Friday 18 February 2022

Playtesting house rules - and weapon-based initiative mods


My son and I ran a quick playtest of my D&D house rules tonight. We pitted two first-level fighters against each other. Each had 6 HP and added his level (1) and his opponent's AC to the 'target 20' roll. Initiative was rolled on D6 each round. 

The first fighter had a gambeson (AC 7), a sword (D6) and a shield (D6 absorption). The second had mail (AC 5) and a two-handed sword (2D6, take the best). I was originally going to have a shield reduce AC, but forgot all about it. I think I'll keep it that way - shields seem plenty powerful!

We initially played three combats. The shield-armed fighter won the first, so we added a second mail-clad fighter with a normal sword and no shield to help the chap with the two-handed sword. The shield-armed fighter won that too, albeit with a great stroke of luck in his first attack. And then shield guy won the third fight tool.

After my son went to bed, I ran a few more fights. Shield guy won most, but greatsword guy got a couple back. 

I was quite pleased with how this played out. A shield was very important - and that's just as it should be. 

The fellow with the greatsword was a bit unlucky, in that all of his best shots were met with solid shield parries, but there was also a sense that he was a bit green and lightly armoured to be putting all his trust in a big weapon. 

And that, I think, is just as it should be too. Historically, two-handed cutting weapons tended to be the preserve of champions, bodyguards and forlorn-hope types (higher level!) - or else those with very effective armour. I ran three few fights in which greatsword guy had AC3, and he won two out of three of those. Better armour and a higher level would have swung things greatly in his favour. 

One thing I'm considering, though, is giving two-handed weapons +1 to initiative rolls. As two-handed swords, poleaxes and halberds are long, their users should probably get a higher chance of having first strike. My shield rules help here, as the fighter with the shorter weapon can trust in his shield until he closes.

Then there are spears. I'll probably give them +2 initiative. Halberdiers and billmen should be able to choose from round to round whether they want to use their weapon as a spear or a two-handed weapon - so +2 initiative or +1 and best of 2D6 damage. After all, what are halberds if not a combination of a spear and a two-handed axe?

All of that leads to a spear and shield combination being the best combination for the fighter who values his or her life. And guess what? If history's any guide, that's exactly as it should be too!

House rule for critical hits

 Here's a quick house rule for critical hits in my 'rethought' version of D&D (cooked up in response to a comment by Little Odo and this post on Grognardia). 

To recap: 

  • shields absorb damage through an opposed D6 roll, unless damage is 6 to a shield roll of 1, in which case the attacker chooses whether to inflict full damage or break the shield; bucklers absorb D4;
  • hit points are set at 6 for most first-level characters and monsters;
  • All weapons do D6 damage unless the wielder is ogre-sized (D8) or (possibly) very strong;
  • there are no damage bonuses (except for magical weapons);
  • two-handed weapons allow the wielder's player to pick from the higher of two D6.

I like the balance of 6 HP vs D6 damage. But the problem is that rising HP (even if it's just one point per level) immediately take characters to a point where there's no risk of death from a single orc arrow. I don't want that!

Enter the critical hit. A straight critical on a roll of 20 on a D20 comes up far too often. So here's my rule:

  • any unmodified attack roll of 20 allows an 'exploding' damage roll - that is, a roll of 6 on a D6 allows another damage die to be rolled and the total added together. Damage dice may explode infinitely, so long as the highest number on the die is rolled each time. Two-handed weapons explode when either of their 2D6 comes up with a 6. Note that an ogre doing D8 damage needs an 8 to 'explode'; likewise, a giant on D10 or D12 needs a roll of maximum damage. If a dragon hits you on a 20 and then rolls 20 damage, you're in for a short night ...

As a two-handed weapon essentially doubles the chance of exploding damage on a 20, there's a strong incentive to carry one - though at the cost of the D6 absorption that a shield offers. A critical is likely to overwhelm a shield; even if a 6 is rolled against a 6, the extra die will still get through.

Something I really like about this is that it (theoretically) allows even a first-level character to slay a dragon or a giant or similar sack of hit points. It means that the humble orc arrow still poses a risk - however unlikely - to the highest-level fighter. And it frees me up to allow higher-level characters to add hit dice rather than hit points with each level. 

