the fighter is the thief of fighting

Two examples of D&D play.  First example:

Dungeon Master: The treasure chest looks to be made of an unearthly metal: it is a deep, slate grey color, but in your flickering torchlight it shows tints of magenta, lime green, and a nauseating purple which, when you gaze at it too long, seems to shrivel your eyeballs.  The clasp is worked to resemble a face somewhere between that of a preying mantis and a giraffe.  If the chest isn’t locked, it sure as hell doesn’t look inviting, either.

Fighting-Man: I’m gonna try to get that chest open.

Dungeon Master: How?

Second example:

Dungeon Master: As you and your allies try to scramble down from the Titan’s bookcase with the scrolls you found, its bookends–worked in brass to resemble an otherwordly hybrid of a purple worm and a lion–begin to roar in alarm.  As the Titan’s pet wyvern, hearing the noise, beats its wings furiously against the bars of its cage, hissing at you, the worm-lion bookends detach from their bases and come slithering toward you.  Now what?

Fighting-Man: I attack.

Dungeon Master: Okay, roll.

The first example cannot be resolved without obtaining additional fictional inputs from the character.  This can slow down the pace of the game to an absurd degree, but it leads to a richly imagined scene.

The second example may have some pretty nifty things operating on your character sheet (exhausting your spells one by one; losing hit points; getting enhancements due to your magic items), but usually the fictional events in the game are imaginatively anemic.

Gygaxian Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t require much in the way of fictional inputs for combat.  In the worst case scenario, the situation in the second example can degenerate into “I hit . . . 6 points . . . You miss . . . I miss . . . You hit, 5 points.”

This isn’t inevitable – a good Dungeon Master or good players can always gussy up this basic exchange – but the rules operate without that degree of creativity and imaginative investment, and there’s always a drift toward laziness which can result in less scintillating play.

(Case in point: in Tavis’s White Sandbox game, Tavis allows players to narrate how they land the killing blow against an enemy.  Sometimes this results in some very nice additions to the fiction: although Eric’s Halfling Archer was the one who reduced the Beast Lord to 0 Hit Points, Eric used his narration to describe that it was Adrian’s character who lopped Stronghoen’s head off.   But often we’re too lazy to say more than, “Um, I just totally kill him.”)

Giving some situational modifiers (+2 for high ground) is a step in the right direction, but these tend to get lost in the spread of a 1d20 roll.

Contrast Gygaxian combat with D&D 4e.  Fourth edition requires zillions of fictional inputs in order to work, it’s just that the fictional inputs are largely confined to relative positioning on a battlefield.  I find it hard to imagine how 4e could be played without figuring out exactly where people are standing, and exactly how they’re attacking.

As a result, combat in 4e is imaginatively rich, in the sense that how you attack someone both requires input from the imaginary environment and also changes the environment in a way that impacts later decisions.

The downside is that in 4e there are so many inputs to track that fighting slows to a crawl.  This isn’t a problem if you’re fighting the Beast Lord, but it stinks when you’re just mowing down encounters that only exist to bleed resources prior to the big showdown.

What would be nice is a version of D&D where resolution has a scalable complexity.  When you’re frustrated by bullshit caltrops on a staircase, just roll the Remove Traps skill and get it over with.  When you’re trying to do something really complicated, like blowing up a Lich by re-binding its booby-trapped spell books to deceive it (as Maldoor did), do something pretty freeform to enable the players to show creativity.  Stupid fights against lame-o’s, use the baseline combat system.  Big fights against major enemies, adopt a system where, say, special abilities or feat-type things come into play, allowing for some more tactical complexity.

Credit where it’s due department – Vincent’s making the same point here, over a year ago.

16 Responses to “the fighter is the thief of fighting”

  1. 1 Ian
    July 11, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    It seems like Chainmail is exactly what you’re talking about. While it is disorganized and confusing as Hell, it does exactly what you’re looking for and there are many guides on how to used it for a D&D combat engine. Depending on how complex you want the battle to be, combat can be resolved with a anywhere between a single roll of the dice (fantasy or mass-combat–depending on how you wish to interpret either of them) and a tactical, nuanced battlefield.

  2. July 11, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    I agree with Ian. The Chainmail fantasy combat matrix sounds like the solution here. If the PCs know that an entire right comes down to what is effectively a single saving throw, they will narrate the hell out of combat just like they treat a thiefless encounter with a trap.

