Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Better Living Through Clones: Fighters & Combat

OD&D and classic D&D tend to have rather prosaic combat systems. Everything is neatly abstracted; there are a few well-known wrinkles, but really it's straightforward d20 rolls where Strength and Dexterity may be a factor, and fighters improve in blocks of 3 levels and don't get much else aside from hit points. Most clones do something about one or both.

Just about every clone breaks up the 3-level bands for fighters and improves the fighter's to-hit chances at either 2nd or 3rd level, if not both. The groups are never exactly even, but tend to improve the to-hit every level or two. This makes 2nd and 3rd level a bit easier than their OD&D / classic D&D counterparts, but generally in a useful way. Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord both have varied charts that are generally applicable here.

Swords & Wizardry has a very simple rule: fighters get 1 attack per level against creatures with 1 HD or less. It makes fighters much better when fighting orcs or goblins, but I have never really liked how it doesn't scale at all. In a d6-based damage system, I prefer Empire of the Petal Throne to S&W here.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess improves fighters at the cost of every other class, making it so only fighters improve their to-hit probabilities. I don't like that approach, specifically because I think fighters shouldn't improve at others' expense. There are some good combat options, though: pressing an attack (+2 to-hit for -4 AC) and its opposite, defensive fighting (-4 to hit, +2 to AC). These are good alternatives to the Holmes parry, which requires the full attack for a small bonus to AC.

Adventurer Conqueror King does a couple of interesting things as well. Fighters and dwarves get bonuses to damage by level, with fighters having (Level/3, round down)+1 points of bonus damage. It's so simple I actually missed it in previous read-throughs of the rulebook. ACKS also allows a Cleave attack. This is similar to the 3e D&D Cleave feat, so the fighter moves on to the next foe within 5' after killing the previous one. The number of such attacks is limited by level (or level / 2 for clerics). I like the idea in general, but I'm not enamored of the 5' space which tends to be a 3e contrivance.

Each of these rules adds interest to combat or makes the fighter more effective without making the system noticeably more complicated. I tend to like the ACKS Cleave for variable damage, with or without its damage, better than S&W's OD&D-based 1 HD rule because of the scaling. LotFP's press and defend, meanwhile, are straightforward and I like the tendency to give up 4 points to gain 2.

One other thing that's worth mentioning is Dungeon Crawl Classics, with its Mighty Deed of Arms. I like this idea generally but it's so bound to the action die system (a Deed succeeds if the action die is 3 or higher) that I'm not sure I'd use it. But it does make me think: what about using it as general inspiration for critical hits? (As opposed to the critical charts in DCC, which remind me of Player's Option: Combat & Tactics for 2e.) A natural 20 gets some bonus action in addition to the normal damage roll. I've been using a flat +2 but something like a disarm or called shot might feel more appropriate.


  1. Bear in mind that OD&D had expanded to-hit charts in Liaisons Dangereuses #73, with fighting-men improving every level except 2nd, 8th, 11th, and every six levels thereafter. Interesting note: all classes go up to level 32, despite there being room for magic-users to go much higher. I have no clue what's going on with the monster level column, unfortunately

    I've always loved the general idea of what 3e did with cleaving, though I thought it disallowed 5' steps. Maybe I'm missing something

    1. ACKS Cleave specifies that the next foe has to be within 5' of the fighter, which I think is how 3e had defined it.

    2. According to the 3.0 SRD, foes have to be within "the immediate vicinity", while 3.5 uses the term "reach" (one of the few changes I actually like!); both state that a 5 ft. step cannot be made before the extra attack

    3. Right. In 3.5, a fighter *cannot* move after cleaving. In ACKS, you can move up to 5'. This allows a fighter to press through a column of enemies, breaking through to the other side, cutting to a soft target like a mage, etc. (ACKS's cleave rule was not based on 3.5E's cleave rule, it was based on Arneson's "chop til you drop" rule.)

    4. Thanks for the clarification on the source; as a riff on Arneson it makes more sense.

  2. Backswords & Bucklers, in addition to the one attack per level against opponents of 1 HD or less, also gives fighters the ability of Experienced Eye, which means a fighter can try to assess whether an opponent has more or less HD than himself or herself by making a saving throw at the start of combat.

