After sharing my house rules to make D&D combat a bit more interesting last week, I got a request for a written play example. I also got a few questions about things that weren't addressed or clear in the original post. I'll address those first, and then move on to a short play example.
As I mentioned last week, this is basically a simplified version of the Palladium/Rifts combat system. While it won't fit everyone's play style, the overall effect has been to make combat a little grittier without adding much more book keeping. My current players love it, and I'll probably end up using some variation of it for the foreseeable future.
First, the miscellanea:
1. Damage causing spells like magic missile completely bypass armor and affect hit points. This makes wizards much more dangerous at low levels. The tactical effect is that they become priority targets for any intelligent enemy with a ranged attack. When fighting smart opponents, it's a fairly even trade off.
2. Spell casters are not expressly forbidden from wearing heavy armor, but it does restrict their movement and affect casting. I allow for casters to wear leather type armor with no effect. Chain and heavier armor reduces casting to once every other round.
3. Defense rolls are just a d20 plus Dex bonus, and attack rolls are made with d20 plus STR plus Base Attack Bonus (or proficiency, if used). As the characters level, the attack roll totals will gradually supersede the defense roll totals. This is a feature, not a bug. The best defense is a strong and aggressive offense. Experienced characters (especially warriors) know and have internalized this.
4. Combats featuring singular monsters versus PCs with gangs of henchmen generally favor the PCs and henchmen. Again, this is by design. In a world with dragons, giants, and ogres, a human settlement's only possible defense is to find these monsters and attack in force. Think of the villagers with torches and pitchforks storming Dracula's castle in the old movies. Smart monsters have to use the same tactics humans do in order to survive: defensible lairs in difficult-to-access places, traps, and escape routes. If the PCs manage to surprise a giant in the middle of a field, and surround him with twenty henchmen, then they've either executed a brilliant ambush or found an incredibly stupid giant.
5. Most monsters don't have DEX ratings, so I assign a Defense modifier based on their Hit Dice, just like I do for attacks. A good rule of thumb is that the Defense bonus shouldn't exceed +3 for most "normal" creatures, since that's about the top range possible for the PCs. Certain "elite" monsters and supernatural creatures, like vampires, demons, or dragons, can have higher defense bonuses, but it's rare.
6. Creatures with claw/claw/bite get three total actions per round, rather than getting a seperate attack and defense action for each. This has the effect of nerfing them slightly, but they still get one more possible combat action per round than a PC does. Again, this enforces the "strength in numbers, fight smart or die" ethos of the system. A sabretooth tiger versus a single mid-level warrior is probably going to kill him. That same sabretooth tiger versus a gang of six zero-level villagers, on the other hand, had better run away.
7. Defense rolls are only possible on attacks from the front, or attacks the character is otherwise aware of. Furthermore, any attack that occurs from behind gets an additional +4 to hit, which also translates to a greater chance to bypass armor. Short version, a surrounded character or monster is probably going to die unless they can find some way to escape.
8. Henchmen and mooks. To reduce my own book keeping for peon characters, I usually just bump up a mook monster's hit points if they're wearing armor. Instead of tracking the extra 30 Armor Points for a goblin, I just rule that it's a ratty old thing that only offers partial protection and give him 15 extra HP. I also use a natural 20/critical hit rule. Against "elite" or boss monsters it's an extra damage die, but against mooks I rule that it's an instant kill. The flip side, of course, is that any natural 20 I roll can insta-kill a PCs henchman.
9. Spell casters can still only cast one spell per round. They're still entitled to use their second action as either defense or as an attack, but they cannot cast a second spell with it.
So with all that in mind, plus the basics detailed in my last post, here's a brief skirmish using these house-rules.
Example of D&D Active Combat:
Brogar the Barbarian and Mingol the Mage have been hired to destroy a werewolf pack that's been terrorizing the area. With the aid of four experienced wolf hunters, they've located the werewolf den in a small hillside cave. The original plan, which involved building a fire in the cave's mouth to smoke them out and killing them with silver weapons, can't be followed anymore because of fears that a missing village girl is inside the den.
