Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Holmes Basic D&D Rulebook Part 8 - I Bet You Hate Excitement, Too

PART 8 OF 12

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

Today, I'm talking about the combat rules. Please keep in mind that the order of my exposure to D&D over the course of my life so far as basically gone like this: Video games inspired by D&D--->D&D 3E Starter Box and licensed D&D video games--->D&D 3.5, Call of Cthulhu D20, and a minuscule bit of 4E--->Lamentations of the Flame Princess and a bunch of research into TSR-era versions of D&D that I haven't actually played yet. This will probably explain a lot about why I find certain things strange or use certain terminology that probably wasn't in use when Holmes Basic was on the shelves of major retailers.

So, I'm looking at the chart labeled DIE ROLL FOR CHARACTER TO SCORE A HIT, BY OPPONENT'S ARMOR CLASS and it occurs to me that all character classes in Holmes Basic have the same chances of hitting enemies, because Fighting Men (and other classes, for that matter) do not increase their to-hit bonus until after level 3. Let me just look at that SAVING THROW TABLE again...yep. The human Fighting Man is better than the Magic-User in 3 out of 5 categories, and worse in the other two. Compared to the Cleric, the human Fighting Man is better in 1 category, the same in 1 category, and worse in 3. The human Fighting Man and Human Thief are equal in all categories. Most strikingly, Dwarves and Halflings are better than all humans, including human Fighting Men, in all categories.

As I've said before, why would anyone want to play a Fighting Man, especially a human one, in a RAW (that's "Rules-As-Written") game of Holmes Basic? Well, I guess I can think of some reasons:

  1. The player knows the DM gives out a lot of magic weapons and wants to be able to use them.
  2. The player doesn't know how likely they are to get any magic weapons, but they are willing to gamble that they will get one.
  3. The player puts a lot of value into having a good AC.
  4. The player has a particular character/role playing/genre emulation/story reason for playing such a character. (If so, more power to 'em. I do appreciate it when players take other considerations into account when playing besides just seeking the surest path to "victory.")
  5. The player doesn't know or understand all of the rules.
  6. The player knows that the campaign will be switching over to AD&D or OD&D or B/X or the Holmes Companion or something, and wants to take advantage of the boons that humans or Fighting Men/Fighters get in the "new" rules.
  7. The player wants to use the least complicated character possible.
Reasons 1 through 3 still apply to Elf and Dwarf Fighting Men (and to Halfling Fighting Men to a lesser extent, since they can't use the biggest magic weapons), but I could see someone choosing a human Fighting Man in particular for any of those other reasons.

Personally, if I were to join a RAW Holmes Basic game tomorrow, I would probably roll up a Dwarf Fighting Man or a Cleric, although I would consider trying a Magic-User (or a Halfling Thief if the DM allowed it, but by my interpretation that would not count as RAW). The Halfling Fighting Man seems decent, but it's not my first choice. The human Fighting Man seems underwhelming. The Thief has a lot of cool features, but the chances of succeeding at any class abilities seem low. For a newbie, the Elf seems overly complicated with all the class-switching, and the increased XP requirements for advancement might be (understandably) steep. The Dwarf and Cleric look like they'd give me a lot of bang for my buck, without being too complicated rules-wise. But hey, that's just me, and I'm likely to change my tune after seeing how things actually work at the table.

Anyway, we've come to the part that some would consider the meat and potatoes of the book, the rules for resolving disagreements over the distribution of wealth, and Dr. Holmes' explanation of the melee rules is fantastic. Not only does the book explain how hits and damage are resolved, but it also explains some of the thought behind those rules, like how combat happens quickly but is played out in "slow motion," and how AC and missed attacks can be imagined in different ways. Combined with the example battles, the writing is clear and evocative. Writing this way is an important skill to master in game design, and not just in RPGs. It's what I strive for in my thus-far limited dabbling.

Also, if you hit 0 HP, you're dead. None of this negative HP, bleeding out on the floor, somebody come stabilize me stuff. I'm fine with this. It's simple and brutal.

There are two choice quotes worth mentioning.

"The combat tables used by D & D gamers are often extremely complicated."

