Thursday, 20 November 2008

Armour, Combat Descriptions and the One Minute Round

I've just finished reading Azincourt, the latest from Bernard Cornwell. It's an account of Henry V's Agincourt campaign from the perspective of one of the archers who took part, and a riproaring read which begins with murder in a small English village and climaxes in the famous battle, where around 6,000 English and Welsh archers and men-at-arms destroyed a French army of 20-30,000. I read it in a single day; by no means is it great art, but there's no writer quite like Bernard Cornwell for sheer barnstorming excitement and great fight scenes. (Without a doubt, when it comes to describing a battle from the point of view of the ordinary soldier, he's the best there is.) It's heartily recommended.

Naturally enough, since (at a conservative estimate) 70% of the book involves people killing each other, it got me thinking about combat. In particular, it got me thinking about medieval combat and the one-minute-combat round, as well as conceptions of combat in pre-3e D&D generally; probably this is because there has been a bit of discussion about the matter here and here in recent weeks so it's been lurking around in the back of my mind. To cut a long story short, I've always known in a theoretical sense that combat rounds in AD&D last a minute, and even paid attention to the passages in the 2nd edition PHB which say things like:

During a one-minute combat round, each character is assumed to block many attempted attacks and see many of his own attacks blocked. In normal combat, characters parry all the time--there's no need to single out each parry.


When making an attack, a character is likely to close with his opponent, circle for an opening, feint here, jab there, block a thrust, leap back, and perhaps finally make a telling blow. A spellcaster may fumble for his components, dodge an attacker, mentally review the steps of the spell, intone the spell, and then move to safety when it is all done. It has already been shown what drinking a potion might entail. All of these things might happen in a bit less than a minute or a bit more, but the standard is one minute and one action to the round.

But in practice, I've found that what tends to happen in older D&D games goes something like this:

Hector: I attack the troll. [Rolls dice]
DM: You cut the troll with your falchion, roll for damage.
Hector: Yay. [Rolls dice]
DM: [Rolls dice] The troll whacks you with his fist for 8 points of damage.
Hector: I attack him again. [Rolls dice]
DM: Your swing misses by an inch. [Rolls dice] The troll sinks his teeth into your face for 6 points of damage.

Admittedly a boring example, but you get the point: The idea of combat being a one-minute round of thrills and spills during the course of which people may or may not be injured and spells may or may not be cast goes out of the window, and is replaced by a hyper-detailed blow-by-blow account which might as well be second-by-second rather than minute-by-minute.

The thing is, an abstract combat round of one minute is difficult to envisage if all it involves is lots of dodging, parrying, feinting and fencing. That might simulate swordfighting duels from old films like those between Erroll Flynn and Basil Rathbone, or Tony Curtis and Ross Martin, but it doesn't seem to sit very well with the reality of messy, brutal melee. How do we conceptualise or envisage one minute of balls-to-the-wall violence in which participants might very well end up suffering trivial or no injury?

It's all about the armour. As one of the commenters in the Grognardia entry notes, "It's important to keep in mind that people wore the stuff because it worked." And work it did. In Azincourt, Cornwell describes how 5,000 or so French armoured men-at-arms were able to slog their way across 300 yards of open ground through knee-deep mud while enduring a hail of literally tens of thousands of arrows; even at close range a shot from a longbow could not penetrate the thick steel of a breast plate or greave. Nor was a sword or spear likely to - only a lucky or particularly well-aimed blow could cause injury, otherwise the worst that might happen would be the victim being knocked off his feet. Indeed, according to Cromwell (and Keegan) the vast majority of casualties in battles like Agincourt were execution-style killings of prone opponents: A man-at-arms would be knocked over in the melee, flounder in the mud, and then be disposed of either by a knife through the eyeslits in his visor, or by having his head bashed in with a poleaxe. The poleaxe was one of the few weapons which had a decent chance of cracking half-way serious armour.

An AD&D combat round, then, is actually like to involve lots of 'hits' that just don't cause injury. Even the lighter 'adventurer' armours such as chain mail or boiled leather were capable of turning a sword or spear blade, and in the cramped conditions in which most AD&D fights take place it's much more credible to imagine blows being landed but not causing injury than endless dodging, feinting and parrying.

The problem, as I've often thought, is that the 'to hit' roll is a misnomer which leads to unnecessary confusion. The rules would have been better served by called it the 'potential to cause damage' roll instead; a successful roll does not mean that you have hit so much as it means that you have been lucky or skilled enough to hit well, and a failed roll does not mean that you haven't hit - only that you haven't caused injury. 'Potential to cause damage' is an unwieldy term, but a much more accurate one than currently exists.


  1. Great article! I'm of the same opinion re: abstracting combat, and your comments on armor really help make a case for minute-long rounds. A lot can happen in a minute.

  2. The one minute combat round doesn't do a very good job with regards to historical authenticity. Fighting for longer than a few minutes in heavy armour would probably render the combatant quite exhausted.

    It does do a good job of modelling the sorts of individual foot duels that occur in Le Morte de Arthur and other medieval fantasies, where combat between two protagonists goes on all day and their arms and armour are reduced to ruins in the process.

