I have been playing this game in various versions since I started gaming in ’88. Two of the things I most hated about the game were THAC0 and AC. Miraculously, in the third edition, Dungeons and Dragons rid itself of that odious creature, THAC0. It was a terrible idea for how to determine strikes in a combat simulation. Now it needs to rid itself of the oversimplified and antiquated idea of AC. One number to merge together two totally disparate and unrelated parts of the combat equation, it was a marriage made by Kafka. In no way does the difficulty inherent in hitting a sentient and dodging foe equate to the difficulty of once hitting, doing any damage through physical defenses like armor. What we need are two numbers to relate to these different components of combat simulation. Thankfully, this newest edition of D&D, fourth edition, holds the mechanic within its rules and I have found it.
In third edition, the rules for saving throws evolved from the handful of strangely grouped and table determined saving throws to the much better system of a formulaic bonus to a roll that is compared against the effect’s difficulty class. Also, everything was boiled down into three types of hazard. That which you dodge out of the way of, that which you grit your teeth and bear our and that which you survive through force of will.
In fourth edition, this was further refined. These saves were turned into static defenses that an opponent must bypass through their attack. But for some reason we still have AC as one of the now four static defenses.
My modest proposal is that we just drop AC entirely from the mix as superfluous.
Really, it is just that simple. What is an attack, but that which you must avoid if possible? What is damage but that which you must grit your teeth to try to resist? It really is just that elegant. When an attack is made against a character, the attacker must roll his attack to attempt to beat his opponent’s reflex defense. Meet that number, and your attack connected. Fail to meet or beat that number and there was simply no hit.
If the attack connects, roll a second attack roll against the opponent’s fortitude defense. If that roll meets or exceeds the defense number, the opponent was unable to resist the force of your damage.
It is just that simple.
What about armor, shields, or any of the other defenses though, you ask?
It is simple. Armor prevents you from taking damage. Therefore, armor grants a bonus to fortitude, just as it would have granted a bonus to AC originally. Shields prevent you from being hit (in essence taking the hit instead of you through a deflection or a parry) and so; it provides a defense bonus to your Reflex Defense. Armor doesn’t prevent you from being hit, as that is patently ridiculous, just as AC is patently ridiculous, and now it no longer can be said to do so.
What, you may ask, about things armor shouldn’t effect like poisons or lightning or magic? Well, again, the mechanic is already there for us to use. And, as it is familiar from the 3.x editions, the learning curve is minimal at best. We consider a special case of the ‘touch’ Fortitude Defense. A Fortitude Defense that includes no armor benefit and noted separately for those specific times if required.
As for damage, when it occurs, there are a couple possible ways to resolve that.
First of all, for those who wish to minimize the dice rolling, there is the fixed damage variant. All weapons do the average damage of the listed die type upon a successful hit and damage roll. A 1d8 weapon will cause 4 points of damage, for instance. The other choice in dealing damage is to just increase the dice rolling by one more roll and apply the damage by weapon as normal. For the afore mentioned longsword just roll the 1d8 and apply as normal.
In a case where there was a hit, but a failure to injure through failing to meet or exceed the Fortitude Defense, there is a further choice that can be made. Either you can reward the hit and cause a point of damage as a minimum ‘bruising’ to represent that while you did shrug off the major portion of the damage, it is impossible to ignore an actual strike totally. Or, alternatively you can just apply no damage to the target that ‘saved’ to show that sometimes armor works just as well as it is supposed to. For the true simulationists among us, maybe a case-by-case determination would be adequate. (For instance, if wearing armor and if the failure would have been a success if nor for the armor, then no damage is warranted, the armor took it, otherwise the damage is truly warranted as the weapon did actually strike your flesh and flesh is always weaker than weapon.) The choice is yours, the reader’s.
The next point to think on is the role of attribute bonuses and what they mean to attack and defense. Normally Strength is the attribute of note in melee combat. The point being that hitting something in melee combat is not that hard, the difficulty is breaking through the armor and actually dealing damage. Only ranged combat needed the finesse inherent in using Dexterity for the bonus to attack. With this system and the divorce of damage from hit, those dualities no longer apply. All strikes, unless noted otherwise according to special powers or cases, use the Dexterity modifier. All damage checks, when caused by muscle power, are modified by Strength.
