Sunday, April 18, 2021

Injury and the Abstract Combat Round

 


Let me a natural description of how combat works in D&D. Each person gets to make (at least one) to hit roll against an enemy per round to see if they can damage them. How high they have to roll to hit depends on how well-armored their enemy is, because being well-armored protects one from injury. If they do hit, they get to roll to see how effective their blow was by rolling damage. Different weapons do different damage, since some are more deadly than others. These weapons injure people more seriously in the way that getting hit by a sword (or a chainsaw) is likely to injure you worse than getting sliced by a switchblade. Inexperienced characters are easier to kill because they "can take" or "withstand" less damage than more experienced characters who have many more hit points and "can take" many more blows.  

Here are two common dissatisfactions with D&D style combat. The first is that there's something weird about how you can stab Lancelot with a knife 24 times with no chance of killing him. It suggests video game thinking, as if he had a life bar that could be "full" or "empty", a life bar that grew with each level, and shrunk eat time you got hacked with a sword. (Indeed, it may well have been the source of that video game thinking in part.)

One might object to this on grounds of realism. This might be a big deal for you. It might be hard for you to maintain suspension of disbelief with all these stabbings. Or, you may be into military simulations, and think this is missing out on the fun of simulating combat. Personally, I happen to not need that much realism in combat to sustain my immersion in the fiction of the game, and I'm not into military simulations. My objection to this picture is rather an aesthetic one, both a repulsion to the aesthetic of the life bar, as well as to the associated picture of people taking and dishing out endless beatings, like when the Hulk fights Thor. 

The second objection is to gameplay and the role it grants violence. Standard D&D makes fighting weirdly predictable, even with swingy D&D dice. As a seasoned player, I can weigh the odds, and engage with confidence that I have a big HP cushion to count on, sauntering into a fight with confidence that it'll be four or five or ten rounds before I need to reassess. 

We might want a game where the stakes to violence were potentially higher. Where death or actual injury with consequences were constantly hazarded by fighting. We might want this for a variety of reasons, for example, if we wished violence to play a different role in our game, or if we thought it would be more fun if things stayed on the knife's edge--at least when knives were involved. 


The Old School Fix



One old school reply to at least the first aesthetic objection is to emphasize the abstract combat round. In old editions of D&D (OD&D for example), a combat round lasted one minute. During that one minute all kinds of swashbuckling, ripostes, presses, and close shaves get abstracted down to a couple of rolls. Elaborating on this abstracted round, we might say that hit points and damage are equally abstract, and that they do not consist literal stabbings and such, but represent an abstract combination of luck, grit, pluck, fortitude, situational advantage, and skill that have to be overcome for a side to prevail in the course of a fight. Armor makes it harder to prevail against someone in this way, and being better at fighting makes it easier.

I think this is aesthetically much better than the picture on which every successful roll is a literal blow that lands on your opponent. But in conversation recently, Anne Hunter mentioned that although people say this all the time, no one playing retro-games really thinks about it this way at the table. This struck me as true. I got curious why. Here are some speculations.

(1) The names of things are misleading. You roll "to hit". That sure sounds like a sword swing connecting. Furthermore, only if your blow "hits" do you do "damage". That sure sounds like injuring someone. Spells that give you back hp have names like "cure light wounds" "cure moderate wounds", etc., and are described as "healing". That sure sounds like it's making literal wounds vanish! 

(2) There are mechanics that only make sense on the picture of actual individual swings and actual wounds. For example, for every single shot you fire with a bow you mark off a single arrow. So every shot is literally firing a single arrow. This suggests strongly that a hit really is getting hit by a specific arrow. Or again, in old editions of D&D, i.e. AD&D 1E, if you lose hp then you need to recover it slowly by resting for days (1-2 hp a day) in the way that suggests recovering from actual injuries. 

(3) But I think the biggest culprit here is how as players and DMs we describe combat and enter into it imaginatively. aPhilotomy is a proponent of the abstract combat round solution. Here is a nice quotation from Philotomy's OD&D Musings about the importance of giving the right descriptions of combat in order to support the abstract combat round approach to hp.  

I agree with Philotomy that we need to change our descriptions if we're to have an abstract combat round approach to hp. But I'm skeptical that merely sprinkling in DM narrated description now and again is going to get people out of the concrete headspace. 

The problem is that when I, the DM, ask you at the start of a round, as the rules require, "What are you doing this round?", it's utterly natural for you to say, "I'm going to stab him with my sword." And then you roll to see if your proposed action succeeds, and then if it does succeed, you roll further to see how effective it is. So if you hit, you naturally imagine yourself as in fact stabbing someone, and you imagine them as taking more or less damage from being cut by your weapon. 

Ron Edwards call this sequence of description and dice rolls, "fortune at the end". The idea is that you appeal to fortune after you have fully described what you are doing. The fortune shows you if the described action succeeds, and if it does, how effective that action is. He contrasts this with "fortune in the middle", where you describe a general goal, but then roll and narrate what actions you perform to fit the outcome of the die roll. I'll come back to "fortune in the middle" in a little bit.

The point for now is that the "fortune at the end" kind of sequential ordering, when combined with the names for the rolls and the variable weapon damage, really pushes players to imagine that their character is trying to stab their opponent all right, but the opponent turns aside the sword (if the player misses), or that the player's character does in fact stab them (if the player hits). I mean, that's what you were trying to do, and you either succeeded or failed with your binary to hit roll followed by a damage roll based on how lethal your weapon is, right? So naturally, that's how you'll be imagining the situation. There's a constant pull away from abstraction if we enter into the situation imaginatively, as we are constantly invited to do by the rules.

The point is that these three things, the language, nuances of the rules, and the structure suggested by the sequences of declaring and then executing actions, and the way this invites us into the shared imaginative space, all work against the abstract combat round type of approach to hit points.


