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.
The combat system you mentioned is similar to the one used in the Dungeon! boardgame: a roll to hit based on skill levels of the opponents with one side taking damage (or dying in the case of monsters). The best way to handle multiple opponents in this system is to increase the target number. It would be harder to hit Orc A if you are also trying to dodge Orc B. So, hitting a single orc would be 12+ (remember 11 is the magic number), whereas fighting four orcs simultaneously would be 15+. A 4th level fighter would hit on an 11+ or about 50% of the time which makes sense as he’s also 4 HD. For a boss monster with low level minions, group the low level monsters into a number equal to the HD of the larger monster and treat that as +1. So an Ogre with 4 orc minions would be treated as two Ogres (DC 11+4+1=16)
I like this a lot actually, though maybe the increase in the target number should not scale linearly (or maybe fictional constraints will limit that enough, not sure).
Will need to think more about this, but it seems promising.
Can you break out in greater detail what happens in a scenario where a Fighter is engaged with multiple enemies of varying defense?
*I like this idea, generally, I just haven’t wrapped my head around all the nuances
*D&D is whiffy for everybody, and it’s kind of reassuring knowing that while a bunch of targets are stuck in melee with the fighter, they are all going to have to roll to hit.
*AGE is kind of troubled by a similar, simple attack v defense, damage v soak system – I’m not sure it’s ultimately more satisfying to hit and do no or little damage and, in fact, can be a little confusing/frustrating for players as they’ve now got to make two separate “reads” as to whether or not they should remain in melee or if they’d be of greater use doing something else. Adding in that missing means they get hit might make this better or worse, I dunno.
Option 1: fighter only gets one action per turn, and thus just takes damage (minus armor) from all enemies beyond the first.
Option 2: fighter can make a combat roll versus all threatening enemies. This would be a bit less punitive. Maybe it’s a fighter thing to be able to respond to all attacks and other classes only get a single roll (taking damage automatically from other threats).
Which is to say, I think there are several different workable approaches, and I am not entirely sure which is best at this point.
Aaron’s suggestion to aggregate multiple enemies into a single, tougher roll is another approach which might be simpler while maintaining the proper risk tradeoff. I could see formalizing “helping” rules to allow PCs to gang up in a similar method as well.
Very interesting post as I’m currently writing a game that tries to treat combat differently than trad D&D for the very reasons you mention:
Interesting, I will check it out. Thanks for the link.
I like the concept. It could lead to increased avoidance of conflicts, more diplomacy and player planning about how to gain an advantage which is always fun and good for role-play. It would also lead to faster combat resolution, although this is not a big issue for OD&D/Basic combats which run only 5 to 10 minutes (compared to 4th edition where 1+ hour combats were the norm). A city type campaign with emphasis on wheeler dealer factions might like this approach.
The downside is that my players would be very gun shy of entering combat. The part about missing and then automatically being damaged would lead to a lot of players wanting to use ranged or magic characters. They would need to see some maths that said otherwise to be convinced.
Engaging at range doesn’t even protect you, if enemies are aware and can shoot back.
I agree that a more systematic treatment of various probabilities is probably warranted.
What zero HP means would most likely have a big impact on how this approach to combat would feel in play. Dead at zero would be pretty brutal. Even my standard dead at zero if a saving throw is failed would probably feel rather rough. But a death and dismemberment table (AKA, table of things less bad than death most of the time), or negative HP with bleed-out, might lead to a different sort of texture (with likely upsides and downsides depending on the method and desired lethality).
It’s a novel solution to the alleged (and I don’t think real) ‘whiffing’ problem. I’d have to see how it plays, but I wonder if removing another layer of action from the already simple OD&D style of combat is useful? I am reminded of that game of Torchbearer a while back in that events are resolved in a single set of rolls per round, with player and GM narrative additions (painfully filtered through stats) acting as modifiers. While this is less reductive then that, it still feels similar. One disadvantage is that it makes adjusting combat based on the narrative player and monster actions harder to incorporate because if the player says “I fight defensively while retreating” it’s not like you have a single component (AC) to adjust while letting the rest of the system play out. The GM needs to adjust the whole combat equation at that point with fewer moving parts. It’s quicker definitely, and may have more room for modification, but has a wargames feel – so much so that I was thinking – why not reduce it to a single roll per side per round with modifiers?
I get wrap my head around how this would play – it could be really awesome – like that time we played Warhammer 40K as an adventure game, (PC were all terminator marines – but it was so unspeakably lethal that it was awesome).
Fighting defensively while retreating is a good test of situational rulings using this system. At first I was kind of stymied, actually, as you can’t just increase the combat bonus of the PC, and you certainly can’t decrease the target number of the enemy to represent that. But then I thought of this: fighting defensively increases the combat bonus, but decreases (halves maybe?) the damage dealt. In fact, that might be a good rule of thumb for making rulings using this system: situational trade-offs can often come via adjustment of damage potential (this is sort of what armor does when modeled as damage reduction also).
I agree with you that whiffiness is not really a problem in trad D&D (especially with the restrained modifier approach that I usually take); the complaint just happened to be what led me to think about this.
With a combat system like this, the die roll doesn’t really represent an attack, but rather a test of skill. So, for example, if a character was trying to disengage, he would make his skill check and, if successful, would escape unharmed. Otherwise he’d get hit. In essence, he’s giving up his damage for to escape. So things like disarming, tripping, slipping past, etc would be options with a successful skill roll, rather than damage.
Ok so I put this to one of my players and he immediately said he would switch to being a thief with backstab. As he put it, if missing was going to cause damage then as a PC he would be trying extremely hard to set up an advantageous combat where a hit would do maximum damage. “If I miss as a thief going in for a backstab then I am usually dead anyway,” his words.
What happens to monsters with amazing attacks or abilities, say a Dragon with breath weapon or something that likes to grab a PC and then swallow it whole?
How special attacks worked would probably depend on the creature in question. Something like poison or a slime’s corrosive nature would, I imagine, apply all the time. I could see something like dragon fire requiring a proactive rather than reactive action, if that makes sense. Another good thing to consider though.