2 September 2013

Noisms and D&D Combat

Passages in italics are quotations from Noism's post D&D Combat is More Abstract Than You Think, which kinda got me riled up, so I apologize in advance for the acerbic tone.

...it's important to remember that the D&D combat rules evolved in a context of a 1 minute combat round: in OD&D and AD&D 1st edition, the combat round is a minute in length.

OK, but 1-minute rounds are just stupid. Just because it was in 0e or 1e doesn't mean it made any sense, or that it's good game design. There's any number of things in the old editions that are stupid and that have been houseruled away by generations of gamers.

One of the big parts of the OSR is our willingness to deconstruct the rules and modify them to suit us, not point to them as gospel.

...the famous idea of Gary Gygax's that a D&D fight should resemble the sword fight between Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisborne in the Errol Flynn iteration.

Firstly, the notion that Errol Flynn-style combat is worth emulating is far from a universal notion. It bears no similarity to reality, it has no real risk or danger, and is extremely ill-suited to a dice-driven system like D&D.

That kind of combat exists for one purpose only: advancing the plot of a film. It's more the kind of combat you see in a story game, where the relative advantages and disadvantages in the fight reflect and comment on the dialog of the characters, and no-one gets hurt or dies except for maximizing the dramatic effect.

It is literally the exact opposite of old-school D&D combat, which is random and messy - people die and get hurt with no consideration for what that might mean for the "story". The dice reign supreme, as opposed to the story.

D&D combat bears exactly zero similarity to that style of combat, and that combat bears exactly zero similarity to real life (except that there are humans, and they have swords). That Gygax said that says it was his inspiration says little about his knowledge of combat or game design.

So much for the idea of Errol Flynn combat.

You're rolling to see if, over the course of 1 minute, you manage to wear down your opponent's defences, either through actual physical damage or moral 'damage' or exhaustion or whatever.

Your hit points represent you capacity to stay in the fight, which slowly gets reduced over time (the higher your level, the longer this takes).

I covered this in my recent post on Hit Points.

Hit points exist as a proxy for your defensive abilities, not your physical or mental stamina, or physical ability to absorb damage. The notion in (0e, at least) was that a single blow would kill a normal person about half the time - that is to say, you essentially don't have any HP, you are simply killed by a single hit and have a base 50% chance of "save vs. death".

This can be seen as an evolution from the Chainmail 1 hit = dead every time, no chance to survive. The move to D&D gave you a 50% save vs. death built-in.

So HP are, in a real sense, nothing. Trying to map them onto stamina or morale or life force or blood pressure doesn't work, as they're a statistical increase to the average life expectancy, nothing more.

And your movement rate, which seems absurdly slow, represents the fact that you are scooting around and manoeuvring for position while avoiding blows, missile attacks, what have you.

There can literally be no defense of 0e's absurdly low movement rates. There is no way you can slice them that makes a lick of sense.

They are most likely an error in the move from Chainmail mass battle to D&D single combat.

The fact that only one or two shots are permitted in a 1 minute round indicates that the archer is waiting to pick his moment to fire.

There's probably a reasonable middle-ground between 1 arrow every 6 seconds to 1 arrow every 60.

If you're taking a minute for an arrow, though, that's definitely excessive. Your odds of hitting are going to be much higher sending more shafts downrange than waiting for that "perfect chance" that may never come.

I would question why there really needs to be even an arbitrary length to a combat round of 1 minute.

Yes, and - as I said before - I agree. If you interpret D&D combat as you clearly do, then do away with rounds altogether. Just make an opposed d20 roll to see who wins.

What is the purpose of a combat round? It gives a chance for everybody to decide what they want to do and then act.

Well, it's supposed to give a way to direct a continuous action in discrete steps. As such, you need to know how long the step is going to be so you can plan your action.

It doesn't matter: there is no credibility to stretch because we are not dealing with a system which has to make sense in the way that a less abstract one does. We are not rolling dice 'to hit', despite the name: we are rolling to see how far we attrit (that is a word: I looked it up) the opponent.

If character A can attrite (I've always seen it with the 'e', but apparently both are used) character B by an average of 3 'units' per 10 seconds, then yes - it does matter one hell of a lot how long a round is. If character B has 10 'units' to attrite away, then he can last 4 rounds of 10 second, or less than 1 round of 1 minute.

I don't see how this is so hard to grasp...

Whether you're using a highly abstract system or a highly detailed one makes no difference, unless you're abstract to the point of story-gaming.

Another good reason for preferring abstract combat is just that realism may be something of a fool's errand.

It may be, but as I wrote before here, realism is to be infinitely preferred to not-realism (all other things being equal).

