Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fantastic Combat: An Example

Here are a few examples of the Fantastic Combat system I proposed earlier.  I want to reiterate that it is important to keep the base odds against the players (so a target number of 8+ or worse).  This is mainly to keep fantastic strikes the exception and not the rule, so that players resort to them in a last ditch effort to turn the tide.  This ratio also keeps the dice rolls more fun, as players are generally only upset when they botch a roll where the odds were in their favor, and die rolls are more exciting when they rely on a good deal of luck.

Gimbusk and his company of dwarves have retreated into a small mountain crag, pursued by what is most likely an enormous troll.  As the creature stretches its hideous arm into the chasm, Gimbusk declares his intention to drive the monster off, perhaps by severing its limb.  The referee agrees this is in the purview of a hero, and as Gimbusk fights as a Hero -1, he may roll two dice against the target number with a -1 penalty.  The referee sets the difficulty at 8 or higher, and they agree that if the roll is not made, the troll will grope around the crevasse and cause a cave-in, trapping the party in the gorge.

Brøtfr has been badly wounded in battle against Brannolagolan.  As a last desperate attempt, he declares his intention to smite the wyrm.  The referee agrees that Brøtfr, who fights as a Superhero +1, can attempt this task, rolling two dice against the target number with a +1 bonus.  Furthermore, since Brøtfr is using Glamrill, a magical sword +3 vs dragons, he gains another +3 bonus to his roll.  The referee decides that the stakes are not very high (Glamrill's point will break on Brannolagolan's scales if the roll fails) but the attempt will be difficult (needing an 11 or higher).  Brøtfr rolls 2d6+4 and gets a total of 11, a partial success.  The dragon is merely driven off with a wound.

Solon stands before the ruins of Caer Dòmril, but is unable to find the secret entrance.  Without recourse to other aid, Solon attempts invoke the peculiar positioning of the stars to magically divine the door.  The referee sets the target number, but threatens that a mistake in the incantation will draw the horrible creature from below the lake, just a few paces behind the party.

Thus, while instant death certainly remains a noble stake for the heroic feat, the loss of equipment or change in tactical or strategic situation also provides a lot of opportunity for interesting gaming and storytelling.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fantastic Combat

As I mused earlier, Dungeons & Dragons seems much more set to use with Chainmail right out of the box than most people realize. The mysterious "Fighting Capability" is intelligible, if occasionally inelegant, and the division between normal and fantastic combat is traceable from Chainmail to many references made in the three little booklets of the original game. The only problem remains in the confusing decision to make a successful roll on the Fantasy Combat Table from Chainmail into a mere "hit" in Volume III, implying that it is only worth the 1-6 damage of a mundane strike.

So what is the issue here? If we look at the chances for a normal man to harm a fantastic creature (such as an ogre) in normal combat, his chances of landing a hit are actually better than the hero's chances of succeeding against the same creature in fantastic combat. In Chainmail, this was balanced with the fact that the monster was slain outright with a successful fantastic attack, while normal men had to overwhelm and wear down the creature with multiple wounds. Not only was fantastic combat suitably dramatic, with the hero running the fearsome monster through with a single strike from her sword, but it involved an exciting element of risk - your hero could be smote just as suddenly as the foe.

In Volume III, the successful fantastic strike was demoted to the station of a normal man's attack, equalling a mere "hit", and even had worse odds of hitting than a regular attack. So what made the hero better than the normal man? Is it possible that normal men were meant to be simply unable to engage fantasy creatures in D&D? The presence of armour classes for every monster in Volume II seems to discredit this, as does the entry for Elementals, which specifically prohibits attacks from normal men (thus implying these are normally to be allowed). This would also be breaking with Chainmail, which allowed normal men to fight any fantasy opponent except where specifically prohibited. Perhaps heroes retained their multiple attacks against monsters? Again, in addition to breaking with Chainmail, this seems contradicted by the Attack/Defense rules found in Volume II, which indicate combatants that can fight with the strength of multiple men only do so when fighting with normal men.

