Friday, June 25, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 61

Page 61 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide features a lengthy section entitled "Encounters, Combat, and Initiative." The section is so long and so full of fascinating asides that I'm going to focus only on those paragraphs that address the sometimes contentious topic of the one-minute combat round. Before starting, it's important to remember that, while the one-minute round is most well known is AD&D, it's not unique to it. Both OD&D and Empire of the Petal Throne, two games with which I am quite familiar, also make use of it. However, other versions of D&D, most famously Tom Moldvay's 1981 revision, do not, preferring shorter lengths of time. I'm genuinely agnostic on the matter myself, not seeing it as a hill to die on one way or the other. For this post, my interest is solely on Gygax's reasoning behind one-minute combat rounds.

He begins:

Combat is divided into 1 minute period melee rounds, or simply rounds, in order to have reasonably manageable combat. "Manageable" applies both to the actions of the combatants and the actual refereeing of such melees.

Right off the bat, Gygax suggests that one-minute rounds exist primarily for practical reasons. He continues:

It would be no great task to devise an elaborate set of rules for highly complex individual combats with rounds of but a few seconds. It is not in the best interests of an adventure game, however, to delve too deeply into cut and thrust, parry and riposte. The location of a hit or wound, the sort of damage done, sprains, breaks, and dislocations are not the stuff of heroic fantasy. The reasons for this are manifold.

In typical Gygaxian fashion, these sentences are at once commonsensical and querulous. I think his general point that "highly complex" rules for combat get in the way of the running of "an adventure game" (a term he uses often in the DMG – but that's a possible topic for another post). My own decades-long experience is that, with a few exceptions, I personally prefer simple, straightforward, and easy to adjudicate combat systems over those with more detail. That said, I can't wholly sign on with Gygax's contention that more complex systems "are not the stuff of heroic fantasy," which almost seems like a calculated slight against other RPGs with different priorities than AD&D.

In any case, Gygax uses this as an opportunity to talk about hit points and how AD&D's conception of them ties into the one-minute round. 

As has been detailed, hit points are not actually a measure of physical damage, by and large, as far as characters (and some other creatures as well) are concerned. Therefore, the location of hits and the types of damage caused are not germane to them. 

Again, perhaps I am an outlier, but this makes perfect sense to me, especially in light of the one-minute combat round. If an attack roll does not represent a single cut or thrust but rather an abstraction of many such actions over the course of a minute, I think it quite reasonable that hit points should be similarly abstracted. Oddly, he immediately follows up with this: "this is not true with respect to most monsters, it is neither necessary nor particularly useful." I'm not sure how to read this. Is Gygax suggesting that, for most monsters, hit points are a measure of physical damage or is it that the location of hits and types of damage caused would be germane to them? 

In any case, he quickly gives us more to unpack.

Lest the purist immediately object, consider the many charts and tables necessary to handle this sort of detail, and then think about how area effect spells would work. In like manner, consider all of the nasty things which face adventurers as the rules stand. Are crippling disabilities and yet more ways to meet instant death desirable in an open-ended, episodic game where participants seeks to identify with lovingly detailed player-character personae? Not likely! Certain death is as undesirable as a give-away campaign. 

I think Gygax starts off with an excellent point about charts and tables. If one prioritizes speed in handling combat, too much detail can be a serious impediment. D&D in all its forms has always tended toward the fast and abstract. That's either a bane or a boon, depending on one's own interests, but I don't think it's a "flaw" in the game's design. I've played – and enjoyed – RPGs with more complex combat systems and would happily do so again. There are many unique pleasures in that style of play, just as there are in D&D's. I take no issue with anyone who prefers one over the other, so long as we all recognize the subjectivity of such a preference.

More remarkable, I think, is Gygax's description of D&D as an "open-ended, episodic" game. I don't find that description at all controversial, but I still take note of Gygax's use of it nonetheless, just as I do of his claim that it's a game "where participants seek to identify with lovingly detailed player-character personae." This certainly seems at odds with the popular belief that, for Gygax, player characters were little more than "pieces on a board" to be discarded and replaced with ease. In like fashion, the implication that instant death was not desirable is further evidence that he was no "killer DM" of the sort players have been whining about for as long as I've been involved in the hobby.

