Sunday, May 31, 2009

[Article] Combat Procedure

Perhaps the most frequently debated aspects of the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is combat procedure and initiative determination. The rules as presented in the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide are a mass of vague and seemingly contradictory statements, or else exceptions with no clear order of priority. Many admirable attempts to make coherent sense of the text have been made in the last decade, and questions on the subject were often put to Gygax at the online forums he frequented, but his answers were rarely consistent. Apart from being a rather challenging and entertaining logic puzzle, the subject is one that has been of particular practical interest to me over the last year or so whilst developing Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea with Jeffrey Talanian, generating considerable debate between us. Whilst we more or less settled the procedure for our own purposes some months ago, I thought it would be of some interest to discuss the context and trace the history of combat procedure in Dungeons & Dragons.

As always, the first text I propose to look at is Chainmail; the turn sequence found therein is the one that the original version of Dungeons & Dragons (1974) expected to the game master to make use of. What Chainmail presents, though, are two discrete turn sequences, the first known as the “move/countermove system” and the second known as the “simultaneous movement system”. The essential difference is that in the former case the side that won the initiative takes a half move, after which the losing side takes a full move, followed by the winning side completing its move, whilst in the latter case each moves simultaneously in accordance with prewritten orders. Regardless of which method is used, missile weapons are discharged at the midpoint of movement and/or at the end of movement; bowmen are able to shoot on both occasions as long as they remain stationary and are not in melee combat at the end of movement, whilst heavy crossbows are shot once every other turn. This should sound familiar to anybody acquainted with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

The rules for Chainmail were supplemented by rules for man-to-man combat, which divided the ranges of missile weapons into short, medium, and long, allowed for parries and multiple attacks in melee, depending on the class of weapon, introduced the idea of “first strike” for longer weapons, and an order of blows that prevented return attacks by slain enemies. These rules were in turn augmented by a fantasy supplement, which amongst other things introduced the concept of wizards into the game. A wizard is capable of either throwing a lightning bolt or fire ball during the missile phase and of casting one of sixteen spells during an undefined phase. However, “in order to cast a spell, a wizard must be both stationary and undisturbed by attack upon his person” (fortunately they are also “impervious to normal missile fire”). Additionally, a random die roll determines whether a spell takes immediate effect, is delayed until the following round, or takes immediate effect. Notably, these spells appear to take place during or after movement and prior to melee.

Less well known than Chainmail is Warriors of Mars, which was released shortly after, and for use with, Dungeons & Dragons. It contains a revised turn sequence, with “written orders” only applying to 1:50 scale combat. The major innovation of Warriors of Mars is in the inclusion of a “beginning turn fire” phase prior to movement for combatants capable of shooting twice per round. Such individuals may shoot either then or during the “mid-turn fire” phase, but their second shot is always taken during the “end-turn fire” phase. Also of note is that its “move/counter move” sequence dispenses with half movement in favour of allowing the winner of initiative to move his infantry before the troops of his opponent, but his cavalry only after these have been moved. This staggering of multiple attacks should be familiar to anybody acquainted with pages 62-63 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the idea of beginning, mid, and end turn fire phases should be of interest to anyone who has ever wondered to what the description of the crossbow of speed is referring.

In 1976, Eldritch Wizardry gave Dungeons & Dragons players their first taste of segmented simultaneous movement, which included pre movement and post movement phases, using a rather complicated dexterity based system to determine at which point attacks took place. The same year also saw the release of Swords & Spells, which was basically Chainmail for the alternative combat system. This supplement presented only a “move/counter move system”, which resembled that of Chainmail with the addition of a beginning turn fire phase and an alternating first player/second player system. It also revised shooting rates, meaning that bows could be shot three times per round, and clearly defined during which missile phases spells, magical devices, and innate powers could be used. A character could not move and cast a spell, but was able to move and use a device. Under no circumstances could a character in melee shoot, cast a spell or use a magic device. Interestingly, the provision in Chainmail for combatants to hurl hand weapons at charging enemies was not retained in Swords & Spells, though such units could make a full move and throw their weapons if they did not also charge. However, the major innovation was in allowing one to three rounds of melee to be fought during a single two minute turn, the number depending on how far the combatants had moved. It is a short step from there to mixing melee rounds into missile phases.

Whilst Chainmail had allowed for spell casters to be interrupted, and both Eldritch Wizardry and Swords & Spells had refined the concept of delayed spell casting, it was only with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that the two concepts would be married to one another. It was far from an easy relationship. The idea of simultaneous segmented movement was described in Player’s Handbook, but left unmentioned in the combat section of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Each spell was given an explicit casting time expressed in segments, but its exact interaction with initiative was left vague, differed by attack form, and unrelated to other time dependent actions, such as movement. Similarly, the text is silent as to how rate of fire, rate of attack, and multiple attack routines interact with spell casting and one another. Indeed, even the “steps for encounter and combat” are a source of controversy, with some game masters treating them as a list of options and others an order of action. The classic Dungeons & Dragons line took a clearer line in establishing an order of action, made easier by a lack of casting times and segmented movement. The second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons took a more abstract approach than its predecessor, allowing for both synchronous and asynchronous action, but rather too much was left vague, subjective, and reliant on the judgement of the game master. What we are doing with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is to follow the example of Chainmail and provide for both forms of action resolution. Our aim has been to create a clear sequence of step by step action that leads into an alternative simultaneous combat procedure. Of course, the details of our solution I am not at liberty to disclose, but for your convenience I have compiled the above analogues for comparison here.


Sham aka Dave said...

Outstanding article, and yes a subject of endless debate. When it came to 1E I don't think any DM I sat in a game with did combat sequence in the same manner.

I ended up doing a sequence that we found easy to remember. Each was resolved in order of initiative before the next step.


Each had minor clarifications included, but that was the gist of it.

I never bothered to explore other editions, so your attached doc is invaluable. I'd add Morale at the top to that now and call it the 5 M's.

Matthew James Stanham said...

I am glad that you found this article useful, Dave. Your approach certainly looks like a reasonable one. Resolving individual phases for each side before moving onto the next is the obvious thing to do, and I am often left wondering why neither B/X nor BEMCI took that approach when Chainmail had already outlined exactly that.

On the other hand, Eldritch Wizardry is the missing link for understanding why AD&D is the way that is. Talk about a complex combat procedure!

Solonor said...

Well said as usual Matthew

Bwian said...

Beautiful site and very interesting article! Thank you. I remember when I finally got some rulebooks for AD&D (I roleplayed for a few years based solely on a friend's verbal description of 'how to play'), I did find the rules confusing. Certainly I tended to let details like 'weapon vs. armour' adjustments and 'spell casting time' slip by. In retrospect I am amazed that more people didn't run into problems playing the game. I guess they just made it up.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Welcome, Bwian. I am glad that you are enjoying the site, and thanks for the kind words.

There is little doubt in my mind that most young people learnt how to play D&D and AD&D through a combination of written and oral sources; for many players the emphasis was probably on the latter. When I think about it, most of the games I learned in my childhood were explained to me by an adult or a more experienced contemporary, only later did I actually bother to read the rules of Monopoly, and only when I wanted to get better did I read the rules to Chess. So, I suppose it is no real surprise that the same approach would be taken to Dungeons & Dragons. Come to think of it, I doubt many of the players I know have actually read the rulebooks, at least not more than once...

DHBoggs said...

Excellent breakdown Matthew. I've spent about half the day going through your blog posts. For some inexplicable reason I didn't realize until today that you had a blog. Great reading!

Matthew James Stanham said...

Glad that you are enjoying the website, DHBoggs! Its existence is a sometimes secret! :D