Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Grappling with Stuff

How many pages? That's the question that's been in my head the last couple days.

[yes, there will be some ACTUAL grappling the end of this post...just give me a minute while I wrestle with THIS for a moment]

How many pages does it take to teach someone how to play an RPG? Specifically Dungeons & Dragons, though I suppose one could apply the question to any role-playing game. Most RPGs I've read (and I've owned and read A LOT) provide precious little info on what an RPG is, let alone how to run it. Instead, they throw a wall of text at the reader mixing an odd amount of instruction with "fluff" (setting/genre specific flavor) if these two things, blended in the proper proportion, will (through some strange alchemical process) yield the game you want to play.

That's not enough, in my learned opinion. And yet it's often too much as well.

OD&D is a fairly simple game, rules-wise. Very simple as far as procedures go. Roll a D20 when making an attack (or save) and consult a chart to determine success. Characters (player and non-) have certain amounts of resources that are depleted through use (spells, hit points, arrows, torches, rations, etc.). Certain actions acquire points (XP); charts tell you the reward for obtaining certain numbers of points (extra resources in the form of hit points and spells; extra effectiveness for attacks and saves). There are some additional exploration procedures (finding/opening doors and traps, wandering monsters, surprise) mostly handled with a six-sided die, but it mostly comes down to resource management via risk/reward.

All the trappings of the game...monsters, spells, treasure and magic items, purchasable equipment and fortifications...are subject to customization by the referee. As such, they're pretty unnecessary for inclusion in the game (save as examples). And this has been proven upteen times simply by the way DMs have modified all these things SINCE THE BEGINNING of the game. Even before the game was first published and made available to the general public.

I think the rules could be written up in a very small document, including an appendix with the necessary charts, and you would have all the necessary instructions for the game. A book of monsters, a book of spells, a book of treasures (including normal equipment and goods) could be written up separately...or not...and you'd be just fine. For long time, experienced DMs, this would really be all you need...probably MORE than what you need.

For new DMs, it wouldn't be enough. You need another text that explains how to run the game. One that puts aside assumptions that 'oh you'll just figure it out.' Something that explains the concepts, why systems interact with each other the way they do, how they're justified. Something that shows what the game should look like, how to maintain it, how to maintain the players' interest. A teaching manual (though I hesitate to put those two words together) I guess. The players need very little instruction aside from the nuts and bolts of the rules (and an admonition to explore the world based on the description provided by the referee). The referee needs something more.

Because being a DM isn't just about being a referee. It's not just an umpire or group facilitator. "Referee" is a misnomer for what it is that a Dungeon Master does.

How many pages do you really need?  I'm thinking about this at the moment.

With Regarding To Actual Grappling: I went back and looked at the simple grappling rules I wrote up for my B/X Companion. They're fine for what they are (a tack on to the B/X system). For my OD&D game, I use the following procedure, based off an example provided by Gygax in The Strategic Review #2.

  • An opponent that wishes to grapple a non-grappler loses initiative (that is, the non-grappler may make a normal melee attack before the grappler attempts her move).
  • The grappler makes a normal attack roll against the defender's normal AC.
  • On a successful attack roll, the grappler throws dice to determine the success of her hold: roll a number of D6 equal to the grappler's hit dice and compare the total to the defender's similar roll. High roll wins (which determines whether or not the hold/pin is successful).
  • Magic-Users and Clerics divide their total in half.
  • If both sides wish to grapple, no attack rolls are made: simply throw dice.

For example, six goblins attempt to grapple two 2nd level characters: a fighter and a magic-user; four attack the former, while two go after the wizard. The fighter manages to kill one and wound a second (two attacks per round against 1HD opponents), while the magic-user fails to even land a hit. All three remaining goblins manage to hit the fighter; only one goblin manages to hit the magic-user. Grapple dice are thrown as follows:

Fighter: rolls 2d6, gets a 7. Three goblins roll 3d6, and get 10. Fighter is pinned.
Magic-user: rolls 2d6, gets an 8. Goblin rolls 1d6, gets a 5. Because the magic-user's total is divided in half (resulting in a 4), she is also pinned.

You got this, man!
Grappling should be a commonly considered tactic. Small, weak monsters that have a superiority of numbers should consider attempting to overwhelm stronger opponents (though they lose initiative and are subject to broken morale). But grappling can also model large monsters (giants, golems, rocs, dragons) grabbing a character and carrying her off.

A pinned character can attempt to escape from the hold in the following round, by throwing dice against the foes holding her. No attack rolls are made (both sides are engaged in "grappling") winner determines whether or not pin is broken. If a total is exceed by a large enough number (probably double), a DM could allow a character to reverse the hold (the formerly pinned character has now pinned her opponent).

A character may not grapple a creature especially larger than herself; generally, that means more than 1 hit die difference. Thus, a human could grapple something up to gnoll in size, but not a bugbear or ogre; a halfling or gnome might grapple something up to a hobgoblin in size. A DM might allow multiple grapplers to succeed where one would automatically fail (for example, four humans might bring down an ogre...maybe) or might not (no number of humans should be deemed sufficient to "pin" a dragon or cloud giant...).

What about thieves? I still have yet to implement thieves in my OD&D game. If I did, I'd allow a dextrous thief (13+ dexterity) to roll dice as a fighter; thieves with average or low dexterity would be limited as magic-users and clerics (divide die total by half). Not every thief is some slippery rogue type!



  1. [Spotty subway wifi ate my comment yesterday, let's give this another try!]

    Regarding a DM's guide, I feel your pain. I'm currently working on the GM Guidebook for my latest Asian fantasy heartbreaker/my house rules version of Classic. I want something unified for my D&D games. I thought it would be maybe 10-12 pages of rules, plus the treasure tables/magic items. But as I write it, I'm adding more and more sections for things I think I need to cover. Like you said, there's a space out there for a book that explains everything for beginners, and this seems to be turning into it. My previous games have all been written under the assumption that newbies would probably never find it, so I could assume a general knowledge of the game.

    In regard to the grappling rules, that looks like something I'd like to implement. Seems to make sense and is maybe simpler than other systems' rules.

    1. They haven’t steered me wrong...yet.
      ; )

  2. Nice post, and I found your grappling system a useful insight.

    On the basic simple rules, I think that Zenopus archives Holmes reference sheets are the bare skeleton on which to put the muscle and tissue on. I'd prepare a set to take players to level 9/10, and go for a target 20 mechanic for to hit rolls. Treasure and xp I'd keep simple like S&W. For monsters I'd have stats for perhaps 20, a system for generating your own and a list of mythical creatures for people to research. More focus on building a good dungeon and several examples of play. It's also not too hard nowadays to supplement some of the trickier bits with YouTube video demonstrating how a system or sub-system works.