Homebrew University Episode 3 Podcast: The Best Defence [5e AC & Defense]

Post-brew podcast Episode 3: GOT ANY OF THAT DAMAGE REDUCTION?

Welcome to our 3rd episode of Homebrew University’s Post-Brew podcast! This episode is a follow-up to last week’s Homebrew University: The Best Defence by Kyle Taylor (Stormchaser, @stormchaser6) in which he discussed defense and revisited AC and armor. Today he sits down with Demiplane’s Peter Romenesko to talk damage reduction (DR), incorporating DR into adventures for homebrew-loving Game Masters, and who should win in a fight – offense or defense! 

Kick back and enjoy a brew with us – or read the transcript of their conversation below!

Transcript

Peter: Hello, everyone. Welcome to Homebrew University. This is Peter. Joining me is Kyle, also known as Stormchaser throughout the community here in tabletop role-playing. And Homebrew U is an area where we like to explore practical frameworks and perspectives that add flavor to popular game systems, such as 5thEdition. This is our third episode of Homebrew University’s podcast. And today we’re talking about our recent post called The Best Defence. This is all about thinking about Armor Class, this is all about avoiding being hit, this is all about, really, the system behind the percentage chance that you’ll take damage as a character or that your enemies take damage – or I should say your NPCs take damage – for the Game Master. And Kyle’s done a great job of diving deep into that. We’re going to continue to do that here on today’s podcast. So, first, Kyle, thanks for joining us again. 

Kyle: Hey, Pete! How are you doing? 

Peter: I’m doing great. This post was awesome. So bounded accuracy – you slipped this in in everyday conversation like everyone knows what bounded accuracy is. And now I do, too. [laughs] It took quite a while, but I get it now. So, just for the people who are listening in, let’s talk, let’s do a little bit of a discussion about bounded accuracy first. Let’s talk about kind of what it is and why it’s important. And I know people will be able to dive in deeper into the post, but I think it’s a good introduction. 

Kyle: Yeah, well, I mean, I’m glad you like the post. As you mentioned, I bring up bounded accuracy a lot when I’m talking homebrew on like the Demiplane Discord or anywhere else online, and sometimes it surprises me how many people haven’t actually heard of it, because it’s one of the main design principles behind how 5thEdition was put together. And it really is mostly – it came from a reaction to how AC and how attack bonus tended to interact in older editions, because like, in 3rd Edition, you could basically stack both of these up against each other and go higher and higher and higher and you might have one player who’d really invested in AC. The trouble with that was, of course, that in order to be able to hit them with a monster, you’d have to have a monster that would basically hit everyone else in the party pretty much every turn, which wasn’t great for balancing an encounter design and all of that. So 5th Edition kind of came back around to look at this from a different angle, to try and iron out that trouble, and they did this by essentially dramatically reigning in the scaling of these things. So, like in 5th Edition you have a kind of a soft cap of AC around about 20. I’ve been able to discuss this in a bit more detail in the article, but around 19, 21, you’re not really getting Armor Classes that are pushing much past that and similarly with attack bonus, you’re basically limited to up to +5 from your stat and +6 from your proficiency and it doesn’t go beyond 11, just from the base stats of the character. And this really helps, essentially, to tackle the difficulties that were being had with balance that was arriving from AC and armor class, but the trouble, of course, then is that you’ve got to see where does this game come from, where in the game do you see that progression from level to level, where do you see yourself getting better and better? Because it’s not in these modifiers anymore. And that was really moved over to be a function of damage and hit-points. And there’s a great little open source project out there on the internet called D20 Data Science, which explains this in a lot more detail. They do some simulations with just like attacks between different types of opponents and so on and basically what this does is it shows how, in 5th Edition, hit points and the amount of damage you deal are a far more deciding factor than your attack bonus and your Armor Class. 

Peter: Interesting, so – so that’s interesting. I was going to ask this question and I’ve wanted to ask it for a while now, but I’ve saved it for this one. What’s more important in 5th Edition as players come in? Is it more important to focus on offense or more important to focus on defense? And I know that the answer is well, the real importance is to have fun, but I’m thinking, like, if you want to run after something hard, is it about surviving or taking damage off the field or is there a mix? I’m curious what your perspective is. 

