In praise of aborted projects

This blog has featured a succession of various rule sets and enterprises. Hexagram, Gravity Sinister (the “JRPG Basic” rules), and Wonder & Wickedness. There have also been others which I have not talked about publicly. Many of these will likely never see publication. Wonder & Wickedness is a 95% done thing with some commissioned art and publication arrangements, and though some details have not been finalized, baring unforeseen calamity, it will certainly be finished and released. I will have more to say about that in the future. Compiled house rules for my OD&D Vaults of Pahvelorn setting will definitely be a free PDF download at some point too, once I get the motivation to get back to working on those dungeons again.

The great thing about doing things this way is that one develops a basket of interesting and more or less complete subsystems, setting ideas, and frameworks that can be mined at will. I started working on something else recently, and found such a backlog to be extremely useful. Each time you roll the boulder a bit farther up the hill, and sooner or later something comes to fruition. At least that has been my experience. Expecting quick results is just asking for demotivation.

Obviously, if you make a commitment to others, you are obligated to deliver, but if you are working just for yourself, I do not think it is a bad thing dart here and there, following the muse’s call and alighting on whatever takes your fancy, especially if that decreases the friction of getting started on something at all. I guess this is another way of saying, do not worry too much about throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, especially in the context of hobby play/work, and that expecting everything to develop into some fully realized thing is both unrealistic and counterproductive.

Some new ideas for turn undead

The main new ideas here are 1) clerics take damage on turn attempts that fail and 2) holy symbols serve as spiritual armor to reduce that backlash damage. Holy symbols also become damaged on bad turn rolls just like I have been having mundane gear degrade on bad combat rolls. The consequences of a failed turn roll are intended to provide a cost to using turn undead continuously without resorting to spell slots or some separate resource (as Pathfinder does with “channel energy” rules).

I have this vision of a cleric’s silver holy symbol melting in the face of a horde of wraiths.

The text below is an excerpt from a longer house rules document that I put together for an in-person game, and as such some terms are referenced without being defined. Overkill, for example, means combat roll success margin of 4 or better (or a natural 20).

Image by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (source)

Image by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (source)

By brandishing a holy symbol, clerics may attempt to overawe the undead. Turning undead affects a number of monster levels equal to 1d6 plus cleric level (the player may select which monsters are affected). It is resolved by a combat roll using cleric level rather than combat rating. Overkill results on a turn roll additionally deal 1d6 damage.

Undead that are affected by a turn shrink back in terror, and keep well away from the cleric as long as the turn is maintained. Such overawed creatures may not attack by any means. A turn may be maintained as long as the cleric does not engage in any activities other than concentration and slow movement. Attacking turned undead frees them from the effect.

Attempting to turn undead pits a cleric’s soul against the undead’s power. If the turn fails, the cleric takes 1d6 damage. This damage is spiritual, and so is not reduced by armor. Clerics reduced to zero HP from such spiritual damage are not slain, but rather knocked unconscious, retaining a single hit point.

Holy symbols become damaged in the case of low combat rolls just like weapons. Particularly fine holy symbols also serve as spiritual armor. Silver provides DR 1, gold DR 2, and platinum DR 3. This DR only applies to damage from failed turn attempts.

Characters of any class may assist with turning undead by brandishing a holy symbol. An assistant adds 1d6 to the effect coverage but no bonus to the combat roll. Assistants also take damage from failed turn attempts and must similarly concentrate to maintain a turn effect.

See also:

Replacing intelligence and wisdom

A replacement ability score system.

Strength, dexterity, constitution, magic, perception, charisma.

Why this substitution? Because these six scores fit into the tasks that adventurers perform regularly in the game, are useful to all classes, and are less ambiguous. For example, should INT or WIS modify the save versus magic? Why? With this spread, the relevant stat is obviously “magic.” Similarly, d6 search and listen checks are the common traditional perception system, and are used frequently. Having a stat associated with them highlights the centrality of these mechanisms to a certain play style.

3d6 each. Modifiers abbreviated as STR, DEX, CON, MAG, PER, CHA.

