[normal Red Box] how to fix D&D combat?

edited March 2008 in Play Advice
Heroes of Story Games, I seek your wisdom! Last night we played a session of Tom Moldvay's Basic Dungeons & Dragons (the Red Box). It was most entertaining--except for the combat parts, which were about as fun as going to the dentist. (These particular NPC's, for various in-fiction reasons, didn't use very complicated tactics, but even with complex tactics it would still be a boring sub-system.)

What I Am Looking For
* Handle five dudes vs. five zombies in 10 minutes or less. Or five guys vs. twenty-five goblins in 15 minutes or less.
* Players have to make strategic gambits with incomplete information
* Strong reward for small group tactics
* Some "swashbuckling" type maneuvers so that there's unavoidably more color than "I swing/I miss"
* Not significantly re-writing monster stats or other rules

I could have sworn there was already a thread to this effect on Story Games, but I couldn't find it. (I have been looking at Red Box Hack, so there's no reason to point that out, though I'm not convinced it hits everything I'm looking for.)

Comments

  • 1) Remember to make Morale checks.

    2) Make to-hit and damage rolls at the same time.

    3) Treat swarms of anything as a single monster with multiple attacks.

    4) Allow mods of between -3 and +3 for poor or clever tactics/swashbuckling.

    Small unit tactics, by description, can limit characters and monsters in contact. Done really well, PCs will be able to attack more individuals than can counterattack them.

    Incomplete information is just that.

    Make intelligent creatures value their lives. Pretty much any wounded creature will attempt to drop out of combat if possible.

    Even hostile chaotic critters ( per Keep on the Borderlands) understand the concept of Ransoming Prisoners. Presumably that works both ways.
  • KB, those are all good ideas and I implement them. It's still boring. Basically I want to resolve the fight on a somewhat larger scale than one swing at at time.

    What I want is something like Burning Wheel's "plot out your attack a couple moves ahead" type of thing, where the real situation rapidly veers away from your expectations. And maybe each player has a piece to play in the strategic flow of the fight.
  • Don Corchran had a fun thing with his Story-Gamey-d20 hack where he had you roll a bunch of d20s and you'd decide what to use those rolls on. If you included a defense roll in too that might be fun. Then again, Red Box didn't have skills or positive AC did it?
  • Let's see. You played D&D, and had fun, except for the combat parts...

    Would I be creating a zen moment, or being an ass, if I suggested that the fix to this is to play The Shadow of Yesterday?

    Maybe put another way, what was it about D&D that was good, if the combat was bad? That you wouldn't get out of TSOY?

    Mike
  • Use deadlier monsters. like, actually roll on the random encounter table. Use things like giant shrews and wolves.

    The players will learn, really fast, to avoid combat whenever possible.

    yrs--
    --Ben
  • Ben: it was with wolves (though due to positioning it was impossible for the wolves to use pack tactics).

    Mike: there is no reason not to use Shadow of Yesterday. I love Shadow of Yesterday. It makes me happy in the marrow of my bones. But if one has a nostalgic desire to play D&D, playing something besides D&D does not scratch that itch.

    So what I'm thinking is something like "strategic maneuvers" which beat one another, or play together rock-paper-scissors style:
    * Ambush
    * Archery
    * Block
    * Freeze
    * etc.,

    and access to these is situational. And maybe characters can synergize by using the equivalent of BAB (you can back-calculate a BAB using the attack tables in Red Box)... but I think that might really screw up spells....

    Another thought might be to gamble Hit Points for bad-ass maneuvers. So, a Fighter has more ability to do crazy stuff....
  • What I want, by the way, is to have a scene like,

    "Damn it, the goblins broke through our line! Move your archers out of the way, I'll wheel the cavalry around"

    rather than, "Damn, the goblin got past my shield. Cleric, back me up."

    ....but with the ability to scale smoothly between these extremes.
  • James: I think you want a different game. None of these mods sound like they're going to make combat any *faster*.

    really? Wolves? Against a first level party? And they didn't, you know, tear them to pieces?

    Wow. Was it just luck or did they have mad strategy?

    yrs--
    --Ben
  • Was it just luck or did they have mad strategy?
    Hirelings with spears and pole arms or torches, backed by archers. Or any number of ambush techniques. Or herding them into a dead end and combining with the above.

