Tag Archives: Combat

Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points, Funny Dice, and Descending AC to D&D

In 1972, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Dave Arneson introduced his Blackmoor campaign to co-creator Gary Gygax. The campaign stemmed from Gary’s Chainmail rules, but Dave’s game transformed the rules for miniature-figure battles into something new and irresistible—something that broadly resembled D&D.

My last post explained how Dave shaped a combat system that featured hit points, 2d6 to-hit rolls, damage rolls, and armor classes where higher numbers represented better protection.

Based on Dave’s demonstration, feedback, and notes, Gary added his own contributions to make the D&D game that reached print. In Pegasus issue 1, Dave recalled that Gary and his Lake Geneva group “had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules.”

Gary changed Dave’s combat rules in 3 key ways:

  • Hit points became less realistic and more fun.
  • To-hit rolls switched to a twenty-sided dice, creating a new market for funny dice.
  • AC ratings flipped to make lower values better, forcing awkward, negative ACs on players.

Unrealistic hit points

Gary’s changes let characters gain hit points as they leveled. In Blackmoor, Dave wrote, “As the player progressed, he did not receive additional hit points, but rather he became harder to hit.” Dave based armor class on armor, but fighters gained better saving throws. By the Blackmoor rules, saves applied to weapon attacks, so fighters could avoid damaging blows. “Only Fighters gained advantages in these melee saving throws. Clerics and magicians progressed in their own areas, which might or might not modify their saving throws.”

In Chainmail, a hero fought as 4 ordinary soldiers and a superhero as 8. D&D translated this scheme by making heroes 4th-level fighting men and superheroes 8th level. When Gary reconciled Dave’s rules for hit dice with the notion of heroes that fought as several men, he probably decided to give characters more hit dice as they leveled. The mechanic seemed unrealistic. After all, nobody gets 10 or more times more durable through experience. But rising hit points helped power the game’s success. They boosted the positive reinforcement of leveling. Plus, heroes capable of unrealistically surviving many blows supported D&D’s combat-intensive, dungeon-bashing style. These advantages helped make the game so appealing.

Every “realistic” system to follow D&D echoed Dave Arneson’s original method of using hit points to measure a character’s body’s physical capacity to survive injury. In D&D, hit points rise as characters advance, and that turns hit points into an elegant damage-reduction mechanic. As characters level, they essentially reduce the damage they take from blows.

Using hit points for damage reduction boasts a number of virtues:

  • Combat plays fast because players do not have to calculate reduced damage for every single hit.
  • Although damage is effectively reduced, the reduction never makes a combatant impervious to damage.
  • Once characters gain enough points to survive a few blows, hit points provide a predictable way to see the course of battle. If a fight begins to go badly, the players can see their peril and bring more resources like spells and potions to the fight, or they can run. In a realistic fight, things can go bad in an instant, with a single misstep resulting in death.
  • Most attacks can hit and inflict damage, providing constant, positive feedback to players while everyone contributes to the fight. Realistic combatants do not wear down from dozens of damaging blows; instead each hit is likely to kill or maim. In more realistic systems like Runequest and GURPS, when two very skilled combatants face off, they block or dodge virtually all attacks. The duels turn static until someone muffs a defense roll and lets a killing blow slip through. This model may be realistic—it reminds me of those Olympic competitions where years of training turn on a single, split-second misstep—but the realistic model lacks fun. No popular sports begin as sudden-death competitions where the first to score wins.
  • Battles can gain a dramatic arc. Fights climax with bloodied and battle-worn combatants striving to put their remaining strength into a killing blow. No one likes to see the climactic battle fizzle with a handful of bad rolls, especially at their character’s expense.

Bottom line: Using hit points for damage reduction enables a combat system where you can hit a lot, and hitting is fun.

Funny dice

When Dave adapted the Chainmail rules for his Blackmoor campaign, he kept using ordinary 6-sided dice. He later explained, we had “no funny dice back then.”