Ability Modifier
3 -3
4, 5 -2
6, 7, 8 -1
9, 10, 11, 12 nil
13, 14, 15 +1
16, 17 +2
18 +3
Modifier Effects
STR modifies melee damage and force tests.
DEX modifies combat rating and sneak tests.
CON is added to HP (total, not per die).
MAG modifies magic tests.
PER modifies search and listen tests.
CHA modifies reaction tests.

Force, listen, search, sneak, etc tests are performed with a d6 and succeed on 6 or higher. A natural 1 is always a failure. Listening and searching take an exploration turn and forcing something makes noise.

Magic tests are used both to resist enemy magic (basically, a replacement for saving throws versus spells) and for the difficulty of resisting the spells a particular magic-user casts.

And to replicate traditional race abilities:

  • Dwarves: +1 to search tests involving architecture or mechanisms.
  • Elves: +1 to search tests involving secret doors.
  • Halflings: +1 to sneak tests and thrown missiles.

An aside: it is interesting that “advanced” games modify ability scores directly by race, whereas the “basic” games give demi-humans bonuses only to specific tasks.

See also:

Equipment deterioration simplified

The equipment deterioration rules (originally inspired by Logan) that I posted before have seen around 10 sessions of online play testing. In general, I like the idea, but in practice I found that the large number of notches tended to prevent the effects from ever showing up on-screen. Rolling another die on every notch to test for immediate breakage is also too much work (and easy to forget, being outside the standard D&D workflow). The replacement costs I made up were a bit too complicated.

This new version of the rules (included below) feels “finished” to me, though I have only used them for two sessions so far. The complexity overhead and game impact are about where I want them. The new version does away with “null result” notch accumulation while also giving players some warning before their weapon or armor is totally gone.

There are three different gear states: sound, damaged, and ruined. On rolls less than or equal to an item’s quality rating, the item drops a category, which decreases its effectiveness in the case of “damaged.” Repairing a damaged weapon costs 1/2 new price. Some actions may cause an automatic downgrade, such as hitting a statue with an axe. Damaged weapons deal less damage and damaged armor loses one point of protection.

Monological save versus magic

Canto de amor (source)

Canto de amor (source)

In the example of monological combat I posted, I was not quite sure how to handle saving throws versus magic. The traditional approach (of the referee rolling saving throws for each monster) seems to break the design. Though I do not think that having a universal core mechanic is always desirable, I would still like to see if I can get magic to fit within this framework more naturally.

A first sketch of how this might look. Player rolls 1d20, and adds some bonus reflective of magic skill or spell power. This number is then compared to some sort of magic defense target number for each potential target. One simple instantiation of this structure would be 1d20 + magic-user level versus 10 + enemy combat rating. That is, the magic target number would be the same as the combat target rating. Given that many spells have non-damage effects, this would not entirely homogenize action types from different classes (something that I would like to avoid), though for damage dealing spells it does have that effect to some degree.

For example, a monster of level 5 has a target number of 10 (base) + 5 (level) = 15. Hitting it with a sword thus requires rolling 1d20 + combat bonus and achieving 15 or higher. Affecting it with a fireball (say) would also require rolling 1d20 + magic bonus (whatever that is) and achieving 15 or higher (with full damage being inflicted on success and half damage on failure). That seems usable, and has the added benefit of allowing compatibility with most published monsters that have traditional stats (just let level = HD, making the general target number 10 + HD). Exactly what the magic bonus is would probably depend on exactly what base system I was bolting this onto, but in addition to magic-user level, one could also use the max level of spell that could be cast (which is usually approximately class level divided by two).

The downside is that the differentiation between defense modes is minimal. The main difference is that armor (as damage reduction) would not come into play most of the time for resisting spells. Another thought I had is that monsters could be divided between supernatural and mundane, with only supernatural monsters adding their level to the magic defense target number. In this case, a bear, despite having a level of around 4 when considering physical combat, would have a magic target number of only 10, whereas something like a wraith would add level. This would make some monsters more susceptible to magic than others, which could lead to some interesting tactics. There is maybe space for a midpoint quasi-magic type of creature as well (that would add half level to the target number, or something along those lines). I am not sure if this would be too fiddly in practice, but it seems reasonable on paper here. Defaulting to 10 + level is probably easier though.

