When I played AD&D I think one of the first aspects of its magic system I dropped was the material components. It’s a shame, but they just represented too much of a constraint on what was already a hideously underpowered class (especially at first level). Some of the material components even for first level spells are quite challenging to provide, and they’re consumed in the casting of the spell. Consider, for example, the following spells:

  • Alarm: A tiny bell and a very fine piece of silver wire
  • Armor: A piece of finely cured leather that has been blessed by a priest
  • Color Spray: A pinch each of powder or sand colored red, blue and yellow
  • Dancing Lights: A bit of phosphorus or wychwood, or a glowworm
  • Friends: Chalk, lampblack and vermillion
  • Identify: A pearl worth 100gp and an owl feather soaked in wine
  • Light: A firefly or a piece of phsophorescent moss
  • Protection from Evil: Powdered silver

and so on.  The spells Burning Hands, Detect Magic, Charm Person and Magic Missile require no material components of any kind. These material components are very cool and really add to the romance and style of wizards, but they’re an enormous burden, especially on low level wizards. A first level wizard starts with 20-50 gps, so will not be able to cast Identify and probably can’t afford the ingredients for Protection from Evil, Dancing Lights or Color Spray in most medieval settings. That’s without considering the difficulty of carrying phosphorus, glow-worms and phosphorescent moss. Some of these spells also can’t be cast in the casting time given in their description, because the ingredients need to be steeped, smeared or scattered in a circle. Find Familiar, much more powerful than its 3rd Edition version, requires 1000Gps of herbs and incense. Even Sleep is probably beyond the reach of a lot of wizards, requiring as it does a pinch of sand – sand would have been a rare sight in 12th Century Glastonbury, I’m willing to bet. So here you have a first level wizard with 40 GPs, and before he goes adventuring he needs to gather together a piece of silver wire, several portions of powdered silver, a collection of tiny bells, some phosphorescent moss, some sand and a drop of bitumen (!! for Spider Climb).

One can imagine what happens if the party kills a gnome, who has a small admantite file in his toolkit. The file is worth 50gps and everyone else just wants to sell it, but the Wizard recognizes here an opportunity to make himself self-sufficient in powdered minerals, and snaffles it up. A libertarian party would probably charge him 200gps premium for it[1]. And at higher levels it gets ridiculous, of course:

  • Invisibility: An eyelash encased in gum arabic[2]
  • Melf’s Minute Meteors: nitrite[3], sulphur, pine tar and a (reusable) fine tube of gold worth 1000gps
  • Evard’s Black Tentacles: a piece of tentacle from a giant octopus or squid
  • Feeblemind: a handful of clay, crystal, glass or mineral spheres
  • Chain Lightning: A piece of fur, an amber, glass, or crystal rod, and a small silver pin for each experience level of the wizard

Some of these material components are very very difficult to get hold of. I doubt I could get most of them easily, even living in Tokyo. If one were to rigorously adhere to the spell components rules, every wizard would need the regular services of an alchemist, silversmith, blacksmith, and a couple of other extremely talented craftspeople; the wizard would also need to be very assiduous about cutting up and preserving any roadkill or adventure-kill he or she came across. There’s no doubt that this sort of thing makes these PCs much more interesting, but it also makes them virtually unplayable, because it essentially restricts the number of spells the PC knows in any one day, as well as the number they can cast – effectively it puts a bunch of spells beyond the PC’s reach at any time, while maintaining daily limits on those that the player does have the ability to use. A good example is Identify: a wizard at first level can’t use it, but by second level may be able to afford a pearl of suitable value. They can then cast the spell; but they can only cast it once, on one object, and they can’t cast it in the dungeon because they only know two spells a day and they need Shield and Magic Missile in the dungeon. So the party stumbles upon a ring that may be of great use right there and then, but the wizard can’t cast the spell even though it was a week’s work to find the owl feather and the pearl. So then they have to wait till they leave the dungeon, at which point they have a second item to identify but they can’t do so because they don’t have enough ingredients. Alternatively suppose that the wizard has spent all their treasure on pearls and owl feathers; they can still only cast the spell once today, because they couldn’t memorize more than two spells; but the party is pressed, and has found a magic sword and armour that they really need to use now, in the dungeon. Even though the wizard has spent his last money on two pearls and two owl feathers, he can only identify one item today.

Suppose then, that instead of using the standard approach to magic of AD&D, one introduced a simpler system in which a wizard can cast any spell they know as often as they like, provided they have the material components. This would mean that the wizard would usually have some spells (such as Burning Hands) on rotation, but I don’t see this as a bad thing. A first level wizard with Burning Hands once per round at will can do 1d3+2 hps damage per round on anyone within combat range (save for 1/2). It’s not a game changer; free use of Magic Missile makes a high level wizard pretty scary, doing 5-25 damage per round with no saving throw, but a few tweaks on minor spells (e.g. fixing magic missile at a maximum of two missiles) would easily solve that problem. Alternatively, you could give these spells simple material components: magic missile could require an arrow per missile, for example. Burning hands could require the wizard be carrying a lit flame source, that is extinguished by the spell. This would reduce the spell to the potency of WFRP 3rd Edition, where wizards have basically unlimited spell use but mostly have to use one every other round.

Even for high level spells with simple components, like the Bigby’s Hand spells, this method wouldn’t lead to infinite amounts of spell casting. Bigby’s Hand requires a glove; no one can realistically carry more than, say, 10 gloves in their equipment if they also have to carry: a small bag full of crystal spheres; a collection of test tubes carrying the components for Melf’s Minute Meteors and Invisibility; 8 or 10 small pouches of different powders, nitrites and the like; a sheath or case with several different rods; some vials of acids, pure water, tears, etc; additional pouches carrying fur, bits of leather, feathers and wings; a jar with a pickled piece of a giant octopus tentacle; a small cage of fireflies; a pestle and mortar to crush gems with; a couple of miniature platinum swords; and a collection of iron, silver, and bronze mirrors. Sure, this would make the task of spell-casting a little like a complex system of inventorying, but you could handle it, I’m sure, and if it’s hard for the player imagine how complex it is for the PC! You could also argue that if a Wizard is carrying components for more than, say, 5 spells on their person, they can’t cast a spell every round (they need a round to find the item[4]).

Furthermore, one could introduce different effects for more imaginative components. E.g. Invisibility lasts a round longer if the eyelash is from a thief (handy if you have a thief in the party); the component is never destroyed if the eyelash is from an Invisible Stalker. Water from another plane makes a spell that uses it more powerful, and the effect of spells like Identify is enhanced with more expensive pearls or more esoteric feathers (e.g. from a Sphinx). Expending a magic arrow adds one to the damage of a Magic Missile spell, and so on. You could also rule that every time a wizard is struck in combat one of their more fragile components is damaged or destroyed (randomly determined). It would also make wizards very eager to kill or capture each other, since they can loot their rivals’ components as well as their spell book.

