Game Design 116: Attack Matrixes

One of the things which always used to bug me about the older RPGs was the hugely convoluted way you had to figure out your attack rolls.

So if the opponent had an armor class of 7 you needed to roll a 12 or something like that to hit him. Of course, if you ever managed to get past 3rd level all your attack matrixes were bound to change as you became more competent at fighting and then your numbers would all be thrown out of whack again. One thing which was handy was the chart at the bottom of your character sheet, but that took time to write out if you made your character sheets by hand like we did. Plus, if you were the DM and had a load of monsters you’d just created you might actually be better off winging your attack ratings to some extent.

With second edition, Thac0 didn’t really impress me terribly much. The whole thing had been reduced to a single number with a crazy acronym, but it was still one of the craziest things around in the game.

In comparison, 3rd edition seemed like a breath of fresh air. Gone were all the crazy attack matrixes and funny acronyms. In their place was a unified and simple d20 system with target DCs and ACs which behaved in much the same way and actually shared a capital letter.

The funny thing is, after designing games for years, I’ve started to notice that the escalating DCs/ACs actually throw a curveball into the mechanics of the game system. I reread some of the earlier rules and they seemed to make sense on an intrinsic level. Yes, the numbers were still crazier than all get out, but they had a pattern and allowed that no matter which combination of levels you threw on the table, everyone still had a chance to hit some other guy. More than that, it was a carefully balanced and calculated chance. On the other hand, 4th and 3rd edition actually allowed for targets which were nearly impossible to hit or those who you couldn’t miss if you wanted to. I’m not saying that the earlier systems were necessarily better, but it is interesting to note that the newer ones caused problems I’d never suspected before I started looking at game rules more carefully. It was one of those ‘Oh’ moments you get now and again when you design games and examine what others have done before you. After noticing this wonkiness in the newer systems, I tried to find something with the balance of the old attack matrixes but the ease of use contained in the new systems.

It’s like you need to keep on the d20, but still use an escalating DC/AC system. I found it tricky because staying on the d20 doesn’t give you a lot of numbers to play around with especially considering 50% starts out at 11 and up on your d20. Advancement is one of those things which many players love to have in a game. Of course, taking out advancement completely would solve the problem in one shot, but at the time I wanted to include both a wide range of advancement and a balanced d20 attack matrix. I think I eventually settled for a range of scores up to 25, but it wasn’t my perfect solution. I’d still like to play around with the numbers a bit and find something that works for me.

One of the things I enjoyed doing was breaking down all the attack matrixes into percentages. Considering every point on a d20 as 5% you can lay out the numbers as percentages and get a pretty clear idea of what they all mean. It’s also interesting to compare these percentages to the percentages possible in the newer editions.

The other thing which really bugged me was a practical experience. It’s one of those things which got me interested in attack matrixes in the first place. We were at a friend’s house playing 4th edition and I was in the rare position of being a player since I didn’t have a very high opinion of 4th edition, had created an incredibly cheap-ass character for the game, the other fellow wanted to GM, and I was designing a few game projects at the time anyway. There were many crazy things going on in those adventures, but one of the things which sticks in my memory was when our group of highly deadly characters was ambushing a thug working for some thieves. The DM looked up his stats in the monster manual and apparently he had AC 16 even though he was wearing nothing but rags.

First off, I hardly ever look at a monster manual. Secondly, I wanted a load of loot off this guy so him not having any armor didn’t go down too well. Thirdly, I was absolutely peeved that this character had such a high AC for apparently not reason. After the game I took a look at the monster manual and wasn’t terribly impressed by the massive shifts in numbers as the game increased for higher level gameplay. In fact, even the low level bad guys had inflated scores just to be a threat to the low level players. I spotted the ‘gap’ between what you could fight and what was out of your league and I didn’t like it very much. D&D has always had a gap to some extent. If you go after an adult dragon at first level you’re usually in trouble no matter what. Cleverness notwithstanding. The size of the gap was what bugged me. How was it that we could now have creatures with AC 45 who could potentially fight characters with only +1 to attack? Why was this bugging me compared to old editions when he would have AC -5 or something like that? This was one of the reasons I started checking out the attack matrixes in the first place. I wanted to find out what went wrong and how to fix it.

