Monday, June 13, 2011

The fifth stat

My favorite house rule of all time is Hubris.

The idea for Hubris came from recognizing that some of my players were fool hardy and enjoyed getting messed up in conflict while others derived more joy from avoiding danger than anything else. The risk seekers had a tendency to take actions that got the risk adverse into equal trouble. This didn't seem fair. Basically what I wanted was a mechanism to treat different players differently without doing so randomly.

At the same time, there was general disagreement about what sort of game players wanted. Some wanted to be plucky heroes overcoming adversity and others wanted to be natural paragons kicking ass and taking names. It's tough to simulate both of those without treating people differently. Hubris was the answer.

Hubris only works if point buy is in the game. Granted, you don't have to actually generate stats with point buy, but the table is needed to determine Hubris. After abilities are generated, players can acquires additional ability points (to be spent according to the point buy schedule) by taking on Hubris. In the alternative, players could reduce stats or "sell" points left over from point buy back to acquire positive Hubris. Every point buy point costs -2 Hubris (and selling a point is +2 Hubris). No character may buy or sell points to acquire Hubris outside of +10 to -10.

Hubris is used to assess luck. A Hubris check is d20 + 1/2 level + Hubris (most often a penalty). Any player or the GM may call for a Hubris check. The GM then determines if the situation best calls for an individual Hubris check (i.e. a specific player), all players, or a group check. A group check uses the average Hubris of the entire party with a single d20 roll. The typical DC of a Hubris check is 10 for a "likely" event, 15 for an "unlikely" event, and 20 for an "extremely unlikely" event. Examples follow:
  • Likely. Up ahead, the forest opens and you reach a fordable part of the river.
  • Unlikely. Up ahead, an old abandoned ferry clings moored to the river bank.
  • Extremely unlikely. Up ahead, a fisherman has hidden a well maintained boat in the reeds
The Hubris system allows variation in statistics and abilities to be introduced without the unfairness that sometimes accompanies randomness. It also sends informative signals to the GM with regards to which players welcome risk (i.e. will trade power for bad luck) versus which players are risk adverse (i.e. prefer no hubris for good luck). A player that takes on -10 Hubris for a handful of ability points is strongly indicating that he welcomes the risk. This signal is useful to the GM, gives the player what he wants, and lets you treat players differently with impunity later on.

Hubris checks are modified by level bonus so that as characters increase in level they gain greater control of their fate. Abilities represent a greater portion of total power at low levels, making them a potent benefit. At later levels, abilities are a lesser portion of total power and so it is appropriate that the Hubris penalty diminishes over time.

Two more important additions:
1.   If a GM calls for a hubris check the penalty for failure can be anything the GM wants including the absence of luck. If a player calls for a hubris check, the penalty for failure is bad luck.
2.   You don’t make a check to see how lucky you get. You pick how lucky you want to be (i.e. likely, unlikely, extremely unlikely) and see if your can make it happen.


  1. This rule actually reminds me of something I fiddled around with a while back while working on a game system for a friend of mine-a "destiny check" used to insert things into the narrative. I love the idea of the rule, but that being said have a couple of comments/questions/concerns.

    Firstly, depending on what the maximum level is in your system, it very quickly becomes simple for a character to succeed at hubris checks. This might be a design feature rather than a bug, but it's something to consider. It actually segues into my second concern.

    How do you adjudicate the effects of Hubris in a fair way? Are the DCs relative to how much benefit a character would gain from a certain twist of fate, or are they only based on how likely something is to happen within the game's fiction? Let me put it this way: if a party is fighting a mad sorcerer in his tower, and a character makes a hubris check to "Find an magic item empowered by dark magic" what's the check's DC? Is it low (5-10) because it's pretty likely that there's some sort of powerful evil mojo nearby, or is it high (15-25) because of the massive benefit that a powerful magical item would give a character in the upcoming fight?