Power limits could be obtained easily by dividing wizards into specialties, so that from first level they are limited only to conjuring or evocation, etc. Many RPGs do this, so that wizards have access to very few spells over their career. This would prevent a single wizard from being able to cast Burning Hands (alteration), Magic Missile (evocation), Charm Person (enchantment), and Chill Touch (Necromancy). I would make the conjuration, divination and abjuration specialties common to all wizards and then force them to choose one of the other four

fn1: libertarian parties probably last as long as the first Cure Light Wounds spell, and then decide socialism is the way to go.

fn2: According to Wikipedia, gum arabic was an extremely valuable export commodity and is an essential ingredient in soft drinks, and the Sudanese president recently implied he could bring down the western world through suspending its export

fn3: I find it hard to believe that nitrite was readily available in the medieval world but nitrates were as saltpeter, again not exactly your common or garden middle-ages corner store product

fn4: This could be a good rule for PCs with more than 5 magic items in general, I think.

I gave up playing AD&D sometime in the early 1990s, and switched to largely Rolemaster for a good period of time, only coming back to D&D with 3rd edition after a very system-agnostic friend recommended it. For all that time I never regretted leaving AD&D behind, though I have many fond memories of it. My problems with it were primarily that for all the crunchy system and complexity, you just didn’t get a particularly big benefit in terms of realism or diversity of gaming experience. Maybe also I got bored of playing the same system for 8 years or so (what can I say? I was young!)

So recently I was surprised to have my nostalgia for the system reawoken by a most unexpected agent: Mobbunited. I don’t know if this is well known around the traps, but this most new school and anti-OSR of bloggers has spent a long time now GMing AD&D first edition, in a campaign known as the “100 Million Days.” His explanation of why he likes playing AD&D and its good points made me think about my experiences of the game and its complexities, and I think I agree with Mobbunited’s experience: I never really played it properly as a child. So many of the rules that make AD&D so complex I just dropped, and reduced it to a kind of second-rate version of 3rd edition, all THAC0s and spells. But Mobbunited says of the game he plays:

Once you look closely, you come to understand that with all the bells and whistles intact, AD&D1e is a game of remarkable cohesion and subtlety. You can encounter some crazy things, but encounter reactions determine whether you’ll step right in to a fight. Charisma is an extraordinarily powerful ability score because it influences henchman and hireling numbers and loyalty. Weapon vs. AC adjustments justify the large weapon table. So do the special abilities of certain weapons. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s not just a bunch of crazy shit hacked together in the way even supporters claim. It sure seemed that way to me when I was a teenager, but I played it in an impatient, edited form.

The key points that he identifies here are all the rules I ignored as a child, and his revelation as an adult gamer was that the system is completely different without these special rules, and the hacked together version doesn’t work without them. He shows this in some of his play reports, where the interaction of random encounter tables, the module design, and the reaction charts really makes interesting things happen. The game he describes sounds like something I want to play and, perversely, something that the younger me, shifting from AD&D to RM, was definitely looking for. I could have tried re-reading those books and incorporating all that crunch, and no doubt the game would still have been easier to GM than Rolemaster, but perhaps with all the additional excitement and interest that comes with the well-designed Rolemaster crunch. Who can say, now, when I’ve lost the books and haven’t played anything like it for years?

Out of interest I downloaded the OSRIC pdf to investigate it and see how it matched Mobbunited’s description, but it doesn’t have anything like the same depth and complexity that I remember from the original rules. Cracking open the 1st Edition Player’s Handbook really was like opening a lost tome of secrets, and poring over the spell lists and equipment tables in those books really did feel like entering an arcane world (especially given the obscure references and complex layout of the book meant playing it was a bit like decoding ancient writings). But OSRIC is simple and streamlined and much of the depth and complexity has been taken out of it. Mobbunited himself says that “It looks to me that this half-game is the AD&D OSRIC emulates.” I think I agree with him and, if I were to consider an AD&D excursion again, I think I would try to do it in the original form, perhaps using some of Mobbunited’s altD&D rules. In fact, just for the sake of nostalgia, getting hold of the original AD&D rulebooks would be a pleasant idea. Perhaps I should do it, and see where all that crunch leads me … Who said this dog is too young to learn old tricks?

I have posted before on my opinion of why women don’t play RPGs very much, and recently there is some debate doing the rounds on RPG blogs about this topic. Debate about this topic seems to founder on two rhetorical points, viz:

  • Women are biologically different to men so won’t ever get into RPGs (or, in a softer form, it’s going to be hard to design imagery for RPGs that can appeal equally well to men and women)
  • Changing the way RPGs are presented so that it appeals to women too will render the RPGs shit, because it will involve changing their content for reasons of political correctness rather than style

The former objection is common throughout the blogosphere, it appears, e.g. in comments on this question of Trollsmyth’s about how to sexualize men; and the latter is put particularly forcefully by Zak at Playing D&D with Porn Stars. The former is a debate I don’t want to enter into on this blog, as I feel it’s been done to death over the last 70 years. But the latter I think is not a problem, because changing the representation and culture of a hobby does not require that its fundamental content be changed. I have an analogy from my experience in kickboxing that should help to illustrate how this works.

Kickboxing has been slowly opening up to women over the last 10 years, and in fact not just to women, but widening its scope to include just generally people who aren’t crazy thugs. To do this, they’ve had to change the culture of kickboxing, but unfortunately the sport is always going to attract crazy thugs, because it involves hitting people, and you can’t change that element of the sport. So instead of changing the sport itself, the martial arts association connected with the sport in Australia attempted to change the culture of the sport – that is, the way it is run, the way it is presented to the public, and the teaching methods and club environment so that people could train safely and would be willing to enter a world that has long had a bad image. This wasn’t just being done to encourage women to join – there was an increasing fear that bad behaviour by some trainers was bringing the whole sport into disrepute, and also a recognition that while it retained a certain culture, the sport would remain a niche hobby for a few people.

So, first of all the martial arts association introduced a training accreditation program. This is entirely voluntarily, but after a few bad scares, a lot of schools, scout halls and other hire venues have starting shying away from non-accredited coaches. This accreditation program holds the teachers who do it to a higher standard than used to be expected of a martial arts club, and this higher standard works primarily to make the sport more appealing to a wider range of students, as well as enabling current participants of the sport to lengthen the period of time they are able to continue participating, diversify their skills and enjoy a wider range of activities. The main changes are:

  • Teachers have to learn first aid
  • Teachers have to not only learn, but also encourage, safe training practices amongst their students – wearing of appropriate safety gear, use of proper scientific warm-up and cool-down regimes, and awareness of how different people (e.g. beginners) need to have different training regimens
  • Clubs need to be clean and hygienic, with proper toilet facilities, segregated changing rooms, and education in hygiene for all participants
  • Teachers need to learn to understand what bullying is, and to stamp it out both in their own practice and in that of their senior students
  • Teachers need to have some rudimentary idea of how people learn, what sorts of things need to be done to encourage or discourage a good education, and how to help people enjoy the sport
  • Teachers need to understand that different people have different reasons for wanting to participate, and treat students accordingly
  • Teachers need to understand sexual harrassment and the kinds of activities that make women uncomfortable in a training venue, and try to eliminate this behaviour from their club

The result has not been just that kickboxing has grown fast amongst women, but also that the general quality of kickboxing has improved rapidly over the past 10 years, so that now Australia performs above its weight on the world stage. Lessons in how to do this have been learnt from rugby and Australian Rules Football, both of which have a strong and loyal female following in Australia, and a surprisingly large number of female participants, even though they are the quintessence of contact sports. Nothing has changed fundamentally about the sports themselves; all that is different is the way that they are presented and the culture that surrounds them.

