Sometimes you want to do more than just stand around and let your armor take the hits in combat. Can the newest edition of D&D accommodate active defenses? 4E created an elegant mechanic that allowed active defenses to be used easily, and thatâ€™s something I donâ€™t want to see lost.
So what are active defenses? Well an active defense means what it says; you have to take an affirmative action to defend yourself against an incoming attack. An example of a modern military active defense is the Aegis system, designed to shoot down incoming missiles and aircraft to defend ships from attack. In contrast, WWII ships and earlier mostly relied on armor, which is generally a passive defense. Armor just sits there, being hard to penetrate. It does not act.
In D&D armor has always been like that of the battleship. You wear it, it makes you harder to hit. It is a passive defense, and generally the only defense, at least in terms of physical combat. Even dexterity modifiers were passive, when applied to defense. Though you were probably dodging away from incoming attacks, you added a specific, flat number to your AC and that was the end of it. It definitely has the advantage of being simple, which can be very valuable to a game system, but it lacked flavor.
Whatâ€™s more, as the armors got better (more magical) and Dex modifiers and other protections stacked up, the character became effectively impervious to lower level monsters, and even medium level monsters. Going from the 1st editionâ€™s mechanics, a 10th level fighter with +3 plate mail, a +3 shield and gauntlets of dexterity (18 Dex) would have an AC of -8 (AC 28 in 3E and higher), which was enviable for the greatest monsters of the day.
Now you could say, â€œThatâ€™s the point, high level characters are supposed to be off dealing with high level threats,â€ and that is certainly true up to a point, but what if those high level characters are unscrupulous? I canâ€™t tell you how many times I had players decide to lord it over a small or medium town full of 0-level people.
High AC PC â€œHey, I want that pendant.â€
Peasant â€œBut sir, itâ€™s been in my family for generations.â€
High AC PC â€œWell now it will be in my family for many more to come, hand it over.â€
Whatâ€™s the peasant going to do? Fighting the high level fighter is going to be a no-go no matter what, but can he call on the local lord? His troops might all be 0-level too. Or even if theyâ€™re 2nd level and the lord is, say 6th, and he gets into the act too, the -8 AC will walk through them like they were a light rain. If the local lord had some serious equipment and stats of his own, it might become a challenge, but verisimilitude is going to suffer if you have to go that route to provide an effective deterrent.
Even if itâ€™s not the PCs acting unscrupulously, there are always circumstances where I find myself wishing that D&D (in any edition) had the mechanics to allow low level common troops to seriously threaten high, or even mid-level PCs.
I know the previous example was 1st/2nd edition, but the ACs have only continued to increase and the common folk are still low level. 3E offered a limited remedy with its NPC classes, but again the vast bulk of the NPCs were low enough level to offer no serious resistance to the offender. 4Eâ€™s cure seems to be, â€œ15th level PC? Make the guards at least 8th to 12th level. That will be a challenge.â€ Again the cure is to sacrifice verisimilitude for challenge. Not satisfying. Iâ€™ve tried to deal with this a little more palatably with squads, but those are really stop gap measures and still not completely satisfying.
So we want a character that can, at higher levels, kick some butt against high level baddies but still be able to be threatened by the local constabulary. I think active defenses are the answer. The concept that makes this workable in 4E is the immediate interrupt; more specifically, an immediate interrupt that affects an incoming attack. It would work like this:
Letâ€™s say youâ€™ve got a swashbuckler type of character, his immediate interrupt might be to shift away a square when the attack is made. Now, unless the attack had reach it is no longer viable. The enemy misses because before the attack lands the swashbuckler is too far away to be hit. There were some powers that operated similarly, but they tended to be based on a shift as soon as the enemy moved adjacent. However, a charge might cure that. Also those powers were usually encounter powers. These new active defenses would be at-will powers.
