Monday, April 6, 2009

On Combat Rounds and Rules

It's funny how I've gone back-and-forth on the issue of the proper length of a combat round. I started with the Moldavy rules set and AD&D1, both of which stipulate the length of a combat round at 1 minute. My friends and I, teenagers all, thought this way too long, so we sort of unofficially house-ruled that the actual fighting took place in less time, but that the minute per round included the time spent resting and picking up after the fight. 3rd Edition D&D agreed, reducing the length of combat to what was previously known as a segment, 6 seconds. We all agreed that this was exactly as it should be and all was right with the world.

As I've gotten into D&D's roots, I've become ambivalent about the proper length of a combat round. The 1-minute length, I've found, actually makes historical sense within D&D's wargaming roots in simulating mass combat, e.g. where each mini on the board represents 1o or 20 armored men. You can make the case that it makes sense in one-to-one ratio of D&D combat, but then, you can make the case that a lot of blows and parries can be made in six seconds as well.

My own experience in melee combat comes from a brief stint in LARPing and some small amount of kendo training from a friend (who happens to be one of the best swordswomen in the USA). It was never my experience that it took whole minutes to land a telling blow, but I'll be the first to acknowledge that in LARPing one doesn't really get a sense of what armor is supposed to do (it simply adds hit points) and in kendo, one is unarmored. However, if one takes the hit-point bonuses from armor into account in LARPing, combat could take a couple of minutes to resolve as blows were exchanged. I've watched SCA fights, and the length was about the same in most cases. However, my martial artist friend is also quick to point out that in unarmored one-on-one fights, even (especially!) between two skilled opponents, the fight would tend to be over in a matter of seconds--and yet, we know from medieval records that a battle between two armored knights could go on far longer.

OD&D was never designed to simulate one-on-one duels between unarmored swashbuckers or samauri, but between small to large groups of heavily armored opponents; hence the one-minute combat rounds. It seems that we actually need a separate rules-set for the duel between two musketeers--but since the game presumes a medieval European flavor, where duels would take place between armored knights, I see no real reason to try to create them now. (If one of my players gets into a situation where such rules are needed, we'll just ad hoc them on the spot.)

Given this, I'm planning on returning to 1-minute rounds in my OD&D game: It makes sense of the "talking is a free action" rule (which is horribly abused in 6-second rounds), provides a literary rationale for the length of spell-casting (more on this in a moment), and makes sense when it comes to giving PCs a chance to work out their strategies and try crazy maneuvers.

Speaking of "crazy maneuvers," one of the things that I like in principle about editions 3-4 is that they provide rules for doing things like maneuvering your opponent into position, fighting defensively, doing hit-and-runs, etc. That's not to say that one couldn't do these things in OD&D, but how much one could pull off largely depended on referee fiat. Provided that each instance of fiat was remembered (or written down) as a reasonably consistant house rule, this wasn't a problem, and formed part of each group's organic experience of the rules arising out of the gameplay instead of vice versa (as James explains here). However, I remember well how quickly something I had let a player get away with once under the "rule of cool" heading would become a headache as everyone used and abused it, leading to me nerfing said maneuver or coming up with odd reasons why it wouldn't work, leading to cries of foul play from my players . . .

The trick, as with dealing with non-combat skills, is to have some sort of baseline that lends itself to play without creating artificial strictures. For example, during our brief stint in 4th ed., I really enjoyed employing the rogue's ability to manuever opponents into more advantageous positions via the use of Erroll Flynn-style swordplay. However, this came at the cost of two disassociated mechanics: 1) Only rogues could pull this off for some reason, and 2) they could only do so a limited number of times per day. So I created the following rule that any character could employ:

Maneuvering Opponents
A character may choose to forego the opportunity to do damage against a given opponent to instead attempt to maneuver him into an advantageous position. On a successful attack roll, the combatants make contesting strength of dexterity checks (combatants choose), if the attacker wins, he can move his opponent 5’ for each point that he won by. He must follow the target to move it more than 5’ in any case.

In other words, the burly fighting-man might drive an opponent back by hammering blows down upon his shield or locking shields and shoving hard, while the nimble thief Erroll-Flynns the guy into position. The one being driven back might choose to stand his ground and simply push back, or else maneuver to one side without actually leaving his square.

This rule works well with another that I've ported over from OD&D, the fighting-man's ability to make attacks on multiple opponents of 1 HD or less. In my house-rules, this ability is negated if there is any opponent of more than 1HD within 15', the distance one can move in a single combat round without having to charge (which leaves one vulnerable to set spears, pikes, and pole arms). Basically, the nearby presence of an "elite" on the other side prevents the fighting-man from mowing through the scum, whether due to having to trade blows with the elite, the elite's leadership keeping his men in formation, or whatever.

It is easy to imagine how a party might employ these rules, with one character maneuvering around the line of orcs to attack their leader and push him away from his men to allow the fighting-man a chance to quickly dispatch the 1HD orcs. Of course, this could happen in reverse as well, with the orcs pushing back the 4th level fighting-man to let the 4+1 HD ogre decimate the PCs' hirelings . . .

Another rule that I swiped from one of the OD&D blogs (and unfortunately, I can't remember which one--if anyone knows, please let me know and I'll update this entry to give credit to the source) was on the proper use and sacrifice of shields:
Shield Block
Any combatant who is carrying a shield may, after being targeted by a successful attack, choose to sacrifice his shield to avoid the attack. If the character doing so waits until after seeing the damage roll of the attack, he must make a successful save (modified by strength or dexterity; player’s choice) to successfully intercept the attack. If the saving throw fails, the shield is not broken and the character takes normal damage.
This will also let me give a little more life to my humanoids without having to up their HD, since most will be happy to sacrifice their shields to have another chance to slay or run. It also has a fine literary and historical precedent: In viking duels, each duelist was given three shields. If all three were broken, then he had to fight shieldless--a huge disadvantage. (This was portrayed in Crichton's Eaters of the Dead and the movie version The 13th Warrior.)

Other rules arise easily enough out of these two: Disarming an opponent uses opposed strength/dexterity checks just like maneuvering them. Breaking a weapon is not always possible (Mythbusters showed that a properly forged steel weapon will flex rather than break), but doing so requires a strength vs. dexterity roll at a significant penalty (-2 for breaking a spear haft, -6 for breaking a two-handed sword, for example). One does not provoke an "attack of opportunity" by making attempts at special maneuvers, however--one simply loses the opportunity to do direct damage that round.

Theoretically, a character could spend time training in the fine art of disarming, either using a d8 instead of a d6 or else getting a bonus to the attempt.

The flexibility looks right, and the necessity of a successful attack roll first should balance things out at various levels of play. When my turn to referee rolls around again, we'll see how these rules do in actual play.

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