The short version, for the lazy, is that if the system isn't realistic, then the players need to master the system to make sensible choices. The more realistic the system, the more the players can leverage their knowledge of the real world.

For example, in reality, dropping a 25lb 10ft down onton someone's head would probably at the very least stun them, and possibly knock them out cold, maybe even kill them.

In D&D, it would have one of two effects: none, or kill them stone dead. Since that's not what would happen in the real world, a player needs to know the system well enough to understand that even though in the real world X would happen, Y will happen in the game.

I really like the idea of Western Martial Arts but I'm not persuaded that they are entirely realistic; until people start actually fighting to the death using these techniques, and agreeing that if they are injured they will only use medical techniques that were in use in the 14th century, I think that "what happens in a real sword fight" is still a matter of considerable conjecture and will likely remain so.

Sorry, but that's just ignorant. I don't really know what else to say to that.

Your ignorant, uninformed opinion based on literally nothing compared to 30 years of dedicated scholarship and experiment? It's easy to see where the weight of evidence is, and it's not on your side.

I mean, what would you think if I said something like (I seem to recall that your field is philosophy of law, or something related - apologies if it's not), "I really like the idea of the philosophy of law, but I think that scholarship in that field has revealed nothing and that everyone who has ever studied it has completely wasted their time"?

That's literally what you just said about students of historical Western martial arts.


  1. I feel similar. Particularly with regards to his dismissal of HEMA because we aren't fighting to the death and subjecting ourselves to 14th century medicine, which would be about as well understood as the fighting arts. It also just smacks of ignorance of the diversity of what is in HEMA. For instance you are focusing on the 14th century, but I study 15th cen, late 16th century (primarily Silver and thus England), and the 19th century, which is essentially the modern era. And people were still using swords to duel in the 20th century, never mind the modern instances of sharp force trauma caused by sword wielding assailants or just plan screwing up.

    And I would like to know who this "WMA Mafia" is.

    1. Presumably you and I are card-carrying members...

      I would assume anyone who knows the names Vadi, Talhoffer, Lichtenauer, or Fiore are prime suspects in the dragnet!

    2. We are fiends all most dire.

      The thing is, I'm not very active online with regards to HEMAfying DnD, I don't even have a blog. Sure I've had a rather minor role in HEMA, I'm used as a demonstration dummy in a few books, but "WMA Mafia" is just ridiculous.

    3. There is a lot of source problems regarding how ancient warfare actually worked - nobody really knows how phalanx formations fought, for example - but what we're dealing with in D&D isn't a matter of something we don't know we don't know - it's a matter of stuff that's objectively wrong, and trying to justify it is objectively ridiculous.

  2. There's a simple difference between law and Western Martial Arts: the law exists and is practiced on a daily basis. That's why I don't get absurdly defensive as you've just done when people question why somebody should study law.

    Western Martial Arts are a reconstruction of something that were designed for people to try to kill other people, made into something safe. I have no doubt that what you do is interesting, enjoyable, and worthwhile. But as a representation of what actually goes on in a sword fight in which people are actually trying to kill each other, it is not, in my view, as useful as you seem to think it is. You can reproduce the techniques fairly accurately, I'm sure, but you can't reproduce the circumstances in which they were executed.

    For what it's worth, this opinion isn't based on literally nothing (I love it when people assume that anybody who disagrees with them just doesn't know anything). I know from personal experience that when you're practicing a martial art, there is a huge difference between touch sparring and full contact sparring. And there is a huge difference between sparring with a fellow club member and sparring in competition. I know what those differences are, and I am sure that they are amplified a thousandfold when the result is not going to be just bruises or at worst broken bones, but death, and there is no referee or responsible oversight or safe word or "I'm hurt, let's stop".

    Moreover, I also know that practicing in safety, using precautions, tends to warp technique and lead to overconfidence. Anybody who has done any martial art to any level of seriousness is well aware of this.

    And finally, my comment about "14th century medicine" was clearly a rhetorical way of pointing out that even if two people in the 21st century decided to fight to death with swords, their approach to combat is likely to be very different to people in earlier times for whom injury very likely meant infection and miserable, painful death.

    So I'm not dismissing your hobby. As I've said, I'm sure it's enjoyable and interesting, and I'm sure it is accurate in reproducing and elaborating on certain techniques. I don't believe for a second, though, that you can talk with a high level of accuracy about what is realistic for a fight to the death.

    That's even setting aside the issue of why realism is desirable in the first place, of course.

    1. I realize that the law exists in a living form. But with that in mind, you'd say that geology is useless? Archaeology? History?

      Because I'll tell you who has an infinitely better understanding of life in Roman Britain than either of us: a scholar of life in Roman Britain.