With the girl's safety becoming the character's primary concern, the players settle on a hard, fast frontal assault as the best remaining option. Brogar takes point, directing two wolf hunters to get on each side of him, forming a wedge. Mingol hangs back, protected by the wedge and ready to give ranged support.
Partway into the den, the characters hear a savage snarl. Two of the werewolf cubs come bounding up out of the darkness. The DM instructs everyone to roll a d6 for initiative.
Brogar rolls a 4. His DEX bonus of +2 brings it up to a 6.
The four wolf hunters (henchmen characters) get a 3.
The two werewolf cubs (mook monsters, but tough ones) roll a 5.
An adult female werewolf (waiting around the bend in the tunnel and unseen at the moment) rolls a 4
Mingol rolls a natural 6.
Mingol, having won the initiative roll, has the option to go first. Instead, he declares that he's holding action.
Brogar goes next. He swings his axe at one of the incoming cubs, using one of his combat actions. He rolls a 10, but his +2 Strength bonus and his +4 Base Attack Bonus bring the total to 16.
At the same instant, the werewolf cub rolls a defense. Even at 3 HD, a +1 bonus to his roll seems fair. The cub rolls a 7, which barely totals half of Brogar's attack roll after adding the +1. Brogar's attack is successful. He rolls a 7 for damage.
The adult female werewolf holds her action, choosing to remain hidden.
The werewolf cubs go next. The first one to strike is the injured one, and it attacks Brogar. It rolls a 12, which becomes a 13 once the +1 attack bonus is added.
At the same time, Brogar makes a defensive roll, burning up his remaining combat action for the round. He rolls a 10, which becomes a 12 when his +2 DEX bonus is added. The werewolf cub's attack is successful, but not good enough to bypass Brogar's armor class of 14. The werewolf's claws rake down his leather armor for 8 points of armor damage.
The second werewolf attacks the wolf hunter immediately to Brogar's right.. The wolf hunter burns one action to defend, but the werewolf cub rolls a natural 20. The cub pounces on the hunter, riding him to the ground and sinking his fangs into the man's throat, killing him instantly.
Mingol states that he would like to use his action now. He casts magic missile, sending two projectiles directly at the werewolf that's down on top of the dead hunter. They total eleven points of damage to the monster's HP.
The three remaining wolf hunters go now. The one to the right of his dead comrade turns and stabs at the injured werewolf cub's unprotected back. He only rolls a 4, but with the +4 bonus he gets from attacking from behind, he scores an 8. His sword deals 6 damage, reducing the cub's already depleted HP to 0 and killing it.
The two hunters to the left of Brogar move to encircle the cub to his front. Having burned both of its actions already, the cub gets no defensive actions against the hunters. Both hunters roll above a 5, and their combined attacks deal a total of 10 damage.
Since the cub has used all his actions for the round, and the hunters each have unexpended actions, both opt to spend their second action on another attack rather than defending. They both roll again. The first hunter rolls a 2, missing entirely. The second rolls a 12, delivering the fatal blow with 6 points of damage.
No sooner does the werewolf cub fall than a booming roar fills the tunnel. The enraged female werewolf charges from her hiding place at the nearest wolf hunter, rolling a 13. As a 6 HD monster, she gets an additional +6 to hit, bringing her total to 19.
Having expended both combat actions to finish the cub, the wolf hunter gets no attempt to protect himself. The werewolf rolls 1d8+2 for damage, totaling 9 as her claws rip into the startled hunter. The werewolf burns her second action delivering another claw strike to the hunter, again delivering 9 points of damage. This reduces the hunter's HP to 0, killing him.