The New School Fix



Suppose we eschew the abstracted combat round and stick with the surface logic of striking blows in D&D. What can we do? John Bell in conversation pointed out to me that Justin Alexander interprets the strange ability of heroes to absorb so many more stabbings in a different way. Individual blows really are individual blows and damage really is damage. But your hit point total represents your general fighting capacity, and damage is indexed to that. It's true a sword is (potentially) twice as effective as a dagger against Conan, but given his honed instincts, training, and the luck he makes for himself, the best you're going to do with the first eight sword blows is scratch him. He's just that good. By contrast, for a 1st level recruit, a sword will still be twice as effective as a dagger, but a single blow from a sword might very well kill them. Here's a nice quote: 


I think this makes a kind of sense, and it's probably about as good as you're going to get while sticking with the logic of individual blows and effects suggested by a straight reading of D&D's mechanics. It's true that it has a couple of problems, like why can the cleric heal a grievous wound for the peasant, but not more than few scratches for Conan? Better fighters need bigger miracles? 

But the real issue for me is that it doesn't address my objections. This is not to say it doesn't work--it basically works, it's just if you want what I want from a game it's not going to satisfy. It leaves the endless pounding aesthetic in place, and leaves combat (starting at mid levels) in that weirdly predictably not-very-scary space. Again, I'm not saying you can't die with this kind of hp inflation, you can, but combat's got a weird "we've got this" type logic most of the time. 

By the way, I facetiously called this a New School fix, but the truth is that this is, arguably, to a certain extent how even OD&D is handling things from Supplement I forward, basically as soon as variable weapon damage gets introduced. Certainly there's a ton of this kind of thinking in AD&D 1E. So it's an especially clear statement of a rationale for something that's not very new after all.


Making it Abstract FOR REAL



My proposal is to fix the problems I mentioned so that we might take the abstract combat round more seriously. I'm going in the "old school fix" direction, although it takes me is to place where we use certain narrative practices that are not very well entrenched in retro play. I'd also like to try to make combat more a space of real injury and also stretch the peril characteristic of low levels to cover a lot more of the progression curve. I'd also like to stay away from the superheroes trading blows upon blows aesthetic. 

Language

Let's start with language. Let's make it more abstract. Instead of calling it "to hit roll" let's call it a "combat roll". Instead of a "hit", let's call it a "success". So you "succeed" or "fail" at your "combat roll". Instead of "rolling damage", let's call it "rolling effectiveness", or "rolling effect". If you succeed at your combat roll, then you roll to see how effective that was success was. 

Grit

Here's a  bit of language that bleeds into more significant rules. Instead of calling them "hit points", let's follow Logan Knight (at one stage of his development) and call the counter ticking towards death "grit". The basic idea is that grit will track some abstract combination of honed instinct, resolve, situational upper hand, minor wounds, and the like. Think about grit as a tracker leading towards actual wounds. (If you are familiar with Apocalypse Worlds and Blades in the dark, think of it as a "clock".) When the grit tracker is depleted then actual wounds and death ensue (knives in bellies). If you haven't read Logan Knight's original post on Flesh and Grit, as well as his more evolved rules here on this I recommend you do so, as my whole approach takes inspiration these, and mechanically speaking, just ring a couple of changes on them. In fact an even better version is in Ava Islam's Errant here and a post where she unpacks her reasoning here.

To make this work, we need to distinguish mechanically bonafide wounds from the kind of thing grit tracks. We can have real recovery rules for wounds, but a different recovery mechanic (more like long rests in later editions of D&D) for grit. I'll present a system below drawing on Knight and Islam's approach. 

Keep Grit Dice Low

We'll need to keep grit low throughout the duration of a campaign if things are to stay on the knife's edge. In Jorune: Evolutions, you can only gain a Grit Die (GD) through what I used to call "Big Ticket Sandbox Advancement", and now call Signature Achievement Advancement (diegetic accomplishment of some task that makes you a badass). Since signature achievements are hard to accomplish, characters will likely remain at 1 GD for a while. Also, the system maxes out at 4 GD as the most a player can ever get. So we'll never get into superhero range, although 4 HD could arguably represent a Conan figure pretty well.

Ditching Variable Weapon Damage

Let's also decouple "effectiveness" from how big a blade a weapon has. In other words, let's ditch variable weapon damage and go back to OD&D pre-supplement 1's flat 1d6 for damage. This will help a lot with abstraction and is exactly what Jorune: Evolutions does. Variable weapon damage probably does more than anything to push us to imagining combat rolls as concrete blows that injure our foes to a greater or lesser degree. (There are other, more interesting, ways to differentiate weapons that I discuss here.) 

Sundry Rules Modifications

Perhaps we can handle the ammo question the way Gus L does (and many others) with a usage die for ammunition. This will drive us towards abstraction and away from arrow counting. With different healing rules for grit and real injury this will smooth over the "cure light wounds" difficulty. 

Describing Combat

Now for the harder bit: how to describe and imaginatively enter into combat. The most interesting change will be in how we describe and think about combat narratively by replacing "fortune at the end" with "fortune in the middle". 

Players will still be asked what they want to do at the start of the round. They still say what their character is going to be doing in combat that round, like trying to kill someone or attacking with a sword. But combat as it actually unfolds will be described differently. I think we need to bring the players into combat imaginatively in a different way to make this work by asking them the right kinds of questions as DMs. 

I'm thinking of the way even in retro gamist heavy play, DMs will often ask a player to describe how they kill someone, giving narrative control over the moment of victory to the player, asking "What does it look when you take them out?" Here I'm envisioning something similar but re-centered on an abstract understanding of grit. 

Suppose the player succeeds at a combat roll and rolls a 6 (max) on the effectiveness die. The DM might say, "Wow, that was pretty effective. Tell us how you're gaining the upper hand." Or, supposing the grit counter has ticked low for the enemy as a result of the roll, we could go with the more melodramatic: "Tell us how we know that the hour of your enemy's doom is approaching." 

This will encourage players to enter into a space where they think of the struggle of combat as leading up to grievous injury, rather than consisting of a mechanic series of blows. It may also add a bit of (welcome) flavor to what is famously kinda dry combat in OSR games. 

Now, to make this work, the rule will have to be that the player may not describe the opponent as suffering a (real or serious) wound when all we're talking about is the loss of grit, since that hasn't happened yet. Furthermore--and this is the really tricky bit--there needs to be an understanding that what is described doesn't constitute fictional positioning with mechanical benefits. There already are mechanics for combat in place.  

