Monday, December 26, 2011

Nitpicking AD&D: weaponless combat

Over at Skull Crushing for Great Justice (awesome blog name, by the way), fellow Hill Cantons campaigner Brad has started examining the first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules in order to run a campaign (see his posts on character generation, combat, spells and more spells, saves and alignments, and missile combat).  In his ruminations about AD&D, Brad posits that while most of us end up playing a house-ruled, stripped-down version of the game that's closer to the Basic/Expert rules than it is to the Advanced game, AD&D is actually a pretty solid set of rules--unfortunately, those rules are spread randomly across several hardbacks instead of being organized coherently.

I agree--although it's better organized than the original version, AD&D is still scattered across three, four, or more titles (depending on which supplements you add to the game) and can seem a bit schizophrenic.  The result, at least for the group I played with as a teenage Scribe, was that we ignored a lot of the rules that slowed the game down (I'm looking at you, weapon speeds!).

However, a fresh look at the Players Handbook shows that as teens, we ignored what should have been a major part of combat: pummelling, grappling, and overbearing.  While the PH is short on mechanics of combat, leaving adjudication methods to the DM, it does have a short section that lays out various options for players, including turning undead, spells, missiles, and melee combat, which "includes the use of hand-held weapons, natural weaponry (claws, horns, teeth,etc.), grappling, and special or magical touch attacks, i.e. poison ... etc."  (Emphasis added.)  The section goes on to describe an example of combat in which adventurers surprise an illusionist with twenty orcs.  From page 105 of the Players Handbook:
... The illusionist/orcs again win initiative and attack first, 5 orcs going after each fighter to grapple, 6 rushing the magic-user, and 3 heading for the cleric.  The fighters are pulled down, as is the magic-user, but the cleric avoids their grasp. ...  [T]he fighters and magic-user are held fast by orcs, so they can do nothing.  ...

... It is now the orcs' turn, and as their leader is dead [slain by the theif in the previous round] and they still face 2 powerful opponents, they will check morale.  It is probable that they will kill the pinned characters with dagger thrusts if their morale does not break, or that they will rleease the pinned characters and run away if their morale is bad.
(Emphasis added.)  This example of combat (which I recently read for the first time in probably more than two decades) contains two rules which we pretty much ignored as kids: grappling and morale--and I only just now noticed the bit about a morale check.  I won't describe the Dungeon Masters Guide rules for unarmed combat in detail (it involves a percentile dice to-hit roll against 10 x defender's armor class, adjusted by fiddly little 1%, 5%, and 10% modifiers and then a second percentile dice roll--with more modifiers--to see how much damage is scored, and a fraction of that damage is nonlethal and temporary, and ... oh, just read it for yourself).  Morale rules are more straightforward, but still difficult to compute on the fly.  I realize now there are alternative unarmed combat rules in Unearthed Arcana, but back in the day I never actually got to the end of that book.

Sorry, went off on a tangent.  My point is, I guess, that in our version of AD&D combat, the characters and the monsters faced each other in static lines, exchanging blows like in the old 8-bit versions of the Final Fantasy videogames until one side or the other was eliminated.  Gygax's example, on the other hand, is more reminiscent of those old sword & sorcery tales that inspired the game, where hordes of bad guys swarm the hero in order to capture him but run away if resistance is too fierce.

So does anyone actually use the unarmed combat rules from the DMG?  Do you instead use one of the simpler versions in Unearthed Arcana?  Or do you just have the two sides whacking each other until everyone's dead?  And what about morale?  Do enemies run away or fight until the bitter end?


jeffro said...

I recently started running B/X again and have used the full deck of encounter rules: monster reactions & negotiation, surprise, initiative, and morale checks. This makes for a much richer, and faster playing experience. Chump monsters don't fight to the death and players specifically take the chance to play monster groups off of each other.

(I let players pick their targets, but mostly make monsters do random attacks-- that's to avoid looking like I have it in for any particular PC.)

The influence of computer RPG's on D&D is largely negative. For example, computers often give xp and cash for *killing* on a monster by monster basis, but B/X rewards mainly for scoring treasure-- and then only when you get back to town. You even can get monster xp for simply outmaneuvering them, really.

Real D&D is closer to Mission Impossible when played by the book: death is so easy, there is a massive incentive to accomplish things without using the dice. This leads to more of a Zork-like puzzle solving experience that is very different from the usual crpg.

Sean Robson said...

I never used the AD&D pummeling and grappling rules; we always just ignored them because they were too complicated.

Here's a simpler version that I've come up with to replace them:
Grappling with Overbearing Rules