Thursday, December 17, 2015

Consistent Saving Throws in Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC)

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"You burst into the room and find a ferocious Red Dragon. It breathes flame at you. Save or Die!"
-Anonymous 80s DM

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A recent post by a contributor to the B/X and DCC google+ communities got me thinking. The claim was, essentially, that DCC Judges seem to pull saving throw DCs out of the air during play - or, worse, that the DCs are chosen for the modules so that they will 'scale' accordingly to the appropriate character level for the adventure (thus creating a treadmill effect). Here are my thoughts on how to make DCC saving throws more consistent, objective, and easier to adjudicate.

DEFAULT SAVING THROW DCs

Systems like B/X have a tremendous advantage over DCC, in that the Judge simply needs to call for an "X type" saving throw, without having to spend the time thinking over an appropriate target DC. This also prevents the Judge from consciously or unconsciously scaling DCs to character level, creating arbitrariness or a treadmill effect. We will assume as a design principle that we want characters to become objectively better at saving throws as they increase in level.

How do we solve this problem? The first step is to realize that DCC is really no different than B/X, with the exception that target numbers have been switched with bonuses in the class tables, and the rulebook has failed to provide a baseline target DC for saving throws to translate between the two forms. If you run the math, DC 14 as a baseline target for saving throws creates as close to the same arrays as B/X and LotFP as is possible. This is a useful point for people who are interested in converting modules from B/X and LotFP for DCC.

So, for maximum simplicity, the Judge can simply set all saving throws to DC 14. When the judge asks for a Fortitude/Reflex/Willpower saving throw, without specifying any conditions, the DC is 14. If you are converting modules from LotFP, B/X, or other OSR products, also use DC 14.  Alternatively, the Judge can setup a scheme where objective saving throws are called for by descriptor such as:

Easy - DC 11
(default) - DC 14
Hard - DC 17
Critical - DC 20

I like the use of these descriptors because they signal to the players that saving throws have an objective reality - the target numbers will always match up in a meaningful, consistent way with the descriptors, which will match up with like challenges. This is similar to bounded AC in DCC or D&D 5e.

EDIT: After reading through this post again, I wanted to mention that DC 14 is not the "right" answer, so much as one choice for this universal constant of the gaming universe - the choice that most closely matches up with the flavor of B/X and LotFP. You can set the default DC higher or lower according to taste, and by doing that you will be changing the nature of the game that you are playing.

One of the results of an objective system for saving throws is that the Judge only has to account for one variable (result) rather than two (target number + result) when setting challenges for the players. This will usually make things simpler for the Judge when designing challenges for his game.

SIDEBAR: NUMBER OF SAVING THROW CATEGORIES

The number of saving throw categories in the game system is really a matter of taste. B/X and Labyrinth Lord use 5, Swords and Wizardry 1, DCC 3. The more categories there are, the more of an opportunity there is to tweak the arrays for the different character classes to have idiosyncratic highs and lows coming to the same approximate average, and the more of an opportunity there is to target specific categories with bonuses and penalties due to in-game effects. But at the same time, the more categories you have, the more bookkeeping is created, and the more opportunity there is to argue over the appropriate categorization of different events.

Interestingly, with DCC, since the maximum differential between saving throw bonuses up to level 5 (and that is all I'm interested in) is 2 points (10%), there is practically no reason to keep the three categories, with the exception that each category is governed by a different attribute allowing up to a 3 point swing from the baseline. All this being said, I am relatively satisfied with the three categories in DCC - satisfied enough to be defeated by the forces of inertia on this one (though I think I slightly prefer either the B/X or S&W systems, each in their own way). Maybe I just hate the throwback to 3e.

Alternate systems:

  1. Switch DCC to a system where saving throws are directly tied to the appropriate attribute. In this case, they become specially designated skill checks. Provide a single flat saving throw bonus for each character class based on level. At level 5, for all human classes, this bonus would be +2, the average across the three categories. Under this system, there would of course be 6 saving throw categories, one for each attribute.
  2. Completely rip off the saving throw tables of B/X, LotFP, or Labyrinth Lord for the analogous character classes on a level-for-level basis (this is one of the points where DCC does not scale 1 to 2 with other OSR systems).
  3. Switch DCC to a system with a single saving throw, with a single flat saving throw bonus for each character class as with #1 above. Either have one attribute key to saving throws, or simply leave saving throws unrelated to the attributes. Allow for bonuses and penalties to saving throws of a specific type through the use of keywords or descriptive language.