Kyle: Well, in 5e, in vanilla 5e, especially, it’s all about damage. The strike class is king and striker classes were a thing that was really talked about in 4th edition a lot where there were a lot more specific party roles. And the striker, the striker’s the glass cannon. It’s the guy who can do a lot of damage very fast, and what you really see in 5e is the king of striker, in principle, is the paladin. You know, they’ve got that smite and when a paladin goes nova, they go nova like no other class. I mean, rogues, also, the sneak attack, but a rogue has more endurance, a rogue can go all day but doesn’t quite have as much of a spike. A paladin they can blow all their spell-slots on a single fight and do an insane amount of damage and that is, that is really where it’s at for quick success in vanilla 5e, you want to do as much of the damage as you can, it’s all about the alpha strike: take them out before they can hit you. Now this is also because 5e tends to have relatively short combat, so you’re looking at 3-4 rounds on average, statistically. And this is actually, then, something where some of the homebrew that we’re talking about turns that around, because when you use some of the rules that we’ve talked about in previous weeks here on Homebrew U and you use things like wounds and vigor and armor you tend to see combats that stretch out a little bit longer and the monsters and the players don’t go down as fast and you have more time to think about what you’re going to go and do and you end up with more like 7-8 round combats, maybe even going up to 10. And then suddenly endurance becomes more important, so that’s actually something that I’ve been looking to address with the balance between offense and defense. I’ve seen and like in our plays that’s actually evened out a bit, which is something that’s nice to see, because in my opinion it shouldn’t always all be about how fast you can do how much damage. 

Peter: Now, in the post that you have you talk about the application of damage reduction and taking the bonus to just some simple back of the napkin math taking the bonus that a certain type of armor would add to the AC, so if it was like platemail it would be 18 or 17 and you would reduce it by 10. And that becomes your damage reduction. And then your armor classes increase as a result of your proficiency. So it’s an interesting…it’s a really interesting approach. You know, for me, how does that change? How does that change your game? You said it adds a little, you know, makes it a little longer, the combat a little longer, but what other ways? Are there other noticeable impacts that it has had as you’ve played it with your players? Is it – combats are longer, but have you felt that they’ve, you know, become more hungry to add to the defense? Are they – you know – I want to check his body! Are they looting everyone to see if they have a better mesolayer or… I’m curious, how does it, how does that play out? What other things have changed as a result of implementing a system like how you guys have laid out in Grit and Glory and in your own work

Kyle: Well, I mean, loot is always a really engaging part of D&D, I mean, I’ve yet to see a party that doesn’t go nuts for a load of loot, you know, and okay,“ah, ah, what do you have?”. Especially when it was a tough opponent who you could see had some really tough gear and that gear was giving you trouble, and then you’re like – well, I want it, I want it, gimme, gimme the toys, you know? And mesolayers are actually a really good example, because they’re something brand new, you know there’s a new modular part of armor that people haven’t seen before and so they’re excited, because it’s not something that they’ve had much of a chance to use before, and on top of that they’re relatively expansive. I mean they cost…I mean, not on the scheme of magic items, but they cost a few hundred gold. It’s not just something that you can afford out of the box. And so, absolutely, when you see, when I have some kind of tank coming through and he’s dealing, like, he’s got like a big great sword or something, if it hits, bouncing off because of the mesolayer and… Yeah, you absolutely at the end of the encounter get the players coming in saying, “oh, okay, well what was that? Who can use that? I want to take that.” Also, not just equipment. It also changes the way players look at the different classes and it changes the feel of how some of the classes play, and that I find really interesting, because when you look at the monk, which some people might consider to be a bit of a lackluster class in vanilla 5e with less power than some others, when you look at it when a lot of armor has become DR, well the monk still has a massive AC. They still have their Dex, they have their Wis, they’re really hard to hit, but when they get hit they’re taking full damage. And so, if you want to play this really light-weight, flighty class, the monk really comes into its own there. And I think that in a way that is reflecting the intent behind the feel of the monk. The monk is supposed to feel like you’re fast and you’re light on your feet and you’re dancing. You’re a martial artist. When you compare that to, say, something like a heavily-armed paladin or fighter, and these are players who have characters that aren’t even really bothering to think much about AC anymore, I mean – “I’ve got 10, it’s okay, I’m cool with that, I know I’ve got 10. But, you know, you’re going to have to hit me very hard if you want to do anything.” And you get these different play styles and it’s not just everyone having the same defensive approach. The classes have a different defensive feeling to them in how you put them together. And that’s not to say that you can’t still build a dex-y paladin. That’s absolutely an option, it works. But it gives you more things to do in the game and, I mean, in my opinion options are fun as long as they don’t become overwhelming. So having a few different ways to do things and things that make your character unique and feel unique within the party, I think that’s really valuable. 