Thursday 17 February 2022

More on my house rules for shields, hit points and damage


The other day, I set out my house rules for shields in D&D (BECMI, Swords and Wizardry, The White Hack, whatever ...). I want to expand on them a little, so here they are again:


A character equipped with a shield rolls 1D6 when hit in melee or missile combat for which he or she was prepared. The shield roll is deducted from the attacker's damage. If the attacker rolls a six and the shield-bearer rolls a 1, then the attacker can choose either to do the full 6 points of damage or to render the shield useless until repaired. 

Bucklers are small shields that are sufficiently small to be carried inconspicuously on a belt. They act as shields in all respects, but absorb only 1D4 points of damage. 

These are designed to work with the original D&D rules, in which all weapons do 1D6 damage (unless wielded by something like an ogre or a giant). So the best shield parry will stop all the damage from the most powerful (or most accurate) human blow, but may not be capable of stopping a heavy blow from a larger and more powerful foe. An ogre uses a d8 for damage (rather than the original D6 +2), so there's a 1 in 4 chance that an ogre's blow will cause damage through even the best-placed shield. 

As I set out in that post, I'm also tending towards a default 6 hit points for human-sized creatures (and first-level characters), although I might settle for a minimum score of 2 on a character's first hit die. 

The reason for this is simple. I want each combat to have plenty of elements of uncertainty. One thing I love about RuneQuest combat is the sense of danger. For all your character's armour, you never know when that humble trollkin is going to roll a critical or an impale.

But at the same time, I don't want well-armed first-level characters to be walking on eggshells all the time. I think well-armed men-at-arms (e.g. first-level fighters) should fancy their chances when faced with lightly armed brigands (or orcs, for that matter).

Giving first-level characters and their foes six hit points each means that combat is risky, but that better armour - and especially shields - are likely to greatly reduce that risk if only one side has them. So three men-at-arms in mail with shields can feel confident (though not safe) in taking on three unarmoured brigands with cudgels. 

With 6 HP apiece, D6 damage and a D6 absorption through a shield (unless the shield:damage ratio is 1:6), each attack has the potential to be deadly. But we're not in the situation where characters will inevitably fall if a blow connects. There's room for a little back and forth - with each wound received making the chance of a decisive attack more likely. And that ups the potential for derring-do, because a PC can take a calculated risk with their six HP in a way that's simply not possible when they only have 1.

But what about stat bonuses? After all, some people are tougher than others - or hit harder. I don't want to use STR-based damage bonuses, because those raise the minimum damage above 1. The strongest character can still cause just a scratch when they swing a sword.

Might an exceptionally strong character use the common 2D6-and-take-the-higher house rule (normally reserved for two-handed weapons) and roll an ogre-sized D8 when using a two-handed weapon? I quite like the sound of that - but it would have to be for very strong characters. There is a way of gradating this, though: characters with 16  or 17 STR might do a D8 with a two-handed weapon, and those with 18 might get the 2D6/take-the-higher rule with one-handed weapons and the D8 for two-handers.

I don't much like CON as a stat - and especially not as one that affects HP. It seems to me that strength (as reflected in muscle and bone size and density) is the physical characteristic that would boost HP; CON, as a nebulous measure of disease resistance, stamina and fitness, doesn't have an obvious role to play here.

But here's the thing. If HP are set at 6 for a first-level character (or NPC), then any bonus takes the character out of the danger zone for at least one round. If you have 7 HP, you're not going to be killed by that orc arrow or guardsman's crossbow bolt. 

Perhaps, then, 6 shouldn't be the starting point. What if we make 3 or 4 the starting HP and have bonuses to HP from STR? A starting score of 4 with STR 13-15 +1 and 16-18 +2? Or a starting score of 3 with STR 13-15 +1, 16-17 +2 and 18 +3?

In that case, monster HP can be altered slightly by type. If one is separating goblins from orcs in the (distinctly un-Tolkien) D&D style, then perhaps goblins have 3, orcs have 4 and orc leaders and hobgoblins have 5 or 6?

We could also have character-class penalties for HP. Perhaps magicians, withered by study and unnatural practices, have starting HP of 2 or 3 against 3 or 4. And creatures smaller than human size could be reduced to HP 2 or 3 (though not 1).