The adult werewolf, as a monster traditionally assigned a bite/bite/claw attack, gets a third action. She spends it by launching herself at Brogar. She rolls a 16 for her bite attack, totaling 22 with her +6 to hit. Brogar, also having expended his available actions for the round, gets no defense beyond his armor. The 22 easily beats his armor class of 14, and the werewolf sinks its fangs into the upper flesh of his arm for four points of damage. Borgar successfully saves vs poison, avoiding being infected by lycanthropy.
The round is now over, and round two begins with Mingol's action.
Mingol chooses not to hold his action this round. He casts a protection spell on Brogar, granting him a +2 bonus to his AC, his saving throws, and his defensive rolls.
Brogar goes next. He spends one action attacking the werewolf. He rolls a 16, which his +2 STR bonus and his +4 Attack Bonus bring up to a 20.
The werewolf spends one of her actions defending, rolling at the same time. She rolls a 7, which her +3 Defense bonus only brings up to a 10. Brogar buries his silver axe in her hide for 6 damage.
The werewolf—who rolled a 4 back when initiative was called--goes next. She rolls a 9, which her attack bonus brings up to a 15.
Brogar expends his remaining action rolling a defense. He rolls a 10, which becomes a 14 when his DEX bonus and extra bonus for the protection spell are added. The werewolf's attack succeeds, but since the protection spell also grants him a +2 to AC, her claws only strike his armor, dealing 8 points of armor damage.
The two remaining hunters go next. They roll a morale check. One fails and flees back toward the tunnel entrance. The other succeeds and moves to attack the werewolf. He rolls a 17.
The werewolf—who, again, is entitled to three actions as opposed to most characters' two—uses her remaining action to defend. She rolls a natural 20, neatly dodging and earning an attack of opportunity. She rolls an 18, which her bonuses bring to a 24. She also maxes the damage roll, delivering 10 points of damage to the hunter and reducing his HP by more than half.
The round is now over. Round three begins, with initiative once again passing to Mingol.
Again, this is actually far less complicated in play than it looks on paper. As long as the DM has a handle on it and can guide the players along, it runs pretty smoothly. Some players and DMs may feel like it's too crunchy or adds too much book keeping to combat, but that hasn't been my experience. For my table, it strikes a good balance between grit and abstract, hitting the sweet spot that all the players seem to appreciate. They're having, fun, they're engaged, and they're always looking forward to combat encounters now.
As a DM, what more could I ask for?
About three or four sessions into my current campaign, I noticed that my players didn't really like the abstract nature of D&D combat. No matter how much narration and dramatizing I did, combat just felt too passive to them. Specifically, they wanted to do something besides stand there and take it while the enemy rolled against their AC.
Now, one thing I'll say in favor of D&D combat RAW. It's streamlined. And if the players are happy enough to fill in the blanks by imagining feints, dodges, and other maneuvers happening in between declared actions and combat rolls, then it's fine.
On the other hand, way back when I was a wee player, I had the same reaction. I kept trying to declare dodge or parry on the enemy's turn, and it took a little while for me to get comfortable with everyone rolling against a static number to simulate combat.
Which is probably why I gravitated to Kevin Siembieda's Palladium System games so strongly. Divisive as hell within the RPG community, absurdly crunchy, and badly imbalanced even by early 80's game design standards, the Palladium games nonetheless had a gonzo weirdness to them that I loved. Even though I could never get my early groups to accept a sci-fi/fantasy mashup like Rifts, I bought sourcebooks for everything under the Palladium sun, mining some of the stranger fantasy elements for my own D&D games.
As I was also getting heavily into anime at the time, I had a special fondness for the Robotech line. At one time I owned every single sourcebook Palladium published for it, despite my regular group having even less interest in it than Rifts.
Anyway, my old group's strict definitions of what fantasy was and wasn't—and their almost fanatical opposition to genre mixing of any kind—is a subject for another time.
