Combo! (4e + Dragon Age)

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Harbinger’s post reminded me of a couple of the things I don’t like about D&D 4e’s power structures: combats become samey as you blow through the same encounter powers each fight, and it’s annoying when you miss with them. I also really like the way powers tend to work in the Dragon Age video games, so here’s an attempt at a hybrid (examples are changed as little as possible from the core for illustrative purposes, though I’d probably make additional changes were I to actually use this idea).


All player characters have an Energy score that’s depleted by using special abilities. It replenishes to full during a short rest, and certain actions during combat can recover one or more points. Persistent powers can “reserve” a certain number of Energy points, essentially requiring the character to expend that many points and lower the maximum number of points until the power is turned off. Energy is equal to 5 + 1/2 level (number obviously subject to much playtesting).

Many attack powers reference [Weapon] damage. Unlike normal 4e, this is the entire damage expression for a standard attack: for example, a first level fighter with Strength +4 and a +1 longsword would have [Weapon] = 1d8+5. The purpose of this is to reduce having to constantly update damage calculations for each power; in most cases, only the main damage expression should have to be updated as characters level and gain gear. Characters choose a class-appropriate ability score to assign to attack and damage bonus and that remains consistent across all uses of powers (rather than bonus being variable based on power).

Most powers have a trigger and an Energy cost. The trigger is an event that causes the power to become available; when triggered a character may choose to pay the power’s cost to initiate it.

Many powers can be upgraded (with upgrade points coming from leveling up). Each point spent on upgrading the power increases its potency by the amount described in the power listing.

Example Powers (Paladin)

Basic Attack

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action
  • Cost: 0
  • Effect: Attack vs. AC, on hit: [Weapon] damage
  • Upgrade: Damage changes to 2 x [Weapon] (only upgradeable once at level 21)

Critical Hit

  • Trigger: Character rolls a natural 20 on any attack roll that successfully hits
  • Cost: 1
  • Effect: Attack deals damage as if all dice had rolled their maximum (player does not roll); magic items may add additional dice that are rolled
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade increases the “threat range” of the attack (e.g., first upgrade makes criticals usable on 19-20)


  • Trigger: Character spends a standard action
  • Cost: 1
  • Effect: Character can take an additional move and then immediately gains a free Basic Attack against an adjacent target
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade increases the attack bonus of the Basic Attack by +1

Divine Challenge

  • Trigger: Character spends a minor action
  • Cost: 0
  • Effect: One target within 5 squares (with clear line of effect) is Marked (with the usual game effects); in addition, the first attack the target makes each turn that does not include the character immediately subjects the target to 6 Radiant Damage
  • Special: The Divine Challenge expires at the end of the character’s turn if the character is not adjacent to the target and did not make an attack against the target this turn; if the Divine Challenge expires in this way, it cannot be used on the following turn
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade increases the damage dealt by +1

Bolstering Strike

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action
  • Cost: 0
  • Effect: Attack vs. AC, on hit: [Weapon] damage and attacker gains 3 Temporary Hit Points
  • Upgrade: Damage changes to 2 x [Weapon] (only upgradeable once at level 21)

Enfeebling Strike

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action
  • Cost: 0
  • Effect: Attack vs. AC, on hit: [Weapon] damage and target takes -2 penalty to attack rolls until your next turn
  • Upgrade: Damage changes to 2 x [Weapon] (only upgradeable once at level 21)

Holy Strike

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action
  • Cost: 0
  • Effect: Attack vs. AC, on hit: [Weapon] Radiant damage (+3 if target is marked)
  • Upgrade: Damage changes to 2 x [Weapon] (only upgradeable once at level 21)

Valiant Strike

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action
  • Cost: 0
  • Effect: Attack vs. AC (+1 to attack roll for each enemy adjacent to the character), on hit: [Weapon] damage
  • Upgrade: Damage changes to 2 x [Weapon] (only upgradeable once at level 21)