What about the equivalent of PCs making saves versus enemy spells? That is handled the same way, just with failure meaning the PC is affected and success meaning the effect is avoided (or mitigated). Sorcerous classes should probably add some bonus to this roll, while other classes would be more vulnerable to the effects of spells. Ability score modifiers could also be brought into play if desired without dramatically affecting the system.

See also:

Marking the dead

Sunday afternoon I spent running Barrowmaze in person, using my standard inchoate, experimental mix of new house rules. The PCs cleared out a good number of barrow mounds, but didn’t venture that far into the dungeon proper after a TPK (eaten by shadows). Both players ended up with halfling goblin PCs by the end of the session, after losing a magician, fighter, and cleric to the dungeon, along with a rather large number of retainers. What’s the point of all this. The deceased stamp! That is all.

IMG_7050 odd barrowmaze 600w IMG_7049 odd barrowmaze 600w IMG_7048 odd barrowmaze 600w

Lusus Naturae

Monstruct color draft

Lusus Naturae’s monstruct

My favorite new RPG book that came out in 2013 was perhaps Rafael Chandler’s Teratic Tome. I do not know why I have not written more about it before, but I should. It is fantastically creative and professionally done. In addition to being probably my favorite new RPG book of 2013, it is also one of my favorite bestiaries in general, up there with the Fiend Folio and the Bard Games Atlantis Bestiary. For me, it has only one real flaw, which is that the physical production (being a print on demand “casebound” hardcover) is only middle tier. Would it not be fantastic if Rafael were able to produce a monster book to a higher physical production standard? Well, Lusus Naturae will be that.

The name means “freaks of nature,” and it is intended to be a collection of 100 horror-themed monsters for Lamentations of the Flame Princess (and thus compatible with most traditional fantasy RPGs). This thing has already funded, so there is very little doubt that it will exist later this year (and Rafael has been one of the most reliable producers of small press RPG material recently, so risks on that front, even of mere delays, seem minimal). Needless to say, I have backed it. There are several more days to go, and if it hits $16660 before then, all the images will be done in color (this is the only stretch goal, though Rafael was recently wondering if he should maybe do something else special if the project reaches 666 backers).

I should also probably mention that the Teratic Tome is now pay what you want in PDF. So if you are not familiar yet with Rafael’s work and want to see what you might be in for with Lusus Naturae, you can check that out. Not directly related, but if you are interested in the above mentioned Bard Games Atlantis Bestiary, the Sorcerer’s Skull has a post about that.


St. Sebastian with lantern (source)

St. Sebastian with lantern (source)

Torchbearer has many rules that I think could profitably be spliced into more traditional dungeon crawling games. Of these, light coverage is perhaps one of the easiest to apply. Light coverage is the idea that the amount of illumination provided by a given light source is limited. Rather than trying to measure this using a literal approach of light radii as is commonly done in D&D, Torchbearer measures illumination by the number of characters that can benefit from a given light source (1 for candles, 2 for torches, and 3 for lanterns).

In addition to the number of characters fully covered by a source of illumination, a similar number of characters are in dim light. For example, a party of seven adventurers with one torch would have three characters in full light, three characters in dim light, and one character in darkness. Both dim light and darkness are factors in Torchbearer tests, which could easily be modeled as situational penalties in other games. The exact numbers here do not really matter, and could be adjusted to reflect however various light sources are conceptualized.

While considering how to handle grenades or other area affect attacks within a monologic combat framework*, Gus suggested that perhaps various area affect attacks, such as grenades or fireballs, could have an explosion rating indicating the maximum number of enemies that could be affected. I immediately thought of light coverage. Splash or blast damage, like movement distances, are hard to resolve satisfactorily and without handwaving when using fictional positioning. In the past, I have thought of area affect

The coverage rating would reflect the most targets that could potentially be affected by a given effect or item. The referee would still need to make a ruling about whether or not this coverage capacity was “filled up,” but the coverage rating would provide convenient and easy to understand guidelines, along with an upper bound. A second tier of effects, similar to how Torchbearer handles dim light, could be used to model something like secondary splash damage from a molotov cocktail. Coverage ratings could also be used for weapons such as nets, or even potentially special attacks using more conventional weapons (two-handed sword sweeps and missile volleys come to mind).

