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.
Instead of nibbling around the edges of the fully functional and enjoyable Dungeons & Dragons combat system, I’m going to imagine a different history. DUNGEON! By Dave Megarry is a board game that shares its origins and much else with Dungeons & Dragons, but uses a simpler 2D6 combat system derived from Charles L. Totten’s 1880 Strategos, itself a mechanical descendant of the Prussian army’s famous Kreigsspiel. That is games about big units of nearly identical soldiers blasting and stabbing each other with rifled muskets and bayonets rather than games about slugging matches between cannon armed battleships. What’s interesting about these games, and about DUNGEON! in comparison to Dungeons & Dragons is that they don’t involve a lot of fights to the death through slow attrition. Units (and adventurers) break and run or sullenly retreat, losing effectiveness rather than die completely. Combat turns are also generally few and each is resolved with a single roll by each side. Strategos is easily available in PDF of its 1880 edition (though missing the tables in Volume II), and it’s an interesting if not especially compelling read for an RPG referee, player or designer. The game includes a short history of wargames up to the 1880’s, and leaves me wondering about a French card based wargames of the 17th century. It proceeds through a typical 19th century exhortation and lengthy introduction to pages and pages of dense rules and examples. Written with an incredible density of verbiage and asides Strategos is 208 pages long, and includes several varieties of games from The Minor Tactical Game to The Grand Tactical Game, and include increasing amounts of complexity and additional factors such as supply.

For the purposes of considering an alternative to Dungeons & Dragons original combat system, I’m only looking at the most cursory aspects of Totten’s “Battle Game”, which constitutes the core mechanics for resolving combat in Strategos, and even then only at the “Advanced Game” which uses dice in certain situations. Strategos as a system is far more of a game of positioning and movement/action budgets than combat based on die rolls. Where it uses dice it does so mostly for contested and unclear situations - units of similar strength in melee combat or the effect of artillery fire. It also depends heavily on modifiers (such as if fire is deadly, heavy, ordinary or ineffectual) that are determined by the referee and announced based on whatever factors (position, troop condition, ranging, and morale primarily) the referee feels matter. Both of these ideas offer some interesting possibilities for RPG combat, and too a small degree mirror the OSR era interest in “Combat as War” where the basic mechanics of combat are intended to be risky and appealing to them uncomfortable to encourage player ingenuity regarding positioning and tactics or alternative non-combat approaches.

The table that offers the most interest when it comes to designing a D&D like individual fantasy combat system is the same one that Megarry apparently took inspiration from, “TABLE T - SHOWING LOSSES FOR HAND TO HAND COMBAT […] ALSO THE ‘RESULTS OF VICTORY’ AND CONSEQUENCES OF DEFEAT.” This table is meant to be cross referenced against the odds of an attack being victorious, which involves some calculation on its own -- one generally gets the impression that Strategos is not a quick game to play. Each player rolls the number of D6 the odds offer (e.g. If the attacker had 3:5 odds, attacker rolls 5 dice and defender 3) and picks the highest roll. A table (seen below) indicates how each side’s roll effects combat, both showing its general success in the action with resulting casualties and the overall tactical result. Victory or defeat is determined by who rolls the highest, and the results (from stalemate to rout) by the difference between the rolls and the general odds (which can limit the severity of a loss). For example a unit charging into melee from a highly advantageous position with odds of 12:1 or more against the enemy will only suffer the result of a tie even if miraculously defeated.

Strategos Table T - The Root of Most US Wargames?
(As an Aside - consider how interesting Totten’s table design is here. The inclusion of two tables: the direct casualties per attack and the victory and defeat conditions, make for a very interesting hybrid sort of table that does a fair bit to explain complex interrelated rules in an intuitive way. It’s perhaps too complex, and the die faces - normally a great idea - aren’t used too well as they aren’t showing the actual roll, but a difference between the rolls. Still an impressive bit of table design that presents multifactor mechanics in a clear way - something worth contemplating.)

