"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why B/X Is My Favorite #14 & #15

14. The combat sequence
15. Abstract narrative combat system with just enough to make tactics important. Do you charge into the room or try to draw the monster into the hallway?

One of the topics going around the OSR blogs is the post over at I Fly By Night about Abstract Tactics.

One of the reasons that I love B/X is that it has an elegant combat system that relies on three characteristics, all of which go hand-in-hand to make it fun:
1. It is abstract,
2. It allows for (and I would say requires for the survival of B/X characters) tactics, and
3. Because of 1 & 2 and the rules-lite system allows for a lot of narrative flexibility.

1. Abstract
B/X Blackrazor had a great post a while ago about the virtues of abstract D&D combat that is more well thought out than what I can do (Use the link - he posts so much that if you have to scroll down his blog to find it you will be there a while - love ya, JB).
To summarize... D&D combat is abstract for a reason. The mechanics of AC, initiative, one attack roll per round, and hit points all work towards that reason. And that reason is to have fun, heroic encounters.

2. Tactics
The I Fly by Night post does a good job of articulating an aspect of 3.5 and 4E D&D combat that I don't really like. Measuring out everything in 5-ft squares does not equal tactics to me. A wizard is not going to pull out a tape-measure before flinging a fireball in a desperate battle.

So if 5-ft increments and special powers aren't tactics, what are, especially in an abstract combat system? I like to use a definition I found in an article linked from Whitehall ParaIndustries about Tactics and Strategy in Game Design where Tactics is given as - the art or skill of employing available means to accomplish an end. Usually the "end" in D&D combat is to kill or drive-off the adversaries.

The major focus of B/X tactics are resource management, managing dissimilar assets and maneuvering.

The key items for resource management in B/X are hit points, attack rolls, spells and charged or single use magic items. These are the bedrock for tactical play in B/X. Increasing the number of resources you have to manage increases the tactical play. B/X gives a number of aspects to consider when managing these resources:
- weapon choices - spears, polearms (second rank attacks) and missile weapons (ranged attacks) to increase the number of attack rolls
- The B/X spellbook system - what spells can be used
- Retainers - more hit points and attack rolls
- Defensive Movement (Fighting Withdrawal and Retreat) - managing hit points
- Monster reaction rolls - talk your way to the "end"
- Morale - drive the adversaries off to achieve the "end"
- Initiative and the Combat Sequence.

Combining dissimilar assets into a functional unit takes skill and knowledge. Fighters are very different than Magic-Users, who are very different from Clerics and Thieves (isn't that right Mr. Tweet?). Combining these assets with very different strengths and weaknesses is key to B/X tactical combat. Entering an ancient catacomb without a cleric? Really? The stronger the difference between character types, the more tactical elements are introduced (I am looking at you 3.5 and 4E).

Maneuvering is getting the right resources into the right position at the right time in order to maximize your chance of success while protecting against the same from your opponent. While managing resources is the bedrock of tactical play and using the different classes to overcome opponents takes some skill, it is proper maneuvering that makes one a master.

How does one use maneuvering in an abstract combat system like D&D? In abstract ways. Do you fight the horde of goblins in the 10-ft wide passageway or in the middle of the large cavern? When does the magic-user fire off the lightening bolt? Is the thief in a position to fire his bow at the back rank of orcs? Also, page B25 says,
"the score needed "to hit" may be adjusted by Strength, magic items, and occasionally special situations" (emphasis mine).
I Fly by Night gives some good examples of situations that might give these "special situations". I often take the "occasionally" to mean a couple times each combat. By giving a +1 bonus for these elements, it makes the tactical decisions of the players meaningful.

3. Narrative
I am going to risk whatever old school cred I might have by quoting Vincent Baker from a post he made called "Practical Conflict Resolution Advice" that gives good advice for narrative abstract combats,
"In combat, you'll probably want to have an overall what's at stake for the fight, and little tactical what's at stakes for each exchange. When you describe the setup, mention two or three features of the environment, like hanging tapestries or a swaying bridge or broken cobblestones, plus an apparent weakness of the foe, like worn armor straps or a pus-filled left eye, and then when you say what's at stake for an exchange, incorporate one of those: "the danger is that he'll push you back onto the broken cobblestones" or "so what you're hoping to do is to further strain his armor straps." This is on top of hitting and damage and whatever, just add it straight in. It's especially effective if you always give a small bonus or penalty for the exchange..."

