Wednesday, May 27, 2020

One Man Army


Once again, I find myself marveling at the elegant simplicity of the D&D combat system.

It's just so lovely how two fighters, equally armed and armored, will have a (roughly) 50-50 chance at killing each other. Certainly, one might get lucky (or unlucky)...in fact, luck will (in such circumstances) be the deciding factor in their battle, assuming neither chooses to withdraw. And having more experience simply prolongs their struggle, as well it should.

But how does D&D model combat against non-fighters? Pretty good, in my opinion.

Mail armor...what most D&D books refer to (redundantly and incorrectly as chain mail) was really, really good stuff. Nearly impenetrable to most weapons of its time, requiring both specialized tools and tactics to harm a human so armored. Is an "armor class" of 5 sufficient to model this? Even an untrained combatant (what B/X calls a "normal human") can land a successful attack against a veteran (1st level fighter) in mail with a D20 roll of 15, 16 if the vet carries a shield. 16? That's a 25% chance to hit (1 chance in 4) with a decent probability of the blow being a killing stroke!

But let's talk law of averages here. Played "by the book" a first level fighter has an average of 5.5 hit points (1d8 roll, discarding 1s and 2s). Assuming average damage from the untrained opponent (3.5, average for a 1d6 roll), it will take the guy on average 6.3 combat rounds to finish a veteran dressed in mail and using a shield. How much damage will the veteran inflict upon unarmored opponents in six rounds? 11.55 on average, enough to kill nearly five "normal" humans. And that's assuming you're using 1d6 damage and no bonus for high strength; a 1d8 damage sword coupled with 13 strength (+1 attack and damage in B/X) pushes the damage output up enough to fell nearly eight (7.92) normal men whose average hit points are 2.5 each.

Of course, being B/X, you can't kill say than one peasant per round.

Still six men dead in sixty seconds...not too shabby for a 1st level fighter, and a testament to the fighter's training and equipment. And adding extra armor, beefier weapons, and more combat experience simply increases this lethality.

"But D&D is so deadly to low-level characters!" Sure it is...if you're entering the lair of a manticore or a nest of orcs with naught but a couple buddies at your back. Yes, getting mauled by a tiger or bear will probably mean the end of our poor veteran, mail dressed or not...and that seems pretty true to reality, no? It would take a pretty high level hero (and/or one armed with magical equipment) to face such a foe and live to celebrate victory. As it should be.

Against non-supernatural horrors and the majority of gentlefolk met in the streets, however, the armored warrior is the Angel of Death, and should command a similar amount of respect, awe, and/or fear. Here's what's NOT realistic: law-abiding communities (especially towns and cities) allowing armored, be-weaponed slayers to roam freely and unchallenged through their streets. No such individual should be allowed entry to a temple (unless a sworn member to the church's knightly order or some such). No such individual should be granted access to a guild hall or the home of a nobleman or town official. No such individual should be allowed to shop at the public market, unmolested by local militia (who are similarly armed and armored for the express purpose of dealing with threats like the character). Assuming the town has any sort of wall at all (as nearly all medieval communities larger than a village would), it's unlikely a strange warrior...or a party of them...would even be allowed to pass the gates girded for war.

Dude's a one man army, after all.

"Superheroes" get eight
attacks per round.
Anyway, that's what I'm thinking about this morning. I like OD&D's multiple attacks against 1HD opponents based on fighter level, but I feel it likely needs a cap (probably around nine) and that it only really works because the OD&D combat turn ("round") is so long (1 minute, as opposed to 10 seconds in B/X). I like 10 seconds as a unit of measuring one "attack;" I think, for example, that four minutes is an extremely long time to optimally fight an ogre (one attack landing per round depleting one hit die of the monster). On the other hand, it seems to me that shoe-horning all spell-casting into 10 second rounds is a little too "cartoony" for my taste. Shouldn't it take longer to cast, a death spell or flesh to stone than a simple wave of the hand?

[yes, it probably looks fine in a cinematic scene...wizards in Thundarr doing all sorts of instantaneous, high-level hijinks. But then, cartoon sorcerers tend to shoot lasers at will, like 4E/5E cantrips, and I find THAT particular practice disgusting...]

But regardless. I like the simple fighting-person and "basic" combat system. That was the point of this post.

14 comments:

  1. Good post and one that throws up quite a few thoughts of my own.

    While I liked the idea of 1 attack per level vs NM, Ive went off it. I prefer the idea of the rolling attack - kill one weak opponent and move onto the next up to a maximum number of your level, but you need to hit and kill that opponent. Easier with 16+ STR in BX.

