Scales of splintering
Of all of D&D’s mechanics, the one that sticks most in my craw is increasing PC hit points with level: I don’t like it on simulation and gameplay grounds.* I’ve long wondered about getting rid of it (which, yes, means rebalancing the whole damn game). It seems to me that the shield splintering rules and recent more radical proposals for “splintering” hirelings, magic items or anything that matters might in fact be a partial workaround, which could follow a similar curve to leveling up without breaking a whole bunch of systems and metaphors on which the game depends. If the point of high hp is heroic survivability then it could be modeled by gear instead of some intrinsic mechanical difference on the character sheet. Gear you have to deliberately sacrifice – which means you’re just as vulnerable to a surprise attack as you ever were, and the day you wake up naked in the dungeon you’re doubly vulnerable. And the reason you don’t abuse it is that to do so costs you hard-won game tokens. Or limbs (I strongly support this: the pirate captain shows his succession of narrow escapes on his body).
But I’m still not totally comfortable with the idea of adding extra lives with every magic item. Because (a) it’s the sort of gag that works well once and is laughable the second time, and (b) because it has knock on effects both for how long PCs keep items and for how many items should be in the world. And then I re-read Cugel’s Saga** and it occurred to me that a special class of save-vs-death chits – Scales of Splintering – might be the test case I wanted, and if they worked they might do away with the need for increasing hp altogether, and if they became a critical resource in the game world that just might be even better.*** So here’s my baby-steps version:
Little is known about these scales, how many there are or what might happen should they all be assembled. It is rumoured that the Archon of the Eternal City has seven in his treasury, and of course one or more about his person, but if he does then he keeps them concealed. It is said that, should a killing blow ever be leveled at the Archon then fate will place the scale in the way, to the frustration of the attack and destruction of the scale. It is also said that four such scales have already been sacrificed to the Archon’s welfare. Occasionally mountebanks claim to have found a new scale, brought to grass from the underworld, or even a stash or pool or seam of scales ripe for harvesting but most such claimants are quickly found out in their falsehoods, by an assassin’s dagger or hangman’s noose.
Finally, it is rumoured that alongside the true and dependable scales there are others, “pectorals,” that hunger for souls rather than saving them – at the moment of Fate they draw their holders inl, body and soul, perhaps to spend eternity in company with all the pectoral’s previous victims.
* what does it simulate? Yes, the PCs are now “more heroic” and harder to kill, but giants are harder to kill just because they can take more kinetic energy, so it’s a mixed metaphor/incoherent. Also, you have to distort the rules like crazy to reintroduce the idea that a high level PC or monster might be killable by a single blow after all, just because you carelessly wrote that out with level-based hit dice. For a fuller discussion of this see my forthcoming monograph: Even Achilles had bad days: on the necessary vulnerability of heroes.
**I must respectfully disagree with noisms about Vance as a stylist. That said, I can now see as I did not before (a) why Cugel is such a spur to RPG world-building; (b) why indulging that urge is entirely missing the point of the book; and (c) why there are so many crazygonzo playhouse/torture dungeons out there, which reward both caution and brazenness with a more-or-less funny death. Here’s the thing: Cugel behaves at all times with punctilio, according to his context: he is brazen when the punishment is a beating and quick on his heels when it’s deadly. He is armed always and only with the tools Vance requires to keep him alive for the next adventure, and he uses them just clumsily enough that we forgive him his magical invulnerability. This is excellent for stories, but quicksand for game design.
*** alternative death-dodging mechanism for higher-level characters: your hit points stay the same as 1st level but you get some kind of save vs. death that’s level-dependent. Point is, if an assassin can negate your save then he can kill you, whatever your level, with the same dagger he would’ve used on your sorry level 1 back.