D&D Next (5E) Why the HP Threshold on Spells is a Bad Idea




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    Why the HP Threshold on Spells is a Bad Idea

    In both the new playtest packet and the previous one, alot of spells use what I call the HP threshold mechanic. Example spells include Bane, Charm Person, Command, Ghoul Touch, Hold Person, Ray of Enfeeblement, and so on. These spells either won't work at all on targets with more than a certain maximum hit point total, don't allow a saving throw to targets with fewer hit points than that threshold, or have reduced effects against creatures with hp maximums above the threshold. This is a terrible game mechanic and I strongly urge the designers to stop using it. Here's just a few of the reasons why this mechanic is bad for the game:

    * It forces players to guess at a monster's maximum hit point totals (or worse, resort to using metagaming or peeking in the monster manual). Guessing wrong and attempting to use the spell on a creature with too many hit points usually means you waste the spell with little or no effect. That's frustrating and not fun at all, and not for any good reason. At least when a creature makes its save, you knew there was a chance that you might have accomplished something, so you don't feel like a complete idiot for wasting your turn and prepared spell for nothing.

    * Many of these effects don't even allow a saving throw, even though the conditions or penalties they inflict can be quite severe. A good example of this is Charm Person, which offers no saving throw if your hit point maximum is less than 25. Another example is Command, which offers no saving throw if the target's hp max is less than 30. This isn't even save-or-suck. It's worse! It's "have enough maximum hit points or suck," without a saving throw or any other way to resist at all.

    * As characters increase in level, these spells eventually become worthless, since the threats the PCs will be typically fighting will have maximum hp totals above the limits of these spells. Why should some 1st level spells, like Grease, remain useful forever, while spells like Charm Person eventually become useless? This isn't the first edition of the game to have this problem. We saw the same problem with spells like Sleep in 3.x, which was overpowered at levels 1-5 but then became useless later because it couldn't affect creatures with more than 5 Hit Dice. The one extreme does NOT balance the other. It is NOT okay for a spell to be overpowered at low levels or any level. Making it useless at higher levels does NOT balance it out, any more than wizards being frail weaklings at low levels was balanced by them becoming godlike at high levels in past editions. Bounded accuracy helps somewhat to alleviate this issue, but it only delays the inevitable. Monsters may stay releveant longer, but they don't remain relevant forever.

    * It punishes some classes more than others. Since your hit points are determined by your class, the result is that wizards end up being more susceptible to these spells than fighters are, and so on. That's ridiculous. At least Hit Die limits treat all classes fairly (not that I'm a big fan of that mechanic either).

    This mechanic is awful and needs to go. Any spell, ANY spell, that debilitates a character in any way needs to have either an attack roll or saving throw, as appropriate. It's simply not okay to have such spells automatically succeed or fail. If a spell like Sleep is just too powerful as a 1st level spell without a hp limit, well, then make it a higher level spell! Sleep in particular has always been problematic, being effectively a low level save-or-die. Maybe it's just not appropriate for a 1st level spell. Maybe it never has been.

    There are also many other, far better ways of balancing these types of spells. Players could be given multiple ways to break out of their effects, not the least of which should be a saving throw every turn in combat to shrug off a nasty effect. Spells like Charm and Suggestion can have reasonable limits on what they can make people do (like not being able to make them commit suicide or attack their allies) so that they aren't effectively save-or-lose. There's even the possibility of giving higher level beings a bonus on their saving throws rather than granting them outright immunity. There are plenty of other options. Almost anything is better than the hp threshold mechanic they're using now to "balance" these spells.
    Last edited by Falling Icicle; Monday, 24th September, 2012 at 07:28 AM.

 

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    On the flip side, I think monsters that use the HP threshold mechanic were pretty cool. Especially those with an ability that is passive or constant, that only kicks in once the PCs are weakened. The old example of the banshee's wail that is merely unsettling to healthy, powerful heroes, but potentially deadly to normal people and even to exhausted paragons.

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    Quote Originally Posted by slobster View Post
    On the flip side, I think monsters that use the HP threshold mechanic were pretty cool. Especially those with an ability that is passive or constant, that only kicks in once the PCs are weakened. The old example of the banshee's wail that is merely unsettling to healthy, powerful heroes, but potentially deadly to normal people and even to exhausted paragons.
    I don't mind having something like a bloodied condition once you drop below half hp or whatever, and some things being keyed to work off that. But that kind of mechanic is quite different from the hp threshold mechanic they're using for spells.