Obviously role-playing has different conditions for the admittance of women to these sports, and different things need to change; and there is no teacher-student dynamic or central association to change them or influence an overall culture (which doesn’t exist, in any case). But I think the general lessons are the same. When the Australian martial arts world started down the road to opening up their sport to women 10 or 15 years ago, many people said it was a waste of time, because women are not designed for this kind of sport, they are biologically unsuited, and “feminization” of the sport will weaken it overall, or drive away men. Many even claimed that people cannot truly learn to fight if the bullying and macho practices of the past are eliminated. However, the exact opposite effect has been observed. These improvements in the style and manner of teaching have widened the available pool of talent from which fighters are drawn, and the general quality of Australian kickboxing in the last 10-20 years has improved enormously. Not only that, but the increase in popularity and wider range of available class types has ensured that teaching kickboxing is now a much more viable business prospect than it was 30 years ago, ensuring more stable, more professional and better equipped gyms that are better able to subsidize the development of fighters through the funds of more casual students. In fact, had Australia not gone down this path our kickboxers would have been left behind, as the Dutch and Japanese professionalized their own kickboxing worlds and began to demand higher and higher quality of training and preparation from their opponents. And, of course, with the penetration of the art into the middle class and its popularization amongst women it has become big business, which further guarantees its viability as a hobby. So much so that, if one visits a K-1 tournament in Japan now, one can be a witness to the charming spectacle of lines of pretty young women crying and screaming the name of their favourite fighter at the end of the tournament – a sight that 20 years ago would have been impossible to imagine.

There’s no reason to suppose that the fundamental violence and adventurism of role playing needs to change for it to attract women, anymore than happened in kickboxing. What needs to change is the culture around the hobby, and the image that is presented to its potential entrants.

Over at “Discourse” and Dragons there is a “rant” about the new edition of D&D, which being inside the OSR echo-chamber is largely agreed to by its respondents, until a chap called Shazbot (from Points of Light) turns up and delivers, in comments, his own handy little rant about old school logic. I believe a good rant deserves credit (where I agree with it) so I’ve reproduced some parts of it here. I think Shazbot ought to turn this into a blog post, because some of its content really reminds me of the way the game was played back in the day.

Why is it that old-schoolers are prone to filibustering and hyperbolic arguments?

“Ohhhh…4th Edition ruined the game forever…all of my previous gaming experiences have been retroactively sodomized. I now know exactly what it means to be a victim of genetic cleansing in Darfur. By proxy. Because of 4th Edition.”

That’s number 1 on my list of stupid old school arguments that I hate.

Number 2:

“It’s not roll-playing…it’s ROLE-playing.”

All because latter editions of the game have included things like fleshed out mechanics for social interactions and skill checks, like say, disabling a suspension bridge. Well hold on there, Crusty Withercock…neither term is actually correct. The term is “roleplaying GAME”. See, the “game” part implies a chance of success or failure which is impartially adjudicated through things like rules. So the first question this leads me to, is what exactly, is the practical…and I stress PRACTICAL…difference between a player rolling his/her diplomacy skill and the DM rolling on a reaction table behind the screen and adding reaction adjustments? Since both use game rules to determine outcome, both would be considered “roll-playing” by the aforementioned standards.

“Oh but Shazbot…our group eschews such rules and the DM simply decides how each interaction plays out.”

Super. Fantastic. But well, that’s not really a GAME then, is it? That’s a magical tea party wherein the DM arbitrarily decides if your efforts succeed or not…based on how his/her day went, or whatever. Hell, this was how just about everything worked in OD&D, because there were absolutely no rules for anything that wasn’t swinging a sword or casting a spell, so everything was either hand-waived or the DM pulled houserules out of his/her ass that inevitably changed week-by-week. OD&D, and you can’t get anymore old school than the old 1974 white box, you started at the entrance of the dungeon, and your character probably didn’t even have a NAME before 5th level…let alone a detailed and compelling backstory. Yeah…that’s role-playing right there. From there, things devolved into a battle of wits with an adversarial DM, laden with semantic booby-traps. “You said you were checking the floor and the chest for traps…not the chandelier…so now you’re crushed. Now get me another Blue Nehi.”

Which brings me to number 3 on my list of stupid old-school arguments that I hate:

“Dwuh? Healing surges? Action points? Daily attacks for fighters??? Bu-bu-but…verisimilitude!”

Okay…tell me how much verisimilitude is in this regular old school occurrence:

“So your unnamed Halfling thief companion has just been crushed by a falling chandelier. Luckily another Halfling just happens to wander through the door.”

Bob: “What-Ho, fellow adventures! Having lost your companion a scant few moments ago…it seems that you are in need of another hand, similarly skilled in the larcenous arts as luck would have it!”

Party: “My! What a fortuitous bit of random happenstance! Why yes stranger, we would be privileged to include you into our merry band! Forsooth!”

A revolving door of interchangeable characters in what amounts to a dungeon fantasy vietnam who, by the end of the adventure, would have absolutely no personal stake in the quest?  Uh yeah…verisimilitude.

Fine…let’s use another example. XP derived primarily through collecting treasure and not, in fact, overcoming challenging foes or completing quests. Please explain to me how picking up coins translates to casting more powerful spells.  In any case, one wonders why adventurers would go adventuring at all, when the safest and most efficient road to god-like power is running a successful business. Also, wouldn’t wealthy merchants ALL be high level characters? Oh, I forgot…PC’s don’t follow the same rules as anyone else…because they’re “heroes”. We know they’re heroes, because PC’s do heroic things, like robbing tombs of their wealth and hiring commoners to run down corridors and set off traps for them.

See here’s the thing…roleplaying games aren’t meant to simulate reality…grandpa Gygax said that himself in the 1st edition DMG…no roleplaying games are meant to emulate fiction.  Now tell me, in which Conan story did the Cimmerian get incinerated by haplessly stepping on the wrong floor-tile only to be immediately replaced by Conan the II. Regale me again with the story of Sir Percival resorting to cowardice and skullduggery to overcome an otherwise worthy foe. Tell me again about the time Merlin the Magician ran out his daily allotment of spells at a critical juncture. Sorry…but the only fantasy that old-school D&D emulates is old-school D&D. It’s become a genre in and of itself…and in my experience this sort of thing makes for terrible reading.

And finally…number 4 on my list of stupid old school arguments that I hate:

“WotC D&D is too videogamey/anime/superheroic/durple”

Because apparently any fighter not wearing a buckskin mini-skirt and a horned helmet is obviously ported straight from a Final Fantasy game.  Someone here has said that D&D should have remained a classic game that has never seen a revision…like Monopoly.  Bull. Shit. Even if Gygax should have been the final authority on all things D&D, he himself revised OD&D into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The original White Box wasn’t a game as much as it was a proof of concept. An experiment.. D&D has gone through a series of revisions over the years because D&D has NEEDED to go through a series of revisions over the years. Anyone who can honestly say that the mechanics haven’t improved over the years, is probably going to write a silly rebuttal, log out, smear poop on their face, put on a bicycle helmet, and promptly ride the short bus to school.