But if there's one thing I always thought Palladium games got 100% right, it was the opposed roll combat mechanic. Yeah, it kind of broke when scaled up to higher levels. Tracking multiple character actions, plus massive amounts of Armor SDC, Character SDC, and Hit Points got to be a pain in the ass. Especially after level five or so.
But the basic idea of the defender being allowed to dodge by beating the attacker's d20 roll was—and is—gold. And even though I was never able to convince my players to pick up a full Palladium game, a variation on that opposed d20 roll has been a longtime house rule of mine when running D&D.
For one thing, it keeps the players from feeling like combat is just an abstract game of roshambo. Every time I've introduced it at one of my tables, the players get much more involved in the battles. They suddenly feel like they're playing for stakes.
I also feel it does a better job of simulating the "grit" of combat. Armor as damage reduction just feels more intuitive than armor making someone harder to hit. It also means armor wears out over time. It's an expendable resource that has to be managed, like water, food, and torches. Not to mention the need to find an armor smith in between battles. Suddenly, long journeys into unknown territory become a much more dangerous affair.
So without further ado, here's my house-ruled Active Combat System. It's basically a stripped-down, bare bones version of Palladium's more intricate combat mechanics. If you're already familiar with those, then you won't find much new here.
Once the DM has a handle on it, this system is actually much simpler than it looks. Doing the opposed rolls simultaneously doesn't really take any longer to resolve than rolling against a character's AC. It adds a layer of player participation to the combat round, without adding much more bookkeeping.
It also affects combat in some interesting ways. With each character only getting one chance to defend in a round (or two, if they forego an attack), mobs of low level enemies like goblins suddenly become a deadly threat to even the highest level characters. Sure, the first twenty or thirty hits will get eaten up by that nice, expensive suit of chainmail. But remember, once it's rendered useless, any undefended roll of 5 or greater is a success. It won't take long for those little bastards to make hamburger out of the toughest warrior under those circumstances.
It hasn't happened in my current group yet, but as armor gets torn to shreds and healing spells run out, a fighting retreat often becomes the smartest course of action. I've seen the tanks form a barrier, using both actions to defend just so they can buy time for the other PCs to escape.
In short, these rules force the PCs to be much more careful about their tactical situation. It won't be a good fit for everyone's table. Hell, it hasn't even been a good fit for all of my tables. But if your players are starting to see combat as a repetitive slog, then it might be just what your group needs.
Below is a photo from our last D&D session. Yes, that's a giant frog on the table. The hair elastic around its neck is a lasso, and the miniature on its back represents one of the PC's riding her newly tamed gargantuan monster.
On a related note, now I'm questioning all of my life choices as a DM...
Joking aside, that picture represents something any DM who wants to keep his or her players engaged needs to consider: what type of fantasy stories have your players been consuming prior to sitting down at your table?
Case in point: I'm a big fan of the pulpy, Weird Tales type fantasy that makes up most of Gary Gygax's famous Appendix N. As such, my campaign's cosmology is ripped straight from Michael Moorcock. My game's elves owe more to his doomed Melnibonéans than to Tolkien's ethereal forest dwellers. I like Vancian Magic. One of my players is currently under a curse inspired by an unfinished Robert E. Howard fragment.
In other words, I sit down to the DMs chair with some pre-loaded assumptions and preferences about the flavor of fantasy I want to imitate in-game.
What most newbie DMs forget is that the players sit down with a similar set of assumptions and preferences. They're looking to experience a certain flavor of fantasy, too. And the success of the game depends heavily on whether or not those flavors are compatible.
For example, one of my campaigns was loosely based around the Crusades, set in a world where most of the Arthurian Myth cycle was historically verified fact. It was a great fit, because I had players that had been reading Ivanhoe and Le Mort de Arthur playing alongside devoted fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon series.
Another group I ran enjoyed Dante's Inferno, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Steven Brust's brilliant novel To Reign in Hell. I crafted a game where the PCs had all died on the Prime Material Plane and had to adventure through the Nine Hells, which I populated with snarky, sarcastic demons and modern pop-culture references.
