Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "How to Finish Fights Faster"

Along with falling damage, psionics, and alignment, articles about unarmed combat were a commonplace in the pages of Dragon during the years when I subscribed to that venerable gaming magazine. There's probably a reason for that: unarmed combat in AD&D was, in my experience, pretty much universally admitted to be unusable as written, a fact even Gary Gygax acknowledged on more than one occasion. Despite that, no single alternative system ever really took root, with most referees employing a welter of different approaches, some based on the official system, some based on earlier articles from Dragon, and some created whole cloth. That's what playing D&D was like during my formative years in the hobby -- a crazy mix of stuff all drawing inspiration from the same base and then running off in whatever direction one deemed most fun. Consequently, I can't help but chuckle at all the folks decrying the existence of "so many retro-clones," since, to my way of thinking, what we have now is pretty much what we've always had. The only difference is that, nowadays, it's easy to print up, prettify, and sell your interpretation of D&D to others, whereas, in the past, each referee had a photocopies and stapled collection of house rules he shared with anyone willing to listen.

Perhaps because no single alternative to AD&D's execrable rules emerged, it was inevitable that the redoubtable Roger E. Moore would eventually offer his own unarmed combat system. His article, "How to Finish Fights Faster," appeared in issue #83 (March 1984) and takes up only four pages, one of them being a humorous illustration of four rotund halflings attempting to bring down an eyepatch-wearing humanoid, who looks more annoyed than inconvenienced by his diminutive opponents. Moore divides unarmed combat up into three modes: pummeling, kicking, and grappling. Pummeling is straight up fisticuffs, with or without the use of aids, like dagger pommels or metal gauntlets. Kicking is, well, kicking and grappling is attacking to subdue. All three modes are fairly simple to use, working more or less like the normal AD&D combat system but with certain modifiers and special cases unique to them. This is particularly true of grappling, which has a number of different moves detailed, each of which has further modifiers and effects.

I never used Moore's system, so I can't comment on how well it plays in practice. I suspect it probably works better than AD&D's official system, but not as well as others. I say that, because it includes a lot of specificity in certain areas (grappling, for example) that necessitates either a good memory or referring to the article to adjudicate. That's not a bad thing in itself; there are lots of rules in D&D that require reference to a rulebook to handle. However, I'll admit that I find it baffling that unarmed combat rules so often wind up being much more complicated than armed combat. Why is it that we can accept that all it takes to adjudicate an armored fighting man's attack against an opponent is a 1D20 roll compared to a chart, followed by a damage roll if successful but we demand saving throws and percentage chances and so forth if he wants to throw a punch or wrestle someone to the ground?

20 comments:

  1. I used these - they work fine in play.

    And I think unarmed combat - especially grappling - tends to be within people's experience and also very complex in and of itself. So it seems to naturally expand into a dichotomy of "I punch hit/slash him/stab him, how much damage do I do?" vs. "I grab him, can I wrench his arm/snap his neck/put him in a kimura/choke him/blood choke him/pull him down/pick him up/etc/etc.?" So much more ground to cover in game or reality, so I think people expect more.

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  2. My guess is because wrestling breaks the abstraction pretty badly. Since HP is (IMO) nothing but a "How close are you to defeat?" gauge, adding in a way to defeat somebody without depleting the gauge seems like cheating. Particularly since you don't want players saying, wow, he has way too many HP to take down, wrestling is the only option! But having wrestling do HP damage and only resulting in a pin at HP 0 seems weird at first glance, since it seems obvious that if somebody fails and lets go it shouldn't have any further effect and even after a pin, if you let them up they shouldn't be on the verge of death.

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  3. I've wondered the same thing. It seems like in AD&D they were trying to discourage people from engaging in unarmed combat by making systems that were nonintuitive and complicated to use.

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  4. 'That's what playing D&D was like during my formative years in the hobby -- a crazy mix of stuff all drawing inspiration from the same base and then running off in whatever direction one deemed most fun. Consequently, I can't help but chuckle at all the folks decrying the existence of "so many retro-clones," since, to my way of thinking, what we have now is pretty much what we've always had. The only difference is that, nowadays, it's easy to print up, prettify, and sell your interpretation of D&D to others, whereas, in the past, each referee had a photocopies and stapled collection of house rules he shared with anyone willing to listen.':
    QFT. Same here, and may it be ever so!

