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.