  3. To be honest, I'm a proponent skill systems, and one thing that struck me after 3E introduced a unifying mechanic (d20) and a thorough skill system was how fighting really could be treated as just another skill, or group of skills - but wasn't, and still isn't. Instead, it's partitioned off.

    Why not make fighting into a group of skills? Light weapons for called shots, heavy weapons for cleaving, ranged weapons for shooting, punch skill for monks, grappling skill, etc., to whatever degree of granularity you desire. Perhaps there's a "tactics" skill that encompasses the Battlefield Eye thing as well as other maneuvers like attacks of opportunity, flanking bonuses, etc. Then make *all* fighting skills into "class skills" for fighters, make only one or two of them at most class skills for the other classes (e.g. rogues/thieves/specialists get only light weapons; clerics get only heavy weapons, etc.), and let everyone decide how much they want to balance their fighting with their Lore and their Climb and their Bluff and so on.

    That solves the LotFP "only fighters ever get better at hitting stuff" problem; it gives you a stat to hang your mechanics for called shots and cleaving on; it creates meaningful choices for the players; it allows a wizard to have decent skill with a longsword, and so on.


    1. I'm not a proponent of skill systems at all, to be honest, and wouldn't want to do this kind of breakdown. I prefer these things to be there for the whole fighter class rather than making it a skill-based set of choices.

    2. The designers of 3e talked about this and they found that everyone would just max out all their fighting skills anyway so there wasn't much point.

    3. Wayne R. - I suppose someone using skills could just give fighters enough skill points to get all the fighting skills plus one mundane one, and a player who wanted to model a "pure military" type could, while people who wanted to be able to do anything else would simply specialize. That said, whatever play style works for you, works for you.

      Hedgehobbit - the obvious solution to that is to make sure other parts of the system encourage problem-solving outside of pure combat. A couple parts of the puzzle, off the top of my head:

      1. Build a system that gives XP rewards for something other than killing monsters - one of the problems with 3E (IMO) was that they got rid of XP-for-gold, and thereafter most XP seemed to come from combat... encouraging a "kill everything" mentality, which in turn encouraged a mentality where any foe that couldn't just be stabbed to death was somehow "unfair" and shouldn't be used.

      2. Encourage unbalanced encounter design, so that some challenges can be defeated without the need for an "optimized" character "build," while others *must* be faced in a way other than head-on.

      3. Break up "fighting" into a mix of skills, allowing fighters to excel in a few fighting styles while discouraging them from being only about combat. This might also solve the silly problem 3E fighters had where they ended up carrying around one of every kind of weapon just to have an optimal "damage type" available for each encounter.

      (PS. You say they "talked" about it - but was the result demonstrated in playtesting? Theory always carries less weight than testing, after all. By the same token, my own theories need to be extensively tested - I hope to be able to some day. But then, don't we all.)

  4. You mentioned the Empire of the Petal Throne damage rules (which you know I'm a fan of) but it surprises me that I haven't found a single clone that uses Arnson's excess damage rule in place of cleave. I've found this to be a great equalizer between the fighter and magic-user, allowing the fighter to deal with large crowds of low level monsters very effectively. Something only magic-users can do in most older versions of D&D. A simple solution to the "linear fighters, quadratic wizard" problem.

  5. The alpha rule set for my 0e homage uses over-damage (an extra die) when you roll four better than the to hit number. Fighters also cleave indefinitely, and can move "nearby" rather than a set number of feet. I can imagine the whirlwind attack from Diablo 2. Fighters and paladins get a very generous +1 BAB per two levels.

    I did take inspiration from EPT's attacks vs hit dice table even though there's no table as such.

    Since combat is on two six siders and not on a 20, these advantages are really hard to eyeball versus a 20 system. The fighter does go a little quadratic. That's good.

  6. My Fighter cleave is extra silly because you get +1 to hit and damage for everyone you cleaved through that round. Really clears out the little guys. I picture it like Axe from dota.
    Moving a short distance between attacks is also allowed so you can whirl through the zombies and behead the necromancer if you're lucky.

    I haven't noticed much of an issue with LotFP's fighter-only attack bonus. Considering AC is generally capped at the big 18 (although the plate armoured Halfling in my game is currently a 22 AC monster) it saves on the classic item bonus arms race.
    Everyone is at low levels though (someone got to level three!) so maybe it gets more overpowering, but considering the prevalence of unfightable unique monsters in classic LotFP they're only really getting better and better at killing human beings.


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