  3. 3 Bargle
    July 11, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    would the holy grail of dungeons and dragons be tying 1:10 chainmail combat in with the skirmish rules of 1:1 4E? Zooming out and zooming in as it were?

    Would “solo” and boss monsters be the “fantasy table” from chainmail where the heroes were expected to go mano-a-mano against particular and nasty enemies like ogres, giants, dragons, and balrogs?

    Could you simply replace the fantasy combat table with 4e and leave the rest of chainmail alone?

  4. July 12, 2010 at 12:08 am

    Thanks for the suggestions about Chainmail – it’s true I overlooked it. And boiling combat down to a single roll, heavily influenced by player creativity and ingenuity, is an interesting solution. I’ll have to revisit Jason Vey’s work on “The Hyborian Age” and “Spellcraft & Swordplay.”

    I guess I’m enough of an Forge-ite to prefer a more transparent resolution method, though. While I don’t mind those largely free-form approaches when handling what amounts to scene description, IME it’s tempting, when playing an adversarial role, whether in combat or in intense social scenes, to either play it too aggressive or too wimpy–and if it’s a one-and-done approach there’s little opportunity for the Dungeon Master to self-reflect and change course.

    Therefore I’m kind of leaning toward a more mechanics-based approach. I’m almost tempted to make attack rolls 2d6 + some kind of Tactics Modifier (likely table-based), leaving THAC0 unchanged. Thus, if you want to have any kind of chance to attack dragons or whatever, you’d really have to out-think and out-maneuver your opponents.

  5. 5 Jack Colby
    July 12, 2010 at 1:46 am

    All I was going to add was what has already been said – that Chainmail combat works along those lines. Remember, what we call the standard combat system now was the “alternate” system in original D&D… Chainmail’s system was indicated as the standard. But yes, I agree that a scaling combat system would be cool. Too bad so few bother to read up on older games and editions and think about what was intended and why. This is especially a problem when designers prepare a new edition of a game without understanding how the old one really worked before they change it.

  6. July 12, 2010 at 2:27 am

    James, from a Forgite p.o.v., it also sounds to me like you’re talking about the difference in The Shadow of Yesterday between normal conflict resolution and Bringing Down the Pain. It was actually an eye-opening moment for me when I realized that Chainmail’s Fantasy Supplement could be used in almost exactly that same way. The Man-to-Man Combat Table by itself has tons of tactical possibilities…

  7. 7 maldoor
    July 12, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    My gut reaction is that whatever mechanics you want to use, you have to be very careful about how you apply them.

    Reasonable people can disagree about what a stupid vs. major fight is. Also, situations like the caltrops on the stariway quickly get old and become a time sink, but using different mechanics to handle different situations brings a lot of signalling baggage.

    Players enjoy different aspects of the game and if you use different mechanics to speed through some bits and not others, care needs to go into how you determine that. If you rely on lots of signalling from the DM the players risk losing the element of discovery and agency. On a more meta-level, part of what sandbox play is about is the lack of a strong plot or story line that the players have to follow, with some bits obviously less or more important than others. With several good or bad rolls, a minor sideline encounter can easily spiral into a major encounter.

    Also, as you point out in comments (“there’s little opportunity for the Dungeon Master to self-reflect and change course”), reducing the opportunities for the dice to speak changes the flavor of the game, and may even reduce the fun for the DM, who loses opportunities to be surprised by random outcomes.

  8. 8 Bargle
    July 12, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    “When you’re frustrated by bullshit caltrops on a staircase, just roll the Remove Traps skill and get it over with”

    does 4e have catch-all abilities that are broadly enough defined while also having verisimilitude? It seems like we need a new scale:

    1:10 chainmail where broad actions are taken with details being unimportant (4th level hero rolls 4d6 and a six means he kills a redshirt)

    1:1 ad&d individuals matter, but their skills are
    broadly defined (my bend bars lift gates is 23%. Can I tip this wagon over by myself?)

    1:0.1 4e abilities are strictly assigned (can I unbutton my trowsers with my left hand? I don’t know, did you already use your ambidextrous undressing encounter power?)

  9. 9 Bargle
    July 12, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    This is obviously what the essentials line is (by my reading) stabbing at. Waddya mean I can only trip my opponent once per day?

