In Defence of Uncertainty

I read Marcia B’s blogpost earlier today about Randomly Generated Constant Damage and Prismatic Wasteland’s response regarding to-hit rolls or lack thereof, and feel the need to defend both to-hit rolls and variable damage, because I believe they are both necessary sources of uncertainty in violence / combat / etc.

Absolutely no shade to any of the authors who have advocated for this kind of thing, but whenever I have run games for my table who have absolutely no interest in the OSR blogosphere, the response I get back from systems like Cairn or Into The Odd that do away with to-hit rolls is that combat feels boring and predictable. This is obviously undesirable. I’m perfectly willing to concede that maybe I just wasn’t narrating combat hard enough as a referee, but frankly I think I’m pretty good at that, and way less so at crunching numbers, so really I should have nailed this style of resolution.

The best answer I can come up with as to why this might be, is that stripping away the possibility of failure leaves you with something without meaningful stakes, which seems at odds with how something as risky as engaging in lethal violence should feel. Combat therefore becomes a game of attrition as characters wail on each-other to roll the biggest damage number, whittling down each-other’s health-pools until one side loses. Of course, engaged players will still try and inject some drama into this, but asking them to do so feels unnecessarily burdensome - what’s the point in expecting agency when the outcome is already determined?

Constant damage I suspect would feel similarly rigid, but instead of eliding away the uncertainty of landing a hit, you’re making a predetermined judgment about how a player-character might act in combat. Keeping to-hit in this equation could at least still hold some interesting stakes, but there is still a fairly obvious issue in that by pre-determining a weapon’s possible damage, you create strongly optimal and sub-optimal approaches - a weapon that can only deal 1hp damage is boring and tedious, and a weapon that can only max damage is… boring and tedious for the opposite reason.

Ultimately, is this PC able to hit their target?” and how hurt is their target by the hit?” are both questions that I want to answer when I run combat. I’m not wild about being beholden to how Gygax ran things back in the 70s, but I do think there’s a lovely straightforwardness to how those questions are addressed in D&D, i.e. ‘if successful, determine the effect’. Of course, framing it like that opens up other potential ways of doing things - maybe you go PBTA style and do a single roll of 2D6 with varying degrees of success (miss, glancing, weak hit, strong hit, deadly?), maybe you omit HP and track damage completely narratively, or through an injury table? In all fairness, this is what Prismatic Wasteland was advocating for when suggesting adding Blackjack-style hit resolution, and their blog is full of neat ways in which to add layers of unpredictability back into pure damage-roll combat.

Ultimately for my old Cairn games, I went with something as unfussy as possible in the spirit of the text, while still allowing for the degree of uncertainty my table enjoys - make every attack roll a skill check. Ask the player to narrate how they attack - if they try and slide their sword between the plates of an enemy’s armour, roll dex. If they want to swing a hammer in a wide arc, roll strength, or if they want to try with a different stat, justify it narratively first. Passed the check? Great - roll a D6 to see how well you did. It worked great.

April 11, 2024

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