Saturday, February 14, 2009

I Hate Resistances

During the development of 4e, I argued against including resistances against energy types. My argument was pretty simple:

Resistances create a disparity in value between energy types, but only if the DM uses a particular mix of monsters. Fire attacks blow in the campaign that has lots of red dragon and azers, while cold attacks such in an arctic campaign.

Story-wise, resistances mess up intuitive themes. Take my second example from above. If you were playing in an Arctic themed campaign, you might think it's a cool idea to play an ice wizard. Well, if you're fighting lots of ice creatures, that's actually a terrible choice. The folk of the frozen north should study and use fire magic. The desert nomads use ice magic. Sure, you can explain around that, but it's a jarring inconsistency. I'd rather have the flexibility to do it how I want.

Now, there are some story reasons for resistances. The fire elemental can walk through magma without harm, but you can easily get around that by placing all the mechanics in the right place. For instance, the elemental might have the "magma born" ability, which lets it ignore fire damage from terrain.

In place of resistances, I prefer two mechanics.

First, I think it's OK if a monster has limited access to damage denial. Maybe once or twice a combat it can reduce the damage from an appropriately themed attack.

What I'd prefer, though, are special abilities and bonuses that trigger when you use the "wrong" energy type. Blasting the red dragon with fire hurts it, but it also lets the dragon use its breath weapon again. Using a cold attack on the frost knight gives him +5 AC for a round. Blasting a ghoul with necrotic energy gives it an action point.

I like those sort of drawbacks because they make battles more interesting. You can try to finish the dragon off with your fire attack, but you risk giving it a powerful counter-attack. You can more easily dial the power of such abilities up or down, whereas resistance in even its weakest form (resist 5) is powerful at low levels and still quite useful at epic.

So, that's my stance on resistance.


Unknown said...

So why did the argument to keep resistances win?

I suspect it has to do with simplicity. It's easier to remember that all fire damage does 5 less than to remember the specifics that trigger an ability that gives a special circumstance modifier/ability/etc.

Precocious Apprentice said...

In the usual RPG forums, I have been arguing that damage keywords are basically fluff with a little mechanics to back it up. This makes it reasonable to exchange them one-for-one in an effort reskin powers and such for better themed campaigns. The response is always that keywords are there for balance reasons, and that if I mess with them, I will upset some precarious balance, and that I am just trying to power game resistances.

I understand that a lot of fire damage has ongoing damage attached to it, but so does acid, and there is no reason that others shouldn't. I also understand that cold is attached to things like slow, but others could just as easily have slow effects as well.

Basically, I feel that balance should be built apon things that come into play regularly in almost all campaigns. If you balance a keyword for damage against the idea that the average campaign will face so many monsters with resistance to that keyword, then you risk unbalancing the game for campaigns that don't face all those monsters with resistance. Seems like poor design.

I don't think that the game is balanced this precariously. The resistances argument just should not hold up, or campaigns that are a little different than normal would potentially fall apart for lack of balance.

I think that the keywords are a very interesting idea, one that can streamline the game mechanics. I also feel like this was an area that could have used a little more attention. The whole keyword inheritance from magic items thing shows this. The resistances also show this. I am glad that I am not the only one that doesn't like resistances. I like characters with a theme, and making them potentially useless because of resistances is not fun. Encouraging characters to choose themes that are incongruent to the campaign theme is also not fun.

Seems like the whole thing needs a little work, and maybe needs to be completely overhauled in my campaign. I will think on it.

Thanks for the input.

Mike Mearls said...

Squach - The argument won for both simplicity and for "realism", in the sense that a fire creature should take less damage from fire. It'd be counter-intuitive to remove that. Obviously, I still disagree.

Mike Mearls said...

Apprentice - There is only one pitfall with messing with keywords. Some feat give out attack and damage bonuses based on keywords, and we've avoiding doing that for all of them, just fire, fear, and charm (IIRC). The only danger lies in throwing those keywords on lots and lots of powers, and making those feats a little too good.

For instance, I don't think we have at-wills with charm and fear on them.

Cooperflood said...

The drawback proposal is certainly a more interesting mechanic for energy types, however I don’t see how makes thematic builds any more viable. It’s still going to be bad for a fire mage to attack a Red Dragon. In fact with this proposal it might even be worse for a Fire Mage attacking a Red Dragon. I don’t see how this fixes the inherent dilemma of why would you play a fire themed character in a desert campaign.

By the way I was a big fan of the 4e mechanic that rewards player for attacking monsters with the correct energy type. I’m not talking about the vulnerabilities that add extra damage. The ones I liked were those similar to the vulnerabilities found on Magma Beasts where a unique effect occurs when the monster is damaged by the energy type. If the game was based around vulnerabilities rather than resistances you could more viably play an energy themed character, because they wouldn’t be useless against certain monsters instead they would just shine in a few encounters. Unfortunately this still doesn’t fix the problem of fire users in a desert setting.

