When composing a suitably pretentious title, simply mix Greek and Latin thoroughly, add a colon, and half-bake in the brain at 98°. Similarly undercooked are these thoughts on combat in tabletop roleplaying games.
The way that D&D represents combat has annoyed various people enormously over the decades, and some of those have gone on to attempt to do it better. The most amazing such effort that I have come across was a game called Riddle of Steel, the name of which must only ever be spoken aloud with a broad Austrian accent. My copy, alas, is in a storage facility a long way away: what I think I remember, though, is that it had outrageously detailed equipment stats and wonderful critical hit tables, but a percentile resolution system which was in no way exciting to play. The ‘improvement’ on D&D’s venerable mechanics was merely a hyper-granular input/output flow. Fun to tinker with, and metagame maybe, but no better for enjoyably playing a fight (except for crits – that game’s crit tables really were masterpieces).
D&D conquers reality
Way back in the mists of time, D&D started life as a tabletop wargame called Chainmail. I have read it, and didn’t bother to play it because it simply wasn’t very good at being a tabletop wargame. Admittedly, games depicting medieval combat at the skirmish level were not exactly commonplace in the early-70s, but even in the good ol’ days there were rules provided by folks like Donald Featherstone which played a lot better. Over the decades, though, far more imaginary monsters have been put to the sword using the Gygax Method and its derivatives than with any alternative rules. Probably by several orders of magnitude.
Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that the D&D combat system has gone forth and multiplied because it was attached to a bunch of other things which players genuinely loved, not because it was loved in itself. Many critics claim that it is almost grotesquely unrealistic, and even those who defend this combat system are likely to base their defence on pragmatic compromises:
- It scales well (dragons are effing huge; sadly, fighting them also takes a very long time and the rules often behave counter-intuitively in such situations, so let’s just say that it scales)
- It leaves scope for the imagination (sure, ‘I hit the orc with my axe’ is crap roleplaying and it can be expressed in far more thrilling terms, but shouldn’t some of those terms be gameable? Or should they?)
- It is simple (the basic rules are very understandable, until well-intentioned designers start trying to bolt on new features in a bid to solve the ‘hit, orc, axe’ issue)
One of the arch-bugbears is, of course, how actually hitting that orc with your axe works. Roll your favourite d20 to hit (generally with a modifier based on your strength stat… and Bang! there’s another odd feature which doesn’t make too much sense) and beat the orc’s Armor Class: a number defined by the orc’s armour (and shield, and in a sick and confusing twist, also his dexterity stat). If you succeed then you score damage, and your unlucky foe can’t do anything to stop it. The dice you roll to determine the exact amount of damage caused depends the type of weapon you used (again, modified by STR which is, at least, actually logical this time). This is not affected by the orc or his equipment.
So your armour helps you avoid getting hit, but doesn’t affect the damage you suffer if you are hit? (Um, yes.) Seems, er, strange. (Yes, it does, doesn’t it?) A lot of irritation could probably have been avoided by renaming the ‘to hit’ roll. If it was called the ‘to cause certain damage’ roll, it might seem more sensible. Mechanically, that is its precise purpose, and it would be followed by a ‘see how much damage you caused’ roll. But for over 40 years it has been the ‘to hit’ roll and that’s that.
But is it any good?
Is this combat system really just rubbish, or does it richly deserve to have stood the test of time? There are three things I want to examine in order to try answering this basic question.
- Fun. D&D is a game. It is supposed to be fun. Lots of different factors contribute to making a game fun.
- ‘Realism’. Dragons aren’t real, nor is any cool fight scene in a movie. However, we can still ask if the game’s rules are enabling believable involvement with the game world.
- Something else which I had in mind two minutes ago, but has now left me completely. Oh, I remembered, but it can be a surprise!
I’m not going to launch an entire debate on what makes games fun. Accept the proposition that player agency – making decisions which have meaningful consequences and do cool stuff – correlates closely with fun, and let me get the hell on with this damned post. It is already so long that I’m going to have add sub-headings. Onwards. In a D&D fight, after initiative, and movement, and the rogue backstabbing something, and a fistful of strangely interacting magic effects have all happened, a player’s character tries to hit something. At this simplest, toe-to-toe, whites-of-the-eyes, moment-of-truth level, the player rolls a die, adds some numbers, and that number is compared with another number; and then maybe they get to roll one or several more dice, and maybe the combat situation changes because their target died. If they are attacked, someone else rolls one or several dice and maybe the victim is told to amend their character sheet because they took damage.
There is a lot of agency here. The players have chosen (or, honestly, looted) certain weapons and armour for their characters, and decided how to improve those characters’ statistics. These decisions have direct effects on the outcome of their dice rolls. At a broader level, the players chose how their characters came to be toe-to-claw with monsters: they moved through the fighting space, picked certain targets, maybe avoided melee as best they could because they’re a wizard whose CON is a dump stat. All examples of player agency, all with clear effects on their dice rolls.
And at the very narrowest level, once toe-to-claw, the players are free to choose the luckiest available dice and perform whichever strange rituals they think will help roll a beautiful, fresh all-natural 20. Only here is player agency undermined: but even here, the sense of agency is as strong as the player believes it to be. Many are the games (thanks to computers) where a black-box mechanism generating random outputs has fooled players who cheerfully believe that they are making effective inputs. And a lot of people read astrology columns.