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    The mechanic is quite effective on monsters - fits the fiction, plays easily, solves basically every problem on your list for how it works for PCs.

    So, there's definitely a purpose for it in the system.

    In the case of mind controllery effects, it does make sense that they only work on creatures appropriate for their spell level - otherwise that'd be a cheap method to burn lower level spells in order to get far too much damage output (well, I could get 2d8 damage from a direct damage spell, or I can make this creature attack its ally, or run from melee taking a couple attacks from my allies).

    Mind you, I'd be fine if those effects just weren't ever low level spells too. Or spells at all. (Ritual and item charms? Sure!)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Falling Icicle View Post
    This mechanic is awful and needs to go. Any spell, ANY spell, that debilitates a character in any way needs to have either an attack roll or saving throw, as appropriate. It's simply not okay to have such spells automatically succeed or fail.
    I agree the h.p. mechanic is poor. I don't agree that every harmful spell needs either an attack or defense roll, though most should; a hypothetical spell that does, say, 2 points damage to everything in the area of effect should be automatic with no save. Ditto a spell that causes everything in the area to lose its next round of actions (or to act randomly, whatever).
    There are also many other, far better ways of balancing these types of spells. Players could be given multiple ways to break out of their effects, not the least of which should be a saving throw every turn in combat to shrug off a nasty effect. Spells like Charm and Suggestion can have reasonable limits on what they can make people do (like not being able to make them commit suicide or attack their allies) so that they aren't effectively save-or-lose. There's even the possibility of giving higher level beings a bonus on their saving throws rather than granting them outright immunity. There are plenty of other options. Almost anything is better than the hp threshold mechanic they're using now to "balance" these spells.
    Spells should have a duration - fail your initial save and you're affected for that length of time. Save every round is fine for a few spells but should not be the norm.

    Charm and Suggestion already have the restrictions you want, at least in 1e. I didn't know these had ever gone away.

    As for level determining immunity or not, a nice way to gradate this is to pick a level (or HD number, for monsters). That level gets a straight save to negate. The level below gets a save at -4. Level below that saves at -8. Lower levels get no save. Level +1 saves at +4, level +2 saves at +8, higher levels are immune.

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    Low-level spells should not remain useful at high levels. High level spellcasters shouldn't have low level spells at all. Let's defeat the mighty Wizard Quadratix please!
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    HP threshold would be fine for me (even more: would be my favorite spell design pattern) if:
    - thresholds were compared to current, not maximum, HP
    - thresholds were randomized, not constant
    - each spell had at least a minor effect on targets above the threshold

    This way, is should be possible to have save-or-die (or even die-with-no-save) spells without unbalancing the system and ignoring the HP track. A caster would be able to do awful things to 1st level NPCs and to powerful enemies that have been severely weakened by earlier attacks, but wouldn't be able to one-shot what was intended as a challenge for entire party.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chris_Nightwing View Post
    Low-level spells should not remain useful at high levels. High level spellcasters shouldn't have low level spells at all. Let's defeat the mighty Wizard Quadratix please!
    Why? Because a howitzer is an appropriate tool to kill a mouse?

    I can't agree with this at all. If you want to keep wizards down to a lower number of spells, fine, but let the wizard choose what spells to fill those slots with - low or high - and let them still be useful.
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    Quote Originally Posted by billd91 View Post
    Why? Because a howitzer is an appropriate tool to kill a mouse?

    I can't agree with this at all. If you want to keep wizards down to a lower number of spells, fine, but let the wizard choose what spells to fill those slots with - low or high - and let them still be useful.
    That would sort of defeat the point of spell levels no? If low-level spells were as useul as high-level spells at high level. I'd be happy with that, sign me up.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Falling Icicle View Post
    In both the new playtest packet and the previous one, alot of spells use what I call the HP threshold mechanic. Example spells include Bane, Charm Person, Command, Ghoul Touch, Hold Person, Ray of Enfeeblement, and so on. These spells either won't work at all on targets with more than a certain maximum hit point total, don't allow a saving throw to targets with fewer hit points than that threshold, or have reduced effects against creatures with hp maximums above the threshold. This is a terrible game mechanic and I strongly urge the designers to stop using it. Here's just a few of the reasons why this mechanic is bad for the game:
    Imma let you finish, but let me just interrupt for one second here- how would you feel if the mechanic remained but was linked to CURRENT hit points instead of maximum?