I don’t really know what the ultimate solution to the problem is, but it’s one of those things I like to take a few extra looks at as a game designer. Small things which seem irrelevant, but work at the core of the games we enjoy. Sometimes the small things can make a big difference.

GM Fiat #2: Wombat Woman

The crew here at GM Fiat Studios have come up with some more crazy ideas to throw at your party of stalwart heroes this week. If you use these tips and tricks I can’t guarantee their success, but I ‘can’ guarantee they’ll be all but totally unexpected.

In honor of Canada day, you could have the entire campaign world beset by an instant ice age. The Canadians would obviously take over with their snow boots and igloo building skills. Apart from this, I’m not sure where you could take the adventure from there.

Running a seismic themed adventure, you could have the party beset by avalanches, sonic attacks, earthquakes, and everything else that vibrates. The party could find a vibration sword which could shatter about anything as a reward. In addition, it was recommended to me that there be a bar in which, if you made the right sounds, you could pick up women. This would be because of the secret harmonics used for a mating call.

Because the nations in your campaign will probably be small kingdoms, you can have a lot of different laws in a small geographic region. For example, one kingdom could prohibit the use of clothes within its borders while the neighboring kingdom demands that you cover all body parts with clothing. These two kingdoms are at war, obviously. In the hot summer the naked kingdom invades right to the castle walls of the covered kingdom. In the deepest winter months, the covered kingdom invades right to the walls of the naked kingdom. Of course, there are also guards on either side of the border patrolling who make fun of each other. Having a sense of decency, the party will probably try to bring peace to the two kingdoms in some way. Hopefully, with clothes.

Lastly, you could have the party, while on a journey, encounter some ancient hunters. These hunters would be willing to train the party in all kinds of ways to lure animals and track predators. Among their strange tricks would be hunting calls, trap setting, and carrying around a bottle of musk to attract female deer. At a bar, perhaps the same one as above, the hunter with the musk could use this on himself to attract women, but then gets thrown in a dungeon for indecent exposure. It is then the mission of the party and the man’s twenty gorgeous babes to free him. If you can convince one of your heroes to be the guy wearing the musk, so much the better.

As fate would have it, outside the town the party sees a wombat. This wombat increases in speed flying between trees until it glows and slices the tops off. The wombat is actually the crazy woman from the bar who liked the musk guy most and has fallen in love with one of the party members who has gross wombat habits like scratching his back. The wombat woman’s idea of a turn down is to defecate on the gentleman’s head and fly off into the night. Don’t ask me, that’s what my notes say.


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Challenger RPG

First Post
Some of my players just let me know that the part about the deer musk was a little overboard in the original article. I cleaned it up a little bit. Sorry for any confusion. ;)


First Post
I don't think it's much of a problem with the d20 system, but poorly designed monsters. 1st level characters have an average attack of +3, some higher some lower. So, as a nice DM I would make bad guys or a 1st level monsters have an AC of 13 to 15. 1st level party should have a 20-30% chance to defeat a 4th level monster (in my eyes) and I would say, the monster should have AC 18-19. I guess that if you have a goal set you can create monsters accordingly. My goal is to give players a chance from 45-55% to hit the opponent that is in equal power to them. This way you are kind of taking the die out of the equation (since there is a 50% chance to hit the opponent on a 10) and what characters do in combat actually matters. Higher ground, 5% chance more. Charge, 10% chance more. Rage + charge 20% chance more. Power attack, lowers chances but could end combat quickly. Flaking, aid, trip and so on.

Challenger RPG

First Post
@Mark Chance : I agree. However, BAB also gives you the opportunity to go 'off the die'. For example, you could have +20 to attack or a creature with AC 35. I'm not saying that's bad, but it's something interesting I never noticed before.

@Fetfreak : Well said. I think that's a fine way to run a good d20 system game. If every GM had your initiative and skills I don't think it would be much of an issue. I think the problem more lies in GMs who stick religiously to the rules having creatures with extremely high ACs face the party. A bit of creative 'tweaking' can easily fix those sorts of problems. I don't think it's a major concern for most games, but I've seen it cause a few hiccups now and again.

Also, my players tend to be very fond of taking on 20th level opponents at first level and other such 'daring' things. :p

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