A modest proposal for varying melee combat dynamics in early-DnD-and-its-derivatives

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Moonglum

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I think it is inescapably true that melee combat in DnD has never really worked in a satisfying way because the level of abstraction in the core rules is so great that when two powerful, well matched combatants face off basically nothing of note happens until one of them falls over dead. Don't bother arguing about all the exciting things you are supposed to imagine and say while you grind through the interminable attack and damage rolls - we all know that's nonsense.

But most of the ways people have tried to make it better are either unplayably slow and complicated (ADnD speed factors, weapon vs. armor tables; BECMI weapon mastery; etc.) or involve extreme levels of 'grade inflation' that unbalance the game (late ADnD weapon mastery; most 'feat' and class-power-ladder systems), or involve weirdly unrealistic special powerz that ultimately just amount to a bunch of names for a damage bonus (most feats and class powers). Or sometimes two or all three of these things. It is all rather discouraging.

I recently started goofing around with a house rule that I feel like is helpful, given all the constraints of working with a highly abstract DnD like combat system, and I was wondering what others thought of it.

The notion is, Fighters, Fighter sub-classes, and non-class monsters one would reasonably judge to have fighter like skills are allowed to decide at the start of each turn of melee combat how many points, up to their level, they would like to assign to a reflexive pair of bonuses/penalties, where 1 point can be used to improve your AC in exchange for a 1 point penalty to-hit, or 1 point can be used to increase your to-hit, or damage, or initiative, in exchange for a 1 point penalty to your AC. If you are in the mood to be elaborate you could mix and match consistent with these trade offs, e.g., a 3rd level Fighter with AC 4 in the B/X system could attack with +1 to hit, +1 damage and +1 initiative, but will have an AC of 7 (total three points of penalty) for that turn. Or they could just deliver a +3 damage attack for the same penalty. Or opt to deliver a +1 to-hit attack at the cost of having AC 5. And so forth.

And that's it.

What I like about it is that it is very easy to remember, trivial to make and implement decisions on the fly, and works at the level of abstraction of the rest of the system. So it is not really complicating. But it contains within it practically every consequence 'effect' people try to model with more elaborate feat/power based systems - an unarmored duelist can fend off a horde of lesser swordsmen with a flury of parries, or a Conan type can deliver a brutal mortal blow, and so forth. And it is basically balanced, without grade inflation — in the end, the balance between your total capacity to dole out damage and your capacity to absorb damage, taken together, is as-intended by the base combat system.

What do you think?
 

DeadBob

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I'd drop the AC penalty part, otherwise higher level fighters doing their Thing will become vastly more vulnerable.
 

Moonglum

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If you drop the AC penalty (or something equivalent) this will simply be another form of grade inflation. In my opinion, that way lies madness.
 

Brock Savage

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This works fine at the lower levels and I am going to experiment with this idea but I would suggest a max cap at level 3 or 5 to keep within the soft bounded accuracy of B/X. In off the shelf B/X, from which most OSR products are derived, AC is a powerful stat* and a level 1 fighter can take plate mail + shield which is AC 17 right out of the gate without including DEX bonuses. An additional +1 to AC is highly desirable and well worth the measly -1 to hit.

I rarely use the optional rules for individual initiative in B/X but I suppose it is nice to have the option for when it does come into play.

*Interestingly enough, AC is once again a powerful stat in 5e thanks to bounded accuracy. As a general rule of thumb, things that add to AC in 5e are highly valuable.
 

Lofgeornost

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I'm sure you've considered this, but the damage increment is going to be more valuable for weapons that do low damage to begin with. So a +1 or +2 to a 1D4 dagger gives a bigger increase than to a 1D8 broadsword, in terms of the change in average damage/round.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, or even all that important.
 

Brock Savage

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I'm sure you've considered this, but the damage increment is going to be more valuable for weapons that do low damage to begin with. So a +1 or +2 to a 1D4 dagger gives a bigger increase than to a 1D8 broadsword, in terms of the change in average damage/round.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, or even all that important.
Correct but I don't imagine many Fighters rocking d4 or d6 melee weapons under normal circumstances other than spears. Good for me because I love plate + shield spearfighters
 

Moonglum

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I think it is worth asking what happens when you are dealing with fighters at levels significantly above 5th. I'm undecided and can imagine positive and negative outcomes of just forging ahead without additional limits. My feeling is that there are already enough 'white room' arguments in this world that I don't need to add any more; to me, the right approach is try something simple that you like and, if and when it becomes a problem at the table, tweak it.
 

