Tag Archives: combat

Derived weapons

Following these system guidelines, here is a set of balanced, predefined weapons.

2DTH stands for “two dice, take highest” and 2DTL stands for “two dice, take lowest.” 3DTH is “three dice, take highest” and so forth.

One-handed melee

  • Axe (2DTL, sundering)
  • Dagger (2DTL, close)
  • Flail (2DTH, dangerous)
  • Javelin (2DTL, throwable)
  • Mace (2DTL, armor-piercing)
  • Spear (2DTL, reach)
  • Sword, arming
  • Throwing knife (2DTL, throwable)
  • Tomahawk (2DTL, throwable)
  • War hammer (2DTL, armor-piercing)

Two-handed melee

  • Chain scythe (2DTH, reach, dangerous)
  • Halberd (2DTH, long-hafted, sundering)
  • Maul (4DTH, heavy, crude)
  • Pike (3DTH, long-hafted)
  • Pole-flail (3DTH, dangerous)
  • Sword, claymore (reach)
  • Sword, two-handed (2DTH)
  • Sword, zweihander (3DTH, heavy)

One-handed ranged

  • Crossbow, hand (2DTL)
  • Sling (slow)

Two-handed ranged

  • Bow, short
  • Bow, long (2DTH, immobile)
  • Crossbow, light (2DTL, armor-piercing)
  • Crossbow, heavy (armor-piercing, slow)

The way this works out, the arming sword, two-handed sword, and short bow end up each being the default weapon (the mechanical result of not applying any benefit or flaw) within a larger category, which feels right to me. I am pretty happy with all of these except the long bow. I thought about “heavy,” but that does not quite seem to be an appropriate flaw to balance the higher damage. Something where the long bow could only be used with sufficient area to allow the proper stance would be best, so I invented “immobile,” which means that the wielder cannot both move and take a shot in the same round. It may still be possible to improve on that, however. The limited number of properties, especially per given weapon, seems far more approachable that my previous effort, while also prioritizing fictional logic.

You may note that there are a few different weapons listed that are still mechanically identical (such as javelins, tomahawks, and throwing knives). I do not necessarily see that as a problem, as they may have different tool uses outside of combat as well. I also added a few somewhat absurd items to the list (chain scythe!) because they are fun, and to show how the blending of properties can make stranger weapons both viable and different beyond just literal re-skinning, which I often find unsatisfying as a player.

Dark Souls zweihander (personal photo)

Dark Souls zweihander (personal photo)

Build your own weapons

Many systems for nuancing weapons function as an overlay for simpler base rules. Maces might gain benefits versus armored opponents, for example. This is a good approach as it is easy to understand and has reasonable face validity, but leads to problems of needing to come up with benefits for weapons that do not easily suggest advantages, such as the basic arming sword. This becomes especially clear when using d6 damage for all weapons. It is, in some sense, the inverse of the problem with AD&D variable damage. When the longsword does d8/d10 damage and maces deal d6, damage dealing capacity dominates. When all weapons deal flat damage, extra properties dominate.

In order to navigate these twin rules design hazards, here is an experiment that trades damage dealing potential for benefits, but uses a drop highest/lowest dice scheme to keep the expected damage bounded (no comments about 5E please; Philotomy did it first). Further, the effect of benefits is increased, because they need to really be clearly better within a given niche. A mace getting +1 or +2 to hit versus armor is just not good enough to justify the decreased effectiveness against all other types of opponents.

This is a mechanics-first approach to balancing weapon capabilities and power. Rather than looking at weapons naturalistically and applying special-case rules as necessary to represent weapon benefits, this guarantees a level of mathematical trade-off. It is meant to coexist with d6 hit dice as well, but could also be applied to a variable hit die (“Basic style”) approach, substituting class hit die for the d6. Rules have been phrased here in terms of the d6, however, for clarity.

