to rest one turn out of every six (sort of a short rest per hour), and if you don't take it, then you take a -1 penalty to attack and damage.  Skipping multiple rests causes the penalties to stack up, and -1 to damage is actually really significant since most weapons only do d6 damage and there are few modifiers.  But B/X fatigue 1) escalates slowly, and 2) doesn't slow you down, so you can still escape from encounters, whereas 5TD's resilience system goes straight from functional to immobile.

Easy / minimal fix: set Resilience to 10 +/- Con Mod.  This will cluster the party closer together in Resilience scores and cause them to fatigue out closer to the same time.
Easy / minimal fix: exhaustion reduces your speed by 20' instead of setting it to 0'.  This means you slow the party down a lot but they don't have to leave you behind.  Having it reduce speed instead of setting speed makes it interact with encumbrance.  Keeping disadvantage to all checks for being exhausted is alright; it's a lot more justifiable / reasonable than giving disadvantage to all checks for being encumbered.
Easy / minimal fix: allow players taking an hour-long unsafe (ie dungeon) rest a Con check or something to remove exhaustion.  I don't know that you need all three of these but this would be one way to make it less of a one-way door to death, and would help prevent splitting parties when someone gets exhausted.  Leave it so that safe rest always removes exhaustion.  Unsafe rest also doesn't necessarily need to reset your Resilience all the way back to full, maybe it puts you back at half-Resilience on a success.  I dunno, there's space to work out something reasonable here that isn't "you pass out in the dungeon so the party leaves you behind because Nothing Can Be Done."

A couple of other things bother me about Resilience though.  One, my understanding of one of the purposes of making resources capped linearly on ability scores is to make those scores more important.  But Resilience is based on Constitution.  Were people really dump-statting Con in 5e?  I guess that's consistent with what I've been hearing, that fights are slow and people are spongy?  But it doesn't seem like HP are that much higher than 3e (but damage does seem lower).  Were they still doing it in 5TD playtests after hit points were reduced from 5e's baseline?  I guess 5TD only actually reduced the fixed starting HP at first level, and didn't increase damage that much.  I dunno, it just kind of boggles my mind that people might have been dumping Constitution, The Stat That Keeps You Alive, often enough that this seemed necessary.

Maybe reducing HP further would've been a simpler way to achieve the same purpose?

Easy / simple fix: remove Resilience entirely and drop HD by one step for at least fighter, zealot, and mage.  I've never been a big fan of having Thief on d4 HD and they probably need the help.  But as I said before it's silly to worry about dumpstats if you have no control over your stats, so this is probably unnecessary.  But it would be consistent with 5TD's goals of Danger is Real and Weaker PCs, and it would lead to more decisive combats.

The other property of Resilience that bugs me, which I touched on above, is that individual characters fatigue out at different rates.  Besides tending to split the party, this is much more annoying to keep track of than having the whole party fatigue at the same rate.  It's also unclear if Resilience is intended to only be used for PCs or if it should apply to their retainers too, but switching to a system where everyone fatigues simultaneously and independently of Con means that retainers can fatigue too without even having to have Con stats for them.

Involved fix: bring back 10-minute exploration turns from B/X and directly replace Resilience with B/X's fatigue system.  I already wanted exploration turns for Encumbrance anyway, and this gets me "everyone fatigues at the same rate" and "gradually escalating penalties".

Moving on to corruptions.  I wasn't a big fan of Lamentations of the Flame Princess' disease rules and these seem to be a pretty direct port.  Ability score damage is a pain in the butt because you have to recalculate stuff every time it happens.  This is less bad in 5e/5TD/OSR games than it was in 3e where I picked up this aversion, because there are fewer things to recalculate, but it's still a hassle.

I guess I don't really see a good gameplay reason for any disease/poison system more complicated than [easy fix] "you get a save (or Con check).  If you make it you're fine.  If you don't, then you have disadvantage to everything for a certain amount of time because you are sick as a dog.  After that make another save / Con check.  If you fail it you die and if you succeed then you get better."  This still puts players under time pressure but you have to do fewer numerical updates and you waste less time rolling.