With complex combat systems which stress so-called realism and feature hit location, special damage, and so on, either this option is severely limited or the rules are highly slanted towards favoring the player characters at the expense of their opponents. (Such rules as double damage and critical hits must cur both ways – in which case the life expectancy of player characters will be shortened considerably – or the monsters are being grossly misrepresented and unfairly treated by the system. I am certain you can think of many other such rules.) 

Again, I think this comes down to taste. In my House of Worms campaign, I've made use of EPT's critical hit rules since I begin it more than six years ago and I've used it equally against PCs, NPCs, and monstrous enemies. My experience is that it's occasionally proved decisive in a combat but that, by and large, it's not upended things to such an extent that I'd caution against using it. No PC has died due to a critical hit in this campaign (though a couple did in my Dust of Gold campaign set in Mu'ugalavyá). On balance then, I don't share Gygax's concerns about critical hits.

One-minute rounds are devised to offer the maximum of choice with a minimum of complication. This allows the DM and the players the best of both worlds. The system assumes much activity during the course of each round. Envision, if you will, a fencing, boxing, or karate match. During the course of one minute of such competition, there are numerous attacks, which are unsuccessful, feints, maneuvering, and so forth. During a one-minute melee round many attacks are made, but some are mere feints, while some are blocked or parried. One, or possibly several, have the chance to actually score damage. For such chances, the dice are rolled and if the "to hit" number is equalled or exceeded, the attack was successful, but otherwise it too was avoided, blocked, parried, or whatever.

This is a very helpful section, because it makes more clear what Gygax saw as happening during the course of a single one-minute round. He elaborates on this later, explaining that "a round of combat is not a continuous series of attacks," nor is it "just a single blow and counter-blow affair." That has long been how I conceptualize a round; it's also why, when refereeing a combat, I generally don't describe it in any detail, preferring instead to speak of it in very broad terms. 

I should end here, but Gygax makes one brief aside that I think worthy of attention. He talks about monsters and their hit points. 

With respect to monsters such damage is, in fact, more physically substantial, although as with many adjustments in armor class rating for speed and agility, there are also similar additions in hit points.

For some reason, this doesn't sit well with me, perhaps because Gygax had just previously indicted critical hit systems for treating characters and monsters unequally. Now, he is admitting that he does the same with hit points. Is this an unforgiveable or game-breaking design choice? Hardly. Yet, it does make much more explicit the extent to which all combat systems need to make concessions of one sort or another in order to make them playable and fun. The question is simply what aspects of combat one wishes to emphasize and where one draws the line between "simple" and "complex."


  1. One helpful thing the one-minute round does for DMs is offer a reasonable amount of time for enemy reinforcements to arrive in reaction to the player-characters' incursions.

    This is especially apparent in the current edition's 6-second round. A backup squad of orcs arriving 3-5 minutes after a fight begins is a reasonable amount of time for the forces to have become aware of the alert and mustered. Having them arrive 18-25 seconds after the fight starts is not always reasonable or logical.

    I struggle with this a lot in my 5e games.

    On the other hand, with a modern audience's sense of lightning-fast pacing from TV, movies, and computer games, a 5-minute fight seems snail's-paced. Convincing a player that their wizard character must stand in place for one minute to cast a single spell is a tough nut to crack in 2021.

  2. I prefer the one minute rounds simply because it allows for players to get a bit creative with what they are doing and have some fun instead of overthinking the game mechanics.

    PLayer- "OK, I've got initiative- I'm going to jump up on the table, swing from the chandelier, slash one of the pirates holding the mayor's daughter hostage, and kick the other with my boot"

    In OD&D, I would ask them to make an attack roll, and base my narration on the result. I might also ask for an "ability check" of some sort if I felt it was needed.

    "Yeah, you're wearing scale mail..let's see if Mezron the Mighty can get up on the table first.."

    In modern versions of the game with short rounds and a strict action economy my experience is usually more like

    DM "OK, your sword wasn't drawn, right? That's a minor action. You take your move to run up to the table, and your standard action is the JUMP check". Sorry you won;t be able to do anything else this round.

    Player , OK...fumbles with character sheet to see what they can do with allowed actions....