Weapons begin with one of the following templates:

  • One-handed melee: 1d6 damage
  • Two-handed melee: 2d6 (take best) damage
  • Two-handed missile: 1d6 damage

Then, properties (benefits and flaws) may be applied by moving up or down the damage dice chain. Rolling multiple dice means the best (or worst) value is taken, depending on where in the dice chain the weapon lies. For example, a one-handed melee weapon with a benefit drops down to two dice, take lowest. Add another benefit and it would be doing three dice, take lowest. And so forth. Flaws may be added to move up the dice chain. For example, a one-handed long-haft (flaw) reach (benefit) spear does one die of damage (standard one-handed melee template) and the reach/awkward properties balance out. In essence, lower damage is a flaw and higher damage is a benefit.

This means that you could have a one-handed melee throwable, armor-piercing, sundering weapon, but you will be rolling 4d6 and taking the worst result for damage when using this swiss army knife monstrosity (assuming it has no flaws). There are some interesting corollaries from this system which you do not often see, such as the 3d6, take best two-handed long-haft pole-arm (meaning that it can only be used effectively with two hands and at reach, which seems just right).


  • Armor-piercing: +4 attack versus medium or heavy armor
  • Close: +4 attack following grapple
  • Reach: attack from the second rank
  • Sundering: +4 when trying to damage armor or shields
  • Throwable

Weapons acting within their area of specialty (for example, reach weapons at reach or armor-piercing weapons versus armor) never deal less than one die of damage.

(Rather than the +4 bonus, you could also use 5E style advantage.)


  • Crude: drops down one damage die step per level of target armor
  • Dangerous: wielder takes 1d3 damage on natural 1 attack rolls
  • Heavy: following a miss, an action is required to ready the weapon
  • Long-haft: may only be used at reach
  • Slow: requires an action to ready (or reload)

If using an approach like this, a set of basic weapons should probably be defined so that players don’t need to do any reasoning to figure out how a mace should be represented. There is no reason not to expose the underlying system for players that wish to “build” slightly more unique weapons as well though. The list of properties was kept intentionally short, based on my experience with weapon property systems, and should be taken as a set of examples rather than a comprehensive list. New properties giving bonuses to particular maneuvers (such as a bonus to disarm maneuvers for a weapon like a parrying dagger) could be added as needed, keeping in mind basic balance considerations.

A few weapons do not fit well into this structure, such as nets and whips. This seems less like a flaw in the system, though, than a sign that such items are not really weapons (that is, tools designed to deal damage), but rather things with more specific purpose that just happen to be useful in combat. It is probably better to give such items special moves that can be made in combat and design them outside of the strictures of these guidelines.

Public domain image from Telecanter

Public domain image from Telecanter

Combat and maneuvers

Combat actions other than the standard, damage dealing attack can be resolved in many different ways. In the past, I have used several approaches, such as requiring ability checks instead of or along with attack rolls, or using ability score contests similar to the opposed skill rolls suggested by D&D 4E. However, recently I have come to think that using ability scores in this area is not the best approach. It requires generating ability scores for monsters regularly, which granted is not that cumbersome, but is nonetheless suboptimal. Further, it plays oddly with the primary measure of combat skill, which is the attack bonus (or combat tables), which seem better suited to resolving most kinds of nonstandard attacks. The system below is from The Final Castle rules, but works just as well with most traditional fantasy games, whether or not monological combat is being used.

All physical actions that might be taken in combat are handled with a combat roll. By default, this is the standard “roll high, hit a target number, do damage” that should be commonly recognizable. However, rather than inflicting damage, a character may attempt to cause any number of other reasonable effects, taking the effect rather than damage, as long as the intent is declared prior to the roll and is fictionally reasonable. I have predefined a number of common maneuvers which can be substituted for a standard attack, such as disarm, grapple, and disengage, but these are intended to be samples rather than a comprehensive list of moves. Undefined maneuvers should be negotiated between players and referees prior to any action declaration.

Additionally, I have a rule called overkill which says that attacks do +1d6 damage if the combat roll exceeds the target number by four or more. This is another way that the fighter’s increasing attack competency with level scales damage up, but it also applies to maneuvers. That is, if a combatant is attempting something like a push-back bull rush maneuver, if they succeed with overkill, the result is both the desired effect and 1d6 damage. Thus, doing an attack/maneuver at once is possible, but more difficult, and you might get just the effect without direct damage.