    And, as always, reaction and morale checks, including killing the pack alpha.
  • Actually, Ewilen used similar tactics on some gnolls last weekend, which gave me the idea. FWIW, "Tactics" is just another way of saying " How can I fight as unfairly as possible?"
  • edited March 2008
    Posted By: komradebobWas it just luck or did they have mad strategy?
    Hirelings with spears and pole arms or torches, backed by archers. Or any number of ambush techniques. Or herding them into a dead end and combining with the above.

    And, as always, reaction and morale checks, including killing the pack alpha.

    That's almost exactly what happened: dire wolf cubs chained up in the entrance to the cave; elf spots the wolves, party hangs back outside; bomb them with flaming oil; goblin warden lets the wolves loose, they rush out for the kill, and the heroes chop them down as they pass the entryway while the hirelings pelt them with sling stones. When the first two wolves go down instantly, the others, confronted with fire and sudden death, lose their nerve.

    Tactics-wise, this was smart play--but boy: "Hireling #2 misses... Hireling #6 misses... Wolf attacks..." gets old real quick. The fight lasted 3 or 4 rounds, but it was tedious. What I want to do is: "Wow, those are awesome tactics. These wolves don't have any counter-tactics: they're young and stupid. So let's roll... and... two wolves die, the others bail, and none of your dudes get hurt." Meanwhile, after a very long argument about what to do next: "Okay, so the army of 26 goblins know the terrain, and they've got infravision, and they've got archers, a pincer maneuver, and some other dudes are circling around to cut off your escape route... You guys wanna try a Break Through the Line, Ready for a Charge, or Run Like Hell?"
    James: I think you want a different game.
    Possibly... but D&D has its roots in wargames, right? I'm just trying to figure a handy war-gamey way to do this. There are rules for large-scale combat in the Mentzer Companion Set, but they're not tactically interesting: it's basically 1d100 + static modifier vs. 1d100 + static modifier. What's a good, simple wargame that resolves at the maneuver level?

    By the way, Ben, thank you very much for sparking my interest in this game again. I agree with you that the game is a lot of fun, the Mentzer version is marvelously lucid, but this particular sub-system--which, in our memories, is supposed to be really exciting--is kind of like watching paint dry.
  • edited March 2008
    Was it boring for you or the players, or both?

    I've seen players really digging stuff and the GM having an entirely different reaction.

    Also, are you using minis or not?
  • Okay, here's a bare-bones type of thing

    * You + your hired retainers = one squad. No retainers means you're the whole squad, buddy.
    * Retainers = meat shields. You are only at significant risk once all retainers are dead.
    * Hit Points = luck, guts, daring, hero-worthiness. You can spend a Hit Point for some awesome thing. Fighters can afford to be more gutsy than Thieves.

    When combat begins, each squad selects a certain number of Tactics = 3 + (Intelligence Modifier). Super-Nerd the Wizard would have 7. Blobby the Ooze has 1 tactic. So, it's like a hand of cards: I might have {Smash, Flank, Hold, Inspire}. So what this means, is that smart guys think faster than dumb guys, and are already anticipating their strategic needs.

    If a tactic is in your repertoire, it means your squad can do it in a coordinated way. You've at least thought about it.
    If a tactic is not in your repertoire, it means that Gee Whiz, you've been flummoxed and your squad won't perform very well as you dither and dawdle.

    I'm trying to work out what the Tactics should be - I'd like to tie one to each Attribute, and certain combinations defeat others. Still figuring out what those would be, and how they'd interact, but probably would work a little like Burning Wheel's thing.
  • Posted By: James_NostackHeroes of Story Games, I seek your wisdom! Last night we played a session of Tom Moldvay's Basic Dungeons & Dragons (the Red Box). It was most entertaining--except for the combat parts, which were about as fun as going to the dentist. (These particular NPC's, for various in-fiction reasons, didn't use very complicated tactics, but even with complex tactics it would still be a boring sub-system.)
    There is an obvious solution, the one many GMs discovered and used at the time: stop reading the actual numbers on the dice you roll, learn some illusionist techniques, and make the monster fall dead "when the time is right".

    I mean.. at the time, I didn't even know anybody who DIDN'T do it running D&D....
  • James, your solution sounds a lot like how Hero Quest would handle such a conflict. It may seem like an odd perspective, or like I'm focusing too much on the die type, but there is a substantive way in which HQ is a "D20" game. That is, a main difference mechanically is that HQ basically decides that "Hit Points" are completely abstract ratings related to situational success, and not indicative at all of in-game wounding... neccessarily.

