Building a Better D&D

A Shock to the System

And the bad puns just keep on a-comin'.  :)  Yes, I'm talking now about System Shock rolls.  Amazingly, this subject came up on the Dragonsfoot forums just after I'd been thinking about it.  The short version is that in my opinion System Shock has no place in the game.

The definition of a System Shock roll is that it is the percentage chance for a character to survive specific types of magical attacks: petrification, polymorph, and aging.  These would be attacks that are massive physical traumas to the whole body at once, and many DM's apply the roll to other phenomena, though there is no description of it as being meant for any but those three specific cases.  I would be fine with both the as-written and as-commonly-perceived usage if there weren't already a mechanic in place that is SUPPOSED to deal with not only petrification and polymorphing, but paralyzation, poison, and even outright Death effects among endless others.  I'm talking about Saving Throws of course.

What is a saving throw against Petrification supposed to be for if there's another survival roll that then has to be made?  Isn't that what the saving throw itself should be determining?  If not, shouldn't it simply be a second saving throw against Death?  What is a System Shock roll doing that a Saving Throw versus ANY OTHER SAVE-OR-DIE EFFECT is not doing?  Why are those three effects (petrification, polymorph, and aging) singled out for additional attempts to KILL the PC?

Take Petrification:  You try to save versus the basilisk gaze but fail the roll.  You turn into stone.  If your fellow PC's in the party don't have the means to get you changed back your character is effectively dead.  You can't roleplay a statue.  Your character is left standing on the battlefield... and you roll up a new one.  If, however, they DO have some means to get you transmuted back into your normal flesh and metal, then somebody at some point in the games past decided that there needs to be not just one but TWO more attempts to prevent you from playing that character again - EVEN IF a spell or such can be obtained to change you back.  No, in addition to having failed the initial roll to avoid the effect you have to make a System Shock survival roll to "survive" the initial transformation (though as I said, being in the permanent form of a rock is NOT equivalent to surviving), then ANOTHER one to survive the transformation BACK.

Polymorph works just the same... or really it's even more bizarre.  It comes into play - but only as long as the transformation is against your will, and only if the transformation is by the actual Polymorph effect.  A spell that would simply turn you into.. I dunno... a gas blown on the wind does not carry a SS roll because it's apparently not considered the same effect.  A spell that TEMPORARILY turned you into a pig would not carry a system shock roll.  Drinking a Poly-Self potion to turn yourself into such wildly different forms as a hippopotamus, a lungfish, an ochre jelly, or a hippogriff is safe as kittens, but having someone ELSE turn you from a human into a half-elf with a Polymorph Other spell carries a double-whammy chance of death by system shock despite the fact that THOSE are nearly identical forms.  Even if you WANT the effect and might otherwise wish to voluntarily fail the "default" attempt to "save" yourself from the effect there is no provision for doing so.  Then add the possibility of permanent loss of mind even if you survive  the transformation in and of itself.  And don't even get me started on the issues of what you CAN turn people into and what that form can then do and why.  The spell is SO riddled with loopholes begging to be abused in the first place that it's sickening.  Truthfully, the spell needs to be broken down into several additional, different spells of graduated power, all oriented around the idea of altering forms of friend and foe, permanently or temporarily, what forms those can be with what abilities, and whether or not the change in and of itself can kill you or your personality and memory.

Aging makes no more sense in this regard either.  A ghost ages a human 10 years.  That's not enough of a penalty though.  You reduce the characters lifespan but the campaign may not last long enough to even see a PC age by one game year - so let's just KILL him instead.  But not by a save versus death.  No, we'll do it by aging him AND an entirely separate mechanic to see if he survives the shock of sudden aging.  Except, what if now the ghost ages an ELF 10 years.  The DMG has humans living a maximum of 120 so aging 10 years is 1/12th their entire potential lifespan.  But gray elves live up to 2000 years so the same "damage" is only 1/200th of their lifespan.  To put that in perspective if a human WERE to live 120 years, 1/200th of his lifespan is only about 7 months - and the other side of that is that 1/12th of the elf's lifespan is over 160 years!  But each has the same chance to die for only being aged ONE year.  Technically, if you were aged 1 DAY the System Shock would still apply because it does NOT concern itself with the amount of aging, nor how that aging compares with the potential lifespan of the victim.  An elf who is aged a single year may have lost 1/2000th of his lifespan and can die from that.  If you're going to be fair about it then a human who loses 1/2000th of his lifespan can also die from that.  But 1/2000th of a humans' 120 years is about 3 weeks.  Does that make sense?  It doesn't to me.  Aging is just one more mechanic which occurred infrequently, was never examined closely during the published lifespan of the 1E rules, and which is nonetheless is significant need of correction.

When a character is faced with taking damage from a spell whether it's points of damage, or any conceivable miscellaneous effect up to and including outright death, he gets a saving throw.  A few exceptions allow no save, either because the effects aren't considered harsh enough, are readily ameliorated by other means, or there are other means of restriction on who the spell can effect and how.  But for practical purposes all spells with malevolent effects have a saving throw no matter what their effects are.  I have not heard from others and cannot conceive on my own of any justification for piling System Shock rolls on top of a normal Saving Throw, unless it is that the game is just not arbitrarily and pointlessly deadly enough.  It's not enough that you turned a character to stone, you have to make the CURE for that condition deadly as well.

If the direct effects of a spell are supposed to stand a chance of killing whoever it is they're targeted at then the victim should be allowed a saving throw against that death.  That IS what that mechanic of a Saving Throw is for.  If the spell is going to have effects beyond that then it should say so in the description.  If that is deemed too deadly then by all means allow a save modifier based on whatever seems best: level, constitution, number of lucky charms the character is carrying... but you USE the saving throw for its designed purpose.  That purpose invalidates any and all justification for System Shock survival rolls on top of a normal Saving Throw versus a spell effect - except sheer vindictiveness.

Honestly I don't think this whole thing is what Gary, Dave, or anyone else had in mind when this was introduced into the game.  What I believe happened is that they really didn't think deeply about it at all.  I think like a MASSIVE amount of stuff they just thought it up, threw it into the game, and then never really thought much again about what it was doing or why - it just WAS.  I accept that AD&D was even intended by design to feature arbitrary, unalterable life and death.  In particular, back in the earliest days of D&D the game was designed and oriented around the idea of a certain DM vs. Players mentality involving not just arbitrary death but death as punishment in general.

It's like actual, historical Draconian Law where even minor offenses carried an outrageous penalty of death.  Modern legal systems are now oriented more closely to the ideal of the level of punishment befitting the seriousness of the crime because we've had 2700 years of learning better ways.  D&D is like that, albeit on a much smaller time scale.  Back in 1978 this sort of stuff may have worked and people saw little wrong with it.  It was accepted because they'd had but a handful of years since any of it started at all; since wargames first mutated into something that would eventually become D&D in 1973-74.  30+ years on from the release of Advanced D&D we know a hell of a more about what works in both D&D and RPG's in general - and why.  I certainly don't know it all, but once again this project is about taking AD&D and applying the principle of enlightened modification advocated by Gary in the AD&D rules themselves.  It means applying what I've learned about D&D and RPG design in general to make the game a better version of itself.  I don't see that including the System Shock roll.

Entry #13
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