Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I have wondered if I should bother writing this post, particularly as I know it will be arduous and little understood…and probably not supported. I expect no one to read it and change anything about the way they play…and I hardly care. I have been playing myself this way for so long that I can’t see doing it any other way.

The subject is combat. Before I begin, I need to give some lip service towards the subject of AD&D in general. I don’t play it. I do base much of my world on the books, and I do use many of the tables therein, and generally have its backbone as a structure that I adhere to. But when it comes to the actual, rules-lawyer inspired game, I don’t play it. That is because, as I have said before, the game as written is broken. And I have felt comfortable changing whatever I’ve felt was wrong in order to make a more playable, effective game. I don’t see the changes as “house rules” because I don’t recognize the original text as anything but a guideline. But I know others see it that way…so here are my house rules for combat.

They were suggested to me by a player back in ’88, and after a few months of playing them and tweaking them, it was generally agreed that they represented a faster, more vigorous form of combat. My present players were inducted into the game with the more traditional combat system—none of them complained a whit at my variations. And while I say this often, I will say it again…I’ve never had any complaints, not from anyone I’ve introduced to it. I suppose I’ve had a few people who wouldn’t run in my world—but the combat system was never cited as the reason.

All right then. Preamble over.

I’ve wondered about the best way to describe this system, but I suppose the story teller in me demands the approach below. Any comments I think are special to my system I’ll describe in red. Just for fun, I’ll roll all the dice and describe the events as the dice describe (I won’t cheat).

In a completely different universe, Aggro the Axe (4th level fighter), Abner (5th level mage), Arkayn (4th level cleric) and Arlanni (2nd level thief) are moving down a rock corridor lined with torch sconces (I don’t want to get into light factors for this), disappointed that they’ve found nothing yet. Aggro and Arkayn are at the front.

Approaching them from the other end of the corridor, having just entered from the outside, are Gutboy Barrelhouse (6th level fighter), Balto (1st level monk), Blastum (4th level mage) and Barjin (a 4th/5th level fighter/mage). Gutboy and Barjin are at the front.

As both parties include humans, both are clearly able to see the torch lights indicating the other’s approach. The two parties stop 30’ apart, or six hexes (I don’t use squares). There are five empty hexes between the parties and the hall is two hexes wide.

After a period of unhappy discussion, the parties decide, more or less at the same moment, to attack one another. At this point, initiative is rolled. Party A rolls a 5 and Party B rolls a 4.

As it happens, Balto has a 17 dexterity, giving him a +2 initiative (same benefit as dex missile bonus), thus his initiative is a “6”. Arlanni, however, has a 16 dexterity, so that her initiative is also a “6”. Thus, these two individuals attack simultaneously.

As both are in the rear, both have no choice but to use missile weapons. Arlanni unwisely decides to use her sling, which requires the whole round (Each round is six seconds; three seconds per side; I decided on six second rounds primarily because I wished the rounds to reflect a single swing and because, otherwise, the slow movements proposed by AD&D just don’t make sense) to wind up, so she will actually attack last. Balto has no other weapon than his staff (one proficiency only at first level), so unless he chooses to jump between Gutboy and Barjin, he must wait. So he waits.

As Aggro is in plate mail and shield, with a 15 strength, his movement per round is “2” (to move one hex requires 1 movement point; to attack requires 2 movement points). As such, Aggro cannot rush forward to attack anyone; at best, he can stagger forward two hexes and set himself for attack…he doesn’t however, aware that his companions will need him to defend, he moves a step forward and into the center of the hall, intending to hold that position like Horatius at the bridge.

Arkayn decides to cast the spell command, which—like Arlanni’s sling—will require a round to cast (remember that the rounds are greatly shortened, and thus the enemy has time to foil Arkayn’s spell; I believe this is much more realistic than the Hollywoodized concept of superpowerful wizards, and certainly makes a spellcaster pick their moment). As Arkayn is dressed in scale mail, he is counting on a better than fifty percent chance of getting the spell off.