There are at least two obvious ways to proceed, if one plans to salvage the Fantasy Combat Table that defined pre-D&D campaigns. Either the matrix is revised to allow much better striking chances than normal men, or the rule in Volume III that demotes a successful roll to a mere "hit" is ignored. The first option is difficult (due to the vastly variable monster armour classes found in Volume II) and bland (a merely superior chance to wound is not very heroic). The second option brings a perhaps unacceptable level of deadliness to fantastic combat - giving a dragon a 28% chance to slay an 8th level Fighting-Man outright with a single attack (and an ogre equal odds to kill off a 4th level Fighting-Man). Combats against such creatures would be very quick, and character turnover very high (which would both work well for a wargame but don't fit well with a D&D campaign).

Both of these solutions involve greatly expanding the Fantasy Combat Table to try and fit the much expanded bestiary of D&D. If the referee is already going to such liberties, I recommend instead a third solution that combines the use of risk, heroics and player choices.

Fantasy Combat
When a Hero faces a fantastic opponent (with 2 or more hit dice) in combat, she may attempt a fantastic strike on the enemy. The player declares the intended effect, the referee sets a target number and they negotiate the stakes. The player may then roll two dice against the target number - higher indicates success, equal indicates a partial success and less indicates a failure.

The referee should determine whether the effect is in the realm of the Hero, Superhero or Wizard when determining the target number, and the stakes should be relevant to the intended effect. Thus if a Superhero wants to slay a dragon in one strike, the stakes should probably be death. But if the Superhero merely wants to distract the dragon, or slay a lesser monster like an Ogre outright, the stakes should be much less dire (entailing a complication in the situation, loss of equipment and so on). In any case, odds should always be against the player and the stakes high, making these fantastic strikes more dramatic and desperate. Of course, if the player does not want to go to such risk, a normal single attack may still be levied. I would not allow a monster to make fantastic strikes, although I would instead give its normal attack a bonus to hit equal to half the monster's hit dice (to keep monsters dangerous).

In essence, this reproduces the effect of the Fantasy Combat Table, but remains more reflexive, as it is not limited by a fixed matrix. As it is merely adapted from the "say yes or roll the dice" philosophy of indie-RPG's, it is also easy to expand this framework to other non-combat actions, such as leaping over chasms or conjuring a magical effect. The limitation to all this is that the character has to have the Fighting Capability of a Hero, Superhero or Wizard, and the action has to be relevant to that role. In this way, Fighting-Men are promoted as they can act heroically as early as level 3 with a -1 penalty to the roll (whereas Clerics must wait till level 6 and Magic-Users till level 7), although heroics can often get you killed, making it a bittersweet honor at best.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Man-to-Man Combat: An Example

Here is an example of Man-to-Man Combat using D&D hit points. In this mock battle, three highwaymen accost Bishop Eustace the Useless (a 6th level cleric of St. Marr, armed with chain mail, shield, mace and 20 hits). The brigands are three normal men with leather armour and a shield, armed with a spear (5 hits), sword (2 hits) and flail (3 hits) respectively. The fastest weapons in the fight are the mace (3) and sword (4), while the longest weapons in the fight are the flail (7) and spear (8). The mace is ill-suited to combat leather armour and shield (requiring a 9+ on two dice to hit), while the sword, flail and spear are of varying use against chain and shield (9+, 7+ and 10+ respectively).

After enduring a surprising and withering barrage of insults, Eustace charges the scalawags (he won initiative and chose to move first). The bandits with flail and spear get the first defensive strike (for reach), followed by Eustace (as attacker) and then finally the swordsman brigand (as defender).