As a more extended example, consider the standard grapple attempt. If it is fictionally reasonable for a combatant to attempt a grapple (and note this is no more unambiguous than whether or not a standard damage-causing attack is fictionally reasonable), the grappling agressor makes a combat roll. On success, the target is successfully grappled, and can no longer move, though may be able to perform close attacks. That now-grappled target will need to attempt an escape maneuver to be free of the grapple, if that is desired, which will require a dedicated future action. Further, in this case, any appropriate side effects of a grapple automatically trigger, such as armor spikes or flaming body dealing damage. Were the initial grapple combat roll to achieve overkill, damage would also be dealt on the first round.

Since the resolution system uses the combat roll, fighters are better at maneuvers than other characters, but maneuvers are not limited to fighters. Like thief skills, I prefer for creative actions to be available to all characters, rather than being limited to fighters for niche protection. The trade-off is clear: give up damage in return for an effect. And the system is trivial to remember, in all cases: make a combat roll. In general, I think this maneuver system can be used for many actions that might be considered stunts in other systems. Particularly tricky maneuvers could either be done with a penalty such as 5E-style disadvantage, or require an overkill result to get the basic effect (note that this naturally reduces then to the 2E standard of called shots being at -4, which seems like a nice result).

In The Final Castle, armor reduces damage and the target number represents a more abstract enemy threat level (as was planned for Gravity Sinister). This means that there may be advantages to grappling, or engaging with some other nonstandard maneuver, a heavily armored foe, as the damage reduction will be less likely to come into play. This is a difference from D&D, which would make the trade-off dynamic slightly different if AC is used directly as the target number in all cases, but is in any case easy to adjust for using a basic penalty or advantage/disadvantage scheme.

Stabilized Carcosa hit dice

stabilized carcosa hit diceThe Carcosa supplement introduces a rule where hit dice are not rolled until combat begins. The hit die size is also determined randomly. At the start of an encounter, HD are rolled and left in front of each player. Damage is then inflicted upon the die with highest face value first. For example, a character with three rolled HD of 5, 4, and 2 takes damage to the 5 die first. If a die is reduced to zero, it is removed entirely from the character’s pool and only returned in the case of healing. If that character only takes (say) 3 damage during an encounter, all three HD are retained, and there is no persistent damage. I have used this system, and though it does take a bit getting used to, it works in practice more smoothly than it reads.

This approach has a number of properties that may be disentangled if desired. First, determining the die size randomly increases the uncertainty of combat. Though higher level characters are on average tougher than lower level characters, when combat starts you may be rolling four-sided dice for HP, twelve-sided dice, or something else. Second, rolling a handful of dice and letting them sit in front of you eases the tracking of damage, as there is no HP tally. You just have a max HD value written on your character sheet, and a remaining pool of dice in front of you.

I think the second property would work well without the first (that is, rolling the HD at the beginning of combat, but not determining the HD size randomly). It would be especially convenient using OD&D style all six-sided HD, given the ubiquity of six-siders. How to handle bonus HP would need to be determined (the second term in an HD expression such as 1+1 or the bonus from constitution). The most satisfactory method would probably be to have a series of static “bonus” hit dice to represent those extra HP which would not be rolled. For example, assuming values from Men & Magic, a fifth level fighter with an exceptional constitution has 5+1 HD and +5 HP. This could be represented as 5d6 rolled plus one die set down with a “6” value. Handling penalties seems more tedious, and I cannot think of a better system right now than needing to adjust each die downward after rolling them. The B/X bonus scale of -3 to +3 also would require more bonus dice, with a mid-level high-constitution character having several “static” HD worth of bonuses, but it seems like that would not be overly cumbersome.

Using a system like this also opens up the possibility of using hit dice as other sorts of resources. For some ideas along those lines, see:

Using HD as resources could require re-rolling them, removing them from the pool entirely, only removing them in the case of rolls less than (or greater than) the current rolled face value, or any other number of ways to modulate potential die removal.

HP determination could also be deferred until damage is rolled, as described here:

Rereading that post, however, I think it is probably less immediately approachable than the kind of modified Carcosa die system outlined here.