I suspect this general coverage approach could also be applied to abstracting other rules that are difficult to get a clear shared geometric understanding about.

* See: monologic combat.

Monologic combat example

Expanding on the previous idea of modeling combat between two foes with a single roll (monologic combat) rather than a pair of rolls, here is an extended example.

Dramatis personae:

  • Magic-user (PC, level 2, unarmored, dagger, fire wand, HD 1+1, HP 4)
  • Fighter (PC, level 2, armor 3, sword, shield, crossbow, HD 2+1, HP 8)
  • Thief (PC, level 2, armor 1, crossbow, dagger, sword, HD 2, HP 7)
  • Torchbearer (PC magic-user’s retainer, level 0, armor 1, lantern, dagger, HD 1, HP 4)
  • 4 goblins (monsters, armor 1, short bow, cleaver sword, HD 1-1, HP 3)
  • A six-legged giant lizard the size of an ox (monster, armor 2, HD 5, HP 20)
  • Goblin beast master captain (monster, armor 3, axe, whip, HD 3, HP 11)

The scene: a cavern bisected by a crevasse with a narrow stone bridge of ancient provenance. An underground river flows quick and cold, 100 feet below the bridge. The player characters wish to take the bridge and proceed to the tunnel leading out of the cavern’s far side.

Lantern light and a snarling giant lizard make it so neither side is surprised (because I want this example to be less of a one-sided engagement). Surprise could be determined using the standard d6 per side method. I am also going to decide that the goblins are out for blood, but in a real game I would probably roll for reaction.

Bocklin - Fighting on a bridge (source)

Bocklin – Fighting on a bridge (source)

Initiative is important to determine in this system, because going first means you can choose your engagement (if you are not already occupied). Retreating or disengaging requires a successful combat action. To determine if initiative is gained, each player makes a combat check versus a threat number that the referee determines by ruling to represent the opposing forces. In this case, it is 3 (based on the leader’s level; note that this could change based on balance of forces as the skirmish progresses), leading to a target number of 13. Any player that makes this roll (1d20 + combat bonus) acts before the monsters. Otherwise, after. Spell casting must be declared before the initiative die is rolled, and in that case no movement may be taken. Spells resolve at the end of the round. The magic-user elects to begin casting a spell, charm person, against the goblin captain, while remaining in the cavern entrance behind the other party members. (The magic-user’s other prepared spell is hold portal). The fighter and thief succeed in their initiative check. So the order is: fighter, thief, monsters, magic-user, torchbearer (who acts on the magic-user’s count).

The thief chooses to move to the side and take aim at the lizard. Next round, he will be able to take a shot with backstab advantages since the lizard is not yet in melee (a rule I just made up). The fighter (armed with sword and shield) is going to charge across the bridge and take the fight to the goblin archer brigade. Despite winning initiative, the fighter is still going to need to defend against the goblin arrows this round (consuming her combat action), given that missile weapons beat melee weapons (if she was using a missile weapon, she would have a chance to inflict damage as well, but in this case she will not). However, her shield will grant her a +2 combat bonus since she is facing arrows. The goblin archers are ganging up (+1 each, up to +4 max; it seems like these are the “helping” rules). So the final roll is 1d20 + 3 (fighter combat bonus) + 2 (fighter shield) = 1d20 + 5 versus 10 + 0 (goblin combat bonus) + 3 (gang up) = target number 13. Fighter rolls 9, which is 14, and thus defends successfully against the volley. (Had it hit, the gang up bonus would have applied to damage as well.) The fighter’s action resolves and she is now in melee with the goblins, but has already made her combat roll. Thus, the goblins take no damage, but are still in melee and will not be able to fire their missile weapons without disengaging. They have also already used their action and thus will be passed over on the monster count.

