Friday, September 6, 2019

Building An Advanced Combat System

Things are feeling "back to normal" this morning. Kids are in school, wife's in the office, the Seahawks look good, the Raiders look like a dumpster fire. And I'm drinking coffee at the Baranof and researching stupid shit like military picks and flails.

Ah, yes...September.

I'll come right to the point: I have become fascinated over the last few days with the AD&D combat system. After reading Anthony Huso's posts on the subject multiple times, going over the actual AD&D rulebooks, and then re-reading Huso...

I kind of love it. Hell, I do love it...I kind of want it. Something like it, for sure.

I'll get to the why in a second. First I want to talk about my own AD&D experience. When I ran AD&D in my youth (from around age 11 to 16? 17? something like that), I did my best to run the game as written. Casting time and spell components? Check. Weapon speed factor and hit adjustment versus armor type? Check. Potion miscibility, psionics, wandering harlots? Yes, the whole nine yards. Did I screw up? Yes, sure, often. Did I get better at it over the years? Yes, absolutely...I did not make myself handy spread sheets, but much of the more fiddly combat tables were on my DM screens, and other rules were easily memorized (like helmet rules) or looked up the once in a while they came up (like a character who used two weapons instead of one).

In-game we played relatively fast and loose with things like encumbrance...calculations for weight carried was done and noted between sessions not during play (so as not to grind action to a halt). Arrow counts were diligent, but we were haphazard with ration consumption. Rather than tracking light source durations, we were usually adventuring in broad daylight (low level characters spent a lot of time wandering the countryside) or were assumed (civilized subterranean races) or magically mitigated (continual light spells, etc.). Item saving throws were used when remembered and deemed applicable.

Was it crunchy? Sure. Was it tough to do? Not really. Most of the burden of crunch was on ME, as the DM...and to be perfectly honest, following the Rules As Written was probably of importance only to me. And mainly because it allowed me to be a better, more impartial arbiter of the game.

I was not thinking in terms of what the system modeled or how rules were justified. I was not worried about offering players meaningful choices or adding challenge to the game. I wasn't concerned with that kind of thing, no more than I was concerned with writing "story arcs," or worrying about plots and pacing. I simply wanted to run the game by the instruction manual. That was plenty fun. When I stopped running AD&D, sometime in my teens, it wasn't because I was tired of the system or its complexity. It was instead due to a shift in interest, a change in social circle, and the appearance of other games that sparked my passion (like Vampire or Rifts or Stormbringer). If I had gone to high school and college with the same friends I had in middle school, I might well have continued playing AD&D.

How strange and different my life might be today. I've changed, grown, and evolved a lot since the age of 15...and from when I was 25. And from when I was 35.

So what's the appeal of an "advanced" combat system now? Why move away from a B/X system that works so well? Why move back from the ten second combat round where everyone gets one "go" to a one minute combat round filled with segments and mishmash? Why move from a system with such a nice little economy of modeling reality in the abstract?

Because of those things that I didn't care about in my youth: Challenging players. Offering players  meaningful choices. Modeling a certain type of messy...and yet heroic...reality.

The fighter class is the simplest option available to the players. It is the easiest class to learn: there are no spells, no skills, no special rules. There are no limitations to the armor or weapons the class can learn, the equipment that can be carried. For the novice player, it is an excellent choice for a first character...just to learn the game (with a decent chance of survival).

And yet, even for experienced players it's a highly practical and useful class to have in the party. The ability to hit more often, inflict more damage, absorb more blows (that might otherwise kill a comrade) is immensely important to an adventuring party...and, yet, on the surface it seems to be a "boring" choice to the experienced player. Where are the cool special abilities of the ranger or paladin? The spells of the cleric or wizard? The skills and stealth of the thief? Where are the meaningful choices for the character, without resorting to a list of "feats" (i.e. martial-type spells)? It's just wade-into-combat-and-swing-sword, right?

But with an advanced system, choice reappears for the class. Choice of weapon (for speed, reach, encumbrance, and hit bonus) becomes important. Using the right weapon for the right circumstance becomes important. Weapon proficiencies become a precious commodity. All of a sudden, combat becomes a more interesting strategic and tactical exercise for ALL players...and the fighter, with her additional choices, becomes the expert at combat. I really, really like that.

