As I mentioned a few months back, I've been running an OSR-hacked Curse of Strahd game with my regular D&D group. And this past weekend, I realized I'm probably DMing the most creative bunch of murderhobos to ever set torch and pitchfork to the gods-forsaken land of Barovia.
I also realized they just might be the villains.
For those of you unfamiliar with the adventure and its basic set-up, Curse of Strahd is a 5e remake of the classic AD&D module, I6: Ravenloft. The adventure finds the PCs trapped in the mist-shrouded valley of Barovia, which is ruled by the vampire count Strahd von Zarovich. Strahd will only allow the PCs to escape if they surrender his intended bride, an innocent peasant girl named Tatyana.
Unless the PCs find a way to defeat Strahd, while simultaneously keeping Tatyana from falling into his clutches, they'll be trapped in Barovia forever.
This set-up was pretty railroad-y by 1e standards, but the mix of Gothic horror tropes with high adventure struck a chord with players. Ravenloft was one of the most popular D&D adventures of its era, and has seen some form of remake or reinvention for every subsequent edition of the game, including a full campaign setting in 2e.
Anyway, the details are a bit convoluted to go into here, but the bottom line is that in this run-through, Strahd's intended bride Tatyana ended up dead.
Normally, this is bad news for the PC's.
But rather than just try to conceal this fact as long as possible, and launch a surprise assault on the castle—which is what I expected—my merry band of murderhobos decided they now had a unique weapon in their hands. So they proceeded to hatch the most twisted "get Strahd" plan I've seen in all my years of DMing the Ravenloft setting:
The next evening, they loaded the Zombie Tatyana up into a carriage and rode for the castle. When they arrived in the courtyard, Strahd came out to greet them. He was dressed in finery himself, and flanked by skeleton warriors in polished dress armor. The PCs dismounted, and gave a speech humbly apologizing for being so unreasonable before. The also expressed their hopes that Strahd would honor his earlier promise to help them escape the valley, in exchange for Tatyana.
Strahd replied that he is an honorable man, and would keep his agreements. He also invited the PCs to stay for the wedding: "I always prepare an excellent feast."
With that, the PC's opened the carriage. The Zombie Tatyana walked towards Strahd. As soon as she got within range, the Magic Mouth spell went off, causing her to whisper her line. Strahd gathered her in his arms.
Then the PCs sprung one of the most beautiful and sadistic traps I've ever seen.
It's important to note that the PCs were 100% aware that this wouldn't kill Strahd. In fact, they knew damned well that he'd be strong enough to break out of this. The entire goal was psychological warfare. They wanted to horrify him with the sight his beloved's corpse erupting with vines, vomiting holy water, and then exploding in a bloody mess.
Like I said. These guys might just be the villains, all things considered...
Anyway, the PCs pressed the momentary advantage they got from exploding the innocent village girl's corpse all over the vampire. As the skeleton warriors moved to attack, the spell casters immobilized them. The Cleric used the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind to completely immobilize Strahd, so the warriors could move in and begin pummeling the bejeezus out of him.
The "battle" was so one-sided it wasn't even funny. They finished him off by forcing a Bag of Holding full of Holy Water down his throat. I didn't even bother to roll for damage. I described the vampire's body beginning to bubble, boil, and burn...
Honestly, watching them plan and execute such a crazy curb-stomp of a battle was so damn satisfying, I almost felt bad that I was about to pull the rug out from under them.
That said, I also started running Ravenloft games back in the 90's. And I know damned well that the one thing that makes Strahd a memorable villain is that he's not an idiot.
As the PC's were watching the vampire's face melt, I had one of them notice the illusion spell fail, revealing that the "Strahd" they'd just killed was a decoy: a lesser vampire spawn he put in place so he could quietly observe them from a distance.
From above, the PC's heard an amplified voice boom over the courtyard: "I was going to be honorable. But you allowed my bride to die. Worse, you desecrated her. For that crime, you will all pay."
A fireball then dropped into the center of the PCs formation. It delivered massive damage all around, thanks to a bunch of blown saving throws. Behind them, the gates of the castle slammed shut. And above them, the amplified voice issued a final, cold proclamation: "None of you will leave this place alive."
We ended the session right there, with the PC's trapped and without any ideas where to go from here.
This is D&D storytelling in a nutshell, folks. These crazy, unplanned moments that the players—and the DM—will still be discussing years from now. This is where the real magic of the game has always been: in watching the players come up with some crazy, over-the-top scheme, and try their damndest to execute it.