Next is the thief, who moves and aims. (A stealth check might be permitted here to make it so that the thief cannot be targeted by enemies until an action triggers, but I am not going to worry about that now.) Now the monsters act. This is just the lizard and the captain, as the archers have already made their attack. Further, the bridge is currently threatened by the fighter in melee with the archers, so advance over the bridge is impossible. The fighter is surrounded in the front by mooks scrambling to hold the fighter at bay, so the referee rules that the lizard cannot enter the melee (not having any reach attacks). However, the captain has a whip, which is a reach weapon, and so will attempt to grapple the fighter at reach and pull her prone so that the goblins may attempt to overwhelm her. The fighter makes another defense roll, with no modifiers applying, of 1d20 + 3 versus 10 + 3 (captain HD) = 13. There is no chance of the fighter damaging the captain, both because the fighter has already spent her action and because she is not wielding a weapon with reach threat and is constrained by the archers. She rolls badly, 5 (+3 = 8), and is pulled prone under the stamping nasty feet of the small goblin horde. The lizard can’t do anything and so retains its combat roll for potential reaction (which will be lost if nothing triggers it by the end of the round).

Finally, the magic-user and torchbearer act. The chanting ceases and the spell goes off. Traditionally this would require the goblin captain to make a saving throw versus spells, which is what I am going to go with here, but in some ways I might prefer a magic-user roll versus target magic defense (which should be lower than the combat defense number based on HD unless the target is magical in some way). But whatever, the referee is just going to break the elegance of the system and make a saving throw for the goblin captain, because I have not thought enough about this part of the system and do not want to accidentally homogenize spell casting and physical combat. The captain rolls 18, making the save. Unfortunate, but it happens. The torchbearer is doing nothing, cowering next to the magic-user, maintaining the light source and reserving his action for potential self-defense.

Next round. If the fighter was not already exposed up in melee, the magic-user might opt to spend the hold portal spell for a blast of acid maleficence, but in this case that is deemed too dangerous, so no spell casting is declared. Initiative is rolled. The fighter is prone and so gains no combat bonus to initiative. (Another discovered rule!) The fighter fails and will act after the monsters, the magic-user and thief succeed, so they will act first. The magic-user defers, not having a spell to cast, and being too far away to throw a dagger (referee ruling). The thief takes the backstab shot (had the lizard been in melee by this point, the shot would no longer have backstab bonuses and instead would be subject to whatever penalties are involved with shooting into melee; probably random target determination). The thief’s combat roll is 1d20 + 2 (combat bonus) + 4 (backstab) = +6 versus 10 + 5 (lizard threat level) = 15. The roll is 16, +6 is 22, which is enough to hit, dealing 1d6 + 1d6 (backstab bonus) + 1d6 (hit margin more than 4) – 2 (lizard armor) = 4 + 5 + 4 – 2 = 11 damage. The lizard is now at 9 HP. (Yes, traditionally the backstab is a multiplier, but I prefer additional damage dice. The overkill bonus is another new rule.) The lizard rears up in agony.

Monsters turn. Still prone, the fighter remains dangerous but looses her attack bonus. The goblins drop their bows and set upon her with cleavers, hacking and chopping. The fighter rolls 1d20 to defend (no bonuses, because prone), versus target number of 10, four times (the monsters are opting for separate attacks rather than ganging up). First roll is 11, successfully defending. Fighter is opting not to count this as her action so that she can attempt to regain her footing and thus get back her attack bonus when her turn comes around. Second three rolls are not so lucky however; 3, 7, and 9. The fighter is thus damaged by three goblins, 1d6 each, for 5, 4, and 6 damage. Her heavy armor subtracts 3 from each of those rolls, leading to 2 + 1 + 3 = 6 damage, leaving her with 2 HP. Can the captain or lizard get off an attack here? I am going to say no, but melee threat rules probably need to be more formalized, because I could see it going either way. Since the captain and lizard are still bottlenecked, their actions are held for reactivity.

Now the fighter acts. She could try to fight from prone (no attack bonus, no fancy maneuvers, no potential cleave), or use the combat action to stand up. Had the goblin mooks not already used their combat roll to stomp all over her, this would have the potential of damaging her, but in this case there is no chance of damage on either side and the roll is just to see if she can regain her footing. 1d20 + 0 (remember, no attack bonus because prone) versus 10 (goblin threat level). The roll is 12, and she throws off the chopping and cackling goblins, ready for another round (but a bit worn down, at only 2 HP).