So, what about my current game? How closely do my assumptions match up with theirs?
Short answer: not at all. I'm not just the only one who's been reading Howard, Moorcock, and Vance recently. I'm the only one who's read them at all.
So, what have my players been consuming that I haven't? And more importantly, how did I work that into the game to keep them satisfied and engaged?
First up is my wife, Vanessa. While not much of a fiction reader, she absolutely loves visual works of fantasy. She's an avid fan of artists like Brian Froud and Daniel Merriam. Two of her all-time favorite movies are The Princess Bride and Labyrinth. In short, she prefers a light, whimsical take on the fantasy genre, and when our friends proposed a D&D group, her first question was "Can I play a fairy?"
I did some research, looking for a homebrew race that would be somewhat B/X compatible. I ended up using a variation of the half-pixie Phaerim, detailed in R. Kevin Smoot's New Races: A Basic Fantasy Supplement. Since B/X uses race-as-class, I decided to run her as a winged Halfling, for purposes of level advancement and saving throws.
The other two players in the group are another married couple, Leah and Aaron. While they've both read the standard genre classics like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, a huge part of their recent fantasy intake has been in anime and manga form. In particular, they're both fans of isekai shows like That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime and Overlord.
That anime influence was obvious less than halfway through the first session, with the sheer number of called shots and crazy maneuvers both of them attempted in each combat encounter. The problem is that B/X D&D doesn't really support that style of combat, at least not when using Rules as Written. On one hand, the players' options tend to be more open, since not much is spelled out in the rules. The flip side is that the players' power level is pretty low.
The likeliest result? Lots of dead PCs, and a table full of players who take fewer risks with their newly-rolled replacement characters. And while that gels perfectly with my gritty, Appendix N-flavored sword and sorcery style, it's not really what the players sat down wanting to experience.
In other words, I had to do some adjusting.
One of the first things I did was bump the characters' power level. I introduced the optional Cantrips list from The Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game, so Leah's Elf could cast more than one spell per day. I also introduced some optional combat maneuvers for Aaron's fighter, like a once per combat Shield Bash that does no damage, but knocks a human sized opponent prone on a successful strike.
I also entirely re-vamped the game's combat mechanic, which I'll detail in an upcoming post.
The last thing I did was more of a situational call:
When the PCs were crossing a marshland via an ancient causeway, I had them encounter a pair of giant frogs. But instead of my little plastic pogs marking the monsters' position, someone grabbed that stuffed frog off the shelf and dropped it on the mat.
I quickly changed the encounter to one gargantuan frog, which (based on the stuffed animal's cuteness) my wife's character immediately decided that the party needed to tame. Everyone else was instantly on board with the idea.
I could do one of two things at that point: run it as a standard combat encounter, forcing the players into a fight they didn't really want. Or find a way for them to try it their way.
Looking over Leah's spell list, I quietly scribbled out the word "person" next to her first level Charm spell.
"This is now an all-purpose Charm," I said. "It still doesn't work on undead or magical creatures. But anything in nature is susceptible. Including giant animals."
If you could only have seen the smiles around that table, folks.
What followed was a zany, over-the-top combat encounter, in which the PC's weakened the frog enough to lasso it, rode along as it dove into the water and tried to swim away, and then climbed up onto its head in order to look it in the eye and cast Charm.
In other words, it was pretty much the polar opposite of the gritty, sword and sorcery-inspired combat encounter I'd had in mind. My players couldn't have been happier.
As their DM, neither could I.
Sword an sorcery is a genre that's devilishly hard to define. Ask ten people to lay out their personal guidelines for what is and isn't S&S, and you're likely to get twelve different answers.
Examples are easier to come up with, if somewhat less helpful. And like definitions, you're rarely going to get many people that agree. Sure, some examples are more-or less a given. Robert E. Howard's Conan. Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. Michael Moorcock's Elric. But disagreement tends to crop up when people throw up examples outside that established core.
