Friday, 30 August 2013

D&D Combat is More Abstract Than You Think

Conversations on G+ led me to think some more about this recent post about the abstraction of D&D combat in general.

Older editions may have changed the game, but it's important to remember that the D&D combat rules evolved in a context of a 1 minute combat round: in OD&D and AD&D 1st edition, the combat round is a minute in length. This is quite deliberate - and I am sure that most readers of this blog will be aware of the famous idea of Gary Gygax's that a D&D fight should resemble the sword fight between Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisborne in the Errol Flynn iteration. (For further information on that, see this en world post.)

Once you accept this notion - that the combat round is long and what goes on in it is necessarily rather abstract - D&D's combat system does make a sort of sense. Not perfect sense, but a sort of sense. The 'to hit' roll is a misnomer: you're not rolling to hit. You're rolling to see if, over the course of 1 minute, you manage to wear down your opponent's defences, either through actual physical damage or moral 'damage' or exhaustion or whatever. The opponent's armour impacts on your ability to do this, which is why AC is essentially a penalty applied to the 'to hit' roll, rather than a damage reduction effect. Your hit points represent you capacity to stay in the fight, which slowly gets reduced over time (the higher your level, the longer this takes). And your movement rate, which seems absurdly slow, represents the fact that you are scooting around and manoeuvring for position while avoiding blows, missile attacks, what have you.

The only thing that seems strange in this paradigm is missile attacks - why only one or two shots over the course of a minute? Even this, however, has a kind of logic to it if you think about it: it is surely very difficult to hit a moving target, who knows that you are shooting at him, with a bow. Especially at range, where he can watch the path of the arrow and just step away or check his movement. The fact that only one or two shots are permitted in a 1 minute round indicates that the archer is waiting to pick his moment to fire.

Once you've accepted that there is a certain logic to all of this, and that D&D combat is not really tied to anything particularly concrete, I would question why there really needs to be even an arbitrary length to a combat round of 1 minute. What is the purpose of a combat round? It gives a chance for everybody to decide what they want to do and then act. On that basis I would prefer the following definition: a combat round is how long the time it takes before somebody next makes a decision to do something different to what they are currently doing. This could be 10 seconds. It could be a minute. It could be 5 seconds. It could be 40. It doesn't matter: there is no credibility to stretch because we are not dealing with a system which has to make sense in the way that a less abstract one does. We are not rolling dice 'to hit', despite the name: we are rolling to see how far we attrit (that is a word: I looked it up) the opponent. "Rolling to attrit" has less of a ring to it, but that is the core of the D&D system.

Another good reason for preferring abstract combat is just that realism may be something of a fool's errand. I think that there is a kind of Western Martial Arts mafia that is slowly taking over these sorts of discussions online. I really like the idea of Western Martial Arts but I'm not persuaded that they are entirely realistic; until people start actually fighting to the death using these techniques, and agreeing that if they are injured they will only use medical techniques that were in use in the 14th century, I think that "what happens in a real sword fight" is still a matter of considerable conjecture and will likely remain so. That doesn't mean I don't like messing around with that sort of thing, as I did here and here. It just means that I don't think we lack justification for saying that a D&D combat round is an indefinite length of time, and that doesn't matter because nobody really knows what would go on in a combat round anyway.

42 comments:

  1. If D&D was just a simulation of medieval combat, you might have a point. The combat round is more about all the other things that get done during the round, then just trying to stab someone. It's running away, casting that magic spell, drinking a potion, picking the lock, and running away some more.


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    1. Well yes, that goes without saying.

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  2. It's interesting too that one of the first defining differences of B/X D&D was to dispense with the one minute combat round in favor of a ten-second combat round. I think this was a recognition by Gygax, Mentzer and co. at the time that there was a different, growing audience for D&D that was more interested in the idea of action-style combat over methodical, slow abstracted wargame-era combat, and that B/X was aimed at that growing younger market. Maybe? I always felt that the original turn length was, while interesting, just an artifact of D&D's wargame roots and didn't reflect the reality of how most people actually treated combat --especially if effort was mad to narrate what was going on; narrating a quick exchange of blows was always more fun than trying to rationalize how an archer only got off two arrows in a minute, consistently. Television (and later video games) permanently changed the way people imagined fantastical combat, so it was inevitable that the old one minute combat round would fall out of common use.

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    1. Yes, undoubtedly that's true. I've never known a DM not to narrate what is going on in the way you describe. And I'm not actually arguing a combat round should be a minute long!

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    2. The interesting thing is that once you got away from the one minute round, the rationale for the other mechanisms of D&D combat kind of went out the window and you only ended up encouraging people in their disparagement of how "unrealistic" D&D combat was.