    What's interesting about this is that this has always been true of D&D to some extent. It is, in fact, the conflation between the idea that Hit Points are situational, and yet also represent actual wounds, that has always made it seem very problematic to folks like me. Let's see.... if I'm level 1, with 5 Hits, and you're level 10 with 50, and we both fall ten feet and take 3 points of damage, then we're to believe that you avoided most of the damage of the fall somehow due to experience (certainly nobody would buy - or expect you to buy - that you actually can withstand ten times the same amount of wounding). Yet when the cleric comes along to cure light wounds, my crippling injury will likely be healed fully, while your scratch will barely be assuaged...

    It's hard to have it both ways. Some of the D20 "Vitality" systems work around this pretty well. But for my money, going the HQ rout, and saying that the points lost in battle have no relation directly to wounds (wounds can be accumulated through defeat, or part of the process of victory), you can then abstract any character resource effectively.

    This is what I'd do. Simply make character resources worth some "Hit Points" that are burnt in conflicts, as "damage" is dealt by the other side. This then also leaves you free to do the sort of narration you want, instead of "damage" making you feel that you have to narrate, "The orc gives you a small cut on your forearm." Instead narrate, "Horst, one of your henchmen, is laid out by a mighty blow to his head by an orc's hammer." Or even, "The goblin gets past your shield on the cleric's side."

    Mike

    P.S. Of course, if you just played HQ, this would all be very natural. Nostalgia is decietful... it recalls the good, while forgetting the bad. What you want is to recapture the innocence of that early play or something. I doubt that it's actually anything that D&D provided. Just the result of how you were when you played. And I'm sorry, but you can't get that back. When forced to indulge in a "Nostalgic" play of TFT recently, we began playing, and people kept making comments like, "There's only one weapon that makes sense for my selected Strengh?" They immediately rediscovered all of the bad things about the system. Things that prompted Steve Jackson to replace the system with GURPS. Which, itself, is a system that we've been working on improving upon (amongst many) since then.

    Remember that "The Good Old Days" were also "The Bad Old Days."
  • edited April 2008
    James,

    Are you sure Basic D&D is what you're looking for? All your mods are fine, but it seems like maybe basic D&D just isn't the game you want.

    If you're still set on it, do listen to Komradebob and Ben. Do use the morale rules. Also, use the dungeoneering procedures. You know how in basic D&D (and every version before 2e), turns are different from rounds, and you move through a dungeon in (roughly) 10 minute turns, and there are wandering monster checks every X turns (depending on the version you're using), and so on? Yeah, use those rules. Cool things will happen if you do, once the players start to figure out that the clock is ticking all the time they're in the dungeon. Also, use the monster reaction tables. Really! Not every monster you encounter actually wants to fight with you. They have lives too! Now, these tips don't help you directly with making fights more exciting, per se, but they will help you get more out of the game.

    Now this is conjecture, but I think you've been misled into thinking that D&D is about combat. Which it really isn't. It's about dungeon-delving and treasure hunting. Combat is part of that, sure, but it's only one part. Monster XP is shit. Gold is where it's at. The monsters are deadly. Traps are seriously fucking deadly. Only two of the founding members of our party are still alive, and one of them would have been dead if he hadn't hopped on the broom of flying he found in a treasure and flown away that time, leaving the rest of the party to die. Did I mention how deadly traps are? We've gone through more thieves than any other class. The excitement doesn't come from every single action being some sort of world-shattering stunt. It comes from the fact that sometimes you are well and truly screwed. And sometimes you're smart enough to win (or get out!) anyway.

    And I have to echo Ben -- if you want faster combat, adding a bunch of additional cruft onto the system will not give it to you. I actually think you're looking for strategy in the wrong places, fwiw. Don't confuse system mastery and special maneuvers with strategy as a whole. Not the same thing! The system is, frankly, viciously deadly for low level characters and remains dangerous as they level up. We had a party of 3rd to 5th level characters foolishly engage with some giant spiders that would have been content to leave them alone. The giant spiders ended up fleeing after one of their members died (use the morale checks!), but the encounter ended badly for the PCs. Poisoned characters who couldn't be saved. A lesson learned.

    Anyway, that's actually the short version of my advice. And I suppose it's only half me pontificating, half actual useful advice, but that's the internet for you. So here's one more possibly useful thing. I have a reference sheet I put together for use in our game. It was originally based on R. Fisher's classic D&D reference sheet, but my version is heavily modified as we've gone through cycles of play, read more books, clarify question, play more, look at books some more, revise reference sheet, etc. For example, some of the more ambiguous things from Moldvay I've clarified by reference to Holmes, to OD&D, and to the Rules Cyclopedia.