The direct damage per conflict (and note it’s fairly low for units numbering in the thousands - at 18 maximum for a terribly managed defeat) is relatively unimportant, almost unnecessary and perhaps simply for “realism”. Real destruction occurs when the defeat and victory conditions are applied and this subsystem rather than the pseudo-HP style system of soldiers lost per unit is what's interesting about Strategos. It’s nearly impossible to kill a 1,000 strong unit via combat casualties in Strategos, but they can be shattered and removed from play, though they may reform a day later -- greatly weakened. The results are still pretty general, we aren’t discussing the specific ways a unit is routed, surrenders or destroyed - though there’s choices for the players and referee left open in these cases, but they award or inflict specific classes of morale damage from: “enthusiasm at the highest pitch” down through 5 grades to “great confusion”, as well as forcing one side off the objective, reducing or adding to the the discipline/vigor of the troops, and potentially causing huge losses from rout or surrender of ⅓, ½ or the full unit. Sometimes conditions regarding options (pursuit or reforming) are provided and with many results the unit requires time to recover before it can act again. Morale, condition, retreat, and delay are all built into this two die roll system along with injury (in this case both the direct losses and total rout or surrender).

Obviously this isn’t something that makes a lot of sense for individual fantastic combat, but Meggary’s DUNGEON! rules offer an interesting evolution precisely for this situation.

Megarry still uses 2D6, but since DUNGEON! wants to avoid the calculation of “odds” so important in Strategos and depends largely on player facing, with no referee and minimal Player v. Player combat, the player rolls both dice. First against a target number for specific monsters vs. specific heroes (with some modifications for magic weapons), and then a second roll on the table above if the player loses. The monster either dies or remains unaffected. This system is somewhat optimized for a dungeon board game - that is it works for a competitive, refereeless player vs. environment game, while still modeling condition (or at least the amount of treasure the character has - which is how one wins) and retreat, meaning the loss of some part of a turn, as well as a possibility of more serious loss, described as injury/death, but more a complete restart of the game for the player at great disadvantage. Just as Strategos’ system for breaking battlelines in his sort of age of rifles checkers war game isn’t ideal for a fantasy RPG, neither is DUNGEON!’s

Both however suggest possibilities for a combat system that is based around simultaneous attack/defense and has results other than health depletion/injury. It’s likely one still wants injury and death in a D&D like game - but Totten suggests that combatants become ineffective for other reasons, specifically morale and exhaustion/disorganization before they are killed/surrender/flee completely. Megarry in turn offers potential non-health related combat risks for the PC: the loss of treasure/equipment and time. This set of ideas allows for two key elements of combat: more granular and serious injuries (think the surrender of 1:3 a fleeing unit in Strategos) and other losses, both impacting temporary combat ability (morale and condition) and equipment (armor damage seems the best idea here - as in Errant).

Why create this sort of system? Besides person amusement at messing around with a russet from 1880 and imagining an alternate Dungeons & Dragons combat system, there’s the fact that D&D’s existing combat doesn’t really serve the purposes of a classic (under one potential interpretation of the authors’ intent) fantasy skirmish game or the OSR’s revisionist ideal of an “inevitable fail state/high risk solution to challenges”.

Totten was writing a the best sort of simulation of 19th century infantry line tactics that he could, and though his rules still seem to favor the bayonet and offense as decisive - which 20 years after the US Civil War and 10 after Franco-Prussian war seems a big oversight, they account for many factors besides the number of wounded in a fight. They are an attempt to produce a simulation (though not Forge style simulationism) for military training. In this sense Strategos is a very “intentional” game, while early D&D, despite a concept for play that shows innovative brilliance and a functional ruleset, feels less so - an experiment that went in a new direction and rules that rapidly adapted. So the question remains, as to what a combat system intentionally designed for the OSR purpose of embodying risk might look like. Likewise, the Hit-Point centric system of Dungeons & Dragons, while elegantly simple in its abstraction, tends to provide a heroic feel to its player characters (which is not bad) who never tire or suffer from fear unless through magic. This feels at odds with the idea of desperately foolish treasure hunters facing the eldritch horrors of the underworld (or Rabelian adventure farce - frequently called “gonzo”) of the OSR. Morale, hopefully not in a clumsy player agency removing way, and temporary Condition better depict player expectations for heroic adventurers, as well as allowing for more serious wounds system that don’t gloss over the effect of injury.