The twenty-sided die may not have reached Dave’s corner of gaming yet, but Gary had funny dice and they enchanted him. At first, polyhedral dice only came from vendors in Japan and the United Kingdom, so getting a set required significant time and money. But by 1972, polyhedral dice started arriving from domestic sources. Gary recalled buying his first set from a teacher-supply catalog. In 1972, Creative Publications of California started selling 20-sided dice in a set of polyhedrals, and word spread among gamers. By 1973, Gary wrote an article touting funny dice. “The most useful are the 20-sided dice,” he explained. The original d20s came numbered from 0 to 9 twice, so most gamers rolled twice to generate a percentage from 1-100. Gary noted that gamers could do more. “Color in one set of numbers on the die, and you can throw for 5%—perfect for rules which call for random numbers from 1-20.” As an example, he mentions being “busy working up chance tables for a fantasy campaign game.” Gary found his new d20 so irresistible that he changed Dave’s 2d6 to-hit tables into D&D’s d20-based system.

Descending Armor Classes

As Gary reworked his attack table, he discovered that switching to descending AC numbers created a mathematical elegance. Game historian Jon Peterson describes how this system appears in a draft of the D&D rules. “If you were a first-level fighter rolling to hit, the number you needed was equivalent to 20 minus the armor class of your target. To hit AC 2, you needed an 18, to hit AC 3, a 17, and so on. Armor class descended to make it easy enough to calculate your needed roll that you wouldn’t even have to consult a table.”

If D&D had settled on this system, we might now be rolling a d20 to hit, adding the foe’s AC, and trying to reach a target number based on our character.

D&D reached players with a muddled system that kept descending armor classes, but hid any reason for the scheme. So players wondered why lower armor class represented better protection. Usually, bigger is better.

What happened?

When Gary expanded D&D to account for a greater range of levels than 9, he lost the mathematical simplicity. While the draft rules just present to-hit numbers for fighters up to level 9, the published D&D rules extend the table up to level 16 and beyond. To keep a steady advancement over a greater range of levels, Gary reworked the table and broke an elegant design. This left a system where players just used armor class to reference a row in a table and where intuitive, rising numbers could have worked just as well.

Number your monsters to stop wasting time finding them on the battle map

Many game masters boast an ability that I can’t match. I can’t stick to a character accent, but not that ability.

During combat encounters, many GM’s remember which monster corresponds to which damage total on a sheet of paper.

I can’t. In my games, I keep applying damage to the wrong totals until some goblin survives 50 points of damage. Players protest, and I invent a story about a goblin enchanted to never die, or about a legendary warrior cursed to live as a goblin. Good tales, but my players suspect the truth.

Now I use numbered markers to distinguish the miniature figures on my battle map. Alea Tools sells the disks and numbered stickers that I use. Unless you also buy adhesive, magnetic disks and stick them to the bottom of your figures, miniatures tend to slip off the Alea markers.

Elite DM Chuck Benscoter uses markers that cup miniatures’ bases. Too bad Dapper Devil no longer sells these markers.

I number miniatures to help bookkeeping, but two other benefits surprised me.

The numbers speed communication. In the typical fight, players keep referring to monsters as “this one” and “that one.” Then I look up from my notes and ask “which one?” and the pointing resumes. Repeat once per turn.

I train players to refer to monsters by number. “Number three” works much better than “this one.” I rarely even need to look up and find the creature on the board.

After someone damages a monster, number it. When my players hit something, I pass them a marker and say, “Make ‘that one’ number three.”

For area effects, numbers make bookkeeping faster. When the wizard casts the first fireball, I pass a numbered markers for each target. Without looking up from my damage tally, I roll saves. “Number 1 saves…2 fails…” and so on. If some targets already have numbers, then I ask the players to read the numbers of the figures in their area of effect. On my sheet, I make tick marks by the targets, roll saves, and total damage. I can do bookkeeping without looking up.

This method does require a new routine. The long habit of “this one” and “that one” takes a couple of encounters to break, but soon combat encounters run faster.