Real D&D storytelling has nothing to do with the DM, his campaign notes or (Gygax help us) "plot arcs." It can only happen organically. It's also entirely player driven. The DM can't force it, and the more he tries, the more he gets in the way.
If you truly want to create great stories in your D&D games, the only thing you need to do as a DM is put great obstacles in the players' way. Let them use their own ingenuity. Because when they come up with a plan, you get to do the best part.
You get to sit back and watch.
The DM isn't the story's architect in a D&D game. If anything, he's the set designer. But if he does a good enough job, he also gets to be the front row audience.
That's worth its weight in gold, folks.
This blog is the third in a series, in which I'm examining the relationship between rules and setting in D&D. The chosen setting? Fantasy Fucking Vietnam: a hellhole region on the borderlands, in which humanity is locked in a bitter, dirty war against goblins, orcs, and other creatures of Chaos.
If you're just joining in, here's a quick link to Part 1, and another link to part 2.
Before I jump into this week's topic, though, I wanted to say a brief word about the "Fantasy Fucking Vietnam" trope, and exactly why I'm approaching it this way.
Over on the OSR Reddit board, user charlesedwardumland pointed out that the trope was never originally intended as a 1:1 analogy of the Vietnam War. It was more an observation about a certain style of play, one that combined the high lethality of old school dungeon crawling with "combat as war."
Specifically, he felt that starting Level 1 characters off with a lot of Hit Points—as outlined in Part 2 of this series—ran counter to that play style.
Here's his comment in full:
It's an excellent counterpoint, and I want to thank him for bringing it up.
The main reason I'm aiming for a 1:1 analogy here—or as close to one as I can get—is that Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics already did a high lethality game with a bunch of low HP, press-ganged noobs. And as far as I'm concerned, they knocked it out of the damn park.
Bottom line, there was no reason for me to retread that same territory. If I was going to write anything on the subject at all, I wanted to try and bring something new to the table.
So started thinking about the idea of a Fantasy Fucking Vietnam in more literal terms, to see if I could come up with something a little more interesting. I started approaching it from the other side—the survivors, rather than the KIAs—to see if that would yield some more interesting results. That got me thinking about things like long term exhaustion, and battle fatigue.
And then then I started to think of Jimi Hendrix, Huey Cobras, and weird shit.
Which brings me to today's post:
Purple Haze All in My Brain
For once, you drew the short straw. The other adventurers—normally prone to ribbing you and giving you a hard time when you pull a shit job on missions—won't even look you in the eye.
Not this time.
The other short straw goes to Bregan. The gruff dwarf doesn't say much. But then, he never does.
There isn't much to do except sit and wait at the ambush site while the others hike the three miles to the tunnel's main entrance. If all goes according to plan, in a few hours' time, they'll be flushing the gobbos out to you—and to your "allies" in the trees.
You settle in, keeping eyes on the gobbos' burrow. Your companions slip though the underbrush, silent as ghosts.
"You see Kruppa?" Bregan asks.
"Yeah," you respond. "Bastard didn't even shake. First time I've seen him eager to go back underground."
The dwarf almost laughs. "You blame him?"
You risk a glimpse up. You think you see a winged shape, flitting between the high branches. You suppress a shudder.
Bregan leans close. "I tell you this, boy. I don't trust those tree-toppers. They're worse than the Chaos-damned elves. You hear me? Worse."
In the months you've known Bregan, the only thing you've ever heard him call worse than an elf was a goblin. And even then, he said the distinction was small.
You press him for reasons.
"Their magic is different," he says a last. "It gets inside your mind, boy. It'll drive you mad."
Hours pass. You take shifts watching the burrow for any signs of life. You even manage to get a little sleep.
You're on watch when you hear the sounds. They're faint at first. Distant. Hollow. A clash of steel. A shout. A flash and boom. Then, closer and louder, the noise of scurrying feet and the gibbering, croaking sound of the gobbos' language. You're up on your knees and drawing your knives before you're even conscious of the thought.
In the next second, the burrow is alive with activity. Dozens of goblins burst forth, crawling over each other like ants in their mad dash to escape. In seconds they're scurrying and running through the underbrush, scattering in so many directions you can't even begin to track them all.
It's a tactic, of course. One they use to overwhelm and confuse inexperienced hunters.