    Also, considering that at higher levels characters might have considerable bonuses to Hubris rolls that make failure unlikely what measures are there in place to prevent "hubris spamming?" Assuming a max level of 20 for your game, characters who are moderately hubris-optimized will be getting unlikely events to happen for them on a regular basis by around 10th level or so. Since there's no limit to hubris checks, there's an incentive there to "milk the cow" so to speak as much as possible.

    While there's not much risk of characters running around with +10 hubris (assuming that you use a pretty-tight point buy matrix), it is also something to consider. Is a character who's sacrificed 5 build points to get +10 hubris just as viable as one who's taken no tradeoff, or just as viable as one who's gone all the way in the opposite direction? Here's a couple of examples to stimulate some brainstorming: (All examples assume 5th level, no other mods other than ability and level, and 8 point buy.) Just for fun, let's make them all focused on spell casting (which I'm assuming uses Cunning)

    Bob The Humble (Hubris Optimization)

    Strength: (+2 to Strength checks
    Agility: (+2 to Agility checks
    Cunning: +3 (+5 mod to cunning checks)
    Vitality: (+2 to Vitality checks)
    Hubris: +10 (+12 mod to hubris checks)

    Signor Antony Pirelli, Son of the Thrice-Maimed God, Hero of the Seven Dales, Favorite of all the Realm's whores, and just all around better than you (Attribute optimization-he's an arrogant bastard)

    Strength:+0 (+2 to Strength Checks)
    Agility: +3 (+5 to agility checks)
    Cunning: +5 (+7 to Cunning Checks)
    Vitality: +5 (+7 to Vitality Checks)
    Hubris: -10 (-8 to Hubris Checks)

    Joe the Average

    Strength: (+2 to Strength checks)
    Agility: (+2 to Agility checks)
    Cunning: +5 (+7 to Cunning checks)
    Vitality: +3 (+5 to Hubris checks)
    Hubris: +0 (+2 to Hubris Checks)

  2. Looking at the three different characters I've posted, it seems that the arrogant bastard is going to have the advantage, unless the GM of the game he appeared in constantly evoked the Hubris rules. This would probably even things out a little, but would likely either end up over penalizing the arrogant character (if the penalties for failing a hubris check are too harsh), or being trivial to overcome with the arrogant character's huge attribute scores.

    On the other hand, poor Bob doesn't have a whole lot going for him outside of the Hubris rules, meaning that he's got motivation to invoke them every single round rather than rely on his significantly lower stats. Another thing to consider is that it's likely that Bob is going to be:

    15% easier to hit than the arrogant bastard.

    Significantly frailer than the arrogant bastard (because of a lower surge value, fewer hp to go before being bloodied and losing precious surges, and fewer hp overall).

    Significantly easier to hit than the arrogant bastard (15% easier to hit his Reflex, 10% easier to hit his will, 25% easier to hit his fortitude). This matters significantly because not only does he have lower HP than normal, but he's more likely to be exposed to hindering conditions.

    Now admittedly, you can spread Bob's remaining points around a bit to give him a bit more durability but that only exacerbates his accuracy problem. He can also rely on stocks, trades, and feats to make up for the difference but those are picks that he's making just to compete that his companions are using to improve the stuff that they're already good at.

    Even if you have an attribute cap at first level (say +5 in any one ability score) there's also a problem in comparing an average character to the "arrogant bastard" assuming the GM is not constantly piling complications on him. Joe is 15% easier to hit in Reflex, and 10% easier to hit in Fortitude and has nothing really to compensate.

    Sure he can get a relatively likely bit of good fortune to come his way at will with a 40% chance, but anything above that is a bit dicey (pardon the pun). He has little hope (25% chance) of hitting a DC 15 Hubris check, and hasn't got a snowball's chance in Baator of making a DC 20 Hubris Check (15% chance). Is a less than 50% chance of getting something good to happen for you that would likely happen naturally worth being significantly more vulnerable in a game system focused on combat (as all iterations of D&D have been)? I'd err on the side of "no".

