Chad Perrin: SOB

16 February 2009

How do you feel about energy resistance?

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: , , , — apotheon @ 08:12

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

Mike Mearls was "a Lead Developer" for D&D 4E. At his personal Weblog, The Keep on the Gaming Lands, he posted I Hate Resistances on Saturday. Let's just ignore the implications of posting something expressing his hate for something on Valentine's Day, and focus on what he said, and what I have to say about that.

He said that while he was working on the (at the time upcoming) 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, he argued against the inclusion of resistances to energy types in the game. His reasoning:

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.

He makes a point worth considering. It can be frustrating when a character concept is essentially invalidated by the rules as they apply in a given setting. One might think "Oh, tough titty — it's called 'roleplaying'. You play what fits the setting. If you want to play something that doesn't fit, you suffer the consequences for the sake of your roleplaying experience." On the other hand, he's also right about how the setting concept itself might seem to favor using (for instance) an ice wizard in an icy setting. Sure, you could say that it makes more sense in a given setting for fire wizards to be more common in an icy setting, but that doesn't mean there can't be a campaign setting where the opposite is true, too.

Nobody ever promised D&D would be the universal set of FRPG rules, no matter what setting. Well, I hope not. If someone did promise such a thing, he or she was wrong to do so. That's not the point of D&D, y'know. It's D&D, not GURPS or Fudge or Fuzion (or the game I'm working on right now, which has the working title "Apotheosis RPG").

That doesn't mean there isn't a solution to the problem, though. Mike Mearls actually says he prefers two possible solutions to the problem.

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.

Unfortunately, I can't think of a reasonable, in-game explanation for why that particular rule would apply. This strikes me as a metagaming approach to "fixing" the problem, and seems to fit with the way 4E was designed from end to end. The game developers focused on game balance so much they forgot about the verisimilitude aspect; to a nontrivial degree, it seems they just ignored the suspension of disbelief concerns of having to explain why something would play out the way it does in a way that makes sense to the characters. Why, for instance, would a fire elemental be immune to a Burning Hands spell twice, then suddenly start taking damage?

It also encourages metagaming on the part of the players to do that; they stop thinking like their characters ("Oh, damn, it's a creature made of fire! I bet it's immune to all my fire magic!") and start thinking like tactical miniatures wargamers ("I need to hit it twice with my lowest power fire spell, then unleash a Fireball!") The way 4E seems like it has been dragged screaming halfway from RPG to tactical miniatures wargame, I guess that's not inconsistent — and that's basically my point: Mike Mearls' first solution strikes me as exactly the kind of thinking that, as far as I'm concerned, "broke" D&D with the release of a new edition in the first place.

For his second option, he offers:

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.

He's right, that it could make battles more interesting. He's also basically playing to the tactical metagaming side of things again, which doesn't really scratch my itch for roleplaying. Worse, he's actually increasing the complexity of playing the game — thus reducing playability — without producing a clear and obvious benefit to the verisimilitude of the rules. The idea that blasting a red dragon with a Fireball lets it blast you back (if it lives) with a breath weapon it wouldn't otherwise get to use doesn't help my suspension of disbelief, and seems a little counterintuitive.

This is sort of the opposite of a problem with his first solution. In the first solution, creatures made of fire don't make sense, because there's no reasonable explanation for why they'd suddenly stop being immune to fire. In the second solution, creatures not made of fire don't make sense, because there's no reasonable explanation for why they'd both take damage and get stronger. At least there's some reason to believe a fire elemental could get stronger from getting hit with fire weapons (ignoring for the moment the weirdness that they still take damage).

I think this entire approach to trying to fix a problem with game balance under non-mainstream circumstances is very shortsighted, though. Mike Mearls looks at the situation, sees that innate energy resistance can make it difficult to damage the majority of creatures in a setting that seems to mandate the sort of magics that are least effective in battling those creatures, and decides that the problem is energy resistance. As a result, he comes up with these convoluted "solutions" to the problem that may not really solve the problem at all, and introduce more problems of their own. He doesn't bother to even consider that there are other factors that play into the game imbalance issue.

I, for one, would have looked at the other obvious part of the immediate problem, at least, even if I didn't start considering less obvious factors. I speak of the magics themselves. Sure, a Fireball is less effective against a fire creature with fire resistance — and fire wizards seem to have an obvious place in a fire-dominated setting. That doesn't mean that a Fireball (or Burning Hands, or anything else) necessarily has to be one's only recourse. Maybe the problem is a lack of fire spells that aren't limited by fire resistance.

