Since D&D was first released to the masses in 1974, there have been some that have wanted to incorporate more “realism” into their games. Something I personally say, do as you feel for your games, but keep your damned physics out of my fantasy. These days, it seems that some of those that object to certain aspects of the game on the grounds of “realism” do so out of the claim of traditionalism and being “old school”. This claim is pure bunk as I’ll show by quoting one of D&D’s original creators (E. Gary Gygax) in a letter to White Dwarf magazine and an article from The Dragon magazine in their (unedited and unadulterated) entirety.
There are some that claim that citing these old letters and articles is taking Mr. Gygax out of context (a claim I find fatuous at best, especially after actually reading the original materials in full).
Note: If you know of other materials on the subject by the original creators, I’d love to know about them so that I can add them to this.
White Dwarf, Issue 7 (June/July 1978)
I read the article Combat and Armour Class by Roger Musson with considerable dismay. It appears that the good gentleman does not know what D&D and is all about.
Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy game, of course, and this most reasonably indicates that statements regarding “realism” in a game must go out the window. (Quite frankly, there is no game with any true realism in it, or it would be real and not a game. Folks seeking realism should go and participate in whatever the game is based on, if possible, viz. if they are looking for realism in wargames they should enlist in the military service.) It got worse thereafter.
D&D is a HEROIC fantasy game. Who can slit Conan’s throat at a blow? The examples are too numerous to mention, but the point is that the game is aimed at allowing participants to create a heroic character who is not subject to some fluke. Getting killed requires a lot of (mis-)play in most cases. How does the fighter escape the dragon’s breath? The same way other superheroes do — bending a link of chain or slipping into an unnoticed crevass in the rock he was chained to or whatever, i.e. the same way all other larger-than-life sword & sorcery heroes manage to avoid certain death.
In summation, most players find that the game of seeking and gaining, with the ensuing increase in character capability is the thing. Combat at best is something to be done quickly so as to get on with the fun, and IT MUST NOT BE LOADED SO AS TO GIVE PLAYERS NO CHANCE TO ESCAPE IF IT IS GOING AGAINST THEM. Neither, of course, must it be a walkover. (And Conan is usually in a shirt of mail in battle!) Enough said.
E. Gary Gygax, Lake Geneva, USA.
The Dragon, Issue 16 (July 1978)
Role-Playing: Realism vs. Game Logic; Spell Points, Vanity Press and Rip-offs
by E. Gary Gygax
Despite the continued success of D&D, despite the evergrowing demand for the game, I remain somewhat amazed and very pleased that so many people share a love for the fantastic and heroic with me. It is indeed an unusual honor to have been able to bring so many people so much enjoyment. It tends to make one work harder at other projects so as to make certain the best possible effort is presented. Whatever is done will invariably be compared to D&D, and none of us at TSR have any desire to produce a game which falls short of public expectations.
The position of originating the concept of a paper & pencil fantasy role playing game and introducing it to the gaming hobby stands greatly to the credit of TSR. In my mind, it puts us beside the creators of chess (whoever they were), miniature wargames (H.G. Wells), and board wargames (thank you, Avalon Hill!). TSR designed and promoted the whole; it pioneered a concept which is today the most popular form of our hobby. Little did I — or the other members of the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association — realize as we fought out fantasy miniatures battles on my sand table that the publication of the rules we used to do so, the “Fantasy Supplement” to CHAINMAIL (Copyright 1971), would pioneer a whole new form of game. There are currently some 100,000 D&D players, and at the current rate of growth that number could easily double next year. This large audience is highly devoted. Well-wishers are many, and there but few who complain that D&D is not everything they had hoped for in a game.
However, amongst those who play the game avidly there are a vocal few who continually state their opinions as to how and where the game is lacking — and, of course, how they have the perfect solution. I do not take issue with any general statement that D&D is not flawless; obviously, human imperfection precludes the claim to perfection. I do admit to becoming a trifle irritated at times to read an article in some obscure D&D fan magazine or a letter to the editor of some small publication which attacks the game — or claims to be sure to improve D&D if only their new and “improved” rules are followed — with ill-conceived or asinine logic. My irritation is, I hope, only impatience with those who only dimly preceive the actual concepts of the game, and not wounded vanity. Consider what a game is:
Gaming is a form of play. Games are usually for diversion or amusement, although sometimes they are played for a stake (gambling) or prizes. They are typically contests. Fun is a synonym for game. To my mind, a game which provides ample fun and enjoyment is good, and if it brings endless hours of amusement and diversion it is proportionately better. This view is held in common with most D&D enthusiasts, but there are those vociferous few who seem to find their principal enjoyment in attacking rather than playing the game. The uniform element amongst these individuals is a complete failure to grasp the simple fact that D&D is a game. Its rules are designed and published so as to assure a balanced and cohesive whole. Each segment has been considered and developed so as to fit with the other parts. Each part, meshing with the others, provides an amusing diversion, a game which is fun to play and set so as to provide maximum enjoyment for as long a period of time as possible. Each separate part must be viewed as something which contributes to the whole. Pulling this or that section from the body and criticizing it is totally invalid unless the workings of that particular segment do not harmonize with the whole, thus causing the entire game to be unenjoyable. That the vast majority of players agree with this view is evident. There are very few who attempt to insert dissimilar rules into a system which was carefully designed to work on precepts totally at odds with what the would-be designer views as crucial to making DUNGEONS & DRAGONS a “good” game.
