Monday, March 21, 2011

What happens in a combat round?

I often see a character's action in a combat round broken down into "I swing my mace" or "I move". This is a conceit that seems to have been taken to further extremes in later editions via stuff like iterative attacks in 3E ("I'm 6th level, I swing my mace twice!") or the even the "powers" of 4E where every attack is a single event with a particular and individual description. A recent poll presented by a 4E designer described the old-school option of a simple attack roll as "doing the same thing over and over again, round after round in a fight".

To me, a character's actions in a combat round, while often resolved by a single attack roll, are much more diverse and complex. For instance, in a recent session, a character with a stirge attached to his back threw himself backwards into a wall, dislodging the stirge which fell to the floor, and then skewered it with his blade killing it. This was my description for what happened when the player rolled a single successful to-hit and enough damage to kill the stirge.

What happens in a combat round for you? What does an attack roll mean to you: one "swing"? Or the general success of several attacks, parries, and fancy footwork?


  1. I'm surprised that the concept of 'one swing' per combat round still has any traction. Gygax was very clear that this was not how combat worked in D&D, and this myth should have been laid to rest thirty years ago. A combat round consists of a flurry of attacks, blocks, and parries with the final outcome abstractly resolved by a single roll.

    Similarly, the notion that hit points represent a measure of a character's ability to withstand damage has also hung in despite clear and emphatic explanations that they are merely and abstract representation of a character's declining ability to avoid being badly hurt.

    Folks need to realize that the combat mechanics of D&D are highly abstract and are not to be interpreted as a literal, blow-by-blow account of a fight.

  2. I have definitely been guilty in the past of the "lather, rinse, repeat" approach to
    combat. That said, I'm trying to use more descriptive/illustrative language when the enemies attack the players, in the hopes the players will catch on and use their heads and not just their dice.

    It's worth noting that my group is an almost equal mix of people who are completely new to tabletop RPGs and those who haven't played anything earlier than 3E. I'm curious to see which of the two groups comes around first...

  3. Definitely "the general success of several attacks, parries, and fancy footwork"...

    If you think of an attack roll as one "swing" it starts you down the path to making D&D more and more complex, with the underlying system still not "making sense" to you. Eventually you end up throwing everything out and making a new game, sticking the D&D logo on it, and not understanding why people are still playing the old game.


  4. Changes of position, slight movement (attempts to outflank monsters and vice versa), screams, devastation of furniture, spitting, ballskicks, retreat. Pure mayhem! Luckily my players are creative enough to improvise and try to get an advantages in every fight, not just swing-and-check-the-table :-)

  5. the way I tend to run it is to describe most attack rolls hit or misses, but at the killing blow I ask the players to describe it.

    I've been using the roll xd6 vs ability score for improvised actions, and so some of my players have been getting creative with combining improvised actions with attack rolls.

  6. We had this discussion a lot when moving away from WFRP (1st/2nd edition) and D&D in general about how everything is a "medium attack to no specific location." Even if you gussy it up as you mentioned with the stirge, it's still just an attack roll of a single die with very little control over the mechanics via the narrative. What's more, the onus for these descriptions is on you, the GM, and not shared with the players.
    Old D&D and WFRP were meant to be miniature games with no need to have anything but a series of medium attacks to no specific location. In more narrative games that eschew miniatures, i.e.: Feng Shui or Exalted, the narrative (combat stunting specifically) has a distinct effect on the mechanics and each attack roll is just that-- the mechanics and narrative surrounding a single attempted blow contained within the acting character's 'shot' or combat scene. It's just the fundamental difference between cinematic combat RPG's and RPG's tied to miniatures where narrative has no place within the mechanics.

  7. "Okay! You draw your blade, and it sighs a metallic sigh as it leaves the scabbard. Three of Duke Reynaldo's men charge forward, rapiers help up like knitting needles -- you meet them head-on, clang! clink! swick-swick ting! You turn their blades aside like playthings! Pressing them backward, you literally herd the trio back towards the stairs -- with a gallant swipe, you press one of them sword-arm-to-wall! In a moment more he will be yours, if his friends persist in being so clumsy as they've been!"

    (TRANSLATION: The fighter draws his sword. His foes have initiative, but their to-hit rolls fail. The fighter rolls a hit, and inflicts 4 HP to a foe who has only 6 to begin with.)

  8. 1 round = roughly 1 page of a comic book.

  9. I'm always grappling with how much the players will want detailed vs. quick combat. More I run games, more I lean toward "it's a game of exploration, the combat part is there for excitement, not deep strategy." For the strategy there is 4E.

  10. Mine and my husband's group aren't typically descriptive with our combat. I remember one incident where the critter was charging: we had time before it would get to us and everyone did the standard "I set for the charge" crap. It was my turn and I described picking up a nearby table and throwing it down the hallway. Every single one of those guy's stared at me like it was the best idea in the world.....

    I think after a while most players just start going through the motions.

  11. I think after a while most players just start going through the motions.

    Yeah, I think so too. I think most players who've played more than a few sessions know that one round isn't intended to be just one swing, and HPs aren't meant to represent only physical toughness. But if you're rolling one die each round, and if the game calls them hit points, then well, it's easy to take things at face value.

  12. Funny you ask, I was just having this discussion w/ another buddy of mine. And my answer varies dependent upon the players. (of course)

    With the jaded guys it's very much formulaic. What does it say on my sheet that I can do? If it doesn't really "give" me options, then I'll use what IS there. Roll to hit. Cast spell. Pick Lock. etc. Which is, as has just been stated above, an unfortunate by-product of more modern games.

    Now take my two daughters, if you listen to them during a confrontation you'll hear a completely different take on what's available during a combat round. And in fact, I even balk at saying "round", because time is rather fluid when my girls play. And yes, they understand the rules. But they come at situations w/ sense that the "rules" really aren't suggestions, but rather parameters that they can work w/in (and sometimes outside of as well.)

    So you'll often hear all sorts of funkiness going on in the game. Things like sliding on their backs beneath tables in order to "ham string" an opponent, to using a door as a weapon by bashing a bad guy w/ it.

    That's why I disagree w/ what blactaculus says about D&D. Sure that's the genesis of the game, but it's the dearth of rules that allows for the expansion of creativity. Not the other way around. I suppose in the end it's more of a philosophical discussion....

  13. Couple of thoughts:

    First, yes. The basic combat roll is an abstraction in which a host of glories lies lurking. Although I've personally found that it's a lot easier to riff variety into a 6 second opr 10 second round than it is for the Gygaxian 1 minute round.

    Like you, I like the specificity of slamming that stirge into a wall. That's more difficult to conjure up if I'm trying to extrapolate a full minute of activity out of a single die roll.

    Second, I find the idea the an OD&D fighter would just be sitting there rolling a basic attack round after around after round kind of silly. If you aren't playing smarter than that (even doing basic stuff like laying down perimeters of boiling oil) that system is going to chew you up and spit you out pretty dang quick.



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