Round three. Magic-user starts to cast maleficence at the captain (only a single target, limiting overall damage potential, but safer). Fighter and magic-user succeed on initiative. Thief fails. So the order is fighter, magic-user (torchbearer), monsters, thief. The fighter attacks the mooks surrounding her, and the combat roll is 13 + 3 (attack bonus) for 16, which is enough to hit a goblin (target number being 10, the 1-1 HD not contributing). Hit margin is more than 4, adding an extra die of damage. Damage roll is 5 + 2, running one goblin through, and allowing another attack against a nearby goblin if desired, with a +1 bonus (cleave). Thus another combat roll is made, this time 5 + 3 (for attack bonus) + 1 (for cleave) = 9, which fails, resulting in the goblin hitting the fighter, d6 damage = 5 – 3 (for fighter armor 3), dealing 2 point of damage to the fighter and slaying her. The three remaining goblins hoot with glee. The magic-user’s spell is still going even though he won initiative, and will resolve at the end of the round.

Now the monsters go. The mooks and lizard will charge across the bridge and attempt to get to the magic-user before the spell goes off. Though the thief lost initiative, he is able to take a shot at the leading goblin since he has a missile weapon (and is not in any danger doing so because all the enemies are currently only armed with melee weapons and so cannot shoot back). He hits and kills one of the charging goblins, who plummets into the chasm with a shriek. Two mooks, a wounded lizard, and an unwounded captain (who stayed on the far side of the chasm) remain. The referee rules that the charge by the monsters was slowed by the successful arrow shot, and thus they are not able to attack this round, or disrupt the spell (some formalization of these movement rules would probably be welcome, as this feels a bit arbitrary to me). The spell goes off and the captain fails his save, taking the full 2d6 acid damage (which ignores armor). The damage roll is lucky, 5 + 6 = 11, burning the face and half of the chest off of the captain, leaving a smoking corpse with protruding ribs and a sickening smell. In their bloodlust, the mooks don’t notice their leader fall (otherwise, they would need to pass a morale check at the beginning of the next round).

Back to initiative. The thief succeeds, the magic-user fails, the fighter player takes over the torchbearer (and fails). So the order is thief, monsters, magic-user, torchbearer. The thief takes this opportunity to hide, and climb partly up the walls of the cavern. He makes his stealth (or hide, whatever) check. (Hiding would not have been an option had he been in melee or if the captain on the other side of the chasm was still alive.) The monsters act, only two able to bring offense to bear on the magic-user given the narrow confines of the passage. The referee dices to see which, and it is one mook and the lizard. The magic user rolls defense, brandishing a dagger, attempting frantically to keep the monsters away. The player opts to not attempt a counterattack, as that would consume the magic-user’s action, and the player wants to attempt to break from melee and flee. Unfortunately, the two rolls go badly for the magic-user, 3 and 9, and both enemies hit. The magic-user is unarmored, and takes the full brunt of gnashing lizard teeth and goblin cleaver, for 3 + 4 = 7 damage, which kills him.

The torchbearer attempts to flee, but fails his combat roll and is cut down by cleavers during the next round (which I won’t bother detailing). The thief waits above as the monsters feast on the corpses, and then slinks away once the coast is clear. And so ends this example combat.

Note that one could easily swap in a different system for determining surprise (or many other aspects of this combat), without substantively affecting the underlying dynamics. For example, a roll less than or equal to dexterity could be used for initiative rather than attack bonus versus monster threat level.

I am not entirely satisfied with how ranged combat was handled here. Should the goblins have automatically been able to force defense on the fighter? Similarly, should the thief have been able to take a bow shot as the mooks were crossing the bridge? It makes sense fictionally, but could also be represented with initiative bonuses, perhaps. In that case though, the group of monsters should probably be partitioned into two groups, ranged and non-ranged, which starts to increase the complexity in a way that seems like might be a hassle at the table. Distances seem important for the charging actions, and I am not sure the way I modeled that above is best.

