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The Tiger Roars
Back in Black

Combat Made Simpler and Better by Kenton Kilgore
In previous installments of this series, I’ve discussed how I’ve revived my 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign and made adjustments to make the game simper and better. Last time out, I described what I did to improve spellcasting; this time, I’d like to talk combat.

Depending on how much of a stickler for the rules your Dungeon Master was, 1e was either too complicated or too limiting. Was there anyone who easily understood the rules as written in the Dungeon Masters Guide for surprise, initiative, or weapon speeds? I know I didn’t back then, and after re-reading them now, I still don’t. Most DMs I knew (and I was one of them) pared down those rules to the point that combat could easily become…dare I say it…boring. Strange, but true.

To the best of my recollection, 2nd Edition didn’t do much to remedy that, and 3rd Edition combat was also confusing and overly complicated. In tinkering with combat for my new campaign, there were a number of problems I wanted to address:

  • Surprise
  • Weapon speeds, initiative and decision making 
  • Multiple attacks and attacks with two weapons
  • Critical hits
  • Maneuvering and special combat actions
  • Spellcasting and using magic items 
Monkeying with combat was particularly challenging because whatever changes I made needed to make combat go quickly and be exciting while also being easily comprehended by new players. Here’s what I came up with, using the 1e Players Handbook, Unearthed Arcana, and DMG, as well as the 2e Player’s Option: Combat and Tactics book as sources. Some of this I developed myself; most of it is cribbed from those books I just mentioned.

As much as I like to rag on 2e AD&D, I found the Combat and Tactics book (at right) to be very useful

 In most cases, the party or their opponent are surprised on a 1 or 2 on a d6; sometimes, characters or monsters have different chances of surprising or being surprised, and when this is the case, adjustments will be made based on percentages. For example, suppose a halfling thief not in metal armor is attempting to surprise (and backstab) a ranger. The halfling normally surprises on a 1-4 on a d6 (64% of the time), but the ranger is only surprised on a 1 in 6 (16%). The halfling would thus have a 48% chance of surprising the ranger (64% - 16% = 48%), or surprising on a 1-3 on a d6. 

When contact between player-characters and monsters occurs, each pc will roll individually for surprise, while the monsters will usually roll as a group, unless the monsters can be separated into distinct groups (two fire giants and their three pet hellhounds) or are unique individuals in a small group (such as NPCs with character classes). In that case, I would roll for each group or unique individual. 

Depending on situations and how the dice roll, all, some, or none of the individuals in each group may be surprised. In any case where some individuals (in either group) are surprised while others (in either group) are not, a “surprise round” is immediately carried out. A surprise round is an abbreviated form of combat round, lasting a mere three segments: this represents the few seconds of “shock and awe” that strike a surprised person before they recover their senses and can act. 

"Surprise! I bet you weren't expecting that behind this door there'd be a mind flayer--WITH A LASER GUN!"

In the surprise round, those (on BOTH sides) who are NOT surprised can act normally as if it were a regular combat round: they may parley, fire missile weapons (at the regular rate of fire), attack with melee weapons (with the normal amount of attacks), flee, etc. Attacks from both sides will occur based on weapon speeds (see below), as is done for a “normal” combat round.

In the surprise round, spells may be cast and magic items (wands, rings, scrolls, etc.) used, but because the surprise round is only three segments long, spells with casting times and magic items with activation times longer than three segments will not go off during the surprise round. Unless the spellcaster is interrupted or the magic item destroyed (or its user killed), the spell or item will go off in the next, “normal” round at its regular time, minus the three segments that passed in the surprise round. So, for example, a magic-user who surprises an opponent can cast a spell with a three-segment cast time that goes off at the end of the surprise round, or start casting a 9 segment-casting time spell in the surprise round and have it go off in the 6th segment of the following round.

During the surprise round, those (from BOTH sides) who are surprised may not do anything—fight, shoot, cast, flee, what have you—and their Armor Class cannot benefit from the use of a shield (being surprised, the character doesn’t have the shield ready to block blows) or from high Dexterity (being surprised, they may not dodge out of the way). Furthermore, they may not use Dexterity bonuses to help with saving throws.

