Archive for November 9th, 2009


Tactical Combat for the Red Box Fighter

Edition by edition, the power levels of the various D&D classes have been brought closer to parity. Old school magic-users started out pathetically weak but soon blossomed into engines of death that outgunned their non-magical peers. Clerics, too, got to be pretty badass at high levels. Fighters and thieves? Not so much, especially once the spellcasters got so many spell slots that it was extremely unlikely that they’d run out even after multiple encounters.

Each new edition has taken steps to being magic-using and non-magical classes closer to parity. Spellcasters have gained additional low-level utility from cantrips and crossbows, while their high-level effectiveness has been reduced by such means as capping damage dice from spells like magic missile and fireball, increasing monster hit point totals to reduce the lethality of magical alpha strikes, neutering wacky high-end spells like wish, and so forth. Fighters, for their part, have gained a variety of new abilities: special attacks, feats, and 4e’s martial powers, all of which increase the amount of tactical crunch available in melee.

One of the players in my Red Box game stumbled upon our group by accident. Several gaming groups share our current meeting place, and when the Pathfinder game he’d shown up for didn’t happen, he joined us instead, rolling up a fighter named Pimmel. With no experience in old-school play, he immediately tried to apply the third-edition rules he was familiar with. Fighting defensively! Charging! Flanking! Attacks of opportunity! Naturally, he was somewhat put out that the Basic set didn’t provide any mechanical support for these techniques.

… or does it? The rules do specify that “to hit” rolls may be adjusted by “occasional special situations” or by “position (attacks from the rear).” The swords & sorcery literature that inspired old school play is rife with warriors thinking and fighting tactically, so why not make an effort to provide mechanical support for such in play? If a fighting man and a thief want to emulate Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and stand back-to-back against waves of enemy combatants, it seems fair to give their stance some benefit over each fighting alone.

(Note that this is distinct from the problem of special attacks, such as disarming or tripping opponents, where a permissive system generally boils down to “I attempt to execute Special Attack #3 again and again and again.” Altering one’s stance or jockeying for a favorable position is both more tactically interesting than such special attacks and truer to the source material.)

It’s an open question as to whether some or all of these crunchy bits should be available to all classes or if they should be restricted. There’s a number of factors in play here. Will limiting access to certain classes result in confusion during play? Is it good game balance to restrict the nonhuman races from using some of these abilities, given how much more awesome they are than their human counterparts? Does verisimilitude demand that some tactics only provide a meaningful benefit to trained melee combatants?

All in all, I think that providing mechanical support—even if it’s in the form of ad hoc rulings—for fighting men to take advantage of the tactical situation is a great boon to the fighter. Doubly so because the fighter’s player doesn’t need to know the rules involved; the old-school fighter is traditionally the beginner’s choice of character class because it’s the least complex, without the other classes’ spells and illicit skills and weird racial abilities, and this enhanced form of the fighter retains its simplicity by keeping the tactical crunch optional.

Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2009

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