Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "Without any weapons ..."

There's a certain machismo that goes with playing 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Players try to outdo one another in boasting about which of the game's arcane sub-systems they used by the book when lesser men cribbed from Moldvay. Armor class adjustments? Speed factors? Material components? Segments? Psionics? The benefits of wearing a helmet? I've known many AD&Ders who did indeed crow about their having used these sub-systems without modification. Heck, I've used them all at various times. But the one sub-system I almost never see anyone boast of having used as presented was unarmed combat.

AD&D's unarmed combat rules, with its distinctions between grappling, pummeling, and overbearing were a source of continued vexation to me as a younger man. I longed to have simple, workable rules to handle the inevitable barroom brawls that would break out in the course of a campaign and yet I couldn't make heads or tails of the rules in the DMG. I mostly wound up using the standard combat system and improvising the effects of bare-knuckled punches and the like -- that is, until I read Phil Meyers's "Without any weapons ..." in issue #61 (May 1982) of Dragon.

I really liked Meyers's rules, which were intended to be easy to use and abstract, just like melee combat in D&D. They were certainly a lot easier to use than those in the Dungeon Masters Guide at any rate! I used to keep a photocopy of the rules folded up inside my DM's Screen (along with critical hit tables from another issue of Dragon) and used them often in play. In retrospect, Meyers's rules are still fairly complex, especially when compared to later alternatives; they were just simpler than the official rules -- and made more sense to boot.

20 comments:

  1. Best grappling rules hands down is by one of the guys over at the mule abides. Hands down.

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  2. I got a kick out of this - we actually used to use the Weapon +vs Armor table :-)

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  3. The only sub-system I ever used was components for spells.

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  4. Which Dragon had those critical tables you mentioned? I love critical tables! :)

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  5. I loved that issue of Dragon. So many awesome weapons. I remember pouring over this issue again and again. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

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  6. Hope you don't mind my typo checking replies in comments, but I found another one.
    I longer to have simple, workable rules
    Should be????
    I longed to have simple, workable rules

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  7. Ugh, we used the AD&D stuff as written. Probably with many mistakes, but we used it. I remember the game would grind to a near-halt when anyone tried to punch someone or grab someone, so we rarely tried to do it.

    Every time I look at that original unarmed combat system I wonder what the hell Gary Gygax was thinking. It's hideously complex and it doesn't work that well. At least the "roll on a table to see what you do" approach in Boot Hill and Gangbusters (where you could fight Dirty or Clean, with benefits and downsides to each) was *fun.* I can't say that about the DMG system.

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  8. I don't recall this article (we had very few unarmed combats, so there was little call for it), but we did make use of the Weapon vs. AC and spell component rules.

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  9. We never used this or the original unarmed combat rules. I never understood why (even to this day) D&D has an abstract armed combat system but a simulationist unarmed one. Really makes no sense. Why, in a game where you regularly fight dragons, oozes and giants, with magic spells and weapons, do you need a simulationist grappling system at all?

    I can hand-wave how a human being can create a missile of "force" out of thin air and strike any target 100% accurately with it but I need a detailed and intricate system to simulate a punch to the face? Crazy.

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  10. Hi James-- for these "Articles of Dragon" posts, I would like to request a little more "meat on the bone," in the way of examples of what, in this case, what Meyers rules were. Did you use a d20 to see if you hit? Did it do real damage or temporary damage? How did the rules address unarmed vs. armed? Did it let you handle those "we just all tackle the wizard" situations? Thanks for all you do-- including giving the time of day to freeloading ingrates.

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  11. Which Dragon had those critical tables you mentioned? I love critical tables! :)

    They were from issue #39 (July 1980) in an article called "Good Hits & Bad Misses" by Carl Parlagreco. I never owned that issue myself. I got a photocopy of the article from one of the older guys and carried it around with me for years afterward.

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  12. Every time I look at that original unarmed combat system I wonder what the hell Gary Gygax was thinking.

    I don't know this for a fact, but it's quite possible that the unarmed combat system, like many other oddities in AD&D, originated not with Gygax himself but with someone else at TSR, as, for example, psionics did. That doesn't exculpate Gary from including the rules in he first place, mind you, but I do think it plausible that he wasn't the ultimate source of these rules.

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  13. I would like to request a little more "meat on the bone,"

    I'll see what I can do. The main issue is one of time. I often write these posts well in advance when I have spare moments, which is why some are more detailed than others. But it's a reasonable suggestion and I'll make an effort to address it in future posts.

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  14. I'd have to agree with Brian's post: without any 'meat' these kinds of posts fall flat for me. A brief summary of the "simple, workable rules" would give us, the readers, a little more perspective on why they're an improvement compared with the 1e DMG rules.

    I don't have the time to track down 30-year-old copies of Dragon to discover these gems of the 'golden age' of D&D. That's part of the reason why I read this blog.

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  15. Thanks! Among the many strengths of this blog, is the fact that your readers are treated like “valued customers.” I’ve never seen you adopt a “this is my blog and I’ll do what I want” attitude, except when the comments become deliberately vicious, personal and offensive to other readers. (And this is rare, due in part, I think, to your good example.)

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  16. I'm pretty sure I once saw Gygax say something like, "I included those rules in the DMG in a moment of weakness for pointy-headed simulationists who demanded it". But then I think I've seen him say that about all of those systems mentioned above, actually. :-)

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  17. Thanks UWSguy. I looked up those rules on muleabides and they are perfect for my new campaign!

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  18. I can only remember using the standard 1E unarmed combat rules once or twice. The most memorable occasion was when our party ended up being taken prisoner by an enemy wizard and thrown into his dungeon. During our escape we were surprised to discover that we seemed much better off trying to grapple and overbear the jailors than fight them with improvised weapons.

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  19. "During our escape we were surprised to discover that we seemed much better off trying to grapple and overbear the jailors than fight them with improvised weapons."

    And that may be the origin of the KoDT "overbearing" rule stories. (Which, as I recall, ended in BA's campaign being destroyed -- again.)

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  20. I remember Good Hits and Bad Misses. Not the details, though. Wasn't it the first to bring in weapon breakage? The whole series of critical hit tables that followed, and not just D&D rules, seemed really unworkable. Way too much "Brains pulped and splattered over a wide area" type hits for my tastes. Hit location also seemed to unbalance the game as well. I have very fond memories of my 1st level mage nailing a minotaur twice in the head with thrown daggers and killing him in one round entirely by myself, although after that the DM never used hit location rules again. Eventually I chose for hit location and critical hits as flavor text, w/ or w/o game effects, based on the damage roll. Something like the "impale" roll, where 1/5 of your to hit % or less gives you double damage, or full damage plus rolled damage, is enough mechanics for me.

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