Category Archives: Combat

Players Are Never Going To Stop Calling Their Shots

Fallout VATSWhen a player says they’re attacking a specific part of an enemy’s body, that’s a called shot. In my experience, called shots aren’t really a thing. I’ve never allowed them in my games, nor do I recall ever playing in a game where they were allowed. In fact, most folks I’ve talked to are dismissive of the idea. The consensus is that allowing called shots would awkwardly complicate a combat system that is designed to be simple.

And yet, despite apparently being an uncommon, unpopular mechanic, I keep seeing players try to use it.

At some point during every campaign, a player will ask if they can try to hit a monster’s eye, or hand, or poison-gas-spewing-appendage. I’ve seen folks do this whom I know don’t allow called shots in their own games. I’ve done it myself. We all know full well that the referee won’t (and, by our own logic, shouldn’t) allow it. Yet, we ask anyway, because as players, representing our own interests, it’s what we want to do. So, it occurs to me that if players want to call their shots so badly, perhaps we should talk seriously about letting them do it.

But before we do that, I want to frame the discussion by first talking about why we don’t allow it.

Combat is not the central focus of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s an important aspect of the game, but fundamentally, D&D is about exploration and discovery. The game’s core mechanic is the Three Step Conversation:

  • The referee describes an environment.
  • The player describes how they interact with that environment.
  • The referee describes how the environment responds to the player’s actions.

That’s the essence of the game, and it’s where the referee should try to keep the game’s focus. However, combat is a frequent occurrence, and the 3 Step Conversation isn’t good at satisfactorily resolving it. A separate resolution mechanic is required. But, since combat is not the core of the game, part of that mechanic’s job will be to get us back to the 3 Step Conversation as quickly as possible.

Which isn’t to say combat needs to be boring. It needs to be simple, and it needs to be fast, but hopefully, it can be both of those things and still be fun. What we want to avoid is the mess that was D&D 3rd edition, where combats became so complicated, and so lengthy, that they were the de facto core of the game. Despite the fact that 3rd edition combat still relied upon systems that were designed with the intent of minimizing the role of combat. 3rd edition’s mechanics are literally working at cross purposes to one another.

Hit points are part of keeping combat simple and fast. They are meant as a convenient abstraction not only for a character’s level of physical injury, but also for their luck, their experience, their level of fatigue, etc. To quote the man himself:

It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage–as indicated by constitution bonuses–and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the “sixth sense” which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.

-Gary Gygax, 1979
Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 82

Ergo, attempting to codify a system for called shots would require doing one of two bad things. Either you’d need to complicate combat by getting rid of overall hit points and coming up with some location-based hit method. OR, you’d have to stretch traditional hit points to fill a role they were never intended to fill, thus committing a the sin of 3rd editionism.

Obviously, the goal of this post is to come up with some method for including called shots in games. But how do we do it without also doing one of the two bad things?

Simple Called Shots

If a player wishes to make a called shot, they must first hit their foe, and roll damage in the upper 50% of their attack’s damage range. For example, if a character hits with a sword that deals 1d8 damage, they’ll need to roll a 5 or higher in order for their called shot to be successful. Likewise, if they’re dealing 3d6 damage (with a range of 3-18), they’ll need to roll 11 or higher.

When that happens, the player may choose to make a called shot. The hit point damage for called shots is reduced by 1/2 of the die’s potential maximum damage. So, if the attacker rolls a 5 on a d8, and opts to make a called shot, they’d subtract 4 from their damage, dealing only 1 against the target’s hit points.

In exchange, the referee should fiat some detriment upon the victim. It should be something appropriate to the body part targeted, the weapon used, and the amount of hit points the target has left. There are really no wrong answers, so long as the referee makes a good faith effort to respect the player’s success. Remember that in order to earn this, the player had to pass two tests  (first hitting the target, then rolling damage over 50%), and make a significant sacrifice by reducing the damage they dealt. The player has earned a cookie.

That’s it, really. What’s written above is all that is necessary to run the system, presuming a good referee. However, I’d like to make a further attempt to create guidelines for helping referees make good decisions. What’s written below boarders on complication, so feel free to disregard it and just use what’s written above if that works for you.

The severity of the detriment the referee comes up with can be determined by checking how many more hits from the player’s weapon it would take to kill the target, assuming they got maximum damage every time.