Weapon Speeds, Initiative, and Decision Making 
Once combat is initiated, either in a surprise round or a regular round, it’s time to pull steel, draw bowstrings, and throw down—but who goes first? Old-school AD&D settled the question with a d6 initiative roll for each party, but that was too simplistic an answer, ignoring how fast characters were (represented by their Dexterity scores) and what weapons they used. This has the effect that players usually chose weapons based solely on damage, as speed was not a factor: why [fornicate] around with a rinky-dink short sword (d6 damage vs. Small and Medium targets, d8 vs. Large) if you could have a two-handed sword (1-10 vs. Small/Medium, 3-18 vs. Large)? 

I decided that weapon speed, which was rarely considered in any of the campaigns I participated in, would become crucial.

Weapon Speeds.  Just as they did under the original rules, melee rounds would remain one minute in length. To determine who goes first in a fight, check the weapon Speed Factor (see page 38 of the PHB or pp. 130-133 of POCT) for each weapon. If the wielder of the weapon has a Dexterity score of 16 or above, deduct the appropriate Reaction/Attacking Adjustment (ignore the plus sign in this case) from the Speed Factor; if the wielder has a Dexterity of 5 or lower, add the applicable Reaction/Attacking Adjustment (ignore the minus sign) to the Speed Factor. The lower the adjusted Speed Factor, the faster the combatant is, and the sooner they will strike in melee.  No Speed Factor can be adjusted below 1 or above 10 (unless the weapon is something like flaming oil, which takes a round and a half to use).

Example: Amazing Abner of Aglorthonia, armed with an axe, is facing off against Bellicose Beryn of Boroviad, who bears a broadsword. Abner’s axe (say it’s a battle axe) has a Speed Factor of 7, while Beryn’s broadsword has a Speed Factor of 5. Ordinarily, Beryn would go first, as 5 is less than 7. However, Abner is not called “Amazing” for nothing: he has an 18 Dexterity, which gives him a -3 to his Speed Factor. Furthermore, Beryn is a bit on the lumbering side, with a Dexterity of 5, so his Speed Factor increases by 1. 

Abner’s adjusted score is 4 (Speed Factor of 7 for battle axe – 3 for Dexterity of 18) while Beryn’s is 6 (Speed Factor of 5 for broadsword +1 for Dexterity of 5). Despite having a slower weapon, Abner is going to go first every round because his reflexes and arm speed are much, much quicker than Beryn’s. 

Thus, small, light weapons like daggers might not do as much damage as big, heavy weapons like two-handed swords, but daggers are much faster (Speed Factor 2) than two-handed swords (Speed Factor 10). When choosing weapons for their characters, players would need to consider balancing speed vs. damage. 

Distance can affect who goes first in combat. If someone’s PC has an 18 Dexterity and is armed with a knife, normally a very speedy weapon, they’re still going to go last (if at all) against someone with a 3 Dex who has a slow-firing missile weapon (like a heavy crossbow) if the two are 100 yards apart (if they’re only a few feet from each other, that’s another story).

Examples of Speeds for Various Weapons: All speeds are taken from pp. 130-133 of POCT:

Speed Factor
Speed Factor
Speed Factor
Axe, Battle
Axe, Throwing
Oil flask
Bow, Long
Crossbow, light
Lance, light
Sword, long
Crossbow, heavy
Mace, footman's
Sword, short

Weapon Speeds for Monsters: NPCs and roughly-human sized monsters (such as orcs, goblins, gnolls, etc.) who use weapons will strike at the appropriate Speed Factor; e.g., an orc with a short sword will strike with Speed Factor 3, the same as a PC with unexceptional Dexterity. Monsters such as giants who use larger versions of weapons will strike later than their human-sized counterparts, in keeping with the concept that the bigger the weapon, the slower it is. Accordingly, monsters (such as pixies) who use smaller versions of weapons will strike more quickly.