Over the years, game mechanics have evolved to become more efficient, intuitive and user-friendly…like technology, Even though you may not like the aesthetic direction that newer versions of D&D has taken, as in actually becoming a game centered around adventuring and telling heroic stories, instead of a random menagerie of cheap death traps…you cannot reasonably argue that the actual game portion doesn’t function better with each iteration. And you know what? D&D still has a long way to go before it reaches a sublime state of mechanical nirvana. But it’s slowly crawling there.

Stupid old-schooler argument number 5: And now we come around full circle…back to hyperbolic filibustering…

“WotC has destroyed the SOUL of D&D”

Yeah…no it didn’t. The soul of D&D isn’t in anyone edition. It isn’t in the rules…it isn’t in the art. The soul of D&D is still where it belongs…in the players. Maybe you don’t like what the players are doing these days…whatever. You’ve got your own game…now it’s their turn. Because if you honestly believe that a GAME like D&D is more about some bullshit, imagined ideology that you’ve applied only in retrospect, than it is about actually having fun…then your head is stuck so far up you’re own ass, you’ll be eating your lunch a second time.

Here are a couple of examples of “actions” based on the skill-based d20 system I developed a while ago, combined with the Actions framework discussed yesterday. One is a spell, one a “supernatural ability” and one a “mundane” (and hideous) special ability. The Cost line in each description gives the attribute against which damage is done if the action fails. The cost is always 1 wound. In my conception of magic, arcane magic incurs a physical cost (it is exhausting) while divine magic incurs a mental cost (it drives you a little bit.. irrational and loopy). So failed arcane spells incur a wound against strength, while failed divine spells incur a wound against intelligence. In this system, a critical is achieved by a roll of a 20, at which point 2d10 are re-rolled and added to the previous roll to get a new total. On rolling a critical, all maximum effects (damage, rounds of duration of effect, etc.) are increased by some amount.

Grendel’s Demise

Type: Spell

Level: 7

Cost: Strength

Conditions: Must have one hand free and be unencumbered, not wearing metal armour. Target must be within sight, and have at least one arm or other limb.

Skill check: Intelligence (Offense) vs. Target Strength (Defense)

Critical: Yes (Double)

Effect: This spell attempts to tear off the target’s arm. It does maximum damage 7, and the target is stunned for one round plus one round per point of success (maximum 7, double on a critical). The target is also bleeding (1 wound/rd) until healing is administered. The target loses all use of one arm, either temporarily (due to massive injury) or permanently (due to amputation) at the GM’s discretion.

Hideous death

Type: attack, reaction

Level: 1

Cost: Charisma

Conditions: Attacker must be visible to the targets of the action, who must be allies of the target. Target must have been reduced to 0 hps in this round, by the PC or one of his/her allies.

Skill check: Charisma (Offense) vs. Charisma (Defense)

Effect: The character turns an opponent’s death into a lurid display of horror and gore. Any ally of the dying enemy who witnesses his/her/its death is shaken for 1 rd plus 1 rd/point of success. The target experiences a -2 penalty on all actions and will attempt to avoid combat with the character if possible. If the target is already shaken due to witnessing a hideous death in this engagement by this character, they move from shaken to terrified, and will immediately attempt to flee the battle.

If this action is being used on an enemy the character did not kill, apply a -2 penalty to the skill check.

The GM may choose to allow the player to describe the type of hideous death for an attempt at a bonus on the skill check. This is strongly advised! Note that failure to successfully terrify the target merely makes the PC look like a bloodthirsty maniac (charisma damage).

Infernal Essence

Type: Ability

Level: 1

Cost: None

Skill check: Wisdom (Use) vs. DC 20

Effect: The PC conjures an infernal essence to enhance their weapon or armour, giving a +1 to maximum damage or damage reduction for 1 min + 1 min/pt of success (maximum=character level). This is an infernal effect, so can be dispelled by demon-binding or abjuration effects, but not by magic-dispelling effects. It is usually visible as a faint glow and/or feeling of discomfort or unpleasantness surrounding the PC.

Higher-level versions of this effect are possible, and give an effect equal to the level of the action.

A while back I introduced a simple skill-based d20 system, with 12 skills and 24 “disciplines” all connected to 6 attributes. If you have training in a discipline connected to an attribute, you use the primary skill based on that attribute; otherwise you use the secondary skill. On a first pass, primary skills increase at 2 ranks per character level and secondary skills at 1. There are some additional points to scatter through the skills to make for a little diversity (beyond that obtained from discipline selection) and some discussion still to be had about how fast skills accrue and what they start at. The four disciplines are offense, defense, use, and state. The last indicates the amount of damage you can sustain on a given attribute; the use discipline indicates proficiency in applying that attribute to all ordinary tasks, and the first two should be obvious. As a PC accrues damage against an attribute, that damage applies a penalty to that attribute and all those below it on an ordered list.

Under this system “hit points” are handled by the Constitution (State) discipline; if you have trained in this discipline you have your primary constitution skill bonus as your wound level; otherwise your secondary skill. There are various types of attack for each physical attribute; Charisma (Offense) indicates intimidation, and the remaining two mental skills’ offense disciplines are for use with magic.

As ever with this reconfigured D&D system (and the earlier versions I have introduced here), the issue comes with handling magic and combat. Having played a little warhammer 3 now, and also some Double Cross 3, I am really enamoured of the concept of actions (effects in Double Cross 3). They seem to fit very well with this revised version of the d20 system, and I think they can amalgamate unusual combat moves and magic into one system. This post is intended as a brief outline of how.

A skill check is a basic game mechanic to determine if something a PC does is successful. Out of combat or any challenge against another NPC/PC, skill checks are resolved according to the basic skill vs. Difficulty Class (DC) rule. However, in combat a PC’s actions are restricted to the range of available Actions he or she has learnt. An Action is an activity challenged against another PC or NPC, or performed in combat, with an outcome positively affecting the PC or their ally, or negatively affecting a foe. It is characterised by an effect and a cost (which may be 0), with the cost typically measured as damage against an attribute. Every discipline has associated with it a basic action that has 0 cost and can be enacted every round. PCs can typically use one offense or use action in a round. Defense actions are typically passive, and determined by the attacking PC/NPC, but there may be active actions the PC can also use.

Spells are simply Actions based on the offense or use discipline associated with the Intelligence or Wisdom (or maybe Charisma) attribute. They are enacted as actions in the combat round, carry a potential cost (if the caster fails their skill check) and have an effect which may include damage, and various status effects. This makes them no different to physical actions. However, because the cost of physical actions also affects mental attributes, non-magical physical effects will have a slightly lower level or cost for the same effect. But some effects will be rarer with physical (non-spell) actions, and combinations of effects almost impossible.