Let’s assume the player is using a d8 weapon, so that their maximum damage is 8. That would mean that:

  • Any foe with 8 or fewer hit points would take 1 hit to kill. (“Near Death)
  • Any foe with 16 or fewer hit points would take 2 hits to kill. (“Struggling”)
  • Any foe with 24 or fewer hit points would take 3 hits to kill. (“Injured”)
  • Any foe with 25+ hit points would take 4 or more hits to kill. (“Safe”)

This sounds complicated, but really it’s just taking the die type of a weapon, and multiplying it by 1, 2, and 3 to figure out whether a foe counts as Near Death, Struggling, Injured, or Safe. Of course, these are just terms. A perfectly healthy 1hd goblin will always be considered “near death” when attacked by someone wielding a two handed battleaxe.

If the target is Safe, then whatever detriment they suffer should be very temporary.  Perhaps 1d4 + [damage dealt] rounds. So, if the called shot is made against the creature’s eyes, then perhaps the hit caused a small cut in the creature’s brow. Blood obscures the its vision until it has a second to wipe that blood away.

If the target is Injured, then whatever detriment they suffer should last for the rest of the battle. If the attack was against their eyes, then perhaps it causes the eye to swell shut. It’s not a permanent injury, but it is something that will be impossible to take care of while mid-combat.

If the target is Struggling, they could be dealt an injury which will permanently reduce their effectiveness, but which is not debilitating. To use the eyes again, perhaps the attack causes the creature to lose one of their eyes. They can still see, but they lack depth perception. Or perhaps their corneas are scratched, causing their vision to become blurry.

If the target is Near Death, they could be dealt a permanently debilitating injury. Eyes will be cut out, arms or legs will be cut off, etcetera.

Hopefully that method is simple enough for the referee to easily memorize. The point is not to create an exact method which must be followed, but a guide to help referees make their own decisions at the table.

Fighter’s Armies

Caesar in Gaul

This bonus post is paid for by my supporters on Patreon. If you’d like to see more frequent posts from me, a dollar or two a month would be phenomenal.

I spend a lot of time coming up with interesting subsystems for magic users. I’ve done this a bit for clerics as well, and I suppose specialists benefit from my extensive tinkering with skills–even if part of my tinkering is to make skills available to other classes. But what about fighters? Why don’t they get any love?

It’s not because I don’t love fighters. I actually think they’re the single most important class in the game.  But these days, when I sit down to roll up a new character, I’m never thinking thematically. I’m not choosing between the feeling of being a wizard or a fighter. What I’m choosing is how much complexity I want to deal with. If I play a magic user, I need to prepare myself for dealing with spells, and spell systems, contributing to combat without putting myself in direct danger, etc. If I’m a fighter, literally the only thing I have to worry about is the game itself. When combat happens, I jump forward. When I level up, some numbers increase in a pre-determined way.

The simplicity of the fighter is important. It allows the players to engage in the game without worrying about extraneous rules. To me, that simplicity is sacrosanct. It’s something I want to protect. However, there is one bit of complexity I want to explore: armies.

It’s an ancient tradition of the game that at some point the fighter reaches “Name Level,” and recruits an army. I’ve never seen it happen in play, but I’ve always wanted to try it out, tinker with it, make it work for me. And now, finally, I’ve got a player who is forcing me to do so. He’s high level, he’s recruiting some dudes, and he wants to start an army. So…how am I going to run this?

If, at any point during a fighter’s adventuring career, they establish a stronghold, then they may recruit an army. Strongholds can take many forms, but they all count so long as 1. they are large enough to house the fighter’s army; and 2. the fighter, or the party as a whole, can reasonably claim & assert ownership of the place. (For example, having a deed to an old castle doesn’t count, unless you’ve cleared out all the monsters first).

Eager young men and women will flock to the fighter, seeking to make a name and a fortune for themselves. For each experience level the fighter has, they attract 1d4 recruits, modified by their Charisma. So, (assuming LotFP’s ability modifier table), a level 4 fighter with 14 Charisma could recruit 4d4+4 young folk; while the same fighter with 7 Charisma could recruit 4d4-4.