What game masters (and their monsters) should say during a combat encounter

defending_against_frost_giantsDuring a combat encounters, I focus on keeping play moving. A faster tempo means players spend less time waiting between turns. Waiting never adds fun.

Despite my focus on tempo, I do more than count initiative and tell players when they hit. I try to describe enough of the action to make the scene vivid. I speak for the villains. Still, I worry that some player will think, Quit blabbing so I can take my turn, so I aim to add color without slowing the game.

In combat encounters, my monsters and I talk about three sorts of things:

1. Villainous monologues

Speaking dialog for your villains transforms them from bags of hit points into enemies. In comics, villains mock the fools that oppose them, and we hate them for their contempt, arrogance, and cruelty. Some of the fun Dungeons & Dragons comes from crushing evil. Good dialog makes your villains seem more real, more detestable, and more satisfying to crush.

Also, I reveal the monsters’ tactics through dialog. The ogre might say, “You hurt Grug, so I smash you.” The necromancer might say, “Barbarian, I have just the enchantment for weak-willed cretins like you.” This reframes the battle from the us verses the game master into us verses the monsters. I want players invested in their characters, but when I single out their character for attack, sometime it feels personal. If the monsters explain themselves, the GM starts to disappear.

2. Summary

At the end of a turn, if a PC does something noteworthy, give a short, vivid description of the event—or invite the player to describe it. Some GMs ask players to describe their kills. D&D includes a lot of kills, so for my taste, describing them all becomes tiresome and too gruesome. Especially with kids at the table. Especially when those kids loose their imaginations. Instead, focus on describing the big spells, stunts, transformations, setbacks, and feats of valor. The summary should only take a few seconds.

3. Urgency and exigency

After the summary, call the next player to act, and then tell them the biggest crisis on the battlefield. This advice comes from the Angry GM. “A player’s turn in combat needs to have both urgency (there’s an emergency that needs to be dealt with) and exigency (if you don’t take action right now, you will lose your opportunity). That’s what makes combat scary and that’s what keeps it running forward.” For example, say “Agnes, the wolves have knocked Kedric to the ground and look ready to gut him. What do you do?” Such transitions call the player to attention, focus them on the game, and increase their sense of urgency.

4. Exposition

Screenwriters cannot pad a movie fight scene with dialog without strangling the pace. But in a role-playing game, you can fit dialog into a fight. If you want to compare RPG fight scenes to another medium, compare them to comics. In comic-book fights, battles stretch time. I’ve seen Captain America deliver 50 words on freedom in the span of a single punch.

Similarly, I’ve seen D&D players squeeze a 5-minute strategy conference into a 6-second round. (If the players enjoy tactics and they’re not just telling the new player what to do, I just assume that yesterday, at the campfire, the PCs planned tactics for situations like this.)

Most adventures need some exposition: essential information needed to make sense of events, or clues the that lead to the next scene. Sometimes all GMs find themselves relaying some essential bit of background while the players grow impatient. Their expressions say, “Blah, blah, blah. Just tell us what to kill.”

Why not add exposition while the players know what to kill? You never have a better hold on their attention. Unlike in a movie, your villains can monologue during a fight, revealing their history, exposing their plans, and so on. “My father defeated the demon Chirix to win that staff, you shall not have it.” Just don’t recite more than a few lines at a time, stalling play. The players might allow themselves a 5-minute strategy conference, but your villain cannot unfold a page and say, “As a free action, I would like to read a statement.”

Do as a I say and try to do

I have a confession to make. I aim to enhance all my fights with colorful dialog and descriptions, but sometimes I lose myself in the business of keeping the turns moving and planning my monsters’ next move. If you ever happen to find a seat at my game table, you’ll see how well I’m doing.

When you serve as game master during a combat encounter, what do you say?

How to end combat encounters before they become a grind

Every Dungeons & Dragons player experiences a battle that drags near the end, when the monsters have spent their best attacks and lack the numbers to threaten the PCs. As a dungeon master, I want to cut to the next scene, but thanks to focused fire, the remaining monsters stand near full health. Players won’t spend any resources on a fight that seems won, so they chip away with cantrips and basic attacks. The battle wears on.

briar_wood_buscot_park-1After a battle’s outcome becomes obvious, the game can drag. I have had many chances to test ways to move on. Some of my schemes have worked better than others.

