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.

5 Responses to “Tactical Combat for the Red Box Fighter”

  1. 1 maldoor
    November 9, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    I am all for this sort of flexibility, especially when it promotes unusual, fun, and entertaining situations such as swinging from the chandelier, or fighting back-to-back.

    The classic answer to a lot of this is that it is built in to the to-hit tables. Fighters have a better chance to hit and a better advancement table than the other classes because they are assumed to be using their training. But red box (at least the first three levels of the Moldvay book) do not distinguish between classes to-hit tables.

    If you want to introduce special or positional bonuses to these characters, I suggest they be universal (otherwise, you are de facto giving new abilities to the fighters). When it comes to melee, this sort of advantage will most likely be exploited by the fighters anyway.

    That is, two magic-users fighting back-to-back get a similar advantage (of course they have no armor, so they are mince-meat anyway). So do two goblins when the PCs are attacking. Some situations might call for military training – for instance I would not let a magic-user or thief participate in a shield wall, but I would let a cleric. And goblins or orcs could certainly manage one.

  2. November 10, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    I’m not averse to giving fighters new abilities, within reason, so long as those new abilities make sense. Your shield wall example is a case in point. So, what sorts of standardized combat bonuses or maneuvers might we consider bringing into our house rules, how would they work, and which ones might require a fighter’s martial training?

    Some initial thoughts:

    * Shield wall. Requires at least three characters with large shields standing abreast. Benefits: +1 AC to everyone in the shield wall. Disadvantages: The group must move together at a maximum of half normal movement rate. Formation is too cramped to wield slashing weapons, so you’re limited to spears and short swords. Martial classes only (definitely fighters, maybe dwarves and/or elves).

    * Attacking from behind. Gives a +1 to hit and ignores shield bonuses. Doesn’t stack with a thief’s +4 to attack unnoticed from behind. If a character is attacked from both sides, he decides which way he’s facing (and thus, who’s attacking him from behind).

    * Sidestep: Whereas creatures in melee are normally limited to two forms of movement (fighting withdrawal and retreat), characters with martial training (in this case, I’m thinking fighters and thieves) have the option of moving 5 feet to the side. Unlike the other forms of movement in melee, a sidestep does not need to be declared before initiative.

  3. November 10, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    I like the idea that tactical choices affect the game and not just the story we tell about what it means. I’m less certain about codifying them – maybe the rules should mostly exist on the DM’s side of the screen, as a guide for interpreting the player’s ideas? Giving a list to the players seems like it’d tend to prioritizing doing what the rules say works and discouraging imagining things that make sense in the scene but aren’t written down yet.

    I’d also rather see it be something fighters can do better rather than only. My sample special abilities for fighters give them less of a tradeoff if they choose to swap accuracy, AC, or damage for one of the other three: http://redbox.wikidot.com/white-sandbox-fighting-man

  4. November 10, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    I admit that I’m somewhat lazy when it comes to mechanics. There are so many matters that the DM needs to handle—pacing, describing the settings, handling NPC interaction, etc—that I want to transfer as much responsibility for the game mechanics as I can over to the players. But I do see the advantages to forcing the DM to adjudicate these things on the fly. The game should be smoother and more immersive if the DM juggles the numbers, the players will be less inclined to abuse overly effective maneuvers, and the DM can twiddle how things work without getting into arguments with the players over point values. And as you say, lists carry the list of limiting creativity.

    As to whether situations or maneuvers should be fighter-only or simply provide benefits to fighters, you present a good argument, but I intend to keep my eyes open for stuff that only a fighter can do.

  5. 5 Lord Bodacious
    November 10, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Having played alot of b/x fighter in the Glantri Campaign, I’ve really come to enjoy some of the nuance and the strengths of the class. At level one (where we most of our time) the extra armor/weapon flexibility, and higher HD definitely give much needed survivability.

    Needless to say I dig the idea of giving fighters a chance to shine in combat – a way to quantify the impact of training, making it more transparent to players and bringing it into play in a practical way. We already seem to take advantage of some basic “tacical” mechanics – flanking, grappling, tripping – all adjucated ad hoc, which is good.

    Perhaps fighter’s can apply their bonus from the “to-hit” tables to any combat maneuver as an additional bonus… So while the DM might adjucate a normal flank is a +2 bonus, a fighter could tag on their additional bonus. I agree that a fighter should have more benefit to combat abilities that reflect their background – more so than a dwarf or halfling (i.e. a swashbucker might get extra bonus to attacking from a chandelier, a soldier gets extra benefit from a shield wall, etc.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2009

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