Tag Archives: combat

Damage symmetry

Consider this house rule for traditional D&D:

When an attack roll misses, the attacker suffers damage from the defender.

This gives every attack roll the potential of loss as well as gain. Damage inflicted by the defender would be based on the equivalent of a basic attack as situationally appropriate. For example, someone attacking a dragon from behind and missing might take tail swipe damage.

How do you think it would change the game?

This shares some properties with what I have called monological combat before, though it remains more firmly within the familiar D&D approach to combat turns. See also: monological combat example and monological save versus magic.

Some potential consequences I can see include:

  1. Encourage avoidance behaviors because attacking feels riskier.
  2. Decrease the sense of stasis caused by several misses in a row.
  3. Speed up combat by increasing average damage per round.
  4. Cut down hoards of unchallenging enemies quickly.
  5. Decrease the defensive value of armor.

Given a choice as a player, would you like to use this house rule? Why or why not?

Weapons of unusual size

Young Guts from Berserk

Young Guts from Berserk

Hexagram characters begin with stats rated from 0 to 3, using the arrays I originally developed for Gravity Sinister. (There is a random determination table for players that do not like to bother with making choices.) Then, each level, including first, players choose one stat to improve. The same stat cannot be improved two levels in a row. The max character level is 10, which means that the highest a stat can be naturally is 8 (3 initial + the 5 for every other level increases).

Among other benefits, characters with higher strength scores can wield ever more obscenely scaled weapons. There are three size categories beyond standard: huge, giant, and colossal. They require, respectively, strength scores of 4, 6, and 8, to wield effectively. (Category names are subject to adjustment.)

For normal weapons, strength adds to melee damage, up to +3. Larger weapons can express strength beyond this limit. Huge weapons allow up to +5, giant up to +7, and colossal up to +8. (In general, the max bonus is one less than the ability threshold for the next largest weapon category.) For simplicity, there are no special encumbrance considerations for oversized weapons. Each counts as one significant item. They do, however, cost more to repair (an additional 1d6 * 10 SP per exceptional size category).

Larger weapons retain any type benefits. Thus, a giant axe can express up to +7 melee damage from strength and also provides a sunder bonus to damaging enemy equipment. Oversized missile weapons apply strength to damage rather than perception, but are fixed at +4, +6, or +8, depending on the size category. For example, a huge elephant gun deals +4 damage even if the wielder has 5 strength. Such weapons still use perception for attack tests.

Though this system is designed with big weapons in mind, it would be easy to adapt to enchanted weapons that would only serve worthy warriors (that is, those strong enough or with large enough attack bonus for D&D), and so could be another way to explain and manage the traditional restriction that only fighters can use magic swords.

For AD&D (1E and 2E) ability scores, use the strength damage bonus rather than the Hexagram strength ability. For something like D&D 3E or 5E, use the ability modifier. The mappings are not perfect, but they should be good enough. Some other rulings may be required, given that HP quantities in 3E or 5E are higher that the OD&D standards I tend to assume, so adjust accordingly.

Edit: though above I noted that there are no special considerations regarding encumbrance, I am not fully convinced that is the right way to go. I think as written there may be insufficient incentive for diversity of weapon choices (that is, anyone with high strength would prefer an oversized weapon), which is perhaps uninteresting. I will need to see how this plays at the table, but one potential modification would be for each extra size category to count as a significant item, though I am wary of slipping graduated encumbrance in via the backdoor.

Inspiration:

Pursuer's Ultra Greatsword from Dark Souls 2

Pursuer’s Ultra Greatsword from Dark Souls 2

Guts from Berserk

Guts from Berserk

Monster Hunter concept art

Monster Hunter concept art

Cloud from Final Fantasy 7

Cloud from Final Fantasy 7

Saw spear from Bloodborne

Saw spear from Bloodborne

Monster Hunter concept art

Monster Hunter concept art

Bow from Monster Hunter

Monster Hunter concept art

Deflective shields

My first Dark Souls dude, with a shield

My first Dark Souls dude, with a shield

These are the current shield rules (approximately the third revision) for The Final Castle. To make sense, I have included preliminarily a few general combat rules as well. Combat Tests are d20, roll high, aiming to meet or exceed an enemy threat level (similar to the probably familiar armor class or difficulty class). Hopefully the fragmentary nature is not too hard to understand.

“Unbalanced” is a state, something like a temporary condition (in 3E terms) that persists until addressed by the combatant. Deflection is a reaction that can be taken in response to an enemy attack.


Overkill

Exceeding the target number of an Ability Test by at least 4 or rolling a 20 prior to any modifiers is an Overkill. For Combat Tests, Overkill adds 1d6 damage and may have additional effects in other contexts.

Unbalanced

Unbalanced combatants may only Melee, Shoot, Flee, or Recover and may not deflect attacks withs Shields. Recover balance with a maneuver.

Deflection

To deflect an attack, deploy a shield. Deflection must be declared before rolling dice to resolve an attack. Deploying a shield Unbalances a combatant but does not require an Action. Shields may not be deployed when Unbalanced. Bypass Maneuvers cannot be deflected with a shield. Different kinds of shields offer other benefits. See the Shields entry in the Weapons section for details.

