Wednesday 13 April 2016

Your Demon Lord Doesn't Need That Many Hit Dice

[This post is just me rambling again. Feel free to skip it if you're just here for the actual game stuff.]

People talk a lot about how D&D characters have become 'more powerful' in more recent editions, but power in D&D is relative: if you have twice as many hit points, but all the monsters do twice as much damage, then nothing has really changed except the size of a number on your character sheet. (See also: the entire history of World of Warcraft.) So the real question is: 'more powerful when compared to what?'

'When I was level 1, I could kill the orcs and wolves in the level 1 area in two or three hits. Now I'm level 100, I can kill the super-orcs and mega-wolves in the level 100 area in... two or three hits. So it was totally worth the wait!'

If one compares the abilities of PCs with a range of monsters across the various D&D editions, it swiftly becomes apparent that, as usual, it's been the poor old humanoids who have been the biggest losers. In both Basic and 1st edition AD&D, a single lowly goblin was very nearly the equal of a 1st level fighter in combat; but more modern PCs are expected to be able to scatter goblins, kobolds, skeletons, and similar low-level foes like chaff, even at level 1. The mid-level monsters have remained roughly stable: some, like the various save-or-die monsters or the level-draining undead, have lost their scariest abilities, but the general assumption that a troll or an ogre should be a pretty tough fight for a low-level party has held pretty constant across editions. PCs have been big winners, going from fragile dungeon explorers to badass, tough-as-nails fantasy superheroes, but they haven't been the biggest winners. The biggest winners have been the high-level monsters.

Remember Lolth, spider-goddess of the drow? When Sutherland and Gygax wrote Queen of the Demonweb Pits in 1980, their assumption was that she would be a tough but not impossible boss-fight for a party of level 10-14 characters. How about Tiamat, mother-goddess of all evil dragons? According to the AD&D 1st edition monster manual, she has AC 0 and 128 HP, although 80 of those are 'in' her various heads: doing 48 damage directly to her body will kill her outright. (You don't even need magical weapons to hit her!) Orcus? 120 hit points. Asmodeus and Demogorgon? 199 and 200 HP respectively. Yes, they're crazily powerful, and, yes, they're quite capable of killing your PCs: but they still clearly exist on the same scale as trolls and giants and dinosaurs and high-level player characters. Tellingly, Asmodeus, the overlord of hell, capo di tutti capi of all the other arch-devils and all-around second-baddest dude in the multiverse, is described as being 'physically stronger than any other devil', but we're then immediately told what that actually means: he is 'as strong as a storm giant', i.e. Strength 25. The single strongest devil in existence is stronger than your fighter, but he's not that much stronger. If a party of, say, 18th level PCs really went gunning for Demogorgon, and managed to solve the obvious problems involved in getting to his hell-realm and breaking into his throne room and so on, then they'd probably have a pretty good chance of taking him down. 

He's only got 120 HP! Just kill him and take his wand already!

Now, as much as D&D PCs have been boosted over the years, their top-end foes - dragons, demons, demon lords - have been boosted even more. High age-category dragons, for example, have gone from 'a bit tougher than a giant' to gigantic mega-monsters with completely surreal numbers of hit points. In AD&D 1st edition, the maximum number of hit points for a regular goblin was 7, whereas in D&D 3.5 it had risen to 9: but over the same time, the maximum HP for a red dragon of the largest size had risen from 88 to 880, meaning that the toughness of the dragon had increased roughly eight times as fast as that of the goblin. (It's not a completely fair comparison, because the 1st edition rules for dragons meant that their maximum HP were also their average HP - but even an 'average' maximum-age red dragon has 660 HP in D&D3.5.) The demon lords are now meant to be capable of taking on whole parties of level 25+ PCs, even though those PCs are vastly more powerful than their same-level equivalents would have been 'back in the day'. I think Asmodeus and Demogorgon may have transcended stats entirely. Early D&D presents a universe with a relatively 'flat' power distribution, in which something like a night hag or a fire giant or a 9th level PC is already about halfway up the scale. Modern D&D puts them all way down in the foothills, staring wistfully up at the mountain above, while Orcus sips cold drinks with a great wyrm dragon somewhere near the summit.

'I increased my hit points by 900% by following this one weird tip...'