D&D encourages inventiveness and originality within the framework of its rules. Those who insist on altering the framework should design their own game. Who can say that such an effort might not produce a product superior to D&D? Certainly not I.
Interestingly, most of the variant systems which purport to “improve” the game are presented under the banner of realism. I have personally come to suspect that this banner is the refuge of scoundrels; whether the last or first refuge is immaterial. “Realism” has become a bugaboo in the hobby, and all too many of the publishers — TSR included — make offerings to this god too frequently. The very definition of a game gives the lie to this false diety. Real implies being true to life, not artificial and related to actuality. A game is real, but its subject matter can, at most, give only a “sense” of what actually took place or exists. Paper maps, cardboard counters, plastic markers, or toy tanks and soldiers are not and never will be the stuff of historical reality. There, real bullets kill and maim actual people. Men, women, and children suffer and die, millions of dollars are spent and destroyed, all for the glory of war. Therefore, those who desire realism in wargames, or simulations of social or political events, or racing, or anything else used as subject material for a game should go and do the actual thing —join the military, enter politics, become a race car driver, and so on. At best a game can give a reflection of reality, and then only if its rules reflect historical actualities and logically proceed from truth and facts.
When fantasy games are criticized for being “unrealistic” — and by fantasy I certainly mean both imaginary “science fiction” games and heroic fantasy — the sheer magnitude of the misconception absolutely astounds me! How can the critic presume that his or her imagined projection of a non-existent world or conjectured future history is any more “real” than another’s? While science fantasy does have some facts and good theories to logically proceed from, so that a semblance of truth can be claimed for those works which attempt to ground themselves on the basis of reality for their future projections, the world of “never-was” has no such shelter. Therefore, the absurdity of a cry for “realism” in a pure fantasy game seems so evident that I am overwhelmed when such confronts me. Yet, there are those persistent few who keep demanding it. The “camel” of working magic, countless pantheons of gods and devils, monsters that turn people to stone or breath fire, and characters that are daily faced with Herculean challenges which they overcome by dint of swordplay and spell casting is gulped down without a qualm. It is the “gnat” of “unrealistic” combat, or “unrealistic” magic systems, or the particular abilities of a class of characters in the game which makes them gag. This becomes hard to cope with, because I am basically a realist.
In a pure fantasy game, one based on myth, mythos, and its own unique make-believe, realism (as a reflection of the actual) and logic can not be defined in terms conventional to other game forms. Realism in such a game can only be judged by the participants acceptance of the fantasy milieu invoked by the game. If this make-believe world is widely and readily accepted, if players fully agree to suspend their disbelief when playing it, the game has reality for them. Involvement and enjoyment indicate acceptance of a game reality, and the game becomes realistic thereby. Game logic in such a fantasy can only follow the basic tenets of the game, logical or illogical. If the basic precepts of the fantasy follow the imprimus, it has its own logic. Just as the fantasy must be accepted to achieve the game reality, so must the underlying principle of the game system be understood to follow its logic.
D&D is a make-believe game. It is designed, however, to facilitate close personal involvement in all aspects of play; this makes suspension of disbelief easier for those who can initially accept a game form which does not relate to any reality except a few tenuous areas, ‘viz. actual kinds of weapons from the medieval period are generally named, as are actual types of armor, and the social order of medieval Europe (and occasionally the Middle East and elsewhere in the world) is mentioned as bases for the game, to state the most obvious factual sources for D&D. It is a game for the imaginative and fanciful, and perhaps for those who dream of adventure and derring-do in a world all too mundane. As a game must first and foremost be fun, it needs no claim to “realism” to justify its existence. D&D exists as a game because thousands of people enjoy playing it. As its rules were specifically designed to make it fun and enjoyable, and the consensus of opinion is that D&D is so, does it need to have logical justification of any or all of its rules? Because logic does not necessarily create an enjoyable game form, the reply must be generally negative. Logic, even game logic, must be transcended in the interest of the overall game. If an illogical or inconsistent part fits with the others to form a superior whole, then its very illogicalness and inconsistence are logical and consistent within the framework of the game, for the rules exist for the play of the game, although all too often it seems that the game is designed for the use of the rules in many of today’s products. When questioned about the whys and wherefores of D&D I sometimes rationalize the matter and give “realistic” and “logical” reasons. The truth of the matter is that D&D was written principally as a game — perhaps I used game realism and game logic consciously or unconsciously when I did so, but that is begging the question. Enjoyment is the real reason for D&D being created, written, and published.