    'However, I'll admit that I find it baffling that unarmed combat rules so often wind up being much more complicated than armed combat.':
    IKR? ;-)
    IME, most GMs could, and did, come up with better punchout rules on the fly than the 'experts'.... Go figure. It's hilarious(and sad :-P) that 2nd Edition plus and so on still struggled with this! And how about them Grapples? 3.X knows what I'm sayin'

    For laughs(or shudders...), take a look at Mike Stackpole's baroque ~1980's rules(From Sorceror's Apprentice, IIRC) for Pulled Punches and Called Shots In Tunnels & Trolls 5th Edition(Reprinted in the 5.5 Editions Appendices, along with his Skills variant for T&T, adapted from his T&T-derived Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes[with its own super-deadly firearms combat, utilizing the most detailed system for 'blow-thru' this side of Phoenix Command! Not to mention MSPE's own clunky hand to hand system!]) sometime! And this in such an easy to use system. It was something in the air, maybe...

    Very interesting article. Love the vintage Dragons. I need the collection. *sigh*

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  5. Well, not everyone DID accept the d20 vs. AC system. Some of the folks who didn't accept it spawned entirely new games, some used wargame rules separate from D&D, and some just created extra fiddly systems to shore up the abstract system (hit location tables, bleeding rules, piecemeal armor rules, wounds systems instead of hit points, etc.) Back in the day some of the DMs I knew would often have not just sheets of house rules stapled together but a three-ring binder of house rules because they hated this system or that subsystem so much and thought they could do better.

    As for myself - I always thought that extra rules for "pummeling" or "boxing" or "kicking" were unnecessary - the HP abstraction works fine for that kind of combat (once you settle on a die type for the damage). "Wrestling" or "grappling" was always the real problem, and exotic systems never really helped much.

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  6. My unarmed combat rules were: roll to hit and do 1d2 damage, plus strength bonus. Since there was no way to really disarm an opponent in 1st edition, I'm not sure I ever actually used them in play. Even a magic user usually had a dagger or staff that did more damage.

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  7. “I do have one severe problem with my own game system. I got talked into doing the complicated and time-consuming series for grappling, pummeling, and overbearing in a weak moment. I have regretted them ever since. I tend to use a very simple system which we initially developed for such close-quarters combat in about 1974.” --Gary Gygax, Dungeon #67, p.66

    Doubtless this is what he published in Unearthed Arcana as "System I"?

    UA's "System II" seems to be the Roger E. Moore invention from Dragon #83.

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  8. My unarmed combat was simple. For strikes, be they punches, kicks, headbutts, etc., a simple attack roll. Strikes to a specific area entailed a called shot. All damage was temporary and carried a percentage of KO equal to damage done if applied to the head, all successful head strikes whether by called shot or natural 20 do double damage. Naked fists are d2, naked or soft shoe'd feets do d4. Wearing hard boots or metal gauntlets bumped damage to d4 and d6, respectively.
    A player could take a weapon proficiency in an unarmed fighting style to change the damage to permanent instead of temporary, at which point no distinction is made between naked or covered fists and feets. Anything reduced to 0 HP in temporary damage is considered unconscious.
    Unarmed fighting styles are recognized as a style of fighting intended to be lethal, not merely self-defense.
    For grapples, a touch attack followed by an opposed strength check. That would allow the attacker to get the victim into position for a hold, another attack roll is required to initiate the hold, opposed strength checks each round to maintain it. I'd make judgement calls on the fly with regard to how much damage each hold or lock would do and whether or not the damage was temporary or vital.

    Alternatively, there's a chart in either the PHB or DMG for unarmed combat, roll to make a hit, then roll to see what the hit does on said chart.

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  9. I think Joshua hit the nail on the head: the abstraction of the standard combat system didn't seem to mesh too well with potentially non-lethal fighting styles, such as grappling. Note the similar arguments that came out of attempts to knock people out or (shudder) illusory damage.

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  10. That's the main problem with "hit points" games. My option was similar to Star Wars D20: a natural 20 is a critic, and damage goes to CON. In the case of punches, kicks and the like, the damage is temporal, but a critic can KO you, so you have to save against paralysis. If fail, you go KO for a while taking into account the Strenght of the agressor, his size... Not always made sense, but House rules rules!

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    1. I like your thinking. This seems fast and doable. Thanks for sharing.

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  11. Why is it that we can accept that all it takes to adjudicate an armored fighting man's attack against an opponent is a 1D20 roll compared to a chart, followed by a damage roll if successful but we demand saving throws and percentage chances and so forth if he wants to throw a punch or wrestle someone to the ground?