The first melee attack of the goblins against the fighter could perhaps have used helping rules, which would have used a single combat roll with bonuses and extra damage on a hit. This might make sense to overcome armor, but I would want to make sure that expected damage (taking everything into consideration) does not yield a consistently optimal strategy. I think that is beyond the scope of this post, though.

Monologic combat

Dore - Don Quixote (source)

Dore – Don Quixote (source)

The traditional D&D combat system is sometimes criticized as being “whiffy,” which means that missed attacks are frequent and frustrating. The idea is that, especially when there are a large number of players, it kind of sucks when your turn comes around, you finally make your attack roll… and miss. Nothing happens and then you need to wait for the next round before you can do anything.

Now, I do not believe this is a major problem with old school D&D, particularly where combat is often something to be avoided or stacked in your favor prior to engagement, and where HP totals are relatively low, even for powerful creatures, leading to quick resolution. The occasional miss, miss, charm spell… save made (nothing happens), miss, etc sort of combat happens, but is rare. This is obviously a bigger issue in a game like Third or Fourth Edition, where combat is more of the focus, but in a game focused on exploration and creative problem solving, it is less important. With that caveat out of the way, might there be a way to make old school combat even faster and more interesting by taking this complaint seriously? Here is one method.

When the players decide to engage an enemy in combat, an attack rolls is made as normal. If it hits, damage is dealt (or an effect happens, depending on the circumstances). If the attack misses, however, the enemy succeeds in damaging the PC. “Automatically.” Automatically is in scare quotes there because of course it was not actually automatic. The player first needed to engage the enemy, which put the PC in danger, and then the roll went badly. Either the enemy takes damage or the PC takes damage, driving the eventual conclusion in one direction or the other on every action. HP being abstract, this of course does not mean that someone is physically being wounded (though it could), but instead that one side is getting the best of it for that particular combat turn.

Since what we really care about here when making at attack using this system is the threat level of the enemy, not the enemy’s armor or defensive skill specifically, the target number should probably be based on enemy HD or level rather than using a traditional armor-based AC number (though the actual fictional meaning of AC has always been a bit ambiguous). 10 + HD seems like the natural, intuitive value. This means that when a first level fighter (assume no attack bonus, for simplicity) attacks another first level fighter, the target number is going to be around 11, leading to a roughly even chance of the either combatant taking damage (5% in one direction or the other is irrelevant, and in any case the numbers can be adjust to make this work in any mathematically desired way). Armor is probably best represented as damage reduction (light = DR 1, medium = DR 2, heavy = DR 3), given that monsters never make attack rolls directly. At most, an enemy forces a PC into a position where they must defend themselves.

And how exactly might that work, given that monsters don’t make attack rolls per se? The simplest answer is that each combatant takes an action and resolution happens as necessary. If this results in a PC attacking and then defending themselves from other enemies as well, it seems like that would work, though combat rolls could also be limited (perhaps to one per round, or something based on level). This could make being surrounded particularly dangerous, if you can only defend against one attack (the others would presumably just deal damage minus armor). The benefit to a proactive versus reactive combat roll is of course that you get to choose your target, rather than having your hand forced by a particular enemy.

How to handle some other common cases using this system might not be immediately obvious, but are not too difficult to figure out with a bit of thought regarding the underlying dynamics. What about missile weapons, for example? If it is possible for foes to engage each other with missile attacks, the player makes a combat roll. On success, the enemy takes some damage, assuming that makes sense in terms of what the PC is doing (the PC would need to be armed with a missile weapon to actually deal damage over distance). On failure, the PC takes a shot to face (or whatever).

This is partially inspired by Dungeon World and Numenera. However, this is not just a port of either of those systems. Dungeon world involves more mechanical choices depending on move details rather than using a separate mechanic to represent combat abstractly. Numenera uses a system for lowering the target number rather than stacking bonuses, which requires understanding how various powers and situational actions can be used to do this. Neither of those approaches are bad, of course, and though their player-focused design has informed this system, the end results are a bit different.

There are a few other details that would probably need to be nailed down to make this fully functional. There are also a few additional features that I think would work well as added tactical options, but I am going to leave it here for the sake of comprehensibility.

Edit: I wrote up an example of a potential monologic combat.