Thursday, 1 July 2021

The Phenomenology of Missing in Melee Combat

In old school D&D there is a great deal of missing. A 1st level character of any class battling almost any enemy will land a hit comfortably less than half of the time. It is not unusual indeed for a character to go through 5 or 6 rounds of combat just rolling dice and missing. 

Despite what we know about 1 minute combat rounds, and despite the fact that we know that a failure 'to hit' doesn't necessarily mean an actual failure to hit but a failure to score a damaging hit (which is why I once half-jokingly suggested that the 'to hit' roll should be called the 'to attrit' roll instead), in my experience we still at the table tend to imagine in our minds' eyes that when a character 'misses' they have taken a swing at the enemy and physically missed. And that is how we tend to describe events, too: 'You swing at the orc and miss.'

I've sometimes toyed with a minor house rule to try to nudge me away from thinking in those terms: if a character 'misses' by more than 5 then you describe him as having hit but failed to penetrate the enemy's armour or shield. But that still links the dice roll too closely to concrete events in combat, when it is  something much more abstract than that; the result is really an aggregate of everything that the PC does in the course of a minute. That could be many 'hits', or none.

How do you describe 'missing' during combat?

23 comments:

  1. I typically make a "whooshing" sound.

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  2. I've taken a similar approach, using a "close" dice roll (1 or 2 off) to describe a glancing blow or similar but with little effect, and a big miss that's not a critical fail as a chance to describe a comical almost-catastrophe. It's hard work to do this throughout a whole combat, but useful for the first couple of rounds to set the tone and communicate a little about the nature of the antagonists.

    It's never occurred to me to consider the roll as an aggregate of several actions though. Seems obvious in retrospect!

    In terms of crunchy house rules, I can't see how you could achieve something worthwhile without more admin. With infinite time and resources, you could treat almost-hits as the same as hits for the purposes of weapon and armour degradation, or award a circumstantial bonus if a combatant combos 2-3 almost-hits in a row, battering away their opponent's defences. Whether any of that makes sense depends on how abstract you consider the roll to be.

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  3. I definitely describe every miss as a miss. It's not like an orc getting hacked by 3 guys multiple times and still standing is any realistic, we just suspend our disbelief.

    Also, a full minute for every combat round sounds long. I feel like many actions in combat can seem a little silly if they would take a full minutes (such as walking 30 feet)

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  4. I tend to try to go with whatever system I'm using (B/X and OSE or OD&D and AD&D). Melee combat is easy to describe for me using either system (a few seconds vs a minute). The real challenge for me is missile combat. It feels like you should use about 10 - 15 arrows in a round if we're talking about a full minute; I could even go half that but 2 just doesn't seem to cut it. I guess one approach for OD&D could be "do you have arrows?" You have to buy some for every mission, and then you just have them.

    Another compromise, taking a page from the Great Battles of History games: every attack has a 10% chance to put you on "missile low"; like, if you roll a 1 or a 20 to hit with your bow then you're down to only 1 more attack's worth of arrows. Until you resupply, your next missile attack runs you out. But then you have to figure out what to do with javelins, etc.

    For melee generically, I just change up the narration based on what sounds good at the moment and don't worry about tying a specific die result to a flavor of miss. I'm not very scientific about that aspect.

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    1. I really don't like that "missile low" rule, though it's one I've heard about before. I might put up a blog post about it now that you've triggered me! ;)