    As you say a L1 fighter is a one man army, and would be seen as such by a mass of peasants, but the BX rules don't have an effect to model that. I think that against weak opponents you could allow fighters a bravado roll - using their charisma (!) and a reaction roll to menace their opponents into a morale check. A failed morale check would keep the band of peasants away from the fighter at just enough distance. If there's a levelled NPC or monster of 1+ HD then this effect wouldn't work.

    which leads onto my third point - BX doesn't have mobbing rules where the sheer weight of numbers overwhelms a strong individual. I made some suggestions on Dragonsfoot a month or so back, with three possible ways, one possibly being automatic damage (say 1d6/round) for a large number of opponents (when there's more than 6 - one for each hex face). Eventually even the strongest hero succumbs.

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    1. @ Jacob:

      B/X *does* have a rule that models the effect: morale. As soon as a single peasant goes down in combat (which shouldn’t be too hard), morale will probably break...especially if assessed a penalty by the DM for the sheer hopelessness of the cause.

      But what about the six local toughs who “don’t like the look” of this armored stranger? Should there be a rule that precludes them from rushing the vet (and overwhelming the average by sheer force of numbers?)? Sure...it’s called DM judgment deciding on how sensible these individuals are. Surely they know at least ONE (if not more) of their number would likely perish in such an attempt...is the effort so desperate as to warrant the effort? Probably not (especially if they can try to ambush the guy in a dark alley later on). On the other hand, if you’re talking a group of kobolds or goblins or orcs who find such an individual IN THEIR LAIR, bloodstained sword in hand and murder in her eyes...well, sure the situation probably IS desperate enough to warrant a mob attack.

      For either situation, a reaction roll is always handy to help guide the decision-making.
      ; )

      I *did* provide some simple grappling rules in my B/X Companion that I haven’t had the chance (or need) to use in a while. For my OD&D game, I’ve been using a simple mod of Chainmail (based on hit dice) and tweaked from the pages of The Strategic Review...not an actual system that was written up, but something reduced from Gygax’s notes. Might post that to the blog one of these days.

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    2. Ugh...that should say “deduced” not “reduced.”

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  2. I have two thoughts.

    First, Maybe I'm reading OD&D wrong but wouldn't that be a 14 or 15 to hit and not a 15 or 16 to hit? It says normal men fight as first level fighters which means they need a 14 to hit AC5 or 15 to hit AC4. That extra 5% can make a difference. Also, if we allow variable weapon damage, that means that the normal man with a sword is now doing 4.5 on average not 3.5 so the HP advantage quickly goes away.

    Second, is comparing fighters to normal men really all that useful? Wouldn't a better comparison be bandits, brigands, cultists, goblins, orcs, or any of the other 1HD monsters? Those are creatures the players would expect to encounter in dungeons, the wilderness, or abandoned castles. That seems like the comparison that would really matter.

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    1. @ Monk:

      The stats in the fighter vs. "normal human" example is for B/X. In OD&D a normal human would indeed have 1 hit die (and 1d6 hit points rather than 1d4). There is no NM entry on the combat tables (nor "0-level," as found in AD&D). Likewise, the hit points given for the 1st level veteran were as per B/X (including the re-rolled hit die at first level).

      Even so, with an increased chance to hit (30%) and reduced average HPs of the veteran (4.5 per Book 1) it will take, ON AVERAGE, more than four rounds to slay the vet (4.2 to be precise). The vet inflicts an average of 7.7 points of damage against unarmored peasants using the alternate combat system found in Book 1, meaning she could kill two and wound a third before they had the chance to bring her down.

      As for who the vet is fighting: my point was that I believe the combat system models medieval hand-to-hand fairly accurately; at least, it paints a portrait *I* can live with. Things will get dicey for ANY fighter once the opponent starts wearing armor also...as I said the chance to slay a similarly armed human *should* result in a 50-50 chance of dying. How an adventurer approaches other opponents (orcs, bandits, cultists, or manticores)...well, THAT is what the D&D game is all about. The smart player will, of course, lean on her fellow party members for aid in encounters.
      ; )

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  3. On B26 the rules mention that the size of the combat area and the combatants need to be taken into account. So your typical human-sized defender in the open could be attacked at one time in melee by no more than 6 to 8 other medium-sized attackers, and that's provided they are not using large weapons that would interfere with one another.

