Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Steel on Steel and Blood on Blood!

 My foolhardy rules-tinkering knows no bounds! Or well, I guess actually it is pretty bounded, since I am just going to be re-examining something that has been examined innumerable times before by innumerable other referees and game designers: combat. 

I have set out to make a combat system that:
01: is no more complex than B/X combat already is
02: has simultaneous/descriptive initiative (this is the biggest change from how I'm used to running things, but I think it will be a change for the better)
03: has as many rolls as possible be player-facing (gotten really into player-facing rolls from the GLOG tbh)
04: has abstracted and simplified movement that doesn't require tracking distances (this is because on the one hand a lot of my games are run over the internet and on the other hand because I am awful at visualizing distances so just not bothering with it is better for me)

There are many posts that inspired this one, too many to link individually, though I would like to thank the fine post-writers over at METAL vs SKIN, Spells and Steel, Goblin Punch, Alone in the Labyrinth, and innumerable people I know via the OSR discord who helped me in discussions about this, especially Retired Adventurer, CosmicOrrery, Archon's Court, and kahva. Very likely I've forgotten some people, sorry about that if I have!

I've taken too long to actually get to the combat rules stuff so here it is


Let's take a look at this step by step using a made up random encounter to illustrate. Skip to the section titled IN SUMMARY for a more succinct description.

An adventuring party of two fighters, a thief, a cleric, and the cleric's henchman come across four pigmen wandering the halls of some abandoned cellar, one of them astride a stinking manpig. It would take 2 rounds for one party moving in to close the distance, and the pigmen are doing just that! At the table, the referee rolled a hostile reaction for the pigmen, who noticed the adventurers by their torchlight. The adventurers cannot see anything just yet, but they hear movement in the darkness and smell the dripping spit of the manpig as it approaches. The players succeeded their roll to see if they would be surprised.

So far this mostly works like a B/X encounter normally does! Notice the switch from rolling the exact distance that the monsters are encountered at to rolling the number of rounds it takes to close the distance. Since we will not be tracking distances elsewhere in combat, I figured that an easy abstraction would be to just roll how long it would take for the players, the monsters, or both to close in. Then, it becomes a binary choice: do you move in to engage in combat, or move away to avoid a fight? There are of course other alternatives, but those would be situational and don't have to be detailed here. The way this is determined depends on the location:
Dungeon/Underground: 1d4 rounds to close in.
Wilderness: 3d6 rounds to close in.

A rambunctious pigman, upon rushing closer to the group for a round, throws a rock at one of the fighters, who is holding a torch. The fighter's player makes a saving throw vs. dragon breath, and fails. They are hit on the head with the rock, taking 2 points of damage.

Like I said above, as many rolls as possible are made player-facing. Rather than the pigman making an attack roll to hit the fighter with their rock, the fighter makes a saving throw to not get hit. Didn't help them much here though; they got hit anyway!

By the time the four pigmen come within the light of the torches, the adventurers are ready. The referee describes the situation to them: a pigman with a tangled mess of teeth holds another rock in their hands, while a pigman with one eye missing approaches the fighter that was hit by the rock, a sword in hand. The pigman astride the manpig rushes toward the cleric, while another pigman wielding a flail approaches the other fighter. Each player describes what they are doing in response: the already hit fighter defends themself from the sword-wielding pigman, the other fighter engages the flail-wielding pigman, the cleric and their henchman defend from the pigman astride the manpig, and the thief dashes in to strike the sword-wielding pigman while distracted by the fighter.

Here is where things start to look more and more different from B/X. Combat is handled with simultaneous initiative: the referee describes a starting situation, the players describe their reaction to that situation, and each response is handled one by one. A round finishes once all of these are resolved.

The fighter who wasn't struck by the rock is wielding a short sword and a wicker shield, and is engaged in melee with the pigman wielding a flail. The fighter rolls 1d20+2; this is the combat roll, it is modified by +2 because of the fighter's level (they are level 1, so they add +1 to their rolls) and because they are carrying a wicker shield (which adds an additional +1). They roll an 8, which is a failing roll, so the referee rolls 1d6 for the pigman's flail: 3 damage is rolled, which would halve the fighter's HP, but they are wearing cloth armor that lessens it by 1 point.

With monsters no longer having a dedicated turn in combat that they do their actions on, and with as many rolls as possible being player-facing, I decided to combine monster and player attack/to-hit rolls into one single roll that the player makes every round they are engaged in melee. The player rolls 1d20+combat bonus (your combat bonus is based on your class, level, and possibly also certain items you are using) with the referee comparing it to the monster's combat score. On a success the player rolls damage dealt to the monster, on a failure the referee rolls damage dealt to the player. Armor worn by a character is damage reduction. The combat roll functions this way as an abstraction of offensive hits and defensive parries in aggregate, with the ultimate result of each round of fighting coming out at the end.

That armor doesn't look very protective young lady! I would be inclined to grant a bonus to damage for wearing that!

The other fighter (the one who got hit by a rock earlier) and the thief are engaged in melee with the sword-wielding pigman. The pigman is focused on the fighter, although they do notice the thief slipping behind them out of the edge of the torchlight. The fighter rolls 1d20+1, rolling a 19, which is a success! In addition, since the majority of their attention is focused on the fighter, the thief is able to stab them with a knife, automatically dealing damage. The pigman collapses to the ground from their injuries.