With the popularity of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS increasing so dramatically, I fervently desire to put the matter of variants, particularly “realistic” variants, to rest once and for all, so as to get on to other more important things, but it keeps springing up every time a sound stroke is dealt to it. Additions to and augmentations of certain parts of the D&D rules are fine. Variants which change the rules so as to imbalance the game or change it are most certainly not. These sorts of tinkering fall into the realm of creation of a new game, not development of the existing system, and as I stated earlier, those who wish to make those kind of changes should go and design their own game. In order to make this clear, a few examples of destructive variants are given below.
Why can’t magic-users employ swords? And for that matter, why not allow fighters to use wands and similar magical devices? On the surface this seems a small concession, but in actuality it would spoil the game! Each character role has been designed with care in order to provide varied and unique approaches to solving the problems which confront the players. If characters are not kept distinct, they will soon merge into one super-character. Not only would this destroy the variety of the game, but it would also kill the game, for the super-character would soon have nothing left to challenge him or her, and the players would grow bored and move on to something which was fun. This same reasoning precludes many of the proposed character classes which enthusiasts wish to add to D&D. Usually such classes are either an unnecessary variation on an existing class, are to obtuse to be interesting, or are endowed with sufficient prowess to assure that they would rule the campaign for whomever chose to play as such (most certainly their authors). Similarly, multi-classed character types such as elves and dwarves are limited in most class progressions in order to assure game balance. That this can be justified by game logic, pointing out that humankind triumphs and rules other life forms in most if not all myths and mythos is a pleasant superfluity.
Combat is the most frequently abused area, for here many would-be game inventors feel they have sufficient expertise to design a better system. Perhaps someone will eventually do so, but the examples to date are somewhat less than inspiring of confidence. The “critical hit” or “double damage” on a “to hit” die roll of 20 is particularly offensive to the precepts of D&D as well. Two reciprocal rules which go with such a system are seldom, if ever mentioned: 1) opponents scoring a natural 20 will likewise cause a double damage hit or critical hit upon player characters; and 2) as a 20 indicated a perfect hit, a 1 must indicate a perfect miss, so at any time a 1 is rolled on the “to hit” die, the attacker must roll to find if he or she has broken his or her weapon, dropped it, or missed so badly as to strike an ally nearby. When these additions are suggested, the matter is usually dropped, but the point must be made that whole game system is perverted, and the game possibly ruined, by the inclusion of “instant death” rules, be they aimed at monsters or characters. In the former case they imbalance the play and move the challenge which has been carefully placed into D&D. In the latter, “instant death” no longer allows participants to use judgement when playing. Certainly some monsters are capable of delivering death at a single stroke, but players know these monsters and can take precautions. If everything that is faced has an excellent chance to kill characters, they will surely die before long. Then the game loses its continuity and appeal, for lasting character identification cannot be developed.
There are a number of foolish misconceptions which tend to periodically crop up also. Weapons expertise is one. Given the basic assumption that those normally employing weapons are typical of the medieval period, and D&D is plainly stated as a medieval fantasy game, it should follow in the minds of knowledgeable players that any fighting man worth the name made it a point to practice daily with all forms of arms. There was a prejudice against the use of the bow by knights, granted. This is of no consequence in game terms. Any particular preference as to weapon type by a fighter most assuredly was not indicative of any lack of ability with another one. More to the point, however, D&D presumes that the adventurers are the elite, the cream of the cream. Each is a potential Hero, Archmage, and so on. Certainly each is also capable of employing a simple hand weapon to effect, and correctly utilizing any such weapon. The truth of the matter with respect to weapon expertise is, I believe, another attempt to move players closer to the “instant death” ability. For those who insist on giving weapons expertise bonuses due to the supposed extra training and ability of the character, I reply: What character could be more familiar and expert with a chosen weapon type than are monsters born and bred to their fangs, claws, hooves, horns, and other body weaponry? Therefore, the monsters must likewise receive weapons expertise bonuses. While this does put part of the system into balance again, it moves player characters closer to situations where they can be killed before they can opt to follow a course of action aimed at extricating themselves. Again, this feature is undesirable and must be discarded.