So, for example, the player can't say, "I split his breastplate and give him a gash from shoulder to rib." That would be a wound, so the DM might say, "Well you didn't wound him yet, so let's say you actually dent his breastplate, and you hear him groan and gasp in breath as his ribs bruise." Players will pick up on this soon enough and it will effect how they imaginatively enter the combat space, "I beat him back and the best he can do is frantically parry my blows".

A harder case: what if they say, "I strike him hard, and he tries to parry, but the blow knocks the sword across the room"? The problem is that some weapons and unarmed combat have rules for disarming people, and so this is already covered by the rules elsewhere. They can't get that condition "for free" through narrative control. You don't want players "double dipping", both gaining the benefits of an effective blow that significantly advances the tracker towards wounds and death, and also gives them further mechanical benefits. Trust me, if players have this power in a gamist space where they're required to "try to win" it's not going to work. 

As a DM, I would redirect this description in a "yes and" way, "Amazing. But he's not disarmed per the rules, so he dives for his weapon and retrieves it, sweat forming on his brow."   

Whether as DM you allow the cinematic narration to bleed into tactical advantage via fictional positioning will be delicate. Probably you can't stop it altogether, and you'll just have to use your judgment and not let it get too far. For example, take a still more subtle case. Suppose a player describes bashing against someone and driving them back towards a canyon behind them. It's a judgment call whether you redirect that in a "yes and" sorta way. 

If you allow it, it will have tactical consequences, for example, about the possibility of someone trying to grapple the foe and toss them over the edge in later rounds. But the flip side is that opponents can wriggle out, or gain some fictional positioning, when they score effective attacks too. So it's a two-way street and given the right dynamics at the table, this might be pleasing.  

What I would say is that it's a judgment call, and something to be worked out in practice. Generally speaking, my advice would be that the DM should use the abstraction and narrative flavoring to try to keep separate directly mechanical effects from narrative descriptions via gentle "yes and" redescriptions where necessary. 

This approach will work best with theater of the mind play, where tactical maps are used (if at all) only roughly to indicate where people are at in a fluid situation. This approach requires a degree of abstractness that is a poor fit with five foot squares and the like. The mantra is to make combat mechanically abstract, as a counter towards wounds and death, and then allow narrative descriptions to shape the space of our shared imagination by asking questions that lead away from the concrete narration of trading blows. 


The System 


Here's a first pass at implementing the approach I've been outlining in this post for a particular game, Jorune: Evolutions. A classless OD&D inspired sword and planet game. 

Combat

  • To attack in Jorune: Evolutions make a combat roll, which is 1d20 + Modifier (Strength for Melee, Aim for Missile Weapons) against the target's AC. 
  • If you tie or beat the AC this is a success
  • On a success, you make an effectiveness roll which is always 1d6. 
  • Subtract the effectiveness roll from the opponent's grit, which is a tracker towards wounds and death. 

Wounds and Death

Grit never falls below 0. When it reaches 0, the target makes a Stamina check, which is 2d6 + their stamina modifier. (These are like deathblows in the video game The Darkest Dungeon if that helps you, except that the blow that takes you to 0 also induces one.) Note that starting stamina modifiers range from -1 to +1 and never go higher than +2.

6- Target slain.

7-9 Target wounded.

10+ Only a scratch. 

Wounds

The wounded target receives a -1 for the duration of combat to all rolls (including future stamina checks, effectiveness rolls, etc). 

Consult the effectiveness roll of the attack that wounded the target. 

(1)-(3) The target gets to describe the wound received.

(4)-(6) The attacker gets to describe the wound dealt.  

Such descriptions can have consequences for healing, and also fictional positioning, although for mechanically speaking, the total effect is -1 to physical rolls. 

Here's a chart:






















Recovery


All GD can be recovered with a full night's sleep. Whatever your grit score upon falling asleep, roll all your GD afresh as you would normally upon wakening.  

Wounds on the other hand heal more slowly and perilously. The penalty to rolls persists until proper healing can take place over downtime. 

During the Adventure

If a party member is wounded, reduce overland travel for the wounded by 1 hex per day for each wound they received. Having to camp in the wilderness with wounded party members is not a good situation. When the party makes camp for the night, the person with the highest medical score must check to treat their wounds:

6-    The wounded must check vs. stamina or acquire an infection
7+   No infection

Infection: Open a three step infection tracker and give it one step. On three steps the character dies. Each night a further stamina check must be made. (There are limilates and the like that can help with recovering from infection.)

6-    Add a step to the tracker
7-9  Remove a step from the tracker
10+ Remove two steps from the tracker


During Downtimes

Resolving Infection

If the party has not yet camped, when the party returns to the village, you should first test for infection by having the member of the cohort with the highest medical skill make a check as above. (The party may also recruit an NPC to treat the wound if someone has a relationship with the NPC.) Resolve the rolls for recovering from the infection all at once using the above rules with one exception. 

Surgery

If the character reaches three steps on the infections tracker while at the village, the player can opt to undergo surgery. The person with the highest medical skill in the cohort then makes a medical check. 

6- Death
7+ Recovery with permanent injury

The player may decide what the permanent injury is. It must have a mechanical effect of some kind, and needs to fit the description of the wound. 

Rest and Recuperation

Once it is determined that the character will live and whether they have suffered permanent injury, the character must rest. They may not go on missions or perform downtime actions for 1 week for each wound received. If they underwent surgery, add 2 additional weeks to their recovery. During this time, the player of this character can play with their alternate character during recovery time. (Here modest troupe play makes these injury rules workable and perhaps even fun as a change of pace).






Monday, March 8, 2021

Downtime Activity: Gathering Intelligence and Spying


Often players will want to gather intelligence about something during downtime from other people. This can take many forms, from gossiping over drinks, to the use of stool pigeons, or casing a joint, or more daring activities like spying or going undercover. The DM has a strong interest in enabling this activity, because good intelligence is an opportunity to introduce hooks that interest players, and also allows meaningful player choices. 

These downtime activities takes inspiration from Robert Parker's masterful Savage World of Krül rules, with which Robert ran one of the legendary games of G+. I will have more to say about that game on another occasion. For now I just want to let you know that the basic idea (although not the details) of these rules came from Robert's wonderful system of downtime activities. 