With these goals in mind how would this work? The One wants even this simplified combat to allow some aspect of player choice both in equipping/building characters (and designer choice for monsters). The main risk is making the system too lethal and simplistic, as Arneson remembered from early OD&D tests with the Chainmail rules, and the solution is being mindful of Gygax and his solution in the 1970’s, using detailed character records and acknowledging that each PC or monster can be the equivalent of a wargame unit (just perhaps not an ironclad). So the first difficulty is maintaining enough mechanical complexity for player schemes and situational or monster special ability based advantages, while baking in simple modifiers/rules for common elements of tactics (charges, shield-walls, giant foes, swarming small foes, varied weapon types). A second difficulty is avoiding that main risk, while meaningfully modeling victory and defeat without using a D&D style HP pool. Here the necessity for morale, condition, time and distance to matter comes into play.

Here’s a draft of a proposed system:

Draft Totten-DUNGEON ! , 2D12 Combat System:

Melee Combat involves a 1D12 roll (I considered 2d6 but I think the broader distribution of D12’s are better) for each combatant modified by various factors. The highest role gains the upper hand in that round of combat, as Victor, and the difference between the rolls determines the Degree of success or failure affecting each combatants: morale, condition, ability to act the next round and wounds.

Weapons, skill level, and natural abilities can both give bonuses and penalties to this role as well as limiting the results of a defeat or victory to a certain Degree.

For example, an attacker with a reach weapon, attacking from the second rank will still make a normal attack but at a penalty (-3) and even if defeated will suffer no wounds (and minimal moral and condition damage) because they can’t be attacked by the other side in melee, meaning that defeats will always be at a maximum Degree of two points.
New Combat Statistics
Wounds: Combatants have no Hit Points, but rather receive Wounds, each of which is serious and degrade other combat Statistics (or remove the target from combat), can cause permanent injury/loss of statistics, and lead quickly to death.

Wounds come in three classes: Flesh Wounds, Serious Wounds and Mortal Wounds. Instant Death is distinct from a Mortal Wound. 
  • Wound type will be determined by Victory and Defeat result. High Degrees of defeat lead to worse wounds. 
  • Even Flesh Wounds damage Base Condition (-2 for Flesh Wounds, -6 for Serious and -8 for Mortal, assuming survival).  
  • Wounding attacks also reduce Condition not by a fixed amount, but to a specific amount (1 to -8) unless the Combatant already has a lower Condition. This Condition may be Recovered from up to the Wound reduced Base Condition. 
  • Wounds can be prevented, or their severity lessened, by armor and special abilities (e.g. a dragon might reduce the first 10 Wounds received to Flesh Wounds, while plate armored warriors might be able to block the first 4 Wound results, and a Zombie might ignore all Flesh Wounds). 
  • After combat wounds require doctoring/blinding to stop blood loss and allow some morale and condition recovery.  
  • Flesh Wounds reduce condition, morale and make future wounds more likely to be serious or mortal, but don’t cause long-term injury.  
  • Serious Wounds dramatically reduce condition, morale and make it far more likely that future wounds will be mortal or serious. Post combat, even with binding they significantly degrade combat ability and are likely to result in a special permanent/long term injury based on a wound table result. 
  • Mortal Wounds almost always result in death unless properly treated and always remove the combatant from the fight (though not always immediately), and can be anything from being knocked unconscious to beheaded. Survival is possible with fast, lucky and skilled doctoring or magic, and will almost always (unless magic is used) end with a missing limb or similar maiming injury.  
  • During combat all Wounds reduce condition and morale each round with blood loss (for most combatants - the undead are likely to be very nasty in this system), which can eventually produce mortal wounds or death.

Morale: A 12 point scale of how willing the combatant is to fight or how easily they retreat. Has effects on their ability to be the Attacker, rolls, maximum Degree of Defeat and if they flee or surrender.