In general, the enjoyment of D&D is the fantasy: identification with a supernormal character, the challenges presented to this character as he or she seeks to gain gold and glory (experience levels and magical items), the images conjured up in participants’ minds as they explore weird labyrinths underground and foresaken wildernesses above, and of course the satisfaction of defeating opponents and gaining some fabulous treasure. This is the stuff of which D&D is made. Protracted combat situations which stress “realism” will destroy the popularity of the game as surely as would the inclusion of creatures which will always slay any characters they fight. The players desire action, but all but the odd few will readily tell you that endless die rolling to determine where a hit lands, having to specify what sort of attack is being made, how their character will defend against an attack, and so on are the opposite of action; they are tedious. Furthermore, such systems are totally extraneous to the D&D system. Although they might not ruin the game for a particular group of players, general inclusion in the published rules would certainly turn off the majority of enthusiasts. It would turn me to other pursuits, for if I was interested in that sort of game I would be playing a simulation of something historical, not a fantasy game.
Spell point systems are also currently in vogue amongst the fringe group which haunt the pages of “Amateur Press Association” publications. Now APAs are generally beneath contempt, for they typify the lowest form of vanity press. There one finds pages and pages of banal chatter and inept writing from persons incapable of creating anything which is publishable elsewhere. Therefore, they pay money to tout their sophomoric ideas, criticise those who are able to write and design, and generally make themselves obnoxious. * While there are notable exceptions, they are far too few to give any merit to the vehicles they appear in. From this morass rose the notion that a spell point system should be inserted into D&D. Strangely enough, “realism” was used as one of the principal reasons for use of spell points. These mutterings are not as widespread as the few proponents of such a system imagine. The D&D magic system is drawn directly from CHAINMAIL. It, in turn, was inspired by the superb writing of Jack Vance. This “Vancian” magic system works splendidly in the game. If it has any fault, it is towards making characters who are magic-users too powerful. This sort of fault is better corrected within the existing framework of the game — by requiring more time to cast spells, by making magic-users progress more slowly in experience levels. Spell points add nothing to D&D except more complication, more record keeping, more wasted time, and a precept which is totally foreign to the rest of the game.
There are numerous additions and supplemental pieces which are neither detrimental nor particularly useful to the game. If players find them enjoyable, there is certainly no reason why their particular group cannot include such material in their particular campaign. The important factor is the integrity of the game as a whole. The use of social level (as originally conceived by Game Designers Workshop and appearing in EN GARDE) is a good case in point. In the overall scheme of the game, social level is unimportant to a band of adventurers going out to slay monsters and gain treasure. However, in a campaign it can be used as scenario background — or not used — as the referee and his or her players see fit. Basically, social level means nothing to adventurers such as Conan, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, Elric, Kugel the Clever, etc. Yet in a game, it can be a handy referee’s tool for setting a stage or rewarding player characters. It does not pervert the intent of the game, it does not destroy game systems. It can be readily included, or ignored, without effect upon the whole.
Certain small publishers of amateur magazines or second-rate work have accused TSR of maintaining a proprietary interest in DUNGEONS & DRAGONS from a purely mercenary motivation. This is usually because they have fervent desire to trade on D&D’s repute and make a reputation or quick buck on its merits rather than their own. Oddly enough, some individuals also fault TSR for being careful to protect its trade marks and copyrights and reputation, blandly faulting a desire to profit from our labors. D&D is inseparable from TSR. The repute of the game and of the company are high because we honestly strive to give buyers real value for their money. TSR’s customers, the buyers of D&D, etal are satisfied and then some, for what they have purchased has provided them with hours of enjoyment, and will continue to do so for many more gaming hours. Just as we must prevent the ignorant and inept from spoiling the game by tinkering with the integral systems, we also take every possible step to prevent exploitation of D&D enthusiasts by publishers who hide shoddy products under a fantasy role playing guise. We cannot stop them from putting worthless material into print, but we can certainly make it clear that it is neither recommended nor approved for use with DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. As long as these worthless goods do not trade on the good name of D&D, we can only tell our readers that they should beware of the products they purchase, so read before you buy!
To some extent, this same exploitation continually takes place in fantasy gaming oriented publications. Many seek to trade on D&D’s popularity by offering “new” or “variant” systems which fit only with D&D, even though the game is not actually named. Buy them if you have money to throw away, but at peril of your campaign; do not use material which alters the basic precepts of the game.