Each recruit begins as a level 0 fighter, with a morale score equal to 1/2 their general’s level. Groups of soldiers check their morale collectively, and have a maximum morale score of 10.  If their general is leading them personally, add 3 to their morale score. (again, with a maximum of 10)

Recruits can be leveled up as a group. Each new level requires 1 month of time, and some amount of money. To get the recruits up to level 1 from level 0 costs 500 money per recruit. After that, the cost per soldier is equal to half the experience totals listed in the fighter’s class description. So, to reach level 2, the general must spend 1000 money for every soldier. Level 3 requires 2000 money for every soldier, and so on.

Soldiers can also level up through combat. After any session where a significant battle took place, each surviving soldier rolls a d6. If they roll over their current level, they level up once.

If the general wishes, they can elevate individual soldiers to become commanders. Commanders must be trained to at least 1 level higher than the rest of the troops, and this training must be done at full cost for each level. Normal hirelings can also be employed as commanders, so long as they are fighters who are at least 1 level higher than the troops they will be leading.

Each commander may lead a group of up to 10 soldiers at a time. That group gains +1 to their morale. This bonus does not stack with the +3 the troops gain from being led directly by their general.

If any soldier reaches 1/2 of their general’s level (rounded up), they must check morale. If the check is failed, then the soldier has chosen to strike out and seek adventure in their own right. This check is repeated each time they level, so long as they continue to be 1/2 or higher than their general’s current level. If a whole group of soldiers reaches this point, they check their morale individually.

During combat, each time a group of soldiers loses 25% of their total fighting force, they must check morale by rolling 2d6. If they roll higher than their morale, they will flee the field. If they roll equal to or lower than their morale, they hold. If a group of soldiers sees another group flee the field, then they must also check morale.

Combat with armies is based off of Zak Sabbath‘s rules for skirmishes, presented in A Red & Pleasant Land. Assuming there is no special strategy in place, friend and foe are paired off, one-to-one, in  groups of roughly equivalent level. In any battle that takes place between two NPCs, roll a d4 for each side, and add the NPC’s levels. Whichever side rolls higher has slain the other.

Given the low die and the matching of levels, ties will likely occur often. When there is a tie, neither side is killed, and the battle continues next round.

If multiple NPCs gang up on a single foe, each NPC rolls a d4, and adds them together. However, only one of the group (the one with the highest level) should add their level to the roll.

Note that these rules are only a loose groundwork, meant to keep battles fast-paced in a game which is not built for large scale combats. The referee should be flexible, making adjustments for any cleverness on the part of either their players, or their monsters. But do not bog yourself down attempting to create an accurate simulation of events. Since everyone involved is an NPC, it’s best to get things out of the way quickly so the actual players can resume playing.

Some (non-binding) thoughts on adjudicating tactics:

  • If the general has their soldiers swarm a target rather than stay organized into ranks, their soldiers will be vulnerable to flanking. Flanked soldiers cannot add their level to their d4 roll.
  • If the general equips their soldiers with spears, the folks in the second rank can also attack a target, effectively doubling the number of soldiers who get to roll d4s against a single foe.
  • If the general equips all their men with long pole-weapons, then the enemy troops will not approach close enough to be killed unless they also have long pole-weapons.
  • If the soldiers are heavily armored, are using a shield wall, are fighting defensively, or are otherwise trained/equipped to be well defended, then if their foes roll higher than them by 1, it is considered a tie. (They do not get +1 to their rolls).
  • If the soldiers are mounted, and there is room on the battlefield for them to move between their foes quickly, then they may also add 1/2 their mount’s hit dice to their rolls (minimum 1).
  • If a mounted soldier is attacking a fleeing soldier, it is an automatic kill, without any roll required.
  • If soldiers are under an arrow bombardment, they may roll as usual, but success only indicates that they survive, not that they kill their foes.
  • Soldiers equipped with ranged weapons in a melee combat take a -2 penalty on their rolls.

Replacing dead soldiers is difficult. A fighter’s army is not a mercenary force which can be sustained by throwing money at it. Men and women pledge themselves to the fighter, because the fighter is an inspiring figure. And so, to replace fallen soldiers, the fighter must do something inspiring.

Each time the fighter levels up, or their army wins some notable victory, the fighter may re-roll their recruitment dice. (1d4/level, modified by Cha). If they roll higher than their current army size, then they gain enough new recruits to cover the difference. So, if they currently have 10 soldiers, and they roll a 12, then they gain 2 level 0 recruits.