Anders Hällzon said...

Your second mechanism reminds me of previous-edition golems. One would have to take care that such monsters don't turn into a morass of immunities, regeneration, and one or two powers that work almost normally, but it's a good idea in principle.

Precocious Apprentice said...

I sorta agree with the limit on how useful the keyword feats should be, but there are not many interesting feats for wizards that are not toughness/leather armor/Action Surge. Wizards get the shaft as far as feat choices goes, at least at heroic tier. Giving them access to more keyword feats would help, seeing as how they are heavy keyword users.

I am not sure how I would balance it specifically, but expanding the options for keywords is a good idea n my opinion. I like how the eratta toned down keywords, but I think that adding a little flexibility would be good.

As a side note, my biggest complaint about 4e is that the design assumptions and parameters are not laid out for us in the DMG. If there are balance asumptions, we should be told them. The math should be laid out. The stuff that is core but has more to do with desired theme and evoked flavor shoud have been explicitly spelled out. Homebrewing is the soul of D&D and I think that this should be recognised. I will continue to buy WotC products, even as I homebrew, but it would be nice to have more support for hombrewing. As it is, I have to just guess at why you guys made the choices that you did. I do a pretty good job of it, but it would be nice to be able to discuss the design decisions from a position of knowledge.

Michael said...

I think the problem can be overcome by allowing energy based attacks to do normal damage in addition to its energy based mechanics.

For instance, we could have a spell iceshards which causes the ground to erupt in sharp icicle spikes... creatures would take the piercing damage from the spikes in addition to the cold damage from its composition. If the creature has cold resistance, it can't resist the normal damage from being pierced...

Also allowing an energy-based magic-user to draw strength from the environment would be cool.

Taking the iceshards example from above, if there is snow or ice present already, the spell could be considered to be empowered, maximized, or perhaps the magic-user gets an additional use of the encounter power...

I feel there are more ways to make a thematic build more effective than to eliminate resistances.

Grrr... no Name\URL options.

MJ Harnish said...

Following along Mad Brew's suggestion, why not just assign a percentage (say 25% just for argument's sake) of an attack's total damage as the energy type and the remainder as conventional damage? That would be a very simple mechanic to implement, avoids creating a whole list of special "this is what happens if you attack it with this type of energy" conditions, and also retains a modicum of verisimilitude - attacking a fire elemental with burning hands shouldn't be terribly effect after all but it still would work in a pinch.

Pete King said...

I hate resistances too - but for a different reason.

If you build a character around an idea, such as a fire wizard, creatures that are immune to fire eat your character for breakfast. So, you don't do that. Which sucks, because a fire wizard could be a really cool character to roleplay; but the risks involved make it a poor choice to do.

While I'm on the subject, I hate spell resistance too and creatures that are immune to normal weapons. It means I *have* to outfit the characters with magical weapons, or not use those creatures. Which also sucks.

As does spell resistance. We already have saving throws, we do not need spell resistance on top; just give creatures a boost to their saving throw and have done with it.

Resistances ruin the game for everyone and *feel like cheats*, not challenges.

Unknown said...

So, while I like the more dynamic response as a concept, I would argue it hurts theme more than helps it. My Ice Wizard may have problems with resistance, but he's not making the other guys more capable of kicking my ass. If things changed so that happened, I'd feel even _more_ stupid for choosing my theme.

It would probably help if vulnerabilities (or vulnerability-type effects) were a bit more common for anything but Radiant, just to keep it all interesting, but that may be a whole other thing.

Simon said...

Personally I give red dragons resistance to both fire and cold; inspired by the dragons in 'Slaine' mine _like_ the cold - makes them feel alive!

I think the solution re terrain is to make ice magic more powerful in the frozen north, and fire magic weaker. Vice versa in the burning south.

That is both (1) mythically appropriate, and (2) inherently balanced - the Northern Ice Wizard casts a mean cone of cold, but many of his foes may be immune.

Lizard said...

Your comment on desert mages learning ice magic reminds me of the origin of Polar Boy from the Legion of Super Heroes -- he comes from a planet of searing HEAT, so that his people "evolved" the ability to project cold. (FWIW, I've also always thought it was weird that cold-based monsters often have cold-based attacks, when all the creatures around them are immune or resistant to cold. Yet, you also have the thematic problem of expecting Ice Worms, or whatever, to have Ice Breath or Cold Auras or something. (By the same token, a demon or devil in pre-4e would be much better served with Protection from Evil than from Good, since he's more likely to be attacked by a power-hungry 'ally' than by some slumming angel. But that's another thread...))

Justin Alexander said...

I don't get it. Your solutions don't actually fix the "problems" you're trying to solve.

You cite two problems:

(1) You'd prefer the frozen north to feature both cold creatures and ice wizards. This doesn't make sense if ice magic isn't as useful against cold creatures.

(2) You want to eliminate potential value disparity between energy types.

But solutions don't actually fix either of those problems.