Moonglum

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Re. the relative changes in damage for various weapon types, this doesn't bother me at all. If you want to imagine your knight cleaving someone in half with his great sword and I want to imagine my master fencer poking someone in the eye with their Main Gauche, I'd say 'live and let live'. In the end, it's the same net bonus to two otherwise similar characters, so no one has reason to gripe.
 

Moonglum

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How's this for a little mod that occurred to me: you can apply your required penalty either to AC or your to-hit roll. I could rationalize that if required, and it adds a little more flexibility to how you might want to approach this capability without messing with balance (to first order, anyway).
 

zanshin

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Has anyone tried incorporating advantage/disadvantage into B/OSR ? One way of enhancing the application of the fiction/tactics which doesn't require any of the numbers to be changed.

I will await the heresy charges :smile:
 

DeadBob

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Has anyone tried incorporating advantage/disadvantage into B/OSR ? One way of enhancing the application of the fiction/tactics which doesn't require any of the numbers to be changed.

I will await the heresy charges :smile:
If we're going all heretical and off on tangents, simple-to-run fighters in B/X should give at least one of the players of a fighter in the party the spare brain capacity and concentration to act as an officer for any NPC retainers or mercs. That's where the fighters' tacticalness comes in while the thieves are infiltrating into position for backstabs, the MUs are figuring out the maximum effect of their available spell choices, and the Clerics are buffing and healboting.

The more that those extra bodies and even simple sketch maps are used, the more useful this will be.

Having said that, I like the core concept of giving fighters the ability to trade around modifiers for attack bonuses, damage bonuses, number of attacks, and so on as a core fighter ability.
 
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Moonglum

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Has anyone tried incorporating advantage/disadvantage into B/OSR ? One way of enhancing the application of the fiction/tactics which doesn't require any of the numbers to be changed.

I will await the heresy charges :smile:
I have no problem with using 5E's advantage/disadvantage mechanic in an OSR game. Anyone who dislikes bolting on goofy bits of rules to an OSR game never really understood the original old school games to begin with - all their rules are goofy and bolted together, and they always admonish the DM to cut away and bolt on even more.

The main question I'd ask is what you get advantages for and when you pay for something with a disadvantage. If the answer ends up being basically balanced, then I'm cool with it; if it just amounts to an across-the-board bonus to hit for fighters then I'd slap the 'grade inflation' label on it and not use it myself.
 

robertsconley

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The notion is, Fighters, Fighter sub-classes, and non-class monsters one would reasonably judge to have fighter like skills are allowed to decide at the start of each turn of melee combat how many points, up to their level, they would like to assign to a reflexive pair of bonuses/penalties, where 1 point can be used to improve your AC in exchange for a 1 point penalty to-hit, or 1 point can be used to increase your to-hit, or damage, or initiative, in exchange for a 1 point penalty to your AC. If you are in the mood to be elaborate you could mix and match consistent with these trade offs, e.g., a 3rd level Fighter with AC 4 in the B/X system could attack with +1 to hit, +1 damage and +1 initiative, but will have an AC of 7 (total three points of penalty) for that turn. Or they could just deliver a +3 damage attack for the same penalty. Or opt to deliver a +1 to-hit attack at the cost of having AC 5. And so forth.
Too complex for what people want out of a classic D&D system. But it better than the example you listed earlier in your post. The problem is the time it takes to decide what mix you want. Especially when you don't know the other guy's stat block. Over time I would predict this would led to a narrowing of options. The player will come up with two to four combinations to handle most situations and stick with those. And there would a significant subset that would be unhappy as they are not as skilled as a player and feel they constantly behind at trying to figure what works best.

The latter was a big factor in why I picked the options I did for own own take.
That do you think?
So I have two changes that are simple and effective to implement and playtested them in several campaign starting in 2010.

  • Fighter gets their "to-hit" bonus on the initiative die. For editions that use attack matrices this can be calculated as the difference between what a fighter has to roll at 1st level and what they have to roll at their current level.
  • Combatants can perform a stunt in lieu of damage (knock out blow, disarm, trip, etc.) the catch is that the target gets a saving throw. Saving throws are the classic D&D way of handling when something bad happens to a character and it can be avoided. The side effect of this is that stunts are less likely to work on high level character or high HD monsters.
Rob's Note: Monsters get an initiative bonus equal to half their HD rounded down.

A change I made is about as complex as the one you proposed.
  • Can use a melee weapon to attack a number of creatures with a total hit dice equal to the Fighter’s level. There is always a minimum of one attack allowed. If the creature has a modifier to their hit dice, round up to the nearest whole number. For example, a giant fire beetle has HD 1+3; treat this the same as a creature with HD 2.
Basically the above removes the 1 HD limitation on the # of attacks a OD&D fighter gets. So a 3rd level fighter can attack three 1 HD creatures, a 2 HD creature and a 1 HD creature, or get one attack if the target is 3 HD or higher.