    That's something I never understood either. The standard attack/damage routine always worked fine for me, just doing nonlethal rather than lethal damage. And there is precedence for that in the rules to subdue dragons. Unarmed combat came up rarely enough that having to manage a separate pool of HP once in a while was not onerous. Special maneuvers like trying to trip someone were ruled on a case by case basis, usually involving a saving throw or dexterity check on the part of the defender.

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  12. D&D Companion set had a wrestling system which wasesay to use and actually gave WR (wrestling ratuing) stats in some CM modules. I did use it with enjoyement more than a time.

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  13. An additional complication is that, in many versions of xD&D, there is at least one class whose primary attack modes are via unarmed fighting (the monk -- and several others if playing with "Oriental" classes available), and those attacks meshed poorly if at all with whatever unarmed combat rules were used for other classes.

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  14. I'm kinda baffled by the interpretation of wrestling to mean collegiate or high school wrestling. Throws like in old catch wrestling, sombo, or Judo can seriously injure someone. Joint locks can wreck an arm or ankle for life. Older syllabi for Judo taught neck dislocations and pins were only for a three count (and thus for the held person to escape) to declare victory. Why? That was thought of the amount of time that a samurai needed to draw his dagger and finish his pinned opponent off.

    From what I understand there's an Icelandic style of wrestling, that at times was used to settle disagreements - to the death at times, by dashing the other opponent on the giant boulders that they would wrestle each other on.

    The idea of grappling rules to be only for submitting someone doesn't really fit into *why* people actually trained in wrestling/grappling: killing (or escape) first, subdual second.

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  15. I agree with Prince of Happiness - in the (admittedly limited) unarmed training I've received, the goal is to kill your opponent (or permanently disable them), or to escape.

    That said, as others pointed out, techniques designed to instantly kill someone by dashing their head against the ground, or throwing them and then stomping on their neck to kill them, or breaking their arm so they can't fight any more aren't represented well by a hit points system. But then, neither is a sword thrust or a mace blow.

    I'd say someone with a broken arm would be more or less incapable of putting up further serious resistance, but does that mean that a successful unarmed attack should remove all of someone's HP?

    Of course not, that would break the game. But hitting someone who's not wearing armour with a sword would also take them right out of the fight, and that's not modelled like that in D&D either.

    Instead, what we have is badass heroes who can wade through a battle that would instagib most people, and emerge pretty much fine and at full fighting capacity, even if they have only 1 hp left.

    We can accept that a fighter with 100 hp isn't seriously hurt by a 10hp mace blow that would kill a lesser fighter, but somehow we can't accept that that same 100hp fighter can wiggle out of a hold that would break a lesser fighter's arm and render them combat-ineffective?

    We as DM's just need to work on our descriptive abilities for unarmed combat, and treat them abstractly like all other combat.

    You made an unarmed attack on a 100hp fighter and hit for 10hp? You thought you had a sweet armbar, and just as you leaned in to it to break his arm, he twisted out.

    You made an unarmed attack on the 4hp barkeep and hit for 10 damage? You broke his arm and threw him down headfirst, killing him outright.

    My feeling? It's an abstract combat system. Embrace it!

    Now, I realize that's a philosophy, not a system, but it really doesn't need much more than that. Roll to hit. Then roll damage. Decide how much damage, whether you want a penalty to hit, roll as a touch attack, but that can all be left to the individual GM's taste.

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    1. After reading this I have to say, I am totally fine with using the standard "to hit" roll. Now the only question is should armor count for defense when rolling the attack?

      What I had been using was based upon the OD&D FAQ. If creatures and characters wanted to wrestle, they would roll a number of d6s equal to their level/hit dice. The higher total is the winner and does what they want to the loser. If it is a hold, the loser must win on the next round to break it. It worked fine, but I think keeping the d20 might be more desirable.

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  16. UA's System I is very easy to use. David Cook also introduced some very simple rules in module I1, which then were expanded in AD&D 2e; these also worked quite well, and they could definitely be lethal as noted above, depending on the type of lock.

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  17. according to the theory of abstract hit points, 2 or 3 well-placed punches will lay out a normal man. For a 10th level fighter, it takes maybe 40 really solid near-misses and glancing blows just to wear him down-- then the 2 or 3 solid punches to lay him out. likewise with wrestling-- you thought you had him pinned but then he kneed you and got up again.

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  18. Brian -- That sounds like a boxing match to me. (If you assume professional boxers would be 10th level fighters.)

    You could always throw in some kind of chance of a KO (choke, etc.) that the DM could roll for both the NPC and player as they went along. (Or you could give it to another player. Like a natural 20 would mean serious, fight-stopping harm in additional to the other damage.) Because it's all fun and games until somebody gets their eye poked out. :)

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