    As I run a heroic (but not high fantasy) style game, I much prefer the first scenario vs the short duration rounds. I find short rounds keeps players from being creative because they are always trying to game the action economy in order to be optimal, which ruins immersion for everyone.


  3. "Is Gygax suggesting that, for most monsters, hit points are a measure of physical damage or is it that the location of hits and types of damage caused would be germane to them?"

    I can't speak to his intention, but AD&D certainly does treat attacks and damage as locational on some monsters. Bullettes have that soft spot under their fin, and you can't even roll to hit a beholder without first checking to see if your strike is going for the central eye, a fragile eyestalk, or the tough armored body. There's also the vorpal sword which kills through decapitation, and doesn't instantly kill things with more (or less) than one neck to sever. And that rule about helmets you posted about not long ago, where again you're checking to see if a strike hits a soft spot.

    It's not Runequest (whose combat system I greatly prefer) but there are hints of hit locations throughout the edition.

  4. The thing that jumped out at me was this description of each round as a series of attacks and feints, with one roll to adjudicate it. This is a wonderful simplification, that is basically ignored with monsters who often possess multiple attacks per round, which is a little bit at odds with this description.

    I suppose it must be because that way monsters can target multiple PCs at once, but it still pushes the idea that each attack roll is actually one attack.

  5. Good comments here, and I hope to read more, especially concerning folks preference for the one minute combat's been probably the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around going back from B/X to AD&D (and OD&D).

    It wasn't tough to run AD&D "back in the day" because...well, we didn't really think about rounds in terms of MODELING ACTUAL TIME. Instead, it was simply the manner in which combat turns were resolved ("okay, it's your 'go;' now it's their turn..."). But now that I'm an old, pedantic designer, I tend to overthink these things: I mean, I grok how a wizard might take 40 seconds to chant out a spell, but why can't the fighter cut her down six times while he's doing it?

    [answer: because of the elasticity of time in the round. Once the spell is disrupted (by a successful attack) the wizard has no choice but to defend herself for the rest of the minute, while the fighter is probably just crowing about his success. Unless, of course, he's a high level professional with multiple attacks]

    Still, it takes SO LONG (in terms of imaginary time) to fight out a moderate battle, unless the characters involved have serious bonuses to attacks and (especially) damage...or so it seems some times...thus inflating the importance of hig ability scores, the inclusion of fairly common "bonus" (magic) weapons, etc., etc. OD&D seems so much better than AD&D at modeling abstract combat...and, yet, all those little bonuses and HP inflations and whatnot increases PC survivability without resorting to "death saves" and whatnot. Which is a good thing!

    Probably I'm just overthinking it all. Again.

    I played a LOT of 1E Stormbringer and am well-versed in combat systems that feature crit rolls and more detailed, more dangerous combat. It works very well for the flavor of the Young Kingdoms setting...a lot less so for your standard D&D game.

  6. What he's saying with monster hit points, is that for monsters they are physical. Humans don't have a monster's mass but they often have the same number of hit points - obviously the physicality of both are unequal; a man can't absorb the punishment a rhino can.

    Gygax tackled human hit points first, explaining that for humans hit points are physical and metaphysical - favor of the gods, etc., and that most attacks deducting hit points are not actually solid blows/wounds.

    You can't apply that to monsters - their hit points are physical, not Athena wiping away her favored hero's fatigue, or causing the blow to land just off.

    So having justified hit points for humans in that light, he then makes the contrast to monsters.

  7. Maybe Gygax treats HP more substantially in monsters to depict their greater fortitude compared to mere men? Seems like a flimsy idea, I know, but it may be worth considering?

  8. In my opinion, the one minute combat round is incompatible with other aspects of the game. For example.

    A medieval archer could fire 15 arrows per minute if stationary. If you interpret a full minute of archer fire as two attempts to do damage, that may be an abstraction, but you still only expend two arrows from your quiver of twenty.

    Movement is also incompatible in a one minute combat round. An unarmored thief, not engaged in combat moves at a snail’s pace, stead of being the heroic athlete he is. This is unpalatable to many players.

    "Time Base Movement" (TBM) must have some basis in reality to make the combat a believable narrative.