A note on hiring people to do things. The general thrust of downtime activities has been no "outsourcing". But my thinking has been evolving here. The new principle is "if you want to do something right, do it yourself". I also try to fold in the whole issue of "hirelings" into the system of cultivating relationships with people. You want lackeys. FINE. Build the relationship. 



Gathering Intelligence (Rumormongering)


Suppose a player wants to chase down some information about something, like a group, or location, item, etc. This is the downtime action for them. 

The player first specify what they want information about. They next specify the group from whom they want to try to learn something. The DM will say whether that group might know something or whether there's no point in talking to them about. (There is no such thing as wasting this action by asking the wrong people.) The player will then say how they go about trying to elicit the information. 

Do they share war stories and buy the mercenary outfit free rounds of drinks to learn about a certain enemy they've faced? Or maybe they want to track down rumors about a traveling caravan by bringing trade goods to an outpost?  

The player may also use this downtime activity to turn up something interesting, in the spirit of "Dm throw something fun my way." In that case, they no longer have to say what they're trying to learn about, but they still have to say who they're trying to get the information from and how they're doing it. 
 
To perform the downtime action, spend 1d6 x 25 gp and roll 2d6. Apply modifiers from the following list up to a max of +3:

  • Add 1 for each relevant relation (at the level of acquaintance or higher) you have who might help you chase down information with the relevant community
  • Add 1 for each relevant fictional advantage you have, for example, being well-loved by a given faction you are gathering information from, or having some juicy gossip they'll love to hear.
  • Add 1 for each additional 100 GP you spend to grease palms.  

On a 6-: no useful intelligence gathered. 

On a 7-9: the player turns up real information, but the DM has the option of inserting some sketchy material, either by making the information somewhat ambiguous or misleading, or by mixing truth with a bit of outright falsehood. The DM shouldn't say whether they have or have not exercised this opiton. 

On a 10+ solid intelligence.

One problem you might have with this system is that the players will know from their roll when the intel might be shaky. But I like the idea that players have a sense when there might be something dubious about the information they got. 


Spying


Sometimes you don't just want to chase down information. You want to infiltrate an organization, or case an establishment, or spy on an ambassador. This is he downtime action for you.

The player first proposes a target to spy on and a goal in terms of what they're trying to learn. They say how they will be pursuing that goal. 

The DM then sets a tracker to get the relevant information. The tracker, will usually consist of successive layers of information to be unlocked, but sometimes it might just have a single payoff at the end. The tracker should be longer the more involved and difficult the job is. 

If all you want is to case a joint, then it's likely a one step tracker. If you want to infiltrate the inner circle of a mob boss or king, the tracker might have 7 steps. (You could also use a modified version of this system to handle sabotage or assassination. Instead of information, the result would be the desired outcome.)

Spend 1d6 x 50GP on expenses for the operation (more if high society infiltration is involved). Then roll 2d6 and add the following modifiers up to a maximum total of +3. Here's a version for Jorune and for D&D.

Jorune Version:
  • Add disguise skill modifier if relying on a false identity. 
  • Add culture skill if relying on high society, etiquette, or specific cultural knowledge.
D&D Version:
  • Add 1/2 your assassin level (rounded up)
  • Add 1/3 your thief level (rounded up)
For both Jorune and D&D: 
  • Add +1 for each relevant contact
  • Add +1 for each fictional edge you would have given the details of your plan and your capabilities

6-: Failure with complication. No progress on the tracker. Roll on the Spy Troubles chart below to see what complications have arisen from your failure.
7-9: Success with complication. Advance one step on the tracker. Roll on the Spy Troubles chart below to see what complications have arisen from your failure.
10+: Success! Advance one step on the tracker.

This kinda generic chart is written with infiltrating a powerful organization in mind. You might need custom tables for different sorts of jobs.

Spy Troubles 1d10


  1. Bad reputation. Other people have seen you with the organization, and you are starting to get a bad rep with factions that don't like it. This may be hard to shake. 
  2. Mixed up with the wrong people. You learn that someone you know or love is somehow mixed up with this organization in a way that troubles you and may, possibly, threaten your cover. 
  3. Expensive proposition. Owing to a looming disaster, you suddenly need to come up with a lot of funds to keep the operation going. 1d6 x 100 GP or no further progress is possible on the tracker.
  4. All the wrong friends. Someone from the organization is getting too close for comfort. Maybe like an affectionate puppy they followed you home and now know something about you, or maybe they romantically propositioned you. Whatever it is, they are trying to insert themselves into your life in a way that is risky. The DM may bring them in during a session to introduce complications.
  5. They are getting suspicious. You slipped somehow and someone is harboring suspicions. Unless you take care of the problem, for example by doing something to prove your loyalty, or discredit the suspicious person, a second spy troubles result will result in serious trouble (50% frozen out, 50% cover blown).
  6. Moral quandary. To prove you bona fides you must do something your character would rather not do. The DM will tell you the choice you face. If you choose not to do it, no further progress on the tracker is possible. The DM may or may not allow clever workarounds.
  7. You're not the only one! You and another spy have made each other. Their purpose is not the same as yours. This is a delicate situation that may need to be addressed. Until it is resolved, further spy troubles involve the DM picking a result that is produced by the rival spy.
  8. Blackmail. Someone knows what you are doing, and is trying to shake you down. Pay your level x 100 GP per session until the tracker is completed. Or maybe they want something more interesting.
  9. Frozen out. Someone got suspicious and you are now frozen out. Ghosted. No further progress possible.
  10. Cover Blown. You've been made! The group stages a confrontation. This could be anything from a kidnapping to a bitter discussion. You can play this out, or make a second custom 2d6 roll to see what the result is, given the nature of the organization. 

Procuring a Spy


Suppose a player wants to do this, but doesn't want to spy themselves. In order to procure a spy, they must first do so through cultivating a relevant relationship. Normally, you can only get someone who you can trust and is able to do the job if you have cultivated a relationship with the person through downtime activities. 

The player must spend a downtime action trying to recruit someone and setting up a mission. Roll 2d6 with the following modifiers to see if they're willing to take the job. You may proposition as many relations as you want for a single downtime action. 

  • Acquaintance -1
  • Associate +0
  • Friend +1
  • Intimate +2
  • Dangerous Mission -1
  • Very dangerous mission -2
  • Double pay +1
6-: No thanks.
7+: Yes. 