For instance . . . a spell that actually steals heat and flame from something to empower something else could be a very effective weapon. Think Enervation, only limited to fire-based targets, and with the side-effect of charging some other capability, or otherwise producing another effect. That's off the top of my head. I'm sure there are millions of other spells that could be added to a fire wizard's repertoire. Maybe the problem isn't energy resistance (which has a high level of value for maintaining suspension of disbelief), but the versatility of fire magic. Improving that versatility could also help improve the verisimilitude of your game.

That's certainly an aspect of supernatural effects such as magic, psionics, et cetera, that I'll keep in mind while working on (working title) Apotheosis RPG. Too bad the 4E guys didn't think that way. Instead, they thought about how many spells they could cut out of a game, and how much they could force spellcasting to focus on direct damage-dealing combat effects — and how much they could make swinging a sword act and casting a spell play out exactly the same way, for that matter. Tactical play concerns trumped everything, I guess.

Is it any wonder I prefer Pathfinder RPG?

19 Comments

  1. I really like that idea. It's sort of the opposite of vulnerabilities – instead of doing more damage to a creature that is vulnerable to cold, it does more damage to a creature that resists fire. I almost like that better than the current system, where you know undead are vulnerable to radiant, and are more or less left guessing at everything else. Our dragonborn hates that so many things have lightning resistance, making his breath weapon less useful. If he could take some power that let him steal lightning from those creatures, that would be awesome.

    "Instead, they thought about how many spells they could cut out of a game, and how much they could force spellcasting to focus on direct damage-dealing combat effects"

    That's a bit of a cheap shot. I think they actually made magic more versatile, by moving most of the non-combat stuff to Rituals. Now you don't have to choose with each spell slot between being a wizard who can be effective out of combat and one who can lay smackdown – you get the powers that lay smackdown automatically, and you can seek out the rituals that fit your character concept.

    Comment by Swordgleam — 16 February 2009 @ 09:58

  2. That's pretty much exactly the reaction I had, both to Mearls's post and 4e in general. (You can see it in that old post about revising the Rust Monster, too.) It's so focused on balancing everything around the tactical miniatures game that they stop even making a token effort to explain what's going on in the game world that justifies the rules in any coherent fashion. The rules become the object of manipulation of the other rules and inevitably of the players.

    Comment by Joshua Macy — 16 February 2009 @ 09:59

  3. Swordgleam:

    That's a bit of a cheap shot. I think they actually made magic more versatile, by moving most of the non-combat stuff to Rituals.

    Let me know when they add "Charm Person" to rituals, then — or any of the core enchantment/charm spells, for that matter.

    It's not a cheap shot if it's true.

    Joshua Macy:

    It's so focused on balancing everything around the tactical miniatures game that they stop even making a token effort to explain what's going on in the game world that justifies the rules in any coherent fashion.

    Indeed. I think one of the best examples of that kind of anti-roleplaying approach to the rules is the Warlord power "Own the Battlefield":

    Like a puppet master, you position your enemies exactly where you want them.

    Is that supposed to be the flavor text? Seriously?! They aren't even trying!

    Argh.

    Comment by apotheon — 16 February 2009 @ 11:27

  4. [quote]Maybe the problem is a lack of fire spells that aren't limited by fire resistance.[/quote]

    Which begs the question what point there is to fire resistence if it doesn't inconvenience fire-focused attackers. To me it seems more logical to axe resistence altogether rather than adding another layer of pointless complexity to an already overburdened system.

    This solution would also amplify another recurrent D&D problem – the "let's have a day's rest, I have the wrong spells prepared" effect.

    [quote]Maybe the problem isn't energy resistance (which has a high level of value for maintaining suspension of disbelief)[/quote]

    I don't see it, personally. It's more of an recurring trope than any kind of verisimilitude. I am composed of roughly 80% water. By this logic I should be pretty immune to drowning. And if a dragon (who can produce flames) gets fire resistance, then the same should apply to a wizard who throws fireballs regularly.

    In the end the only point where it directly impacts verisimilitude is with entirely element-composed or affiliated creatures (Elementals, Devils in a symbolic way). And then being "charged" by energy overload is quity justifiable and mechanically interesting.

    Comment by Ebenezer — 17 February 2009 @ 12:49

  5. After reading Mearl's posts, my initial thoughts were:

    Create more power/feat options, though not quite along the lines of your heat stealing suggestion (which I like). If I remember correctly, in 3.5, books like Frostburn started adding options for ignoring or reducing resistances and immunities. A bit cheesy and power gamey, but still a rather simple solution.

