Monday, January 24, 2011

Rethinking Combat

Combat in D&D (pre-2000) seems me to be a bit uninvolved.  Sure, there's the whole "I'm down to my last hit point" or "I used up all my spells" resource management type thing, but otherwise there's just this: roll dice to hit, roll damage.  For some reason, it felt a bit wrong to me, especially when I was exposed to other systems.  In GURPS, you roll to defend yourself.  In Marvel Super Heroes, you roll to dodge.  In Palladium, you also have a dodge, block, or parry roll.  In Storyteller, you roll to try and mitigate your foe's successes.  In Tunnels & Trolls, each opponent rolls.  In Rolemaster, you use some of your offensive ability to add to your defense.  Heck, even in Risus you roll.  Games with relatively static target numbers in combat just feel erratic, and in some cases erroneous, to me now.

Imagine this: if your buddy aims a punch at you, and you see it coming, you're not likely to sit there as it comes at you.  I know D&D and other games are supposed to take that into account, but I don't visualize it happening, for whatever reason.  It just feels like I'm sitting there, waiting to be hit. 

Check out this clip from the 7th Voyage of Sinbad:

While not technically from Appendix N, I can't imagine no one kept Ray Harryhausen in mind when designing D&D. 

The sad thing is, I don't have combats in D&D that play out like that clip.  It just seems like two people standing there bashing each other's heads in.   Even defensive maneuvers or shields tend to simply add to AC, they don't really reflect what's really going on as combat proceeds.  Now, I realize that it was developed from a naval wargame.  I realize that naval ships cannot dodge, parry, etc.  Be that as it may, we have grown older, and better ways have been found to do certain things in the 37 years since D&D was born.  And I do not care for the complexities of D&D3 or 4 -- if you enjoy them then more power to you, but I can think of easier ways to simulate what happens in this scene...and beyond it.

To do this we have to overhaul the system slightly.

Armor Class remains, but we have to adjust depending on what system you're using.  Armor Class no longer stands for your entire defensive capabilities, but now simply straight armor.  No bonuses for Dexterity are added into it.  In my system, 5 is the base, and armor adds to it.  It's ascending.  For descending AC, you'd have to subtract that from 11 to get the bonus, and add 5.  A roll under this number (still called Armor Class) means you hit the armor and no damage is done.

Next we determine what the bonuses are to hit.  Usually this is STR bonus + Level for Fighters, and everyone else would need to know their Base Attack Bonus.  Now in the case of matrix-based combat, this is relatively easy.  Find the worst AC on the matrix (for Basic this would be 9, for AD&D 10), cross-index class and level, and subtract that number from 10.  That is the bonus to hit.  Enterprising players will already have these numbers written down, to avoid looking anything up.  This can be done for monsters as well.  

So, as an example, we have Gorthon, and Ral.  Gorthon is a level 7 Fighter with 17 STR, and Ral is a level 9 Thief with a 13 STR.  They are coming from a matrix-based game, and both Gorthon's and Ral's chance to hit AC 9 is 5.  10 - 5 = 5, meaning they have a base attack bonus of 5.  Gorthon, with his 17 STR, has a +2, and Ral has a +1 to hit.  Gorthon is wearing Chain, and Ral is wearing Leather.  So, to summarize:

Gorthon, Fighter: +7 to hit, AC 11 (Chain)
Ral, Thief: +5 to hit, AC 9 (Leather)

Next each combatant has 1 attack, and 1 defense.  One person attacks, the other defends.  The attacker declares his intent (special attacks, etc), and the defender declares his actions (parry, dodge, block with shield, or something else).  To hit you simply roll a d20, and whoever rolls higher wins.  If the attacker wins, roll damage.  That's it.  If you roll under the AC, your attack simply bounced off.  Then, when the defender's initiative comes up, that's when he makes his attack, and the other guy becomes the defender. 

The narrative is dependent on the actions being performed.  Obviously, if the defender declares that he is dodging and his roll is higher, you don't say the attack bounced off the defender's shield.  He ducked or jumped out of the way. 

There are other things we saw in that clip as well:
Fighting from higher ground might grant a +1 to the attacker.  

Ducking behind something could give a +1 to the defender.  

Also the winner of a combat round might want to force the loser back a pace.  

Too, you can have knockdown or knockback effects if you want, such as when Sinbad knocked the skeleton off the staircase with his sword, though again that could be simulated by having the loser forced back a pace, and falling off because there is no other place to step.  A knockdown effect can be simulated by rolling attacker's STR vs. defender's DEX.  If the defender fails, he's either pushed backwards, or is knocked to the ground, and must spend his next action standing.  He may parry (or block, if he has a shield), but cannot dodge. 

For disarm, you could simply have the attacker declare that instead of damage, he has knocked the weapon from his foe's hand.  Obviously, that wouldn't work with tooth or claw, but with swords, axes, maces, etc it works just fine.  

And did you see what the skeleton did when disarmed?  It threw the shield at Sinbad and went for its sword.  That could be an attack or defense, and a WIS roll might be needed to not lose your action.     

The system is fairly versatile.  Taking a page from Swords Against The Outer Dark, you could say that 11 minus your AC is a penalty to your dodge roll, thus representing that heavy armor can slow you down.  I would probably rule that way for chain, not plate, since there are even YouTube videos showing people doing aerobics in full plate. 

All this doesn't take that much longer than a normal combat, simply because there is a clear winner.  It's not like the guy parrying or dodging will be successful all the time.  And, I feel, it's more visceral, because as the defender you are responsible for making sure you roll higher than the other guy, rather than just waiting to see if you get hit. 

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