The cost is twice their level x 100 GP per downtime, and triple their level if they are an assassin. If they are 0 level, then it costs 50 GP. 

Have them make a roll each downtime as if they were a PC, with a -1 penalty. (You can still apply modifiers if they have the relevant skills, but the max positive modifier is +2.)  If you want a job done right, then you have to do it yourself! Generally, the DM should involve the PC who is hiring them in any problems that result from spy troubles, i.e. they come to the PC for help with the problem, and in the worst case scenario (cover blown!) the organization has a 50% of tracing the rat back to their employer. 

Friday, March 5, 2021

Animal Terror


In response to my last post, Gus wrote that a good test for a grappling system is how it handles animal attacks. This post is about using grappling and unarmed combat rules to model animal attacks. I also explain how we might use it to model animal taming. 

Gus' further elaborated his point by saying that a bear should be able to tear any PC to pieces. Part of his complaint about my system was that it didn't seem to deliver this result. I demur from his proposed test only a little. Think about the above cover Savage Sword of Conan, where Conan grapples desperately with some great beast. The design space I'd like to be in is one where a Conan, an advanced adventurer (4 HD) at the outer limit of human strength (+2), can try something like this, but only by stepping onto the knife's edge, i.e. at great peril. But I agree that animal attacks need further treatment, and I also propose some emendations to my grappling system at the end of the post to address his critique.


Animal Terrors


Creatures that pounce are frightening using these rules because they can ignore PC armor and get past bigger weapons. This already gives them a real edge. Here are a couple of further animal tags that I've developed for truly fearsome predators. If you have other ideas, drop them in the comments. 

Maul: In grappling, automatic damage from natural weapons is not subject to disadvantage. Furthermore, on a success and the choice to wound, a mauling attack has advantage. 

Drag: In grappling, on an immobilize result, the attacker can drag the victim half of their move. Good for hauling someone back into a cave, or snatching them up into a tree, or the air, or pulling them underwater.

Ferocious: In grappling, on a successful opposed grapple roll, the attacker choose to may deal damage against all who are grappling with it. (This makes it dangerous to try to mob the creature.)

Constrict: In grappling, one may deal damage to immobilized foes. One may grapple 1 foe of the same size, or up to 3 foes of smaller size, by grappling them on successive turns. 

Swallow: With 2 successive immobilize results, the animal may swallow the opponent. A swallowed opponent takes 1d6 damage a round. They can only be freed by slaying the beast or otherwise cutting it open.

 


Sabre Tooth Tiger

If we return to Conan vs. the smilodon from the comic at the top, we might stat it out like this (this is also a glimpse of part of what a statblock might look like for Jorune: Evolutions).

Sabre Tooth Tiger HD4 AC:Lt Str+2 Agl+2 Sz:L Mv18 ML7 Special: Maul, Ferocious

When this animal pounces on a normal sized PC,  they'll get one stab at it, and then will face a grapple with an opponent that has a +3 to their grapple check (+2 for strength, +1 for size). On a (very likely) success by the sabre tooth tiger, they will face a damage roll with advantage. Even on a failure, they'll take 1d6 damage. Devastating in a system with low hp and no variable weapon damage.

Conan has a strength bonus of +2. In the picture he has a close weapon drawn. So, although Conan is overmatched and will suffer a lot of damage, it is not impossible that he will prevail. Right on the knife's edge! 

Giant Python

Giant Python HD3 AC:Lt Str+1 Agl+0 SizeL MV9 ML6 Special: Constrict, Swallow

This is a nasty bugger. It can immobilize and constrict multiple foes by attacking each in succession. It can also choose to swallow immobilized foes. I think this would be a lot of fun to run.  

Animal Taming


These rules can also be used to simulate animal capture and taming, the breaking of horses, and so on. In the absence of a trap or a limilate (poison, drug) that might sedate the beast, the only alternative is to try to wrestle the animal into submission, bind it, get it to accept a saddle, etc. 

To capture a beast, the party must immobilize it for 3 successive rounds of melee, using multiple grapplers to bind it: a net, shackles, rope, a saddle, etc. Keep in mind that multiple grapplers add to the total modifier on the opposed grapple check. 

To break a rideable beast, use the same system but allow the grappler to test against strength or agility. Treat an immobilize result as staying on the beast. If the beast wins they will always break the grapple, throwing the rider as if the beast had chuko (i.e. for 1d6 with disadvantage damage). On the subsequent round after throwing the rider test the animal's morale. If they fail they will flee, and if they pass they will melee attack (trample) the rider. On three successive immobilize results, the beast is broken and will accept the saddle--at least from this rider. 

Revisions to the System

Gus made some other helpful suggestions, having playtested related grappling rules (my rules are based on his, but have not yet been playtested). He suggested that I make damage from close and natural weapons automatic and not allow them to be nerfed by immobilizing a foe. If you grapple with a bear, you just will get mauled. Wayne Roberts also suggested being able to use agility (i.e. this system's dexterity) to wriggle out of grappling. I liked that suggestion too. Here are the changes in bullet point form, followed by a restatement of the rules. 

  • You can now choose to test against agility instead of strength, but if you do the only option you can take if you win is "break grapple"
  • If at the end of a round someone has a close and natural weapon, and they haven't done damage yet, they can automatically do damage with disadvantage if they want to.
  • If you have a close, or natural weapon, or know brazz juju, if you opt to wound you can do 1d6 damage without disadvantage.
  • I've also added much needed rules for attacking grappling foes with melee or missile weapons. 