    Look at how unremarkable charging is in ad&d. It’s an awesome ability able to teleport you around a battlefield and attack in the same round. Usable once every 10 min. Recharge rate of 1 turn.

    It’s literally an encounter power yet A similar “power” in 4e stretches credulity beys breaking. Why does a fighter charging once per turn have to be called a “power”?

    I’m trying my best to tie the above in with your analogy of caltrops on the stairs, but I think I just got lost in the weeds of my poor writing.

  10. July 12, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    @ Bargle, post #8 is probably what I’m thinking about. 3e’s skill system, which I like a bunch, might be an example on the more technical end of things when it comes to non-combat skills. The spread from Chainmail to, say, D&D B/X, to 4e would probably handle the combat stuff.

    Now the trick would be to make those things more or less collapsible, rather than mutually incompatible…

  11. July 16, 2010 at 4:13 am

    You might check out Apocalypse World too, if you haven’t already. Vincent talks about it in that thread. In AW, each dice roll resolves a relatively broad piece of the action. Exactly how broad it is is somewhat arbitrary–it depends on the situation, what you roll, and so on.

    So in AW, you get to dice when you make a move. Making a move happens in two ways.

    Player: “I pull out my machete and tell that punk he better clear out or I’ll slice him up.”
    MC: “sounds like you’re going aggro, roll some dice.” (going aggro is one of the moves

    Player: “I go aggor on that punk!”
    MC: “OK, how do you do that?”
    Player: “I pull out my machete and tell him to clear out!”

    Those sound a lot like the two situations above. I’ve been having great fun using AW-style moves for OD&D play, and it seems to have achieved just the right balance between rolling dice and just describing stuff.

  12. 12 Bargle
    July 20, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    Actually, 0d&d has “scalable” complexity built into the game via CHAINMAIL although I don’t people use it anymore (ever?) because they don’t understand the mass combat system (or how it relates to d&d). Here:

    In another post I showed that the % chance of a “hit” in CHAINMAIL is identical (or very close) to that of D&D. To whit:

    Hireling (0-level) (heavy foot att/def fighter)
    att/def: HF
    hits: 1c
    dmg: 1d6/6

    att/def: HF
    hits: 1c
    dmg 1d6/6

    The 0-level fighter has a 16% chance of scoring a “hit” against the goblin and the goblin has the same. A hit “kills” in CHAINMAIL, but statistically it does in d&d as well. The average hit points of a goblin and a hireling is 3.5, the average damage they do is 3.5 (d6). If you moved this further to the LBB+suppliments a d8 hit points and d8 long sword changes nothing.

    In d&d terms (att=thac0)
    att/AC: 20/5
    hp: 3.5 (average)
    dmg: d6 (3.5 dmg average)

    att/AC: 19/6
    hp: 3-4
    dmg: d6

    The % chance to score a hit really doesn’t change in relation to the other about 35% (14+ on a d20) each round that either will score a “hit” and roughly 50% chance of scoring a kill (3+ on damage dice) = 16% chance of killing per round!

    With that said, why not have the PC’s stated out as normal, but keep your 5 hirelings for the party (or whatever number) as CHAINMAIL units? That way the battle remains about the PC’s and their actions and doesn’t get bogged down by running combat for redshirts and what not? The other benefit of chainmail is that attacks and damage are rolled on one dice, which halves the amount of dice rolling for no-names anyway.

    Take 5 3rd level PC’s and 4 0-level hirelings and pit them against 27 goblins. Lets assume the goblins attack all the humans equally (3 each). Normally in d&d this would take a while to do. Using the nitty-gritty of d&d for all the PC’s and the goblins they’re fighting you can bunch up the “second bit” characters thusly.

    scale: 1:1
    5 units Hirelings
    att/def: HF
    hits: 5c
    dmg: 5d6/6

    15 units goblin
    att/def: HF
    hits: 5c
    dmg: 15d6/6

    each hit kills 1 unit (individual). Very quickly rolling for the hirelings (PC’s won initiative that round): 3, 2, 5, 6, 2. gives us 1 hit. So for the hireling portion of the battle you can simply assume that 1 goblin was killed. The goblins turn (only getting 14d6 now) 6,6,1,2, 3,2,2,1,6,5,4,1,2,3. Three hirelings bite the dust! Statistically this is probably within the margin of error of what would happen if played out in “long hand” using man-to-man rules. Is this preferable to rolling 15xd20 for attacks and then a bunch of damage dice for NPC’s the players don’t really care about anyway? Torchbearer #1 dies who cares? Right?

