D&D 5th Edition 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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    ° Ignore slobster
    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.

  3. #3
    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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    ° Ignore keterys
    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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    ° Ignore Lanefan
    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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    ° Ignore Chris_Nightwing
    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!
    Everyone is weird, but those who are weird in the same way call themselves normal.

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    ° Ignore steenan
    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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    ° Ignore Kinak
    Quote Originally Posted by steenan View Post
    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 sounds perfect to me.

    It reminds me a bit of finishing moves from Wicked Fantasy Factory (a Goodman Games line from back in the 3.5 days, not sure if it's still around). If I recall correctly, you rolled 1d6 per level and if that was greater than the target's hit points, you killed the target in whatever brutal manner fit your character.

    Anyway, I think something along the lines of what you're describing would be the best save or die system I've seen. It lets hit points matter while preserving enough chance that it feels interactive and metagaming seems less appealing, in my opinion.

    Cheers!
    Kinak

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    ° Ignore Ratskinner
    Quote Originally Posted by steenan View Post
    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.
    I've suggested that such magical effect deal special damage. So Sleep deals 2d8 (or whatever) "sleep" damage. If its more than the target's current hp, they fall asleep instead of getting injured. Might need some tweaking for some of the other effects, but basically...

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Ratskinner View Post
    I've suggested that such magical effect deal special damage. So Sleep deals 2d8 (or whatever) "sleep" damage. If its more than the target's current hp, they fall asleep instead of getting injured. Might need some tweaking for some of the other effects, but basically...
    best way I've heard so far.

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