Monsters such as dragons, bulette, chimerae, wild animals, etc. who do not use weapons will strike based on their size. In general, the smaller the monster, the faster it strikes, and the larger the monster, the slower it strikes. The smallest monsters will tend to strike with a Speed Factor of 1; the largest will strike with Speed Factor 10, as shown below (taken from POCT):

Monster Size
Speed Factor
Large (7'-12')
Large (13'-25')
Large (26'+)

DM: "The good news is that the monsters are small and wimpy. The bad news is that there are lots of them and they're fast"

Initiative: I disregarded the rules for initiative in the PHB and DMG. Instead of determining when a character or group of characters can act, I re-conceptualized initiative as a tiebreaker to be used when two or more opponents are attempting actions at the same time. Initiative represents the element of chance in any confrontation: a high roll for the first round of a fight could reflect a warrior rapidly drawing his sword; a low roll on the next round could be the same fellow twisting his ankle, delaying him for a second or two, as he steps into a swing. 

When two or more characters attempt an action at the same time (two swordsmen striking with Speed Factor 4, for instance), initiative becomes a factor. Players will roll individually for their characters; I would usually roll for the party’s opponents as a group, but I might roll separately for exceptional non-player characters (e.g., the evil cleric commanding the ghouls to attack the party) or for two or more groups of monsters (e.g., rolling once for the fire giants and again for their hell hound pets). 

Initiative rolls are made on a d6, with higher rolls beating lower rolls and ties reflecting when the action truly is simultaneous. There are no modifiers for Dexterity to the roll: adjustments for high (or low) Dexterity are factored into Weapon Speed. 

Decision-making: Combat is supposed to move quickly, and players need to think fast. Unless the PCs are staging an ambush for enemies unaware of their presence, players will have limited time to prepare. In typical combat situations, where the PCs encounter opponents at more-or-less close (i.e., easily within melee) ranges, players will have 30 seconds of real time before the start of the battle to make plans and discuss tactics: this represents their PCs shouting orders, questions, and answers to each other. If the opponents understand the PC’s language, they may, depending on distance and other conditions, hear what is said and adjust their plans accordingly! The reverse is also true: PCs may be able to hear and learn the enemy’s plans as they briefly discuss strategy (i.e., it often behooves a PC to take additional languages).

DM: "These guys step out of the mist. What do you do?"

Multiple Attacks and Attacks with Two Weapons
Many monsters and higher-level fighters get more than one attack per round. Some PCs (and NPCs) like to fight with two weapons at a time. How to handle those?

Multiple attacks with a single weapon (say, from a high-level fighter) will be resolved at the same time. If a combatant is wielding two weapons at once (for example, a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other), each weapon will strike according to its Speed Factor, adjusted by Reaction/Attacking, as normal. 

Continuing our previous example, if Abner (with his 18 Dexterity) was armed with a battle axe and a dagger, his dagger would strike first (adjusted score of 1, the lowest Speed Factor possible), and his battle axe would strike after that (adjusted score of 4). Even if Beryn has two attacks per round, they will both go after Abner, (adjusted score of 6). 

In a situation like that of Abner and Beryn, Abner’s player could roll both attacks simultaneously in the interest of saving time. If Beryn’s friend Burghrym (14 Dexterity—no bonus to Speed Factor) was also in the fight, using his short sword, then first Abner’s dagger would strike, then Burghrym’s short sword, then Abner’s battle axe, then Beryn’s two swings with his broadsword. 

Critical Hits
E. Gary Gygax sneered at critical hits, but every gaming group I ever played with used them to spice things up. In my campaign, critical hits occur when a PC (or monster!) rolls a natural “20” AND hits their opponent by a margin of 3 or more after all “to hit” adjustments: if you needed a “20” to hit anyway, you’re not getting a critical hit when you finally connect. Critical hits do double damage, with bonuses for Strength, specialization, magic weapons, etc. added in BEFORE the doubling.

Ooh--THAT'S going to leave a mark

In the past, I used to just rule that a natural 20 counted as a critical hit, but it often turned out that well-armored PCs were taking some serious hits from hordes of goblins and other scrubs armed with bows: if I rolled enough dice, after all, enough of them came up “20” and dished out double damage, similar to the phenomenon that 40K players experience when fighting horde armies (given enough Guardsmen with lasguns, no enemy, not even Terminators, are safe). So I changed the requirement for a critical hit to include needing to beat the “to hit” number needed by 3. 

