Player #1: I flank the bugbear. What bonus do I get?
Player #1: To my attack roll. For flanking.
DM: Uh, none.
Player #2: We don’t do that third-edition stuff here.
One of the great strengths of old-school D&D play is the speed at which combat is resolved. Later editions add a bevy of maneuvers and modifiers, and reading and calculating their effects can slow play significantly. But you don’t need codified rules for this! It’s part of the referee’s job to incorporate the actions of the player characters into the system, either as house rules or by adjudicating on the fly. (For Moldvay Red Box players, this is explicitly stated on p. B25: “The score needed ‘to hit’ may be adjusted by … occasional special situations.”)
Some of these “special situations” might include:
- Flanking/Encirclement: The thief’s backstab ability makes it necessary to consider the possibility of striking from behind, so why not look at it more generally? It’s very difficult to defend against multiple attackers, something that appears clearly in much of the sword & sorcery source material (especially that written by trained fencers like Fritz Leiber or Roger Zelazny). One might impose a penalty to AC equal to (defender’s HD – number of attackers). Additionally, attacks from the rear might ignore the defender’s shield entirely.
- Charge: Barreling at full speed into the fray might give an advantage to one’s attack and damage rolls, or might even yield a bonus to initiative! On the other hand, being off-balance from the charge should result in a penalty to AC, and a defender who’s prepared for a charge may get similar bonuses on the counterattack as she uses the force of the attacker’s charge against him. The extra momentum provided by heavy armor might increase the charge’s bonuses and penalties.
- Higher Ground: When you’re standing above your opponent—on a slope, stair, table, dais or whatever—gravity’s doing some of your work for you and you have easier access to your opponent’s head and torso; this may provide a bonus to attack and damage rolls, especially with heavy slashing or crushing weapons that depend on a powerful downstroke. The opponent on lower ground may suffer similar penalties.
Player: I charge into the fray!
DM: Okay, if you’re really going all-out, that’ll give you a bonus to hit and damage, but a sizable penalty to your AC.
Player: Um, in that case I’ll just attack.
If, as a DM, you’re going to make a practice of incorporating the minutiae of the imagined combat situation into the mechanics of play, I strongly recommend that you keep all of the modifiers to yourself. This isn’t about the DM being “in control.” In fact, an inflated sense of authority is a risk of this method! But hiding the modifiers has two big advantages:
- Speed of play: Codified modifiers slow down play as you and the players flip through the rulebooks to figure out exactly what modifiers apply. As long as you wing it, play should keep going at a rapid clip.
- Let it flow: If players know exactly what bonuses and penalties they’ll get from a given maneuver, they’ll be tempted to crunch the numbers in their heads before acting. Not only does this slow down play, but it takes them out of the action as they concentrate on the stats rather than on the imagined scene. By keeping the modifiers hidden, you help everyone focus on the action!
In general, it’s best to err on the side of the players when applying hidden impromptu modifiers. The power in your hands is all too easy to abuse. Don’t abuse it.
In addition, if an attack or other action succeeds or fails as a result of a specific combat tactic, remember to include that in your description of the results! If they only hit and downed the orc because of the force of their charge, let ‘em know; and if they’re pincushioned afterwards because they were off-balance from the charge, let them know that too! Feedback is critical to engaging play.