‘Realism’ and AC
D&D is not a simulation, although the sainted Gary certainly had an analytical bent which skewed some incarnations of the rules in that direction. However, underpinning the combat mechanism is a set of assumptions which are rooted in real-world concepts. I want to look at some of these in more detail in a later post, but for now let’s examine that Armor Class bugbear. The assumption is that whilst someone is actively swinging a weapon at you, you have a passive state which alters the chances of that swing causing damage. (Mechanically, in the current fifth edition, the base probability is 50% because the unarmoured AC of a character with average DEX is 10, and the ‘to cause certain damage’ test is made by rolling a d20. This is purely artificial, but a reasonable enough place to start in the absence of a long-term statistical study of melee activities in medieval Europe. The potential means of conducting such a study have, in fact, recently become available.)
The key here is the ‘causing damage’, sadly suffering under the misnomer ‘to hit’. Maybe your attacker will completely miss: you are trying to avoid being hit, after all. Maybe they’ll hit, but it will glance off your armour; or there wasn’t much wallop in the attack and all that metal, leather and quilting means you don’t even get bruised. Maybe your shield is in the way – it is three feet wide! – and that will stop the blow.
Probably they are poking around, trying to stay standing while being jostled by other fighters, blinking sweat out of their eyes, and so are you, and some combination of all those maybes I mentioned means that they did make an attack, but all these other factors conspired to make it ineffectual. Sound realistic? Watch this video, which I want to discuss in a later post. Or don’t watch it, I care not. (It shows a bunch of real people in real armour whacking each other as hard as they can with blunted weapons.) But yeah, it sounds pretty realistic to me. Maybe too much so. Is this really what players are imagining when they play out a fight? Do the rules supporting this concept express the world of the D&D game to its fullest? Er… Perhaps.
Let’s give an alternative some air, which is the idea that a character’s armour should work by reducing the amount of damage suffered after a hit has been scored. Intuitively, especially for those folk of a literal inclination who take ‘to hit’ roll at face value, this makes sense. First the strike must hit. Then it must penetrate the armour (assuming it hit an armoured location). Then it can cause damage. Lots of games have combat systems which work this way because the concept makes sense. From a ‘fun’ point of view, there is ample scope for player agency. More scope, potentially, than with D&D’s 2-step resolution: three or more stages needed for a basic attack to resolve, nuances like target locations with different or no armour, potential for both parties to be actively involved and roll more dice (I try to attack, you try to dodge), and more besides. Even if we accept that D&D’s combat system is adequately catering to player agency, and that it has a valid concept supporting its AC mechanism, surely we can see that there are better alternatives?
I am going to address playability here, which usually means something akin to convenience. D&D combat is pretty convenient. Not the quickest or the dirtiest, but it is the baseline from which most comparisons derive. Two rolls (easily actually performed together) and a bit of basic arithmetic and you’re done. Add as much or as little fluff as your imagination or personality demand. More detailed systems are often much slower, although clever designers have come up with ways of speeding them up. Playability (convenience) is a mileage may vary kind of thing.
What I want to say here instead is that D&D’s combat system does a lot of good work to support playability as fun. Which is to say, the process of interacting with the rules (known in some of the literature as ‘play’) is enjoyable in its own right, notwithstanding all that agency stuff and those hifalutin’ theory shenanigans. Now rolling dice is exciting. It’s gambling: you can win or you can lose, and while that icosahedron is still tumbling you have no idea which will happen! But the more times you gamble for the same wager, the less exciting each gamble becomes: it can be like dollar blackjack with the pensioners, whereas D&D puts you at the craps table with a $5 minimum. You roll. You hit. A win! How much of a win? Some. I can at least guarantee that you are a winning winner who caused damage (disclaimer: unless fighting one of dozens of different foes who only laugh cruelly at your feeble effort).
Or, you roll. You miss. Crap. What did you lose? Apparently, nothing. Some critics of this system say this is a problem. You missed, there must be consequences. How badly did you miss? Are you exposed by that miss? Roll a fumble! But there are, in fact, consequences. Obviously, the orc opposite your character is still there, and will try to hit you. Less obviously, but more importantly, you lost your turn. You lost time. You lost a contribution to the joint effort, with your friends, to win the fight. You lost, emotionally. You are a tragic loser.
All on one roll. Not three, four, five or more rolls. Sure, those sort of systems can accumulate dramatic tension, because a little story is being told with each attack sequence, but more often they can dissipate it. Roll. A hit, but where? Roll. The left knee, but that’s armoured, did it penetrate? Roll. Yes, but how much damage? Roll. Um. 1. Awesome. What a fantastic use of four fricken rolls of the dice. I’m going for snacks.
Spare a thought, too, for the rest of the players who are all sitting around watching this production. They want to be rolling dice and doing stuff, not watching the wizard slowly poke a goblin in the left knee with his masterwork letter-opener of bluntness. If their buddy is making one roll, they can all watch and cheer. Or jeer. Shortly afterwards, they’ll know what’s changed in the game state, and they’ll be a few minutes closer to their turn. When they actually get to do that player agency thing.
So D&D’s combat system is just hunky-dory?
Maybe I’m overstating my case. D&D’s basic combat system has many quirks, and has been revised many times for better and worse, but it is still the common denominator. We’re talking horses for courses, and D&D is a very reliable horse for a difficult course for the following reasons:
- There is ample player agency (correlating to ‘fun’) without it being overwhelmingly mathematical
- Rolling against AC ‘to cause certain damage’ in the maelstrom of melee is conceptually perfectly sound, and actually plenty grittier than fencing on the tables like it’s 1955
- The 2-roll resolution is a punchy gamble that is fun to play, quick to resolve, and, crucially, also quite exciting to watch.
Bearing in mind that most RPGs are social games which include combat, rather than combat games, it seems clear to me that the Gygax Method makes its compromises as wisely as any of its – frankly, far less popular – competitors.
Soon, I want to get back to the concepts which I think translate (or fail to do so successfully) from the ‘real world’ to RPG combat, in D&D 5e specifically. Till then, keep checking for traps.