The thing that got me thinking about all this was reading a list of Pathfinder's demon lords and thinking how much more useful they'd be if only they were a bit, well, smaller. A demonic sadist with the head of a dove, who eats the eyes of his victims, makes minions made from their flayed corpses, and lives in a house in which every room contains some new tableau of the macabre? That's great! Stick him and his horrible skinless minions and his horrible creepy house in a hex somewhere right away! But wait: he's 'challenge rating' 26, meaning that only a party of level 25+ characters would have a decent chance of beating him, and his 'house' is an entire dimension. Boring. How am I supposed to use that? (Yes, you could send the PCs in to rescue someone or something and then get out before he catches them, but once you've done one 'escape from hell' scenario you've done them all.) A demonic princess who looks like an angel who has been dismembered and then stitched back together with copper wire, her eyes and mouth sewn shut, presides over a ruinous city of profaned churches and drives its fallen priests to suicide: awesome. Except she's a god-level enemy and her 'city' is a layer of hell. Boring. A city you can save, or at least save parts of, haunted by a demon you can fight, or at least evade: that's something you can get a decent game out of. An urban hell-realm ruled by a demon goddess is just another abstract bit of spiritual real estate floating around in the Abyss somewhere. Why should your PCs care about something which is so manifestly beyond their power to meaningfully affect?

In the original Conan stories, the hero can't seem to manage a half-hour's walk without tripping over some benighted valley full of crazy demon-worshippers revering a monster-god from before time. These stories almost always end with Conan stabbing the beastie to death and wandering off. That's not because Conan is a super-duper-high-level-mega-ultra-badass fantasy superhero: it's because the demonic god-monsters in his world just aren't all that tough. Early D&D reflected that sensibility, and I think it was the stronger for it, because it makes the resulting monsters - dragons, demons, archdevils, and the rest - so much easier to use in actual play. There is a place in games for enormously, unbeatably powerful monsters, but it's quite a small place, and you're unlikely to need very many of them in any one campaign. The further removed they are from human-scale action, the less likely they are to be useful in stories which are, ultimately, always going to be about human beings. Or almost-human beings, at any rate.

So before you give the super-awesome demon you just came up with a thousand hit points and nine different kinds of get-out-of-death-free cards and seven layers of the abyss as his personal fiefdom, just pause for a moment to reflect whether he wouldn't actually be more useful to you as the seriously scary but far-from-invincible demonic patron of a single horrible city someplace, instead...


  1. Power isn't one-dimensional.

    For example, it's easy for attack and defence scaling differently to make a big difference. A game in which my PC and that owlbear are of roughly equal power, and a fight between us will be decided in two or three rounds, or even in one with a critical hit, and a game in which we're of roughly equal power and it will take us 10 rounds of hacking to settle things, with plenty of opportunities for whoever thinks they're going to lose to run, feel rather different. WoW, for example, gives its big bads hundreds or thousands of times as many HP as its PCs, but their damage output is often comparable. My impression of D&D is that defence has tended to scale much faster than attack as you level, which is one of the things that has contributed to the "Golden zone" effect between levels, say, 3 and 8 - below that fights tend to be too fast and random, too far above that they become too long and protracted (although I suspect it extends further up than this, and other problems cut in first).

    Another obvious multidimensional effect is different sorts of power - the infamous linear warrior, quadratic wizard problem, for example. Again, this contributes to golden zone effects, probably even more sharply.

    My impression is that later editions of D&D have tended to handle both these a bit better than earlier ones, but still have issues with both of them. From what I've heard, these sorts of things were something 4th ed did a noticeably better job of than other editions, but only by radically changing what D&D looked like in other ways. Which I guess is unsurprising – if you're working on building a more gamist game, you're going to care more about balance and less about other things.

    1. It's entirely true that power comes in lots of forms other than 'giant stacks of hit points', and a really rigorous analysis would compare average damage outputs and spell-like abilities and which magic items PCs are assumed to have access to at each level in each edition and all sorts of other things besides; but the point I'm trying to make is actually a lot simpler than that. Older D&D editions had a relatively 'flat' power distribution compared to the newer ones, in which the gap between the monsters and PCs at the bottom of the heap and the monsters and PCs at the top of the heap was much smaller than it later became. All I'm suggesting is that this helped to keep things more grounded, and thus more gameable, because a monster your PCs can actually threaten and be threatened by is much more useful than one that just sits around in hell being boringly invincible.

      (See also: Deathlords and elder Sidereals in Exalted.)

    2. I think there's a lot you can do with a monster that the PCs can't hope to oppose in a fight, but can work against by sneaking around.

      "This monster is a level gazillion fighter, with a million hitpoints and the ability to splat you in one round in melee" makes for quite an interesting adversary - there are lots of ways you can effectively oppose it, you just have to avoid coming into combat with it while doing so.

      "This monster is a level gazillion wizard, able to use spells to find out where you are and what you are doing and to stop you" is much less harder to tell interesting stories with, I suspect.

    3. Oh, absolutely - it's the 'full-package deal' monsters, the ones with full-spectrum dominance, that are the real problem. One adventure I read recently had an effectively unkillable giant worm-monster in an enormous pit, so deep that it could only reach a small portion of its several-hundred-foot length out of the top. Stupid PCs could fight it and die, wary PCs could sneak around outside its threat radius, and clever PCs could trick it into smashing a whole bunch of dangerous magical stuff nearby on their behalf. I thought that was a great idea. I was a bit less sold on the mega-baddie in the next book, though, who was a mecha-lich of such outstanding lethality that the writers had to warp the whole plot in order to keep him out of the picture until the PCs hit level 17...