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    3. Yes, that's absolutely right. The whole thing is predicated on a long combat round and once you take that away it collapses like a pack of cards (if you stop to think about it).

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    4. Like a house of cards, even!

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    5. I've seen different games suggest dynamic combat round lengths, but I think that can get a bit weird without also equally abstract position and movement. Then it gets tricky to answer questions like how many shots can an archer get on a charging goblin.

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    6. Edgewise: Brendan links to a blog post discussing abstracting missiles below, though the link is outdated. It's here now.

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  3. I went and watched a clip of the fight. It's just a bit over 2 minutes long. That means, even rounding up to the next whole minute, we're talking about a D&D combat that lasts three rounds! Very interesting.

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    1. The inescapable conclusion is that both Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisborne are only 1st level Fighting Men. ;)

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    2. Low-level, at best. If I were to break the fight down into D&D rounds without any embellishment, it might go like:

      Round 1 - Fighting on the stairs. Robin hits Gisborne for X damage.

      Round 2 - Fighting has moved off the stairs into the hall. Gisborne hits Robin for X damage.

      Round 3 - Continued fighting in the hall, Robin hits Gisborne and rolls well enough to kill him.

      If Robin was fighting with a long sword and rolled max damage on both hits, Gisborne could have had in excess of 16 hit points

      One interesting bit of note is how stuff that would later get systematized in D&D and other systems--disarms, or the appearance of allied fighters--would probably just be part of the DM's narration of the combat round. "You did 8 damage? Okay, you manage to maneuver Gisborne down the stairs, forcing him to jump off the side to the floor of the hall. You quickly follow, kicking his dropped sword back to him."

      This is easily the nerdiest comment I've left all year.

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    3. I think Robin and Guy de Guisborne just had low rolls for their hit dice. I haven't re-watched the clip recently, but I distinctly remember Robin fighting off three nameless fighters during one round of the combat, which makes Robin a 3rd level fighter.

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    4. He fires off a shitload of arrows per round, though, indicating he must have a really high ROF. I don't have the AD&D rules in front of me to confirm it...I'll check later. ;)

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  4. Okay, so, look:

    A ten second combat round IS an appropriate length of time to model the back-n-forth, cinematic swirl of melee. Review a sword-fight film like, say, Revenge of the Sith and you'll find the combat is broken up into ten second beats of activity (with more than one blow being attempted by each party within the round).

    The One Minute combat round comes from something older than OD&D: Chainmail.

    Chainmail (whose combat system is the basis for OD&D, despite presenting an "alternative combat system") uses the one minute "turn" which is directly transposed to D&D despite initially being used to model "battlefield maneuvers." Adhering to the one minute round allows AD&D players to 'scale up' to mass combat. The segment system appears to be a patch to make sense of the man-to-man action in a round that's too long for the small scale. Moldvay (Holmes? I don't remember if he also changed to 10 seconds) found the more elegant solution.

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    1. So, different lengths of combat round are appropriate for different situations. So, in other words, you agree with my thesis that the combat round should be as long as it needs to be.

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    2. A combat round in Holmes is 10 seconds (p.20: "There are ten 'rounds' of combat per turn. Each round is ten seconds, so a combat turn is shorter than a regular turn, but results in at least as much muscular fatigue.").

      In regards to noisms's assertion of varying round length, I'd note that AD&D1E has at least two different combat round lengths: the normal one minute round, and the surprise round of six seconds each.

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  5. Ha ha. The comments for this post are priceless.

    What level was Robin in the Rolemaster/Fantasy Hero Historical supplement?

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    1. Ha! I just happen to have that book sitting on my shelf.

      Robin is Level 12, Sir Guy of Gisborne is Level 6. I'm not sure how Rolemaster/MERP levels equate to D&D levels, but there you go.

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    2. Well, that's not a very fair fight.

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    3. I wonder what levels Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham are in the Kevin Costner version. Because in my memory that fight goes on for ages.

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    4. Only because the Sheriff is using a spoon.

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    5. I'm curious if Rolemaster had a "spoon" Critical chart now.

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    6. Haha. "Because it's dull, you twit, it'll hurt more."

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    7. according to the RMFRP's Creatures and Monsters, Pixies' little swords are daggers with a -50 penalty to attacks. (Due to size, and Pixies' lack of strenght). I suppose a spoon could be simulated by using the club attack table with a -25 (half of the penalty, since the Sheriff is full-sized). But then you'd use the basic "Krush" critical table. Or maybe you could use the "Tiny" attack table?

      is that good enough David?

