Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Playing AD&D Combat Like It's 1979

It seemed like such a good idea a few weeks ago.  "Hey, you know what fellas?  AD&D is being reprinted!  We're already playing Labyrinth Lord with the Advanced Edition Companion - it's practically AD&D now, so why don't we just convert all the way?"

Let me tell how you that's working out.

First, the good news.  I still have a group of players, and the game hasn't blown up, but then again, I haven't sent out invites for next weekend's game.  (We'll see who shows up).  After a few days of pouring over pages 61-71 of the DMG this weekend, the general consensus from the guys seemed to be, "WTF, Gygax?"

I consider EGG a creative genius; I love his adventure modules, especially those classic high level AD&D romps from the 70's, with their blend of exploration and intricate, tactical combat.  But his gift was not the art of clear and understandable rules.

Here are our observations on how AD&D by-the-book differs from the beloved editions.

There's a requirement of calculating how much the surprised side lost the roll, because they get punched in the face over and over again for that many segments - just bam, bam, bam, straight rights, to the kisser.  Luckily, I don't foresee this happening often; the group has 2 ranger meat shields and a Brownie familiar named Packer, so they usually can't be surprised, and since they clomp around in plate mail holding continual  light spells, the only monsters they can surprise are already deaf and blind.

The high roll wins initiative, but then you calculate the number of segments between the two rolls to determine when the other side gets to go.  So when the party rolls a 5, and the monsters roll a 2, the party actually goes on 1, and the monsters actually go on 4.  Perfectly clear.

My house rule is that the winner is the low roll, and the sides act on the segment showing on the die; in the example of a 2 and a 5, the 2 wins initiative and acts on segment 2, the other side starts on 5.  It keeps the spirit of the rule without the awesome math.

One of the characters was getting double teamed by a pair of trolls last game, and wasn't happy that all 6 attacks were happening at the same time.  Of course, I knew there was a rule calling out "attack routines" like claw\claw\bite as a single attack sequence (and not the AD&D definition of multiple attacks, which happen staggered later in the round), but of course I couldn't find it mid-game.  (It's here in the section on initiative).

Random Missile and Melee Targets
When firing into a melee, you randomly determine the target - including friends.  It turns out you randomly determine the opponent for  a melee swing, too.  No more tactics around "let's whittle down the wounded monster".  Random, I say!

Closing to Striking Range
In classic D&D, every combatant can move 1/3 of their speed each combat round and still make an attack; the typical plate-wearing fighter can move 20' and swing.  Players get used to being able to move and attack.

AD&D handles things… differently.  First off, you can move your entire movement (60' - or should I say - 6") and then neither side gets a swing for the rest of that round.  Monsters that move 12" can cover a gigantic chunk of terrain - that's like the next zip code.  Then they move in carefully the last few feet and ensure neither side gets in an attack.  One of the guys likes this, from the perspective that winning initiative is no longer a penalty - you can saunter up and tie down the front liners.  Everyone else, not so much.

If you really want to move and attack, it's got to be a charge - you lose your AC dexterity bonus, run like mad, but you get a +2 to the swing.  However, the guy with the longer weapon gets the first attack when the charger enters melee distance, and you better hope they don't have spears or pole arms.

I don't mind the AD&D approach to closing to striking range, but the players hate it.  Most of the time, monsters are coming out of the dark, and the party doesn't even see them until they enter the lighted up zone, and then the monsters tie down the front line because they "closed to striking range".  Roll a new initiative.  Muhaha.

Weapon Speed Factors
Weapon speed factors are not very coherent.    I was using speed factors to break the tie in simultaneous combat, but after a closer reading of that section, I saw that it actually says you only use speed factors when both guys are using weapons!  So a natural weapon wouldn’t count, and you wouldn't break out weapon speed factors when fighting monsters armed with claws.  But then the very next sentence goes on to point out that fist/punch (a natural weapon that uses a weapon speed of 1) would strike before a dagger, at speed 2, if there was a tie, and I was back to being thoroughly confused.