Dr. Holmes wins the Quoted For Truth award. Also, I like how he specified "gamers." I assume he's referring not only to the complex tables in official D&D releases, but in third-party products and homebrew material as well. My understanding is that, relative to the total number of players and customers, such things were already ubiquitous before 1980. I love that about D&D. And yes, Dr. Holmes put those spaces in "D & D," which isn't really important but just struck me as a funny detail.

And the second quote?

"Melee is the most exciting part of the game, but it must be imagined as if it were occurring in slow motion so that the effect of each blow can be worked out."

Wait...Computer: zoom and enhance.

"Melee is the most exciting part of the game,

Computer: increase resolution. Clean up that image.

"Melee is the most exciting part of the game,

The next time someone tells me "D&D isn't about combat, you moron," I think I'll just say "Melee is the most exciting part of the game." And if someone says "D&D is all about combat, you imbecile," I shall reply in my most sagely manner "Melee is the most exciting part of the game."

Some days you just want to bash heads.* I think Dr. Holmes must have understood that. I wish I could high five him. What else have we got here?

There's poison, which I discussed last time in the entry for Detect Evil and in the post's comment section. For whatever reason, the book recommends against letting PCs use poison weapons in anything but the most dire of circumstances.

There's fire, specifically flaming oil, which looks like it takes up about as much space in the book as the COMBAT MELEE section. Flaming oil is powerful, doing a massive 2d8 damage compared to the 1d6 of standard melee and missile attacks. And it burns for up to 10 melee rounds. Well, it's actually a bit more complicated than that, because if a creature is directly doused with oil and set on fire it takes 1d8, then 2d8 the next round, and then stops burning because "it is assumed that the oil has run off, been wiped off, burned away, etc." But if a pool of burning oil were on the ground in a 5-foot circle, would a creature standing in that space take 2d8 the first round, and would they take damage for more than 2 rounds if they kept standing there? It's not very clear to me. There are also detailed rules for determining what number you have to roll to hit with a thrown oil flask (and then with a burning object on a subsequent round to light that oil), and notes on how some specific monsters are affected by such an attack. Red dragons are immune to damage from flaming oil, for example.

Flaming oil sounds fun in Holmes Basic. I do wonder how well balanced it is compared to other methods of attack, since standard attacks do 1d6 damage. It does require two rolls to hit before damage occurs, unless it is set up as a trap ahead of time or something, which would introduce other activities. I imagine buying and carrying a bunch of oil could present a lot of difficulties. And flaming oil is not effective against everything. Eh, it's probably fine. Besides, I like the idea of weirdo adventurers coming up with all kinds of oddball methods of guerrilla combat. Is there precedent in any Appendix N stories for the use of flaming oil as a weapon like this, or is it something that evolved out of D&D itself?

Oh, and there's holy water, which affects the undead like burning oil but doesn't hurt other monsters.

Next is MISSILE FIRE. Weapon choice matters here because different weapons have different ranges. Short range gives a +1 to hit, and long range gives a -1 to hit. Simple enough, although because of other games I'm used to treating short range as +0 and medium and long ranges as incurring various penalties. The book also says that attacks within the long range increment, as well as any attacks with a sling, cannot be done underground unless in "a very high roofed area." That's an interesting rule that I don't think I've seen before. I don't know enough about slings to say how much that part makes sense, but I think it's reasonable to limit other missile weapons to medium range at best when fighting in the tight quarters of your typical dungeon chamber.

The COVER section is interesting. If a target is in partial cover, missile attacks against them take a -2 penalty, while cover that is almost complete causes a -4 penalty. Also, my interpretation of this paragraph is that anyone can typically fire from partial cover, but you would only be able to fire from full cover in certain circumstances, like if you're shooting through a small hole in a wall, or maybe if you're carefully leaning out from behind a big tree. Makes sense, unless you gain the power to shoot through solid walls or something.