Another interesting change is with weapon bonuses from magic, material or manufacture. A magical weapon, a +1 sword for instance, is understood to be more likely to hit and damage a foe. Traditionally that would be a bonus to attack and a bonus to the damage roll. What now, as we now have two attack rolls and maybe no damage rolls? Whatever shall we do? Well, the most elegant solution is to use that bonus on both the roll to hit (against the Reflex Defense) and on the roll to damage (against the Fortitude Defense) and that is all. To apply it to the damage as well would be overkill. This rule would work for any weapon enhancement regardless of its origin: masterwork, magic or special metal.
Also, as adding weapon modifiers to the dealt damage would be overkill, then also adding strength modifier to the dealt damage would likewise be overkill. Strength Modifiers should only apply to the roll required to break the Fortitude defense down. When striking with a two handed weapon, or a versatile weapon with two hands there is normally an increase of the dealt damage by one point. Again, like the weapon modifiers above, this bonus should instead be added to the strength modifier to the roll to defeat the Fortitude Defense.
Critical effects, on the other hand, need to be applied to the damage finally dealt, though that makes a bit of another wrinkle into the works. How do you adjudicate when you attack, hit with a critical, but fail to break fortitude? My proposal is that if you decide a hit always does damage of some amount, just apply the critical modifier to whatever damage is dealt. If you grant no damage upon failing to defeat Fortitude, then on a critical hit, consider the hit as a standard strike that did defeat the Fortitude defense.
While on the topic of Critical strikes, how do they work under this system? The initial attack roll to determine whether you hit or miss is the attack roll that determines how well you hit as well. Keeping this in mind, confirm a critical just as you would normally, by rolling again against your opponent’s Reflex Defense again when you have a threatened critical.
For those who have no use for the 4ed rules, these rules will work equally well for 3.x D&D. Create a passive Reflex score to act in the stead of AC by adding ten to the Reflex Save value. Then, when a character is successfully hit using a weapon attack versus this passive reflex score, the character hit may roll a saving throw vs. a DC equal to ten plus the opponent’s Base Attack Value, Strength Attribute Bonus and any modifiers to damage. For want of a term, we could call this their Force Stat and record it for each weapon in the weapon statistic block. If the attacked character fails to save then the damage, rolled as normal, is applied to the character. Also, for when you have a flat-footed situation, generate a flat-footed reflex defense similar to the ‘touch fortitude’ explained above.
The benefits to this system are many-fold. But mainly, as the scores used advance as level advances, then you eliminate the situation where To Hit rises much faster than AC as it stands now in the 3.x rule-set. Also, with this system you still have the potential for a dagger in the right hands to be much more capable than the sword in the wrong hands. Nor do you have to worry about the tank vs. bb gun syndrome of other ‘armor as protection’ type fixes.
But probably the best benefit is that, for those who want it, this system lends itself very well to changing the hit point system into a more descriptive/relative damage system. Weapons could do light, moderate, serious or critical damage. Each character gets a damage track of a certain number of boxes or bubbles to mark off under each category. As an example, the character may have four boxes under the minor category, three under the light category, two beneath the moderate, serious and critical categories and one box under the lethal category. Each time you fail to save against damage, you lose one box under that damage category. If that category has all the boxes filled and you take another hit of that strength, the damage ‘upgrades’ to the next unfilled box. If the bubble in the last category is marked off, the character is down and dying as if the character was at negative hit points.
To heal damage in this system, a cure spell of the same type as a category with a filled bubble empties that category or all filled bubbles below it. For instance, a Cure Moderate wounds spell could either empty all the bubbles in the moderate category, or it could empty out all bubbles in the light and minor categories combined. A spell of a category less than the location of wound bubbles may only clear one of those higher-level categories. For instance, using the Cure Light Wounds spell, the healer may only remove one moderate wound rather than all the wounds in the category if he had used a Cure Moderate Wounds spell.
Wounds in a system like this apply modifiers to actions. Minor wounds lead to no deterioration of ability, but light wounds reduce all die rolls by one. Moderate wounds reduce die rolls by two. Serious wounds reduce rolls by five and critical wounds reduce rolls by ten. Only the highest wound taken imposes a penalty, all lesser wounds are ignored.
In this system, a critical result increases the damage category of the weapon a number of steps equal to the multiplier minus one. For instance, a longsword with a critical range of 19/x2 and a damage rating of Moderate would cause a Serious wound (moderate + (2-1) = serious) on a successfully confirmed critical.
I am sure there are more elements to be considered, but as of now, that is all that I can think of. For instance, I don’t know as of yet how to handle additional damage as provided by things like the Rogue’s sneak attack ability.