    Can anyone point out a flaw I may have missed that would make this unworkable?

  13. 13 1d30
    September 14, 2010 at 9:37 am

    I know my players sure aren’t annoyed often enough by bullshit caltrops on a staircase! If I had the gaming equivalent of Twitter I would totally spread that quote around.

  14. 14 1d30
    January 4, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Coming back I’m shocked at how little value my comment added. I don’t remember reading the other comments on this one, so here goes:

    I think the value in using the Chainmail style “6 on d6 is a hit and does 1 HD of damage, you get a roll of 1d6 per your HD and if any are 6 you hit” is in a few places:

    1: You don’t have to calculate attack bonus vs. target number before rolling. The die’s probability space is small enough that there are only a few possible target numbers and most creatures in a group are likely one or two target numbers.

    2: These targets numbers are also descriptive, so by saying “My four Heavy Footmen rush up and attack that unit of Slingers” you get a pretty good idea of your chances already.

    3: You combine the attack and damage roll, and there aren’t any damage modifiers (except perhaps from a Vorpal Sword or something that does 2HD of damage on a hit).

    4: Simplified statistics mean you can make HD to HD comparisons very easily, with the caveat that groups of small HD creatures have a benefit in being able to dish out multiple attacks, while larger HD creatures are more likely to do damage and don’t lose combat effectiveness as they lose HD of damage. Special abilities could simply count as extra HD for purposes of difficulty comparison / XP value.

    5: People are more likely to have many d6 as a holdover from earlier versions of D&D where many spells required multiple d6, from games that use primarily or only a number of d6, and that the d6 is the easiest to find and cheapest to buy because it’s so common otherwise.

    6: d6 visibility across a table is easier for a given die size than for a d20. The higher number of sides, the smaller the inscribed number will be. A d6 with pips instead of numbers is better still for visibility, which is not really an option for a d20.

    7: Using a simple resolution mechanic like this may encourage the DM to use the mechanic for other things on the fly. This may be good or bad. In this case, comparing between a d6 roll and a d20 roll plus a ton of situational modifiers, it may be a better way to handle rolls like getting lost, finding water, foraging, diplomacy, etc. Imagine a diplomatic “fight” where there are six sides, each with several diplomats, and they are “attacking” their chosen targets on a round-to-round basis. When a diplomat runs out of HD of damage, he has succumbed to fatigue and persuasion and must give up some number of consessions. Afterwords, they could just renege on their agreements, but that’s bad diplomatic form.

    Of course I realize that not every target number is a 6, it makes sense that an unarmored human would be a 4 (50% chance to hit). It’s been a while since I’ve read the Chainmail rules though and I was never an expert.

    A few downsides:

    1: Because the die size is smaller, and there are few modifiers, improvements are large and rare. Incremental improvement is necessary for player satisfaction – though some players are satisfied with games like Traveller where your character doesn’t improve much at all during play. WoW goes in the opposite direction, giving almost continual minor improvement early on.

    2: People like using many different types of dice. The variety is part of the fun, even though it’s a stumbling block for beginners. Using a different die makes the roll feel different. Using a d6 Short Sword feels very different from a d10 Two-Handed Sword, even though the difference is only an average of 3.5 vs. 5.5. Caveat: For a given character you tend to use the same dice session to session, except spellcasters or people who don’t specialize in a specific weapon.

    3: The lack of granularity means slight differences between monster races, character classes, equipment, etc. are lost. You also lose the differences between a hireling with 6 HP and one with 1 HP.

    4: Fights may happen too fast, that is, the mechanics say the fight is over but you need theatrics to describe the fight just so something actually happens in the shared imaginary space. Otherwise it’s just a flurry of dice and the DM reading from a list of the loot.

    5: It doesn’t feel so much like D&D anymore without a d20. I know it’s silly, and something I should probably get over. But a lot of players, I think, just want to play D&D and aren’t interested in trying out a lot of different games. I also know there are a lot of players out there who play everything under the sun even if they have a few favorites. If your game uses a d20 as its primary resolution die, you might snag the “D&D only” crowd when using a different type of resolution mechanic would repel them.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

July 2010

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