    2nd thought: Allowing for more creative use of existing powers beyond just damage. Using your own fire spells to reduce available oxygen in confined spaces, melt sand, steam up a room etc. Or we could just play World of Darkness and Mage.

    Comment by jatori — 17 February 2009 @ 01:48

  6. The obvious solution to me is if you're an ice mage, you can't damage the ice creatures, but you have perhaps ice control spells so you can charm them and generally mess them up.

    Air and earth magic are what's weak against ice. Ice and fire magic should both be strong against ice, each in different ways.

    Of course, if the system reduces spells to simple damage spells, that's kind of difficult to represent...

    Comment by Shackleton — 17 February 2009 @ 02:31

  7. I really didn't explain that well...

    What I'm getting at is that druids aren't weak against animals. They have hold animal, charm animal, fear animal.

    So it should be with the ice mage.

    Comment by Shackleton — 17 February 2009 @ 02:35

  8. Ebenezer:

    [quote]Maybe the problem is a lack of fire spells that aren't limited by fire resistance.[/quote]

    Which begs the question what point there is to fire resistence if it doesn't inconvenience fire-focused attackers.

    The point is that it protects the creature with fire resistance against fire. You seem to be thinking "What's the tactical point of this?" while I'm thinking "What's the roleplaying point? What's the suspension of disbelief point?" Not everything has to be about tactical advantage and disadvantage.

    Anyway . . . it very well could disadvantage characters who use fire. Think about a fighter whose magical sword does extra damage with fire, or the fact that even with a spell that draws flame away from something (thus damaging or enervating a fire-based enemy) one still can't use Fireball — one of the most combat-effective spells in the game, particularly against larger numbers of enemies — against a fire-based creature. It certainly changes the dynamics of combat, even if it doesn't completely invalidate the usefulness of the fire wizard.

    [quote]Maybe the problem isn't energy resistance (which has a high level of value for maintaining suspension of disbelief)[/quote]

    I don't see it, personally.

    Really? You don't see how shooting fire at a creature made of fire wouldn't have as much of an effect on it as it would on, say, a human. That's weird. I wonder why you can't grasp that.

    I am composed of roughly 80% water.

    There's a big difference between a complex organism made up of a whole bunch of different things — an organism that uses water to facilitate metabolic processes, basically — and a magical creature that uses fire in place of bone, muscle, internal organs, et cetera. You might have a point if a creature merely contained fire, but at the same time, you might have a "water resistance" from the perspective of a creature that uses fire to fuel metabolic processes but isn't exactly made of fire (e.g., a red dragon). The question then becomes, not "Should we eliminate resistances?", but "Should red dragons be more susceptible to water-based attacks than humans, or are they not actually directly dependent upon fire?"

    By this logic I should be pretty immune to drowning.

    Poppycock. You still need oxygen, too — and don't have gills. Hell, red dragons may be 80% water in many game worlds, too.

    And if a dragon (who can produce flames) gets fire resistance, then the same should apply to a wizard who throws fireballs regularly.

    A fire wizard casts spells. A red dragon actually generates fire within its body, and blasts it at you from its mouth. I think there's a big difference.

    In the end the only point where it directly impacts verisimilitude is with entirely element-composed or affiliated creatures (Elementals, Devils in a symbolic way). And then being "charged" by energy overload is quity justifiable and mechanically interesting.

    I agree that this might work for an elemental — but not the elemental taking damage, so having it both take damage and get "charged" is just damned silly. Sure, a red dragon might be able to be both "charged" and damaged, but if that's the case, the damage should still take less damage than if it wasn't "charged" by the fire attack. At that point, we're back to giving the red dragon fire resistance.

    jatori:

    2nd thought: Allowing for more creative use of existing powers beyond just damage. Using your own fire spells to reduce available oxygen in confined spaces, melt sand, steam up a room etc.

    That's another good idea — and I find that, if you give them the option, the players will find a way.

    Or we could just play World of Darkness and Mage.

    Hah. I guess there's always that option. I have a couple thousand dollars' worth of 1st and 2nd Edition World of Darkness books lying around. . . .

    Shackleton:

    The obvious solution to me is if you're an ice mage, you can't damage the ice creatures, but you have perhaps ice control spells so you can charm them and generally mess them up.

    That's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about — energy spells shouldn't all be direct damage-dealers and damage inhibitors, and even when they do damage, it doesn't have to be by directly applying a particular energy type to the target. Rather than taking the 4E approach of reducing everything to how much damage you can inflict and avoid taking, I prefer to take a more roleplaying-oriented approach, and give people more interesting, less directly combat related options.