And with the one minute combat round, and the addition of "fiddly" rules like segments and casting times, you start being able to model things you can't in the B/X ten second round. Like spell-casting variants based on the power/type of a spell. Power word kill isn't just devastating because of its ability to snuff an has a one segment casting time as the wizard slays with but a single potent word of magic (compare that to the 6 segment disintegrate or death spells). Wizards have to choose between using a long-winded incantation or something short-and-sweet that has less danger of being interrupted. Dexterity bonuses to AC aren't counted for spell-casters in combat...this models a mage needing to focus and concentrate, not act like some Doctor Strange superhero, dodging and shooting lasers from his fingers. This I really like, too.

An advanced system gives real guidelines as to how movement, attacks, and spells interact. And the one minute round allows for extra actions to take place in a single "go;" drawing or sheathing a weapon, finding a potion to quaff, attempting some sort of maneuver or fancy footwork in addition to making a standard attack. I like the idea of giving players this kind of freedom, and I really like Huso's concept of initiative dice doing "double duty," establishing quality at the same time they do duty in binary fashion. A tied dice roll happens one-time-in-six...rather than see that as a simple simultaneous strike, we get to see this as "there's a one-in-six chance of something SPECIAL happening every round." A chance that speed factor and bonus attacks might come into play. Without throwing a third die.

That's pretty awesome.

There are things that Huso does that I'm not terribly interested in: he's incorporated MOST of the 1st edition rules, and I'm inclined to ignore the vast majority of the Unearthed Arcana, for example. Other things he only using weapon vs. armor adjustments for player characters, not NPCs...I will totally steal. Huso's already tested his house rules (over years) and found them to be of practical value.

[I've used rules like comeliness extensively in the past...I have no need to go back to that]

But I think I'm still going to start on a smaller scale than full on 1st edition. Do I need 15 types of pole arm? Probably not. How about splinted armor? Maybe? Like Alexis, I'll probably reduce the total number of weapons available in the campaign to something that seems reasonable based on the setting (Mr. Smolensk has also customized his AD&D rules over years of play-testing and has several systems worthy of theft). I am tempted to go back to CHAINMAIL and Supplement I (Greyhawk) for the specific rules with relation to weapon adjustments.

But one minute combat rounds? With segments? Yeah, I think I'm doing it. It's not that hard to get into...I've done it before. And I was a lot less smart back in those days.
: )


  1. Yeah, we've been experimenting with using the rules as they are, with the help of that ADDICT document and the flowchart that someone made out of it. There is a surprisingly large amount of interesting stuff packed into that system, and it is not nearly as complex as it seems at first glance. In part, that seeming complexity is because of Gygax's somewhat unusual writing style, but part of it is also simply due to how much stuff there is in it.

    1. Not to mention the way things are scattered throughout multiple texts (and in strange locations). I found a bit that seems to indicate a PC's DEX adjustment is used for saves against magic wands and dragon breath (for example!); I've never before seen (or used) such a rule in AD&D.

    2. Played that rule in 1979, from the start. It was fairly standard and fully enjoyed.
      Shows what 4 decades will do.

  2. Instead of weapon speed, I'm toying with the idea of designating weapons as FAST, NORMAL, SLOW or REACH. SLOW weapons always go last (like in BECMI with 2H weapons). FAST weapons always go first. REACH weapons (like Polearms) go first, but only in the 1st round or when someone is running towards them. If both sides have FAST etc then just use the initiative as normal between those two sides. Just an idea.

    1. Than you lost the extra attack that come when one weapon had a speed factor 2x superior. Don't play with RAW. =)

  3. I've toyed with an expanded, but still simple, weapon list. I like Havard's "FAST-NORMAL-SLOW-REACH" idea. I think that might work better in BX than simply back-fitting 1e combat, but it will depend on what you end up designing.

  4. If I might make a suggestion for a starting point, look into Dungeon Crawl Classics and its version of the Fighter? They have something called a "Deed Die" which lets them perform a Mighty Deed of Feats. Upon rolling a 3 or higher on this die (which increases in die size based on level) AND scoring a successful weapon hit, the DCC Fighter can perform some kind of non-damaging move to gain an advantage in combat. These moves are defined by the player and circumstance as opposed to being a list of specific moves (a la 3e Feats).

    1. @ Rachel:

      I *have* played DCC, and well remember the "mighty deeds" die. I found in practice that it didn't work very well (or, perhaps, it didn't work the way *I* wanted it, too). It was one of the many things I found unsatisfying about DCC, including the random tables for each individual spell and individual initiative.

      DCC has a nice aesthetic, but it's not a system I want to use. I tried it...more than once.