The Â 4E shifting that Iâ€™m talking about was automatically effective, which makes a certain amount of sense for encounter powers, and it is still simple. But active defenses that are at-will should be limited in some way. For instance the shift requires an attack roll against the reflex defense of the enemy. Essentially the defending character is trying to move quickly enough to dodge out of the way of the incoming sword stroke. If heâ€™s quick and rolls relatively well, he skips aside. If the other guy is pretty quick he might not be fast enough to dodge.
The limitation of only one immediate interrupt per round might require some tweaking. For instance, the swashbuckler could use his shift away only once, but then he might have a parry power that he could also use, maybe even a parry and riposte as an encounter power if that mechanic still exists in 5E.
So how do these active defenses deal with the issue of high passive defense described above? Well this is one of the reasons that a stripped down version should be in the core rules. If the PC is largely relying in active defenses, the passive defense doesnâ€™t have to keep creeping up, higher and higher to stay viable against high level baddies. The shift defense described above could be upgradable over the levels, possibly interacting with skills like acrobatics or athletics to increase the distance of the shift. So the swashbuckler could (if he rolled well) dodge out of the reach of a giant or a dragonâ€™s breath-weapon zone. And it demands the swashbuckler stay mobile and not get pinned down, which was another point of Â 4E combat that is worth keeping.
So, back to our example of the swashbuckler, letâ€™s say heâ€™s 15th level and tangling with a dragon. He dashes in to cut it with his rapier, but the dragon wants to smash him with its claws. He uses his dodge (rolling against the Dragonâ€™s reflex) and succeeds. He has a high level feat (or feature or whatever) that, coupled with his dodge, allows him to tumble forward into the dragonâ€™s space, between its legs. The dragon tries to step on him, but he has another feat that gives him an extra interrupt and he tumbles further, out from behind the dragon. The dragon lashes at him with his tail, but the swashbuckler uses his last feat adding an interrupt (not unreasonable to have three at 15th level I think) to leap over the tail, while staying otherwise in the same spot. The dragon turns to breathe on him. The swashbuckler has no more dodges, so heâ€™s probably thinking â€œwhere the hell is the rest of my party?â€ and hoping that the DM was just messing with him and that the dragon doesnâ€™t have any more actions.
Thereâ€™s an example of a high level character using active defenses against a high level monster. Each time heâ€™s rolling against reflex and hoping he rolls well so the monster canâ€™t land a harsh blow. Passive defenses donâ€™t enter into it unless the dodge misses and then you take your chances against the monsterâ€™s own attack roll. The characterâ€™s dodge roll against the dragonâ€™s reflex has been steadily increasing over the levels because of the characterâ€™s skill, maybe with a little magic thrown in. It is his primary defense. He needs to stay on the move to keep away from harm. His passive defenses need not be high because of his reliance on the actives.
Because of that mechanic, he can now be threatened by low level guards too. The swashbuckler (being the rake that he is) is on the run from the dukeâ€™s guards. If he stands to fight, he can handle up to three without much fuss. He has three interrupt defenses after all. His dodge skill is likely high enough to ensure that three low level guards cannot touch him as he keeps dodging. But what about four? The fourth guard to get a swing at him will be attacking a lower passive defense, one that he can reasonably threaten. The swashbuckler will have to get rid of the fourth quick or suffer a real risk of harm. And there might be reinforcements on the way.
If another dozen guards round the corner, the swashbuckler will need some seriously fancy footwork to keep them all off him. But thatâ€™s how it should be, isnâ€™t it? And with all those improved dodge defenses; he may be able to keep moving enough to stay out of harmâ€™s way until he can figure out a way to flee. Hopefully heâ€™ll win, or at least escape, but the point is the same character is threatened by each of the encounters described above. In all the previous editions, his passive defenses would be so high that if he stood a chance against the dragon, the guards stood no chance against him.
Similar defensive schemes could be centered on parries and shield blocks and probably magical defenses. This allows for the creation of a dynamic defensive scheme which should be more flavorful and importantly, leaves low level creatures as potential threats throughout all level progression.