Sunday, March 13, 2022


Stumbling Towards D&D's Alternate, Alternate Combat System
The combat mechanics of Classic fantasy RPGs are a huge source of both debate and game design innovation. The first official changes to Dungeons & Dragons in “Supplement 1 - Greyhawk” are changes to combat mechanics (variable Hit Dice, including weapon damage and Hit Points by class) that form a central aspect of every subsequent edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Even now D&D's combat rules continue to evolve, increasing in complexity and offering ever more variability, steadily accreting to form the 100’s of pages of rules, customization options, feats, spells and mechanics that allow the current edition to function almost as a tactical game of fantasy superpowers and feat usage.

I’m not going to catalog, debate, or mock these early design choices. Like most of early Dungeons & Dragons the combat system is entirely functional, and while, like all novel inventions it can be streamlined or optimized in various ways, it serves. Of course what’s also fascinating about the system offered in the first edition of D&D is that it’s presented as an alternate but it was adopted almost exclusively by early players, by many presumably because they didn’t own the recommended rules in Chainmail. Both Gygax and Arenson, in the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, start fiddling with it almost immediately. Other groups also begin to transform Dungeons & Dragons very quickly, often starting with the combat system, but retaining its core assumptions … the deep DNA of hit points, distinct hit and damage rolls, and damage based on weapon type, can be found even in contemporary video games. The haphazard alternate combat system offered because the preferred one (at the time) was already published, too lethal (per Arneson), and too complex to include in the modest booklets of early D&D, has become the model for the majority of mechanics in role playing games -- your Fromsoft console protagonist still fights like a 1970’s tabletop ironclad, battered into sinking by enemy blows.

Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...