The way I handle this is that after the initial attack, I tell the player they can get another attack (if there enough HD worth of attack remaining) or that there is another target within reach (a five foot step) that they can attack. This eliminates me have to tell the players the HD (or level) of all the targets within melee range.

It also eliminates the overall power boost that AD&D fighters got with # of attack at higher levels. Preserving the 3 LBBs balance which is more low key than later edition. It definitely works way better in my campaigns than weapon specialization that Unearthed Arcana and AD&D 2e had.

The last change only has been in use since 2018. But the first two were enough to make fighters in OD&D far more appealing. The initiative had the greatest impact and was a winner from the get-go. Being easy to implement, easy to understand, and just makes sense given what fighters are supposed to be.

The use of the stunt rule is highly situational. But I found it straight forward to tweak. For example still having damage applied even if the save succeed. Imposing advantage on save for the target, imposing disadvantage on the save for the target. For example if somebody tries to knock a guard out, and the guard has a metal helm then the guard gets advantage on the save to be knocked out. But the character will still get to deal damage on a successful hit.

The last rules is always viewed with trepidation at first due to the idea of "I have to track how many hit dice I attacked this round". But in practice using how I adjudicate it, they find it highly playable. And become adept at identifying leader types, mid range types, and rank & file types to make the most of this ability.

Hope this is useful.
 
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zanshin

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I have no problem with using 5E's advantage/disadvantage mechanic in an OSR game. Anyone who dislikes bolting on goofy bits of rules to an OSR game never really understood the original old school games to begin with - all their rules are goofy and bolted together, and they always admonish the DM to cut away and bolt on even more.

The main question I'd ask is what you get advantages for and when you pay for something with a disadvantage. If the answer ends up being basically balanced, then I'm cool with it; if it just amounts to an across-the-board bonus to hit for fighters then I'd slap the 'grade inflation' label on it and not use it myself.
In an old school context, I would say if they don't know you are there, you attack with advantage (ambush, invisibility etc) or if you have engineered a significant advantage over them (they are slipping on a grease spell, prone, highlighted by faerie fire, or set on fire) .

Disadvantage could be blinded, melee fighting from prone, poisoned or badly diseased, stuck and unable to maneuver.

Makes it worth drawing on the situations to engineer a tactical advantage or overcome a disadvantage.
 

robertsconley

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Has anyone tried incorporating advantage/disadvantage into B/OSR ? One way of enhancing the application of the fiction/tactics which doesn't require any of the numbers to be changed.

I will await the heresy charges :smile:
Yes I have been using it since 2016. Before that, 2008 to 2016, I standardized everything on a -4/-2/+0/+2/+4 scale. So odds of advantage/disadvantage worked out well.

The basic gist was that most of the classic editions penalized the to-hit by -4 if they were attacking an invisible opponent. The best bonus in the various edition rarely exceeded +4/+5 so hence the -4 to +4. Advantage and Disadvantage made it even more straightforward and had the added benefit of players intuitively "getting it" which I haven't seen with any numerical bonus system stemming back to the 80s.

If folks want to see how it works I still have this up for free.
 

Sable Wyvern

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I was getting ready to respond with a complete denial that the issue even exists, until I actually finished the first sentence. It is definitely the case the D&D is generally unsatisfying when it comes to a 1-on-1 duel. I was all ready to use a version of the AD&D optional rules for initiative should a duel occur in my last 1e game, and it never came up in the two years of that campaign. I had nothing prepared for ACKS, and there was a duel last session.

In general, I think it happens rarely enough that I'm willing to live with it; I certainly don't want to change the rules for normal multiple-combatant melees, which I want extremely streamlined, with the tactical and planning elements mostly occurring prior to melee being joined.
 

Lofgeornost

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So, in this system, is the decision on bonuses/minuses perceptible to the characters (including npcs)? Since it seems to track with a fighter being more reckless or putting more attention into attacking rather than defending (or vice versa) I can imagine it might be.

If it is, though, that will likely affect targeting. If a player knows that a given npc has become easier to hit, it would make sense to aim at that npc (assuming it's possible given the tactical situation).
 