  3. That's not to say that there's not the potential for an amazing rule in here-you've just got to figure out how to make tradeoffs available that are equal all along the spectrum of humble peasant hero >average joe-mercenary >swaggering demigod.

    Might I recommend something along the lines of a flat tradeoff-essentially along the lines of being "trained" in Hubris? Basically, at first level, you can choose to have one of the following as your Hubris: +5, +0, or -5. +5 meaning favored by fate or humble, +0 means average, -5 meaning cursed or arrogant. Selecting +5 would mean that you get 1 less point to spend on your attributes. Selecting -5 would give you 1 more point. Selecting +0 nets you the standard starting amount. This minimizes the swingy nature of your current mechanical setup while still allowing for significant differences in play (a 25% difference in mods between average and either option, and a 50% difference between the two extremes).

    All of this mechanical fiddling is really dependent though on making sure that you have rules for Hubris which:

    Ensure that the benefits of it are in line with the potential drawbacks.

    Make it difficult to abuse, both on the side of the players (constantly asking for hubris checks and slowing the game down, or constantly making them and messing with game balance)and the GM (because of the lack of rules for penalties, the GM is free to inflict horrible, horrible fates on characters who blow a hubris check, and since the GM can do this at any time, this can happen a lot during play).

    Make it simple to determine what is a reasonable application of the hubris rules (what sort of thing you can get out of beating various DCs, and how to determine DCs). Making it simple and straightforward to determine consequences for failed checks would help too-maybe based on the amount by which you fail, or based on the significance of the boon sought.

    All in all though, I like the idea and would love to continue discussing it as you work it into your design.

  4. For the most part Hubris is balanced in three ways, all really dependent on the play style rather than the system itself. As such, Hubris as presented won't work for all groups.

    (1) Most players are greedy and want more stats. What typically ends up happening is everyone opines that they'll maybe have 0 or -2 Hubris or something. Then someone goes to -4, then someone joins them at -4. Then someone realizes they'd be better off at -6 and since that is about as unlucky as everyone else... Before creation is done, they all span between -2 and -10.

    (2) We generally try and limit Hubris to coming up about 3x per session. There was never a hard fast rule, but that is just about how often it played out. Hubris wasn't really intended to be a device for players to usurp narrative control as much as putting more substance around those moments of play where the GM isn't sure how to rule and so just says "Roll a d20!"

    (3) It really isn't possible for a player to Hubris-spam because the GM decides what type of check will follow. So if Humble Bob tries to spam with his +10, the GM will just decide to make it a group check (average Hubris of all party members) or everyone individually roll. That way, Signor Antony Pirelli (who is just all around better than Humble Bob) is failing left and right and helps Bob see the light that maybe Hubris spamming is not a welcome strategy for the group.

  5. I was about to post a really long and detailed response to this, but my computer freaked out and wouldn't let me, so let me be a bit more concise than normal with my response.

    To address point one: it might be that at your table everyone hovers around the -4 through -10 mark, but you need to make sure that all of the other ranges are balanced as well. I'm not convinced the rules as they are now allow for that. The differences in capabilities between someone who chooses to do +10 hubris and one who does -10 are significant.

    To address point number 2: It's hard to rely on "soft" rules with any sort of regularity amongst different gaming groups. If the only way that a rule is balanced is because of a gentleman's agreement not to be a dick, you might want to consider changing it. There are a lot of different opinions on what sort of behavior constitutes dickishness, and most players that try to build a "humble" character are going to be upset if the only thing their character is good for is only usable 3 times a session.

    Point 3. This comes down to the "wizard problem" just like in 3.5, you are faced with a lose lose situation: either remove what makes the character special through GM fiat (using group checks to neuter their hubris powers), or allowing them to steamroll over encounters consistently with it.

    Like I said, more concise than I usually am, but that's the basic breakdown of my feelings on the matter. Abilities (including Hubris) should be available for use in a way that doesn't require careful GM'ing or neutering a character concept in order to make it balanced.