      Similarly, scholars of HEMA know infinitely more than you do.

      You don't think they've taken your concerns into account while doing their scholarship?? You must literally think that everyone practicing HEMA is a moron...

      It's a hobby for me, but it's a field of scholarship for many.

      And I'm taking issue with you putting equal weight on your opinion (I hyperbolized when I said literally nothing, but apparently you do know more or less nothing about HEMA, by your own admission) with that of people who have written books and dedicated decades to study and scholarship.

      That's more or less the definition of ignorant.

      And realism is always desirable - it
      s what makes RPG's playable. There's always going to be an optimization point that differs for everyone, but as I pointed out in my recent essay on realism (http://spellsandsteel.blogspot.ca/2013/08/on-realism-realistic-vs-detailed.html), realism is the core of an RPG like D&D.

    2. I'm willing to bet that most respectable scholars in HEMA would agree with my initial proposition that "what what happens in a real sword fight is still a matter of considerable conjecture and will likely remain so". Just like respectable historians generally accept that their knowledge is necessarily limited and contingent. If you think that professional historians don't believe just that, then you are simply wrong.

    3. I am going to have to disagree with your assertion that respectable HEMA scholars would agree with your proposition that they have no idea what would happen in a real fight. Firstly, I am personally friends with with one of these HEMA scholars, and have been for 7-8 years. If Mr Knight did not feel he had a grasp on what does happens in a sword fight, he would not be able to interpret, or in many cases, translate any manuals. He would not be able to teach the Arts. Secondly, you seem to be ignoring the fact that Mr Taylor is basing some of his assumptions on articles published in SPADA II, which was published by several other HEMA scholars. You are in fact ignorant of the fact that that kind of research is done precisely so we can have an idea how a human body will react to severe blunt and sharp force trauma, in and out of armor. Thirdly, by indicating that you have some manner of martial art background that includes "touch sparring" and "competition sparring" you have shown that you at some point practiced an art that was taught poorly in as far as it was most likely a sport, and that the competition rules you engaged under were such that it discouraged the usage of the techniques practiced during "touch sparring" which means either people are "sparring" too soon, competing too soon, or that the techniques "taught" in one circumstance are of dubious quality. Fourthly, by your blanket statement that WMA is just a recreation of the killing arts you are betraying your total ignorance of WMA/HEMA, in as far as several manuals and treatises state that they are equally applicable to use for sport and war, or which techniques should never be used for friendly contests, such as George Silver in his works, which states his art can be used for sport/exercise, personal defense, and at war, or Sigmund Ringeck in his manual, in which certain unarmor wrestling techniques are segregated and explicitly stated as forbidden when not fighting in ernest, or Joachim Meyer, which is a later period treatise that treats the unarmored longsword as tool of sport.

  3. I think it's worth pointing out at this point that the originators of the martial arts in question were not TRAINING with the intent to kill one another. The vast majority of the fights that went in period were nonlethal practice, the same as today. However, these old practitioners HAD been in real fights before, had killed, and had decided that these training techniques and methods of sparring (the same ones in use today) were the best suited to preparing for actual combat. If these styles didn't prepare someone for a real life and death fight, they would not have been used at all.

    1. Excellent point.

      If someone is arguing that HEMA techniques are bogus, they're not only arguing against decades of modern scholarship, but against the whole tradition that created the original techniques.

    2. Nobody is saying the techniques are bogus, for fuck's sake. My point is that you can't go around making balls-out assertions about exactly what happens in a sword fight to the death with literally no observations of sword fights to the death. And in this case I really mean literally none.

    3. Coulda fooled me.

      And I'm on way better footing basing my assertions about what would happen in a sword fight on research and experiment than Gygax was basing it off of Errol Flynn.

      I hyperbolize, it's a flaw. If my assertions seem balls-out, mentally preface them with, "research would indicate."

      But you're trying to make out that your ignorance is just as good as other people's research, and that makes you look like a fool.

    4. Er, what? Gygax wasn't saying that the fight scene from Robin Hood was what a real sword fight was like. He was saying that's what he wanted to emulate. Because he wasn't all that bothered about realism.

      I'm not for one second trying to make out that ignorance is better than research: I'm pointing out to you that you don't know as much as you seem to think you do, and you're clearly prickly about that.

    5. It's also completely unlike what D&D combat is like. So, we can see that Gygax both failed to emulate reality and failed to emulate his inspiration, and so we should be slavishly following his example why?

      And you absolutely are trying to put your ignorance up against other people's research - in your article you use the fallacy Dawkins (I think) coined as the "argument from personal incredulity".

      That is to say, you can't imagine how someone could know anything about what a medieval swordfight is like, and therefore no-one does.

