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Author Topic: Old-Schooling 5e, Part II: More Magic, and Fixing Dexterity  (Read 4989 times)


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Old-Schooling 5e, Part II: More Magic, and Fixing Dexterity
« on: March 12, 2015, 08:38:49 PM »
Last time around I touched on an important, critical difference between old school approaches to magic, and newer games, including 5e: magic is not science. Thus, in old school games, randomly getting spells, randomly determining if a wizard can even learn a spell, and randomly determining how many times a wizard can cast cantrips on a given day are all very consistent with old school gaming…and anathema to new games.
In 5e, and many new games, magic is rigorous, exacting, precise, and predictable to the point of being science. While there are tales of wizards accidentally casting fireball on his own party from decades ago, such tales don’t exist, not in the same way, today. Now, a fireball occupies an exact grid…there’s no chance of hitting a party member unless the wizard wants to hit a party member. It’s a much more reliable spell than it was in old school games.
The evolution of this approach is best shown by teleport, from AD&D. This is a 5th level spell, and thus should be quite powerful, the kind of thing a wizard would want. When the wizard casts teleport, the chance he’ll go where he intended, even under the best possible conditions, is 97%---he has a 1% chance of flat out dying, by teleporting into solid stone. And that’s a good spell. There’s a reason why the incredibly reliable magic missile was considered a good spell in the time of AD&D, but is sneered at by optimizers today.
Magic missile is the same spell it always was (well, except in 4e, but let’s just not go there…). The rest of the game has changed.
Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Burning Hands, and many other spells had a real chance of backfiring in old school games, but such is simply impossible in new games. Even the old fly had a large random component to its duration so that it might end when the mage was in the air, although admittedly 5e’s fly is pretty weak. Magic used to be an exciting, risky, powerful tool…now spells get activated with all the anticipation of a light switch.
Another spell where the evolution of magic into science is clear is identify. Under the old rules, casting identify was expensive, exhausting to the wizard, and risky—there was always a good chance the spell would fail, and quite possibly provide false information. You could never be certain you knew what, exactly, an item was capable of…a ring of invisibility could easily be much, much more powerful than what the spell says it is. Now, identify tells you everything you want to know about the item, automatically, with scientific, perfect, precision.
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Summon spells used to be random, you never knew what you’re going to get. Modern summon spells, with their scientific predictability, are incredibly more powerful, and you’re certain to get the absolute bestest most appropriate thing for the encounter. A DM wishing to make his game more old school should simply choose randomly what monster appears from the list of possible summons (AD&D had different charts if you were underwater, or in other environments)…and just like that, the incredible power of summoners cuts back a bit, AND the game has a better old school feel.
Old school conjuring of elementals wasn’t random, amazingly enough. The mages had all the power of every element at their fingertips, but at a much higher level than in newer D&D. The drawback, of course, was there was a good chance the elemental would try to kill the summoner. DMs wanting to old school their game should do the same, with perhaps a 2% chance per round that the elemental goes berserk and is no longer controllable.
Much like spells, magic items used to be something besides perfectly predictable tools. The Wand of Wonder probably wouldn’t exist in newer versions of D&D, except that it was in AD&D…it’s just too random for newer games. It wasn’t carried over out of respect, it made it into many editions because it was fun, even if newer designers didn’t really understand exactly what made the wand so amusing.
This suggests an easy change to 5e, at least with charged items, different from the “limited uses per day” model 5e uses. In the old rules, players never actually knew how many charges the item had, at best identify simply indicated if the charges were less than 10, more than 20, or something like that. While not random, the charged items nevertheless had a magical effect that was not perfectly reliable. In AD&D, the DM was expected to track charges (among many other things) secretly.
Keeping track of charges secretly is a bit of a drag for the DM, but why not just have the item, with each use, have a 2%, 5%, or even 10% chance of disintegrating? Mathematically, the effect is the same as having 50, 20, or 10 charges, but now using the item entails something more than just ticking off another mark on the record sheet, in a perfectly predictable way.
Yes, some players will consider such items “completely useless”, and there’s nothing you can do about that…other players will go hog wild chucking fireballs out of a wand every round, and having fun. I know which players I want at my table, anyway.