Plan an out

The best combat encounters feature an objective different from kill all the monsters. PCs attempt to stop a ritual, defend a wall, close a dark portal, destroy an artifact, steal the brain in the jar, or accomplish some other task. Often, completing the objective ends the battle. Either the PCs escape or the summoned/dominated/animated defenders stop fighting.

In scenes where the players can win by slaying the necromancer or summoner who controls all the monsters, make sure the mastermind makes a difficult target. A typical dark lord won’t last a round fighting toe-to-toe with a rogue and barbarian. See The evil wizard’s guide to defense against murderous treasure hunters.

Dave “The Game” Chalker wrote more about The Combat Out.

Alternate goals make engaging combat encounters, but not every battle can turn on one.

Call the fight

When a winner becomes obvious, some DMs recommend calling the fight. Just sweep the monsters off the map. This fix seems tempting, but too many players hate the practice.

As a DM, you know more about the monsters’ conditions than the players. You may see an obvious win, while the players still feel tension.

Even when everyone sees the inevitable, your intervention jars the players out of their immersion in the game world. It leaves players feeling robbed of a victory they earned.

Only call a fight when a convention slot or other limit brings a severe time crunch—when you must move on or risk leaving an adventure unfinished. If you do call a fight, use narration to ease players out of the scene and give some sense of victory. Describe the characters’ final strikes—or invite the players to tell the tale.

Let monsters flee or surrender

Some argue that monsters would possess a sense of self preservation. That in the face of death, they would flee or surrender. I used to agree, but then I learned that bloodthirsty treasure hunters never show mercy.

Having monsters flee or surrender seems like a quick way to end a battle, but neither tactic saves time. PCs always pursue fleeing monsters, resulting in a chase. Only have monsters flee when you want a chase, or when the PCs simply cannot follow.

Surrender leads to a ugly interrogation scene followed by the dreary dispute over killing helpless captives. Finally, during the paladin’s bathroom break, the rogue murders the prisoners. (If you have never run these scenes, welcome first-time dungeon master!)

Sometimes, a surrender can lead to an interesting role-playing scene, or a real dilemma. Usually this requires foes who can (a) trade for their lives or (b) offer a good reason they should be freed. Nonetheless, surrender never saves time.

With either a chase or a surrender, you spend 30 minutes to save 5.

I suspect that in the monster community, word has spread about murderous treasure hunters and their rogues and paladins. Better to fall in battle than to die on your knees or with a knife in your back.

Turn monsters into minions

You can bring a fight to a quick end by silently deciding that all the monsters stand at only 1 hit point. The next hit kills. I’ve done it, but I never feel proud of it. I like a game where the players’ actions and the dice seem to decide the PCs fate. Even in a battle that seems won, if the players notice my meddling, they lose some sense that they control their destiny.

Still, as battles wane, when a blow nearly slays a monster, I may round the damage up to dead.

Everyone roll

Near the end of a battle, typically only one type of monster remains. These survivors all act on the same initiative count, then all the players act. This situation permits my favorite way to close a battle: everyone roll at once. By now, the outcome has been decided, so no one would waste a spell slot. No player’s action requires my full attention. I announce the monsters’ armor class and invite everyone to roll their attacks and damage at once. If you need to move, just do it. Then I call out names and tally damage. In the time usually spent on one turn, all the players act. During these fast forwards, I used to ignore initiative and go around the table, having players call off their damage totals. But I learned that some players care about earning the kill, if only for the glory. So now I call names in initiative order.

How I learned to care (a little) less about what PCs have in hand

Until the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, players hardly worried about what their characters had in hand during battle. Since then, the game’s designers have tried and failed to free players from needing to keep track. What your character held only started to matter when a expanding number of options met a much shorter combat round.