In my next post I’ll give a few examples of spells from my Compromise and Conceit game, converted into actions for this system.

A final note

I think this is largely irrelevant because actually Warhammer 3 seems ideally suited to Compromise and Conceit. So I may try converting a few of the same spells into Warhammer 3 Action Cards to see how they work.

In this post I will use some basic probability theory to show that, in essence, the Warhammer 2nd edition combat system is not deadly, as I think is often claimed, but is actually really slow and boring, and inherently survivable.

This assumption of deadliness arises, I think, from the fact that PCs at low levels are poor at doing anything, and the assumption is that if you’re bad at stuff then you’ll die quickly doing that stuff if it’s also dangerous stuff. I think this assumption also lies beneath claims that early D&D was deadly, an assumption which I don’t test here (due to lack of familiarity with early D&D rules) but which is probably somewhat better placed than any assumptions about Warhammer’s relative riskiness.

I came to this comparison because on Friday and Sunday last week I role-played respectively in Pathfinder and Warhammer 2nd edition, and I was struck in both instances by the length and inevitable dreariness of the combat, and by the fact that both combats had to be ended by a non-combat act of the GM’s. This post, about the probability of survival in each of three systems, will serve to show how this comes about and also I think reveals some obvious conclusions about tactical combat rules in role-playing. I aim to expand on this post in future with a proper simulation and statistical analysis, complete with survival curves, but that will take a bit of time.


The probability of surviving a single round, and the cumulative probability of surviving multiple rounds, are calculated here based on the underlying combat mechanic of three systems – Warhammer 2nd edition, D&D 3.5, and my own Compromise and Conceit modifications of the d20 system. All three are compared with a putative “control” system in which the mechanics are not specified, but are assumed to result in a 50% probability of a hit in any given round, and death after 3 successful hits. The chief conclusion for each system is the number of rounds required to fight before reaching a 50% chance of death, referred to hereafter as the “median survival time,” though strictly speaking this is not a median survival time. In practice of course time to death varies according to the good or bad luck of the player, and how much they lie about their rolls to the GM, so survival time should here be assumed to be roughly representative of a long-run probability. The methods presented here also use various simplifications and approximations, specifically ignoring the role of criticals, fate points, and the death spiral in the Compromise and Conceit system, which makes the order of hits important for survivability.

In all cases, the survival probability is calculated for a fighter-type PC attacking an NPC with exactly the same skills as themselves.

The fundamental mechanics assumed are set out below. The fundamental problem with Warhammer can be seen to derive from the number of defensive manoeuvres available to a fighter in a standard combat round. Once a successful hit has been scored, the defender can then roll a defensive roll using their own combat skill, and then (if a fighter-type character) can roll a damage reduction check against their constitution. For a typical fighter we will see that this reduces a fighter’s successful hit chance to just 15%, and in a series of binomial trials requiring 3 successes, this can significantly extend the run of rolls required.


For each system, a typical build of first level fighter was generated, using average statistics that might be expected for such a system, and pitted against exactly the same fighter character. No special feats were assumed in D&D or Compromise and Conceit (C&C), and the special feat of “Damage Reduction” was assumed for the Warhammer fighter (though as we shall see, it is not an enormously important feat). Other assumptions are outlined in detail below.

The combat method for each of the systems was summarised as a single probability of successfully scoring damage against an opponent. Damage was assumed to be the average for the type of character, and the number of hits required to kill the PC for the given average damage was used as the number of hits required before the PC or their opponent was killed. In each round, the cumulative probability of death was calculated as the probability that the given number of hits occur by that round, which is practically given as 1-P(less than that number of hits occurred). Formally, given a requirement of x hits to achieve death, the probability that a character survived to round k is the probability that they have received at most x-1 hits in k trials. The adjusted probability is the probability that they have survived to round k, or that they killed their opponent in round k-1. This probability in turn is given as the probability that they survived to round k-1 and they delivered 3 or more hits by round k-1.

This problem reduces to a simple binomial distribution for a given probability of a hit. Note that inclusion of critical hits, special moves, fate points, or death spiral effects renders this calculation completely different, and will be handled subsequently in a simulation.

Assumptions for each system are set out below.


A fighter-type character (for example, mercenary or watchman) is assumed to have rolled an average attack and constitution value on 2d10, giving values of 30 in each. The character is further assumed to have added 5 to the attack score, giving a value of 35. The chance of a successful attack is thus 35%, the chance of a successful defence is also 35%, and the chance of a successful damage reduction is 30%. The character is assumed to absorb 3 points of damage (30/10), and does 1d10+3 damage, and so final average damage is the average damage on a d10, or 5.5. The character is assumed to have 13 hit points, and be wearing leather armour (AP 1), so overall average damage is 4.5. Probability of doing any damage in one round is given as the Probability of a successful attack AND a failed defense AND a failed damage reduction. Since the opponent is exactly the same, this gives us the following results vis a vis the PC:

  • Chance of being damaged by the opponent in one round=0.16
  • Number of hits required to die: 3


The D&D fighter is assumed to have a +2 strength bonus, BAB of 1, and weapon focus, for a total attack bonus of 4. Armour is chain with a shield, +2 dexterity bonus, and +1 dodge bonus, for a total AC of 19. The fighter is assumed to have maximum hit points, the Toughness feat and a +1 constitution bonus, giving 14 HP. Damage is from a longsword with +2 strength bonus, giving average damage of 6.5, so 3 hits are assumed to be required to kill the fighter. No other feats are assumed. This means that the chance of a successful hit is 25%, because the PC needs to roll over 15 on a d20, giving a 25% chance of success. This gives the following results:

  • Chance of being damaged by the opponent in one round=0.25
  • Number of hits required to die: 3

Compromise and Conceit

The Compromise and Conceit (C&C) fighter is assumed to have 4 ranks in attack, with a +3 strength bonus, and 4 ranks in defense, with a +3 agility bonus. The fighter is assumed to be wearing armour with Damage Reduction 3, and to have a maximum damage of 5 wounds. The fighter is also assumed to have 4 ranks in fortitude, with a total of 7 wounds. When fighting against himself, this means the fighter would need to roll a 10 to hit, but a 14 to do damage. Calculating average damage is tricky because the probability distribution is truncated between 1 and 5 with uneven probabilities, so for now we assume it is weighted towards the lower boundary of the damage distribution (due to the nature of the 2d10 roll), so assign an average damage of 2. Recall that this system uses a 2d10 attack roll, so we have a final result of:

  • Probability of successfully doing damage = 0.34
  • 4 hits required to kill the PC

Control system

This system assumes a 50% chance of doing damage, and 3 hits required to kill.

With these results we construct the probability distributions.


The median unadjusted survival time for each system is:

  • Warhammer: 17 rounds
  • D&D: 11 rounds
  • C&C: 11 rounds
  • Control: 5 rounds

Figure 1 shows the unadjusted survival times (D&D has been misnamed AD&D).

Figure 1: Unadjusted survival times

The adjusted times were:

  • Warhammer: 23 rounds
  • D&D: 15 rounds
  • C&C: 14 rounds
  • Control: 7 rounds

and the probability curves are plotted in figure 2.