  6. In general I agree with your sentiments except with regards to #2. There were sort of two ideas wrapped up into that one with the second idea being that Hubris really isn't intended as a device for players to usurp narrative control. To go back to your earlier example of finding a magic item on hand, it just would never be used in that fashion.

    Hubris is "the fifth stat" in the same was that the crowd is "the sixth man." If you have to pick between having LeBron and playing at home, you go with LeBron every time. Hubris resolves issues at the fringe and isn't really a huge source of power.

    To reiterate the heart of the post, the reason I liked it was two fold:
    (1) Some players want more stats than others but I dislike rolling and dislike treating players differently. Hubris let me introduce a mechanism for players to tailor how many points they felt they needed balanced by some modest mechanism. As you increase in level, stats become less important, so the penalty should similarly diminish.
    (2) Some players like to get caught up in chaos while others like safety. They know what Hubris means and so this is a mechanism for them to signal their preference. It is also an excuse later when the player who is always doing stupid stuff says, "Why does everything bad happen to me?" I don't have to say, "Because you're dumb" but rather point to the Hubris score he chose for himself.

  7. That's the thing, unless you radically depart from 4th edition's math, ability scores will always matter, and matter significantly. In your game, there are only 4 abilities, so this problem is in some ways magnified because it means that each ability takes on more "baggage" making it impossible to really have a dump stat without hurting your character. In 4th edition for example, it's generally assumed that you have at least a +3 mod in your primary ability score and that you increase it at every opportunity. Assuming you keep roughly the same math, the characters who try to keep their Hubris high will really suffer in trying to select viable stats.

    In light of that, and of what you said abut Hubris not being a central part of the game and not being a huge source of power I'd definitely revamp it so that tanking hubris doesn't give you a huge advantage (which as written, it does), and that it's at least a viable idea to have a maxed-out hubris character. As it stands, sacrificing stat points to add to Hubris is a trap with a Capital T.

    You're giving up something that's genuinely useful and that you're going to be able to use on a regular basis (stat points), for something that's marginally useful and only comes up occasionally (Hubris) which is a bad trade all around. Now I personally wouldn't touch the system with a 10ft pole if I were playing in the game you're developing, but there are a lot of players out there who wouldn't sense the trap until it was too late.

    Also, it seems a little counterinuitive that a character who's principal attribute is being abnormally lucky, can't use this luck for anything that would actually have a significant impact on events in game. Either ramp up the usefulness of Hubris (and establish firm rules on when it can be used), minimize the investment required to pump it/minimize the reward for dumping it (so it's clear that it's not a big deal(tm) to characters), or else discard it entirely.

  8. Again, I mostly concur. The reason it is my favorite house rule is that it works perfectly for my group and is really simple and elegant to resolve a handful of issues (all described throughout the post and our comments) in one fell swoop. Your posts have made more strongly consider the extent, though, to which I probably can't assume that it will work equally well for all groups. It is very useful perspective.

    This is sort of a funny aside, but you'll probably end up noticing that a lot of my house rules and assumptions presume a slightly adversarial set of players. If you check out my rules for Epilogue: Shot to hell, I basically assume that people will screw each other over and try and trap their friends in hell despite the premise of the game being cooperation.

    That's just how my guys roll, and, if you are prepared for it, it leads to incredibly fun and memorable times. I both pity and envy people with healthier, more supportive groups.

  9. I don't think you mentioned what could happen if a roll failed. Could you provide some examples?

    The reason for my question is also that I don't see how this prevents risk adverse players from being dragged into problems by more "wild" players.
    In a way it only seems to double-punish them. What I mean is this: If a player with a negative hubris modifier gets into trouble from a hubris roll and needs the other players to help him get out of it, the risk adverse players are both dragged into trouble and have lower attributes.
    (It sounds like your group may be different, but I think most players/characters would try to help out a fellow party member).