A creature/character with only one attack per round simply does not have the capability to keep attention on multiple opponents at once. As a result, if another combatant attacks the "distracted" opponent, that combatant's attack automatically deals damage. In a sense, this is an abstracted way to handle that flanking that "tactical" combat in games like 3e and 5e like so much. Notice however that this did not give the thief the opportunity for a sneak attack; the pigman was fully aware of the thief, but couldn't risk turning to defend from them since they were already defending from the fighter.

The cleric and their henchman are engaged in combat with the pigman and its manpig mount. This is a dangerous situation for the cleric: they have to contend with two melee combatants, as well as a very likely thrown rock from the other pigman. The cleric's player asks if it would be possible for their henchman to distract the pigman so that they could turn the unclean manpig and force the mount and rider to flee. The referee gives the a-okay to that plan, but includes a difficult cost: the henchman will automatically take damage and the player must make a save vs. poison or their henchman contracts a horrid disease from the manpig's bite. The cleric player succeeds on the saving throw, but the henchman ends up taking 6 points of damage and collapses to the ground. In the interim, however, the cleric succeeds on the turn unclean roll, forcing the manpig to flee with its rider in tow. The referee makes a morale check for the other pigmen, resulting in them fleeing, but not before the one wielding a rock throws it at the cleric. They fail their save and take 4 points of damage.

After just one round the combat is over. Morale works just the same as in B/X, since it is by far my favorite aspect of that system's encounter rules. I included the bits about the cleric's player discussing with the referee to show that this combat rework is just as flexible as normal OSR play, with everything coming about as agreement between players and referee, and DM adjudication. 

Distances are not tracked in absolute numbers. Whether you are able to engage with a given creature is entirely based on relative, narrative-based description. Initiative is simultaneous, rather than going in turns.

To-hit rolls, AC, and monster saving throws have all been scrapped. Instead, players make combat rolls that represent all aspects of a fight in a round, defensive and offensive. If they succeed in a combat roll against a monster's static combat score, they deal damage; if they fail, the monster deals damage to them. Characters have a bonus to their combat rolls based on their level, their class, and items/hirelings they may have. Armor is damage reduction, and players make saving throws for non-player characters/monsters, as well as making saving throws to avoid being hit by ranged attacks, rather than the monster rolling to hit them with the ranged attack. Characters/monsters can only engage with as many combatants as they have attacks per round; any creatures attacking them in excess automatically deal damage.

01: (if applicable/at beginning of combat) Roll for surprise. During the surprise round, whichever side has surprise can act unopposed (attacks automatically deal damage).
02: Referee describes the situation at the start of the round to the players.
03: Players discuss among themselves and communicate to the referee how they respond.
04: Non-melee actions are resolved first. Spells, retreats, missile attacks. (these are resolved first so that monsters can respond to them if possible. this didn't happen in the example above but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen).
05: Melee combat is resolved.
06: Check morale when applicable. If monsters or players do not flee, return to step 2.

Martial Classes: Equal to level. Example: Fighter, Berserker.
Semi-Martial Classes: Half level, rounded up. Example: Wrestler, Ranger.
Semi-Combatant Classes: Half level, rounded down. Example: Cleric, Thief.
Non-Combatant Classes: 0 at level 1, +1 every level after. Example: Magic-User.

DEX modifies melee combat rolls. INT modifies missile attack rolls. STR modifies all damage rolls.

Wielding a side-arm along with a one-handed weapon provides a +1 to a combat roll. Think a parrying dagger or swordbreaker. On a critical hit, deal the damage of the sidearm in addition to the maximum damage of your primary weapon.

Carrying a shield with a one-handed weapon provides a bonus to the combat roll. +1 for a wicker shield, +2 for wood or metal. The player can choose to sacrifice their shield to negate all damage taken (a la SHIELDS SHALL BE SPLINTERED).

Henchmen (defined here as retainers that typically engage in combat) provide a bonus to the attack roll of whoever they are helping equal to half their HD/level, rounded up if a more fighty-type character, rounded down if a less fighty-type character.

Armor is damage reduction. Damage dealt can not go below 1 point from armor.

No armor, normal clothing: 0 armor
Cloth/padded armor, leather, animal skins: 1 armor
Mail: 2 armor
Plate and mail: 4 armor

Reach weapons (such as spears, polearms) stop their opponent from effectively responding. The player still rolls (when both on the receiving end of the polearm or they are the one wielding it themself), but the one not wielding a reach weapon never deals damage to the one that is wielding it. If both parties are wielding spears/polearms, combat works as normal, with some risk of the polearms getting caught up on one another and falling to the floor.

Being slow in combat (either from encumbrance or wielding a slow two-handed type weapon) leaves you open to attacks even when attacking. If engaged in combat with a faster opponent (i.e. one that isn't encumbered and isn't wielding a slow weapon), they always deal damage to you even if you succeed on the combat roll. If you succeed, for instance, they deal damage to you and you deal damage to them. Two opponents that both wield slow weapons fight as normal.

Sneak attacks automatically hit, none of this "+4 to-hit" stuff, if your opponent is actually unaware that you are attacking then you always hit with the sole exception of if some extraneous circumstance stops you from doing so. 


  1. So, did you get a chance to try this out?

    1. I did actually! After a bunch of combatless sessions we did have a combat encounter in the most recent session of King of Kings (which I'll be posting about soon) and used this... it was a pretty short encounter though, and one where the monster they encountered was somewhat handicapped by circumstance so I don't know how good of a model it is. It ran pretty smoothly though!