A more fundamental issue with porting Corruptions from LotFP's disease rules is that in LotFP, all of your saves get better as you level, regardless of your class, so high-level characters are better able to survive poison and disease than low-level characters.  It kinda makes sense that if being high level lets you survive combat better, it should let you survive other things better too.  In 5TD, unless you are proficient in Con checks or have been spending your scarce ability score points on Con, your odds of surviving a disease are no better at 9th level than they were at 1st level.  You probably won't even survive any longer, because the ability score being damaged hasn't increased much if at all.

(This lack of progression on off-saves is, I think, also part of why in 5e, all of the spells that were traditionally save-or-die either deal damage or are gated on HP - most characters' Con saves don't improve with level, but everybody's HP improves with level.  I think this is fairly clever - it really leans into HP as an abstract resource representing luck and ability to barely avoid things that should kill you, rather than HP as the number of times you can be stabbed in the chest.  But the consistent thing to do with 5e's philosophy of save-or-die and hit points would be to make diseases deal damage over time.  And I don't think this would even be incompatible with OSR philosophy!  Some OSR systems (ACKS) already have starvation and thirst deal small amounts of damage every day and prevent natural healing; there's no reason dysentery shouldn't do the same.  Mummy rot in B/X is already about halfway there)

Mummy rot brings up an interesting issue with Corruptions - if Corruptions are the expected way to implement curses, that may discourage the development of subtler, more creative curses (like "no healing" or "marked for death, disadvantage to rolls on the maiming table" or "haunted by insects, go through rations twice as fast because your food is always full of bugs").  As with 5TD's approach to encumbrance penalties, Corruptions are a big heavy-handed hammer for curses that will stop you dead, as opposed to curses that make adventuring challenging but might be workable long-term.

In any case, I think this disease system will behave differently, have different consequences, in its new 5e-based context, which will make it even nastier than it already was in LotFP.

Finally, maiming.  I run ACKS (well...  ran, and now blog about, ACKS), which among other things (understatement) is known for its Death and Dismemberment table.  5TD's maiming table misses two big points of having a maiming table at all: associating penalties to an in-world narrative cause, and ensuring that characters are afflicted fairly.

First, the outcomes on 5TD's table are about an even split between ability score damage, losing a body part, and needing bed rest, with death on a natural 1 and getting back up with some HP on a 20.  This means that if you lose a body part, you don't take ability score damage, and if you take ability score damage, you don't lose a body part.  The problem here is that (in ACKS, say) losing a body part provides an in-world narrative justification for a penalty, which slightly dulls the negative response from players to being stuck with that penalty.  It's something you can picture - "oh yeah I guess if I'm short an eye a ranged attack penalty makes a lot of sense".  5TD provides very weak in-world description of its ability score losses on the maiming table, which I think would cause them to be resented more - they're purely mechanical penalties and don't provide you with the opportunity to picture your character wearing an eyepatch as a consolation prize.

The second problem with 5TD's maiming table is that if you roll body part loss, it is explicitly the GM's choice which part you lose.  This is awful design which is bound to lead to strife, bad blood, and either accusations of unfairness or to the system being rendered toothless.  If you as a DM choose to take a body part that should logically inflict penalties, and you inflict those penalties ad hoc, you have set a precedent and any future deviation from that precedent is legitimately unfair.  If someone else loses a body part, you have to figure out some penalties that are about as bad for them as for the first guy.  So the safe solution for DMs who don't want to deal with that is to softball it and just inflict cosmetic damage (scars, a few lost teeth, maybe a finger, etc).  This is exactly the sort of contentious thing, which players care a lot about, that warrants a random table of body parts lost and appropriate penalties, and results on that table should be rolled in the open where everyone can see them so that no accusations of unfairness can be made.

I dislike that 5TD is wishy-washy about how long it takes to recover ability score points lost to ability score damage results on the maiming table, while ACKS provides provides clear-cut mechanics for trying to get yourself fixed up (though there will be side effects, so it's a choice rather than a default). I also think that a 5% chance of death seems a little low.  But those are minor complaints.  There are also some nice emergent features of ACKS' maiming system, like encouraging healers to take risks to stabilize people in combat instead of waiting until after combat, but those aren't critical.

What I'd change: roll on ACKS' mortal wounds table with a +4 or so on the d20 with nat 20 getting result from 26+ row.  Fix up results that don't make sense with 5TD mechanics (eg -2 to magical research throws -> -2 to spellcasting checks).  Write the fixups down so that they are applied consistently.

Speaking of spellcasting checks: next post is haphazard magic.

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