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  5. Normally I describe a press of battle with minor wounds but nothing decisive; singed clothes and burned flesh with missing hair, cuts and scrapes with stumbling and sparking iron, dented armor and bashing blows that yet failed to overthrow the foe. All of this over cutting insults, promises of murder, triumphant exclamations by the unslaughtered enemy. Nowadays I tend to run more abstracted games where die rolls tend to simulate the outcome of an contest of attacks and maneuvers rather than six-second blocks of actions (this is because of personal time constraints; I normally run games only when I’m on vacation, and then usually only one-offs, so it’s best to fit as much content as possible in a single session). Because of this, contests of arms always result in a discrete outcome; what that outcome is depends on the level of dramatic mimesis (heroic or gritty) or the prowess of the characters (higher means more likely to get a decisive victory, lower means a greater chance of critical failure), but is generally a continuum from instant death -> crippling wound -> major wound (PC or foe) -> opportunity to escape (PC or foe) -> chance to capture/incap enemy -> slaughter of one or more enemies in one go. “Opportunity to escape” is the closest thing to “miss” but usually occupies only a small fraction of possible outcomes.

    I think you could also have all outcomes inflict some degree of attrition on the participants (possibly as a proportion out of 10 ie 1/9 is 1 attrit to you and 9 to the enemy or vice versa, 5/5 etc, you could have a +2 advantage so that when you roll your outcome d10 you always add at least +2 unless it’s been canceled by the ability of your foe), where minor attrition represents fatigue/cuts/bruises, major attrition represents substantial flesh wounds and sprains, and critical attrition can risk instant incapacitation with attendant rule-supported limb/organ damage

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    1. That sounds like a slightly more complex and interesting version of Into the Odd combat. You should elaborate on it.

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  6. Some actual misses, some blocks with shield or deflection off of armor, parries by the opponent's weapon, etc. But that is when running more abstract games. I actually often run GURPS and sometimes Vampire, which have more specific actions (I hit but my blow was turned by an opponent's parry, etc.).

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  7. To hit rolls, saves etc to me are not on a scale of success like you almost did it. I see them as did or didn't. This is not to say one could not describe a close call but that's situational and not necessarily based on how close or far the roll was. I quick and dirty table of near misses or non damaging hits, parties could work and is not bound to mechanics.

    A D4 TABLE EXAMPLE - ROLLING OPTIONAL.

    1 The attack bounces off the armor and to foe evades saying Gotto do better than that tark.

    2 The foe parries the attack with mocking laughter

    3 The attack clashes with the opponents weapon. You both push each other back a step with an angry grunt.

    4 The foe strikes your arm a stinger defeating your attack you quickly shake it off. TOUCHE.

    Something like that - to give you some ideas on the fly to make combat feel more Combaty.

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  8. Usually something like: "You don't manage to land a blow" or "you can't get through their armor" or "they dodge away or are too quick". Kind of depends on the opponents. Missiles are different because they are a singular attack. I do use 10 second rounds but that is still a long time - more than enough for pretty much anyone to sprint 50 meters and certainly to take a couple strikes of feints with a weapon. I know its the wrong kind of football for you but the way the American version starts and stops (especially at the end of a game) really shows just how much can happen in vanishing short segments of time.

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    1. Yeah, 10 seconds is ages in reality, but thinking about the 1 minute combat round and trying to make sense of it is fun in itself for me.

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  9. I tend to vary my descriptions, however outright missing is a thing I mostly reserve for ranged attacks. "Your axe gets blocked by their shield", "The sword glances of the armour", "The goblin nimbly dodges your stabs", "Your arrows scrapes against their helmet" and "They parry every swing you take at them."

    Also I let players describe how they kill something or how they avoid damage.

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    1. Letting players decide how they kill things is a good one. I do that sometimes but should do it more.

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  10. I dont, i roll for damage a la ItO; my inner game designer hated that attack and damage rolls were so crufty and that (even outside the benefits of giving more gamefeel to players by making every round matter) the idea that combat is punishment enough regarding resources and danger that i didnt want to add on annoyance/time wasting to the scenario.

    Switching to pure damage (with attack bonus sometimes gaining either bonus damage, extended crit range, or bonuses to gambits) speeds everything up while making combat even more dangerous which speeds up the rest of the game even more (both since combat is faster, but also cuz its avoided even more now).