Meanwhile Abner, unarmored and with a movement of 5, backs away down the corridor. As most of his spells are effective at fairly high ranges, the farther he is from the enemy’s thrown weapons, the better the chance that his spells won’t be ruined once they’re begun.

Party B.

Gutboy, in splinted and with a strength of 17 has a movement of 3. This means he is capable of moving one forward and attacking; however, he is five hexes away from Aggro. Plus the cleric is throwing a spell. Gutboy, however, has five proficiencies, one of them being a dagger. Requiring 1 move to draw the dagger and 2 to throw it, he hurls the dagger at Arkayn…he rolls a 15; he has no dexterity bonus (and I play with no dumbfuck armor class adjustments), but for a sixth level fighter that hits AC 1. Arkayn takes two damage and the spell is ruined.

Barjin, being a multi-classed mage/fighter, has no armor and thus has a movement of 5. As he already has his hand axe in hand (wisely prepared), he hurls it at Aggro (2 movement) as he runs forward (3 movement). This does not quite close the gap, but he knows Aggro likely cannot move forward one hex and still attack (unless Aggro has, for whatever reason, more than one attack per round, in which case the movement cost per attack is one). Barjin rolls a natural 20 (!), which causes double damage (I used to use critical hit tables, but they got annoying); he automatically rolls the d20 again (another natural “19” or “20” indicates triple damage—though 19s are ignored if the defender is wearing a helmet), and produces a 5. Barjin gets no strength bonus for his hand axe, as it was thrown (and he has a 14 strength, at any rate), but he manages to cause 6 damage. Aggro has 29 hit points, so he is not “stunned.” (“What?” you’re thinking…I will explain when someone IS).

Finally, there’s Blastum. He can see Arlanni winding up her sling, so he’s going to back up also. Like Abner, he has a movement of 5…but he only backs up two hexes, for reasons which will become clear.

At this point, Arlanni lets go her sling bullet. Close range is anything within 15 hexes (PHB, p. 38, range indicated x 3 hexes), but her companion Aggro needs support so she fires at Barjin. She rolls a 1, indicating that the sling has come out of her hand. The stone bounces harmlessly off the walls and the sling itself lands (roll 1-3 to indicate) two hexes in front of her. Arlanni swears.

2nd Round.

Balto still has initiative over Party A. He has a movement of 5 (unarmored monk), but being fairly weak it’s just not wise for him to move to where Aggro has a chance to hit him; formerly he was standing behind Barjin…Balto is still six hexes away from where Aggro is positioned. His best chance is to wait until Aggro is stunned (there’s that word again) so he can slip past and attack the spellcasters. In the meantime, he moves forward three hexes where he can use Barjin as a shield.

Party A (except for Arlanni, whose actions now follow Party B)

Aggro has little choice in action. Separated from Barjin by two hexes, he can’t advance and attack this round (this is why plate mail sucks; and why it SHOULD suck…I don’t punish players because they decide to have it, I punish them because the stuff weighs 45 pounds and is put together with screws, for shit’s sake). He could choose to drop his battle axe (no movement; sheathing it would cost him 1) and draw his hammer, enabling him to throw it the following round, but he decides not to. (If he didn’t stubbornly pick a weapon requiring two hands, he could hold both an sword and a hammer…good reasons why if you’re going to wear plate mail you should think better how you choose to defend yourself). What Aggro CAN do is advance one hex and “engage” Barjin in combat, even though Aggro doesn’t have a chance to attack this round. (Once engaged in combat Barjin has to expend 2 movement to withdraw, plus 1 more to move into an adjacent hex).

Arkayn, miserable that his spell failed, decides now to draw his mace and join Aggro. Arkayn in scale and with a 13 strength has a movement of 3. He can’t quite move forward either and attack Barjin (being separated by three hexes), but he can move forward two and additionally engage Barjin in combat (Each additional person increases the withdraw penalty by 1 move).

Abner, confidently 11 hexes from the nearest enemy, is now free to cast. He considers getting that goddurn it web scroll out of his pack because it will be pretty useful just now. Unfortunately, it’s going to take him one round to get off his pack, another to rummage through the bag, a third to uncap the scrollcase and get the blasted thing out. Then it will take another full round to read it. Instead he decides to cast his suggestion spell (the best third level spell his book allowed, having only a 15 intelligence), which will take two rounds to cast (like all third level spells).