12 - Implacable, 11- Highest Enthusiasm, 10 - Enthusiastic, 9 - Bold, 8 - Resolute, 7 - Steady, 6 - Cautious, 5 - Discouraged, 4 - Wavering, 3 - Shaken, 2 - Cowering, 1 - Broken
  • Morale determines will to fight, with high morale gain combat bonuses to rolls, Condition and Victory results, while at low morale suffers penalties, and will ultimately flee if defeated. 
  • Low Morale may limit the Degree of Victory or prevent Pursuit. 
  • Any defeat once morale is below 7 requires a D6 morale check and failure results in flight (in addition to any, more ordered retreat/backward movement, result from the Defeat itself). 
  • Morale generally starts at 7, but is determined by class or creature, so Magic Users might start at 6, cowardly goblins at 5, fighters and orcs likely start at 8 or 9, while the animated bones of the dead start and stay at 12. 
  • Morale doesn’t return to base after combat, though some recovery and loss of enthusiasm occurs. Wounds will damage morale for the rest of an adventure (permanently in the case of some injuries).

Condition: Some combination of exhaustion, positioning, discipline, and combat awareness. Not so much the combatant’s willingness to fight but their fitness for it.Condition drains rapidly for untrained combatants from both victory and defeat, but is recovered with equal speed. It’s also dramatically affected by morale.

  • Each point of Condition (and it can be a plus or a minus) moves the results of a Defeat up or down the Degree chart. So having a 0 Condition means defeats will be exactly as determined by the die, while a plus represents some protection and a minus increases the risk of a serious defeat. 
  • Condition starts at a fixed level for every Combatant, based on class/monster type and level. Uninjured Combatants return to this Base Condition after the end of combat, and Recovery is also capped at the Base Condition (Morale of course can increase it).
  • The starting condition for non-combatants is generally at 0, while adventurers begin at 1 or 2 and even beginning warriors at 3 or 4. Adding morale bonuses for fresh fighters will likely add 1 or 2 additional points, meaning that a first level fighter cannot suffer injury barring exceptional circumstances in the first round of combat. 
  • Fighters receive far less or no condition loss from any Victory. 
  • Rounds of combat can (sometimes must) be spent in recovery, restoring Condition to towards the combatant’s base condition.

Basic Combat Procedure:
1) Determine Positions and Number of Opponents per Combatant.
To determine positions use the general rules for classic style “theater of the mind” combat, largely dependent on RANK: melee/vanguard, reach/second, missile/rear and LINE: Doorway is 1 combatant wide, hallway is minimum 2 max 4, room is estimated with a basic minimum of 4.

  • Vanguard rank can attack enemy Vanguard rank with Melee Weapons or Second rank if armed with Reach weapons (spears etc). 
  • Second rank can attack enemy Vanguard with Reach weapons. . 
  • Rear rank can fire missiles, cast spells etc. 
  • Defeats against Second Rank by non-Reach armed enemy Vanguard inflict a maximum 2nd Degree of Defeat (unless a missle is fired into Melee).
  • Missile fire into enemy Vanguard or Second ranks hits allied Vanguard rank if Defeated applying defeat effect if Degree is greater than 2. If a lesser the Degree or not fired into melee the result is treated as a Tie effecting only the Missile user. 
  • Large creatures are susceptible to missile fire without risk of friendly fire.
    Changing rank takes a round (baring special abilities). 
  • Retreat from melee allows opponents Attack without chance of inflicting Defeat or gaining Victory (baring special abilities). 
  • Vanguard cannot pass an enemy rank without special abilities or combat results. 
  • Penalties if outnumbered and not a fighter - lesser penalties for fighter (generally 2 opponents max per “space” in front, side or rear for a maximum 8 on 1 if fully surrounded (16 or one if Second rank of Reach armed foes exists). 
  • Flank and Rear attacks gain bonuses to Combat Roll and to Degree.

2) Determine Attacker v. Defender.
Rather than determine initiative (there’s a simultaneous opposed roll) the referee determines the attacker. If the attacker is unclear the combatant with the highest morale can decide if they will attack or defend. Defender can choose not to attack, in which case both combatants will Recover.