    I remember Gary Gygax at Gen-Con 12 or 13, getting totally harassed on this very point. After getting thrashed with the indefensible mechanics for about 20 minutes, Gygax's solution took the form of announcing that everyone in the hall was banned from Gen Con for life, before walking off stage.

    If Gygax could not defend AD&D's TBM system in person, I find it hard to accept arguments from other's on his posthumous behalf. I have always used 6 second or 10 second rounds and one minute turns. shorter rounds are more believable for players and is more compatible with many other aspects of most role-playing games.

  9. I think that his reaction to "...complex combat systems which stress so-called realism and feature hit location, special damage, and so on..." is two-fold.

    First, and most importantly, one aspect of the creation of AD&D was to differentiate it, legally, from OD&D, in order to sever Dave Arneson from the profits of the new line. And if you read Blackmoor (and First Fantasy Campaign), you see that therein that hit location was a core aspect of Dave's game (though whether original or a later development, I do not know). So there is that factor.

    Second, of course, with the Perrin Conventions and RuneQuest, a whole "realistic simulation" style of combat had developed in gaming. Whether Gamer Gary found this personally offensive at the time or Business Gary merely wanted to shut down the competitors, I do not know. I do know that in his later work, Dangerous Journeys: Mythus hit location became central to the combat experience (even though it was kind of nebulous, based on the importance of the hit location rather than an actual hit location in and of itself). But then, DJM also incorporated a lot of other stuff that both early Gamer Gary and Business Gary had eschewed, if not railed about; Social Class was a major factor in the game (and of course, Gary had added that in AD&D in his later TSR days, too).

    So the words in the DMG regarding these things should merely be representative of Gamer Gary's ideals and Business Gary's requirements at the time... his philosophy in both things evolved over time.

  10. The one minute round is just a simple mathematical error; Gary failed to reduce the time spent proportionately to the distance reduction for dungeon movement. Thus perfectly reasonable scales in Chainmail of moves of 60/90/120 yards in one minute (slow walk to light jog) become 60/90/120 *feet* per minute, which is impossibly slow. An average 80 year-old woman walks at about 2.1 to 2.2 mph, which is about 185 feet per minute, or 18" to the unarmored PC's 12".

    That's not to say you can't have 1 minute rounds if you really think that is a better pace for making decisions in combat, but if you do you should multiply all the movement rates by 3 to keep things from being ridiculous. Personally, I don't think minute by minute is the right scale to be interacting with all kinds of things besides the exchanging of blows that might be happening in an adventure game, from doors slamming shut to chandeliers falling, fires or poison gas spreading, but if that's how you want it then at least let characters move about as far in a minute as real people do, not a third the amount.

    1. That's interesting. I don't believe I've ever heard anyone make this connection before.

    2. Is it a problem, though? If a character *only* moves in a (one minute) round, let him run a quarter mile. A regular move (i.e. one combined with melee, casting etc.) should not be read as taking up half the round. That's a later development in 3e (where you can swap out your attack action for a second move), isn't it?

    3. Even at double the pace, you're still moving slower than your 80 year-old grandma can walk. But it seems to me the whole point of the "fast and furious" one-minute combat round is to subsume everything you might want to do, from furious cut-and-thrust combat to swinging off chandeliers and pulling tapestries down on advancing guardsmen, into a single round. In which case it seems to me you shouldn't have to declare a special maneuver, sacrificing all other activity, to catch up to that 80 year-old.

      I think changing the indoor scale to 1" is 10 feet instead of 10 yards is more convenient for mapping, but I don't really understand the resistance to saying therefor an indoor round is 20 seconds (or moves are 3 times the listed amount). It's just arithmetic.

    4. Not to mention how many incidental actions you could do in a minute - a minute is a really long time in a crisis situation.

    5. Wouldn't shifting to an "indoor round" of 20 seconds also necessitate a multiplier to spell durations? A spell that lasts (10) 1-minute rounds outside would only last 200 seconds indoors.

  11. You may not share Gary's concern with critical hits, but I do. I was in an AD&D game where the DM used critical hits. But he also used a very literal interpretation of the damage/wounding rules, that is to say that if you went to 0, you were unconscious. You didn't actually die until -10, but if you were unconscious at all, you had to rest a week or more before you could do anything. Even if you had magical healing.