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.


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.

Alternative LotFP bonus regime

In by the book LotFP, only fighters get an increasing attack bonus. While this is appropriate for some games, others may wish to grant non-fighter classes some greater degree of combat effectiveness.

Gus L. suggested on G+ that maybe specialists could gain an increasing bonus to missile attacks and that clerics could gain an increasing bonus to melee attacks. I like that division, and it inspired the slightly more nuanced structure below.

  • Cleric: as fighter against unholy foes (undead, demons, etc)
  • Dwarf: as fighter, but only for melee attacks
  • Elf: as fighter but only with elven weapons (see * below)
  • Fighter: unchanged (increasing attack bonus for everything)
  • Halfling: as fighter for small thrown missiles
  • Magic-user: unchanged (no increasing attack bonus)
  • Specialist: +1 melee or missile attack each level (pick), trap-making (see ** below)
LotFP Rules & Magic cover (source)

LotFP Rules & Magic cover (source)

Each of these rules alludes to mythological or thematic inspirations for the class in question. The halfing, for example, is reminiscent of David and Goliath. The specialist rule plays on the idea of discretionary focus (this allows you to make, for example, a thug specialist that is just as competent as a fighter, but only in melee). And so forth. They are also less boring than the more common approach of just giving smaller bonuses to the non-fighter classes (most commonly, I have seen +1 every other level proposed for the semi-martial classes). They also stay within the niche design of LotFP, allowing most classes to be competent combatants, but only in specific ways.

* Elven weapons. This goes to the otherworldly nature of elves (and also, perhaps, their comedy value if you want to play up the snobbishness aspect). Exactly how you operationalize what it means to be an elf weapon will drastically affect the power of this rule. I would suggest not iron and not steel are clear criteria, and probably quality. For a simple rule of thumb, you could make elven weapons cost ten times as much and only be available in Elven strongholds.

** Trap-making. This allows specialists to create makeshift traps given basic supplies and a turn of prep time. The trap attacks as a fighter of the specialist’s level (or in the context of the above discussion, the specialist’s attack bonus is that of a fighter when expressed in prepared traps).

Equipment Deterioration

I love the idea of (Diablo style) finding things like a rusty axe and (not Diablo style) having that actually be useful. So that’s the motivation behind this system. I would probably pair it with a silver standard for XP while leaving weapon costs in GP. So a long sword might cost 150 SP (15 GP, looking at the Swords & Wizardry Complete price list), but expected treasure found per level would be much less.

This is totally a knockoff of Logan’s notch idea. I’m just posting my formulation here so that I can reference it. I think Brush of Fumbling came up with rolling under the quality number. See also Goblin Punch, which reminded me about this whole thing not too long ago (I think there was another relevant post on Arnold’s blog, but I can’t find it right now).

Weapon quality ranges from 1 to 5, with 1 being best and 3 being default. Attack rolls less than or equal to the quality number result in a point of wear. Make a mark next to the item on the character sheet to track this.

Armor quality ranges from 20 to 16, with 20 being best and 18 being default. Wear accrues to armor as described for weapons above, but the relevant roll is the enemy attack (so when an enemy rolls high to hit you, your armor will take wear).

After three points of wear, an item becomes damaged, and becomes less effective (one less point of AC protection for armor, and -1 to attack rolls for weapons). Additionally, every time a damaged item takes wear, there is a quality in 6 chance that it is ruined outright (jumps immediately to six points of wear).

Six points of wear indicate that an item is ruined (falls apart, snaps in half, etc).

Repair costs are 1/6 of new cost per point of wear.

Item costs double per quality rank (round any fractions up). For example, a item that costs 10 GP (100 SP) on the rulebook price list (representing the default quality of 3), would result in the following price chart by quality:

  1. 400 SP
  2. 200 SP
  3. 100 SP
  4. 50 SP
  5. 25 SP

Items other than weapons and armor (such as grappling hooks) may accrue wear as well.

2013-11-27 edit: damaged items have a quality in 6 chance of being ruined when taking a point of wear rather than 50%.