It's then that you risk another glance up. A stupid, stupid risk...
You just barely catch a glimpse in that half-second. The tree-topper has a slender, child-sized body. Its wings are large and colorful, like those of some exotic butterfly. And it seems to be scattering some kind of bright, purplish dust from its hands...
Bregan drags you to the ground, shouting in your ear. "Cover your eyes, damn you!"
You do as you're told. An instant later, you hear the goblins' agonized screams. You smell their burning flesh. You hear them frantically thrashing on the ground, trying to beat the flames out on their burning bodies.
It's several long seconds before you risk opening your eyes again. Bregan is already up and swearing oaths to his dwarven gods. You're inclined to join him, if only because you aren't sure yours are listening just now.
The entire hillside is littered with blackened goblin corpses. As if fire rained down from the heavens.
Only nothing else is burned. The trees and logs are still whole. The leaves are still green. In places where the morning sun hasn't reached, the grass is still damp and cool to the touch.
Gods... a phantom fire? One that only burns the flesh if you look at it?
Just what kind of "allies" did the King make in this war?
Up in the trees, you hear the sound of fluttering, butterfly-like wings.
The first thing I want to break down here is character alignment. If you're a player that came to the game anytime after AD&D 1e hit the shelves (read: after 1977), you're probably most familiar with the nine point alignment system. For better or worse, this has become the "classic" D&D alignment system, having survived through every subsequent edition of the game except 4th.
Rules Cyclopedia, however, is a compilation and refinement of the various BECMI boxed sets. Meaning it uses the simpler, single axis, Law vs. Chaos alignment system. While I have a lot of personal nostalgia for that nine point system, in practice I find this is the better of the two. That said, I still think it can use some tweaking, and for that we're going to once again return to the indie OSR movement, and their interpretations of the rules.
Page 10 of the Rules Cyclopedia defines alignment as a "code of behavior which guides the actions and thoughts of a character or monster." It gets into specific examples, but generally reduces alignment to nothing more than a simple moral code, with very little to distinguish it from the average person's definition of good and evil.
Compare that to James Raggi's definition of alignment on page 8 of Lamentations of the Flame Princess:
"Alignment is a character's orientation on a cosmic scale. It has nothing to do with a character's allegiances, personality, morality, or actions. Alignment is mostly used to determine how a character is affected by certain magical elements in the game."
That last sentence is important, and we're going to come back to it. But first I want to jump to Dungeon Crawl Classics, and its take on Law vs. Chaos.
Dungeon Crawl Classics breaks down the three alignments on page 24 of the rulebook, and it combines "moral outlook" approach of Rules Cyclopedia with the "cosmic orientation" of LotFP. While I'm planning to disregard the "moral outlook" part, I do want to call attention to this snippet from their example of a Lawfully aligned character:
"Fundamentally, Lawful characters choose the path of mankind over the path of supernatural dominance."
This sentence serves as a good, succinct breakdown of the entire war on the borderlands, which in my mind is an updated, nastier version of the one in Poul Anderson's Appendix N classic, Three Hearts and Three Lions.
Quoting from page 25 of my Doubleday hardcover edition:
Holger got the idea that a perpetual struggle went on between primeval forces of Law and Chaos. No, not forces exactly. Modes of existence? A terrestrial reflection of the spiritual conflict between heaven and hell? In any case, humans were the chief agents on earth of Law, though most of them were only so unconsciously and some, like witches and warlocks and evildoers, had sold out to Chaos. A few nonhuman beings also stood for Law. Ranged against them was almost the whole of Middle World, which seemed to include realms like Faerie, Trollheim, and the Giants—an actual creation of Chaos.
In this setting, goblins and orcs aren't Chaotically aligned because of how they see the world. They're actual creations of Chaos, whose warring and raiding against human settlements ultimately serves the purpose of universal Entropy. No expense must be spared in the fight against them.
At least, that's going to be the King's justification for it.
But to a bunch of conscript adventurers, none of it will much matter. Their primary concern will be outsmarting and outlasting those goblins long enough to go home. As such, the majority of player characters in Fantasy Fucking Vietnam will probably be Neutral.
There are two class exceptions, though. Both Magic-Users and Elves must be Chaotically aligned.
This has to do with the second part of James Raggi's alignment definition, above, and with Poul Anderson's explanation of the war between Chaos and Law.