Party B (except for Balto)

At this point, Barjin has only one escape hex…and it will cost him four movement points to enter it. Given his movement of five, he could completely retreat to a point two hexes from Aggro—but what would that accomplish? Gutboy can’t handle both Aggro and Arkayn alone, and Balto is no real help…and besides, Blastum is at the back preparing a spell. Basically, the best thing Barjin can do at this point is attack. Arkayn is an easier target. He rolls a 16, hitting AC 2. Using a long sword, he causes 6 damage. Arkayn has 22 total hit points (these useless characters from the book have no stats!) and is stunned.

(Now what, exactly, does that mean? Whenever any creature takes damage in a given round—from however many sources—which equals or exceeds one quarter of the total hit points at the beginning of that round, the creature is stunned for one round, during which time they can take no action whatsoever. The character falls back one hex—or two plus hexes if struck by a large creature, depending on the size of the creature—and there they remain. For story’s sake, they can be said to be dazed or laying on the ground…if stunned next to a vertical drop, they are allowed a dexterity check, failure indicating that they have fallen. That’s fun to run, let me tell you. If it so happens that Barjin is not stunned himself by Aggro’s next attack, he can move forward and attack Arkayn again, this time needing only 4 damage to stun him, as Arkayn’s total hit points the following round were reduced to 16. The liveliness of this comes from being able to literally beat your opponent to death without them ever having a chance to attack, if the dice favor your attack. It’s fun when it works for the players, it is amazingly distressing when it works for the creatures opposing them)

Balto remains where he is…thoroughly outclassed, he’s best held in reserve. Remember that later in the battle, it may not need much for him to keep either Aggro or Arkayn stunned.

Gutboy rushes forward to back up Barjin. He’s four hexes from Aggro, which means he can advance three and engage Aggro in combat.

Lastly, Blastum actually possesses a web spell…five hexes behind Balto, he will begin casting it. Of course, the spell only has a range of 20’ feet at Blastum’s level, so he’ll have to move forward once he’s cast the spell.

This leaves only Arlanni. Being a thief and not suited for direct combat, she has wisely filled two thin ceramic flasks with oil and has previously prepared them both with cloth wicks. These she keeps carefully in padded pouches hanging from the belt over one shoulder. In leather armor she has a movement of 4; it takes one movement to extract one flask, one movement to draw her flint and tinder, one to set the bottle on the ground and one to ready the tinder for use. The next round she will light the flask and prepare to throw it over the melee in the direction of the enemy mage…

Not that I can’t go on with this, but I’m getting a bit tired. It is a helluva a lot easier to actually run this combat than it is to describe it, along with all the rules that my players have comfortably adjusted to. I hope that this will, to some degree, help explain why combats in my game are interesting enough to draw approval. But perhaps not. Who knows? I find them a great deal more diverting than the example on p. 71 of the DMG. You decide.

P.S. I’ll finish the combat if I’m asked to.


noisms said...

Each round is six seconds; three seconds per side; I decided on six second rounds primarily because I wished the rounds to reflect a single swing

I'm intrigued by this statement. 3 seconds is more than enough time for a person to get off several swings. Are there rules by which a person can make multiple attacks in a round (even if they only have a single attack in theory), perhaps by sacrificing accuracy?

Alexis said...

Are there rules by which a person can make multiple attacks in a round.

The answer is yes. Three seconds is plenty of time to include quite a number of blows, particularly against an unskilled opponent. In reference to this, I'd like to dispute the argument that some give that the number of blows against a single opponent ought to be limited. A fully-skilled martial artist, fighting with hatchet and dagger, could easily strike you ten times in a three-second period before you fell.

Thus, the number of moves required to make an attack is reduced as the number of your attacks increases. For example, if your movement is three, and you get three attacks, each attack would be judged to be 1 move; of course, if you chose to move a hex, that would sacrifice one of your attacks. Moreover, if your movement is three, and you get five attacks, each attack is judged to be 3/5 of a move.

