28 August 2012

What's Wrong With D&D Combat

First off, what is good about combat in D&D? Well, the older editions had pretty fast-paced, free-wheeling combats with a lot of room for rich description. I like that. And I think that might be about it. The main nuts and bolts of the system - weapon behaviour, armour class, hit points, power curves, and (in 3E) feats are all deeply flawed.

I'm going to touch on each of these mechanics in this post, and expand on solutions over the next few posts.

Weapon Behaviour

Weapon choice in D&D has always been a no-brainer. Since the only differences are: one-handed or two-handed, 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, etc. for damage, there will always be a best choice, and that choice will hold for all situations. The Weapon-type vs. Armour Class chart was an attempt to deal with this, as was the Slashing, Piercing, Blunt categories in 2e AD&D. I don't know of anyone who uses them, and they don't seem to increase verisimilitude (but they do increase complexity!).

What I see in reality is that some weapons are good at dealing damage to unarmoured opponents (swords), some at dealing with armour (maces, axes, poleaxes), some are better at defending yourself (swords, spears, poleaxe), and so on. Categories based on purpose make sense to me. A mace is blunt and an axe is sharp, but they both have the same purpose - defeating armoured opponents. The game system should reflect that.

Armour Class

Armour class in D&D seems to describe some combination hard-to-hit (dodging, blocking, parrying) and hard-to-hurt (armour absorbing damage). Some of your hard-to-hit and hard-to-hurt is also modelled by your hit points (increasing hit points as you level are often explained by the character learning to dodge better, roll with punches, evade thrusts, etc.).

This causes problems with modelling weapon behaviour, especially with regards to weapons like the mace (which can bypass armour to some degree). One ends up with awkward mechanics like, "if the target's Touch AC is hit, add +4 to hit". It is far better to separate hard-to-hit and hard-to-hurt into their own stats.

Hard-to-hit comes from a mix of your skill at fighting, your natural abilities, and your weapon. I parry with my sword, not my breastplate. If you hit my breastplate, but don't hurt me, you still hit me! It's just that my armour absorbed all of the damage.

If I drop my sword, I've lost my main means of defending myself. How hard it is to hit me should reflect that. If I'm surprised in the night, and don't have time to put on my breastplate, it's going to be much easier for a solid blow to cause grievous harm, but not any easier to hit me.

Hit Points 

Hit points always bothered me - they clearly didn't represent physical hardiness (as that would not change as you levelled), but it seems odd for hit points to describe some mystical ability to "get out of the way". D&D already has a mechanic for that - it's called Armour Class. Also, if HP represent some measure of skill why doesn't healing scale with level? For that matter, why don't you heal completely after a fight? Once again, the problem is that a stat is being overloaded by being asked to represent multiple things, and it makes it difficult to create reasonable, intuitive models of reality.

The other feature of hit points I don't like is the certain knowledge of how much fight is left in the character. If I'm fighting an orc, and I have 26 hit points, I know for a fact that I won't die this round. The orc can only do 1d8 damage! In fact, I can fight for four rounds with total impunity. I'd like to see a little menace to combat, even at higher levels. At the same time, I'd like some ability for players to push their characters in a dire situation.


The feats system in 3E is a good idea done badly. I like the idea of selecting perks for your character as you level up, but the problem is the mixing of combat and non-combat feats, the complex prerequisites and restrictions, the enormously long list of feats, requiring feats to do things you should always be able to do, complex mechanical interactions with other rules, and, most of all, the problem that some feats are simply much better than other feats, leading to min-maxing rather than role-playing.

I see feats as a great way to differentiate characters as they level up, but the key is simple, meaningful, balanced choices that work within existing mechanics.


In D&D, your ability to defend yourself better as you go up in levels is modeled by increasing your hit points, creating a weird disconnect between what they seem like they should be (ie. your stamina, blood pressure, wound level, etc.), and what they are, which is primarily (after first level) a measure of skill. Defense bonus should scale up, similar to the way Attack bonuses scale up.

In addition to the problem of defence, I've always found low level characters to be woefully underpowered compared to commoners. A Level 1 Fighter (a "Veteran", according to BECMI) has the same attack table as a normal man.

Myself, with a year of off and on martial arts training in swordsmanship, dagger, and grappling, would lose nineteen times out of twenty to an actual veteran swordsman. An untrained person would be killed every single time by the veteran.

On the other side, though, players can get insanely powerful. A 20th level fighter can wade through 1HD monsters like a horse through tall grass. In reality, I'd be surprised if the best swordsman of all time could take on six armed opponents at once. I feel like a lot of the fear and danger - and therefore, a lot of the requirement for thought and planning - is taken out of the game if your character is basically a one-person army.

I'd like to see experience and training count for more initially, but level out at a more human scale.

1 comment:

  1. I'm interested to see your answer to feats, as I have pretty much the same perspective as you.

    Regarding wanting danger to remain when having 20+ HP and fighting an orc, allowing recourse to a critical table upon the orc rolling a 20 is a decent compromise. It means the orc is probably not going to kill the mid-level character, but does lend some menace and mean that players are not going to want to needlessly engage even weak monsters (especially if you are not giving XP for defeating monsters).