Grappling

A player can only grapple a foe that is at most two sizes larger than them. On their turn, a PC who can close with such an opponent can initiate a special grappling attack sequence. It works like this:

  1. If the opponent subject to the grapple attack is armed, they may melee attack the grappler as they close. 
  2. The grappler rolls to hit as though the opponent is unarmored. 
  3. If the attack hits, the two are now grappling. Neither may act for the rest of the round except to resolve the grapple.
  4. The grapplers now must make an opposed check using either strength or agility (2d6 + Mod). If one side is a size larger they receive advantage (+1), and if two sizes larger they receive great advantage (+2). Tied results are a stand-off. 
  5. If testing strength winner chooses 1: damage, disarm, immobilize, or break grapple. If testing agility the winner may only break the grapple.  
    • Damage: If unarmed, do 1d6/3 points to your opponent. If armed with a close or natural weapon, or using brazz juju, do 1d6. One may draw a close weapon for these purposes, provided one drops any other weapons one was carrying. One cannot otherwise draw a weapon while grappling.
    • Disarming knocks a weapon far enough away that it can't be used by the grappled foe (1d4x5 feet away).
    • Immobilizing the foe allows others to melee attack them without danger of hitting the grappler, or to join the grapple on them without needing to make an attack roll.
    • Breaking grapple ends the grapple. 

      6. If either side still has a close or natural weapon at the end of this sequence, and hasn't done damage yet, they deal 1d6 damage with disadvantage to their opponent. 

 

Multiple Grapplers

Once someone is grappled, other people can pile on by using their attack to grapple as normal. 

  • If they are immobilized then no addition attack roll is needed.
  •  Each additional grappler adds a bonus of 1 to the grappler with the highest bonus to the grapple check (strength or largest size). 
  • When multiple people grapple a single foe, then they can tie up the foe with two immobilize results on subsequent rounds if they have a rope or other bonds handy. 
  • If a single grappler wins against multiple foes and chooses to do damage, they may select to whom to apply the damage.   

Making Melee or Missile Attacks into a Grapple


This is a dangerous business. If the grapplers are of the same size you have a 3 in 6 chance of hitting each. If one grappler is a larger size, you have a 4 in 6 chance of hitting them. 

New Grappling and Unarmed Combat Weapon Proficiencies

Note that these unarmed proficiencies can be combined and stack. For example, someone might use chuko to reverse the strength bonus of an opponent, and when winning the grapple, use braz juju to inflict 1d6 damage with disadvantage on them.

Mantis Boxing

This is a catch-all standing in for many different techniques, from brutal street brawling learned in the gutters of Ardoth to disciplined martial arts like mantis boxing.

  • Those proficient in brawling do 1d6 damage with disadvantage in unarmed melee combat. 
  • This proficiency does not affect grappling. 

Chuko

This elegant fighting art involves using your opponents strength against them to toss them like a rag doll. 

  • Those proficient in chuko turns the strength bonus of their opponent into a minus for the purpose of the grapple check. 
  • When winning a grapple check, they may opt to break the grapple by throwing their opponent 10' and doing 1d6 damage with disadvantage.
  • This proficiency does not affect unarmed melee combat.
Braz Juju

This ancient vicious fighting style involves coiling about your opponent like a serpent and inflicting the maximum pain. 

  • Those proficient in braz juju who win a grapple check and opt to damage their opponent do 1d6 damage.
  • This proficiency does not affect unarmed melee combat. 

Secret Fighting Techniques

It is rumored that there are other fighting techniques suited to the specific capabilities of different post-human species, but they are either obscure or positively proscribed in Ardoth. 


   

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Unarmed Combat!

 


Unarmed combat and grappling is a poor fit with the main combat rules as written in early editions of D&D, which are focused on armed opponents striking their weapons against armored opponents so as to wound them. They do not speak to a situation where someone unarmed tries to get past a weapon, or disarm someone, or wrestle them to the ground and immobilize them. And yet this kind of thing comes up all the time in my experience, enough that there really need to be rules for it.

Where they have been developed as add-ons to the combat system, they have tended to take absurdly complicated forms, like Gary Gygax's bizarre grappling mini-game in 1E AD&D, perhaps the most sui generis and complex of the many crunchy sub-systems introduced in the wonderfully incomprehensible 1E Dungeon Master's Guide. People who have taken the time to understand and use Gygax's grappling system tell me they love it. But I, who even use segment initiative with casting time, look at it and think: what the actual fuck Gary.

So I want to develop a simpler system for grappling that fits with the weapon rules and stat-check system for Jorune: Evolutions. As I see it, there's a tension here with trade-offs, in that one needs a few options that are more granular than melee combat options, since grappling is often about wanting to do something that breaks the trying-to-wound-an-opponent mold. So you want some complexity, but without introducing a grotesquely granular grappling mini-game. Hopefully, the system below walks that line, keeping things simple enough while allowing a little granularity in.

The system draws on my simple 2d6 stat check system, as well as my rules about weapon types (particularly "close weapons" that can be used in grappling), and some new unarmed combat proficiencies explained below. I remind you about those rules as I go so as to not lose anyone who is interested in this as a discrete topics. It presupposed non-variable weapons damage and low stat modifiers.

I'm sure that many people have created good systems for unarmed combat that are OD&D or B/X friendly. If you know of a good one, please drop it in the comments! My system is builds, like so much of what I'm doing, on that masterpiece of OD&D-inspired rule design, Gus' HMS Apollyon Player's Guide. 


Unarmed Melee Combat

Unarmed melee combat is just like armed melee combat, except that when you strike you do 1d6/3 points of damage rounded up (i.e. 1-2). Someone who is armed gets no special bonus against someone unarmed except that they will do more damage to them if they hit. 



Grappling

A player can only grapple a foe that is at most two sizes larger than them. On their turn, a PC who can close with such an opponent can initiate a special grappling attack sequence. It works like this:

  1. If the opponent subject to the grapple attack is armed, they may melee attack the grappler as they close. (They may make this melee attack even if they have already attacked this round.)
  2. The grappler rolls to hit as though the opponent is unarmored--agility mods to AC still apply. 
  3. If the attack hits, the two are now grappling. Neither may act for the rest of the round except to resolve the grapple.
  4. The grapplers now must make an opposed strength check (2d6 + Str Mod). If one side is a size larger they receive advantage (+1), and if two sizes larger they receive great advantage (+2). Tied results are a stand-off. 
  5. The winner chooses 1: damage, disarm, immobilize, or break grapple. 
    • Damage is 1d6/3 points unless one has a close weapon (or some unarmed combat proficiencies see below), in which case it is 1d6 with disadvantage (2d6 discard the highest). If one chooses damage, one may draw a close weapon for these purposes, provided one drops any other weapons one was carrying. One cannot otherwise draw a weapon while grappling.
    • Disarming knocks a weapon far enough away that it can't be used by the grappled foe (1d4x5 feet away).
    • Immobilizing the foe allows others to melee attack them without danger of hitting the grappler, or to join the grapple on them without needing to make an attack roll.
    • Breaking grapple ends the grapple. 
      6. If the losing side still has a close weapon drawn and are not immobilized                they automatically deal 1d6 damage with disadvantage to the winner. 