Expanding options

When Dungeons & Dragons appeared in 1974, no one worried about what characters had in their hands. Two-handed weapons dealt the same 1d6 damage as lighter arms, so you may as well carry a shield if you could. The rules presented no options for wielding two weapons. No one needed to worry about how their elves managed to cast spells while wielding a sword and shield, because elves could only switch from fighting man to magic user “from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game.” Besides, the requirement to speak and gesture would not enter the game for three more years.

In 1975, the Greyhawk supplement distinguished weapons with different damage dice. Now fighters could opt to use a two-handed sword for greater damage or to keep their shield and wield a regular sword. Gary Gygax presumes his audience of grognards will know that a halberd, for example, requires two hands. Even today, the rules do not mention that you cannot equip a shield and wield a two-handed weapon, because the designers assume everyone knows. (Although, they mention that you can only benefit from one shield at a time.)

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary introduced the option to fight with a weapon in each hand, but with penalties to each attack. Then in 1985, Unearthed Arcana opened the way for drow player characters. “Dark elves…may fight with two weapons without penalty provided each weapon may be easily wielded in one hand.” In the wake of Unearthed Arcana, author R. A. Salvatore created the ranger Drizzt, who could wield two blades due to his drow heritage.

The Crystal ShardI’m convinced that between Drizzt’s first appearance in The Crystal Shard (1988) and the introduction of second-edition AD&D in 1989, the two-weapon fighting ability jumped from drow to rangers, with Drizzt as the carrier. Second-edition author David “Zeb” Cook disagrees, “I’m not sure where the ranger took shape, though I know it wasn’t an imposition because of Drizzt. It was more to make them distinct and it fit with the style and image.”

But while Zeb led the second-edition design, many others contributed. A two-weapon ranger lacks any fictional inspiration other than Drizzt. Most likely, someone introduced the two-weapon style to rangers to put Drizzt within the rules, without realizing that his ability sprang from the drow race. Or perhaps, some designer simply liked how Drizzt’s scimitars fit the ranger class’s “style and image.”

The 6-second round

In AD&D, no one paid attention to how a spellcasting, two-weapon ranger managed to free a hand to cast, or how much time he needed to sheath both swords and draw a bow. Combat rounds lasted a full minute, and offered plenty of time to exchange gear. On page 61 of 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary wrote, “One-minute rounds are devised to offer the maximum of play choice with the minimum of complication. The system assumes much activity during the course of each round.”

The Adventures of Robin HoodGary modeled the round after the feints, maneuvering, and unsuccessful attacks seen in the climactic sword fight in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Still, players imagined rounds as a simple exchange of blows. One minute seemed far too long for that, and no one could explain why a bowman could only fire once per minute. In response, Gary devoted half of page 61 to defending the minute-long round.

Nonetheless, Basic D&D always held to 10-second rounds, and then third-edition D&D shrunk the round to 6 seconds. This fitted what players imagined, but it offered far less time to maneuver. As a product of the shorter round, drawing or sheathing a weapon became a move action.

In actual play, few players paid much attention to what their characters held. For example, they typically ignored the two move actions required to swap a bow for a sword. The actions may have better simulated the activity of a 6-second round, but the accounting added no fun.

Making the rules match play

Surely, the fifth-edition designers noticed that few players bothered tracking the
actions required to switch weaponry, spell components, and so on. They noticed that players who performed the accounting found no fun in it. So the designers attempted make the rules match the way players obviously wanted to play—with little concern for time spent swapping weapons and gear. In addition to your move and action, “You can also interact with one object of feature of the environment for free, during either your move or your action.

If you want to interact with a second object, you need to use your action.

The “free” action to manipulate one object may seem the same as fourth edition’s minor action, but if offers one important advantage: it plays faster. In fourth edition, players learned to tick off their actions as they used them. When they reached the end of their turn, they often realized that they still had a minor action to spend. Somehow, that unspent minor action seemed precious. It’s an action and I only get one! So they would pause to think of some way to spend it. I will never get back the hours I wasted watching players try to find dream up uses for their minor actions. Turning a minor action into something “free” makes it something players can ignore without angst.