In an old SF Signal Mind Meld, several writers were asked to define what "sword and sorcery" meant to them. Answers were, predictably, all over the board, most of them boiling down to lists of common tropes. But the first answer came from Michael Moorcock himself, and it touched on something elemental:
Basically I see it as a good old-fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama with strong supernatural elements. Captain Blood meets Cthulhu.
Folks, that quote may be the closest thing this genre has to a Rosetta Stone. It explains why so many of the "borderline" examples people disagree about feel wrong to those well-read in the genre, even if they seem to contain most of the tropes.
First, re-read Moorcock's statement. Notice the order he puts the two components in. It's no accident that "old fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama" gets precedent. The story has to function purely (or almost purely) in those terms, absent any fantastical element.
Conan sneaking into the Tower of the Elephant. Elric of Melniboné leading a pirate fleet against the impregnable port of Imrryr. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser running headlong through the labyrinthine halls of the Thieves' House, one step ahead of their murderous pursuers.
Any of those moments could be dropped into a historical adventure story, while retaining 100% of its excitement and impact. They speak to something primal in the reader, something that exists independent of the story's magical elements: Courage in the face of certain death. Wit and steel against overwhelming odds. The chase. The hunt.
Next, notice Moorcock's carefully chosen word, supernatural. There's a reason he didn't say "cloak and dagger fiction with magic." Or "sword and sandal drama with elves and dwarves."
Supernatural implies the weird, the unknown, and the dangerous. Supernatural is the fantastic. But it is the unfamiliar fantastic.
In sword and sorcery, magic is rare and terrifying. Monsters are a violation of the natural order. Dwarves and elves, if present, aren't simply another culture in a fantasy melting-pot world. They're a freak survival of some ancient and forgotten age, like Howard's stooped, serpent-like "Worms of the Earth." Or Moorcock's vaguely etherial, Chaos-bound Melnibonéans.
What I like about Moorcock's definition is that it's not just descriptive. At the risk of paraphrasing Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Moorcock's definition doesn't just describe what a sword and sorcery story is. If it did, it wouldn't be much more than a genre dowsing rod.
Rather, Moorcock's definition describes what a sword and sorcery story needs. It can be a map for building one from the ground up.
Sword and sorcery 101. Start with historical adventure. Add the supernatural. It's as simple (and as complex) as that.
"I don't know what 19-year-old me would think if he could see me today. But he'd probably be happy that I still read David Gemmell and listen to Angel Witch." - Me, circa 2015
All in all, that offhanded Facebook comment from a couple of years ago sums up how I feel about the turning of the New Year. While a lot of my fellow writers are posting long lists of their accomplishments, publications, and kudos earned in 2018, I'm not going to do that.
The fact is, I'm not happy with what I accomplished this year. I had a long list of things I set out to achieve, both professionally and personally, and I failed at pretty much all of it.
Not looking for pity here. Just stating it plainly. My list of goals didn't get a lot of check-marks this year, and pretending otherwise would be dishonest.
But I am happy that I'm still me.
And after a year filled with self-doubts, mental health issues, and maddening, Kafka-esque administrative fuck-ups at the Department of Veteran's Affairs adding fuel to both...
Well, shit. That's actually something, guys.
The fact is, sometimes the best effort we can muster is to hold on for all we're worth. And I managed to do that in 2018, if nothing else. I did it no thanks to the worthless fuck-wits in the VA, and all the thanks to my wife, my fellow vets, and some good friends.
Not to mention a pair of spoiled-rotten dogs. It's amazing how even in the middle of the shittiest of shitty days, a dog curled in your lap can suddenly be the brightest spot in the whole universe.
Which leads me to 2019.
For the year ahead, I do have a handful of irons in the proverbial fire.
Watch this space for more. I'll have some updates on all of the above coming soon.
As for me, I have some work to do. Right after I listen to some Angel Witch.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.