As a Bishop, Eustace fights as a Hero - 1 with four attacks (one with a -1 penalty), and as long as he diverts some of his attacks against the flail and spearman, the speed of his mace will grant him a bonus attack against those opponents as well. While the Brigands declare their single attacks on Eustace, the clergyman plans to engage all of his foes (if he does so, he will gain a bonus attack for speed against the spear and flail thugs). Further, Eustace declares his intent to parry the bandits' attacks - a minor parry against the lightning fast sword (costing one attack, in this case the penalized one) and a midi parry against the other two combatants (costing one attack each, but with the possibility of disarming or riposting the enemy).

Now it is time to resolve the action. The spearman strikes first, needing a 10+ on two dice to pierce the Bishop's chain mail and shield, and taking a -2 penalty for the parry attempt. An attack roll of 8-2 proves insufficient, and Eustace will regain his lost attack with a riposte. The bandit armed with the flail needs a 7+ on two dice with a -2 penalty, and connects with a roll of 10-2 (Eustace takes 2 hit points of damage and loses his chance to riposte). Eustace would levy his initial strike here, but by parrying he defers the action to the swordsman, who promptly misses his swing (the Bishop does not regain his spent attack in a riposte, as the sword is not significantly slower than the mace). Now Eustace may foist his initial blow, directed towards the swordsman, smashing him with a roll of 11 for 2 points - enough to kill him outright.

Eustace may now take his remaining strikes - of his initial four, he has lost two in parry attempts and spent another to dispatch the swordsman. The one basic attack that remains is owed to the spearman (the riposte). However, as he has engaged both the spearman and the flail thug with attacks (albeit ones spent on parry attempts), he gains a bonus strike against each for weapon speed. The spearman is clubbed once for 3 points of damage (not enough to fell him) and the brigand with the flail goes unharmed.

As one third of the enemy force has been slain, the bandits must now check their morale (likely testing as light foot, needing an 8 or better on two dice to remain on the field). In the next round, initiative order will switch to faster, lighter weaponry, giving the Bishop the first blow over his opponents.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Understanding Man-to-Man Combat

For its little recognition, Chainmail, the wargaming forefather to the Dungeons & Dragons game, provides a remarkably robust and innovative combat system for small scale skirmishes. It achieves this in just under two pages, in a brief section entitled "Man-to-Man Combat," so short that one might have easily overlooked it. Yet, it was these rules, combined with the Fantasy Supplement, that initially inspired Dungeons & Dragons. To get an idea of what those early proto-D&D games may have looked like, we must take another look at the Chainmail system.

It is worth mentioning that many have tried to implement Chainmail into their games of D&D and have historically run into difficulties. Jason Vey offers the most concise method in his essay, "Forbidden Lore," although his focus on the mass battle rules is clearly contradictory to Gygax's own claim that they were never used with the Fantasy Supplement that inspired early D&D. In particular, players have always wrestled with the mysterious Fighting Capability statistic inDungeons & Dragons. Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the game, this single entry has doubtlessly contributed to the mass adoption of the "Alternative Combat System" that propelled the 20-sided die to its legendary status amongst gamers (well, that and perhaps those early roleplayers were too stingy to pick up Chainmail in the first place).

The crux of the issue, I argue, is the fact that the Chainmail system intended for D&D distinguishes between two categories of combat - normal combat and fantastic combat. The former involves regular combatants on at least one side, which includes non-heroic humans, goblins, orcs and the other "smaller creatures" (Chainmail 44) that loosely adumbrate a group which would eventually be known as 1 hit die creatures in later versions of D&D. The latter, on the other hand, involves fantastic opponents on both sides of the melee, including dragons, ogres and heroes alike (basically, combatants with two or more hit dice). While normal combat used the man-to-man combat system Chainmail, complete with armour classes and multiple attacks and wounds, fantastic combat featured a simple matrix, where powerful opponents are cross-referenced and a single dice roll determines who is slain outright.