Figure 2: Adjusted survival curves

Recall that these are not true survival curves, but simply cumulative probability distributions.


It actually takes a long time to die in Warhammer, with a concomitant number of die rolls. At the unadjusted median survival time, if the player wins, he or she will have rolled 17 attack rolls and 3 damage rolls (on average); he or she will also have suffered an average of 6 attacks that required defensive rolls, giving a total number of defensive rolls of between 6 and 12, for a total of 26 – 32 rolls. The D&D player will have rolled 11 attacks and 3 damage rolls, for a total of 14 rolls. The C&C player will have rolled just the 11 attack rolls, and the control player will have rolled 5 attacks and 3 damage rolls for a total of 8 rolls.

It’s worth noting that, fiddling with the underlying parameters of the game assumptions for warhammer shows that damage reduction is a significant factor in the slowness – losing this feat increases the base hit chance to 23%, similar to D&D. However, the relative ability scores of the enemy are not that important. If the enemy has only a defense score of 15, half that of the PC, hit probability increases to 20% and the survival time drops (for the person with the higher skills) to 13 rounds, only shaving off 4 rounds. Also, if both fighters have an attack ability of 55%, the overall chance to hit remains roughly similar, at 17%, so gaining levels doesn’t significantly speed up combat.

Even if we assume that the warhammer system represents reality in its long drawn-out slugfests, we have to ask if this is a system that we want to actually play – fights this long are very boring. Also we note that a player has fate points to spend, and that in the “low power” world of warhammer these are one of the player’s main advantages over NPCs. But the average player will have 3 fate points, which can be used to reroll a single roll. Given they have to roll 26 – 32 times to win, it seems that these fate points aren’t going to make a significant difference to the battle’s progress. Also, unlike in D&D and C&C, the absence of other powers and magic means that the player has little else to do in combat but roll to hit, making these 26 rolls considerably less interesting than in other systems.

We also can note that there is no particular reason for a given number of rolls to be made for one attack. Combat systems abstract combat, so we could in essence reduce combat for the Warhammer case to a single roll against a 15% hit chance, and have the same result as described here, at the cost of 6-12 rolls less. Players want a certain amount of argy-bargy in combat, but I think most people would argue (and I think certainly the people I’ve played Warhammer with have agreed) that a little less argy bargy and a bit more fun could be had from a different system.

In a subsequent post, I will consider a full simulation for a set of sample fights, include criticals and death spirals, and give a statistical analysis.

Having promised it in comments, here is my attempt to put forward a very simple, balanced, and pretty much entirely skill-based d20 system. In keeping with previous entries on this topic, it aims to:

  • amalgamate combat, magic and skills under a single compatible skill-based framework
  • get rid of saving throws
  • make armour a damage reduction system

After 20 or so sessions testing my previous attempt at this system, and after playing Exalted, the main things this iteration aims to add are

  • a unified system of damage which extends the wounds and fatigue framework from the previous version and makes it more flexible and useful, including for social attacks a la Exalted
  • a balancing of primary and secondary skills, so that there is never a risk that, like Anna Labrousse, your primary attack is +21 but you have defenses as low as +2

So here’s how it works.

Ability scores

We have the same standard 6 ability scores, ordered in this way: Constitution, Strength, Intelligence, wisdom, Dexterity, Charisma. The ability scores are represented as bonusses only, with a standard human considered to be +0 in everything, heroes having a total distributed bonus of +2. There are no ability scores per se. It will become apparent that we could do away with ability scores altogether, but for historical and aesthetic reasons we won’t.


We have 6 primary skills, one for each ability, and 6 secondary skills, one for each ability. So each PC has a Constitution (Primary) and a Constitution(Secondary) skill which, as in d20, have a total adjustment calculated as ranks+ability score+magic.

For starters, assume that every primary skill increases by 1 rank per level, and every secondary skill by 1 rank every 2 levels. We could then have points to distribute across both, but that’s just window dressing for diversity. Assume for now 1 point per 3 levels to distribute across primary skills and 1 per 4 levels for secondary skills; assume a maximum rank of lvl+2 for primary and lvl/2+1 for secondary skills.

For example, a 12th level character will have 12 ranks in every primary skill, and 6 in every secondary. They then have an additional 4 points to distribute on primaries and 3 on secondaries; let’s assume 2 primary skills are maxed at rank 14, and there are 3 secondary skills at rank 7. Obviously this is just accounting and can be fiddled for balance.


Each ability has four disciplines, which are: offense, defense, use, state. At first level, a PC starts with four disciplines across all abilities, and can spend feats at later levels to purchase more. If a PC possesses a discipline, then all actions covered by it are resolved using a primary skill for the corresponding ability; otherwise use secondary. So for example, a fighter has offense and defense in strength. When attacking with a melee weapon the fighter uses their primary strength skill; but without offense in dexterity, this fighter will use dexterity secondary skill to attack with missile weapons. Some classic discipline distributions at first level might be

  • Fighter: strength offense, defense; constitution state; charisma state
  • Wizard: intelligence offense, state, use: dexterity defense

Some disciplines will have requirements for their use. Strength defense will require the PC have medium/heavy armour and a shield; constitution defense will require heavy armour and a medium/heavy weapon and/or shield. The disciplines also come with proficiencies, so dexterity offense comes with a proficiency in a single missile weapon of they player’s choice.

The state discipline determines which skill (primary or secondary) is used to determine the maximum wounds a character can take against the corresponding ability before suffering a corresponding penalty. So a fighter with constitution state discipline takes a maximum number of wounds equal to their primary skill in constitution.


Wounds incurred against an ability apply a penalty to all skills for abilities at or below the given ability in the order given above. So constitution wounds apply  a penalty to all skills for all abilities; dexterity wounds only apply to dexterity and charisma-related skills. When the number of wounds a PC has taken equal the total of their state score, they suffer a specific state: dying for constitution, unconscious for strength, confusion for intelligence, rage for wisdom, knocked down for dexterity, and, well I’m not sure for charisma but for the moment let’s call it susceptible.

We can construe most standard penalties as wounds. Armour penalties are dexterity wounds. You can’t wear armour that applies a penalty greater than your dexterity state skill will allow, and wearing armour applies a penalty to all charisma-based skills as well, i.e. to all social interactions. It’s hard to pull chicks in full plate. Feeblemind can be construed as intelligence wounds, which means that wisdom-, dexterity-, and charisma-based skills also suffer. It’s hard to do anything requiring judgement, fine motor skills or charming people if you’ve been rendered dumber than you’re used to being.