    Dealing with two or three human-sized defenders in a line across a 10' wide corridor, and that is, at best, three attackers in the front opposing line, and perhaps three in a second line if they have spears.

    So at best a high-level fighter will face somewhere between one and eight attackers in melee at one time, which limits the number of potential attacks due to the "one attack per level" versus 1-1 HD or less rule.

    I suppose with goblins you might fit 1.5 for every 1 human-sized, and 2 kobolds per human-sized, but any experienced fighter who lets himself get caught up in a swarm like that usually gets what he deserves when initiative goes against him...

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    1. I think that that's about right. Favouring hexes the front three hexes are front, the rear is rear and the other two are flanks. As you say with small sized opponents you might squeeze in 1.5 per hex giving 9 in total. Armed with spears, and bonuses for the flanks and rear (say +2 and +4) your surrounded fighter is in *big* trouble especially if the goblins are replaceable.

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  4. Curiously, I watched 1973's High Plains Drifter today, which is about a one man be-weaponed slayer who strolls into a town where everyone else is a cowardly weakling.

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    1. Indeed. The typical D&D town will have the benefit of walls (and a profound lack of gunpowder worries) to help keep out riff-raff like the adventurers.

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  5. These are the kind of articles I come here for. I still break out 'Hit Me Baby One More Time' for feel-good reading from time to time. Keeps me grounded and feeling good about the BX system.

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    1. Oh good. I figure most folks just come for the infrequent rants.
      ; )

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  6. The edition swapping is definitely confusing at times since the differences are often subtle.

    Edition changes aside, I still don't think you get the result you say without a lot of assumptions around equipment and attributes. Let's assume Moldvay B/X, what happens with this kind of analysis when you remove the mail and shield and you have an average unarmored normal man with sword fighting an average unarmored 1st level fighter with sword? On average you have 2.5 HP vs 4.5 HP, their chances to hit are roughly equal(50% vs 55%), and the weapons either do 3.5 damage (static weapon damage) or 4.5 damage (variable weapon damage). The only advantage the 1st level fighter has is if we assume 1d6 damage otherwise there is no real practical difference or advantage.

    The only real advantage a 1st level fighter has over a normal person is the potential for more HP (8 versus 4) and the potential for higher attributes. All of which are all completely dependent upon luck! So can a 1st level fighter be a one man army? Sure, if he has above average HP, above average stats, and great gear but if you give the normal man attributes and gear the only real difference is 1d8 vs 1d4. The only way they are getting through more than 1 or 2 normal humans is if they are extremely lucky and they are only fighting them one at a time.

    If you're looking to show that armor is great and increases your survivability (which is where the post seemed to start but not end): great, yes, I don't think anyone thought otherwise. If you're looking to show that it models medieval combat fairly accurately then I don't know about that. This example certainly doesn't. You would think a 1st level fighter, a veteran, would be noticeably better/skilled than a normal human, and they aren't.

    I guess my objection is that I don't think this shows us anything we didn’t already know (armor is good!) and honestly, who cares if they are better than normal men. PCs don't fight normal men they fight orcs, and goblins, and cultists, and dragons, and ogres, and zombies. That's the comparison that matters and the result: OD&D and B/X D&D are highly lethal at 1st level. I don't think that is a surprise to anyone. 1st level PCs aren't special and we shouldn't pretend they are.

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    1. @ Monk:

      Guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this. A 1st level PC *is* special, by both training and equipment. Just not super special.

      A medieval peasant would be pretty weak next to a trained fighter of the time period...malnourished, unskilled, and undisciplined. But the main facet of superiority for the fighter would be armor...a peasant with a spear against an unarmored fighter wouldn’t have an equal chance, but it would be a lot closer than against a guy in mail. And that’s even with the fighter’s training and fitness level. I think the later editions (AD&D with its “0-levels” and B/X with its “normal men”) did a better job of modeling the difference than OD&D (in each of the later systems a veteran would have about twice the HPs of the peasant).

      Again, comparing fighters to humanoids is distracting from the point of the post. Remember also that “standard” monster is its species equivalent of a “fighting man;” there are plenty of women and children goblins and orcs in Gygax’s adventures that are non-combatants. And as for “not fighting normal men,” the sample adventure in Holmes Basic (Tower of Zenopus) has plenty of normal men opponents (the cave pirates) who are little match for a well-armed party (I know because I just ran this adventure for my kids using the basic rules).

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