Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Escalation of Awesomeness and Proficiency Modifiers

My latest pondering is on the subject of "proficiency modifiers." I was talking to H- about this but AIM got cut off. So, I figured I'd blog before I hit the sack.

Say we want characters to succeed at a given task 55% of the time. There are several ways we can get there, however.

For example, take a typical "to-hit roll" using a weapon that you are proficient in:
AD&D: Roll 1d20. Compare to TN (10, in this case).
4E: Roll 1d20 + 2 Proficiency Modifier. Compare to TN (12).
Chart: Roll 1d20. Compare to TN on a chart (10).

Now throw in the monkey wrench of non-proficiency. Say, you have weapon prof rules and you just lost your mace and have to fall back on that rusty spoon you don't really know how to use.

AD&D: Roll 1d20 - 2 Non-Proficiency Penalty. Compare to the same TN (10, in this case).
4E: Roll 1d20. Compare to the same TN (12).
Chart: Roll 1d20. Compare to TN on a chart (12 -- different from the other case).

At first, I liked the 4E method best. After all, its always nice to get bonuses! However, this is the "escalation of awesomeness." Sure, you get +2 to hit, but the monster's defenses improved by 2, so its just a mathematical wankfest. Also, the 4E method has the disadvantage of being slower for commonly performed tasks. I find that 80%+ of the time, players try to do things they are proficient in. If a character is proficient in the long sword and not in the mace, they will use the long sword almost all the time (except when they need a hurled weapon or projectile weapon, or in special circumstances). The 4E method requires you to perform an extra mathematical step (adding that proficiency bonus) every time the task is attempted.

What I have informally termed the "AD&D method" is faster 80%+ of the time, i.e., when attempting tasks of proficiency. It also has an advantage of making it very clear what things are Bad Ideas. If a player is told that they can attempt something at a penalty, they are less likely to try doing it than trying to attempt something at a lack of a bonus. For example, I've seen folks on 4E forums that don't realize just what a bad idea it is to use a weapon they're not proficient in ("Well, I'm just missing out on a small bonus to hit. Not a big deal."); if they get slapped with a penalty to hit a la AD&D, I bet they'd notice, even if the odds were the same! The downside to this is that it may stifle innovation. Players will be reluctant to try something that their character is not proficient in because of the penalty. However, your most creative and thoughtful players will probably understand the math and probabilities anyways, so this may mitigate that effect.

The chart method is similar to the AD&D Saving Throw mechanic. You could say that clerics roll 1d20, add a bonus, and compare to a fixed TN for Poison Saves (which they are good at); or they could roll 1d20, subtract a penalty, and compare to a TN for petrification saves (which they are not as good at). The former method is how S&W handles it.

The chart method is potentially fast, especially if the scores can be prerecorded. It also has the least processing requirement on the player; they never have to add or subtract a modifier. Unfortuanetly, it shifts that calculation on to the DM, who is already handling lots of issues. I think this makes it more likely to be forgotten in the heat of the moment.

This method is also good for cloaking the odds somewhat. For example, an AD&D level 1 fighter has +5% to hit compared to a thief. But, that info is hidden in a THAC0 table; under the extrapolation of the AD&D method described above, we'd give the thief -1 to hit and have them roll against the same TN as the fighter; using the 4E method, we'd give the fighter +1 to hit and have them roll against the same TN as the thief. Both methods are more obvious than the chart is.

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