Charisma wounds are slightly special. If you have charisma wounds they obviously make it hard to resist charm and intimidation-type effects, but they can also be construed as applying a penalty or bonus (depending on the situation) to combat checks against the people who caused the wounds – this is an effect of fear. Also, constitution-based wounds could be considered as wounds against charisma when the person who caused the constitution-based wounds attempts to intimidate the injured party. Once a person has sustained their total in charisma wounds, they’re considered to be unable to act against the person who caused the wounds, and susceptible to further suggestion/intimidation from others. I’m not sure how this would work in practice, but possibly it would mean they can’t apply special social powers to defend against intimidation/charm attempts, and can only take 10 on defensive attempts. Constitution and strength wounds should be seen as bonuses rather than penalties in defenses against non-intimidation checks by the person who inflicted them,

Consequences of this are:

  • Bashing someone helps you to intimidate them but if you subsequently try to bluff or persuade them, the amount of damage you did will be added to their defensive skill check against you
  • Talking to someone before battle in a way that is intended to question their allegiance or scare them (through intimidation) will do charisma-based wounds that are then incurred as a penalty in battle – propaganda, intimidatory displays, and reputation can all work in this way
  • Trying to use diplomacy when you’re pissing blood from multiple wounds generally won’t work, because they give a penalty (but in some circumstances the wound total could be construed as a bonus)
  • Spells like confusion can be partially successful, and there’s a natural mechanic for determining the effects of casting multiple partially successful charm, confusion or fear spells.


All saves are handled by the appropriate defense discipline for the appropriate attribute, based on the situation. So dodging falling rubble is a dexterity defense, resisting a bard’s attempts to get you to kill yourself is a charisma defense, and so on.

Skill resolution

Ordinary skill-based tasks use the appropriate primary or secondary skill corresponding to an ability’s use discipline (so swimming is strength use, etc.) Target DCs can be determined based on how you want performance to work, so for example if you want a 1st level character to do an easy task 50% of the time and a 5th level character to do a medium task 50% of the time, the appropriate DCs are probably 15 and 20 respectively. These DCs (and the skill points per level, too) can be adjusted for low/high skill or heroic campaigns.


Spells are cast using the appropriate use discipline against a DC determined by the spell level, and attacks are resolved using the appropriate offense vs defense challenges, with the outcome determining the number of wounds applied. Spells can have various maximums, with a recommended maximum being caster level. A spell like charm person will be assumed not to work if it does less damage than the target’s charisma state; perhaps a spell can have a higher DC in order to bypass the wound mechanic and give a guaranteed effect. So save vs. death is just a higher-level version of inflict wounds. A caster can know that partial success with charm person repeated multiple times will charm their opponent, and the partial success will reduce their effectiveness.

Spell resolution can be sped up by combining use and attack rolls. In either resolution method (1 or 2 die rolls), failure to beat the DC leads to a single wound incurred against the chosen state discipline, which then applies a penalty to all subsequent spell use (and attributes lower in the attribute order). Failure to beat the target (DC-lvl) leads to spell failure plus a wound.

Different magic domains may have different required disciplines, so bardic magic uses charisma, cleric magic uses wisdom, and so on. A cleric who casts too many spells becomes enraged (my god has left me), a wizard becomes confused (my brain has fried) and a bard becomes an antisocial jerk, easily frightened, intimidated or seduced (i have exhausted my charms).

See the section below for taking 10 on defense.


Combat is a challenged skill check, offense discipline vs. defense, with the difference between the rolls, minus damage reduction from armour, determining the amount of wounds of damage done by the attacker. This damage will have a maximum determined by the weapon, probably capping at about 5 for a 2-handed sword. If the difference is zero or negative the armour is assumed to have absorbed all damage but the target takes a single strength wound.

To speed up combat (and spell-casting if necessary) the defender can be assumed to be only able to take 10 if they also want to attack, so the attacker rolls vs. a DC equal to 10 plus the defender’s appropriate defense skill. The dodge feat will enable the defender to roll for this DC at the beginning of the round, and choose the maximum of 10 or the dice roll. This mechanism can be applied to magic too.

Social combat example

Consider the case of a noted cleric trying to convince the local guardsmen not to attack a witch. The cleric rolls her charisma offense against their defense, and the difference is damage against their state. Failure could, under some circumstances (such as in a debate) be construed as damage to the cleric’s state, representing being swayed to their point of view. Let us further suppose they’re in a wagon going to the witch’s house, and the journey takes 30 minutes. Each persuasion attempt takes 10 minutes, so the cleric has 3 attempts to do enough damage to the guards to render them susceptible. Once susceptible, they can be assumed to do what she wants within reason (reason being determined by the context, the nature of the arguments the player decides the cleric uses, etc.) Critical success could represent a change of worldview by the guards, or some additional outcome (they guard the witch against her true enemy, etc.). Suppose by the time they reach the witch’s house the cleric has been unsuccessful, but has damaged them all with 3 charisma wounds. At the house, the cleric’s companions lie in ambush. When the guards begin to break down the door they attack, and because the guards have taken 3 charisma wounds these are applied as a penalty on the guards’ actions – they’re no longer committed to their task. Let us suppose that the guards all have charisma state values of 5. As soon as any guard takes 2 wounds, fatal or non-fatal, we will assume that these wounds stack with the charisma wounds, and the GM can choose either a) they flee the battle or b) they will stand down as soon as the cleric tells them to (but the cleric has to notice and choose to do so).

That’s the whole system in a nutshell.

Over at tenletter, there are some example abilities for Fighters to take when they have leader training. This reminded me of some of the more fun feats that my players chose for their characters in the Compromise and Conceit campaign, and which I thought I would reproduce here. These feats are sometimes overpowered, either because they were given at first level or because I like people to have feats which add to the character, even if they’re nasty. Each feat described below also includes the name and “class” of the character who used it.

Powerful Voice (Anna Labrousse, enchantress)

Can be used 3 times / day, using a presence vs. will challenged skill check. The target suffers a suggestion-like effect for 1 round per point of failure (Max. duration=Anna’s level).

Infernal Tango (Lord Merton St. Helier, sybarite)

Lord Merton and Russell Ganymede, his batman, have an almost supernatural understanding of each others’ moves in combat. Whenever Merton is able to use his ranged weapon, he gains an attack of opportunity against a single target in melee combat with Russell Ganymede.

Infernal Synergy (Lord Merton St. Helier, sybarite; and Russell Ganymede, his faithful batman)

This feat must be taken by both Merton and Russell; it extends their innate understanding of each others’ combat style, and enables each of them to gain a +2 attack bonus when fighting attacking someone who is engaged in melee combat with their ally. This also applies to ranged attacks.

Horrid Death (Dave Black, King’s Torturer)

If Dave delivers a killing blow, he can choose to kill his opponent in such a horrid and gruesome fashion that all allies of the target who witness his/her/its death must immediately suffer a will vs. presence challenged skill attack. If they fail, they are shaken and suffer a -2 to all actions for 1 round per point of failure.

Torturer’s Tale (Dave Black, King’s Torturer)

Once per day, Dave can touch one target and, on a successful will vs. presence check, learn the truthful answer to 1 question.

Locking eyes with the Damned (Father David Cantrus, Jesuit)

Cantrus catches the eye of another spellcaster in order that both parties can appreciate the inevitable damnation of their souls, reflected in the eyes of another destined for the same flames. If Cantrus succeeds in a challenged will vs. will skill check, he and the target are unable to cast any magic until Cantrus deliberately breaks eye contact. The effect can work around corners/through walls if there is a mirror or other reflection by which they can be seen. The target takes 1 fatal wound every round that they fail a will vs. will challenged skill check, thus hastening their descent into hell. The target may yell for aid from fellows, but cannot cast spells or attack Cantrus, though they can attempt to move to escape Cantrus. Cantrus can move, but cannot attack or cast spells.