Here's the part that seems strange to me: "Once the party is engaged in melee, arrows can not be fired into the fight because of the probability of hitting friendly characters." Based on the second combat example, it seems that the dynamic of fighting in Holmes D&D often isn't quite what I'm used to. Usually, firing into melee will incur a penalty to hit and/or a chance of hitting an ally, rather than being straight-up impossible. Outside of encounters that start at close range, I'm guessing the typical combat in Holmes D&D would have two distinct phases: distant combat, with ranged attacks and attempts to move toward melee, followed by the melee phase in which the bows are put away. I imagine this would probably discourage a lot of players from just being "the archer" or "the tank" and get more of them to take up both roles in turn. In D&D 3.5, for example, I'm used to seeing characters stick to either ranged or melee attacks for the whole battle, but that seems unlikely to happen in Holmes Basic.

Wait, make that three phases. I just noticed this part after the combat examples: "When there is time, or when a magic-user says he is getting a spell ready, magic spells go off first. This is followed by any missile fire, if the distance to the monsters permits, and then melee is joined, after which no missile fire is permitted because of the danger of hitting friendly forces." It goes on to say that spells can still be cast while the other characters are in melee, "after 1 or more melee rounds have gone by," as long as the magic-user (I'm guessing this goes for Clerics, too) hangs back from the melee.

Magic-Users can't cast in melee unless they use a magic item to do so, like a wand or staff. I really like that wands can be used at point blank range - it gives them utility as more than just extra spell storage, it matches the common description of wand activation as involving less time and gesticulation than "regular" casting, and it makes Magic-Users seem a little bit like supernatural gunslingers, which is funny and cool in its own way.

These phases of combat create a striking difference from what I've personally seen at the table, and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. I appreciate the simplicity of just saying "No, you can't shoot into melee" instead of using a more fiddly rule and possibly slowing down the game. In a narrow dungeon corridor, it makes a lot of sense to break combat into these two phases, since the flow of combat from strictly ranged to strictly melee seems kind of natural to me in that situation. And as much as I love using miniatures as a player, when I'm the DM I almost exclusively run "Theater of the Mind" combat, and breaking combat into phases based on range would probably be easier than trying to keep track of individual character positions in my head and convey those positions to the players. On the other hand, fighting in a wide-open space should probably give skilled archers opportunities to flank enemies and shoot them in the back, even if they're engaged in swordplay. And what if there's a battle between three factions, and someone from Group 1 wants to fire into a melee between members of Groups 2 and 3? Or what if an adventurer is alone and has no allies to hit - can that character keep backing up and shooting?

But you know what? This book was written as an introduction to D&D, and for that purpose I think the rule against shooting into melee is perfectly fine. Except now I've just noticed that a different section says "Remember that spells and missiles fired into a melee should be considered to strike members of one's own party as well as the enemy." So, which is it? Also, does that mean that shooting an arrow into a duel means that both combatants get hit, or that there is a 50% chance of hitting each one? Now I'm going to have to look into the way OD&D handles this.**

More points of interest:

Magic weapon bonuses apply to rolls to hit, but not necessarily to damage. Magic armor and shield bonuses are subtracted from the to-hit roll of the enemy, rather than changing the character's AC. (Shouldn't -1 Plate be good and +1 Plate be bad, then? But I guess that would just be confusing in the other direction.) Bonuses from magic armor and shields stack.

A combat round is 10 seconds, and a combat turn is 100 seconds (10 rounds), but a turn outside of combat is 600 seconds (60 rounds). I feel like combat turns should have a different name if this distinction is important, to avoid confusion with exploration turns. Unless this means that spells or torches last a shorter amount of time in combat than outside of it, but I don't think that's the case, and if it were, I'm not sure how that would make sense.

Oh, here's that infamous bit about daggers hitting twice per round and heavy weapons only hitting every other round. My understanding is that pretty much every Holmes Basic aficionado on the internet recommends ignoring this, and that it may be a fragment of some optional AD&D rules that leaked in there and that don't make sense out of context. Crossbow reloading times are also discussed, and they seem more in line with what I'm used to, although without variable weapon damage I'm not sure why I'd pick a heavy crossbow over a light one, or any crossbow over a composite bow.

How many characters can fit side-by-side in a 10' wide hallway in combat? Two or three. Wouldn't it be easier to just make it two and use 5' squares instead of 10' ones? That's not a rhetorical question. I really want to know.

