Poll: Supernatural Attacks

In D&D many monsters (and some player characters) have a host of weirdo abilities and powers that aren’t easily classified. I refer to supernatural abilities such as dragon’s breath weapon, a ghost’s frightening presence, a manticore’s tail spikes or a medusa’s petrifying gaze.

In HD&D all of these abilities are attacks. The monster has to roll to hit a character’s defence to see if their power is successful. The dragon has to make an attack roll with his breath weapon against the Reflex Defence of the PCs. But what does he roll?

In HD&D all the attack rolls are derived from the skills system. A swing of a sword comes off the Heavy Blades skill. A magic missile comes off the Arcana skill. But what do you roll to attack with a breath weapon? There are three schools of thought.

1) We have a skill for every supernatural ability. Dragons (and Dragonborn) have the “Breath Weapon” skill, Manticores have the “Shoot Tail Spikes” skill and on on.

2) We have one skill that encompasses all these abilities, called Supernatural Attack. If a creature happens to have more than one supernatural attack, then both come off the same skill.

3) We don’t have a skill at all. All attack rolls with supernatural abilities are based on half the monster (or PC’s) level plus the relevent ability score modifier.

Personally, I would plump for option three. This is by far the simplest option. I think that we should avoid adding extra specialised skills into the system if we can avoid it.

Take the dragonborn for example. We might give Breath Weapon (or Supernatural Attack) to him as a bonus class skill, but we’re not going to give him any bonus skill points. The dragonborn has already spent a Talent to get access to dragon breath in the first place, but that Talent is useless to him until he spends his skill points. We’re effectly asking the player to pay for his breath weapon twice. I don’t think that’s fair.

The counter argument is not withour merit. There is precedence within HD&D for characters having to spend skill points to make use of their talents. It’s how the spellcasting and the combat systems work. Why should supernatural abilities get a free ride? Why shouldn’t a dragonborn have to use his resources to become proficient in his breath weapon?

I’m opening this up to the masses. What does everyone think? Please vote in the poll below and don’t forget to add comments if you have any!

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11 thoughts on “Poll: Supernatural Attacks

  1. I’ve chosen option 3, but I’m wondering now if a flat half level + ability modifier would make supernatural attacks either over or under-powered.

    Overpowered from the perspective that it’s essentially free skill points to provide an attack roll with.

    Underpowered from the perspective that they are (super)natural abilities and therefore should be better than your average ability?

  2. I hadn’t really thought about it that way.

    I’m not sure that it’s overpowered. Characters will still have had to choose a talent to get access to (e.g.) dragonbreath. To compare it to a Fighter… he might decide to get the Double Attack talent. He can start benefiting from that talent immediately because it keys off the weapon skills that he already has. He doesn’t have to suddenly spend skill points in a new skill in order to attack twice in a round.

    If a supernatural ability is better than your average ability, then that should be reflected in terms of its effect – i.e. damage, range and so on. I don’t think we should reflect that sort of thing in the chance to hit, because that attacks the game’s underlying maths, and makes it harder to judge level appropriate challenges.

    That’s my take on it, anyway.

  3. if it’s a talent like class ability talent, then the ability should be treated the same way as the class ability rolls…

    ill go with keep it simple, but there should be some consistency…

  4. I’m going to be contrary and go for separate skills for each type of attack. I don’t see a problem with each monster or race being able to take a specific skill related to its abilities. I don’t like the idea of having a single skill that powers all supernatural abilities. I think that if you want to learn two abilities you should have to develop the skills to do that, the same way that if a Fighter wants to use two different weapons they would have to take two different skills. You could use the term Supernatural Attack when discussing it in the rules but have the specific skill Dragon Breath/Petrifying Gaze etc for each creature. I don’t think it would be too complicated.

  5. A different skill for each supernatural power is probably the most ‘realistic’ way to go. My concern is what happens when a PC gains multiple supernatural abilities as part of his race or class. Two many such skills consume the skill points that the player should be spending on other things.

    It’s not just things like dragon breath or petrifying gaze that are “supernatural”. Most of the monk’s abilities, and the powers granted to clerics fall under the category. What skill do we use for these?

  6. Hmmm. Could you have a skill which various abilities are tied to? Channel Divine Energy for Cleric powers or Unleash Ki for Monks (maybe that could have a better name…). That actually convinces me more. If you have just one skill, then a Dragonborn monk is using the same skill for his breath weapon as he is for his quivering palm. That seems wrong to me.

