Monday, September 14, 2015

Toward a History of RPG Mechanics, Part Four: Combat in Original D&D

A Brief Detour into Race

I realized after I started writing this that I forgot to mention race as a part of character construction in OD&D last time! So, here's the brief on how that works:

It's a common assumption that race in OD&D is like race in the later Basic D&D - that each race is effectively its own class. This isn't true, although it's close to it in pre-Greyhawk OD&D. There are three non-human races available as player characters here: dwarf, elf, and hobbit (which would become 'halfling' in later printings and editions).

Dwarves only have one class option: fighting-man. Dwarves can only progress to 6th level, but they gain four benefits: +4 to their effective level to save against magic of any type; access to additional abilities of a +3 Magic War Hammer; the ability to note slanting passages, traps, shifting walls, and new construction underground (there is no roll or other mechanic given for this); and the ability to speak Gnome, Kobold, and Goblin.

Hobbits likewise can only be fighting-men. They are limited to 4th level, get the same +4 to their level for saves as dwarves, and "have deadly accuracy with missiles as detailed in Chainmail". The specific rules there are that they "can fire a stone as far as an archer shoots" (but without specifying what type of bow is meant) and that two hobbits shooting missiles count as three shooters on the combat tables.

Elves are the most unusual of the three. They can act as both fighting-men and magic-users... but rather than being treated as in later D&D, an elf's player chooses at the start of each adventure which class the elf will be in this adventure. It is specified that they can use magic armor "and still act as magic-users" (presumably meaning they can cast spells in armor). It's also stated that they "may use both weaponry and spells", but it isn't clarified whether this means at the same time (that is, whether they can use any weapon while acting as a magic-user).

In compensation for this flexibility, elves are limited to 4th level as fighting-men, and 8th as wizards. Experience gained as each is kept separately, so an original D&D elf could be, for example, a 2nd level fighter and a 7th level wizard. They "are more able to note secret and hidden doors", locating them on a 4 in 6 chance instead of the 2 in 6 of other races. They speak Orc, Hobgoblin, Gnoll, and Elvish, "and the other usual tongues". They also "gain the advantages noted in the Chainmail rules when fighting certain fantastic creatures". Those rules give elves using magical weapons the ability to "add an extra die in normal combat" (two dice against orcs, three against goblins), and to attack several sorts of fantastic creatures. Effectively, an elf with a magic weapon becomes something between a Chainmail "hero" and "super hero" in combat ability. Of course, for those who didn't have Chainmail and were using the alternative combat system, these special abilities effectively didn't exist.

Elves possibly have other special abilities in OD&D. In the creature description for elves, it's stated that "elves have the ability of moving silently and are nearly invisible in their grey-green cloaks." Whether this is meant to also apply to PC elves is unknown. The fact that it isn't in the elf description is meaningless, since OD&D places many rules that pertain to races or classes outside their own description. It's also stated there that elves get +1 to damage when armed with magical weapons, and that elves on foot may split-move and fire (i.e., move half their movement, fire missile weapons, then complete their movement).


We've discussed the Chainmail combat system (which was supposed to be the 'normal' combat system for Original D&D) fairly extensively in Part Two of this series. But, as noted there, it was the "alternative" system presented in the OD&D books themselves that became the commonly used system. So, let's take a look at that in more detail, and, in particular, to how its differences from the Chainmail system would shape things.

The alternative system closely resembles the one familiar to modern D&D players: the attacking character's class and level are used to pick the column used for their attacks. This is cross-referenced with the defender's armor class to determine a number. The attacker then rolls a 20-sided die and, if the result is greater than or equal to the number from the table, hits.

OD&D at this point does not yet differentiate weapon types vs. armor for this system in any way - the weapon used doesn't affect either the chance to hit, or the damage done on a successful hit. All successful hits do 1d6 hit points of damage instead.

The choice to use 1d20 instead of the 2d6 of the Chainmail system here has a huge impact. The potential spread is much greater, with 20 possible results instead of 11 (2 to 12): this means that die modifiers are much less significant - a +1 in Chainmail is a big deal, but not much of one in D&D's "alternative system". The probability curse of 2d6 makes this even more significant in many cases. For example, a sword against chain & shield in Chainmail hits on 9+. This is a 10/36 chance, or about 27.8%. If that sword is +1, though, allowing a hit on 8+, then it will succeed 15/36 of the time, or about 41.7% - a 13.9% increase in the chance to hit! Using 1d20, these would be about the same as the difference between needing a 16+ to hit and only needing a 13+ to hit - making that +1 equivalent to a +3 on 1d20!

