Sunday, October 13, 2013

Combat Bonuses in OD&D

This is pretty off-the-cuff, so please be kind if you comment.

I was rummaging around in the Howling Tower, Steve Winter's blog. I forget the exact post, but he made the comment that characters from classic fantasy fiction are not defined by their magic weapons. That threw my mind into a spin. I like magic items, in general. A gold piece is a gold piece, and that's great, but nothing screams treasure like magic items. He has a point, though, and it lands squarely on an amorphous unease I've had for some time. I want characters to be competent, even dangerous, intrinsically, not because of a glowing sword. The glowing sword can certainly make them more dangerous. Imagine two thieves plotting to steal something from a fighter with a magic sword. If the sword defines the character, the conversation could go something like this:
"We need to separate him from that damnable sword of his. Should be pretty easy pickins if we can do that."
If the sword merely augments the fighter, the thieves' plotting could go something like this:
"We need to catch him away from that shiny sword of his."
"Are you mad? He killed five men with his bare hands just to get the sword."
I prefer a game where the second conversation is the one that happens. Seems easy enough, right? Just keep a tight reign on magic bonuses. Bam! Done.

In my mind it's not that easy. It never is. See, I do want magic weapons to mean something. I want the thieves above to shit themselves at the thought of facing the fighter with his sword. I also want them to know that if they face him without it they are in deep trouble, too. Balance that against the fact that said fighter can't be a total badass and tote a sword that makes him a total badass.

And that's the tricky part. Make the weapon something to be feared, but not something that will throw things completely out of whack when wielded by a character who is rightfully feared. Keeping weapon bonuses low doesn't do it for me. A sword that hits 5% more often isn't exactly fearsome, even though we are assured that a +1 bonus in OD&D is meaningful.  I have an idea, based in principle on Chainmail.

The notion that a +1 bonus is significant comes from Chainmail, where it is indeed significant. However, Chainmail is a considerably different animal than OD&D. A +1 in Chainmail would be applied in one of two ways, depending on the type of combat being prosecuted. In the 20:1 Troop system, magic weapons add an extra die per "+" (in a nutshell, you roll a certain number of d6, scoring a hit on 5-6, or 6, for the most part, and in that system a hit = kill). That's pretty potent, since it gives the opportunity to kill an additional opponent. In the Man-to-Man and Fantasy Combat it adds its "+" to the roll, which is 2d6. Modifying a 2d6 roll by even +1 is much more significant than modifying a d20 roll by +1, especially when fighting creatures that require a 10 or more on 2d6 to hit.

So, here's my thinking: if a character is a big enough badass to deal with "common" threats pretty reliably, then a badass magic weapon is just overkill. The badass fighter could deal with those thieves just fine without the sword. BUT. . . such a weapon in such capable hands allows said fighter to take on foes beyond the ken of normal men.

I am looking at Chainmail for the answer to this conundrum. I have a couple of ideas, but they require looking at the to-hit roll in a different way. In Chainmail, in the Troop and Man-to-Man systems, a hit is synonymous with a kill. When the term was ported to D&D it came to be (mis)understood as a singular "attack". The d20 roll "to-hit" does not represent an attack. It represents the chance that a combatant wounds his opponent. It is necessary to embrace this idea to process my proposals for magic weapons.  I have two proposals:

#1) Any character armed with a magic weapon of any sort rolls an additional number of d20's equal to the "+" of the weapon. The rolls themselves are not modified at all. Each roll that indicates a hit will do d6 damage. 
#2) Only a single attack roll is made, with a number of additional d6 for damage equal to the "+" of the weapon.
Obviously, the second option is more powerful, perhaps too much. I prefer the first option, myself.

This allows an interesting option for magic armor, as well. Using this, I would rule that magic armor negates one damage die per "+" of the armor. If an opponent has only one die of damage, the armor subtracts its "+" from the roll. So, if a character with no magic weapon hits an opponent wearing Plate +2, he rolls his normal d6 for damage and subtracts -2 from the roll. If he had a +1 sword, he would roll a d6 and subtract -1.

I would also rule that characters with a 15+ STR is granted a +1 to the damage roll, but this bonus will not negate any penalty due to magic armor.

So, there it is. Perhaps a bit disjointed, perhaps even confusing. I am a stream-of-consciousness kind of guy.


  1. I like the additional attacks option. Are they restricted to the first target or does your +3 Orcbane allow you to go after 4 orcs a turn?

  2. I would say one target, since the rolls don't represent discrete attacks, but represent the chance to damage your opponent. It does beg the question of how that option would interact with fighters getting one attack per level vs 1HD opponents. I'll have to think on that one. Unless someone else has some ideas (hint hint).

  3. Well those are legitimate extra attacks-you should be able to spread the enhanced damage around. Allowing the full number of additional dice per attack would be overkill and result in a lot of extra dice rolls that don't matter much since the opponents only have 1 HD.

    However, I just recalled, OD&D specifies that magic sword bonuses only aid the attack roll and don't add to damage unless they are "purposed" e.g. +1, +3 vs. Trolls so that sword only does 1d6 damage except against a troll, then 1d6+3. That runs counter to your system, so....IDK.
    (Oddly, spears get the damage bonus.)

    BTW, in your original proposition, does the character have to hit with his "real" attack to get the bonus rolls? You could have each "plus" mean roll an additional D20 (unmodified?) and only one of those has to hit for the attack to hit.

    e.g. Dungar the Hero (4th level) is fighting a Ghoul (AC6) with his Sword +2, He needs an 11 to hit AC6. So he rolls 3 dice-- D20+2, D20 & D20. If any of them is an 11 or better he hits for 1D6.
    His original chance to hit is 60%, with the additional rolls it goes up to 90%.

  4. I really like #1 there.

    Isn't it also kind of fun that history repeats itself? It's not the first time someone thinks about the + on magic swords. Dave Arneson apparently had the + on a suit of armour and sword cancel each other out. I liked the idea that you needed a +2 sword to hit a dude in a +2 armour. Your thinking made me remember that rule. I like where that is heading.