Thus, entries like "3 Men or Hero - 1", which have always confused players, indicate the 3rd level Fighting Man fights off mundane foes with three attacks, but also has the grit to assail a fantastic enemy as a sub-hero (with a -1 to his roll on the Fantasy Combat Table) in an all-out attack. Unfortunately, this attempt to bring graduated degrees of fighting capability to Chainmail is an admittedly inelegant addition to that game's originally seamless mechanics. Moreover, the confusing decision to make fantastic strikes inflict a mere "hit" in Volume III further undermines the original heroics found in the Fantasy Supplement. This last rule I recommend ignoring or revising for those who want the true flavor of the original fantasy campaigns of Lake Geneva.

With the peculiarities of the D&D reference to Chainmail aside, it is worth looking at the rather innovative aspects of the Man-to-Man Combat rules, with the concession that these two pages are simply packed with ideas and a summary can hardly do justice to them.

What first stands out is the melee range - 3" or 30 yards. This goes to show that, even with miniatures on the table, positioning in these early games was rather relative. It was assumed that, within a game turn (1 minute), you could maneuver to engage any foe within 30 yards (making this a radius of influence around your combatant). This is incredibly liberating, especially when compared to the neurotic obsession with grid positioning in later versions of D&D.

Once engaged in melee, the order of blows begins with the attacker (thus likely by initiative order), unless the other side has a much longer weapon or higher ground. In later rounds, the order of strikes might switch to the opponent with a smaller (and thus faster) weapon, again as long as there is no terrain disadvantage. To this extent, all weapons fall into 12 classes, with the lighter and shorter weapons occupying the lower numbers. Smaller and faster weapons can be used to parry bigger ones, with chances for ripostes and disarming strikes. Additionally, the greater the difference in size between opposing weapons, the more attacks the lighter weapon will be able to inflict each round. While the bigger weapons have the advantage of reach and superior attack values versus armour, this choice is not an obvious one.

The final major area covered are the rules for mounted combat. These are probably the best rules for mounted combat available for D&D, and include offensive and defensive bonuses for the rider, attacks by the mount (according to quality), attacks made against the mount, attempts to unhorse the rider, rules for falling off the mount (and becoming stunned), remounting and of course the special attack values some weapons provide against prone foes. There is also a complete set of jousting rules, although this is a whole other system perhaps to be covered another day.

Overall, the man-to-man combat rules from Chainmail, in addition to the fantasy rules, provide a well thought out and engaging system. When combined with the three little books of the original game, one can clearly picture the early origins of Dungeons & Dragons, steeped in medieval wargaming and fantasy heroics. As I have commented before, this speaks to the traditional fantasy origins of a game that quickly became defined by the very different feel of uncompromisingly gritty survival horror.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Old-School Party

Without a doubt, one of the most often neglected aspects of old-school gaming is the old-school party dynamic.  For many reasons, contemporary players have become accustomed to the modern style of party - a small band of specialized adventurers, each filling a certain role.  Originally, however, the troupe of heroes was a motley band with no rhyme or reason.  There was generally a plethora of fighting-men (because with their superior arms and armour, they actually mattered) and a nonsensical assortment of demi-humans and magicians alike.  This led to each party having a very specific feel and approach to the game world, rather than the de facto "diversified" and "balanced" parties we see nowadays.

One reason for this development has to do with the smaller groups of players that are typical today.  Referees are lucky if they can get four steady players around a table each week, compared to the dozen or more players common to the late night game sessions of the last century.  At the same time gaming groups dwindled, the industry started to redefine the point of roleplaying games.  Instead of the play being the thing (solving puzzles and defeating the referee), the dramatis personae increasingly became the focus of gaming, so that players came to care more about what made their character unique or interesting rather than how they could "win".  Indeed, the idea that roleplaying is not about winning or losing became popularized, which is a bald-faced lie when one looks at the original game - the players lose when they are slain and they win when they reach roughly tenth level.  The effect of each character becoming somehow "special" meant that every player wanted a very unique persona, so that the overlap that made old-school parties interesting quickly vanished.