The Dexterity Problem

One weird thing that happened throughout the evolution of D&D is the “anything Strength can do, Dexterity can do as well” paradigm, and 5e has really gone overboard with this. Strength affects to hit, and damage, and escape chance when grabbed; it also indirectly affects armor class, but this is very minor (most folks don’t use encumbrance rules all that much anyway, and pretty much every class that can wear heavy armor needs strength anyway). Dexterity in 5e also affects to hit, and damage (for the right weapons, but there are plenty of those), and escape chance when grabbed. It has a major effect on armor class, and initiative, and there are far more Dexterity-based saving throws than there are for Strength. Toss in the high emphasis on ranged combat in 5e (we’ll get to this later), and Dexterity is a no-brainer for a character. There simply is nothing Strength provides that Dexterity doesn’t do just as well, if not better. Having a high dexterity all by itself just makes a character good, there are so many built-in abilities.
Now, in old school games, Dexterity did help, but it wasn’t every bit as good as Strength in every way. Now, tearing down all the Dexterity-based characters is hardly fair, so let’s consider a point of view that increases Strength based play, but not at the expense of Dexterity:
While you can certainly rationalize agility (which is what Dexterity counts for, in addition to accounting for manual dexterity) as every bit as good as physical strength in a fight, this simply isn’t true. It takes only a little time in watching real world fights to see that yeah, being strong is actually very, very, useful (watch that young elephant fight off a pack of lions to get one of many examples); agility, while helpful, just isn’t as reliable.
In old school play, strength was better than agility, so let’s do that, by adding more Strength based abilities. I recommend the following Strength bonuses only apply to classes in 5e with Strength saving throw proficiencies, but, as always, these are just suggestions (some of these add complication to the game which might not be desirable). None of these are feats or anything, and are just built-in for having high Strength. A few of these probably should be given to certain monsters as well, since so many “big and strong” monsters likewise got shafted when, over the course of years, Strength was reduced in importance next to Dexterity:
Bulk armor: This is armor that is made with extra thickness. Weight is doubled, and the AC bonus of the armor is increased by the character’s Strength bonus, up to a maximum of the original AC bonus over 10. For example, Bulk Studded Leather worn by a character with 18 Strength provides only an extra +2 to AC (to 14), while Bulk Half Plate worn by a 20 Strength character would be AC 20. Bulk armor does not allow a Dexterity bonus. Characters without the Strength score necessary to get best use out of this armor get a penalty to AC equal to the shortfall (so, a Strength 12 character wearing Bulk Studded Leather is still just AC 12, getting no benefit), and movement is reduced by 10’ for each point of shortfall as well…or better yet, just can’t use the armor, since nobody would accept that penalty anyway.
Brute Strength Bonus Advantage: A character with a Strength of 4 or more greater than an adjacent target he successfully struck with a melee attack may use a Bonus Action to move the target 5’ for each full 4 points of Strength he has greater than the target. This action may not be taken against targets that are a larger size class than the character. This alone makes it easier to have a strong character simply push around weaker foes, even when he isn’t killing them.
Devastating Critical: A character adds his Strength bonus (and not just his damage die) again when scoring a critical hit. This ability only takes affect against targets with a lower Strength score, and stacks with other Critical hit effects. Yes, a dexterous character can, with training and particular skill, specifically target a weak point in an enemy’s throat to cause blood to gush 20’ away…but you don’t need such training and skill to understand how hacking an opponent’s head off can accomplish much the same effect without wasting time on finesse.
Stone Fingers: The character adds his Strength bonus (again) to Climb rolls. Strength isn’t just as important as agility when it comes time to climb a wall, it’s actually much more important. Again, these Strength bonuses should only apply to classes with Strength saving throw proficiencies.
Strength of Will: Whenever an attack/ability is used against the character that would force the character to move, he may make a Strength saving throw, with a DC equal to the ability score of whatever used the ability against the character. If the character succeeds against the check, the character need not move. The hulking barbarian shrugging off the worst effects of the evil wizard’s spells becomes more credible now.
Opportunity Grabber: When you hit a target with an opportunity attack, that target’s Move action ends (but it may possibly use another Move action). This effect only applies against targets with Strength lower than yours, of your size or smaller.
These abilities really reinforce an idea in old school play that’s been abandoned in newer games: the muscular guy wearing 80 lbs of steel and swinging a huge axe isn’t just different in melee combat compared to the loincloth-wearing guy doing backflips and wielding a dagger. He’s better.
In lieu of all the above, you could simply houserule “Strength can be substituted for Dexterity anywhere Dexterity applies”, but old school play usually did things more gracefully than that.
Next time, we’ll address the other issue that turned Dexterity into the only ability score that matters for many characters: ranged combat.