In a round where both parties enter it already grappling, resolve the grapple after melee weapon attacks. 


Multiple Grapplers

Once someone is grappled, other people can pile on by using their attack to grapple as normal. 

  • If they are immobilized then no addition attack roll is needed.
  •  Each additional grappler adds a bonus of 1 to the grappler with the highest bonus to the grapple check (strength or largest size). 
  • When multiple people grapple a single foe, then they can tie up the foe with two immobilize results on subsequent rounds if they have a rope or other bonds handy. 
  • If a single grappler wins against multiple foes and chooses to do damage, they may select to whom to apply the damage.   


New Grappling and Unarmed Combat Weapon Proficiencies

Note that these unarmed proficiencies can be combined and stack. For example, someone might use chuko to reverse the strength bonus of an opponent, and when winning the grapple, use braz juju to inflict 1d6 damage with disadvantage on them.

Mantis Boxing

This is a catch-all standing in for many different techniques, from brutal street brawling learned in the gutters of Ardoth to disciplined martial arts like mantis boxing.

  • Those proficient in brawling do 1d6 damage with disadvantage in unarmed melee combat. 
  • This proficiency does not affect grappling. 

Chuko

This elegant fighting art involves using your opponents strength against them to toss them like a rag doll. 

  • Those proficient in chuko turns the strength bonus of their opponent into a minus for the purpose of the grapple check. 
  • When winning a grapple check, they may opt to break the grapple by throwing their opponent 10' and doing 1d6 damage with disadvantage.
  • This proficiency does not affect unarmed melee combat.


Braz Juju

This ancient vicious fighting style involves coiling about your opponent like a serpent and inflicting the maximum pain. 

  • Those proficient in braz juju who win a grapple check and opt to damage their opponent do 1d6 damage with disadvantage.
  • This proficiency does not affect unarmed melee combat. 

Secret Fighting Techniques

It is rumored that there are other fighting techniques suited to the specific capabilities of different post-human species, but they are either obscure or positively proscribed in Ardoth. 



A Grapple Example


Round 1

Our party of four tauthers consists of Ling and Max (humans), Leenda (woffen), and Tomar (muadra). An unnerving parlay with a band of three ramians in chiveer, huge thin humanoid aliens undergoing a period of cruel rage, devolves into combat beneath the jungle canopy. While two of the ramians wear only leather cuirasses and wield spears, their leader wears strange metal armor and wields a giant sword of alien metal, with a knife sheathed in his belt.

The ramians win initiative and attack. The two spear wielding ramians attack Ling and Leenda respectively and the leader strikes at Tomar. Only the leader hits,  but it's a devastating blow, because the weapon has the tags "two-handed" and "sharp", and the leader has +2 to damage because of the size difference with his diminutive muadra target. He rolls 3,5 and as a result, he does 7 points of damage total! Tomar reels under the blow, almost going under with 1 hp remaining and losing the dysha he was sculpting. Now it is the player's turn.

Max's player sees a bad situation. The leader is well-armored and will be very difficult to hit, and capable of dealing great damage. He needs to be taken out of the equation if the party is to have a prayer of surviving this brutal assault. He draws his knife and he decides to charge in for a grapple, hoping his close weapon and strength modifier (+1) will give him an edge. 

The first step is that the leader gets an attack roll on Max as he charges, even though the leader has already attacked this round. Max is wearing boiled leather armor, in which he is proficient, so his AC is 13. The leader's weapon has the tag sharp and so receives +3 to hit, and he needs to roll a 10 or higher on 1d20 to hit Max. Max's player holds his breath: this is a big roll that may determine whether he lives or dies in the subsequent struggle. Max is in luck, and the leader misses on the attack with an 8! 

The second step is to see if Max hits with his grappling roll. Ignoring the leader's armor, his AC is 10. Max's strength bonus of +1 means that he hits on a 9+ on 1d20. He rolls an 11! Closing he slips past the leader's weapon and is on him. 

The third step is to make an opposed grapple check. The leader rolls 2d6 adding 1 for the advantage of his greater size, and Max's player rolls 2d6 +1 for his strength modifier. The ramian gets 5 (2d6 roll) + 1 (moderate size advantage) + 0 (strength modifier)=7 and Max gets 3+5+1=9. Max wins the grapple, overwhelming the ramian for now. 

He may now choose whether to damage, disarm, or immobilize the ramian. Max's player doesn't want to immobilize him, because  the party needs to handle the other ramians and so won't be able to take advantage of the immobilized leader. He could do damage, but he worries that if the leader breaks the grapple next round, they'll be right back where they started. So he chooses instead to disarm the ramian, batting the alien weapon from his hands and knocking it far away, so that if he breaks the grapple the leader won't be just able to attack the party with it again. 

Tomar grabs the leader's sword and ducks back behind his compatriots for cover taking it out of the combat. Ling strikes one of the two remaining ramians with a sword and takes a serious blow in return. Leenda and the other ramian unsuccessfully trade blows.

Round 2

In the next round, the two grapplers make another opposed grapple check. This time the ramian wins rolling 3+6+1+0=9 against Max's pitiful 2+1+1=4. The ramian works his knife free, hoping in his blood lust to slaughter the human. Close weapons have disadvantage and he rolls 2, 5=2 modified by his size bonus to damage (+1) for 3 points of damage total. Max has 6 hp remaining.

Since Max's has a close weapon drawn, as the loser Max now automatically does damage to the ramian as well. Rolling 2 six-sided dice he gets 3, 4=3. Max gives as good as he gets in this brutal and bloody exchange, as the two cut each other with knives. The leader now has 12 hp remaining.   

With the leader occupied, the fight is going considerably better for Max's companions, who slay one of the two ramians with a mix of swordplay and a deadly dysha from Tomar. 