3) Combat is joined or recovery ensues.
Each Combatant rolls 1D12. Defender uses the same result against all attackers. If multiple Defenders are facing the same Attacker, Attacker must pick one target to apply any Victory to prior to the roll, which will also be measured against other Defenders (unless using special abilities/weapons)

  • Maneuvers such as charges and defensive fighting gain bonuses to Degree and to Roll. E.G. a Defender in a Shield Wall will have penalties to any Attack Roll and Degree of Victory, but Degree of Defeat is capped and Multiple Attackers lose bonuses. 
  • Attackers and Defenders receive bonuses or penalties to rolls based on Morale and special abilities. 
  • Multiple Attackers and Defenders will gain bonuses to their rolls unless Defender has special abilities. 
  • If attacked while Recovering Combatant acts as Defender and does not Recover. 
  • Recovery restores lost condition. It can be forced by both low Degrees of Victory or moderate/high Degrees of Defeat.

4) Results of combat are checked against the results table
Find the difference between the Rolls of all Combatants and calculate victories and defeats. Limit Degree for both as modified by Special Abilities, Morale and Condition.Reference and apply the effects of Victory or Defeat by Degree based on the table below.

  • Victory and Defeat are determined by these results. Attacked by multiple Opponents it’s possible to be Defeated and Victorious in the same Round. 
  • Ranged Attacks are calculated first (A Defeated Ranged Attacker suffers a Tie result as the Maximum Degree of Defeat). Any loss of condition, morale or wounds for the Defender applies to the results of any melee defeats/victories. 
  • Melee (including Reach) attacks with multiple Attackers/Defenders are calculated with Attacker Victory 1st followed by any Attacker Defeats. 
  • Extra Attackers cannot suffer Defeat worse than 6 points unless Defender has special abilities. 
  • Extra Defenders cannot suffer Defeat worse than a 2 points, and will not Retreat unless Attacker has special abilities (most Fighters get unmodified Attack Results against two 2 Defenders per Round, increasing at higher levels).

5) A New Round Begins, Pursuit is calculated, and the Process starts over accounting for any casualties and changes in formation.
Defeated Combatants will often be pushed back a the the Victorious Combatant can change position or continue Pursuit if the Combatant Breaks (usually killing the fleeing Combatant).
  • If Pursuit is possible (e.g. no other Combatant can check the Pursuit, or step into the the space of a Retreated or Fleeing Combatant from the Second line and Victor is not themselves forced to Recover) Victor can step forward, breaking the enemy line, or pursue a foe the flees (fails a morale test). Condition and Morale lost or recovered are applied. 
  • Pursued Foes will have a small chance to escape if movement is greater than pursuer, but Pursuer will get at least on Attack Roll, and against Feeling Combatants receive bonuses for attacking from the rear.

So I haven’t tested this combat system, this post just offers a concept that would need to be refined, with many other materials prepared and play testing to see if it functions as intended. Obviously it needs injury tables, maneuver tables, and a list of special abilities by weapon/attack types, a table for armor and typical monster defenses. Similarly it radically changes certain aspects of class design.

It’s also unclear to me exactly how complex it would be to track morale and condition for multiple PCs and enemies, however, it strikes me that “Condition” forms a sort of fluctuating temporary AC/HP hybrid, and Morale must also be tracked -- though both HP and Morale need to be tracked in the normal combat system as well. My initial guess is that the system is no more complex than the standard Basic D&D system, but that it may be unintuitive to players used to the idea of Hit Points as a resource that ticks steadily down towards death rather than sudden bloody catastrophe. In the defense of my draft system, I think having permanent wounds that are debilitating but don’t entirely prevent further adventure, and conditions which absent of wounds springs back after combat might overcome the issues associated with HP as a largely static resource. Additionally the fact that moral, condition and wounds both in combat and outside of it represent high value, resources for PCs provides the referee with multiple vectors of threat to PC survivability.

I have ideas for expanding on the system, but that would require a huge amount of work, effectively becoming a new RPG. Instead, while I see advantages and possibilities here I prefer to keep it as a thought experiment.One interesting suspicion I have is that this system would work very poorly with a large level spectrum, and likely one would want to limit PCs to only a few levels, though this is a general design concern I have been thinking about for Dungeon Crawling games, fewer levels with more powers and abilities per level. Perhaps even as few as 4: Professional, Adept, Master and Hero -- with a 5th or higher levels reserved for the strange results of exceptional transformations available through play (such as becoming a vampire, champion of a lesser god, possession by a demon or eating the heart of a dragon).