    It also does a good job of making battles last a long time, which is a confusing topic. Real battles do last a long time, but mainly because a lot of that time is spent not fighting.

    I should say that if a man in full harness is hit with enough force to knock him over, then I would be surprised if he had not suffered a a trauma injury. As I understand it, you do not have to physically penetrate armour to kill a man, it is just more effective if you do.

    I agree that Cornwall is generally a very entertaining and reasonably well researched read, though.

  3. Patrick: Thanks. A minute long round is difficult to conceptualise because it really is a long time - as you say, a heck of a lot can happen in it.

    Matthew: I'm not sure I agree re: exhaustion and lots of time spent not fighting. It's undoubtedly true that fighting in heavy armour was exhausting and that battles contained large periods of just waiting around, but if we take the example of Agincourt, it's generally accepted that the melee lasted for three hours. The participants might have been exhausted but that didn't stop them fighting; it's worth remembering that said melee went on after the French had slogged their way across 300 yards of knee-deep mud in heavy plate armour while being battered by storms of arrows. Exhaustion was a factor in their defeat but it didn't prevent them fighting for three whole hours - and nor did it prevent the English.

    As for trauma injuries, you may well be right, but adrenaline is a funny thing. I cracked three ribs once during a football (soccer) game and was able to keep on playing for an hour afterwards, thinking I'd just been winded. I also remember an old tae kwon doe instructor telling me stories about guys in tournaments carrying on matches with various broken bones they were unaware of. The pain sets in later on, when the blood is no longer pumping through your veins quite so strongly.

  4. it's generally accepted that the melee lasted for three hours.

    I think you will find that is not a protracted melee, but a fits and starts affair involving many lines of troops. The French didn't slog their way across the battlefield and then fight for three straight hours. Unarmoured professional boxers couldn't fight for three hours non stop!

    Of course, the fact of the matter is that is unknown quite what transpired on an ancient or medieval battlefield, but the usual rationalisation is that once the two main bodies are within reach of one another they clash and fall back sporadically, sometimes fighting for long periods, sometimes refreshed from the rear ranks.

  5. Matthew: But at Agincourt, as well as at other medieval battles, there was a constant press of soldiers moving forwards - indeed, the bunching up of all the ranks is cited as one of the main reasons for the French defeat. So refreshing from the rear ranks hardly seems to have been an option.

    Of course I wouldn't suggest that every soldier on the battlefield fought for three hours non-stop. But they must have individually fought for longer than 'a few minutes' as you suggest - certainly long enough to indicate that they could easily last the ten minutes or so (in game time) that an average AD&D combat goes on for.

  6. Well, I am not saying that they could only fight for a few minutes and then they have to go home. I'm saying that they would fight, retire a short way, renew, retire and so on.

    The "bumping of ranks" is a modern explanation based on the proposed narrowness of the battlefield (and such an explanation is necessary because of the disparity in numbers). I am not sure I have ever seen any primary evidence to support the "press of men" theory (indeed, a press of men is usually considered beneficial in protracted infantry combat). I would be interested to know of any, though.

    If you haven't already, I recommend taking a look at John Keegan's The Face of Battle (1976, principally concerned with Agincourt as a case study) and Philip Sabin's more contemporary article "The Face of Roman Battle", published in vol. 90 of the Journal of Roman studies (2000), pp. 1-17 (which is a more general investigation of the subject than the title would suggest).

    You might also be interested to read Enguerrand de Monstrelet's account of Agincourt (c. 1453), which you can find in translation here:

    Thinking about it, I would be quite interested to know from where exactly this figure of three hours is derived.

  7. Matthew: The figure of three hours comes from either Anne Curry's Agincourt: A New History or Juliet Barker's Agincourt, I've forgotten, as I read them both immediately after one another. I've read in one place that the fighting would have lasted "less than half an hour" but that was an uncited reference and seems unlikely. I don't think anything in Keegan's account goes against either of those recent authors in terms of the press of men theory.

    Surely the point about the 'press of men' is that it is only beneficial if you aren't constricted by terrain, floundering in mud, unable to refresh, and being attacked in the flanks by quick, lightly armoured archers armed with poleaxes.

  8. Sure, I meant "I wonder what primary source is it derived from."

    The theories go back and forth about the benefits of the "press of men". We don't know how they were beneficial, though a few ideas have been proposed.

    The Agincourt theory relies on three factors:

    1) Narrowness of the battlefield restricted the extent of the fighting at any one time.

    2) The French (or at least the first battle) advanced in a mass and the troops at the rear were so eager to enter the fray that they pushed up against those in front.

    3) The English were more mobile than the French and less affected by the terrain.

    Where do these ideas come from? They are all explanations for the underlying problem (previously "explained" by the efficiency of the English longbow) that the English were significantly outnumbered and outclassed by the French. Where are the primary sources to support these ideas?

    I don't have Keen on hand, but I am pretty sure his account did not make use of the press of men theory (I could be wrong, it's been a while since I read it).