Maneuvers

Resolve Maneuvers with Melee, Shoot, or Throw Actions depending on the character of the desired effect, substituting Maneuver effects for damage. Overkill applies to Maneuvers also. Thus, Maneuver Overkills cause the Maneuver effect and also 1d6 damage.

Recover (Maneuver)

Recover from being Unbalanced, stand up from prone, or escape a Grapple.

Shields

To deflect an attack, deploy a shield. Deflection must be declared before rolling dice to resolve an attack. Deploying a shield Unbalances a combatant but does not require an Action. Shields may not be deployed when Unbalanced. Bypass Maneuvers cannot be deflected with a shield. Shields come in three varieties:

  • Bucklers grant +4 to parry maneuvers, but are useless against ranged attacks and great weapons.
  • Medium shields grant +2 defense against small missiles.
  • Tower shields deflect all small missiles but are useless against standard or smaller weapons.

Putting this all together, it means that PCs with a shield can deflect (that is, totally nullify) one melee attack per combat (not per round) essentially for free, though the deflection must be “used” before rolling Defense (the equivalent in the system of an enemy attack roll). After a shield has been used for deflection, combat options narrow generally due to becoming Unbalanced, and specifically the shield may not be used again until balance is recovered.

Since maneuvers work like attack rolls, but substituting effects for standard damage and only inflicting any damage upon Overkill results (exceeding target numbers by 4 or rolling a natural 20), the effect is that a skilled fighter attempting a Recovery Maneuver is still fighting (not potentially “wasting” a turn), just at a disadvantage (approximately -4) if they wish to earn another use of their shield during the current combat.

(Don’t worry about Parry Maneuvers; they are beyond the scope of this post.)

Training bonuses

dark_souls_swords_by_bringess-d7bebkw copy

Dark Souls swords by Bringess

This is an idea for weapon training that I had which is probably too fiddly for online play, but might work in person. To gain more than a +1 to attack or damage (whether from attack bonus, strength, or wherever bonuses come from in your system of choice), a combatant must train with a given weapon. Each weapon is rated with minimum stat requirements and maximum bonus potential. Mundane weapons might be, for example, min +0 and max +3/+3, meaning that anyone without a penalty can use them and they can support at most a +3 to attack and damage. Insisting on using a weapon without the minimum stat imposes some large penalty (-4 or 5E style disadvantage).

The constraints would need to be tracked for each weapon along with training level, which could default to starting scores for starting weapons initially (representing background training). For example, consider a first level Labyrinth Lord fighter with 16 strength, which grants a +2 to attack and damage. A first level fighter in this system also has the equivalent of a +1 bonus to attack. Assume further that this character starts with a battle axe and dagger. Under skills, the player would write battle axe +3/+2 and dagger +3/+2. This is the character’s initial training. If a sword is picked up, it will be wielded with +0/+0 until the character can train with it.

How does training work? As a downtime action, the character can pay for training in a weapon. This costs some set amount, maybe based on bonus to be unlocked, say 500 GP per target plus (so, moving from +1 to +2 would cost 1000 GP). This raises either the attack or the damage by one point, assuming that is supported by class attack bonus or ability scores. Thus, that example first level character above can gain no more bonus points in battle axe until ability scores or attack bonus increase.

The benefits are that it gives fighters something to do during downtime actions, somewhat restrains bonus progression, makes special weapons more valuable without needing to resort to magic weapons as treasure all the time, and allows fighters to ease in to using crazy weapons like the Berserk dragon slayer sword or the asylum demon’s great hammer which might make their use feel a bit more special (and also more fictionally justified). It would also allow weapons to be numerically defined on dimensions of finesse and brutality. For example, a big club might be +1/+4 in potential, making it a good choice for a character with low skill but high strength (assuming such is possible in the base system).

This would would particularly well with a system that has regular stat increases, such as this adventurer class or Green Ronin’s Dragon Age, but should also be functional with a regular attack bonus.

 

Simple injury rules

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Injury threshold (IT) = constitution divided by 2, round up.

A character that takes IT (or more) physical damage at once sustains an injury. This injury affects one of the physical ability scores: strength, dexterity, or constitution (determine which randomly). The afflicted score is decreased by 1d6 points.

Further, if the damage causing the injury reduced the injured PC to zero HP, immediately reduce the stat maximum by one permanently.

If the injury is not treated by a doctor or healer during or before the next downtime, the stat reduction is permanent. Put another way, it is dangerous to spend the downtime following an injury in an uncivilized or poorly equipped location.

Any permanent stat reduction from injury results in a visible scar or maiming of some sort. The player may decide how this manifests, or defer to the referee.

A mental injury threshold (MIT) could be handled in a similar manner.


I have been thinking about using a Call of Cthulhu rules base for a dark fantasy survival horror dungeon crawl game. The above injury rules were inspired by reading various Basic Roleplaying variants. Following is the original version I developed for use with BRP.

Damage from a single attack that equals or exceeds a target’s injury threshold (which is half maximum HP) causes an injury. An injury reduces one physical characteristic (appearance, constitution, dexterity, or strength) by 1d6 points. If not treated promptly, this decrease is permanent. Injuries may have additional consequences, such as shock or ongoing damage from blood loss, as determined fictionally.

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).

Benefits

  • 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.)

Flaws

  • 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.