Fearsome Smite

  • Trigger: Character hits with Enfeebling Strike
  • Cost: 2
  • Effect: Add [Weapon] to damage, target takes an additional -1 penalty to attack (-3 total) until your next turn
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade increases the attack penalty by an additional -1

Piercing Smite

  • Trigger: Character attacks with Valiant Strike
  • Cost: 2
  • Effect: Attack targets Reflex instead of AC, on hit: add [Weapon] to damage and mark the target and up to 3 adjacent enemies until your next turn
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +1 bonus to the attack roll

Radiant Smite

  • Trigger: Character hits with Holy Strike
  • Cost: 2
  • Effect: Add [Weapon] to damage and target becomes the subject of Divine Challenge if it was not already (thus gaining Holy Strike’s bonus damage against marked targets)
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +1 bonus damage

Shielding Smite

  • Trigger: Character hits with Bolstering Strike
  • Cost: 2
  • Effect: Add [Weapon] to damage, one ally within 5 squares gains a +3 power bonus to AC until your next turn
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +1 AC bonus

On Pain of Death

  • Trigger: Character spends a standard action while a target is the subject of character’s Divine Challenge
  • Cost: 5
  • Effect: Attack vs. Will, on hit: target takes 3 x [Weapon] damage (treat weapon damage as 1d8+Cha if unarmed) and takes 1d8 damage after making an attack on its turn (save ends), on miss target takes half damage and 1d4 damage after making an attack on its turn (save ends)
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +1 attack bonus

Paladin’s Judgement

  • Trigger: Character hits with any Smite power
  • Cost: 3
  • Effect: Add an additional [Weapon] to damage and one ally within 5 squares can spend a Healing Surge
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +2 healing for the surge

Radiant Delirium

  • Trigger: Character spends a standard action while a target is the subject of character’s Divine Challenge
  • Cost: 5
  • Effect: Attack vs. Reflex, on hit: target takes 3 x [Weapon] damage (treat weapon damage as 1d8+Cha if unarmed), is dazed until the end of your next turn, and takes a -2 penalty to AC (save ends), on miss target takes half damage and is dazed until the end of your next turn
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +1 attack bonus

Astral Speech

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action (can be activated out of combat)
  • Cost: 2 (Reserved)
  • Effect: Characters gains a +4 power bonus to Diplomacy while power is active
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +1 to power bonus

Martyr’s Blessing

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action (can be activated out of combat) and designates a target
  • Cost: 2 (Reserved)
  • Effect: Whenever the target is adjacent to the character, the character may choose to be hit instead by any attack that successfully hits the target
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade reduces damage suffered from this power by -1 per hit

Sacred Circle

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action (can be activated out of combat)
  • Cost: 2 (Reserved)
  • Effect: Character and all allies within 3 squares gain a +1 power bonus to AC
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +1 square to the range of the circle

Players would prefer to be SAD…


Something I’ve noticed in Dragon Age 2 that I didn’t in the original is that rogues are way more MAD than any other class… that is, they’re Multiple Attribute Dependent. Warriors want Strength for their attacks, Constitution for more hit points, and, as a far tertiary, Willpower for more energy. Mages want Magic for their attacks, Willpower for more mana, and, as a far tertiary, Constitution for more hit points. Rogues want Dexterity for their attacks, Cunning for their damage and unique skill (opening locks), Willpower for more energy, and Constitution for more hit points. Building either of the first two classes means keeping the first two scores high (with which one is higher dependent on build) and sometimes tossing a point into the tertiary score. Building a Rogue means a constant fight to keep Dexterity high enough to wield the best weapons, Cunning high enough to open locks at that stage of the game, Willpower high enough to have enough energy to use your skills, and Constitution high enough to not die all the time.

This is a classic problem in game design, and D&D in particular gets a lot of flack for classes that are highly MAD. Classic examples in 3rd edition are the Paladin and Monk, which both have only two of four ability scores that aren’t in some way essential to various class features. So Paladins tend to be stuck as clumsy idiots, and Monks as boorish idiots, by virtue of what stats they have to dump to keep the others high. Meanwhile, other fighting classes don’t really require high mental scores at all, and can generally deprioritize at least one of the physicals, making them way easier to make effective with comparable ability scores.