Incidentally, I also ruled that a natural “20” is always a hit and a natural “1” is always a miss.

Maneuvering and Special Combat Actions
Combat should be more than just standing toe-to-toe and slugging it out. I’ve found that good gamers are constantly coming up with all sorts of stuff to try in a fight.

Third Edition D&D went into what I thought were tedious discussions of maneuvering in combat. For my new campaign, I’ve ruled that generally, if a combatant needs to move (including charging) before they make an attack, they will be considered to be delayed one or more Speed Factors, depending on circumstances. This approach might not be precise, but it’s quick and easy and works well enough.

For example, a fighter and a thief are across the room from each other; the fighter has finished off his opponent (an orc) and wants to help his pal the thief, who is up to his eyeballs in suck because he’s being attacked by a minotaur. The fighter ordinarily goes at Speed Factor 4 with his long sword (base speed of 5, -1 for Dexterity bonus), but the room is pretty big (let’s say 30 feet) and there are some orcs in the way dealing with other party members, so the fighter will need to go around them. In this case, I’d rule that the fighter would go at Speed Factor 6: a -1 for moving across the room, and another -1 for having to get past the other fights going on in the room.

DM: "Whatever your character is going to do, Dave,
I'd do it quickly, if I were you..."

I encourage my players to get creative in combat: they can, for example, take “called shots” to hit (usually at a -4 penalty) specific body parts on monsters or against potent magical items that bad guys are holding. I use simplified forms of unarmed combat in case they’re fighting without weapons or want to tackle someone rather than run them through. Sometimes, player-characters want to just go all-out and kick some serious butt: they have the option of going into “full attack” mode. Conversely, sometimes they just want to cover up while some GAMF (God-Almighty Mother Fornicator) monster tries its best to rip them a new hole to poop through: these guys can go into “full defense.” Details follow:

Full Attack: Desperate PCs (and monsters!) may opt to go “all-out” when fighting, doubling the number of melee attacks they usually receive, and gaining a +2 bonus “to hit” (this may be combined with charging). Unfortunately, they also lose any Armor Class bonuses for high Dexterity (penalties for low Dexterity still apply) and shields, and suffer an additional penalty to 2 to Armor Class as well. PCs may combine a Full Attack with a charge, adding on all bonuses and penalties (double attacks, +4 “to hit,” but a penalty of 3 to Armor Class and no Dexterity bonuses or shield). 

Because a Full Attack is so strenuous, PCs may only carry out a Full Attack for a maximum number of rounds equal to their Constitution divided by 3. Note that Full Attack may not be used with missile weapons.

Full Defense: Conversely, PCs may opt to “turtle” and forgo all attacks to defend themselves. When in Full Defense, PCs gain a bonus of 4 to Armor Class, to include all bonuses for shields and high Dexterity. In addition, PCs with magic weapons, specialization, and/or high Strength scores can add their regular “to hit” bonuses to their Armor Class to reflect them parrying opponents’ weapons (so disregard rules for parrying in the PHB, UA, and DMG).

Right about now, Full Attack seems like the best option for our heroine...

Spellcasting and Using Magic Items
For the new campaign, I wanted to curb the effectiveness of higher-level spells in combat, which overshadow the efforts of non-spellcasters. After all, what can a high-level fighter do that’s anywhere nearly as impressive as, say, a Fireball, Cone of Cold, or Flame Strike? Rather than place limits on damage (as 2e AD&D did, so that a Fireball cast by a 10th level magic-user and a 20th level mu were no different), I thought I’d do something about how often those Barney Badass spells actually worked under the stressful conditions of say, being rushed by a wall of orcs armed with pointy metal things.