Commerce is neither immoral nor unethical. It is part and parcel of our world. Workers are paid for their services, just as authors and publishers receive financial gain for what they provide. The same individual has a family which depends upon commerce to support itself (and possibly the individual if he or she is a student). The individual does, or will one day, work to earn his or her own living. But our interest in D&D extends beyond money and even beyond reputation. TSR created the whole of fantasy role playing gaming as a hobby, and we are proud of this achievement. Pride is what we have accomplished gives us a paternal right to protect our creation. Be glad, for it will help to assure that your game remains a good one, and that when you see “D&D” on a product you will have reasonable expectations with respect to its quality. Use your imagination and creativity when you play D&D, for there is much room within its parameters for individuality and personalization; always keep in mind that everything in the game is there for a reason, that major systems are carefully geared and balanced to mesh together to make a workable whole. Changing one part could well ruin the rest, and then what would you play?
*Editor’s Note: In recent months, I have been the target of some pretty vicious and petty attacks from some of the “APA’s”. Much to the attackers’ collective dismay, I am still alive and well. I’ve never made any bones about my feelings toward the field: they are unprofessional, unethical and seemingly ignorant of the laws concerning libel. Most of the so-called “authors” seem to live in some sort of fantasy world, totally unconnected with the realities of everyday life. A good many of them are incapable of even quoting correctly.
When apprised of error or inaccuracy, their usual response is an outburst of paranoia and persecution complexes. As the author mentions, there are a scant few exceptions in the field. A few have written material for this magazine in the past. Hopefully, a few will continue to do so. There is one who once wrote for TD who will never be asked to again, after he grossly misquoted something I said at Origins last year.
When I first got into this business, I felt that the APA-zines might be good for the hobby. I even reviewed a number of them for TD readers. Now I know the error of my thinking. They serve no useful purpose.
The Dragon, Issue 24 (April 1979)
The Melee in D&D®
by Gary Gygax
There is some controversy regarding the system of resolving individual battles used in Dungeons & Dragons and the somewhat similar Advanced Dungeons & Dragons melee system. The meat of D&D is the concept of pure adventure, the challenge of the unknown, facing the unexpected and overcoming all obstacles. At times this requires combat with spell, missile, and hand-to-hand fighting. How crucial to the game as a whole is the melee? What part should it play? Is “realism” an important consideration? To put the whole matter into prespective, it is necessary to point out that there is probably only a small percentage of the whole concerned with possible shortcomings in the melee system, but even 1% to perhaps 5% of an audience of well over 100,000 enthusiasts is too large a number to be totally ignored. To the majority who do not have problems with the rationale of fantasy melee as presented in D&D, what follows will serve to strengthen your understanding of the processes and their relationship to the whole game. For those who doubt the validity of D&D combat systems, the expostulation will at least demonstrate the logic of the systems, and perhaps justify them to the extent that you will be able to use them with complete assurance that they are faithful representations of the combat potential of the figures concerned.
There can be no question as to the central theme of the game. It is the creation and development of the game persona, the fantastic player character who is to interact with his or her environment — hopefully to develop into a commanding figure in the milieu. In order to do so, the player character must undergo a continuing series of activities which are dictated by the campaign at large and the Dungeon Master in particular. Interaction can be the mundane affairs of food, equipment and shelter, or it can be dealing with non-player characters in only slightly less routine things such as hiring of men-at-arms, treating with local officials, and so on. But from even these everyday affairs can develop adventures, and adventurers are, of course, the meat of D&D; for it is by means of adventuring that player characters gain acumen and the wealth and wherewithal to increase in ability level. The experience, actual and that awarded by the DM, is gained in the course of successive adventures, and it is most common to engage in combat.
Hacking and slewing should not, of course, be the first refuge of the beleaguered D&Der, let alone his or her initial resort when confronted with a problem situation. Naturally enough, a well-run campaign will offer a sufficient number of alternatives as well as situations which encourage thinking, negotiation, and alternatives to physical force, by means of careful prompting or object lessons in the negative form. Aside from this, however, combat and melee will certainly occupy a considerable amount of time during any given adventure, at least on the average. Spell and missile combat do not consume any appreciable amount of time, but as they are also often a part of an overall melee, these factors must be considered along with hand-to-hand fighting.
What must be simulated in melee combat are the thrusts and blows (smashing and cutting) of weapons wielded as well as natural body weaponry of monsters — teeth, claws, and so forth. Individual combat of this sort can be made exceptionally detailed by inclusion of such factors as armor, weapon(s), reflex speed, agility, position of weapon (left or right hand or both), training, strength, height, weight, tactics chosen (attack, defend, or in a combination), location of successful blows, and results of injury to specific areas. If, in fact, D&D were a game of simulation of hand-to-hand combat utilizing miniature figurines, such detail would be highly desirable. The game is one of adventure, though, and combats of protected nature (several hours minimum of six or more player characters are considered involved against one or more opponents each) are undesirable, as the majority of participants are most definitely not miniature battle game enthusiasts. Time could be reduced considerably by the inclusion of such factors as death blows — a kill at a single stroke, exceptionally high amounts of damage — a modified form of killing at a single stroke, specific hit location coupled with specific body hit points, and special results from hits — unconsciousness, loss of member, incapacitation of member, etc.