There's something satisfying, though, about the symmetry of 6 HP and D6 damage. And if we're assuming that 6 is a lethal blow for most people, we might assume that it's a blow that would be lethal for almost anyone. 

What, then, do we do with levelling up? The 6 HP/D6 damage symmetry immediately makes anyone with even 7 HP exceptional. So perhaps the increment is 1 hit point per level rather than 1 hit die. Or perhaps fighters get 2 HP while other classes get 1. That way, the second-level fighter is immediately a more awe-inspiring figure - one who can risk an arrow or a sword stroke without fearing death. And by fourth level, even a full-on hit from an ogre won't kill at a stroke.

Decisions, decisions ...

Tuesday 15 February 2022

Careful with that axe! Damage in D&D and RuneQuest - and a new house rule for shields

In the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons (1974), all player-character attacks did D6 damage. Strength bonuses were yet to be dreamed up - unless you were an ogre, in which case you did D6 + 2 damage, or a giant (2D6).

In many ways, this way of handling damage is superior to all that came afterwards, including the STR bonuses and varying weapon damages that came in later supplements and versions of the game - and in later games such as RuneQuest. And I'd argue that the rot had set in even with ogres and giants in 1974.

Why? Well, a single die of damage always allows the possibility of just a single point of damage being done - a light wound, in other words. And that's important. Even an ogre should be capable of just grazing someone as it swings its club. 

One thing I've noticed as our campaign has progressed through its Gloranthan phase is that many characters are incapable of not maiming the average unarmoured foe with a single hit. If you're armed with a dagger in RuneQuest, you do 1d4 +2 damage to start with. If you're only a bit bigger and stronger than average (STR and SIZ averaging 13), you'll be doing 2d4 +2. But the average human character has just 3 hit points in each arm. So the minimum damage from a normal human wielding a dagger will incapacitate that limb. A stronger-than-average character armed with a dagger or club can't fail to maim the average human's leg or abdomen with a single blow. And woe betide anyone in the path of a great axe (2d6 +2 damage).

Despite RuneQuest's reputation for lethality, these high minima get lost in the welter of huge damage totals that can result from impales and other specials hits. That's because RuneQuest characters tend to be heavily armoured and loaded up on protective magic. But for all the game's vaunted realism, something has slipped. Two unarmoured men in a knife fight could keep going through numerous light wounds before something more dangerous or deadly occurred - at least if Borges is any guide. D6 is better damage for a dagger than D4 +2.

For D&D house rules - or for a substantially rethought versions of the game - I'd be tempted to stick with 1D6 damage as the norm, with no strength bonuses (those I'd apply to the attack roll). But what about two-handed weapons? Well, I've seen house rules around that go with 'advantage' - roll 2D6 and pick the best. That's an elegant set-up - it increases the average damage without ruling out the possibility of a 1. 

Another option would be to use a D8. I'd probably keep that for ogres, though. Giants could deal out D10 or even D12, depending on their size. And D20 might be the preserve of dragons and their ilk. The important point is that all damage should have a minimum of 1. A single die is always preferable to multiple dice or single die plus bonus. 

Now, if two-handed weapons offer an advantage, shields need to offer a different advantage too. As many have acknowledged, a single point of armour class isn't much compensation. Trollsmyth's Shields Shall Be Splintered rule is great, but it does give PCs the knowledge that they can always avoid lethal blows when carrying an intact shield.

Why not just have shield-wielders roll to reduce damage? Opposed rolls don't slow the game down, as they can be rolled simultaneously.

So how about this for shields in old-school D&D games? 

A character equipped with a shield rolls 1D6 when hit in melee or missile combat for which he or she was prepared. The shield roll is deducted from the attacker's damage. If the attacker rolls a six and the shield-bearer rolls a 1, then the attacker can choose either to do the full 6 points of damage or to render the shield useless until repaired. 

Bucklers are small shields that are sufficiently small to be carried inconspicuously on a belt. They act as shields in all respects, but absorb only 1D4 points of damage. 

This rule should ensure that shields are valuable, but should also avoid characters benefiting from extra lives through their use. As the shattering of the shield is the attacker's option on the 6:1 roll, it's likely that most will go for full damage instead. So shields will break, but in considerably fewer than 1 in 36 cases. 