I hope this post will spark ideas in others, but for now, for me, the combat system of the 1974 original Dungeons & Dragons box set (minus Greyhawk and with my own modifications) is sufficient for my needs. However, it also seems useful to me to point out that there’s no reason Dungeons & Dragons characters need to use a combat system whose core was designed to simulate the fight between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia or the War of the Pacific. Rather than the existing system the basis of Dungeons & Dragons combat could have easily been games to model the line infantry battles of the US Civil or Franco-Prussian Wars, and as combat between groups of living humans rather than battleships, might have provided a more human sort of combat model as well. D&D’s mechanics function, but they remain somewhat arbitrary, and while they are time tested at providing a specific type of game they are not necessary for RPGs, fantasy RPGs, or even a Dungeon Crawling experience. As referees, players and designers we shouldn’t be afraid to look at even the most basic elements of our favorite systems, and ask if they serve out needs or if we have ideas that could do better. Most of the time experiments like this will have unsatisfying results, but when they don’t it’s well worth the past failures.


  1. Intriguing. The system is unintuitive, and I wonder if it could ever become intuitive given its necessary reliance on reference tables. But if it were to play out the way I imagine, it would seem to resolve battles more quickly, with more interesting results.

    I am distrustful of attempts to add morale to player characters. It would seem to disrupt the intimacy of the player's control over the PC. What is the difference between a PC and a Hireling if not the fact that the Hireling occasionally expresses a mind of their own?

    As an aside, I spent way too much of this essay thinking "Dave Megarry" was a fictional person you'd invented for the thought experiment, his name being a tongue-in-cheek combination of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax.

    1. Megarry I think deserves a fair bit more credit, but he's largely been forgotten in RPG design today. Dungeon! is a really nice piece of design and likely the ancestor of a lot of board/rpg hybrid games. Also I suspect its mechanics make a better source for how Arneson's early games might have been played, both the spirit of the game (board game like plundering) and perhaps the mechanics.

      For the system here, I share the same doubts, but I think two tables forming the basis of combat (Morale and Degree of Victory/Defeat) is workable, especially as Morale effects are constant and limited in number. The Degree table also follows a structure. Still there's some weird complexities to it and the way positioning work.

      Morale is tricky for PCs, I generally agree with you concerns regarding control, but at the same time, I think baking it into the combat system as a given may help. I envision it more as a secondary set of "HP" (like Condition) rather then something that forces flight -- morale is primarily a drain or boost to Condition, so by the time you seriously risk flight in melee combat will likely result in a very quick death (unless you have a second line to hide behind), rather then having to determine where the PC flees to. Finally I think PC morale rules do fundamentally change the tone, and define characters as less heroic. Fear of death is not something they control perfectly.

      Good points though - and I think testing would soon show what works, what needs streamlining and what I've broken.

      For standard D&D combat I generally treat fear effects the way I do possession and curses. The player can resist them, but there are big mechanical costs for doing so - like while under fear, all damage received is doubled.

    2. I would absolutely be interested to play with this system, and see how it could be developed further. Which elements of it become intuitive, which elements can be shaved away, and how the information presentation can change to be more intellectually accessible.

    3. Get cracking dude! If you do end up trying to use some sort of Strategos based combat subsystem I would love to see and hear how it goes!

  2. This is some good stuff! I think I was groping towards something like this back when I had been posting about shieldwalls and formations a while back.

    Seeing it written out like this I'm curious about how this might interface with something like Tunnels and Trolls combat, which IIRC is designed around a framework that lumps the party together as a single unit...

    1. I'm not sure about using Strategos style combat as a single roll by side sort of thing. I think Arneson is on to something when he says that RPG players don't want their PCs to die in one hit - and certainly not in one hit as part of a group combat roll. I've tried to design something here that has significant survivability built in (at least for a Round or two)and think that's worth preserving.

      The one way I can see a more group style combat working is with detachments of NPC type soldiers modeled as single combatants under the control of a PC. Perhaps for a more Napoleonic era combat system with massed volley fire.