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  6. "Roll to attack" is probably the best language. Abstract, and still fits how people actually talk.

    Also, I 100% approve the message of this post. Down with fiddly concern about exact measurements! They usually just get in the way, and don't add anything. Combat rounds are as long as it takes to make sure that everyone gets a go before the next round.

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    1. "Combat rounds are as long as it takes to make sure that everyone gets a go before the next round."

      Interestingly, pretty much every set of skirmish-scale miniatures wargame rules I've read treat rounds in this fashion.

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  7. Let us also consider the role of hit points. It only makes sense when contrasting with another system. In D&D, as stated in the rule books, you are perfectly and fully functional so long as you have positive hit points not equal to stun points, not considering other temporary effects that are irrelevant to my point. The reason for this is to glorify combat as an epic battle of mighty foes.

    Take this in contrast with ShadowRun, where all creatures, from meta-humans to dragons, have 10 hit points and 10 stun points. As you take damage and progress down the damage chart, you incurr negatives which effect your overall performance. This is to replicate the rapid and chaotic nature of violent combat. Indeed, in the ShadowRun universe, the weapon of choice is a gun, and getting shot is usually an immediate show stopper for a combatant. The only way combat can be drawn out is if everyone is firing behind cover. Direct assaults are often over in just a few rounds.

    /u/mredding

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  8. The only issue with indeterminate combat round lengths is the resource management tied into it. That is, time is a resource of vital importance to the logistical aspects of the game. During the fight, torches burn down, oil in lamps is used up, spells wear out, the sun and moon(s) move through the sky, and we move closer to the next meal and the consumption of more rations. Abstracting to a minute (or 10 seconds) just keeps that sort of record-keeping easy. And, as we all know: YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT. ;)

    - Brian

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    1. Fair point...although maybe you can just assume an average round of 1 minute for the purposes of torches etc.?

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  9. I agree with trollsmyth, the fixed length of combat rounds is just a convenience for bookkeeping when you're trying to track things like spell duration and torches burning. Delta has a really good, if long, discussion of why the D&D scale is just a mistake in translating from Chainmail and that Moldvay's 1" = 5 feet; 1 round = 10 seconds makes much more sense (not just in "realism" but fitting together with Chainmail scales): http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/p/primary-house-rules.html

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    1. I'm more interested in his excision of clerics from the game as a character class. That I can really get behind: that class is a horrible mess.

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  10. The combat round length really should (and I'm using the word "should" here when I mean "if you were mad") depend on the number of combatants. 1min works well for a dozen or more combatants in a melee; it works poorly for a one-on-one dual like Guy and Robin or for one army versus another.

    Since the game is not actually about combat as such, 1 minute is a compromise position and works well enough to not want to tinker with it, IMO. Short rounds lead to overly-tactical boring combat with 2" thick rule books about what manoeuvres a demi-squid can make while using the Trouser Press spell from Even More Arcana Volume LXIV, and ten minute turns just give too much freedom to decide anything except by DM fiat.

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    1. Well, that combatant number issue just reinforces the point, in my view, that it's best not to have a fixed figure for how long a combat round is.

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  11. This is the stance I took with Beacon, combat rounds of around 1 minute simply for the sake to book keeping general actions and spells and such. Since you get a missile and a melee phase in that minute it works out to one or two chances 'to hit' per turn. It's abstract but it seems to work ok. I think that it's the only way to go if you are dealing with the abstractions of Armour Class and Hit Points. It is too bad that they used the terms 'to hit' and 'damage' because those terms are misleading when you are dealing with the abstractions of combat effectiveness, skill and fatigue, even if you keep explaining it otherwise. People will gravitate to one role one strike.

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    1. Yeah. I kind of like "to attrit" because it's obscure-sounding, and I'm sure Gary would have approved of that.

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  12. What never added up for me with the hit point abstraction (that it represents combat skill and hardiness, not merely physical-ness) is how that squares with hit point healing time. If my 4th-level fighter takes 2 hit points of damage in an encounter, that means without magic he requires (on average) one day of bed rest to regain them.

    I appreciate Gygax's ability to somehow walk the line between playability, game balance, and realism-but-not-simulation, but this area of AD&D always seems a little hand-wavey to me.

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    1. It is hand-wavey but I suppose the proof is in the pudding in that it's playable. I agree healing is hard to work out, but I suppose, again, it's just a matter of imagining that there is some physical damage and exhaustion in there which you have to rest to get over.

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    2. The short answer is that it doesn't square with healing and they really didn't think it through...

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  13. My (rather acerbic) response to this is here.

    http://spellsandsteel.blogspot.ca/2013/09/noisms-and-d-combat.html

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