TACTICAL COMBAT MECHANICS for Theater of the Mind Dungeon Crawls
|Front Piece From the Holmes Edition - 1977
Running skirmish sized combat requires more than a party that can win with limited special abilities (such as a sleep spell or fireball), and must hold players interest by avoiding an endless grind of simple attack rolls. To do this it’s best to introduce some element of tactics. It’s important that, without resorting to true “grid combat”, one has rules for: spacing, ranks, and flanking. With these few concepts one can have simple shieldwall combat that provides both faster and more tactical skirmish size combat while still retaining the basic structure of the rules found in older editions of Dungeons & Dragons or other systems built from the same sources. These rules are also modular, and can be adapted to each table’s time needs, comfort with tactics, desire for combat options and interest in measurement or fine detail … to a degree of course. These rules are still early Dungeons & Dragons combat based on Arneson’s “alternate combat system” and use the same abstracted, simple rounds, initiative and attack rolls every Dungeons & Dragon player is familiar with. A significant advantage for my own games is that this set of additional rules don’t require grid-style combat -- the concepts of line, rank and spacing are largely self-contained, self-relational and intuitive to a degree that with a little practice they are easy to run from even gridless maps or a vague sketch of a random wilderness area. That is, these are “theater of the mind” combat rules.
Combat occurs between two lines of armored (and often shielded) combatants facing each other so that each front line fighter limits the number of opponents they face and can avoid being flanked.
Less well armored combatants either take up positions behind the front line in ranks to attack over their shoulders with spears and polearms, or extend their side’s line in an effort to flank the enemy line.
RANGES AND DISTANCE
The dungeon is almost always a cramped place and dungeon combats tend to take place at very short distances compared to field battles. There is no room for cavalry, artillery, push of pike, or even much for missile fire. Because of this the exact measurements or even the grid of a war game are less necessary and estimated “range bands” can be used if they are easier to imagine and remember. As with turn keeping vs. time keeping, remember that the characters and players are unlikely to know or care if their heavily armored foes at the other end of the hall are 42’ away or 37’ — only if they are in range to charge this round. Instead of calculating the 40’ combat movement rate it’s more efficient to consider distance in terms of simple distance categories: Close (grappling or 0’), Melee (in melee strike range or 5’), Reach (attack range for spears and polearms or 10’), Charge/Medium (Distance that can be closed with a charge attack; 10’ - 40’), and Long (beyond 40’ usually outside of torch or lantern light distance, requires a round at least to closer to Charge distance). The referee should estimate distances based on a quick glance at the map (its distance grid can help, but isn’t absolutely necessary), but for it to work the players need to trust and accept the referee’s adjudications rather than argue for advantage.
These range bands still support existing combat mechanics, such as ranged weapon bonuses, the referee just needs to describe ranges and distances in terms of the immediate concerns of the players rather than distances in feet or meters. Explain “What can attack the characters and what can the characters attack” without the intermediate issue of calculating distances. Some detail and granularity may be lost, but for most combats, especially dungeon combats, these estimations are sufficient, far quicker, free the game form grid combat, and leave less room for meta-gaming tiny distances.
Bows, crossbows and other long range weapons are extremely dangerous to fire into melees and are usually limited to either an initial volley or two as forces close. Thrown weapons can be modeled in a more interesting tactical manner that somewhat mirrors the use of thrown spears in Hellenistic and Roman combat, or hurlbats and francisca by Northern European warriors such as the gallowglass until the 16th century.
Firing into Melee. In an open field battle where opposing forces advance across the field from hundreds of yards, or in a siege long range missile weapons such as bows and crossbows are deadly and effective… in the close darkness of a dungeon, they are rarely useful for more than a couple of shots before melee commences.
Missile weapons can always be used normally prior to melee combat and fired from any rank, but the risk of injuring or dangerously distracting one’s allies is quite high. When firing into a melee (even at enemies in the second or deeper ranks) a natural attack roll of five or under (modifiers don’t count), will strike the ally nearest the target (or alternatively distract them allowing their opponents to strike them) inflicting its damage on the ally.
Optional Rule: Reactive Thrown Weapons
Thrown off hand weapons such as hurlbats, plumbatas, piling, or throwing knives, which can be used in reaction to and attack. Held in the off hand these thrown weapons allow a trained Fighter or Thief a ranged attack as a new enemy moves to engage them in melee.
A Reactive Attack is made just like a normal attack, but interrupts the initiative sequence, and allows the combatant with the drawn thrown weapon to attack prior to an enemy moving into melee. This attack can only be made immediately prior to the enemy’s first attack or charge, thrown from a foot or two, it is otherwise as a normal attack. Reactive attacks are not allowed as an additional attack on the combatants own action (though the throwing weapon can be used as normal if missile combat is an option). A reactive attack with a thrown weapon does not provide time for the combatant to draw an additional weapon, pick up a shield, brace against a charge or otherwise perform any additional acts prior to the opponent's action.
Lines are one or more combatants armed with a melee weapon who controls an area and prevents up to two enemies directly in front of them from passing them. While it’s possible to break or flank a line, an enemy armed with a regular melee weapon cannot pass it or attack anyone except for the 2-4 enemies directly in front of them in the enemy line. In a dungeon skirmish lines are often anchored by a wall or other obstacle, and so become impossible to circumvent (or flank). Each human sized combatant takes up and can protect 5’ of space (or half a map square) (See Fig 1.), unless they are in a doorway, in which case they can cover up to 10’ of space (See Fig 2.) This means that two defenders are required to form a line across most corridors.
A combatant in a line formation can attack enemies in the 15’ in front of them, including the right or leftmost enemy in the next line segment. This means that the most enemies a combatant in a line will face directly is three (Fig.1) ... well four if they are in a doorway.
Defenders A & B make a narrow line, attacked by 1-5
A is in melee with 1 & 2.
B is in melee with 1, 2 & 3
B has been FLANKED by 5
4 is not in melee combat
For those defending doorways this is significant, the lone defender is able to prevent the enemy from flanking, but still faces multiple (up to 4 plus any from the enemy's rear rank) attacks each round. For larger groups attempting to block an advance it is always better to defend behind the doorway allowing and attack single (See Fig. 2)