Peter: And you talked a little bit about the looting and we talked a little bit about what it’s like to go out and get a reward after a great round or two of combat. How do you think about magic items, then? In this space, you talk about in the post how the +1 magic items are often countered by a +1 defense item or an offensive item with +1 is matched with a +1 defensive item. How do you think about that differently when you switch to a system like using DR instead of armor for armor class?

Kyle: This is actually one of my favorite things that has kind of emerged from the system, because when you look at vanilla, you’ve got things like you can get +1 arrow and a +1 bow and they stack. And that adds up very quickly and then you can stack shields and armor together and that kind of balloons these effects out. And what I’ve found is that by taking new systems we have all sorts of different types of magic items doing different things. For example, one of the ways that we changed the bow and arrow, like I said, is a magical bow will get you an attack bonus, but you need magical arrows for the damage bonus, because the arrows… we split that up. But a different thing is, then, of course shields – like a +1 shield is still giving you AC, it’s more difficult to hit you because the shield is the deflective item and even in the DR system we use shields as an AC booster, but then if you get magical armor with a simple +x bonus, that increases your DR. Or, to be more specific, a magical overlay, because then you can also get a magical mesolay and that improves the specific benefit of the mesolay, the underlay, and each of these different types of modular armor or weapon types and so on are benefitting you in a different way, even if it’s just a simple numerical bonus. And so, you really increase the verisimilitude that you see amongst basic magic items. 

Peter: So, this is totally off-topic from armor, okay? Because we’re talking about magic items. We’ve talked about making it easier to be hit, but avoiding the damage, and now if I’m the paladin, you know, you can hit me all day, but that shortbow’s not going to hurt me. Let’s talk a little bit about mages. So, you’ve got all these unique things that look like they’re primarily impacting martial classes. What changes with  spellcasting – and let’s kind of break it down between the damage-dealing spellcasting and the control spellcasting – but does this impact any of those classes or any of those people who like to play classes like that when you’re the Game Master using a system like this? 

Kyle: Well, one thing that I have introduced as part of the DR system is that I gave a slight buff to cantrips at low level by allowing them to add their ability bonus to the damage that’s rolled, because normally you just if you rolled it’s probably a 1d10. And that can – when you do have armor as DR armor that can really impact low-level casters. Once you’re past level 5 and you’ve got more dice – it’s no problem. So what I have been doing then is essentially you give them that +3-+5 (whatever they have in their casting stat) as a bonus on the cantrip damage dice. Just the cantrips. And I’ve found that that evens out to the point where you might otherwise find you have a bit of a kink in the balance of it. It gives that front-loaded bonus just a little bit and later on those few points of damage don’t really matter, but early on it can really help a damage-focused caster. But, honestly, I don’t know – I’ve always been one of those types of people where, sure, you try fireball, it’s great fun. And anyone who’s played with me knows that I love fireball, it’s a really fun spell. But there does come a point at which you start to think is just a number of damage, is that really all you can do with magic? And that’s where, like you say, control spells come in, because magic can change the game like nothing else. Magic can completely reorganize the playing field and change the situation by impacting the conditions and so on and all these different concentration spells that can lock down enemies or affect how you can move. And I feel like that can be so, so much more valuable to a party than just a blaster. I mean, and a blaster has its place, don’t get me wrong, they’re really, really fun to play. But you get something like “hold person” and suddenly that big, armored tank doesn’t look so tough anymore. Especially when someone just comes and holds him down and slides that blade through gaps in the armor. Suddenly it’s not quite so funny. Or you get something like, where – heat metal. Heat metal is an absolute game-changer. You see this even in vanilla 5e, and I think that’s why it’s so limitedly available, like it’s only actually available to the druid and the bard in standard 5e. You can really make a tough enemy cry with that spell, because, especially, if you’re in a tin can of plate metal, you’re not getting out of it. 

Peter: No way. 10 minutes. Yeah, 10 minutes later, an hour later, I guess. 

Kyle: Yeah, exactly. That can be really fun. But like I said, I really think that spells… spells like ‘entangle’ can make a huge difference. They – like you just lay down this area and you’re like, ‘okay, well, so I’m in control here.’ And how you manipulate the battlefield, how you manipulate who is where and how your team works together, I mean, of course, when you’ve got things like flanking rules and so on this really comes into effect, that, I find, has a much more profound impact on gameplay than just simple damage. 