Moonglum

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Hmm, I've not given that a lot of thought, but I think for simple playability reasons the correct approach should be that you only commit to the set of bonuses/penalties you wish to use at the time you first make a roll that is influenced by the decision - i.e., when initiative is rolled if you happen to be modifying that, and otherwise either at your turn to act in the action order, or, if you are attacked before that and have modified AC, when that first effected attack occurs. The main reason to do it this way is that any easily imagined alternative would force you to have a kind of pre-turn announcement/negotiation phase where modifiers are stated in some order that would have to be determined. I am not into that; it is the sort of thing that sounds cool in theory but is terrible for the flow of action at the table. One obvious consequence of my preferred approach is that when two combatants capable of such modifiers face off, there is an intrinsic advantage to waiting to see what your foe does before you decide what to do. I'm ok with that, as it is compensated for by the inherent advantage to attacking first.
 

Moonglum

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Also, the most concise statement of my suggested house rule consistent with the things discussed above is:

You may take advantage points, totaling up to your Fighter level, to any combination of to-hit, damage, initiative and/or AC, but must then take the same number of total penalty points to to-hit and/or AC.

This is logically complete, I think (recognizing that you would be permitted to assign some of your possible pool of modifier points to some pointless combination of equal bonuses and penalties to-hit or AC; this is an irrelevant detail that amounts to just not using your whole pool of points).
 

zanshin

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Rolemaster/Merp did this (as did 3e with the expertise feat) - your skill bonus could be allocated among attacking or defending.

Obviously a THACO system rather than an attack bonus system makes it slightly less elegant, but I guess you could give a range that your and their THACO could both be varied by.
 

Moonglum

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Just so. The system I describe is functionally similar to playing DnD with the same flexibility in your balance of offensive firepower vs. defensive capability provided by Rolemaster. I'm not sure I follow the 'elegance' issue; you always add a bonus to-hit, damage and initiative, and you improve an AC either by increasing it (ascending) or decreasing it (descending). I suppose it would be nicer if you didn't have to think at all, but I doubt anyone playing descending AC editions will forget how they work in the midst of play.
 

AsenRG

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If I may add my 0,02EU, I don't see any issue with that, but I'm not sure how much it would actually help. However, if it makes it better for you, why not?

The one question is, can you take points from initiative and/or damage to add to to-hit or AC?
 

opaopajr

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Sigh, heartbreak. :brokenheart: I invite you to define things and look at unintended consequences. Does this lasts for the whole round, or partial segments of it? Are you supplementing this in lieu of typical bonuses, be they race, class, gear, etc.? What are the limits to benefit, will this proliferate diversity of tactics, and where will that diversity be? What role is kept of the Surprise round and Ambush round in this configuration?

As it stands from my jaded munchkin experience the correct answer seems to be multi-attack ranged weaponry and using cover/concealment to blow through this. Because opponents should be far enough away and out of line-of-sight to typically not be a viable threat, you dump init and weaken AC as needed, pump to-hit enough to guarantee hits, pour the rest into damage and ride the multi-attack as a damage multiplier. Hold enough "undo" party healing to cancel out any singular clever or lucky GM moments. End fights fast and routinely.

If Surprise & Ambush is still available, and knowing the Initiative die is limited to a d10, what stops PCs from buying down to 1 and running out to range and cover to repeat the tactic above? It worries me that it'll make encounters feel very similar in approach and more a fait accompli. Sometimes the fiddliness and diversity of uses/situations creates more drama from the lack of optimizable control.

I am not saying no, but it is OK for D&D to be D&D. It really works well for what it wants to do, which is a variety of things yet a master of none. Sometimes that not-fully-controllable variety makes the journey, not the optimizable blow-by-blow.

As an elegant bookkeeping simplification, I agree it is quite sexy and tempting. :heart: But I've been down that road myself along with many others. :brokenheart: You never really forget your first few heartbreaks, but often find upon return staying sweet on your magical first crush. Go play and tinker, address these jagged edges, and maybe just maybe you won't find yourself as Frankenstein building your own Monster. Yet remember, you got a sweet spot as it is in old D&D, and there's other RPGs out there who hit wholly different sweet spots... no need to travel so far. :smile:
 

Moonglum

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Most of those questions make little sense to me; there are no implied rules beyond those I stated succinctly in the one-sentence version a couple posts up. Also, I think I described the way I think it should be implemented, which follows the principle that you have to make up your mind what you are doing as soon as it becomes relevant (e.g., the first time you are attacked, if you wish to adjust AC, or at the time of your attack if you wish to adjust to-hit or damage).

The rest of the asides are frankly patronizing. This hobby is crawling with house rules - in fact most of the things we think of as core emerged as weird, semi-play-tested suggestions in the ODD supplements. So, you can keep the snide comments about heartbreakers and frankenstein's monsters to yourself.
 
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