    Hell, there's another problem with trying to eliminate energy resistance from the game for balance purposes: resistances can actually provide further roleplaying options. Why can't a creature that is immune to fire damage enjoy a good swim in superheated magma now and then? Why can't the PCs try to talk a cold-based creature into running an errand that, for them, might be lethal because of a dangerously cold terrain, but for the creature might be (quite literally) a walk in the park? If these creatures have no damage resistances, those bits of roleplaying flavor are eliminated from the game.

    Sorry . . . I got off on a tangent. My initial point here was to agree with you.

    Air and earth magic are what's weak against ice. Ice and fire magic should both be strong against ice, each in different ways.

    That's a very good point; even with fire resistance, a fire-based creature should still be particularly susceptible to certain types of fire and ice based magic, while air and earth magic shouldn't typically cause any extra damage or additional inhibition against that kind of creature at all.

    Of course, if the system reduces spells to simple damage spells, that's kind of difficult to represent...

    Indeed. I guess energy resistance really is a big problem for balance — in 4E. I don't seem to have that kind of problem in my Pathfinder games, though.

    I really didn't explain that well...

    Actually, I think you did a great job. Your second attempt just made it shorter and less detailed — which is also useful for getting the point across. It's just differently useful, kinda like how a fire wizard's usefulness against a fire-based creature should be differently useful than that of a frost wizard against a fire-based creature.

    Comment by apotheon — 17 February 2009 @ 11:34

  9. I had a really hard time with resistances too. As a DM, it was always players that would "abuse" the rules by going down an obscure game-breaking path allowing sonic and Force damage types to creep in. Both of them being "I win" energy types (or effect type for force).

    As A player, having to NOT do that out of a sense of fairness(?) was crappy too. It always felt like having to learn the "optimal" build choices so that you were always aware of how close to the mean you are...and "magically" becoming that build as time progresses :)

    I like 4E's idea of variable resistances to creatures like demons, where they can choose which one they resist at the start of their turn...but resistances in general suck. Look at fire. It is the coolest concept – PYROMANCER! Made lame by the fact it is the most commonly resisted energy type in the MM.

    Comment by Donny_the_DM — 17 February 2009 @ 01:13

  10. Seems to me that the initial objection is false. In a desert world, wizards learn fire magic because it's their environment, and the supernatural monsters are immune to fire because it's their world, so when fighting supernatural monsters the special magic of the wizards is no longer so special – which is why they need conan for backup. Then when a wizard from the frozen north comes in, he can beat up their monsters for them but has no defense against the desert brigands' magic. This type of cosmology strikes me as a good thing, not a bad thing.

    The type of argument Meals presents here seems like a kind of pop-science version of evolution, trying to fit an explanation for how monsters would have developed just so if balanced power were the optimal conditions that evolution were tending towards (hence the strange notion of wizards in the desert learning ice magic). It's not, and they wouldn't.

    Comment by faustusnotes — 17 February 2009 @ 05:22

  11. faustusnotes:

    I have to agree with your assessment. That fits into the whole idea of verisimilitude as well, I think.

    Comment by apotheon — 17 February 2009 @ 10:53

  12. Poppycock. You still need oxygen, too — and don't have gills. Hell, red dragons may be 80% water in many game worlds, too.

    That's the point really. In most systems dragons do not have elemental immunity beyond producing flame. No matter how a creature is built, it's quite unlikely that it would be element immune overall. Just like I'm not immune to water in my lungs. The sole exception would be completely element-built beings like elementals. To me the whole idea of an ecology with loads of elemental-immunes reeks of shoddy clichéd thinking of the "it's magic!" kind. To you it seems to heighten immersion. We'll have to agree to disagree then I guess.

    not the elemental taking damage, so having it both take damage and get "charged" is just damned silly

    I find it a nice idea. Too much energy allows a higher use of raw power but disrupts the functioning of the inhibitor fuilds (or whatever it is, that allows pure fire to keep a form and metabolism). Kind of like drain in shadowrun.

    Maybe the problem is a lack of fire spells that aren't limited by fire resistance.

    And this is where I start having issues with your article. In a vancian system, just adding more spells is NOT a good solution, since they won't be readily available. So you add more fiddly bits to remember while not solving the problem of having a player sidelined. Or you make the spells good enough to keep them prepared as standard. Then you will have spells more powerful than the core variants.

    Making magic more versatile therefore seems to be the way to go. But that would mean reworking tehsystem quite a bit. Just dropping the (to my eyes) thematically pointless and mechanically uninteresting resistence might be an easier way to go about the problem.