  9. Getting away from Agincourt, I've always felt that a minute was too long for a round, but 6 seconds was too short. In my imagination a round is 10 seconds, long enough for Flynning, short enough to believe that one might only get a single good hit in against a skillfull or well-guarded enemy.

  10. Matthew: If you haven't read it already, I recommend Curry's book. In it she analyses a number of primary sources and comes to the conclusion that the English were not as outnumbered as previously thought; she reckons that around 7-9,000 English faced off against 12,000 French. That would explain the victory without relying on special theories.

    Rachel: That's because you're a young whippersnapper! ;)

  11. Re: 'Potential to cause damage'


    "My PTCDAC0 is 12."

    Doesn't really roll off the tongue as such.

  12. Lorechaser: I was thinking "Pottocada" would have a better ring to it.

  13. Yeah, but THAC0 is manly, and aggressive.

    Pottocada just conjures up bad italian accents.

    "Hey, what'sa you pottocada?"

    "My pottocada, she's a 19."

    "You shoulda hita da monster!"

    "Dat's no monster - it'sa me, Mario!"

    I may be in the minority, though.

    The main issue I run in to with the one minute round is the addition of ranged combat.

    I buy the parrying, the give and take, the back and forth, the positioning. I can call a minute of that one roll.

    But then the archer takes one shot in a minute. Is he lining that shot up the entire time? If he's in melee range, sure, he's dodging and capering. But the archer in a tree, where no one can see him, takes 60 seconds to make one shot?

    It's the mixing of the two that isn't done very well, really.

  14. "Potential to cause damage" is not quite accurate either, as high-level characters' loss of hit points doesn't necessarily represent actual injury. A Lord can't really take 9 times as much bone-crushing or bleeding as a Veteran.

    In the dungeon, the forces typically get mixed up in melee right away; there's probably not time for more than an arrow or two beforehand. Then, there's the problem of finding a clear shot. Over the course of several minutes, rate of fire is probably not at theoretical maximum. Finally, it is not necessarily the case that a ranged attack involves but one missile any more than that a hand-to-hand attack involves but one blow (or even continuous fencing).

    A lot of factors are subsumed in the very abstract combat model. Beware of confusing its assumptions with those appropriate to a more detailed simulation!

  15. Lorechaser: You say that as if bad Italian accents are an unwanted thing! ;) Dwayanu answered your ranged weapon point already, but I should also say that most ranged weapons in 2e at least had a rate of fire of two per round, even for first level characters. Two in a minute isn't a great deal on an archery range, but it is when you have to dodge attacks, wait for a clear line of sight, etc. Even the guy up in the tree has to steady himself, make sure he doesn't accidentally hit one of his mates, etc.

    Dwayanu: But 'potential to cause damage' is, I would argue, a suitably abstract concept. After all, it doesn't specify how much damage.

  16. The fundamental thing to remember is that D&D's combat system is really designed simply to answer:
    1. Who won?
    2. How long did it take?
    3. What did it cost?
    ... with enough decision points and feedback loops to enable strategies and tactics.

    To some extent, it's a matter (as in most war-games) of rationalizing results after the fact.

    "Zooming in" to a more detailed level is an option left open when circumstances warrant. The tremendous variety in such circumstances makes it impractical to provide set rules for them (at least while retaining D&D's pace of play).

    When one has a lot of rules at hand, there's a temptation to use them as much as possible. D&D's rules-lightness can be a help in producing fight scenes more like Robert E. Howard's -- and less like Tom Clancy's pedantry.

  17. Re: RoF - true. I remember well the dart specialized fighter. ;)

    Re: Archers - 3.x is no better - 6 second rounds mean a master archer is firing about one arrow a second, and hitting with most of them.

    Re: Detail - I think it helps to just remember it's a game - I feel like the combat system is a kind of mini-game to be mastered inside the framework.

    Re: HP Differences - I'm a big fan of systems like the one in the older Star Wars RPG (WotC, not West End) - you have wounds, and you have vitality. Wounds are constant (basically) and vitality increases by level. Vitality is your parry, dodge, near miss pool. Wounds are you.

    Crits go to wounds, and when you run out of vitality, you begin to take wounds. It's a more cinematic feel, but it still means that a critical hit on a 12 level Jedi can be a fatal blow.

  18. Dwayanu: I agree, which is what the post was really getting at: THAC0 was a bad acronym because it wasn't abstract enough for what it was meant to describe. It sounded like you were rolling for each hit, when really you were rolling for the possibility of reducing your opponent's potential to fight over a one minute period.

    Lorechaser: It's a more cinematic feel, but it still means that a critical hit on a 12 level Jedi can be a fatal blow.

    And it's good to have that element of danger there. Of course, the numerous possibilities for 'save or die' scenarious present in older editions kept fear alive even up to 20th level.

  19. "Finally, it is not necessarily the case that a ranged attack involves but one missile any more than that a hand-to-hand attack involves but one blow (or even continuous fencing)."

    Well, it is necessarily the case if your quiver is only down by one arrow at the end of the round. I don't remember any rules for, say, a d4 or a d6 roll to see how many arrows or sling bullets you went through in order to make one good shot. ;-)