Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fantastic Combat

As I mused earlier, Dungeons & Dragons seems much more set to use with Chainmail right out of the box than most people realize. The mysterious "Fighting Capability" is intelligible, if occasionally inelegant, and the division between normal and fantastic combat is traceable from Chainmail to many references made in the three little booklets of the original game. The only problem remains in the confusing decision to make a successful roll on the Fantasy Combat Table from Chainmail into a mere "hit" in Volume III, implying that it is only worth the 1-6 damage of a mundane strike.

So what is the issue here? If we look at the chances for a normal man to harm a fantastic creature (such as an ogre) in normal combat, his chances of landing a hit are actually better than the hero's chances of succeeding against the same creature in fantastic combat. In Chainmail, this was balanced with the fact that the monster was slain outright with a successful fantastic attack, while normal men had to overwhelm and wear down the creature with multiple wounds. Not only was fantastic combat suitably dramatic, with the hero running the fearsome monster through with a single strike from her sword, but it involved an exciting element of risk - your hero could be smote just as suddenly as the foe.

In Volume III, the successful fantastic strike was demoted to the station of a normal man's attack, equalling a mere "hit", and even had worse odds of hitting than a regular attack. So what made the hero better than the normal man? Is it possible that normal men were meant to be simply unable to engage fantasy creatures in D&D? The presence of armour classes for every monster in Volume II seems to discredit this, as does the entry for Elementals, which specifically prohibits attacks from normal men (thus implying these are normally to be allowed). This would also be breaking with Chainmail, which allowed normal men to fight any fantasy opponent except where specifically prohibited. Perhaps heroes retained their multiple attacks against monsters? Again, in addition to breaking with Chainmail, this seems contradicted by the Attack/Defense rules found in Volume II, which indicate combatants that can fight with the strength of multiple men only do so when fighting with normal men.

There are at least two obvious ways to proceed, if one plans to salvage the Fantasy Combat Table that defined pre-D&D campaigns. Either the matrix is revised to allow much better striking chances than normal men, or the rule in Volume III that demotes a successful roll to a mere "hit" is ignored. The first option is difficult (due to the vastly variable monster armour classes found in Volume II) and bland (a merely superior chance to wound is not very heroic). The second option brings a perhaps unacceptable level of deadliness to fantastic combat - giving a dragon a 28% chance to slay an 8th level Fighting-Man outright with a single attack (and an ogre equal odds to kill off a 4th level Fighting-Man). Combats against such creatures would be very quick, and character turnover very high (which would both work well for a wargame but don't fit well with a D&D campaign).

Both of these solutions involve greatly expanding the Fantasy Combat Table to try and fit the much expanded bestiary of D&D. If the referee is already going to such liberties, I recommend instead a third solution that combines the use of risk, heroics and player choices.

Fantasy Combat
When a Hero faces a fantastic opponent (with 2 or more hit dice) in combat, she may attempt a fantastic strike on the enemy. The player declares the intended effect, the referee sets a target number and they negotiate the stakes. The player may then roll two dice against the target number - higher indicates success, equal indicates a partial success and less indicates a failure.

The referee should determine whether the effect is in the realm of the Hero, Superhero or Wizard when determining the target number, and the stakes should be relevant to the intended effect. Thus if a Superhero wants to slay a dragon in one strike, the stakes should probably be death. But if the Superhero merely wants to distract the dragon, or slay a lesser monster like an Ogre outright, the stakes should be much less dire (entailing a complication in the situation, loss of equipment and so on). In any case, odds should always be against the player and the stakes high, making these fantastic strikes more dramatic and desperate. Of course, if the player does not want to go to such risk, a normal single attack may still be levied. I would not allow a monster to make fantastic strikes, although I would instead give its normal attack a bonus to hit equal to half the monster's hit dice (to keep monsters dangerous).

In essence, this reproduces the effect of the Fantasy Combat Table, but remains more reflexive, as it is not limited by a fixed matrix. As it is merely adapted from the "say yes or roll the dice" philosophy of indie-RPG's, it is also easy to expand this framework to other non-combat actions, such as leaping over chasms or conjuring a magical effect. The limitation to all this is that the character has to have the Fighting Capability of a Hero, Superhero or Wizard, and the action has to be relevant to that role. In this way, Fighting-Men are promoted as they can act heroically as early as level 3 with a -1 penalty to the roll (whereas Clerics must wait till level 6 and Magic-Users till level 7), although heroics can often get you killed, making it a bittersweet honor at best.

1 comment:

  1. I'm working on a similar mechanic for Heroes in my campaign and I am totally stealing the term Fantastic Strike. Thanks!



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