    (Here it is. -- that's a PDF link -- right click and "Save As")

    As you can see, we've also taken to using a version of combat closer to the way Chainmail worked. I originally stole that off the internet too, but for the life of me I can't remember where. I've modified it a bit from reading Chainmail myself. Anyway, I will try to go find the link to the original page I got the idea from.

    EDIT: Credit where credit is due.
    R. Fisher's Classic D&D page
    Philotomy's OD&D Combat Sequence (It's for OD&D, but it's still useful if you want your fights to be a bit more tactical.)


    Rich

    P.S. Don't take Mike's nostalgia rant to heart. His overall point is true enough as a general observation, but he tends to think it applies more broadly than it does, in my experience. It's just one of his things, though. I think I'm the bastard who forced him to run some TFT (at Gen Con), btw, and I actually enjoyed it. :-) I had to leave too early to get to a session of an indie game I'd already signed up for the day before, and that game session was so badly mismanaged by the GM that I found myself wishing I hadn't left Mike's TFT game. So experiences differ -- most of the guys at the TFT table were, frankly, sort of dragged into it at the Games on Demand area at Gen Con, and I think I might have been the only one who actually *wanted* to try it out. Though to give Mike credit, he did a fine job on the game. In spite of his bluster about nostalgia, he didn't shortchange the game itself: he put together a proper labyrinth and ran it with convincing enthusiasm.
  • We're actually going to play the game again tomorrow, using the standard combat system, because so many people were telling me that by attempting to change the combat system I was secretly murdering their Imaginary Fluffy Kittens. So, if tomorrow night the combats stink, that's not me being grouchy, that's the system.

    PS. I do use morale checks, and always pray for the monsters to fail and run away.
    PPS. Where do I go to discuss I"n a Poisoned Red Box for a Century"?
  • Actually, the problem is that you're killing the fluffy little buggers right before our very eyes!

    Have a heart, James.

    Fwiw, you might be interested in knowing that you're not alone in thinking basic D&D combat is boring. Steve Jackson said the same thing in 1980. And his introduction to Melee suggests that it can be used as a replacement for the combat mechanics in other fantasy RPGs (e.g., D&D). So you know, that criticism has a long and esteemed history.

    So, yes, I do understand where the criticism is coming from. But I honestly think it's a matter of looking for the strategy in the wrong places: if you're zooming in on the individual figure in round-by-round action, that really isn't where basic D&D is especially interesting. It's more interesting if you look at the unit in action over time. The basic unit of adventure in D&D isn't the combat round or the encounter. It's the dungeon expedition. That said, did you check out the links to R. Fisher's page and (especially) Philotomy's combat sequence? Those links are well meaning -- I do think the Chainmail style combat sequence might address some of your issues.

    Then again, if you want a more drama-driven method of resolution (like the one described in your post earlier), then I think a good, simple way to get that would be to go with Mike's HeroQuest suggestion. That won't give you something more wargame-y, of course, but it may be that something more wargame-y isn't really what you want out of D&D?

    At any rate, don't feel like you have to stick to something like the original version of combat just because some of us think it works fine. Houseruling D&D is the fundamental act of roleplaying.

    Rich
  • " Houseruling D&D is the fundamental act of roleplaying. "

    So very, very true.
  • Posted By: Mike HolmesLet's see.... if I'm level 1, with 5 Hits, and you're level 10 with 50, and we both fall ten feet and take 3 points of damage, then we're to believe that you avoided most of the damage of the fall somehow due to experience (certainly nobody would buy - or expect you to buy - that you actually can withstand ten times the same amount of wounding). Yet when the cleric comes along to cure light wounds, my crippling injury will likely be healed fully, while your scratch will barely be assuaged...
    The thing is, those 3 points of damage don't represent a "crippling injury". As long as you have at least 1 hit point left, you're still perfectly fine. The only difference between you and the guy with 50 hit points is that he's got the skill, toughness, and luck to keep going longer than you after taking the same amount of damage.

    The way I've been approaching damage in D&D lately is to treat hit points as the character's ability to keep fighting and nothing more. When a PC takes "damage", I leave it up to the player to narrate how the character's ability to stay in the fight has been diminished. A "hit" could mean an actual wound, but it could just as easily represent the character tiring out as he frantically dodges, getting rattled as she blocks a sturdy blow with her shield, or pressing his luck as through sheer coincidence he manages to trip over a rock and fall to one knee just as his opponent's sword whistles through the air where his head was an instant before. It's all up to the player.