Initiative is based on dexterity, and the character with the higher score always goes first unless the scores are within 2 points of each other, in which case they roll off with a d6 to see who goes first. If you like individual initiative, this seems fine within the context of the way dexterity works in Holmes Basic. I've become fond of group initiative, myself.

You can parry in combat instead of attacking. This gives your opponent a -2 penalty when they try to hit you. The interesting part is that if the attacker still rolls the exact number they ordinarily need to hit you (or more accurately, that exact number plus 2), they still don't damage you, but they break your weapon. I hope you brought a spare! I really like this rule. My questions is, can you parry with a shield?

Ah, here's some precedent for 3E's "attack of opportunity" rules: If you withdraw from melee, your opponent gets a free swing at you with a +2 bonus to hit, and you don't get to count your shield toward your AC. Assuming this applies to monsters (or at least humanoid ones), putting meat shields brave warriors between the Magic-User and the enemy offers protection to the latter not only through occupied spaces, but also through free attacks on enemies that try to charge through the ranks and swing at the Magic-User directly. Sounds good.

Despite a few misgivings, I like the way Holmes Basic handles combat quite a lot. It seems simple and fast-paced, but with some neat touches I'm not used to. And the combat examples are fun to read and clarify things nicely. Rest in peace, Bruno the Battler. I'm sure old Malchor will miss you as he loots your corpse.

Next time: This dungeon is full of monsters! How can you sit there and eat rations?

*I originally included a full-blown rant on this topic above, but I thought it hurt the flow of the post. If you're interested, I've put it down here instead.

Okay, so a lot of people who write for and about D&D and the OSR, such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess founder James Raggi (if I understand his philosophical position on the matter correctly), like to say that a game of D&D doesn't have to focus primarily on combat or be "about" combat, and furthermore, that the game can greatly benefit from treating combat more like a trap to avoid than a thing to be sought out, or that the game can be exciting or interesting with little or no combat, or that a focus on combat is unnecessary and can sometimes be detrimental, or that the game is about more than just combat.

These are things that I agree with. They make sense to me.

But of course, there are those who take that to a greater extreme and make claims that combat should always be minimized or that the game should never play out like an action movie or that the game is really about exploration and resource management and only that, AND that if you disagree or if you play in some other manner, you are doing it wrong and are dumb. You know, the "one true way" types. The extreme opposite is also true: there are people who think you are doing it wrong if you care about anything besides combat or violence or being the biggest badass.

Me, I mostly just say "do what thou wilt" when it comes to games, as long as everyone involved enjoys the experience and is treated with due respect. That said, on the whole I actually really like combat in D&D. I like how, even though D&D is what I would consider the first RPG in the modern sense, compared to a lot of later RPGs it arguably fits into this weird intersection between RPGs and wargames. Later RPGs that moved away from those wargame elements are fine, too, but I do enjoy the particular way D&D works, and D&D often works as a really good tactical game. Many of my favorite D&D memories are from battle: clever maneuvers, clever use of magic or items, good teamwork, memorable foes, close calls, sudden changes of fortune, cool stunts, crazy ideas, risky moves, and dramatic confrontations. And even when reading actual play reports - especially LotFP ones, with all those weird monsters and items and spells - I often find the combat to be among the best parts, because that's when a lot of the dangerous and unexpected things happen, and perhaps when players are most often or most obviously forced to think under pressure. (For similar reasons, my favorite parts also usually include dealing with traps, tricks/puzzles, tense negotiations, and strange magical effects.)

I've come to appreciate the horror-oriented approach of LotFP, in which monsters are powerful and scary and attacking them head-on is not ideal. And I think that even a combat-oriented game is more enjoyable when encounters are not guaranteed to be matched to the party's level, and running away or pursuing smarter tactics than "CHAAAAAAAAARGE!" are often prudent. My preference in a less survival horror-flavored game is to have a good mix of balanced and unbalanced encounters, and when going to the other extreme of "Life-is-Just-Suffering-Even-in-D&D" I prefer the Raggi way. My point is simply that whatever kind of D&D I want to run or play is valid, provided I put thought and effort into it and the other players are willing to try it.