  3. Nice to see you exploring the design space. This is very interesting. I have played around with options for non-HP-based combat systems a fair bit, including various ways to incorporate both attrition (e.g. condition, morale) and step results (e.g. wounds), but never landed on this combination.

    I'm particularly struck by the usefulness of distinguishing the classes' combat abilities on multiple dimensions. I have tended to try to reduce everything to a single character attribute, but your ideas for distinguishing classes and monsters by starting morale, CRTs and special rules open up much wider possibilities.

    Simultaneous combat and one-roll resolution speed up play a lot, and I have been using variations of that pattern in most of my games for several years now.

    I was a bit put off by the proposed system of combat ranks, but after thinking about it a bit, I've decided that I would use them as a way of classifying the relative positions of combatants once established in fiction by other means.

    Do you generally use something like the proposed formation ranks for ToTM play in your games? If so, how do you use it?

    Have you any specific reason for thinking that Megarry was directly inspired by the 1880 game? A more immediately available source like e.g. contemporary hex-and-counter wargames seems more likely to me.

    1. I'm glad the post sparks your thinking, that's the goal as personally I don't really have the rules design interest to follow this through, tidy it up and make it playable.

      I do use the rank system for "theater of the mind" OD&D combat as a sort of proceduralization of the standard way PCs tend to use hall and doorway choke points in location based games. It's likely something worth describing in more detail as I find it's fairly effective at getting something like tactical combat without the time consuming use of grids and minis etc.

      As to the Strategos and Dungeon! connection, there's the obvious (but yes far from conclusive) 2d6 system and the shared focus on retreat rather then injury. Even the scaling of the results is quite similar.

      Second, Strategos based systems with a table of results based on die difference (like "Table T") were also very common in the Twin Cities wargame scene that Wesley, Arneson, Megarry and Blackmoor came from. If Dungeon! uses a system largely derived from Blackmoor, and Blackmoor used character matrices and a die comparison system like Valley Forge or Don't Give up the Ship as has then it's ultimately derived from Strategos and Table T.

      Finally, DHBoggs quotes Megarry as saying he was influenced by Table T and Strategos when designing Dungeon!.

  4. The Dungeon! combat least the part that checks player largely derived/extrapolated from the Fantasy Combat Table (Appendix E) of the Chainmail game. The monster combat charts (i.e. what a monster does to a player that fails to defeat it), may well be derived from Strategos, or from some other wargame that itself is a descendant/derivative of Strategos. When I wrote Five Ancient Kingdoms, the combat system was largely developed from these combat tables (Chainmail and the Dungeon! board game) though with an additional randomizer to add granularity to wounds...that is, taking a note from Arneson, I did not want players to be "one-shot" by monsters since players dislike that.

    I gave up blogging for Lent this year (Sundays are considered "cheat days" which is why I'm writing this) and I've been using my time away from the on-line discourse to really plumb the AD&D combat system in its detail and minutia. I think that "hit points" are just about the greatest thing ever invented for how they model just about every aspect of a Player Character's adventuring condition: fatigue, skill, fitness, and...yes...even morale. A PC reduced to 1 or 2 hit points is largely going to act in a "broken" or cowardly least, if they have any sense of self-preservation. With regard to designing a game meant to model heroic (pulp, fantasy) fiction, HPs aptly (and abstractly) describes PCs capabilities based on class and level (profession and experience), and works as a description of physical/mental resources for common "adventuring" as well (all types of incidental and environmental damage being lumped into a single "pot" that describes the character's overall effectiveness and degradation). Brilliant.

    That being said, there's definitely room for modification: what does zero hit points represent? In the "basic" version, of course, it means death...but death is simply loss of one's character. "Zero hit points" could represent a LOT of things besides getting one's head ripped off: any serious wound that forces retirement or a permanent breaking of morale /shell-shock that removes the character from being effective in any further/future fashion. Clerical healing magic takes on a whole new definition then as the prayers and blessings renew the character's "fighting spirit" rather than actually stitching flesh and bone back together. There's a LOT of meat on the bone for DMs/players who want to keep the system, but change the flavor to something different from video game/cartoony fantasy.