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Old-Schooling 5e, Part II: More Magic, and Fixing Dexterity
« Reply #1 on: March 15, 2015, 12:38:41 AM »
The complaints about spells could just be shortened to "get off my lawn". My recollection of old time D&D is that casters avoided the really random or risky spells in favor of the reliable (who used Monster Summoning?); assumed the worst case (teleporting in high with flying or at least levitation, acting on the shortest possible duration of fly, etc); and really, wand of wonder was a joke item.

Dexterity does seem to have eclipsed Strength, but it's not clear to me that high Strength was always clearly better. A fighter with an 18 DEX under OD&D-with-Greyhawk rules gets +4 to AC, while a fighter with 18 STR (due to the percentile roll) averages +2.51 to hit and +3.36 to damage. Which would be better depends on the opponent; the high DEX fighter would, for example, take out more goblins fighting an endless number sequentially.


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Old-Schooling 5e, Part II: More Magic, and Fixing Dexterity
« Reply #2 on: April 27, 2015, 05:39:57 AM »
I am with Rawma on the spells.
Spells were not unreliable and the change to learn listed, and finding random spells etc was an attempt to make the spells more like ancient science where you might stumble on an ancient formuala but be unabel to get your head round it at first. In this regards its very Dying earth and entirely supposed to replicate science. Likewise the side effects of spells , like lightning bot and fireball were supposed to be entirely scientific, a fireball produces x much cubic volume of flame which squeezes into the space available etc. Again Spells trying to entirely replicate a science like effect rather than introduce randomness.

5e entirely has randomness with Wild Magic is you choose to tap that.

Strength and Dex is an attempt to get more real but a faulted attempt. In RL a fast guy with a sharp weapon beats a strong guy who has no armour or who's aremour can be penetrated. The strong guys real advantages are that they can carry more armour and take more damage. More meat generally means more damage. A heavy weight boxer generally wins not just cos he hits harder but because he can take more damage. the hit harder thing tends to matter less with a sharp weapon.

So to give Strength its due we could tie armours to it, we could use it to increase HP (but that would entail a rethink of HP to just meat leading to a Wound/vitality model), we could make damage much higher for stashing and crushing weapons that are strength "powered' or we could let Strength power some special stuff like Cleave, Bash, Mighty Blow etc.

It's all quite tricky. I think in a perfect game using a Viatality/Wound model Strength based attacks would do much more damage but Dex based attacks would have a higher chance of going through to wounds and bypassing vitality. So in effect Strength fighters doing much more damage on a typical blow but dex fighters have a higher change of getting a crit (crits ignoring HP). Represents a rapier to the eye, versus a mighty blow with a great sword that hits your armour but still throws you 8 feet across the room. The strength guy could then wear down opponents (and crush much lower level ones) whereas the dex guy wouldn't wear anyone down much and would need to get that deadly blow in in order to win. That would differentiate the types more clearly and leave advantages to both strategies
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Old-Schooling 5e, Part II: More Magic, and Fixing Dexterity
« Reply #3 on: June 16, 2015, 05:26:23 AM »
Quote from: rawma;820138
A fighter with an 18 DEX under OD&D-with-Greyhawk rules gets +4 to AC...

Wrong: Only a thief is eligible for that, and only a fighter is eligible for strength bonuses (never mind having an extraordinary 18/xx score).
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Old-Schooling 5e, Part II: More Magic, and Fixing Dexterity
« Reply #4 on: June 16, 2015, 09:36:00 AM »
Quote from: Phillip;836749
Wrong: Only a thief is eligible for that, and only a fighter is eligible for strength bonuses (never mind having an extraordinary 18/xx score).

Says where? I can't find anything in Greyhawk that says only thieves get any kind of bonus from dexterity other than bonus experience. In fact, Greyhawk specifically says that the fighter improves their AC by one point per point of dex over 14. The only references to thieves and dexterity is for bonus exp and that they can dump int and wis to raise dex.


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Old-Schooling 5e, Part II: More Magic, and Fixing Dexterity
« Reply #5 on: June 21, 2015, 02:18:11 AM »
Quote from: Phillip;836749
Wrong: Only a thief is eligible for that

Not wrong; in Greyhawk, fighters get the AC benefit of high dexterity.