The basic idea here is that Arcane magic involves temporarily violating and reshaping reality. That's an inherently Chaotic act, no matter how you slice it. Anyone doing so is tapping into forces they don't fully comprehend, gradually speeding up the Entropy of the universe with each spell, whether they intend to or not.
And if we're treating alignment as cosmic orientation rather than moral outlook, then this fact is far more important than whether or not they believe in the actual cause of Law over Chaos.
But remember, rules (and rules changes) should imply something about setting. So let's apply that to this PC alignment restriction.
If magic involves messing with Chaos and Chaos energies, let's say the elves were the ones who invited it into the world eons ago. Maybe back when the elves still built and lived in cities, they did the whole "Pandora's Box" thing, unleashing a power they thought they could control. It completely destroyed High Elven civilization, scattering the survivors into small wooded enclaves. Now, as an act of atonement, the elves' descendants have agreed to help humans in the war against the Chaos they helped usher into the world.
Not that this promise has done much to earn the trust of the humans, dwarves, and other races fighting the Chaos hordes on the borderlands. I'm imagining Elves would be mostly shunned outsiders, likely having to work to overcome severe racism and hatred on the part of their adventuring companions.
Human Magic-Users, too, would be characters messing with forces they don't entirely understand. They'd be under great suspicion, and only a few would ever earn enough trust to become bonded kingsmen. The rest would probably be treated similarly to Elves, shunned if not outright hated, until they managed to prove their mettle under fire.
Fairies Wear Boots, and Ya Gotta Believe Me
The second thing I want to talk about this week is the character class I'd introduce as a replacement for Clerics: Tree-toppers, aka Fairies.
The fact is, if you're going to enhance the Fantasy Fucking Vietnam vibe, you need flyers of some kind. Vietnam was the first large scale "helicopter war," with helos serving in attack, transport, and medevac roles. It changed the entire nature of the battlefield, and you need to put that capability somewhat within the PC's reach, if only for the occasional "combined arms" missions with allies.
I also wanted something a bit hippie and trippy feeling, and last week's viewing of Ralph Bakshi's animated, post apocalyptic acid-trip Wizards certainly provided some inspiration here. If you've never seen it, my full review can give you a run-down, but I highly recommend seeking out this underrated gem of 70's animation yourself.
As to how I'd run a Fairy class, I'd probably start with the Halfling class and begin tweaking from there. I think keeping the rough physical characteristics and woodland abilities makes sense. Likewise with the combat bonuses against bigger creatures. I'd bump the average weight down from 60 pounds to about 30 or 40 at most, to account for flying ability and slender build.
Speaking of the wings and flying ability, I'd take them from the optional Phaelim race, from the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game. An unencumbered Fairy can fly for 10 rounds, but must rest for the same amount of time afterward. A lightly encumbered Fairy can fly for five rounds, but must rest for twice that amount of time afterward.
As for prime requisites I'd keep Dexterity, but swap out Strength for Wisdom.
In order to give the PCs some more spell-casting options, I'd also use Fairies to re-introduce a subclass from AD&D 1e, one that I felt got the shaft in later editions: Illusionists. Back in 1e, Illusionists were highly differentiated from Magic Users, with a spell list that had very little overlap. I'd have my Fairies take their spells exclusively from this list, while following the XP and Spell Progression table of the Elf class.
I also wouldn't have them follow the Chaotic alignment restriction of the Elves and the Magic Users. Whereas Arcane magic is temporarily altering and reshaping reality, thereby breaking down the natural order, Illusion magic is simply altering the target's perception of it. Sure, a powerful enough illusion can convince the target he's falling off a cliff or burning alive. But the same forces aren't at play on a cosmic scale.
And besides, in practice it's mostly going to be smaller-scale stuff: causing the target to hallucinate things and hear noises that aren't there. You know, like this completely real chemical weapon that's been in U.S. stockpiles since 1955, and has allegedly been duplicated and used by several countries in years since.
Told you all I've been thinking about weird shit...
Anyway, that's about all I've got for this week. Next time I'll have some more thoughts on the Thief class, skills, and skill resolution. And maybe some stuff on the makeup and organization of the Chaos side of the war.
Until then, stay careful out there. Keep collecting the bounties. And for the love of Bahamut, if you hear fluttering wings in the trees, don't look up. The tree-toppers are on our side. But accidents happen. And we don't need anyone hallucinating three-headed purple tigers or some shit, and screaming off into the woods.
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.
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.