    The tables you've given here makes for a more complex game at the table then I probably want to run, but there's room to adapt bits and pieces. I like your abstract strike ranks, and the idea that position imposes penalty on conditional damage inflicted could probably be adapted straight to HP modifiers (up and down), whereas shield walls and such could provide AC bonuses. Of course, AD&D already takes a stab at this with positional bonuses (flanking, etc.) and cover modifiers to's just a matter of better defining how and when such modifiers come into play.

    Anyway...good stuff, Gus.

    1. As mentioned above I take the idea it comes from Strategos from Megarry's own statements, but it's not especially important and it's certainly a convoluted path.

      I appreciate your enthusiasm about the D&D combat system as written and tend to agree that the system I'm presenting above could use streamlining and testing. It's certainly in the realm of a thought experiment, not a guide for how I will be running my games from now one -- and I'm positive that the hobby doesn't need another system. Looking results of your Lent break and thoughts on AD&D combat -- I also generally think D&D's system works fine and HP are alright, but that they leave out some stuff (exhaustion, morale, and retreat) that I'd like to see a bit more, especially in grittier low fantasy settings. Mostly I just wonder how to get a more ugly wound system into D&D, forcing permanent injuries and recovery and multiple characters in campaign but without it becoming too lethal.

      The rank and abstracted positioning stuff is worthy of its own post, and it's basically how I've been running OD&D combat for the past 6 years. I will write it up some day.

    2. Hope to see it.

      RE Ugly Wound Systems

      Since I'm running AD&D these days, I generally start with the third paragraph under "Zero Hit Points" on page 82 of the DMG. Since I don't like to be arbitrarily awful to my PCs, I will often grab whatever crit table-laced RPG is at hand for a random injury roll: most recently I used my old Slaves to Darkness book, but there are good ones in WHFRP, DragonQuest, Stormbringer 1E, and a couple of my own books (generally adapted from these lovely gory bits of RPG mayhem I've collected over the years). They all tend to "work" within the parameters of the game...something I should probably post about now that I'm back.
      ; )

    3. It's very much a backburner project - less of a wounds table for being at zero HP and more a system where getting hit inflicts increasingly bad wound effects making combat exceptionally short and nasty. Originally I wanted to do it as part of a "Dung Age" OD&D hack that was fundamentally about being a peasant in a crapsack/Brothers Grossbart world: all equipment is a magic item/broken, everyone who isn't from your village is a monster, and the goal of adventure is to steal a pig from over the hill.

      I should add that one of the more interesting elements of Strategos is that unit placement wines battles. The randomized elements of combat are secondary really. It's more checkers or chess then Warhammer 40K and I think that's interesting as a war game design principle.

    4. Interesting. Yeah, I've seen some maneuver-based system procedures over the years (though I'm blanking on specific titles on the moment...sorry) and I've always found them quite intriguing. My recent project the last week has been updating Blood Bowl to play more like American football some's seen a large cut-down on the inherent random mayhem of the original game, even while preserving many of the specific systems/procedures, and it has become far more maneuver/placement-based.

  5. I really enjoyed this! I had some trouble getting the system to work, which prompted me to hack together my own version ( and would love to hear your thoughts on it. This system especially seems like it would be a good fit in modern settings, because it feels like a great fit for gunfights where everyone is jockeying to get a good shot and any wound is going to be severe

    1. Thanks for sharing this, and glad the weird draft system up there was interesting to you. I suspect you are right that it would be decent for a more contemporary style setting - though I think the distinction is less one of equipment and more one of tone. Film Noir protagonists are just less durable and heroic then fantasy ones.

      It seems like you did a good job streamlining things a bit, though I didn't see any rules for multiple combatants attacking one target which often comes up in (also it's super important in Strategos - which is largely about positioning - the Strategos close combat rules are only used rarely mostly it's Grand Army of the Potomac checkers). Likewise one thing with this system that I kept wondering about was weapon and armor variations, because they are so important to fantasy RPGs, even more so today in the era of OCs. If you do more I'd love to hear about it, and if you play test please let me know how it goes!

      Thanks for sharing this, I never really know if people find these post useful, and it's nice to hear when they inspire someone in their own hobby pursuits.


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...