Close simulation of actual hand-to-hand combat and inclusion of immediate result strokes have overall disadvantages from the standpoint of the game as a whole. Obviously, much of the excitement and action is not found in melee, and even excitement and action is not found in melee, and even shortening the process by adding in death strokes and the like causes undue emphasis on such combat. Furthermore, D&D is a role playing campaign game where much of the real enjoyment comes for participants from the gradual development of the game personae, their gradual development, and their continuing exploits (whether successes or failures). In a system already fraught with numberless possibilities of instant death — spells, poison, breath and gaze weapons, and traps — it is too much to force players to face yet another. Melee combat is nearly certain to be a part of each and sibility of character death highly likely, but it also allows the wise to withdraw if things get too tough — most of the time in any case.
The D&D combat systems are not all that “unrealistic” either, as will be discussed hereafter. The systems are designed to provide relative speed of resolution without either bogging the referee in a morass of paperwork or giving high probability of death to participants’ personae. Certainly, the longer and more involved the melee procedure, the more work and boredom from the Dungeon Master, while fast systems are fun but deadly to player characters (if such systems are challenging and equitable) and tend to discourage participants from long term committment to a campaign, for they cannot relate to a world in which they are but the briefest of candles, so to speak.
In order to minutely examine the D&D combat system as used in the Advanced game, an example of play is appropriate. Consider a party of adventurers treking through a dungeon’s 10’ wide corridor when they come upon a chamber housing a troop of gnoll guards. Let us assume that our party of adventurers is both well-balanced in character race and class. They have a dwarf, gnome, and halfling in the front rank. Behind them are two half-elves. The last rank consists of three humans. Although there are eight characters, all of them are able to take an active part in the coming engagement; spells and missiles can be discharged from the rear or middle rows. The center rank characters will also be able to engage in hand-to-hand combat if they have equipped themselves with spears or thrusting pole arms which are of size useful in the surroundings. The front rank can initially use spells or missiles and then engage in melee with middle rank support, assuming that the party was not surprised. Whether or not any exchange of missiles and spells takes place is immaterial to the example, for it is melee which is the activity in question. Let us then move on to where the adventurers are locked in combat with the gnolls.
Each melee round is considered to be a one minute time period, with a further division into ten segments of six seconds each for determination of missile fire, spell casting and the striking of multiple telling blows. Note that during the course of a round there are assumed to be numbers of parries, feints, and non-telling attacks made by opponents. The one (or several) dice roll (or rolls) made for each adversary, however, determines if a telling attack is made. If there is a hit indicated, some damage has been done; if a miss is rolled, then the opponent managed to block or avoid the attack. If the participants picture the melee as somewhat analogous to a boxing match they will have a correct grasp of the rationale used in designing the melee system. During the course of a melee round there is movement, there are many attacks which do not score, and each “to hit” dice roll indicates that there is an opening which may or may not allow a telling attack. In a recent letter, Don Turnbull stated that he envisioned that three sorts of attacks were continually taking place during melee:
1) attacks which had no chance of hitting, including feints, parries, and the like;
2) attacks which had a chance of doing damage but which missed as indicated by the die roll; and
3) attacks which were telling as indicated by the dice roll and subsequent damage determination.
This is a correct summation of what the D&D melee procedure subsumes. Note that the skill factor of higher level of higher level fighters — as well as natural abilities and/or speed of some monsters — allows more than one opportunity per melee round of scoring a telling attack as they are more able to take advantage of openings left by adversaries during the course of sparring. Similarly, zero level men, and monsters under one full hit die, are considered as being less able to defend; thus, opponents of two of more levels of hit dice are able to get in one telling blow for each such level or hit die.