    So even if a hubris roll is only for a single character - depending on the results of failed rolls - it may cause trouble for the entire party? I guess I am unsure of what the penalties can be. It sounds GM specific, which to me makes the rule more "swingy" and unpredictable, and perhaps shouldn't modify such a core part of the system.

    Also, a similar question. At the end of the post you state that the penalty for a failed hubris check that the GM called for can be anything, but when it is one the player called for the penalty is simply "bad luck". Is "Bad luck" simply that neither of the three events occur, meaning no real penalty (besides having "spent" a hubris check)?

  10. There are a couple of scenarios. Let's say Brash Barb has a high hubris (-10) to go with his high stats and Cautious Cleric has low hubris (+10) with his low stats. Cautious Cleric is signaling to the DM that he likes his safety and would rather avoid getting pulled into shenanigans.

    Most of the game plays normal. They fight monsters, find treasure, and roll skill checks. Hubris doesn't dictate the core aspects of the game.

    One fateful day, they are in a bar and Brash Barbarian's player is just itchin' for a fight and roleplaying Brash as such. A hubris check is called for and the DM decides Brash alone should roll. He rolls horribly and the DM decides that the NPC Brash is messing with is actually the off-duty captain of the guards, and many of his guards are in the tavern. They have no issue with Cautious Cleric, but he'll probably get roped in since that is what player's do.

    Later, they are in court appearing before a judge. Another hubris check is called and the DM decides both players should roll. Brash rolls poorly and the judge takes an instant disliking to him. Cautious rolls well and the judge is sympathetic to his situation.

    Later still, they find themselves fleeing the city pursued by dogs. They try and find a section of the river that they can cross but dogs couldn't. A third hubris check is called and the DM decides a group check is best. The +10 and -10 cancel out, and, as a duo, they could face any range of luck.

    So it is true that cautious players tend to get rolled into chaos if the brash players push for it, but that happened anyways. What hubris does is give you an excuse (and a mechanism) to treat them differently.

    In play, no one has ever actually gone for a negative hubris (i.e. good luck). I leave it as an option but maybe it should be removed. As a result, there are 5 stat points on the line. We played a 28 pt 3e game and characters came in at 29 to 33 pts. A range of 4 pts is by no means insignificant, but it is about +1 to an already primed stat. For most people, their hubris points went to round out weaker stats and make them more interesting.

    Finally, with regards to a failed check and "bad luck," this would be the opposite of their stated intent. So the way Hubris worked in play is that they would say, "I want to find a crossing on the river where the dogs cannot follow." I'd decide the DC based on likelihood and the type of check. If they pass, they find it. If they fail, they might instead see the river picking up speed into a rapids. If they failed hard, the rapids might turn into a waterfall.

    The goal was usually three fold: (1) Put a little more control in the hands of players; (2) put a little more structure around how people wanted to experience the world; and (3) up the entertainment value.

  11. "So it is true that cautious players tend to get rolled into chaos if the brash players push for it, but that happened anyways."
    True, but this was my point about the player being punished twice. The rule doesn't prevent the player from becoming caught up in chaos and it also makes the character less proficient.
    I do like the concept of the rule, but I think it is very hard to make it work as individual modifiers. The DM should be very mindful of the effects he imposes of failing a hubris check.
    Perhaps it could work if the situation can only be resolved with more hubris rolls. So if the barbarian ends up in a bar brawl from a failed hubris roll, the game enters a "skill challenge" like mode where hubris rolls are made. This would be somewhat confusing for players though, since they can't use their characters training/abilities (and the barbarian would lose if not for the meek wizard who would be kicking ass and taking names). The benefit though it that the risk adverse player gets to shine, especially since he/she doesn't get to as much with lower attribute scores. It works from a balance standpoint, but from a logic standpoint, it doesn't make much sense.

    I could see the party having a "group" hubris modifier - if they can agree on the type of game they would like to play. But that sounds unlikely and most groups would probably go for a neutral score.