  2. If almost all big-names demons/dragons/gods are comparable with PCs in terms of vulnerability, won't it lead to situation where the reputation of those horrors is paper-thin? When King of Thousand Eyes oppressed realm of Lazari for hundreds of years, slaying heroes at mass, and then band of PCs came and (even if with some struggle) killed him? Just like they killed those six ancient dragons before, an elder beholder-emperor and several grand demons?

    1. Well, it depends what roles you want them to play in your campaign. The further up the power-scale you push things, the more they distort the setting around themselves, and the harder it is for PCs to meaningfully interact with them. As I mention in the post, I *do* think there's a place in games for beasties which are effectively invincible; but it's not a big place, and you don't need very many of them to fill it. What you do need lots and lots and lots of is creatures who are roughly on the same scale as the PCs, and can thus be fought, tricked, bargained with, allied with, evaded, and generally interacted with in-game.

      I mean, if the power of the King of the Thousand Eyes is completely off-the-scale in comparison with the PCs, then that quite drastically reduces the usefulness of his kingdom as a location for having adventures in, doesn't it?

    2. [I would like to say beforehand that this is only my opinion and I don't wish to impose it on anybody.]

      I agree that there should be a lot of creatures on-scale with PC, but should those creatures really be big-names demons, gods and dragons? If adventures with on-scale big-name creatures see them falling one after another, as it tend to happen on middle-higher levels of adventuring, any sense of grand achievements eventually might be lost ('oh, yeah, another ancient god') and such creatures would become no different than unnamed owlbears.

      I think that if DM decides to make such big names on-scale with PC, the pacing of such enemies through adventures/campaign should be be of more concern than challenge they present, so on-scale big names won't wear themselves too thin too quickly.

      As for question on how useful hypothetical Lazari is going to be if King of Thousand Eyes is out of PC reach, I would like to recall Sigil of Planescape (AD&D 2nd edition) setting, where the biggest name (Lady of Pain) didn't even have any stats and was entirely out of league of any PC even if PC had godlike powers. Still, it was a wonderful setting with a lot to do, so I don't think that being off-scale would automatically reduce the usefulness of King and his kingdom.

    3. I understand where you're coming from, and I certainly wouldn't want to suggest that my own personal preferences - which are definitely for a more 'grounded' setting - are inherently more valid than anyone else's. But power levels in D&D are so arbitrary that what the triumphs of the PCs 'mean' is more a matter of GM framing than anything else. If your setting is built around a bunch of ancient 'big-name' threats, then, yes, it would be a bit silly for the PCs to simply knock them down like ninepins. But that's not the only way to build a setting, and in fact there are strong advantages to *not* doing so, as each mega-baddie then creates a kind of 'no-fly-zone' around themselves within which it's very difficult to actually have adventures. Having a couple of Invincible Ancient Evils slumbering in lost cities here and there is a genre classic for a reason, and one I've got absolutely nothing against: PCs stupid enough to wake up Cthulhu *should* get eaten alive. But having them all over the damn place just clutters up your map with no-go areas for no real reason, and it's just as possible to run a Conan-style game in which the world is just full of random, colourful, dangerous *stuff* which the PCs can trick, rob, run away from, or murder to their heart's content without the sense that they've just destroyed one of the lynch-pins of the setting by doing so.

      The Lady of Pain is a really interesting example, because she exists precisely in order to preserve Sigil as a place where low-level adventures can happen. Classically, the Outer Planes were only for very high-level characters, because everything that lived there was so hostile and deadly; but by having an effectively-invincible being hanging around Sigil, dedicated to ensuring that everyone plays nice and keeps the peace, the writers were able to preserve it as an adventure-friendly location even with all those Pit Fiends wandering around. She is, essentially, a super-powerful character who exists to keep all the other super-powerful characters at bay. If she's been a *proactive* super-powerful character, determined to bend all of Sigil's inhabitants to her will, then it would be as much of an adventure-free zone as the stronghold of any other godlike being...

    4. Ancient evils slumbering in lost cities are a slightly special case, I think - I think they fill the same functional space as non-sentient puzzle encounters - "solve this or die" - rather than serving as adversaries.

      I think Kyana's point about the Lady of Pain not being statted is especially relevant - the only things it's worth statting are the things the PCs are going to take on on a vaguely equal footing; if you want to tell a story about a being that will Just Beat You in its area of competence being defeated by the PCs through stealth/trickery/negotiation/exploiting its weakness to vanilla extract/running away then it's probably clearer not to stat it at all, isn't it?