This melee system also hinges on the number of hit points assigned to characters. As I have repeatedly pointed out, if a rhino can take a maximum amount of damage equal to eight of nine eight-sided dice, a maximum of 64 or 72 hit points of damage to kill, it is positively absurd to assume that an 8th level fighter with average scores on his or her hit dice and an 18 consititution, thus having 76 hit points, can physically withstand more punishment than a rhino before being killed. Hit points are a combination of actual physical consititution, skill at the avoidance of taking real physical damage, luck and/or magical or divine factors. Ten points of damage dealt to a rhino indicated a considerable wound, while the same damage sustained by the 8th level fighter indicates a near miss, a slight wound, and a bit of luck used up, a bit of fatigue piling up against his or her skill at avoiding the fatal cut or thrust. So even when a hit is scored in melee combat, it is more often than not a grazing blow, a scratch, a mere light wound which would have been fatal (or nearly so) to a lesser mortal. If sufficient numbers of such wounds accrue to the character, however, stamina, skill, and luck will eventually run out, and an attack will strike home…
I am firmly convinced that this system is superior to all others so far concieved and published. It reflects actual combat reasonably, for weaponry, armor (protection and speed and magical factors), skill level, and allows for a limited amount of choice as to attacking or defending. It does not require participants to keep track of more than a minimal amount of information, it is quite fast, and it does not place undue burden upon the Dungeon Master. It allows those involved in combat to opt to retire if they are taking too much damage — although this does not necessarily guarantee that they will succeed or that the opponents will not strike a telling blow prior to such retreat. Means of dealing fatal damage at a single stroke or melee routine are kept to a minimum commensurate with the excitement level of the system. Poison, weapons which deliver a fatal blow, etc. are rare or obvious. Thus, participants know that a giant snake or scorpion can fell with a single strike with poison, a dragon or a 12 headed hydra or a cloud giant deliver considerable amounts of damage when they succeed in striking, and they also are aware that it is quite unlikely that an opponent will have a sword of sharpness, a vorpal blade, or some similar deadly weapon. Melee, then, albeit a common enough occurrence, is a calculated risk which participants can usually determine before engaging in as to their likelihood of success; and even if the hazards are found to be too severe, they can often retract their characters to fight again another day.
Of course, everyone will not be satisfied with the D&D combat system. If DM and players desire a more complex and time consuming method of determining melee combat, or if they wish a more detailed but shorter system, who can say them nay. However, care must be taken to make certain that the net effect is the same as if the correct system had been employed, or else the melee will become imbalanced. If combat is distorted to favor the player characters, experience levels will rise too rapidly, and participants will become bored with a game which offers no real challenge and whose results are always a foregone conclusion. If melee is changed to favor the adversaries of player characters, such as by inclusion of extra or special damage when a high number is rolled on a “to hit” die, the net results will also be a loss of interest in the campaign. How does a double damage on a die score of 20 favor monsters and spoil a campaign? you ask. If only players are allowed such extra damage, then the former case of imbalance in favor of the players over their adversaries is in effect. If monsters are allowed such a benefit, it means that the chances of surviving a melee, or withdrawing from combat if things are not going well, are sharply reduced. That means that character survival will be less likely. If players cannot develop and identify with a long lived character, they will lose interest in the game. Terry Kuntz developed a system which allowed for telling strokes in an unpublished game he developed to recreate the epic adventures of Robin Hood et al. To mitigate against the loss at a single stroke, he also included a saving throw which allowed avoidance of such death blows, and saving throw increased as the character successfully engaged in combats, i.e. gained experience. This sort of approach is obviously possible, but it requires a highly competent designer to develop.
Melee in D&D is certainly a crucial factor, and it must not be warped at risk of spoiling the whole game. Likewise, it is not unrealistic — if there is such a thing as “realism” in a game, particularly a game filled with the unreal assumptions of dragons, magic spells, and so on. The D&D melee combat system subsumes all sorts of variable factors in a system which must deal with imaginary monsters, magic-endowed weaponry, and make-believe characters and abilities. It does so in the form as to allow referees to handle the affair as rapidly as possible, while keeping balance between player characters and opponents, and still allowing the players the chance of withdrawing their characters if the going gets too rough. As melee combat is so common an occurrence during the course of each adventure, brevity, equitability, and options must be carefully balanced.
Someone recently asked how I could include a rule regarding weapons proficiency in the ADVANCED game after decrying what they viewed as a similar system, bonuses for expertise with weapons. The AD&D system, in fact, penalizes characters using weapons which they do not have expertise with. Obviously, this is entirely different in effect upon combat. Penalties do not change balance between character and adversary, for the player can always opt to use non-penalized weapons for his or her character. It also makes the game more challenging by further defining differences in character classes and causing certain weapons to be more desirable, i.e. will the magic hammer + 1 be useful to the cleric? It likewise adds choices. All this rather than offering still another method whereby characters can more easily defeat opponents and have less challenge. How can one be mistaken as a variation of the other? The answer there is that the results of the two systems were not reflected upon. With a more perfect understanding of the combat system and its purposes, the inquirer will certainly be able to reason the thing through without difficulty and avoid spoiling the game in the name of “realism.”