    I had a good dexterity and plate mail (playing a cleric), but my usual luck with hit dice. So the bad guys pretty much had to crit to even hit me, but if they did, down I went. And the party holed up in some crappy place for a week until I could do anything again.

    I tried to point out what Gary said about crits, but he still insisted he was playing it "by the book".

    And the other players, many of whom started on 3E, loved being able to DO crits so much that they accepted the risk of taking them.

  12. It’s been so long since I read the DMG, I’m kinda amazed how much time GG spends addressing the complaints of (to us) invisible antagonists. It’s an…interesting way to lay out a rules set, to say the least.

    1. Well, his customer base IS infamous for being overeducated and cranky. :D

  13. @jason I think that's because the 1e DMG isn't really a rule set (although it became one).

    To my mind, it's style is more that of a DM's companion or miscellany.

    1. Ah, interesting! I hadn't thought of it from that angle, but that does make things a lot clearer.

  14. All of you are making interesting points, and driving me to think harder about my DMing, which tends to be very loose mechanically speaking, during combat. Great stuff, thank you!

  15. Holmes Basic uses 10-second melee rounds.

    "There are ten "rounds" of combat per turn. Each round is ten seconds, so a combat turn is shorter than a regular turn, but results in at least as much muscular fatigue."

    But Holmes also uses the shorter movement others have argued about above.

    " unarmored man can move 20 feet per melee round (120' per minute), a fully armored man only 10 feet (60' per minute)."

    Holmes also introduces an idea that lighter weapons such as daggers get more attack per 10-second melee round than regular weapons like a sword, and that heavy weapons (2-handed sword, battle axe, halberd) are allowed only 1 attack per 2 10-second melee rounds.

    Another Holmes convention is the parry: "A player may elect to have a character parry an attacker's blow. He must announce he is doing so before the opponent strikes. The parry subtracts 2 from
    the attacker's die roll."

    1. I cannot believe I'd forgotten Holmes uses a 10-second round. Thanks for the correction.

  16. Because Moldvay Basic is a new edition of Holmes Basic, it stands to reason that we wouldn't have had 10-second rounds from Moldvay if it weren't for Holmes. Something I had never thought about before, very thoughtful post, James. (Ha, from a random roll too!).

  17. A related post I just read:

    [Fabled Lands: Cut and thrust](

    Moving to shorter rounds certainly makes it easier to model a fight more realistically and coherently, in terms of movement and how long different actions take. But how realistic is RPG combat anyway? When was the last time a combatant in your games switched to [half-sword]( to deal with an armoured opponent?

  18. The syncretic nature of D&D in all its forms and all its evolutions led to a wide variety of approaches. The opaque and byzantine nature of initiative and surprise made for difficulties of understanding, and the players I ran with tended to have a very granular approach to position and tactics that led us to figures and gridded battle mats.

    By the time I settled into my own decisions about how I was going to run my game, I'd seen several different methods and I'd had exposure in a very enjoyable multi-year campaign to the 10-second round and the d10 for initiative--this would have been 1st edition AD&D run with some 2nd edition influence in the late 1980s. The standard combat move was 10 feet per second (6.8 mph).

    The way this worked was like this: Every player would roll a d10, and the DM typically would roll a d10 for the monsters. The players would apply the Dexterity reaction bonus, and obtain a number from 1 to 13. The DM would call out "Anyone above 10? 10? 9? 8?" and so on down to the end of the round. At each applicable initiative, actions would be declared, dice rolled, damage given and taken. Spells would take segments (seconds) from start of cast to firing off, figures would be moved on the table, and so on, as the round progressed through each segment and each round.

    I have found this approach leads to combats that are engaging, provides for a high degree of player agency, and allows for a shared understanding of what is going on. Is it frenetic and high effort? Yes. Can it take a long time sometimes? Yes. But it's a hell of a lot of fun.

    And I do use critical hits and fumbles. But I buffer it with dead at -10. Crits are just double damage. On fumbles there's a second roll to see how bad--anything from a standard miss to drop a weapon to break a weapon to slip and fall to hit a companion--all manner of arbitrary hilarities that I describe. On the whole I have found it to favor the players and gets them laughing about how "It sure ain't like they write it in the hero books!"