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.

10 thoughts on “Combat and maneuvers

  1. Scott Anderson

    Thanks for this.

    Wrt part the first, I am glad you wrote it down. I have thought it. But seeing it in writing gives me the courage to write it into my 0e clone game.

    Wrt part the second, this is a nice thing to have for melee characters in general. It makes sense. It’s no less fictionally realistic than combat in the first place.

    I like to make combat rounds one minute long. It’s not to everyone’s taste. I should think that a really good combat round may result in one extra telling blow. So overkill (renamed to something else) is in.

    1. Brendan Post author


      I don’t mind one minute rounds at all, though ideally I prefer to avoid using exact measurements at all, as different people seem to have drastically varying ideas about what can be accomplished in a given amount of time. It seems to work much better to leave everything a bit less defined and just talk about “a chance to do a thing and maybe move a little.”

  2. checkmarkgames

    Like the overkill rule and how it plays into the system.

    Do you give modifiers or saves for the target to avoid being affects (so that a large or 4 legged creature is tougher to knock over than a normal humanoid?)

    I have also toyed with allowing damage dice that come up as a natural ‘1’ to be turned into combat maneuvers (sort of a spin on the DCC maneuver die). That also gives someone a reasons to attack with their shield/fist, as the lower damage die means a better chance to get a maneuver.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Yeah, penalty for attempting maneuvers that seem fictionally difficult or unlikely (though I would probably realize it as increasing the target number so that less math is required on the player end).

  3. Lord Gwydion

    I’m designing a similar system for my Chanbara game. Any sort of special attack like you describe is done with a normal combat roll, but using Intelligence modifier instead of Strength or Dexterity. Every character has a “technique defense” score separate from AC that is used as the target number.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Interesting! Currently I have dex modifying melee attacks and str adding to damage in the system referenced here. Technique defense reminds me of Pathfinder’s combat maneuver bonus (CMB) and combat maneuver defense (CMD):

      CMB = Base attack bonus + Strength modifier + special size modifier

      CMD = 10 + Base attack bonus + Strength modifier + Dexterity modifier + special size modifier

      I guess if you are having armor increase the difficulty of being hit, it does make sense to have separate AC and “maneuver defense” ratings, though just using AC is also probably “good enough” most of the time.

  4. Ynas Midgard

    Nice and elegant.

    Melan’s Kard és Mágia and Helvéczia have a similar system for combat manoeuvres. Both combatants roll for attack; if the aggressor scores 5 higher than his opponent, the manoeuvre succeeds. However, if he’s result is beat by 5 or greater, his opponent gains the advantage (like you may be disarmed instead of him). If neither is true, it’s an impasse and nothing happens.

    1. Brendan Post author



      I like to think about AC as a special “take 10” case of a more general contested roll-off procedure like that. Meaning that you could drop the roll and add an “underkill” (miss by N or more) result of disadvantage to get a similar system to Melan’s with less rolling required.

      Though it’s true that sometimes adding redundant rolls can increase tension and interest, even if the math is similar.

  5. Guy Fullerton

    Brendan, how do you weigh this against HP’s function as a target’s ability to control his own destiny in normal combat? (“Normal combat” meaning: Excluding things like magic & poison.) As levels, hp, and odds to hit *all* increase, doesn’t the potential advantage gained from a maneuver start to outweigh the potential advantage gained from a normal attack? That is, wouldn’t this maneuver mechanism promote always using maneuvers from, for example, 10th level and onward, at least against a class of opposition?

    1. Brendan Post author


      The way I look at, the rules for HP control the straightforward approach to combat, sort of like a thief’s percent chance to find traps. They are essentially an extended gamble, and trading blows using only the combat system leaves you entirely at the mercy of the dice. It is possible, though unlikely, that a 10th level fighter will continue to roll 1s while being defeated by a zero level character that rolls well. This is not a bad thing, as it leads to uncertainty and a sense of chaos that is needed both in terms of making combat have potential consequences and in terms of fictional events. However, I would say that once you step outside of the scope of “trying to do damage,” the assumption that HP can be relied upon to mitigate danger evaporates. As you say, abnormal combat (which one might argue is not actually combat at all in the sense discussed above) such as most effects that go directly to saving throws already avoids HP. So, if you are trying to do something other than inflict damage, you either need to 1) forbid that or 2) have a system to impartially resolve the intent.

      As to whether the maneuver option is unbalanced in the sense of always being optimal, I think that will vary greatly based on the particular threat. If there are two high level fighters going after each other, then going for a disarm of the magic sword or a push off the bridge may indeed be smarter than trading blows back and forth, but I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing as it leads to more interesting combat events and also seems to replicate the tactics and dirty tricks that two actually experienced combatants might resort to if confronted with a truly experienced and challenging foe. Also I would note that outside of human foes, many high level enemies (dragons, giants, etc) are not as susceptible to maneuvers.

      All that said, I think it is important not to allow maneuvers as a method to just directly do more damage. There are already rules for inflicting damage. So if someone says, “I maneuver to slit the guard’s throat,” the direct intent is to do damage, and so it should be resolved with the standard combat procedure. So there is a level of discretion (and art) required of the referee to determine what rules are most appropriate for resolving a particular situation.


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