Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Exploding" Damage Rolls?

Inspired by fairly recent posts on this topic by my friend Carl and by Al at Beyond the Black Gate, I am really seriously pondering the use of an "exploding" damage system for my current Arandish Labyrinth Lord campaign.

Carl's version of the house rule -- which he calls "Let it Ride" or "Double or Nothing" and which differs from the usual "exploding" damage procedure as I've seen it iterated elsewhere -- goes like this:

Whenever a successful melee or ranged attack is made, the attacker can choose to let it ride - this involves throwing a second attack roll.  If this is also successful, the attack does double normal damage, but if it fails, the attack does no damage at all. This can be attempted a third time if the second roll is successful, for quadruple damage with a success but again, no damage at all with a failure.

I like the vibe of this but am not inclined to require additional attack rolls; rather, I would like to hinge the mechanic upon the damage dice rolled.  Al proposes using such a mechanic in place of "natural 20 critical hits" and describes the procedure thus:

When a damage result of "6" is rolled, the player gets to roll another d6 and add the result to the previous 6 points of damage. So a "critical hit" essentially means 1d6+6 points of damage, or 9.5 points of damage on average. And 1 in 6 hits is "critical" on average, a grisly figure that lines up better with my gritty pulp sensibilities than 1 in 20.

Like Al, I have been feeling a bit bored with "roll a natural 20 = double damage" critical hit system that I have been using -- well, forever.  I feel that the exploding damage system could indeed serve as a reasonable replacement for standard critical hits and, as Al points out, actually allows many more chances for higher damage infliction, a 1 in 6 chance vs. a 1 in 20 chance.  But this raises two corollary concerns:

(1)  What to do with natural 20 "to hit" rolls?


(2)  Since I use variable weapon damage (unlike Al, who uses d6's for everything), would this make "exploding" damage die rolls too potent?  In other words, by increasing the occurrence of increased damage, will this make things too bloody and/or deadly in my "variable weapon damage" based campaign?  And if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?

As I commented on Al's blog, my initial response to concern #1 is that if I go with "exploding" damage then the natural 20 "to hit" roll should automatically grant "exploded" damage, i.e., d6+6, d8+8, d10+10, etc.

My response to issue #2 is more complicated, and remains undecided.  Interestingly, Crimson Blades of Ara, the homebrewed RPG that spawned the Lands of Ara campaign setting in the first place, featured a more deadly combat system than most variants of D&D: on average, two solid hits with a long sword would kill virtually any PC, regardless of that PC's experience level (CBoA did not technically use "levels," but you get my point).  So I am certainly open in principle to a more deadly and bloody world of combat for my current campaign.  But would that be too drastic a move to make at this juncture of the game?  I recently posted about how wonderful it is to have a party of characters of experience levels 3 and up -- so would it be fun or fair to suddenly raise the stakes and increase the danger of combat damage in the campaign now that we've just reached the "sweet spot"?  Perhaps especially since two of my players are neophyte RPG'ers playing in their first-ever campaign?


  1. The method you propose is essentially identical to HackMaster's 'penetration' rule. I've never played HM but I assume that the extra damage is one of the key reasons that everybody starts with a +20hp 'kicker' compared to baseline D&D.

  2. Personally I have foumd critical hits distracting and likely to result premature party member death more than it helps them. After all who is more likely to roll a critcal the 4 adventurers or the 20 kobold bandits they are attacking? Personally I was very pleased with 4e critical maximizing the damage dice and thats it. Of course 4e had to fnork it up with magic weapons adding dice to the critical damage, but since that was mostly for the players it sort of works (see my blog post on 4e character death for what happens when you pass the magic weapons out to the monsters). Of course you could have the player vote on what kind of critical hit system they want. That away they have brought their own doom on thier heads , and you can say don't go blaming me you voted for it ;)

  3. P.S. Do you still have the Crimson Blades of Ara rules? Are enough different from other things to be worth posting? They sound somewhat similar to some of the combat systems I have toyed with where instead of going up hit points with level, one just became harder to hit.

  4. if you want to keep 20's special along with allowing multiple "exploding" hit rolls have them be max damage or possibly keepers even if a miss comes up, unless a 1 is rolled of course.

  5. The first question I have is what about the current system is boring to you? That would help guide your decision making. If it's just that you've been using it forever, then novelty may be what you want, and any new system is better. At that point, you can evaluate the consequences of the various mechanics on game play.

    If it's boring because there's no player or DM choice to "go big or home", then the Let it Ride/Double or Nothing mechanic provides that, as do other classic gambling betting mechanics. Most of those also favor the house in the long haul, but if the attackers want to gamble they can gamble.

    If it's boring because the game isn't deadly enough, then maybe the merger with Al's approach will accomplish that.

    Or it's something else, and then there's a different solution to the boredom. It depends on what you're not getting out of the current mechanic.


  6. @imredave: Thanks for the suggestion about letting the players vote, that's an excellent idea. As for CBoA, yes, the rules still exist -- give me a few days to proofread them and convert them to pdf, and I will post them here on the blog. Thanks for the interest!

    @Spawn: Thanks to your insightful comments, I have realized that the two main things that "bore" me are (1) that I've done it that way forever and simply crave change, and (2) the current system actually produces highly variable results, i.e., a combatant can crit. yet roll a "1" for the damage die and end up dealing out a total of 2 damage! My proposed system would ensure that a crit. does substantive damage every time, and would indeed make the whole campaign more bloody / deadly in general, which perhaps I do indeed prefer.