As a final note, I’ll point out that armies are a limited tool. It would be difficult, and pointless, for a fighter to drag their troops along on every adventure. Armies are noisy to move, require a lot of rations out in the field, and cannot fit into smaller areas, such as dungeon corridors. Furthermore, they’re bad at fighting anything which strays from what they would consider “normal.” In a historical fantasy setting, this would limit an army to fighting other groups of humans. Whereas anything like a wizard or a monster would require a morale check every time their foe did anything weird. (Eat a man whole? Morale check. Spray fire from its mouth? Morale check. Etc.)

Swallowed Whole

6a52685c2281285a3df0d8bb43985651I discussed this a few months ago on google+, but it seems pertinent to go into some more detail here.

The ability of large monsters to swallow their prey whole is a time honored part of the game. But as best I can tell, there’s not actually a lot of detail on how it’s supposed to work. The AD&D DMG doesn’t mention it in the index, and in the monster manual it tends to simply state that the swallowing happens. Such as this entry for the T-Rex:

“This monster will pursue and eat nearly anything, engulfing man-sized creatures whole on a rolle of 18 or better.”

That’s the end of the entry. A perfectly reasonable interpretation would be that a character who is swallowed whole is now dead. But that feels pretty cheap. A more interesting idea is that the character is now in a state of limbo. If the remaining party members slay the beast then their friend can be saved; if the monster gets away, then their friend is dead.

But shitty movie cliches and lenient referees have convinced most players that being swallowed whole is somehow actually beneficial to them. After all, their sword can’t exactly miss when they’re entirely surrounded by the soft and vulnerable flesh of a monsters insides, right?

From the player’s perspective,though,  it’s not an entirely unreasonable request to want to continue fighting so long as they’re still alive and have a reasonable expectation of being conscious. So I think we have to give them the opportunity. But the mechanics of the situation need to represent the fact that the players are at a severe disadvantage. If they actually manage to free themselves, then it should be impressive not because the imagery is so cool (it isn’t. It’s cliche and boring). It should be impressive because the odds of success seemed so incredibly remote.

SO, Miscreated Creatures will include a set of “Standard Swallowed Whole” rules in its appendix. Monsters will either swallow whole according to the Standard Rules, or they will list their deviation from such. I haven’t 100% settled on how the Standard Rules should look yet, but this is where I’m sitting currently:

When a character is swallowed whole, they must succeed on a save versus Paralyzation to determine if they keep hold of their weapon. Bludgeoning weapons like hammers or fists are useless. It’s impossible to get sufficient momentum with such weapons to do any good. Whips fail for the same reason. Most ranged weapons, such as bows, are similarly useless. Guns work, but cannot be reloaded once fired. Any weapon that is too long (a spear, a pike, a musket) wont’ be able to be swallowed correctly, and will thus be broken in half when swallowed. Characters who make their save will be able to use any slicing or piercing weapons they can hold on to.

Attacks made while swallowed whole automatically hit, unless a 1 or 2 is rolled, in which case the character loses their weapon and can’t get it back. Otherwise, roll damage. The creatures takes only half of the damage rolled. Creatures who swallow live prey do not have delicate stomach tissue.

The acids and lack of breathable air within a creatures stomach will be suffocating for any character trapped within. After 1 + Constitution Modifier rounds, a character must make a save versus Poison each round in order to remain conscious. Swallowed characters take 10% of their total hit points as damage each adventuring turn.

Using these rules, a swallowed character’s ability to resist will likely end within only a few rounds. Even a high level halfling with 18 CON has a 10% chance to succumb each round after the 4. But their death will be slow, allowing their companions time to rescue them by hunting down and slaying the creature even if it flees.

These rules are a little over complicated perhaps. Much as I like simple rules, I have a habit of writing rules the way Pathfinder taught me to.  TL;DR:

Save v. Para to determine if you can hold onto your weapon. Awkward weapons don’t work. 1-2 attack roll drops weapon, all others are hits that deal 1/2 damage. Save v. Poison to stay awake after 1 + Con Modifier rounds. Take 10% damage each adventuring turn.