    Even worse, a cleric/monk would be using one skill for turning undead and for stunning opponents (or whatever). I would limit it to one “supernatural” skill to power all the abilities of a single class. Classes like Clerics and Paladins could maybe use the same skill. I don’t think this would be too much. No worse than Wizards having to take skills for spellcasting.

  7. You see this is the problem I have with the one catch-all skill. A skill like “Supernatural Attack” just doesn’t make any sense. This is why I was advocating a simple “half level + Attribute Modifier” check. Then each supernatural ability would have its own ‘skill’; that skill would just be free.

    That said, it’s quite possible that other (existing) skills could be drafted into the service of supernatural abilities. A monk’s stunning attack could easily just be an Unarmed Strike vs Fortitude attack. A fire priest’s supernatural ability to set things on fire with his gaze could be prepresented by Religion or Arcana vs Fortitude. Of course, some powers just won’t fit. What happens when the monk starts tossing around balls of fire?

    We have one skill for casting spells (Spellcraft), and that makes sense because the power for all spells is coming from the same source: the Weave. Supernatural abilities are trickier, because there are so many different possible sources.

    I think the only logical way to do this is either create a whole host of new skills to encompass supernatural powers, or simply have all supernatural powers going off he half level check (which is how it worked in third edition). And I don’t think that a whole load of new skills is really going to benefit the game, especially when their focus is so narrow.

  8. I agree that those are the two options and I think either would work (we’ll ignore the current results of the pole for a moment). What makes me think we should go down the skills route is that you have taken that option as the basis for so many other things in the game. To change D&D so that physical attacks and spellcasting are based on skill checks, yet not use that mechanic for supernatural attacks seems inconsistent.

    I don’t think these skills would be worse off for being narrow. Breath Weapon is arguably more usable than Weapon group (Axes or Extraordinarily Heavy Two-handed Blades or whatever we end up with) as you have to have an axe or big sword around to use those skills.

    I don’t think you’d have to add all the skills to one list anyway. A Cleric’s Channel Divine Energy skill could be mentioned as a specific option for that class in its class description. The Manticore’s Hurl Tail Spikes skill would only be described in it’s entry in the HD&D Monster Manual. I don’t think is overcomplicated as monsters have always had unique abilities, like a whale’s swallow whole or a succubus’ kiss, listed in their entries and nowhere else. Why not unique skills too?

  9. There’s a lot to be said for consistancy, but I don’t think that we need to do everything in exactly the same way. There always need to be exceptions. I’m not necessarily saying that supernatural attacks should be an exception. Actually, I’m not sure what I’m saying. I think I need to go to bed.

    My one problem (and it is only one problem) with going down the route you suggest, is the burden it places on a PC’s skill points. Your dragonborn fighter is still going to want to spend his skill points on his weapon skills, on running, jumping, dodging and so on. We’re introducing a new skill (Vomit Acid, or whatever) that no-one else needs. He’s already had to spend a talent on Dragon Breath, doesn’t this feel like he’s paying for it twice?

    If we do this, then we’re going to have to be very careful how we introduce these new skills. Perhaps there should be a combination of brand new skills, and extra uses of existing skills. New skills should have as broad a utility as possible. So maybe clerics take the Channel Divinity skill that they can use for all their granted powers. When a monk uses Unleash Inner Mojo it can apply to a variety of his powers.

    That could work.

  10. If you decide to go down the half level route I don’t have a problem with testing that. I’m not convinced that separate skills is the best choice, it just seems the most consistent and not as complicated as it at first seems.

    Would it be a big burden on a character’s skill points? Without fully designing a character it’s hard to say. Sixteen class skills seems like a lot and I don’t think one or two being taken up with Breath Weapon and Channel Divinity would be a big deal. PCs having to take more than one would be a quite rare occurrence I would expect, Dragonborn excepted.

    Tying some powers to existing skills like Spellcraft and Knowledge skills would be appropriate. In fact, linking this to the other debate on the knowledge and magic thread, maybe they could take the brunt of the supernatural powers? If not, each class should only have one supernatural skill, as previously mentioned, that would power all of their abilities.

  11. Of course this sort of thing has been done before. The druid in version 3.0 had to take the Animal Empathy skill in order to invoke his ability to control animals. The designers attempted to phase out the ideas of having to take a skill to use a class ability in edition 3.5 but many skills fell through the cracks. Wizards still had to have knowledge (arana), rangers still had to have survival. You couldn’t get away from it completely.

    HD&D has made the relationship between skills and talents more obvious. So perhaps it is totally appropriate to require a more specific skill in these circumstances.

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