      I'm not prickly because you're pointing out I don't know as much as I think I do - you've done nothing of the sort. I'm prickly because you're spreading around the same tired nonsense about D&D combat that's been floating around for years, nonsense that I feel has been thoroughly shown to be nonsense time and again, adding nothing new to it, and parading it about like the Emperor's new clothes. It's tiresome.

  4. I think the key statement made in the comments on Noisms' post was this, by David Larkins:

    "The interesting thing is that once you got away from the one minute round, the rationale for the other mechanisms of D&D combat kind of went out the window and you only ended up encouraging people in their disparagement of how "unrealistic" D&D combat was."

    This is exactly the issue that Noisms is talking about, and it's the same issue I've had. Reading Chainmail was a revelation for me: suddenly everything about D&D combat made sense, for the first time since I started playing nearly 30 years ago. But it was all predicated on long, abstract combat rounds. Once you change that, then you have to change everything else. Which is what you're obviously trying to do here on your blog, but frankly I don't see why you wouldn't just use a different system rather than trying to shoehorn D&D's 1-minute combat round system into a shorter, more crunchy combat round system.

    1. The rules for D&D aren't predicated on 1-minute rounds. The entire line of Basic D&D games starting from Holmes uses nearly identical rules to AD&D yet also have 10 second rounds. The Perrin Conventions, a set of house rules written in 1976, which was the foundation of Runequest as well as Warlock (another set of house rules popular in California and constantly discussed by Gygax) also uses 10 second rounds.

      AD&D is the only branch of D&D that clearly uses a one minute round.

    2. Well, quite. There are many, many RPG combat systems which explicitly try to be as realistic as possible. That just isn't what D&D is.

    3. I find it interesting that you seem so adamant against others using a 6 or 10 second round in their DnD game, especially when their version is based on D&D line of products and not the AD&D line.

    4. You guys keep saying that AD&D's 1-minute rounds is some strange aberrant branch that has nothing to do with Holmes etc. But this simply isn't true.

      Chainmail used 1-minute rounds, and it was the official combat system of OD&D. Even the "alternative" combat system of OD&D (i.e. the one that ended up providing the basis for combat in Holmes, AD&D, etc) adopts most of the conventions of Chainmail -- it doesn't even mention the duration of a round, since it's assumed that everything about the Chainmail rules is still in force unless the Alternative Combat rules in "Men and Magic" dictate otherwise.

      The Holmes branch of D&D adopts all of these conventions with minimal modification. The conventions are all based on a one-minute combat round, which is one of the very few elements Holmes changes. But this dramatic change, without changing everything else (e.g. AC, HP, RoF), renders the system incoherent, as we've been arguing all along.

    5. You've got this literally 100% backwards.

      G&A really fucked up by not modifying the 1-minute round of Chainmail for D&D. A round length that makes sense for battles with 500 people is simply NOT going to make sense for battles with 10 people. Holmes rectified that mistake.

      The rules are incoherent with the 1-minute round. Holmes' move to the 10-second round is what made D&D combat make sense.

      Seriously, you're telling me that in a whole minute, someone can only cover 120'? That's completely stupid, and don't give me that BS about "dodging and weaving and jinking in and out".

      OD&D "running speed" (double normal movement) is less than *walking speed*. Seriously - an unarmoured man *runs* at less than 3mph if you use OD&D rules as written with a 1 minute round.

      So don't try and tell me the rules were coherent with a 1-minute round and that Holmes screwed them up when the contrary is plainly true.

  5. Chainmail had 1 minute turns (CM pg 8) but when troops met, they would fight multiple rounds of combat until one side is driven back. So the "round" length in Chainmail is less than 1 minute. This is true in both the mass battles and man-to-man rules.

  6. I make a similar point here: http://unbalancedrpgs.blogspot.com/2018/02/insular-fantasy-game-combat-v-actual.html

    Basically, D&D combat (and its retardedly slow movement rate) makes sense when discussing mass combat units. It is impossible to justify in any other context. And it's not 'more exciting' or 'more fun', it's a tedious round of rolling a d20 in which types of weapons, tactical options, etc. are nonexistent. It's frankly stupid. Also, regarding 'cinematic' combat: movies are made for stupid people who know nothing about history or warfare. I do not see being 'cinematic' as a recommendation in any context. People who want to play a 'cinematic' game do not want to play with me, and the feeling is mutual.

    People trying to rationalize D&D combat are just deliberately ignoring the factual origins of D&D combat and what drove it, to try to justify never changing the game they play.

    I do like playing D&D - as a war game - but it's impossible to take seriously or make believable. Mythras and GURPS are just better, flat out better games.