In past campaigns, spellcasters almost never had spells disrupted before they went off, mostly because I was using the old system of rolling initiative for each side, creating an “I-go/you-go” pattern of combat between PCs and adversaries, not unlike the game-turn pattern used in 40K, where one player makes all their moves and attacks before the other player goes. With the Speed Factor system that I described earlier, PCs and monsters dish out attacks based on who’s faster, much like the Assault Phase currently used in 40K (5th Edition). It was pretty simple, then, to integrate spellcasting times into that system, in much the same way as it had been suggested in the 2e Player’s Option: Combat and Tactics book.

Accordingly, I ruled that unless slowed by magical means, spellcasters who are attempting to cast spells are assumed to begin casting at the beginning of the round, with the spell going off after normal casting time in segments. High (or low) Dexterity scores do not affect casting time: somatic components have to be done at a certain speed. When a caster is attempting to use a spell, compare casting time to the adjusted Speed Factors of opponents attempting to strike them: if the casting time is less, the spell will be completed before the opponent can strike the caster. If the casting time and the Speed Factor are equal, initiative will determine if the caster can get the spell off before the attacker strikes. If the Speed Factor is lower, the opponent might be able to hit the caster before the spell is completed; if they do, the casting attempt is ruined and the spell is lost. 

The implications are:

  • It behooves those fighting spell casters to use very fast weapons, even if they don’t cause a lot of damage;
  • It behooves spellcasters to use spells with a short casting time, even if they don’t do much damage; and,
  • Unless a caster uses a lot of low-level and/or short-casting time spells, they can expect every so often to have a spell ruined by an enemy hitting them before they can complete it. 

Sometimes it's better not to rely on spells and just go with what you know works 

As an aside, I noticed that with this system, I was engaging in some contradictory thinking by taking an elastic approximation of how long it took to wield a weapon and combining it with a static, real-time requirement of how long it took to cast a spell. What I mean is that a dagger has a Speed Factor of 2, but that’s merely a number to indicate that a dagger is faster than, say, a spear (with its Speed Factor of 6). On the other hand, a Fireball has a casting time of 3 segments, or 18 actual seconds. In melee, it doesn’t take 12 seconds to stab with a dagger, which is the illogical conclusion you get if you try to apply the casting-time concept to fighting with melee weapons. For a while, I scratched my head over this dichotomy, and then I shrugged it off: it’s just a game, after all, and the system works, so why care? 

When it comes to using magic items like scrolls, potions, rods, etc. in combat, I ruled that it takes a certain amount of time, unaffected by Dexterity scores, to activate the item. Unless otherwise stated in the item’s description, magic items will activate at the speed given below, as if they had a Speed Factor:

  • Rings: 2
  • Rods/Staves/Wands: 2
  • Potion: 5
  • Miscellaneous Magical Item: 5
  • Scroll: 10
I also ruled that the key benefits to using a magical item—even a scroll—is that, 1) unlike a spell, it cannot be disrupted (short of destroying the item or killing the user) before it activates; and 2) while it is being activated and used, the wielder can apply his or her Dexterity bonus (if any) to their Armor Class. 

"Thought you were hot stuff with your magical glowing sword,
didn't you, punk? Eat my Wand of Weird Wiggly Tentacles"

That’s Pretty Much That
There are some other, minor rulings I made for combat in my campaign, the most notable being that we wouldn’t adjust the “to-hit” rolls for certain weapons vs. certain types of armor. Yes, it’s more realistic that, say, a long, slim blade is better against full plate mail (able to slip between armor pieces) than, say, a broad-headed warhammer, but really, that’s more detail than anyone actually needs. I never used weapon bonuses before (did anyone?), and I wasn’t about to start now.

One significant thing I *did* do, however, was to try to make fighters (including paladins and rangers) more interesting to play at higher levels by giving them what I called “Fighting Feats.” I’ll discuss those next time.

More Black in Black

Posted September 2010


Fighting Tigers:
Codex <> Tactics <> Gallery <> Allies and Enemies <> Tales of the Tigers

Other Pages:
Main <> What's New <> Site Index <> The Tiger Roars <> Themed Army Ideas
Events and Battle Reports <> Campaigns <> Terrain <> FAQ <> Beyond the Jungle