I won't even go into the next series of paragraphs, which speak to how one combatant with a really fast weapon might get a bunch of swings before the other guy gets a single swing, all in the same round.  I have no idea how that's meant to interact with multiple attacks, attack routines, and who knows what else.  Everyone should be swinging daggers!

Luckily, there's this quote over on Dragonsfoot where Gary, in later years, had this to say about weapon speeds:

"Aargh!  Forget weapons speed factors. I must have been under the effect of a hex when I included them in the bloody rules."

When the boss says a rule is bunk, I'm glad to drop-kick it.  Hey, what are the odds that WOTC takes a Sharpie to the weapon speed factor section of their reprints and puts Gary's quote in the margins?

OSRIC to the Rescue
Let's say you want to jump on the AD&D bandwagon, like us.  The new books are coming out, and in a euphoria of gamer attention deficit disorder, you too retcon your campaign.  Don't end up with edition beer goggles!  There's no need to wake up in the morning, your hand draped over the 1E DMG, reaching for aspirin and alkaselzer and wondering if you went to one of those Elvis chapels to get permanently hitched to that efreet cover.

OSRIC dumps the weapon speed factors (per the boss's quote up there) and restates the AD&D combat rules simply and clearly.  You get all the perks of running AD&D combat without having to cross-index the text, like a Biblical scholar, and deal with the obfuscation.  Plus, the OSRIC pdf is well-hyperlinked and tablet friendly; you can get your own copy here:  OSRIC.  I can truly appreciate the awesome job those guys did!

The 1E DMG is a great read, but it's not the best reference for use while actually running a game.  I'm reminded how I started with Moldvay BX, and all those years playing "AD&D" back in the 80's meant that we were really just using the BX combat system with the player's handbook and monster manual.  Judging by my player's reactions, they're encountering the AD&D combat system for the first time as well.  Wish us luck as we continue to play (mostly by the book) as if the Moldvay BX edition was never printed in 1980.

I do think the players are *really* enjoying spell components and casting times in melee.  I've got a nose for these things.


  1. You could also check out 2e. The grognard of our group was surprised at how much he enjoyed 2e, declaring it, in true grognard fashion, "merely a cleaned up version of 1e"

  2. Don't end up with edition beer goggles! There's no need to wake up in the morning, your hand draped over the 1E DMG, reaching for aspirin and alkaselzer and wondering if you went to one of those Elvis chapels to get permanently hitched to that efreet cover.

    Remind me not to eat sandwiches while reading your posts. I was nearly a goner there.

    The AD&D bandwagon is not for me. It took a quarter of a century (and the OSR) for me to realise that Moldvay/Cook D&D has almost everything I need and very little that I don't. I completely agree that while Gary's DMG is a wonderful book to read (perhaps the best this hobby has ever produced), it's far from ideal at the table.

    I haven't really looked at OSRIC but it sounds like a (huge) job well done. I think purestrainhuman makes a valid point, too. I never played much 2e, but I've owned the core books for twenty years and Cook (unsurprisingly, in my opinion, given how fine his Expert rulebook is) makes a good fist of presenting streamlined versions of the rules, especially for combat. For initiative, segments are out the window, and it's roll 1d10 for each side, with lowest roll going first just like your house rule. (Maybe you knew this.) I think 2e deserves more study, if not love, in the OSR.

  3. Wow...I would hazard to say that the filter of time has obscured much of that for me. That's not to say that I don't remember some of those very same issues. But I also think that we had so heavily house ruled AD&D combat by the time that 2E came out that it was all but unrecognizable.

    Things I know we didn't pay attention to:
    1. Weapon speed
    2. Weapon v. Armor
    3. d6 initiative
    4. Surprise (btb)
    5. Movement / Attack

    Things we added (or changed):
    1. Movement / Attack (1/2 move and attack...Just like Basic)
    2. d10 for initiative (modified by Dex)
    3. d6 roll for surprise (you're surprised if you roll a '1')

    And I agree 100% regarding OSRIC. It's a wonderful reference and using it at table is a heck of a lot easier than the PHB / DMG shuffle.