**I seem to remember some pretty complicated rules for combat phases in Philotomy's Musings.


  1. You played d20 Call of Cthulhu? Crikey, I'm sorry. No one should have to go through that.

    One of the players in my group does one -- or sometimes both -- of two things, without fail, in any game we play. He starts bar brawls, and he stocks up on dangerous amounts of burning oil. His characters tend to die early and often, for some reason I cannot fathom.

    1. Heh. Here's the sad part: I enjoyed d20 Call of Cthulhu. I mean, it's not as good as real Call of Cthulhu, but for the totally un-Lovecraftian gonzo action movie that my games turned into (mostly on purpose), it worked well. We had fun. Also, I'm not ashamed to say the book was gorgeous. But yeah, if you want ACTUAL Call of Cthulhu, the d20 version isn't great. I mean, feats in CofC? Come on...

      Has this player of yours ever used burning oil IN a bar brawl? If so, I should buy this person a drink...after putting on a fireproof suit, of course.

    2. He has not "crossed the streams" yet, although I am sure it would have apocalyptic consequences.

  2. • Back in the day, one didn't "roll up" a Dwarf or a Magic-User or what-have-you... You rolled your stats, and then looked at what was most interesting to play from those stats. You rolled 3d6 for each, down the line, so you might have massive strength but be crappy on everything else, so maybe you played a Fighting Man.

    • The gaming community has still mostly failed it's Save to disbelieve the illusion of "tanks" and "heal-bots" and such...

    1. Good point. I didn't really consider that. Looking at the rules, though, if I rolled up stats that were only suitable for a human Fighting Man, I'd probably play the character as really rash and irresponsible so he gets killed quickly and I can have another shot at actually getting someone interesting to play. But maybe that makes me a jerk. :P

      Of course, it can be fun to try and get invested in a character who "sucks" or who you normally wouldn't like. Take a look at the saga of Manrider, for example.

      I guess I just find it puzzling that people would want to play an RPG where they don't really even get to pick who they are. Restrictions can be a great way to inspire creativity, and it's not like it's BADWRONGFUN or anything. I just think it would suck to be the guy who's favorite thing about D&D is the magic system and who winds up playing a Fighting Man for twenty sessions, or the guy who has an interesting idea for a Cleric character but has to be a Thief. It's weird to me that the default mode of play gives you so little choice. It seems more like it should be a fun, optional rule than the default. Something to get people out of their comfort zone if they're stuck in a rut and bored.

    2. I once played a cardboard box in a game. One of my favorite game sessions _ever_, because I had to be creative to make it fun, and being creative is fun. I think a rash and irresponsible fighter -- ahem! Fighting Man -- could be a helluva lotta fun to play. And it might become a favorite session/character, if I weren't careful. ; )

      It must be puzzling for 'generational' reasons. The choice was playing D&D or running through the sprinklers or climbing the tree again. Playing D&D meant rolling 3d6 in order, and... The prospect of the game was tremendously exciting, and you'd make it work. Yeah, you weren't always thrilled, but you could start another game tomorrow or next week, or a new character in the same game next session or whatever. You built up a suite of characters and chose one for whatever someone was running. Or you stumbled into your 'dream character' and just kept playing him, until that purple worm ate him and you were distraught for a bit... But you played D&D not for a slice of it, but for ALL of it. It was ALL crazymagicbestmovieeverfun...

    3. That's a good way to put it.

      I guess my concern is that I (or rather, the people I play with) don't have the time anymore to experience ALL of it and to just be patient with the game system and hope we get what we want. I'm lucky in that I've managed to put together a more or less weekly game, but that's kind of rare nowadays. I'd be more inclined to do the whole 3d6 in order, whole stable of characters, stumbling along thing if I was still in middle school or high school, or even if I had multiple games going now. Nothing wrong with the approach, but I'm not sure I have the time or patience for it anymore.

      But you know what? It does sound fun.

    4. I am in the same boat, more or less. Instead of gaming weekly, we manage to get together 14-18 times a year. And people wanna play what they wanna play, not take a chance on something they didn't expect/plant for...

      But I still think it's amazingly fun to jump in and NOT KNOW...! It's a big part of why I go to a Con each year.

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