Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

So apparently I'm in "complain about 3E" mode these days.

Let's think about 3E as if it were an attempt to re-simulate 1E, and just make some of the rules more consistent and standardized (which is how it always struck and enthused me). Well, let's look at the standard-issue enemy Orc in 3E. Remember that half-orcs are a PC race (in 1E and 3E), and they've always received a bonus to generated Strength (in 1E and 3E). In 3E, these bonuses always come in increments of 2, so the 3E Half-Orc must have a bonus of +2 (average result 12 or 13). Well, one can then reason that a *full* Orc must have a bonus twice as large, i.e., +4 (average result 14 or 15). Makes sense, right? That's obviously how the 3E designers saw things (as seen in the 3E MM).

Well, here's the problem: that chain of reasoning has now made Orcs far too tough in 3E, compared to their previous place in the D&D cosmos. It gives a +2 bonus on hit/damage rolls, and when given a greataxe by default, generates a stunning 1d12+3 base damage, triple that on a critical hit. In fact, a very standard critique of 3E damage/deadliness level is to take the stock Orc and consider a critical hit with that greataxe.

Moreover, it upends the usual hierarchy of who's the more powerful humanoid in D&D. Previously, Hobgoblins were held out to be a more powerful race than Orcs; in AD&D, they had more hit points, greater height (in MM), and more Strength (see DMG). But with 3E Hobgoblins only having Strength 12 (less than 1E), Orcs have a far greater damage output than Hobgoblins. You can see this reflected in the now-equal Challenge Rating scores (CR 1/2 as published). In this writer's physical playtests, it was even worse; it definitely looked like Orcs should have a higher CR than Hobgoblins.

So I'll identify this as another example when some D&D-revision-designer got over-focused on one small detail (specifically the Orc/Half-Orc Strength relationship), and lost sight of where that fit in the larger system (the hierarchy of humanoid power levels). And I think that's pretty common.

A proposal for a better solution, which I've now done in my Diminutive d20 rules, is this: Even if Half-Orcs get Str +2, there's no requirement for full Orcs to get as much as +4. Let's say in our fantasy universe "orc strength" is a dominant trait (which is compliant with the 1E MM saying that half-orcs almost always share the orcish characteristics), so Orcs get +2, and share all of that with any progeny. Of course, we should return Hobgoblins to the Str 15 (or thereabouts) that they were assigned in 1E AD&D. And thus avoid the otherwise foolish consistency.


  1. Makes sense to me. I pictured the monster hierarchy but as you described it, with Hobgoblins further up the "tree" than Orcs.

    It's not the Orc's Strength that bothered me though - I can dig Orcs as extremely strong savages - but their INT 8. It's too high for how they're trying to portray Orcs in 3e, and should really have been INT 6 to my mind. Instead, they used CHA as a dump stat. I'd suggest that an Orc's mere physical presence should have put CHA higher.

    A much better stat spread would have been

    Str 17, Dex 11, Con 12, Int 6, Wis 7, Cha 8

    Keep the high STR so the far more intelligent and cunning Hobgoblins can use them as slaves - but drop INT and raise CHA.

    This would make them just as dangerous in a fight, but relatively easy to out-think and trick - which makes for more interesting role-playing possibilities too.

    Great title, btw!

  2. Well, I have no problem with a game being deadly. The idea that a PC might be killed by the first blow that is ever struck them seems alien to a lot of players nowadays (even though a great many other creatures of the world will meet their end this way through the course of a game... weird). What's good for the goose, right?

    I could come to the defense of the 3e orc with things like "a human isn't as strong as an orc, so he probably won't prevail in one-on-one combat", or "orcs have other disadvantages, such as lack of good equipment or sophisticated tactics or variety or spellcasters (usually)".

    Also note that if you're playing by-the-book, a pair of orcs is set to be a suitable encounter for a group of level one characters. That should attest to their power... they are expected to be challenging when outnumbered two-to-one! Depends on your view though... I think the original idea was that CR= encounters were meant to be of only minimal difficulty. I ran 3e for years and I never agreed with this philosophy... but I suppose its necessary when slaying monsters is the only non-whimsical way to advance characters experience-wise in 3e.

    Your explanation of half-orcs sits fine with me though, I wouldn't even really contemplate it as much.

    Great blog, btw. It's was probably one of the reasons I switched to DMing classic D&D.

  3. Wiseman, it is the case that CR is defined in 3E as "the level of party that gets about 20% of its resources consumed by this monster" (from the 3E DMG).

    I think my overall point isn't that it's unimaginable for orcs to be strong, it's that (a) being stronger than men-at-arms and hobgoblins is a historical discontinuity for D&D, and (b) the 3E designers didn't actually plan for this, they backed into it purely by accident.

    Thanks for the kind and thoughtful words!