    Healing works the same way. One player might describe a cure light as "the blood stops flowing and my wound closes up before my very eyes" and another as "the cleric's prayer fills me with a sense of calm and renewed vigor. I'm ready to go on."
  • Ron, that's very similar to what I'm advocating, yes.

    That said, it would be nice, with your version, to actually have the capacity to wound a character by falling off of a cliff. I mean, wounding should be a possible outcome of dangerous stuff. No? The basic difference between your version and mine is that I give you your whole hit point total every extended contest. And failure means that you now have a wound.

    Actually that's not even the best model - everybody wonders about getting wounded while winning, for instance. But it's headed in the right direction.


    Rich,

    Yes, that was you indeed who got me to run that game. I approached it from the POV of an educational experience. That is, I wanted to show people what the game was like. So, no, no way was I going to taint that by injecting whatever pessimism I may feel for old systems into the presentation. Further, I think RPGs are like sex... really not "Bad RPG play," just RPG play that isn't quite what I'd like it to be. So I had fun.

    But that's not nearly the same thing as saying that I would run a TFT campaign these days. Because I know empirically that I can have more fun with other systems. Not just because of our little experience, no, I regularly come back to games like D&D, and others that I've played, to try them again, and to see if I was missing something about them. Honestly trying to keep an open mind about it. I did that with TFT, too. I have lots of good memories of that system, in fact, and even pined for parts of it when playing D&D (I played TFT first). My experience has been that, no, in no case have I come back to some game that I've moved on from to find that it was better than I'd remembered. Usually I am just reminded sharply of why I moved on.

    Now, yeah, I'm certain that other people's mileage will vary on this. But here we have James directly complaining about how the system handles things. He's saying, "I want to play D&D, just like we used to... uh, but can help me make it into something better?"

    Seems pretty contradictory to me. If you're feeling a need to change the system, that's the system telling you to play something else. Or, well, that's what it says to me.

    Mike
  • With all appreciation for the people who have participated in this thread--and I do appreciate it--I think I completely miscommunicated what I was looking for here, so I'm backing away for a second.
  • Posted By: Mike HolmesRon, that's very similar to what I'm advocating, yes.

    That said, it would be nice, with your version, to actually have the capacity to wound a character by falling off of a cliff. I mean, wounding should be a possible outcome of dangerous stuff. No? The basic difference between your version and mine is that I give you your whole hit point total every extended contest. And failure means that you now have a wound.
    My version is just a variant interpretation of plain old unhouseruled D&D hit points. I came up with it for a player who was fine with the way hit points worked as a game mechanic, but wanted a better explanation for what it "looked like" when her character lost 5 hit points or whatever.

    Falling damage has always been lame in D&D, if you ask me. Doing dangerous things on top of tall things you could fall off of and die is a staple of adventure fiction that doesn't translate well to D&D after the first couple of levels. Heights should be scary, even to high level adventurers. The way I usually handle scary heights in D&D is to either a) not use them at all (i.e., no pit traps. Traps are lame in general, pit traps are just that much lamer.), b) attach story risks to falls along with the possibility of damage ("If you fall down in the ravine you might not die, but you're going to have to climb back up or go the long way around; either way, it's going to mean showing up late to the Duke's ball with your clothes all torn and muddied. You still want to try and make that jump?") or c) every so often, just saying, "OK, you see that line on the map? That's a hundred foot cliff. Anyone who falls off it dies."
  • Posted By: Mike HolmesSeems pretty contradictory to me. If you're feeling a need to change the system, that's the system telling you to play something else. Or, well, that's what it says to me.
    What if the "something else" the system is telling you to play is "the parts of me you like with the parts of me you don't like replaced with something different"?
  • edited April 2008
    Posted By: Ron HammackWhat if the "something else" the system is telling you to play is "the parts of me you like with the parts of me you don't like replaced with something different"?
    Figure out how those abstract mechanics are able to deliver such a complex and coherent message. Tweak the mechanics to fix the global economy and create world peace.

    Or in other words, it's not the mechanics telling you that, it's all you. Some parts you hate, some parts you like, that's all. Nothing new. Play a game that does the parts you like in a way that you like and does the things you hate in a way that you like. If the parts one likes are so miraculous that it's worth fighting an uphill battle to change the core mechanics, I doubt one would have stopped playing it in the first place.

    Nostalgia is a lie. The best way to enjoy it is actually to keep it in the past. You can't go home again. And other platitudes.
Sign In or Register to comment.