    Of course though, once we'd morphed it to the degree that we had, books were superfluous anyway. ;-)

  4. I was glad to see this post, since I just couldn't get the thrill so many expressed for the 1E books being reprinted. As you point out, most of the retro-clones just do it better.

    Regarding the many rules/quirks/stumbling blocks you mentioned, some we loved and some we tossed. I don't think we ever used Weapon Speed more than a bit, but the mages all used spell components; they provided good hooks for adventures. Segments were tossed in favor of going in DEX order once Initiative was determined. And I know those "close to striking range" rules caused more than one argument.

  5. I will find a way to make speed factors work, dammit! I think that anything that allows one weapon to be differentiated from another (and makes trade-offs necessary when choosing between them) is a good thing.

    1. You have my moral support. The closest I have come is giving automatic initiative in one on one fights to the faster weapon. Doing much else in my experience either gets into the mess of crazy multiple attacks per round or ends up functioning as a one-time surprise round bonus, which doesn't really model the advantage of a faster weapon very well (compare A B A B to B A B A; slight advantage, but erodes as the number of rounds increases). I would love to read other creative alternatives.

    2. Check out Michael Moscrip's idea below - that could be a really excellent way of keeping weapon speed's relevant without the confusion of 1E's mess.

      One of my "to-do's" after reading all the replies here is to see what 2E did with weapon speeds, as well, since a number of folks have recommended 2E.

    3. Over on my blog, I've posted a set of possible house rules for an AD&D game, including a preliminary idea for using weapon speed factors and segments in combination with initiative.

  6. We tossed all of this when we played. It was just too complex:

    - surprise and initiative with an extra math step?

    - Weapon speed factors that you used except when you didn't?

    - Weapon vs. AC, which only mattered for monsters that had an AC-equivalent ("AC -1 because of plate and a +3 shield? I get a +2! AC -1 because of, uhm, it's a demon? Nothing, I guess.")

    - a whole sub-system for unarmed fighting?

    - possible multiple attacks based on weapon speed and initiative rolls?

    It was a nightmare to even consider them. Instead we did d6 initiative, higher wins, when we bothered to roll it, let people move around freely, and then just went around the table and had people roll their d20s vs. AC on the attack table, and a little later used THAC0. Oh, and a variant unarmed system. That's really it. We didn't play AD&D by the book, and I think you're beginning to see why.

  7. I never realised that there was a rule for random hits in melee too. I'll have to have another look; although I'd never use it. I do, however, stick to the random firing into melee and love it when the players fire away regardless. Great fun :)

  8. I like the idea of "firing into melee" with a melee weapon, when taken in combination with area required to wield a weapon. In fact, I have a half-written post about it.

    I think Greyhawk Grognard (could be misremembering this) recently had a post about the differences between a line of spear wielders and a single person with a two-handed sword in a ten foot corridor and how those two situations should work.

  9. Back when we played 1e we used individual initiative. We rolled d10, then applied our init. modifier. Our initiative modifier was weapon speed + your dex mod. Well, minus your dex mod actually, but by now we should all know that.

    1. That's pretty good. Did you give missile weapons their own phase, or just roll unmodified by weapon speed (since they don't have one)?

    2. Either way, adding the segment casting time (with no Dex mod) to magic seems like the best way to go for spellcasting.

  10. I know ADDICT from Dragonsfoot really clarified a lot for me on AD&D Combat.

  11. For missile weapons in 1e we went by rate of fire. For those with rof of 1 you went in segment 5. For those with rof of 2 you went in segments 3 and 7. I don't remember about darts..

    I think your missile fire segments were modified by your dex adjustment as well, but I'm not 100% sure of that.

  12. And yeah, that's how we did spellcasting.

  13. On the other hand, if you read the example of combat, on p71 of the DMG, it's pretty straight forward. Basically only half a page to describe a combat between two parties.

    While he used the weapon vs armor factor, he clearly didn't use speed factors or even segments (other than for how long the second party is surprised).

    Granted all the silly rules probably shouldn't have been in there, but I don't think even in 1979 that anyone used them - not even EGG did...

    I think part of it was that the DMG was rushed out. The MM and PHB had been released 1-2 years before and they probably put out the DMG without proper editing.