Round 3

In the third round, Max and the leader face off again. This time the leader prevails with an 6+4+1=11 against the Max's 4+4+1=9. The leader has a close weapon drawn, so he does damage to Max, rolling 3,6=3+1=4. Max is now at 2 hp. 

Tomar races over joining the grapple, aided by a length of rope he has pulled from his pack. Tomar makes an attack roll to join the grapple, needing to roll 10+. He rolls a 12. Since there are now multiple people grappling the leader, Tomar does not get a separate grapple check this round. Meanwhile their companions face off against the remaining ramian, trading blows.

Round 4

In the fourth round, Max and Tomar grapple the leader. Tomar adds a +1 to Max's roll. Max's player draws a deep breath: if he loses, Max may well die at the hands of the ramian. Max rolls 3+4+1+1=9, while the ramian leader rolls 6+1+1=8. 

As their companions drive the other ramian into flight with further injuries, Max and Tomar use their success in the grapple check to immobilize the leader, struggling to bind his arms with Tomar's rope. 

Round 5

Freed of enemies, the remaining companions pile on to the leader, not needing an attack roll to do so because he is immobilized. Adding their bonuses to Max (+1 for each), he now rolls 3+2+1+3=9 and the ramian leader rolls 3+3+1=7. Max chooses to immobilize him again, trussing him up like a turkey. Combat is now over as the leader is their captive. Max's derring-do, luck, and savvy use of grappling has snatched victory from the jaws of death, and likely saved his companions!
 

Saturday, February 27, 2021

A Simple 2d6 Skill System


Jorune: Evolutions uses a stat and skill check system that is different than the mechanics used in combat. Since Jorune: Evolutions is OD&D inspired, in another post I tried out a unified mechanic that employs the 1d6 that OD&D uses for most things. It was simple and the math was very transparent in a player-facing way. It also had a certain cleanness to it in that progression is linear and even a +1 opens up the ability to meet challenge levels that were previously closed. 

A possible downside is that it makes those low modifiers very significant, especially when it comes to opposed rolls where having an advantage can lead to stacked modifiers. This would have been OK, except for the fact that I'm using opposed rolls for grappling in unarmed combat and giving a +1 modifier for being large sized. (My next post will explain.) This would have resulted in each group having at least one unarmed boccord specialist in it, i.e. a half-giant professional wrestler. That game sounds amazing, but it's not the game I'm trying to design. 

The other possibility, with which I originally started, was to use a 2d6 system. This fits with the reaction roll mechanic and downtime system I'm using. Also, as Alistair mentioned in the comments on the 1d6 skills post, classic Traveller used a (janky) 2d6 skill system, so it has a nice pedigree for old school sci-fi gaming. That it picks up the PbtA resonance is a welcome result for me, and Cepheus system games use it as well. If you put a chart--like the one below--that shows the probabilities of success as a percentage chance on the character sheet, then you can make the math transparent enough to the players I hope. And as Tom Killion mentioned, it's fun and more dramatic feeling to roll more dice than one. 


Types of Checks


There are four kinds of stat and skill checks in Jorune Evolutions. A roll can be opposed or unopposed. Each of these kinds of rolls can be a straight roll or a mixed roll. The Sholari will tell the player which of these types the roll is, and what modifiers will apply, before the player decides to roll the dice. 


Unopposed checks are tests against the PC’s skills or stats where the only opposition are the circumstances of action, inanimate objects, or natural forces. Opposed checks are made when the PC is attempting something that is resisted by another sentient being.

Straight rolls are rolls with binary results: success or failure. (Almost all rolls in classic D&D are straight rolls, with the exception of reaction rolls.) Mixed rolls are made in circumstances where the effect of success is uncertain and feels narratively like it should be a scale of possible outcomes. Since Jorune Evolutions takes inspiration from classic D&D, straight rolls are the default.  




Unopposed Checks


Roll 2d6 + stat or skill modifier + difficulty modifier. (Note: it is always a stat OR a skill check. The modifiers do not stack.)


Results (Straight): 6- failure 7+ success

Results (Mixed): 6- failure 7-9 mixed result 10+ Success


Stat Modifiers


-1 Sub-par

0  Average

+1 Excellent

+2 Supreme (You can only reach this level through big ticket sandbox advancement)


Skill Modifiers

-1 Untrained
0  Trained
+1 Skilled
+2 Master


Difficulty Modifiers


+1 Easy                   
0   Moderate           
-1 Challenging       
-2 Hard                  
-3 Severe               
-4 Heroic
-5 Epic               

Automatic Failure Rule


A penalty of -4 or worse is an automatic failure. This caps absurd attempted rolls. 

The Math


The following chart shows the probability of making a straight check (7+) conditional on the difficulty and your stat or skill modifier. To see the probability of getting a success on a mixed roll (10+) simply move down 3 rows. (At the difficulty rating of severe and higher it is not possible to roll a 10+.)







Opposed Checks


To make an opposed check, each party roll 2d6 + advantage modifier + stat or skill modifier. The advantage modifier is applied only to the party whose situation is more advantageous. In a straight opposed roll, whoever gets the higher total number prevails. In a mixed roll, consult the winner’s roll to see whether it is a mixed result or a success. A tie always results in a temporary stalemate. (Check again next round.)


Opposed Checks: Each party rolls 2d6 + stat or skill modifier + advantage modifier


Results (Straight): Whoever’s results are higher prevails.

Results (Mixed): Whoever’s results are higher prevails. Consult the winner’s result: 9- mixed result 10+ Success



Advantage Modifiers


+2 Great Advantage 

+1 Advantage


Automatic Victory Rule


If the difference between the modifiers of the two sides is 4 or greater, the side with the higher modifier automatically wins. 


The Math


Let's consider the chance of winning for a PC based on the difference in modifier with their opponent. So start with their total modifier and subtract the opponent's total modifier from it. The result will range from +3 to -3. For example, if a PC has excellent strength (+1) and advantage (+1) and their opponent has subpar strength (-1) we get 1+1-(-1)= +3. Keep in mind that there is also the possibility of ties, so this doesn't measure your chance of losing, only your chance of winning:

+3 = 76%
+2 = 66%
+1 = 56%
0   = 44%
-1 = 34%
-2 = 24%
-3 = 16%