    The 'realism' of the set up is ignored here as irrelevant, ive found that people have no issue justifying their choice as the most realistic one regardless haha

    cheers

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    1. The ItO way of doing things really didn't sit right with me when I played it, but a more elaborate system like the one Her Christmas Knight suggests above sounds intriguing. I'm open-minded.

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  11. Even though I know better, I still tend to describe hits and misses as “hits” and “misses” (to my chagrin).

    While I’m generally good with the one minute (Chainmail-derived) round of OD&D and AD&D it grates most when considering missile combat (though in AD&D this somewhat mitigated by the multiple shots allowed for bows).

    Perhaps it would be useful to allow PCs cumulative +1 bonus to combat for each round they are fighting the same target / “drawing a bead.” Of course this would probably be offset by the growing fatigue of the combatant over a lengthy battle. Hmmm…

    Anthony Huso has some good things to say about designing encounters in a way that addresses PC effectiveness; there’s some good ideas here:
    https://www.thebluebard.com/post/design-principles

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  12. I describe blows hitting armor if they missed but would have hit an unarmored foe (generally any roll better than 10). But I don't use one-minute rounds, since I regard that as a simple arithmetic error Gygax made in adjusting the scale for indoors.

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  13. I mostly play Pathfinder, which has values that can tell you if the attack was avoided entirely, or connected but failed to penetrate, but in practice it doesn't matter, so we don't consult them to describe a miss. Just come up with something based on the roll and the general nature of the enemy's AC: a low roll is most likely badly aimed attempt, a near miss of a dodgy opponent is most likely a near dodge, a near miss of a heavily armored opponent is most likely just barely blocked by his armor.

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  14. Except that's a non-problem because the 1 minute combat round is an AD&D thing. If you are playing "old-school" D&D, combat rounds are 10 seconds - check your Holmes.

    "Each round is ten seconds, so a combat turn is shorter than a
    regular turn, but results in at least as much muscular
    fatigue... Each round consists of
    an exchange of blows with ordinary weapons." p20.

    Further, I would argue that OD&D 1974 was intended to have rounds of seconds not minutes. I can say without question that at least one of D&D's authors - Dave Arneson - played Melee Turns of 1 minute with Melee Rounds of only seconds. In fact they referred to rounds as "chops". If you attack twice your get 2 chops, etc. So the length of an OD&D combat round (verses the 1 minute exploration round) of "fast and furious combat" was ambiguous at best. If you are interested in seeing grown men argue about it there is this thread: https://odd74.proboards.com/thread/6497/length-combat-round

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    1. I play Mentzer, but in any event, while I get the arguments for shorter rounds, the 1 minute round is intrinsically an intersting concept to me.

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  15. 10-second rounds here too... I try to tell the PCs that their strikes (as well as the attacks of opponents) clang off armour or shields, hit but can't penetrate thick hide, that people dodge out of the way, or that some strange magical effect is making them harder to hit.

    For a first-level PC, 10/20 will hit AC9 (the default). Anything better than AC9 is (for the players at least) likely the result of choice; buying plate not chain, taking a shield, sometimes just being a bit quicker in a dodge (DEX bonus), or having some magic item (eg, a Ring of Protection or some magic armour). They're seasoned fighters who 'should' know what will hit, so if they roll 14 but don't hit, they should know why. Likewise, if a foe rolls above 10 but doesn't hit them, it's because they've done something to prevent it - so I tell them the prevention is working.

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  16. I tend to miss details like this when I'm DMing and have so many things to think about. But when I have my shit together, I like to take a breath at the end of the round, look at everyone's rolls and *then* narrate the whole from start to finish in a way that makes sense, instead of describing things attack roll by attack roll.

    If everyone misses, maybe the whole round is a press of shields where nobody can move. Depending on who hits or doesn't, anything might happen and a DM can use his discretion to say something like "you guys all push the orcs back a few feet out of the room" if the group is really successful, or whatever.

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