One more thing: hit points. There's no point in worrying about keeping minimum damage to 1 if lots of people are running around with only 1 hit point. Perhaps the minimum score for the first hit die of almost any creature should be 2. But a simpler solution might be that most people and humanoid monsters (and certainly all PCs) just have 6 hit points as the default.

There's a nice symmetry about all this. Most ordinary humans (orcs, dwarves, whatever) will survive a single melee attack. And a shield will improve their chances of survival considerably. But there's still chance that any single combat round could prove lethal - whether that's because someone slips a dagger through your visor or pulls off a perfect sword-stroke.

Monday 7 February 2022

A quick method for resolving mass combats in RPGs

I've been running our party through the famous Cradle scenario from Pavis and the Big Rubble. We've been playing D&D (Rules Cyclopedia) between four and seven times a week for the past couple of years; a few months ago, the players found themselves dispatched to Glorantha upon a sorceress's errand. I converted all of their stats to RuneQuest; you can imagine the cries of dismay as 54 hit points dwindled to 14 - and only 4 in each arm!

For the second of the three tasks the sorceress set them, they had to defend the titular cradle. As of tonight, they're locked in battle with Lunars, water snakes and wyverns while the Watchdog of Corflu holds the Cradle fast in its fangs.

The battle pits the assorted defenders of the Cradle against dozens if not hundreds of Lunar troops. The player-characters form only a small portion of the defenders as the fight rages on the Cradle's deck (and potentially in the air and water too).

Now, resolving the combat involving the players is easy enough. But what about the battle all around?

What I've been doing is just using the combat factors from the marvellous fantasy wargame Hordes of the Things to resolve each of the various group fights with a single opposed die roll. When massed Lunar hoplites are fighting assorted Orlanthi, Storm Bull and Zola Fel cultists, I treat the Lunars as spears (with rear-rank support bonus) and the defenders as warband. So the roll is D6+5 for the Lunars vs D6+3 for the defenders. If the Lunars double the defenders' total, they destroy that block of defenders. If they merely beat them, they push them back. As warband, the defenders are weaker, but they do have the advantage (from the HOTT rules) of destroying spears if they beat them at all.

Obviously, all of the troop types from HOTT (or its parent game DBA) can be used as the situation demands. The water snakes count as behemoths, and when the wyvern riders attack, they'll be aerial heroes (+5!). The dark trolls, who have just emerged from the lower decks of the cradle, will fight as blades (+5).

So how does this interact with the PCs and their RuneQuest combat? Well, I resolve those fights individually first and then factor their outcomes into the surrounding battle. For example, the Lunars, coming down the Watchdog's head and shoulders onto the deck, have formed up three HOTT elements wide (in my head - we aren't using miniatures for this). Each element is supported by another, giving them the +1 for rear support. I'm assuming that each element consists of six hoplites (as in the scenario). If the PCs have taken out foes in their combat round, I give the defenders in that point of the line a +1 bonus.

Tonight, it worked like this. Our dwarves each laid low a Lunar hoplite in the middle of the line. So for that combat, I gave the defending warband element +4 rather than +3. They rolled 6 against the Lunars' 4, giving 10 against 9, so the defenders destroyed the front Lunar spear element and were now pushing up through to the rear rank.

Unlike in HOTT, I didn't have the supporting element destroyed too; I want the battle to last longer, and for the players to feel the advantage as they thin the Lunar ranks. And by swiftly resolving the combats to left and right of the engaged members of the party, I was able to describe what was happening on the deck without having to either make it up or resolve it through long periods of dice-rolling that didn't involve the players.

Earlier in the campaign, we did something similar using HOTT miniatures to simulate an attack on a caravan. The players cast their spells and rolled their attacks, and these influenced the HOTT game around them. It wasn't quite a full game of HOTT (for one thing, I had to stream it over Zoom via a document camera for those not in the room), but I think a full-on game of HOTT with RPG mechanics providing bonuses for the relevant combats would work perfectly. So, in a round in which the players killed all their foes, I'd give a +2 bonus to the element with which they're associated (or perhaps a -2 penalty to their foes, which makes the latter easier to double). That way, the players get to make all their usual combat rolls but still get to have an influence on the more abstracted battle taking place on the tabletop.