The problem has a pretty simple source: once you’ve created a meaningful array of attributes and abilities, you’re essentially written into a corner by simulation logic, despite what it does to game balance. If you have a Constitution attribute, it should be involved in any system where a healthy guy would logically do better than a sickly one. If you have a Dexterity attribute, everything done better by a quick and agile guy should use it. If you tie any of them into important derived scores, you’ll have to work very hard to justify why different classes derive that score a different way.

One way to avoid the problem is the way used in Changeling: the Dreaming, Fading Suns, and Mage: the Awakening: have all the abilities within one power group use a different (almost random) combination of scores that are at least superficially related to that particular trick. This effectively makes every character MAD, limiting them to either being universally mediocre at their special powers or good at some tricks while terrible at others within the same specialty. This does make the system a bit more balanced (unless a player finds a powerful combo of tricks using a small pool of abilities), but makes your system less elegant: everything is a special case that players will have to look up to remember anyway.

The other way is to continue the trend that both tabletop and video games have been pursuing for the last decade or more: package all of your game rules into the final expression of your system (the fun), and allow players to decide for themselves what that means about their character in context. That is, for example, do you really need to use a magic or intelligence attribute as a prereq for sorcerous abilities, or can you just let the player buy the abilities and roleplay being a powerful savant/towering intellectual? Keeping players from cherry picking can just as easily be accomplished by putting good abilities several steps down a feat progression as by tying powers to different attributes.

I’m a simulationist at heart, and I enjoy the idea of having numbers on the sheet saying, “my guy is this strong, this smart, this fast, etc.” But in a lot of modern games (particularly video games) those numbers aren’t really meaningful from a system point of view: all the really important verbs (the ones that your players will want to use most often) are hidden behind special abilities. We’ve been gradually moving from an era where players could try most anything they could think of and then roll against their attributes to one in which interesting options are prepackaged as abilities to give players ideas and an instant niche (but that, de facto, prevent a player from doing that thing without the ability). Kewl powerz have gone from being rare seasoning to being the dominant flavor of many game engines.

So if you’re making a game where special abilities make up the majority of the things your players might want to do (particularly a video game where thinking outside of the pre-scripted options isn’t even possible), consider very strongly if you still have any reason to include attributes and abilities. You may find that you’re holding onto them purely out of nostalgia, and that your game will be far easier to balance without them.

Instant Gratification vs. Phenominal Power

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I’ve been playing a lot of Mass Effect 2. Previously, I was playing a lot of Dragon Age. Bioware has crawled in and owned most of my free time for the last few months. It’s safe to say my thoughts on design have been influenced by what they’ve been soaking in.

Today, I’m brought back again to an aspect of the current level conundrum. Specifically, in how both games handle a fairly simple skill system differently as far as advancement:

  • In Dragon Age, each rank of an ability costs the same as the previous. It costs the same to go from level 2 to level 3 of a skill as it did to go from level 1 to level 2.
  • In Mass Effect 2 (unlike its predecessor), each rank of an ability costs more than the previous level. Going from level 2 to level 3 of a skill costs more than going from level 1 to level 2.

These two examples neatly sum up the dominant advancement methods in pretty much all RPGs. Some use both systems: the first during character generation for simplicity, the last during actual play (which is the core issue of the current level conundrum linked above). Others use one or the other exclusively.

They result in different player behavior when making characters in many cases. In my experience, there is little players enjoy more than rolling huge fistfuls of dice (or, in a non-dice-pool system, adding huge numbers to the roll). Or, in the case of computer games with increasing power unlocks, there is little that players like more than getting the awesome power at the end of a skill tree.