Another good example is the "The Way of the Ming Vase" in the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming,
If you’ve got a choice between running a predictable, fairly-executed combat, or on the other hand running a combat in which swords break, people fall, someone throws up from a blow to the stomach, a helmet goes spinning away, someone gets tangled up in a curtain, or other such events outside the formal rules … embrace the chaos. This is the rule of the Ming Vase. Why is it the rule of the Ming Vase? Look at it this way. There’s a priceless Ming Vase sitting on a table in the middle of a room where combat rages on all sides, swords swinging, chairs flying, crossbow bolts whizzing through the air. There is, however, no rule covering the chance of some random event that might affect the priceless Ming Vase. I’m not sure I need to say more, but just in case, I will. If someone rolls a natural “1,” or a “3,” or even if nothing specifically happens to trigger it, it’s blatantly irresponsible of you not to start some chain of events involving the Ming vase. A sword goes flying – the table underneath the vase is hit by the sword – the vase is swaying back and forth, ready to topple – can anyone catch it, perhaps making a long dive-and-slide across the floor? That’s gaming. Is it unfair? Well, it’s certainly outside the existing rules. It’s your job to create events outside the standard sequence of “I roll to hit. They roll to hit. I roll to hit.”

In combat, bad rolls can spontaneously generate bad consequences (make sure you do this to both sides, not just the players). You don’t need a table to generate bad consequences – just make it up on the spot. Good rolls might get good consequences, such as disarming the foe, making him fall, smashing him against a wall for extra damage, pushing him backward, etc. Again, make it up on the spot. Remember the Ming Vase!

While the narrative aspect of B/X combat doesn't require anything other than a good imagination and an open mind, another fun thing that I have tried out is the "Lucky Number" idea from the Unofficial Games blog,
Whenever a lucky number is rolled on an attack, the attacker gets to make an "Opportunity Attack" [not to be confused with 3.5 Attacks of Opportunity or 4E's Opportunity Attacks - Patrick] for free. Opportunity attacks have one real caveat: They cannot be made using your primary weapon(s). They can even apply if you miss an attack.

Some examples:
Punching someone with a free hand.
Tripping someone
Kicking a chair between their legs
Tackling them into a grapple
Throwing a mug of ale from the nearby table
Having the arrow you fired miss, but hit a pipe full of steam and scald them instead.

I am not too sure there is a lot of original thought in this post but I do think it highlights the reasons why the combat system in B/X works for me.


  1. The one thing you've mentioned in passing is the key: Imagination. Sadly, most folks don't seem to have a lot of it. That seems to be the reason why some rules-sets include the 'obvious' (not a snark) as (for lack of a better word) rules to 'guide' folk toward thinking beyond swing/hit/swing/miss which, sadly is what I've heard too many people run any and every edition of every RPG, like.

    The stream may be cold and refreshing, but the horse led there may not know to drink from it.
    > shrug <

    While I really dig B/X, I find that Ken St. Andre's brief suggestions on HOW to run free-form combat does much in the way of what you and I are in complete agreement on in this post of yours.


  2. Ken St. Andre as in Tunnels & Trolls, that is.

  3. I don't claim to have a a great imagination. Looking at some of the "plots" that some of the 3.5 DM's at my local D&D meetup come up with shows me that they have imagination. But the trick is being able to bring that imagination to bear in the heat of the action. All it takes is a little thinking on their feet and a single adjective.

    At the local con a few months ago, I ran an OD&D session next to a 3.5 game. Listening to their combat it was all "that is how many squares?" or "I move to here and attack. I roll a 28." While my OD&D games was "hacks", "slashes", "bludgeons", "batters", "splatters", and "pierces". It's not like those are fancy words.

    T&T is a great game and even takes the combat system to another level of abstraction and narrative focus. I love saving rolls - I think it is one reason why I also like Castles & Crusades. I use the siege check in a very similar way to the saving roll. My next Skype experiment might be to get either a T&T or Barbarians of Lemuria game going.

  4. Ooh...them's some alluring words, Mr. Armstrong. :D

    I agree.
    --Those 5' squares were such a disappointment when I first purchased 3.0. Ugh.
    ---We never really played with minis in AD&D and I was so disheartened to see it become its own game-within-a-game; the guys getting all micro-managing, and the hanger-on girlfriends immediately shutting down, except for wanting to paint really pretty minis.

    Give me the Grand Tapestry of the mind any day of the week.

  5. Love you, too, Pat! Thanks for the link (one of these days maybe my "thought spew" will start to taper off...).
    : )

  6. Old School cred and Vincent Baker? Anyone who doesn't listen to Vincent is stupid, old school or not.

    Good post!

  7. Yes to heroic narrative combat. The other night the guy playing a Moldvay-Flavor Half-Orge (thanks Trollsmyth!) fell into the kobold pit trap in the Caves o' Chaos. He asked if he could grab two of the spikes and use them for pitons to climb out with (after he used his orge-sized war hammer to keep the lid from closing) he then asked if he could skewer a kobold by tossing one of said spikes. In both cases I said yes because a) it's cool and b) rules-light flexibility made it a snap!