    Quote Originally Posted by Falling Icicle View Post
    It forces players to guess at a monster's maximum hit point totals (or worse, resort to using metagaming or peeking in the monster manual).
    As an aside, do dms really let the players look inside monster books during the game?

    Quote Originally Posted by Falling Icicle View Post
    Guessing wrong and attempting to use the spell on a creature with too many hit points usually means you waste the spell with little or no effect.
    I agree that this is a problem- hp threshold spells and effects should have a lesser effect on creatures that exceed their mechanic IMHO. Then again, that's a lot like a monster making its save in the old days.

    Quote Originally Posted by Falling Icicle View Post
    At least when a creature makes its save, you knew there was a chance that you might have accomplished something, so you don't feel like a complete idiot for wasting your turn and prepared spell for nothing.
    Well, I don't think that each pc should necessarily have a good round every round, personally; if you never miss, the challenge drops away a lot.

    Quote Originally Posted by Falling Icicle View Post
    Many of these effects don't even allow a saving throw, even though the conditions or penalties they inflict can be quite severe. A good example of this is Charm Person, which offers no saving throw if your hit point maximum is less than 25. Another example is Command, which offers no saving throw if the target's hp max is less than 30. This isn't even save-or-suck. It's worse! It's "have enough maximum hit points or suck," without a saving throw or any other way to resist at all.
    This is potentially problematic, depending on the range of effects that come with no save through the hp threshold mechanic. I think, kept within reason, it's quite fine, though- the idea of autocharming the barmaid (for instance) doesn't bother me, especially because she will remember everything (the party wizard might certainly get a reputation that way!).


    Quote Originally Posted by Falling Icicle View Post
    * As characters increase in level, these spells eventually become worthless, since the threats the PCs will be typically fighting will have maximum hp totals above the limits of these spells.
    Aha!

    Two things- first, this is part of the reason I like the idea of linking the hp threshold mechanic to current hp instead of maximum.

    Second, I think you are wrong to a great extent in your assumption. We've been hearing that part of the intent behind bounded accuracy is to allow low-level monsters to remain a threat against high-level pcs in sufficient numbers. They will essentially be minions- but there seems to be no reason that you couldn't have a 10th level party attack orcs (and if it was an orcish fortress, it might even be a good fight!).


    Quote Originally Posted by Falling Icicle View Post
    Bounded accuracy helps somewhat to alleviate this issue, but it only delays the inevitable. Monsters may stay releveant longer, but they don't remain relevant forever.
    I am hoping that, in sufficient numbers and with decent leadership and tactics, they do.

    Quote Originally Posted by Falling Icicle View Post
    * It punishes some classes more than others. Since your hit points are determined by your class, the result is that wizards end up being more susceptible to these spells than fighters are, and so on. That's ridiculous.
    Another good point!

    Quote Originally Posted by Falling Icicle View Post
    This mechanic is awful and needs to go. Any spell, ANY spell, that debilitates a character in any way needs to have either an attack roll or saving throw, as appropriate. It's simply not okay to have such spells automatically succeed or fail.
    I completely disagree with you here.

    I think the mechanic is decent and has great potential, but needs tweaking. I also think no-save, no-attack debilitating spells are fine; there is a long tradition of them (sleep, death spell, power words, etc) and I don't have any problem with them.

    Quote Originally Posted by Falling Icicle View Post
    There are also many other, far better ways of balancing these types of spells. Players could be given multiple ways to break out of their effects, not the least of which should be a saving throw every turn in combat to shrug off a nasty effect. Spells like Charm and Suggestion can have reasonable limits on what they can make people do (like not being able to make them commit suicide or attack their allies) so that they aren't effectively save-or-lose. There's even the possibility of giving higher level beings a bonus on their saving throws rather than granting them outright immunity.
    I like all of these suggestions, but as an adjunct to the hp threshold system.

    Also, I think you are overestimating what charm person can do- all the charmed condition does is make you unable to attack your charmer and give the charmer advantage on social interactions with you. So it can't make you attack your allies or commit suicide at all.
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