This behavior means that, in an equal-cost system, there is a substantial tendency for player skills to exist in only three states, no matter how many ranks each skill has:

  • Zero ranks, for skills the player hasn’t bothered with yet
  • One rank, for skills the player can’t use without at least one rank
  • As close to maximum ranks as the player can afford

Unless there is some other force at play (such as powers in the mid-ranks being better than at the top ranks, or some form of prerequisite or other limit), few PCs will naturally gravitate to an even spread of skills. It’s just more fun to bring huge chances of success or awesome powers to bear. The tendency is to max out as many skills as possible early, then max out the rest one by one during advancement.

The ME2/current level style of leveling scheme exists to counter this tendency. Games such as the Storyteller system will also indicate that a degree of simulationism is involved (to weight the difficulty of mastering a skill to that of the real world), but the primary impetus in play winds up being to offer a degree of instant gratification to counter the quest for phenomenal power.

Most games that use a stepped system of this kind award advancement points in small batches. In ME2, for example, each character gets 1-2 points per level, and skills cost 1-4 points for the respective ranks. Once a skill is rank 2, raising it will require spending at least one level with no advancement first. Perhaps not coincidentally, many skills unlock access to a new skill once the second rank is purchased.

A player is forced to choose to buy something lesser now, or wait for the bigger payoff. He or she also must consider whether a better chance at success or an upgraded power is worth multiple times as much as what’s gained from advancing a lower skill.

Ultimately, this is the reason to go with a current level system for experience: encouraging the conflict between gratification and power to create better-rounded characters. A flat-cost system will result in many players having few skills at median levels, unless other rules are in play to establish limits or ratios. Either result can be acceptable, as long as the system designer/GM knows and desires that outcome.

But systems that use flat cost for character creation and current level for advancement still punish the less system-minded players in any event 🙂 .

Inverted Dragon Age Dice Mechanic

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Something I find interesting about the “problem” with the Dragon Age RPG dice mechanic is that it goes away when you make the system a roll-under instead of a roll-over method. At that point, the higher your skill, the more likely you are to get a high dragon die result.

DC Success Avg. Success Result
3 0.5% 1.00
4 1.9% 1.25
5 4.6% 1.50
6 9.3% 1.75
7 16.2% 2.00
8 25.9% 2.25
9 37.5% 2.48
10 50.0% 2.69
11 62.5% 2.89
12 74.1% 3.06
13 83.8% 3.21
14 90.7% 3.32
15 95.4% 3.40
16 98.1% 3.46
17 99.5% 3.49
18 100.0% 3.50

I’m typically not a fan of roll-under systems, primarily because it makes it feel harder to set a difficulty than in target number systems. While mechanically, “1d20+5 vs DC 10 or 15” is the same as “roll under 15 with a 0 or -5 penalty,” they feel different in play.

However, something like this might be a good replacement for systems like Fading Suns and Pendragon that currently feature a flat d20 roll-under, creating a less swingy result.

Dragon Age-style Buffs for D&D

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One of the cooler ideas from the Dragon Age video game, in my opinion, is the Sustained abilities. Unlike in most games with maintained powers, these abilities aren’t a constant drain against the user’s refresh rate (though some do drain extra stamina or mana when in combat). Instead, they reduce the overall size of the character’s resource pool. A character can very usefully be built around running a large series of constant buffs instead of using resources for one-off powers.

Something very similar could be done in D&D 3.x/Pathfinder without drastically upsetting the rules base:

Any spell with a range of Personal or Touch and a duration greater than instant and less than permanent can be Sustained. A Sustained spell uses up greater casting energy than normal, but lasts until the caster rests or otherwise falls unconscious.

  • Spells with a duration of 1 hour/level can be sustained with 1 additional spell slot of the same level (2 slots total).
  • Spells with a duration of 10 minutes/level or 1 hour (unmodified by level) can be sustained with 2 additional spell slots of the same level (3 slots total).
  • Spells with a duration of 1 minute/level or 10 minutes (unmodified by level) can be sustained with 3 additional spell slots of the same level (4 slots total).
  • Spells with a duration of 1 round/level or 1 minute (unmodified by level) can be sustained with 4 additional spell slots of the same level (5 slots total).