There's a second difference in how the systems are worked, though. Let's illustrate it with an example:

When using the Chainmail combat system with OD&D, a 3rd level fighting-man attacks as 3 men. This literally means that the player rolls to attack three times. The rules do not make it clear whether this means it's possible for them to do 3d6 damage to single defender, or if only one hit 'counts'. Regardless, though, in our above example with sword vs chain & shield, a 3rd level fighter now has a 62.3% chance to hit. While how this is meant to apply against a single foe is unknown, the FAQ for D&D presented in The Strategic Review for Summer 1975 shows that it does allow attacking multiple foes who count as 'ordinary troops'. In that example, a 4th-level fighting man fights ten orcs, and is allowed to attack four of them in each round of combat.

(Actually, it's more complicated. The rules state that a 3rd level fighting-man attacks as "3 Men or Hero - 1". However, it doesn't indicate how to make the determination about which to use. Does the player get a choice between rolling 3 attacks or rolling 4 with a -1 modifier? Does the -1 modifier apply to all four attacks, or just one of the four? Is the "Hero - 1" part only supposed to be used when the "Fantasy Combat Table" is used (i.e., against monsters, other heroes, etc)? Is there any significance to the fact that some entries are ordered differently, so that a 5th level fighting-man's attack strength is listed as "Hero + 1 or 5 Men"? The rules as written don't address any of these questions. This may have contributed to the quick adoption of the "alternative combat system" as the official one, since none of these questions apply with it!)

The alternative system, however, instead increases the chance to hit on the single die roll... but it does so in jumps, rather than the smooth climb later versions of xD&D would adopt. So, here, a 3rd level fighting-man attacks the same as a 1st level one, needing a 15+ on 1d20 to hit an opponent with chain & shield. At 4th level, this would improve to needing a 13+. This significantly changes the impact of level advancement: as noted above, the 3rd level fighting-man using the Chainmail combat system hits with sword vs chain & shield 62.3% of the time; using the alternative system, however, only 40% of attacks are hits in the same situation.

On the other hand, though, someone using a dagger against plate & shield with the Chainmail tables needs a 12+ to hit... which is a 1/36 chance, or 2.8%. With the alternative tables, a 17+ hits on 1d20, so the attacker has a 20% chance of hitting - a vast improvement! Since the initial chance is so low, multiple rolls don't help a lot, and our 3rd level fighting man only has an 8.1% chance to hit, even rolling three times.

On the other hand, however, the initiative rules of Chainmail allow multiple attacks for fast weapons. So, if the foe in plate & shield is wielding a two-handed sword, the dagger wielder gets three attack attempts a round... so our third-level fighting-man against an ordinary foe will get to roll nine times in this situation! The chance that at least one of these hits is... only 22.4%. There is, however, the possibility that all three attacks will hit... although that possibility is about 1 in 2,000.

There are more questions that arise, though. For example, the FAQ makes it clear that a fighting-man can attack multiple foes that count as normal soldiers in Chainmail in one round. But what about, say, a 2nd level fighting man vs a 3rd level one?  Do they both count as normal soldiers, since neither can yet attack as a Hero? Or would they only each get one attack against each other normally?

These questions are, again, avoided when using the alternative combat system. That system, however, removes all differences between weapons... and the main difference between a fighting-man's combat ability and that of a cleric at levels 1 to 3 was what weapons they could use. (The same was true of magic-users when attacking at those levels. Their lower hit points and lack of armor were only important on defense - on offense, a 3rd level magic-user with a dagger was as good as a 3rd level fighting-man with a sword!)

Likely because of these considerations, in Greyhawk both weapon vs armor adjustments for the "alternative combat system" and differing damage dice for weapons would be introduced. Greyhawk would also see the introduction of higher magical weapon and armor bonuses, going up to +5. It would seem likely that experience with the alternative system showed how little significance a +1 bonus had there relative to its worth in Chainmail, prompting this development.


Of course, weapon attacks are only part of combat. As also mentioned in Part Two, while Chainmail had a detailed and relatively sophisticated initiative system, OD&D gave no rules at all about who attacked first or the order of movement. We turn again to the FAQ presented in The Strategic Review. The actual rule as given in the FAQ is:
"Initiative is always checked. Surprise naturally allows first attack in many cases. Initiative thereafter is simply a matter of rolling two dice (assuming that is the number of combatants) with the higher score gaining first attack that round. Dice scores are adjusted for dexterity and so on."
Yes, that's all of it. We're left to fill in the reasonable assumptions that the GM decides when surprise allows first attack, that if there are more than two combatants, they each roll and go in order, from highest to lowest, and to make up our rules regarding ties.

The example given then proceeds to somewhat violate these assumptions, by facing a lone 4th level fighting-man with 10 orcs, and having the orcs all roll as one. This would become the standard rule in AD&D1 - that each side rolls initiative as a group. Dexterity adjustments to initiative were eliminated for melee there, but retained for missile fire. (Of course, Dexterity adjustments in OD&D pre-Greyhawk are only a -1 or +1.)