The latter problem, which I term the "special snowflake" syndrome, is merely a question of philosophy.  In this case, I think the Old School Renaissance is in good hands, as it largely recognizes that playing a role is about imaging what you yourself would do in a given situation, not how some persona would act, and thus focuses much more on the problem solving than on the dramatics.

The former problem, that of the diminished population of players, is not so easy to remedy.  By my own approach, I allow for random multiple starting characters per player:

Starting Companions
Each player starts the campaign with 1d3 characters, and may run them all simultaneously as a small gang of companions.

This sets up the prologue to the story well, gives small groups the reinforcements they need and mitigates persona-centric gaming.  In addition, the variable size allows for a diverse party and different play styles for each player (according to the number of characters she has and classes she chooses).  Later in the campaign, I generally only allow new player characters to be drawn from those non-player characters already established in the game world (the popular bartender, the local duke et cetera).  The exception to this is the rule for relatives.

It is also important not to forget the rules for hirelings.  In Original Dungeons & Dragons, hirelings are simply first level characters that can be permanently recruited for 100 coins (and perhaps some other bauble, depending on class).  They have an additional ability, Loyalty, which changes over time and affects morale checks.  The size of your army of hirelings is ultimately limited by your Charisma, but average characters can have around four mercenaries at a time.  The downside to this, of course, is the cost to keep these henchmen fed and paid, as well as the drain on experience.  Finding the balance of which hirelings you absolutely need is key.

The Rogue

As an optional character class for more pulpy games, here is my take on the rogue-sorcerer.

Rogues: Outcasts from the academy, rogue-sorcerers must eke out a living amidst the dregs of society. Rogues develop unique skills while living away from the wizardry colleges, and while they are not as proficient in magic, they more than make up for this in grit and cunning. Rogues may use all magical items and weaponry, but are limited from wearing the heavier armours. Rogues do not use spellbooks, and must rely on the limited number of spells they can learn by heart. Rogues fight, save and require the same number of experience points for each level as clerics do. A Rogue who successfully sneaks up on a mark has a chance to immediately eliminate his target.

Dice for Acc Fighting Spells & Levels
Rogues umulated Hit Capability 1 2 3
Knave 1 Man - - -
Miscreant 2 Man + 1 1 - -
Prestidigitator 3 2 Men 2 - -
Trickster 4 3 Men 2 1 -
Scoundrel 4 + 1 3 Men + 1 3 2 -
Ensorceler 5 Hero - 1 4 2 -
Mountebank 6 Hero 4 2 1
Rogue 7 Hero + 1 4 2 2
Rogue, 9th Level 7 + 1 Superhero-1 4 3 2
Rogue, 10th Level 7 + 2 Superhero-1 4 3 3

Sunday, March 21, 2010

HOUSE RULE: Simple Saving Throws

Along with the Simple Attack rolls, here is a quick way to use two dice to resolve Saving Throws that doesn't require looking up a table.  These values are largely in line with the Original Dungeons & Dragons chances of rolling a successful saving throw, although small bonuses like +1 are obviously much more important now.

Roll two dice to avoid the full effect of a weapon. After every three levels for Fighting-Men, each Saving Throw improves by one (and after every four levels for Clerics and after every five levels for Magic-Users).

BreathPoisonPetrify or
ClassAttacksor DeathParalyzeWandsSpells

HOUSE RULE: Simple Attack Rolls

As discussed before, the essence of Chainmail-style D&D is the two-dice attack table.  For those that don't want to constantly refer back to the "Man-To-Man Melee Table" in the middle of combat, here is a simple alternative that uses "lower is better" rolls to hit a traditional descending Armor Class.  Simply roll two dice and reduce the roll according to attacker's level.

Roll two dice and reduce the result by the attacker's bonus by level.  If the score is equal or less than the target's Armor Class, then the attack hits, dealing 1-6 points of damage.

ClericFighting-MenMagic-UserTo Hit

Monsters attack as men, but with a bonus for every full hit die.


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