Posted by: markfender | March 21, 2012

The Glass Ninja Problem

There’s this idea in games that glass ninjas are a problem.

The first game I remember that illustrated the problem was TORG. In this game, you rolled a die, compared it to a chart, and added the bonus from the chart to your stats in order to hit an opponent. The issue arose in that, if you did hit your opponent, you added the same bonus to your damage statistics. You can see where this leading: If your opponent had a very large defense, then conversely, he was going to take a lot of damage if you managed to actually hit him. Thus, arose the term “glass ninja.” He was very hard to hit, but if you did manage to hit him, he was probably going down.

Thus arose myriad house rules to deal with the problem. But I’m not sure I’m seeing the issue. In these sort of games, there’s generally two ways to go: the tough-as-nails character who takes a lickin’ and keeps a tickin’ and the guy who never gets hit. And balance would seem to say that the guy who’s never hit is going to suffer more from being hit than the guy who really doesn’t care. As a person who tends to make the dodge-monkey in games, I don’t really have a problem with it. I made my character to not get hit – seems to imply that I suffer horrific consequences if I am hit – which is why I’m avoiding it in the first place.

So, is it a problem? I think it really only becomes a problem when the rules don’t actually follow this rule. For instance, D&D has escalating defense the more armor you wear. So, for starters, it’s hard to make the glass ninja without strapping a lot of armor on in the first place. Which seems backwards, but whatever. But in earlier editions of D&D, there really was no ‘tank’ concept. Which sorta made everyone into a glass ninja. Even the guys with lots of hit points would drop to a save-or-die effect (which, typically targeted one of their weak defenses anyway). So, the glass ninja wasn’t an issue because everyone was.

So, I’m not sure I’m seeing the “problem.”



  1. There have been tanks in D&D for as long as there have been armor class and hit points. The terminology didn’t come around until Everquest, but I distinctly recall referring to a paladin as our “damage sponge” repeatedly back in the 1980s.

    • Definitely the archetype has always been there (Witness stories of fighters jumping off cliffs and absorbing the damage). I was more referring to the lack of ‘stickiness’ of those character types. Yes, the frontline guy has beaucoup hitpoints, but the dragon could just target the guy in the back wearing a robe and eliminate them.

  2. Well that’s a matter of DM discretion. When a computer is managing the “aggro” of each NPC, it needs an algorithm to do so by, and this lead to aggro-management abilities on the hitpoint-bank characters (in Anarchy Online the best folks at aggro management were Bureaucrats, but that was a bit odd). Having game mechanics for making the front-line characters “sticky” encourages lazy DMing, or worse, it encourages DMs to adopt a more adversarial attitude towards the players.

    It isn’t the dragon’s job to kill off the party. It’s the dragon’s job to provide an exciting challenge that must be overcome for the party to get their macguffin, whether that’s wealth, fame, power, or delicious cake. The DM shouldn’t have to work out ways for the BBEG to bypass the Fighter’s stickiness abilities in order to make the party Cleric and Wizard feel threatened.

    The party Wizard should live in perpetual fear that he’ll cheese the BBEG off more than the Fighter does and get himself dead. That the BBEG didn’t go murder the back-line spellcasters should appear to stem from how aggressive and imposing and cool the front-line characters are, not just another tedious mechanical side-effect of their class abilities.

    • Sure, but that’s going off topic a bit. My intention was to state that without stickiness of some kind, everyone in D&D is a glass ninja.

      • Yeah, but I agree with your main point. This is one of the primary reasons why I was always on-board with the idea that NPCs don’t need to follow the same rules of character creation as player characters in 4e. Bad guys need a higher hitpoint-to-damage-output capacity than player characters if they’re going to stand a chance of surviving long enough to be interesting opponents without being horribly overpowered. Early attempts at this (with ‘solo’ monsters in the 4e Monster Manual) took things too far, but I appreciated the underlying design concept.

  3. I don’t think it’s a problem per default. Since Anarchy Online was mentioned I played a Fixer there, stupidly good evades but if something hit you it would really hurt as your hit points was low. If something nasty hit you twice in a row(or if sufficiently nasty hit you once) you were likely dead. That was fine(In fact it was a little broken in AO, but that’s beside the point), you knew that.

    I think it’s slightly different in a tabletop rpg, as you don’t just respawn in them, but that also goes back to DM/Character management and expectations. There should be genuine risk to fighting. It’s easier to manage with “brick” characters where you can throw damage at them and have them soak it, but bringing dodge monkeys to the brink of death should be possible too.

    It only becomes a problem in a RPG if the only option is not getting hit, or getting hit and automatically dying. You will want some options in between.

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