All the considerations of the relative length and speed of weapons that Chainmail had are gone here. Who moves first isn't explicitly addressed; in Chainmail, the question of order of movement and order of attack are related, but separate, but it's impossible to tell whether this is intended here as well.

It's quite likely that Gygax intended that game masters and players should simply work out such considerations using reason and common sense. Chainmail had been intended for miniature wargamers, who were mostly college-aged and older. However, the combination of D&D's subject matter and the lower requirements for preparation (not needing one to buy and paint miniatures) made it appeal to a younger group than Chainmail had, and it would later become apparent that high schoolers and middle schoolers were a large part of the contingent adopting D&D. Later versions of D&D would accordingly give more guidance to players and game masters.


Magic-users and clerics both cast spells as part of their major abilities. The individual spells are sketchily described, and each is essentially its own special rule, a tradition which D&D has kept up. For most spells, there is no roll to hit or to cast; instead, the target makes a saving throw, trying to roll higher than a threshold set by class and level (and affected by race, as mentioned above) on 1d20. Depending on the spell, a successful saving throw either means no effect from the spell, or a reduced effect (generally half damage for damage-causing spells).

The saving throw needed also depends on what is being saved against, with these categories:

death ray or poison
all wands, including polymorph or paralyzation
stone (presumably meaning petrifaction, rather than thrown rocks)
dragon breath
staves & spells

Progression on the table is in the same bands as for combat ability in the alternative combat system: groups of three levels for fighting-men, four for clerics, and five for magic-users. Maximum ability is reached at 13th level for fighters ("fighter" is used on this table as an abbreviation for fighting-man) and clerics, and 16th for magic-users.

Wrapping Up

This finishes our coverage of the major systems of OD&D. Some notes and observations:

While Chainmail is referred to several times, it was quite possible to run the game without it... and most people did. D&D vastly outsold Chainmail, and while there were supplements for Chainmail announced in the first issue of The Strategic Review, none of those were ever actually produced, so far as I know. D&D's massively greater popularity caused the fledgling TSR to essentially abandon the game.

Chainmail combat was much more sophisticated... but that may have been its own undoing, along with its original design for mass battle. To properly continue the Chainmail combat system forward would have required creating a new row of the Fantasy Combat Table for each new monster type added to the system. Each would also need to be assigned an armor type, and possibly an adjustment to that armor type, and they would also need weapon classes for initiative. In contrast, the much simpler alternative combat system did not require nearly so much detail - it worked with numeric armor classes, and used monster hit dice to determine how well they could strike in combat.

It seems likely that the switch to the "alternative combat system" as the standard one was due to both this, and the far greater popularity of D&D. Indeed, two years later, TSR would produce a new mass combat system for D&D - the supplement Swords & Spells. The difficulty of expanding Chainmail to encompass the new monsters, spells, and so forth in the D&D supplements was probably a large factor in this.

As has been noted so far, OD&D had nothing even remotely approaching a "universal mechanic". What mechanics it did have were largely ad-hoc constructions, each made up for the specific situation in question. Attributes had little use beyond granting experience point benefits and minor adjustments. This had the positive property that there was little or no pressure to have high attributes. The major breakpoints were at 9 (below which some attributes gave a -1 penalty) and 13 (at which and above a +1 bonus was granted by some attributes). A 15 or higher in a prime attribute gave experience bonuses, but other attributes contributed as well... since a fighting-man could add 1/2 of Intelligence and 1/3 of Wisdom, an "average" character with 10 in each attribute had an effective 18 Strength for experience purposes. It was a rare character who didn't get an XP bonus in OD&D!

Greyhawk would change this in major ways, with new tables that gave much higher bonuses from high attributes, and most especially with the introduction of exceptional strength, which would allow those fighting-men characters lucky enough to have an 18 Strength to roll for greater abilities. The introduction of new character classes and subclasses with high minimum attribute requirements would affect this as well, and so would the introduction of psionic abilities in Eldritch Wizardry, with the upshot that a character who didn't have at least a 15 in one attribute was at a major disadvantage. Each roll of 3d6 has about a 10% chance of giving a result of 15 or higher, though, so the chance that a character generated by the original method would have one (or more) was only 44.2% - thus, a bit better than half of all characters came to be seen as "undesirable". This led to the use of alternative generation systems, such as the well-known 4d6 drop the lowest, and to allowing players to arrange their ability scores in a desired order instead of simply taking what the dice gave them.

But that was all in the future at this point in D&D, and we'll talk more of such things in future columns. For now, this will end our coverage of original D&D, and in the next column, we'll be moving on to talk about the second fantasy RPG to be created: Tunnels & Trolls!

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