Thursday, August 28, 2014

Revising B/X Combat (for, like, the Upteenth time)

Actually, I might as well call this "revising B/X period," but whatever. Here's a look behind the curtain of something I'm currently working on.

It is a sad state of affairs that when you start to tweak one thing, you end up needing to tweak another and another and another until pretty soon you're game only superficially (or thematically) resembles the one you used to be playing. For examples, check out D&D 3E forward, and perhaps games like, oh, Palladium Fantasy, or any other number of "fantasy heartbreakers" marketed as "new, innovative" entries into the RPG market. What starts out as a tweak or two ends up snowballing into a giant ball of house rules that might as well be (well, pretty much is) its Very Own Thing.

This is the way hack game designers (like myself) are created.

So, as usual, the original idea for a game I'm building "from the ground up" comes (in part) from some "fixes" I was making to the B/X D&D game. It's unfortunate that so much had to be revised, but c'est la vie. You've got an idea, or thought, or philosophy, and sometimes it's implantation requires redesign. In this particular instance, we're talking about a shift in paradigm with regard to variable weapon damage in small scale encounters.

In Five Ancient Kingdoms, my combat system is very, very different from what you find in B/X because it is based in the root combat system of D&D, namely the Chainmail wargame system. For those who haven't been following the blog too closely (or for those who have gotten completely lost in the meandering of my rambling thoughts on football and whatnot), I'll try to sum up quickly:

- the current system of D&D combat (D20 attack vs. armor class, roll damage, subtract from hit points) is based on an ALTERNATIVE combat system presented in the OD&D books. It went from being an "alternative" to being de facto in part because (as Arneson wrote in Blackmoor) players didn't like getting one-shotted in combat.

[I'm paraphrasing]

- Chainmail did not allow for heroic staying power in were wounded (and out o action) or not. Large monsters (like ogres) could sustain more wounds (i.e. had more hit dice) than a human. You'd have to wound the ogre four times to kill it (unless your character was of an especially heroic type or using a magic weapon). Makes for short, sweet combats.
- What I did with 5AK was to make hit points a part of being an adventurer (PC type) only...PCs take HP damage (rolled randomly) from monsters, but monsters just take wounds. In other words, I took the same approach to my "monster manual" as was the case in early editions of D&D: a monster's profile is just plain different from a player characters (this is not the case with 3E/Pathfinder where monsters have ability scores, feats, skills, etc.). If monsters exist as challenges to be overcome (however one chooses to do that) then why the hell do they need to be all statted up? A ridiculous excess, in my opinion.

The added bonus here is that, being based on a war game (Chainmail) the 5AK combat system is easily extrapolated to mass combat situations (if you want your Arabian horde to go to battle against the northern barbarians or whatever). Small scale and large scale combat can both be handled easily.

But, okay, not everyone is interested in playing out epic sagas on the sand-swept plains surrounding Baghdad. Some people just want to go down into dungeons, yo.

SO...I began writing a new heartbreaker of a game, one with a specific objective (because, you know, objectives are good for games) but whose objective requires the plunging into the depths of the earth with small bands of adventurers. A more basic fantasy adventure game, if you will. And one that uses all sorts of dice, not just six-sided ones (maybe I'm tired of writing up all those D66 random tables).

Anyway: here's the philosophy I wanted to instill in the game design (which required tweaking of the "basic" system/chassis I was using):
  1. Combat should be fast. The game is not solely about combat and should not take hours to resolve.
  2. Damage should be variable. In small scale (skirmish level) conflict, some blows are more telling than others (this gets into a change in philosophy with ability scores, but that's a separate post), and players should experience both the agony of inflicting "only a flesh wound" or the rapture of carving out a big chunk from their opponent.
  3. Randomness should be minimal. We want to cut down on the number of dice rolled...ideally, one die roll per player per round of combat (with the exception of possible "resistance" rolls, i.e. saving throw).
[the game is not narrative based, so "scene resolution" is not what I'm going for here...I want to play the back-n-forth of combat, even if it's still quicker than your average 3E throwdown]

In order to accomplish all this, I needed to find a way to combine the attack roll with the damage roll. Or (more specifically) make the attack roll the measure of how much damage is inflicted (rather than an additional, random throw of the die, which I hate).