Because some of these feats were chosen at quite high level, I didn’t put any particular pre-requisites on them. Had I been writing them from the very first, I would obviously make some of them have attack bonus and feat pre-requisites. They were also intended, obviously, to personalise the PCs and make the player’s vision more personalised. In fact, some of these feats – particularly Locking Eyes with the Damned and Powerful Voice – were not used as much as expected. After Cantrus took Locking Eyes with the Damned, I chose battle with the final enemy to depend on it.
The remaining PC, Brian the Woodsman, didn’t have many specialist feats but he did have to regrow one of his arms, which was reformed in a dark ritual of faerie magic so that he had a massive, thick-thewed limb of wood and moss, wreathed in shadow. With this limb he could cast a spell, The Long Arm of the Lore, which I also describe here.

The Long Arm of the Lore

Range: Touch

DC: 25

Challenged: vs. Spellcraft

Effect: Brian’s shadow-wreathed arm grips the target and wraps them in a flickering halo of shadowy force drawn straight from the depths of the Faerie kingdom. For 1 rd + 1 rd per point of success, the targeted spell-user loses the ability to use their spellcraft skill in casting spells, but must instead rely on will.

As an example of this spell in action, Anna Labrousse finished the campaign with a spellcraft skill total of 21, and a will of 2. This significantly reduces her ability to successfully cast higher level spells. In future iterations of my system, it is likely that all secondary skills will be closer to primary skills, so an equivalent Anna Labrousse would have a will of about 10-12. This would still vastly reduce her power to cast more serious enchantments, like her infamous Grendel’s Demise. Sadly, the campaign finished before Brian got a good chance to use this spell.

When I first returned to D&D through the 3.5 edition rules, I was quite impressed by the idea of attacks of opportunity, though as a game mechanic they add a lot of work and could perhaps be simplified without difficulty. I particularly liked their use to discourage spell-casting and missile weapon use in melee combat, encouraging the eminently sensible tactic of keeping archers and wizards behind a wall of warriors, and reducing the use of healing magic in the thick of battle. I think they can be used as well to address that old canard of D&D, the uselessness of pole-arms, quarterstaves and great axes. No-one in D&D would ever actually bother specialising in pole-arms as a weapon because they’re heavy, they do less damage than comparable two handed weapons, and yet you still have to forego the use of a shield. Even worse is the quarterstaff, which is weak and requires you forego the shield bonus. Sure, you can set a pole-arm against a charge, but how often do you have to do that?

Over at Middenmurk I found a suggestion for improving the pole-arm based on initiative order, which is nice but I don’t think is sufficient to overcome their deficiencies. This post reminded me of an idea I have toyed with for a while, which can be implemented in pretty much any system (I think), and uses attacks of opportunity to make pole-arms and spears a fearsome weapon, to improve the value of daggers for dexterous fighters, and to make the quarterstaff a useful weapon, particularly for mages. Here is how it works:

  • In any combat where the combatants start at greater than melee range, L-sized puncturing weapons (i.e. pole-arms and spears but not two-handed swords or battle-axes) win initiative, so always strike first, against any other weapon class
  • Any M or S-sized weapon user fighting against an L-sized weapon of any sort[1] incurs an attack of opportunity when they attempt to strike
  • In order to prevent this attack of opportunity from occurring, the user of the smaller weapon has to exchange their attack for a combat manoeuvre roll, which if successful indicates they have closed range sufficiently to be able to attack subsequently without incurring the attack of opportunity. Failure, of course, means that they incur the attack of opportunity as well as losing their own strike
  • Once the user has closed successfully in this way, the pole-arm wielder can reverse the procedure, dropping their own strike and making a combat manoeuvre roll to widen the range again without incurring an attack of opportunity
  • If a person using an S-sized weapon closes successfully against a user of an L-sized weapon using this method, they’re considered to be inside the range of the big weapon, and then the big weapon user incurs an attack of opportunity every round that they attempt to strike the lighter fighter, until they widen the range again[2]
  • A quarterstaff can be used as a pole-arm at range (the Chinese kung-fu-y style of staff fighting) but can also be treated as an M-sized weapon (the Robin-Hood style of fighting) so quarterstaff users get the benefit of the pole-arm without its deficiencies against light weapons
  • Users of S-sized weapons do not gain the attack of opportunity advantage when fighting against Great Axes, but do suffer the attack of opportunity disadvantage when fighting at range against Great Axes
  • All combatants have to make their decision about what they’ll do at the beginning of the round, before initiative is rolled for

The last rule is explicitly to benefit wizards. If you’re a fighter up against a wizard with a staff, you have a choice – you can opt to drop your attack and close range to dispense with subsequent attacks of opportunity from the wizard, but this means that the wizard gets to cast a spell without incurring an attack of opportunity from the fighter; but if you worry about this possibility and choose instead to strike from range, the wizard will get an attack of opportunity. Not particularly threatening, unless the staff has a paralysis effect built in…

Also, this rule is intended to explicitly encourage the use of tumbling and daggers by rangers and thieves, and to make this dexterous style of fighting more interesting. It also means that a thief with a weak weapon can still be dangerous if they have a good tumble skill, since they can close on a fighter with a big weapon and gain attacks of opportunity until the fighter is out of range again. Ultimately they’ll still lose the fight but by pressing the fighter in this way they stay alive longer, enabling another party member to use a wider array of spells and/or missile weapons. You could even allow for the use of feats to extend the sneak attack to this situation, making the in-close thief a really nasty combatant[3].

Also, I would rule that widening the range from a light-weapon fighter involves moving backwards, and can’t be done if there is no backward distance to move. So if fighter engages thief, thief closes in, fighter widens range but backs up to a wall, and then thief closes in again, it’s slice-and-dice time for the fighter[4].

Just as Middenmurk draws on his experience of mediaeval reenactment fighting to construct the initiative rule he proposes, I am drawing here on my experience of knife-fighting and staff martial arts. Once a knife-fighter is inside a longer weapon’s range, the longer weapon becomes a significant hindrance to the user; but closing on a staff with a shorter weapon is all but impossible unless you are very agile.

Attacks of opportunity don’t have to be a significant hindrance to game flow either if, instead of making them an extra roll, you represent them as a bonus on a single combat roll. So everyone declares their actions at the beginning of the round, and anyone who gained an attack of opportunity from someone else gets a +2 on their roll against that person (or grants a +2 on the roll of anyone who is attacking that person). I don’t think this rule is necessary but it can help to reduce the number of rolls in combat, always a good thing. Also, feats can be expended to increase the bonus, which would again benefit thieves and monks.

fn1: you could restrict this to “pole-arms”

fn2: you could extend this to S-sized versus M-sized weapons

fn3: this could be a useful way of making the monk’s unarmed combat nasty

fn4: or, for an unarmed person against this fighter, the unarmed person has grabbed the fighter’s head and is bashing it against the wall