Damage negation abilities? These are just resistances that can be used X number of times. You're still creating a situation where cold magic is less effective against cold creatures. And, thus, you're still create value disparity and thematic inversion.

Abilities triggered by sympathetic damage types? Ditto. You're still better off using non-cold energy types against cold creatures.

The "problems" you're describing are inherent to ANY system where cold-based creatures benefit as a result of being targeted by cold spells vs. other types of spells.

Stormhierta said...

The obvious solution is actually to do away with all Resistances and add Vulnerabilities. Cold magic isn't worse than Acid Magic or Lightning Magic against an Ice Elemental - but Fire Magic does extra damage.

THAT is thematically correct AND makes a plausible choice (Ice Mages in the North) still just as functional - sure, SOME mages are more useful in certain circumstances, but none are disuseful.

Kinda like why all the races have bonuses and no minuses these days.

Unknown said...

For the record, Mike, you drove me to pontificate:

Not that it's hard.

Justin Alexander said...

@Stormhierta: Using vulnerabilities doesn't solve the problems Mearls' cites, either. It obviously does nothing to address the skewed value placed on certain element types based on variable monster selection.

And, in point of fact, it increases the incentive for fire mages in the Frozen North. (With an ice resistance, wizards in the Frozen North simply select anything other than ice. With fire vulnerability, wizards in the Frozen North are encouraged to specifically select fire.)

Anonymous said...

I think the secret is not to use resistances or triggered power (or DR and SR) to undermine any specific character or player. If you are going against undead, you do not pack death magic and so on. It is all in the give and take of the game, everyone gets the chance to look cool and sometime that someone is the monsters.

Unknown said...

It seems to me that a way to make everybody happy would be to have cold attacks do less damage in desert environments (the hot air reduces the coldness of the cold attacks) and have fire attacks do less damage in arctic environments (the cold air cools down the heat attacks). Then arctic wizards might as well choose to be cold themed since fire attacks wouldn't do as much damage as the cold, so the effect is the same whether they use fire (reduced by the environment) or cold (reduced by cold resistance).

Of course, then they might actually choose to be electricity based or something...

Catherine said...

Sean is close. You don't want to nerf the opposing element, but buff the native one. There are two conflicting intuitions: Fire creatures resist fire, and Fire creatures use fire on each other. They make sense if you add a third intuition: Fire attacks from Fire creatures are extra powerful. That makes sense, right?

The natural way to do it would be to grant every Fire creature +X to damage with fire-based attacks, and +X resistance to same. Likewise, give all Fire creatures vulnerability to ice of X and a -X damage penalty any cold attacks they make. (Choose X to taste).

The bonuses and resistances cancel out from the point of view of creatures on the Plane of Fire. Grant them a few auras/utilities/buffs that affect only fire magic, and suddenly fire becomes their weapon of choice. The effect also nearly balances with Fire vs. Normal creatures, assuming the normal creature has access to an ice attack: each recieves +X to damage, and the fight is simply vicious.

However, it would't really balance as a feat or PC trait, since the drawbacks are limited from a PC's point of view. The damage penalty to cold attacks isn't a cost (the PC simply wouldn't use them), and the vulnerability to cold is a very low cost given that most monsters don't have cold attacks. Healing is cheap; damage is king; the whole thing works out to a straight +X damage buff.

That might be okay. If X is 5 or 10, that's similar to what strikers get, anyways. Of course, for a PC, you'd want an effect that was more interesting in the battlespace than a simple damage buff. Say, make X take the form of doing ongoing damage by lighting foes on fire, have powers that do unusual things to burning foes, and have burning foes damage or affect adjacent creatures.

It doesn't matter what form the damage bonus takes, so long as it works out to roughly X. If we were ruthlessly consistent about pairing a regional resistance with a regional damage buff, then our intuitions would still be supported by the rules. The ice wizard really could be from the frozen north. In fact, he ought to be. Which seems about right to me.

jsepeta said...

do water-based creatures take more damage from electricity-based attacks?

in the desert, creatures either thrive on the arid heat or have learned how to survive in spite of it. but just like how you're not supposed to put a frostbitten hand in hot water, i can see where certain types of ice attacks might be even more painful since it's an extreme opposite of the oppressive heat. and what about hot steam damage?

Ormiss said...

It does feel cool (no pun intended) to give arctic wizards cold spells, and it makes sense for their cold spells to be formidable, especially given the availability of "cold mana" - to use a Magic the Gathering analogy.

But man, if I were living in the arctic climate in a fantasy setting, no way would I specialize in cold spells. I'd leap at the opportunity to learn any fire spell offered. Not because it'd be more badass against the white dragons and frost giants bugging us for tribute every other week, but because fire magic has an extreme amount of utility for a community living in a cold climate. It's already cold! Why would I want to make it colder? :p Instead, I'd be the only guy with indoor heating. People would love me.

In a desert setting, it's a toss-up. Warm days, cold nights. Could go either way, or dabble in both.