What exactly is an attack roll? Well, it's a fortune (random) method of determining whether or not an attempt to hurt one's opponent succeeds. The target number (and, thus, the percentage chance of success) is based on two factors:

- the opponent's defense (how hard is it to damage this dude?)
- the attacker's skill (how easily can I inflict punishment?)

In D&D, the first factor is boiled down into one short hand called "armor class" which includes not only armor but magical protection, shield use, agility ("dexterity"), and other assorted bonuses. The second factor is determined by class/experience (one's "attack bonus"), certain enchantments, ability bonuses (depending on edition and type of attack), and perhaps a couple other random bonuses.

This final target number is the minimum number an attacker must roll to succeed...that is, the minimum number needed to successfully inflict damage on an opponent. If I roll under that target number, I fail (i.e. do not inflict damage), whether I miss it by one pip or 20. If I roll the number exactly, I have (just) managed to succeed in inflicting damage. If I roll in excess of the number, I have managed to...well, in normal D&D you haven't managed anything more than the bare success of rolling the target number exactly.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

Here's the new way of looking at combat: if you roll your target number exactly, you inflict 1 point of damage on your opponent...the bare minimum damage for a bare minimum attack roll. For every point over your target number, you inflict one additional point of damage up to the maximum damage that a weapon is capable of inflicting. If I need a 14 to hit and I roll a 20, I've inflicted one + six (since 20 is six more than 14) for a total of seven points of damage. This is, of course, assuming that I'm using a weapon capable of inflicting seven points of damage.

"Ooo...that was a good roll!"
In my game, one's Strength score increases the maximum damage a weapon may inflict (you still have to roll a good hit to inflict that massive damage, though).

In my game, a magic weapon both increases the maximum damage a weapon may inflict, and reduces the target number (thus making it more likely to inflict said extra damage).

Creatures with a higher AC are harder to damage. Creatures with a lower AC are easier to damage. Fighters (with a better chance to hit) inflict more damage in combat. Other classes (with a lower chance to hit) inflict less damage in combat. That all seems to make sense to me.

Of course, PCs are heroic in my game so the way monsters dish damage is a little different from how they take it: no PC hero should go down just because the DM rolls a 20 in combat and is only wearing leather armor. However, a split between the way monsters fight and the way PCs fight is nothing new (neither to me, nor to the basic editions of D&D), and only the DM is responsible for learning both types of combat so, you know, no big deal.

All right, that's enough for now. Perhaps I'll talk about my changes to ability scores tomorrow.
; )


  1. Having to hit a high AC creature a million times to kill it might get tedious since you'd be doing so little damage each time.

    If I were trying to reduce combat turns to one roll, I'd skip the to-hit and just have people roll damage. Accuracy and power can just cause more damage. The math is easier, and players have more fun because they're doing something effective every round.

    1. You are making a damage roll. Damage = d20 - AC.

    2. Well, d20 + attack bonuses - target AC, with a minimum of 0 and a maximum of weapon power (or whatever you want to call the maximum damage stat).

    3. @ Fumers:

      I DID try something like that, years back:

      Unfortunately, it was clunky in practice (using the chart and keeping track of dice shifts). I still like the idea for a superhero RPG.

      One thing that might help is that the range of "armor class" in the game is not very great...generally, you're not going to have anything better than AC 20 (or -1 for you Old Schoolers). Anyway, I LIKE the idea of arrows and whatnot bouncing off the armored hide of a dragon (as opposed to *plinking* it to death).

      @ Hedge and Faol:

      Good point, and an easy way to look at it (though I think Fumers would point out that the range of "zero" that could be rolled is pretty big against a high AC opponent).
      ; )

  2. I thought about something similar a while back, though I didn't consider limiting the damage potential by weapon.

    I do worry that, despite being more die rolls, attack hit AC roll damage might actually be more straightforward than figuring a subtraction. Attack, minus AC, and oh do I add 1? etc. Probably could be smoothed out with AC notation or practice, but I didn't get that far.