Some might argue that an increasing number attacks would mean that other physical actions, such as slipping off a pack or lighting an oil flask. I would tend to agree.

Alexis said...

Ah, forgot to mention. No, you can't increase the number of attacks you make by sacrificing accuracy; the die and your level determines your accuracy, not your choice. It is presumed that your character is making every effort possible already, and this is the fastest they can hit and the most accurate they can manage.

Carl said...

Interesting. Your stunning rules are brutal. The movement points and use of them to determine actions is a clever work-around to a confusing system of what one can actually do in a round of combat. As I read your description, it hit me just how long it's been since I played AD&D and how far away from it I am now.

When I last played AD&D, I had used a d10 for initiative (except spellcasters and missiliers who used a d4), having each character and NPC roll and then using the number rolled to determine the segment (10 segments in a round) in which they acted. I used the weapon speed scores and casting times of spells to add to the number rolled and the Dexterity modifier of the character to subtract from it. I also had players declare actions before rolling initiative, hence having spellcasters roll a smaller die.

Did it make sense? Now that I look back, no, but neither did breaking combat into 1 minute portions in which one evaluted if damage was done and then how much. Hell, I can land 4 shots with a short sword in 1 second. If I'm just punching I can hit the bag 10 times in 1 second. My justification was that spellcasters and ready missiliers should be able to start casting or shooting before a meleeist can rush in and deliver the smack down.

I kept trying to add more realism, similar to what you've done with Plate Mail movement rules. The more I moved toward accuracy and realism in my combats, the more work they became to run and less fun it was to run them. I found that the more I abstracted combat, the more cinematic and fun it became but only up to a point. There's a balance in there of course. If the combat is too abstracted you lose suspension of disbelief and it becomes a math exercise. If it's too close to simulating reality, it's cumbersome and becomes not-fun.

GURPS combat is a pretty good simulation that's still playable. D&D 3.0 isn't much of a simulation but it's considerably faster-paced than AD&D was and it's based on a 6-second round.

Classically, D&D combat has been described as "heroic" (there's that word again!) meaning that it's not supposed to depict each cut and thrust into flesh and bone, the blood, and the horror of killing another sentient with a sharpened piece of iron. It's supposed to depict a struggle, with the players and the DM to fill in the descriptions of what's happening. I guess it does that, but I find it too simplistic sometimes.

James Maliszewski said...

the slow movements proposed by AD&D just don’t make sense

They only don't make sense is you look at AD&D combat as being a simulation rather than an abstraction. A round is one minute in length, because an attack roll wasn't intended to represent a single swing but rather a collection of thrusts, swings, and other actions designed to land a damaging blow. It's the same logic by which AD&D doesn't use hit location or wounding rules -- the system was designed to very abstract.

Alexis said...


Although it sounds complex written here, with the rules and actions explained, it plays very quickly. I also found the standard combat system too simplistic, although I understood the logic; it just didn't "feel" like combat, meaning the players felt less invested in what they were achieving.


But I DO look at combat as a simulation. Arguing that it was designed as an abstraction means very little to me. I've read the DMs guide and I have plenty of experience with the arguments thereof. I'm not encouraging you or anyone else to change...I've played the standard system, and I find this more enjoyable.

James Maliszewski said...

But I DO look at combat as a simulation.

Nothing wrong with that, but it's an uphill battle, because nearly all of AD&D's combat rules are abstract. I see you've ditched Dex adjustments to AC; that's a good decision there, given what you want to do. But what about hit points? As written, they're not very simulationist and run somewhat counter to the feel you seem to be going for.

Alexis said...

Sorry for the misunderstanding. I play with no dumbfuck weapon vs. armor class adjustments. Dexterity I still use.

Yes, hit points are an abstraction. The damage done per weapon is an abstraction. The hex map on the floor is an abstraction. Abstractions abound.

Don't suppose that because I want the system to be more simulationist, I'm opposed to the incorporation of abstractions. It is a question of degree only.