Peter: Right. Yeah, awesome. And from a DR standpoint, when you look at things like haste, which is a personal favorite, and you’re looking at a boost to AC from haste and you’re looking at things like spells that, maybe, grant resistance to non-magical damage or things like this. If someone’s looking to implement an DR system based upon any sort of considerations to spells like that? Or do you find that just kind of keeping those as written still works within this framework and are something that can be grafted on fairly easily? 

Kyle: So, they definitely still work as written. You need to consider when you look at these spells what they’re supposed to be doing. Haste makes you faster, so it makes perfect sense that it incrementally, it affects how hard you are to hit, so it really doesn’t need any kind of change applied to it, you know? And, again, resistance is just…it’s another kind of damage reduction in a way. There is an order of operation, like I always have resistance as the last thing to take effect, because it has to pass through your armor before it can hit you and be affected by resistance. But even things like mage armor – mage armor I actually let be Armor Class, because one of the things about it is it’s not like normal armor. It’s like a forcefield really. It’s not so much absorption as deflections, so, again, things like mage armor and shield, I actually just leave as AC and it works. And the system is designed such that pretty much anything from vanilla (5e) can still be tagged on in a spell and work, but what you want to look at sometimes – like if it were a spell that was supposed to be giving you… I mean, stone skin does come to mind, but stone skin actually grants resistance, so that’s not an issue. But a spell like that, that works like that, you would expect to reduce the damage. And I actually think stone skin is a really good example of that, because that’s exactly what it’s doing. 

Peter: Cool, cool. So, you’ve run games like this with DR and things for a while now, so let’s take it from a Game Master’s perspective. You are challenging a group of players and you want to bring in someone that’s really going to be memorable. What are some of the ways that you kinda tweaked your mesolayers and your overlays? I’m really curious to think about and share some examples of combinations that you’ve put together that have really challenged the players so that the combat’s not just rolling dice and hitting or not hitting. Because I think that all these different layers of armor, if you wanted to customize something this is your dream. It’s like, this is awesome, all of these different options. So, what are some of the ways that you’ve used this for your big bads or for memorable characters that you’ve thrown at your players? 

Kyle: Well, if you want to be really mean about it. [laughs] 

Peter: Obviously the answer is yes. You start with that one. 

Kyle: Then what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to look at what the primary mundane damage type is amongst your martial characters, because, I mean, if there’s a lot of piercing or a lot of slashing then that’s what you’re tailoring your armor suit to. You want that mesolay with the DR versus slashing and the underlay to match that’s going to soak some of the extra damage. And then you bring it all the way back around to what we were talking about last week and you give them legendary actions, because you want this guy to be memorable, right? And yeah, it’s all about what is going to be thrown at them. And there is only a certain degree to which you can do this before it becomes unbelievable, because like I said, you also don’t want – unless it’s specifically someone who in character has been out to take down your party, then they’ve got a reason to get everything they need to oppose them. If you want someone to last on the field a little bit more then you’ve obviously got to think about what they’re going be facing. And this is also where some of my homebrew classes come in like, for example, the Inquisitor Ranger, which is based on the Inquisitor Scout from Star Wars 5th Edition as it happens. And this is then, of course, you’ve got someone who’s coming down with a lot of anti-magical countermeasures as well. So, it really depends on of course what you think they’re going to be facing. I mean, if you’ve got a skilled mage hunter who you’ve built as a mage hunter, then obviously the other side is going to have some trouble with that. I mean, I learned this the hard way back in 2008 or so when our party got hit by an enemy party of drow assassins. And they were sort of the nega-us. Then, like you said, the DM had basically taken each of us and inverted us and made a drow version and they hit us hard while we were resting. I mean, this was in 3.5, but that was a close fight. But, at the same time, this is now more than 10 years later, I remember that fight. Because it was really damn hard, but we won out in the end. It’s making those kind of memories that’s what the game is all about, you know? Those moments of tension where you really push through and you pull together and you don’t forget a fight like that. 

Peter: That’s awesome. Kyle, this was great. So, for the people who are listening what are you thinking for our next post? 

Kyle: I’ve got some ideas in the works. We talked about armor this week, so I’d like to move forward and maybe do a little about weapons, sort of keep going with the equipment theme. We’ve talked a bit about magic items today, so maybe we can bring that in with the weapons stuff. I’ll see what comes out, but, yeah, I’ll stick with the equipment theme and see where it takes us. 

Peter: Awesome, this is great. Kyle, as always, thank you very much. 

Kyle: Thank you, Pete. 

Peter: And we’ll talk to you soon, looking forward to it!

 

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