    (I also like how this naturally increases the fighter's damage potential just through the improvement of attack bonus, though if you want to do that, you might not want to limit damage potential by weapon as you are suggesting here.)

    1. @ Brendan:

      I shall not fear basic arithmetic.
      : )

      I've considered other bonuses for fighters as they level up, for example allowing a "weapon specialization" that increases a weapon's max damage roll by 2.

  3. "What starts out as a tweak or two ends up snowballing into a giant ball of house rules that might as well be (well, pretty much is) its Very Own Thing."

    Yeah, that's how my game's starting to look. It was intended as kind of a Best of D&D (1974-200), but Chainmail and my own gaming philosophy have made that more true in spirit. It's a little scary, but I felt a lot better when I realized RuneQuest made some of the same changes (combat, I mean. I hate their skill system)

    I've considered using the attack roll to determine damage as well. Fumers raises a good point, but it shouldn't be too big a deal if ACs fit within a tight range and hit points are kept low. I'd suggest switching to a roll higher system, rather than equal to or higher, for simplicity. For instance, where before you might have to roll equal to or higher than 15 to hit, now you have to roll higher than 14. If you roll a 20, that'd be 20 - 14 = 6. Results of zero or less are a miss. Tweak the attack bonus, though, not ACs. That makes monsters from other products easier to use

    1. @ ProfOats:

      I do try to keep the AC range small: the absolute maximum (I believe) would be 23, about the equivalent of AC -4 in B/X terms.

      The roll-over idea IS simpler, AND fixes something I was waffling on (starting with a base 11 AC, which I prefer versus a base 10 AC which is simpler on the making it "roll over," I can keep base AC 10, while still getting my "1 extra point" of AC). Thanks for that!
      : )

  4. Intrigued to hear more. And reminded to check out Five Ancient Kingdoms.

    1. @ Ynas: I hope you do. It's got quite a different flavor from Vikings & Valkyries, but I like it.
      : )

  5. My pirates game has non-variable hit points and non-variable weapon damage, +-1 for strength modifiers. Weapons deal 1 or 2 hits as a base; fists do 1-3 subdual. Furthermore, almost everything is thrown on two dice versus a target number of 7. It's very simple and it lends itself to cinematic fights and heroic deeds.

  6. Hi, JB. :)

    I'm confused. Do the monsters get only a number of Wounds = to their HD?

    If that is the case, then the AC thing isn't a big deal.

    Otherwise, that's very similar to what I briefly did when I used Palladium for a Winter era Urutsk game. The AV was penetrated by the damage dice being rolled with mods, and whatever got past the AV did 'hits'.

    Even ranged attacks simply rolled dice to see if they hit and penetrated the armour. Long bows were decidedly deadly, as were two-handed swords. Duh. ;)

    BTW, I am going very Doin-happy lately, between ACKS and Domains at War, as well as your lovely B/X Companion. I still think you should have won that year.

    Talk with you soon.

    1. @ TS:

      Two separate games. There is no "AC" in Five Ancient Kingdoms (yes, there is a little different). If a character scores a hit, it inflicts one wound. A monster can sustain as many wounds as it has HD (an ogre can take four, a giant can take eight, etc.). On the other hand, PCs have HPs and so when they receive a wound, they subtract a random number of HPs. One Wound = D6 HPs.

      [large monsters inflict more than one wound on a successful attack]

      The new game I'm working on uses a more traditional (if compressed) AC system and all monsters have both HD and HPs at this point, just like a standard (old timey) D&D game.

      I'm glad you're having fun with domains (I always did, back in the day) and thanks for the kind words about the Companion (you're right...I should have won!). Just as an aside, our limited communication has definitely been an influence on the new book...our past - um - "discussions" on the thief class in B/X has been a direct precursor to some of the class changes in the current work. So thanks for that!
      : )

  7. LOL, the Thief discussions were impassioned. :D

    I like both of the systems you are talking about. I'll have to look at Ancient Kingdoms. I may be able to cook up a conversion guide to Porphyry for it.

    OK, I'll see you on The Grand Tapestry and here.