But the one, free action fails to offer enough latitude to let players do things like sling a bow, draw a sword, and then make an attack, all in one turn. On September 9, designer Jeremy Crawford tweeted, “Without a special feature or feat, an Attack action could include sheathing or drawing a weapon, not both.” I understand the need for such a strict interpretation. I never want to hear, “Every turn, after I fire an arrow, I draw my sword in case I have a chance to make an opportunity attack.”

In practice, most players will switch weapons without a thought to the actions required, and without trying to pull any shenanigans. As a dungeon master, you have two choices: You can attempt to enforce a strict action economy, and tolerate the eye-rolling of players who dislike pedantic lectures on the rules. Or you can grant players some latitude and assume that perhaps the ranger saw the approaching goblins and slung her bow on her last turn, before drawing her blades on the current turn. We all know that turns exist to make the continuous action of the round playable. Perhaps the activity of the last turn blurs a bit with the next. However, when rules lawyers want to use a reaction, they have the same weapons in hand as when they ended their turn.

Related: Sky Roy at Bright Cape Gamer follows up on this subject and suggests a bit of “cinematic flexibility.”

What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?

Dave ArnesonWhen Dave Arneson set out to create the combat system that would become a pillar of Dungeons & Dragons, he did not aim to create a realistic simulation.  In a 2004 interview, he describes the system’s genesis from Gary Gygax’s Chainmail rules.

Combat in Chainmail is simply rolling two six-sided dice, and you either defeated the monster and killed it…or it killed you. It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters, and they wanted something detailed which Chainmail didn’t have. The initial Chainmail rules was a matrix. That was okay for a few different kinds of units, but by the second weekend we already had 20 or 30 different monsters, and the matrix was starting to fill up the loft.

I adopted the rules I’d done earlier for a Civil War game called Ironclads that had hit points and armor class. It meant that players had a chance to live longer and do more. They didn’t care that they had hit points to keep track of because they were just keeping track of little detailed records for their character and not trying to do it for an entire army. They didn’t care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn’t want the monster to kill them in one blow.

So the D&D rules for hit points and armor class stem from rules for ironclad ships trading cannon blasts, hardly the basis for an accurate simulation of hand-to-hand battles.

Soon after I began playing D&D, the unrealistic combat rules began to gnaw at me. In the real world, armor reduces the damage from blows rather than making you harder to hit. Shouldn’t it work the same way in the game? And how could a fighter, no matter how heroic, survive a dozen arrow hits, each dealing enough damage to kill an ordinary man? In reality, a skilled fighter would stand a better chance of evading blows, but no better chance of surviving a single hit.

Quest for realism

In the decade after D&D’s introduction, a mania for creating realistic alternatives to D&D dominated the hobby. Every D&D player who ever wielded a sword in the Society of Creative Anachronism cooked up a more realistic alternative to the D&D combat system. Runequest (1978) stands as the greatest early success. Characters’ hit points remained constant, but they became more able to dodge and block blows. Hit locations transformed characters from blobs of hit points into flesh and bone. Armor reduced damage by deflecting and cushioning blows. Arms Law and Claw Law

If you enjoyed the AD&D Weapon Armor Class Adjustment table, but felt it needed to go much, much further, the Rolemaster Arm’s Law (1980) system offered more than 30 tables matching weapons versus armor.

In this era, everyone formulated a critical hit table, because nothing adds fun to a system like skewered eyes, fountaining stumps, and sucking chest wounds. (Follow this blog for my upcoming list of supposedly fun, but not fun, things we did in the early days of role playing.)

I sought realism as much as anyone, first with Runequest, and then with GURPS. I quickly learned that making combat more realistically deadly made D&D-style, combat-intensive play impractical. Forget dungeon crawls; even skilled characters would eventually perish to a lucky blow. As I described in Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map, early D&D combat lacked excitement anyway, so I hardly missed all the fights.

But I would come to realize that my dismissal of the D&D combat system was completely wrong.

Next: The brilliance of unrealistic hit points