Of course, some monsters will have steel bellies that can’t be harmed, or their bellies will be full of fire that kills you very quickly. Unpredictability is the name of the game. But I think this forms a good basis from which to adjudicate monsters that swallow characters whole.

Related Links:

The google+ discussion about this.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess House Rules, Part 1 of 2

Jan2015_FencerWhen I was a Pathfinder GM, tinkering with and  changing the game’s rules was a pastime of mine. It was the primary driving force behind most of my writing back then. There were some downsides to it. I annoyed my players, who had to adjust to my frequent rules changes. And, occasionally, I would make the game’s rules lopsided, by failing to take rule interactions into account.

Since switching to Lamentations of the Flame Princess, I’ve had little to tinker with. I’ve done a fair amount of adding rules on top of the existing ones. But for the most part, LotFP’s rules do exactly what they should. They give me a framework to run the kinds of games I like to run, without getting in my way.

But no game system can ever be perfect for anyone but the GM who wrote it. After more than a year of running LotFP Rules-As-Written, I’d accumulated a small list of inadequacies I wanted to correct. So I’ve been experimenting with a few alterations that I’d like to share.

I’m going to break this post up into two parts. The changes to combat rules are here, and the changes to the skills system will come later.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

-Weapons, and use for the off-hand-

In RAW LotFP, there are four weapon types:

Minor: 1d4, -2 to hit v. unadjusted AC of 15 or better.
Small: 1d6
Medium: 1d8
Great: 1d10

Great weapons require two hands, while all other weapons use only 1 hand, aside from a handful of special cases (like the staff).  The only thing the player can do with the off hand is hold a shield. I’d like to keep this simplicity, but open up a few options for the player. My four weapon types are:

Minor: 1d4, -2 to hit v. unadjusted AC of 15 or better.
Small: 1d6
Medium: 1d8
Great: 1d12, -1 AC, Requires both hands.

If the player isn’t using a great weapon, they can use their off-hand in several ways:

Shield in off-hand: +1 AC v. melee attacks, +2 AC v. ranged attacks. (Unchanged from RAW)
Second weapon in off-hand: +1 AC v. melee attacks, +2 when fighting defensively or parrying, +0 v. great weapon and ranged attacks.
Free off-hand: +1 to hit, +1 to AC v. melee when parrying.
Both hands on Medium weapon: 1d10 damage instead of 1d8

I like giving players access to a 1d12 weapon; and I also like that great weapons come at a cost. I don’t think enough systems give players an advantage for focusing all their attention on a single handed weapon. I also like the idea of a player shifting between one and two hands with their medium weapon. Allowing them to swap between higher damage and higher hit chance.

I do think the benefit of having an off-hand weapon is too low, but I want to avoid making it too powerful. I want it to be an interesting option, not means to make characters “totally badass.”


Grappling has historically been a big problem for D&D. And, while LotFP’s “Wrestling” rules are adequately simple, they aren’t perfect. But, as I’ve recently learned, Gygax published a rule in Strategic Review which is pretty close to perfect.

I’m sorry I can’t find the blog which turned me on to this rule (and had a great variation on it), but thanks to Courtney Campbell for pointing me to the rule’s source. After some tweaking, this is what I’m going to try:

When characters grapple, both sides roll their hit dice as a pool. (So a single level 10 fighter would roll 10d8, and 20 1-hit-die kobolds might roll 20d4). The defender must always be a single target, but multiple attackers can attempt to swarm the target. The side which rolls the higher sum number wins. The winner can choose to do one of the following:

  • Knock their opponent(s) prone and stun them for 1 round.
  • Knock their opponent(s) 10’ back and stun them for 1 round.
  • Pin their opponent. (Only one)

A pinned character can attempt to throw off their attacker(s) by rolling half their hit die pool each round. Attackers can opt either to deal 1d4 damage to a pinned character each round, or to move the pinned character up to half of the attacker’s movement speed. A single attacker may also use a small or minor weapon against a pinned character–but not if they’re part of a ‘swarm.’

Aside from simplifying grappling enough that I won’t need to look it up again, the major benefit of this rule is the way it empowers swarms of small creatures. Traditionally, a mid level fighter can stand in the middle of a dozen first level foes, and slay them at leisure. Using this rule, large groups will always be a serious threat, because of their ability to overwhelm a defender.

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