    Comment by Ebenezer — 18 February 2009 @ 02:42

  13. That's the point really. In most systems dragons do not have elemental immunity beyond producing flame.

    It sounds like your complaint is with the idea of red dragons having fire resistance — not with fire resistance being a part of the game. I do think WotC may have gotten a little carried away with the energy resistances, spreading them around too much, but I don't think they should be eliminated from the game entirely.

    No matter how a creature is built, it's quite unlikely that it would be element immune overall.

    There's a big difference between immunity and a resistance as used in 3.5, though.

    Too much energy allows a higher use of raw power but disrupts the functioning of the inhibitor fuilds (or whatever it is, that allows pure fire to keep a form and metabolism).

    Uh . . . what? A fire elemental is made of elemental fire. It's not 80% fire: it is fire. I don't think there's any "inhibitor fluid" to "disrupt".

    And this is where I start having issues with your article. In a vancian system, just adding more spells is NOT a good solution, since they won't be readily available.

    Why not? A new spell might be readily available in your campaign. It might also be readily available in a new version of the game.

    So you add more fiddly bits to remember while not solving the problem of having a player sidelined.

    I think that, if you're sidelining PCs, you're doing it wrong. D&D is not so broken that a fire-focused wizard is automatically sidelined just because the campaign setting involves a lot of fire-focused terrains.

    Anyway, spell lists, power lists, and feat lists are all "fiddly bits". Expanding the lists a little without getting redundant doesn't really create a problem.

    Just dropping the (to my eyes) thematically pointless and mechanically uninteresting resistence might be an easier way to go about the problem.

    Cutting off your arm is easier, in some respects, than clipping fingernails — because it only has to be done once. That doesn't mean I think it's a better way to handle the problem of long fingernails getting in the way of your typing.

    Comment by apotheon — 18 February 2009 @ 03:02

  14. Ebenezer, I think the problem with this:

    No matter how a creature is built, it's quite unlikely that it would be element immune overall
    is that we're talking about a Dragon. In my campaigns, dragons are 100' long Beasts of Doom which sound like a steam train and breathe fire (or lightning), cause fear in anyone who looks at them (make that terror), use vastly powerful magic and are older than humanity. This is how the "creature is built". Obviously they are going to be resistant to fire – it takes some pretty nasty fire to beat a beast like that.

    I blame the "vancian world" viewpoint on OD&D, D&D and AD&D, which must be the most misnamed systems on earth. "Dungeons and Dragons" yes, but the Dragons in D&D are little more than lizards, and no challenge. Maybe they should have called it "L&L" – Lairs and Lizards. This plus the silly Gygaxian naturalist idea that they have to have some ecological place means that they have been dumbed down to the point of pissiness, and many players and DMs have adopted that viewpoint. Dragons are a naked representation of human fear of nature, they aren't supposed to be vulnerable. They are supposed to turn up at the very end of your campaign and cause vast amounts of trouble! Which requires that your burning hands spell not work.

    I agree that resistance is overused in AD&D, but then so are dragons. My God, recently I played an official 4e module which involved my 3rd level rogue taking on a dragon (it was a "young" dragon, which is just stupid). Of course we won. In a sensible system, no one under 20th level goes near the damn things and resistances are also correspondingly rarer. The simple solution is to make resistances the province of a) outsiders b) dragons c) magic spells. And make them all rare.

    Comment by faustusnotes — 18 February 2009 @ 03:55

  15. I agree that resistance is overused in AD&D, but then so are dragons.

    Indeed. There's a big difference between thinking something is overused and thinking it should be stricken from the game entirely. With that in mind, it seems ironic to me that people are talking about striking energy resistance from the very edition of the game that replaced gnomes with "dragonborn" in the PHB — since dragon stuff is far more overused and abused in D&D than energy resistance.

    . . . and yeah, in my campaign settings, dragons tend to be much rarer, and much more bad-ass, than as presented in the Monster Manual.

    Comment by apotheon — 18 February 2009 @ 04:27

  16. Yeah, Dragonborn, good point. I remember when I was a fresh-faced 12 year old and I read the first volume of Dragonlance and those Draconians seemed like the scariest craziest idea since sliced bread. But now... every man and their dog has met someone who's half dragon.

    Which would be fine, except the ecological side of the AD&D worldview conflicts mightily with the high fantasy side. The result? Dragons for breakfast...

    Although I am reminded of a "Middle English" documentary (and a book, I think) which tried to explain dragons as an evolutionary concept. That was fun!

    Comment by faustusnotes — 18 February 2009 @ 05:05

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