As mentioned, falling unconscious ends the effect, whether through incapacitation or sleep. Additionally, if any short rest rules are in effect that allow recovery of spell slots, a sustained spell’s slots are not recovered if the spell remains active. Spells cast on other individuals cease functioning if the individual moves farther than Short range (25 ft + 5 ft/2 levels) from the caster, though they resume functioning at the beginning of the caster’s next turn after returning to the correct range.

This system is primarily intended for buffs, but shouldn’t be game breaking if applied to the few offensive spells with the correct range and duration, given the cost in spell slots and the ability for enemies to break range. However, GMs should disallow any spells to be sustained that seem too good even with the additional rules.

Dragon Age RPG Dice Mechanic

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Recently, Green Ronin began publishing design diaries about their upcoming Dragon Age tabletop RPG. The latest design diary explains the core dice system for the game. In essence, it’s 3d6 plus a modifier of -1 to +7 (attributes range from -1 to +5, and skills can add an additional +2) vs. a difficulty. So far, it’s not too different from GURPS: it should have a strongly center-weighted distribution where each +1 bonus is exactly equivalent to -1 difficulty. The meaning of a +5 vs. +0 should be exactly 5 steps of difficulty (i.e., the +5 will hit DC 15 exactly as often as the +0 hits DC 10).

The interesting change is the introduction of the Dragon Die: one of the d6s, designated before rolling, indicates the success amount for successful rolls. This is fairly counter to the Margin of Success (MoS) systems that are common, and makes the die system into a strange hybrid of GURPS and In Nomine. And, as with In Nomine, players already worry that the Dragon Die concept will produce strange results at the table: because the Dragon Die also adds to the chance of success, successful rolls at higher DC/lower skill will succeed grandly more often than successful rolls at lower DC/higher skill.

The math behind this is quite simple: once DCs hit the point that the player must roll well on all three dice, it’s going to be very hard to get a success without getting a good roll on the Dragon Die. Meanwhile, a character that succeeds most of the time has a far wider spread of possible results on the Dragon Die that still result in success. Against DC 10, a character with a -1 modifier will expect an average of 4.3 on the Dragon Die for successes, while a character with a +7 modifier can only expect a 3.5. Meanwhile, the MoS for the -1 is 1.9, while it’s 7.5 for the +7. This obviously seems counterintuitive: The higher bonus is going to beat the DC by an average of 5 more points than the lower one, but actually get one point less success based on the Dragon Die.

If this is an issue, there are a couple of ways to deal with it without completely reinventing the wheel or adding lots more math: direct MoS and Governed MoS.

In direct MoS, you ignore the Dragon Die completely and just take the Margin of Success (Result – DC). This is how most games seem to do it, but it might cause problems with the expected results; with the Dragon Die concept, the rest of the game engine will probably be based around only successful results of 1-6, and a straight MoS result could get as much as a 15, which may drastically skew the results of high-bonus play.

In Governed MoS, you take the MoS as long as it’s not higher than the Dragon Die. This system removes the advantage of the Dragon Die for low bonuses: because your Dragon Die result can’t be higher than your MoS, the greater bonus retains the advantage. Because your MoS can’t be higher than the Dragon Die, it preserves the maximum of 6 for results (though it does add a 0 that might need to be dealt with). The real flaw in the system is that it’s pretty punishing for lower bonuses: in order to even out the results, it lowers the average for most of the range by 1-2 points off the base system, and, at the higher end of the bonus scale, is exactly the same as the Dragon Die system. It’s essentially just penalizing the lower bonuses with no benefit for the higher ones.

And, overall, the high Dragon Die on successes for high DCs might just be an acceptable wart if the rest of the system manages to be good. Because, taken in with the actual average of total results (where clear misses count as a 0 on the die), the average success for a straight Dragon Die system still follows a curve that favors having a higher bonus.

Average Results for Different Dragon Age Systems