Realism does have a function in D&D, of course. It is the tool of the DM when confronted with a situation which is not covered by the rules. With the number of variables involved in a game such as D&D, there is no possibility of avoiding situations which are not spelled out in the book. The spirit of the rules can be used as a guideline, as can the overall aim of rules which apply to general cases, but when a specific situation arises, judgement must often be brought into play. Sean Cleary pointed this out to me in a letter commenting on common misunderstandings and difficulties encountered by the DM. While the Advanced system will make it absolutely clear that clerics, for example, have but one chance to attempt to turn undead, and that there is no saving throw for those struck by undead (life level is drained!), there is no possibility of including minutia in the rules. To illustrate further, consider the example of missile fire into a melee. Generally, the chances of hitting a friend instead of a foe is the ratio of the two in the melee. With small foes, the ratio is adjusted accordingly, i.e. two humans fighting four kobolds gives about equal probabilities of hitting either. Huge foes make it almost impossible to strike a friend, i.e. aiming at a 12’ tall giant’s upper torso is quite unlikely to endanger the 6’ tall human of a javelin of lightning bolts into a melee where a human and a giant are engaged. The missile strikes the giant; where does its stroke of lightning travel? Common sense and reality indicate that the angle of the javelin when it struck the giant will dictate that the stroke will travel in a straight line back along the shaft, and the rest is a matter of typical positions and angles — if the human was generally before the giant, and the javelin was thrown from behind the human, the trajectory of the missile will be a relatively straight line ending in the shaft of the weapon and indicating the course of the bolt of lightening backwards. The giant’s human opponent will not be struck by the stroke, but the lightning will come close most probably. Therefore, if the human is in metal armor a saving throw should be made to determine if he or she takes half or no damage.
In like manner, reality can illustrate probabilities. If three husky players are placed shoulder to shoulder, distances added for armor, and additional spaces added for weapon play, the DM can estimate what activities can take place in a given amount of space. Determination of how many persons can pass through a door 5’ wide can be made with relative ease — two carefully, but if two or three rush to pass through at the same time a momentary jam can occur. How long should the jam last? How long would people actually remain so wedged? With an added factor for inflexible pieces of plate mail, the answer is probably one or two segments of a round. Of course, during this period the jammed characters cannot attack or defend, so no shield protection or dexterity bonus to armor class would apply, and an arbitrary bonus of +4 could be given to any attackers (an arbitrary penalty of −4 on saving throws follows).
The melee systems used in D&D are by no means sacrosanct. Changes can be made if they are done intelligently by a knowledgeable individual who thoroughly understands the whole design. Similarly, “realism” is a part of melee, for the DM must refer to it continually to ajudicate combat situations where no rules exist, and this handling is of utmost importance in maintaining a balanced melee procedure. With this truly important input from the referee, it is my firm belief that the D&D system of combat is not only adequate but actually unsurpassed by any of its rival’s so-called “improvements” and “realistic” methods. The latter add complication, unnecessary record keeping, or otherwise distort the aim of a role playing game — character survival and identification. What is foisted off on the gullible is typically a hodge-podge of arbitrary rulings which are claimed to give “realism” to a make-believe game. Within the scope of the whole game surrounding such systems, they might, or might not, work well enough, but seldom will these systems fit into D&D regardless of the engineering attempts of well-meaning referees.
The logic of the D&D melee systems is simple: They reasonably reflect fantastic combat and they work damn well from all standpoints. My advice is to leave well enough alone and accept the game for what it is. If you must have more detail in melee, switch to another game, for the combat portions of D&D are integral and unsuccessful attempts to change melee will result in spoiling the whole. Better to start fresh than to find that much time and effort has been wasted on a dead end variant.
And A Few Additional Words…
Those of you who read the first article in this series (“Dungeons & Dragons, What It Is And Where It Is Going,” Dragon #22) will appreciate knowing that TSR is now in the process of creating its Design Department. Jean Wells is now on the staff in order to give the game material with a feminine viewpoint — after all, at least 10% of the players are female! Lawrence Shick also joined us recently, and he will work primarily with science fantasy and science fiction role playing adventure game material, although you’ll undoubtedly be seeing his name on regular D&D/AD&D items as well. In the coming months I envision the addition of yet more creative folks, and as new members are added to our staff, you’ll read about it here. What TSR aims to do is to assure you that you get absolutely the finest in adventure gaming regardless of the form it is in; and the new Design Department will answer your questions, handle the review of material submitted for possible publication by TSR, appear at conventions, design tournaments, author material for this publication (and probably for other vehicles as well), and create or assist with the creation of playing aids and new forms of adventure games. This is a big order, certainly, but both Jean and Lawrence are talented and creative gamers. Expect great things from them, and the others who will join them soon, in the months to come!