Conundrums of Old School Combat
Combat occupies a central if ambiguous place in old school games. In many old school games, combat is not incentivized in terms of experience points. Unlike more forgiving versions of the world's most famous roleplaying game, in old school games the risk of death for PCs is very real. This means that there is a strong reason to avoid combat, at least when the outcome is not clear in advance. The use of reaction rolls and morale checks ensure that combat to death is often not the default result of interaction, even with "monsters". Adventure design for this playstyle tends to replace a series of balanced combat encounters against fixed villains on predetermined battlemats with open-ended situations consisting of opposing ambiguous factions with wildly varying power scales. Which is all a great deal of fun.
And yet, in many old school rule sets, especially those derived from B/X or OD&D, as well as some rules lite systems, combat itself, although risky, can end up feeling strangely boring to some--myself included. There are several reasons.
One is that these rulesets often do not support very meaningful tactical choices in preparation for combat. Take weapon choice. In the alternate combat system of OD&D white box (i.e. prior to Supplement I), weapons, although costing different amounts, are otherwise undifferentiated, doing a flat 1d6 damage to foes. This abstractions renders meaningless weapon choice.
This was "remedied" in Supplement I, which veered wildly in the other direction, introducing a system expanded in AD&D 1E, where each individual melee weapon receives its own unique treatment, with elaborate set of bonuses or penalties against each different armor classes, different damage dice (which also vary against different sized opponents!), and in AD&D 1E, also weapon speed, as well as a various other piecemeal special effects for different weapons. Along with restrictions on weapons by class, this introduced a space of tactical choice that operated at a minute level. This system is ungainly.
I've come to think of B/X derived rulesets as an unhappy medium. Unlike OD&D white box, melee weapons are primarily differentiated by damage dice. When bundled with class restrictions on weapon type, this results in a situation where the main effect of the equipment list is to specify optimal weapon choice by class, in essence assigning a damage die to each class. It is true, there are some choices around the margin for certain classes. Will a fighter or a cleric use a two-handed weapon for a slight bump in damage, or opt to use a shield for a slight bump in AC? It's not nothing, but it's also not much.
The same pattern holds with initiative. OD&D did not even bother to specify an initiative sequence, unless we count the miniature wargame rules in Chainmail. AD&D "remedied" this problem by introducing a baroque group initiative system broken down minutely into segments (10 per round), with casting times given in segments, and the use of weapon speed factors to break ties, which ensures complicated dynamic rounds in which characters do many overlapping things--at the cost of breathtaking complexity.
B/X and many rules lite systems operate again in a middle space with group initiative like AD&D, but without segments and so with only one action per character per round. This can lead to a monotonous you-go/they-go turn sequence which consists mainly of moving around a circle rolling dice as each player attacks (or perhaps casts a spell), often missing against high AC opponents (or on an off night), or doing one or two points of damage here or there. When combat is protracted it becomes a kind of turgid round-robin.
Finally, within combat itself, there is sometimes a paucity of actions defined other than attacking. OD&D whitebox has none. AD&D 1E by contrast has many options, including elaborate mini-systems for surprise, charging, overbearing, grappling, and psionic combat among other things. To really play it, some kind of battlemap seems best to leverage the full suite of rules, at least for fights of any complexity. In this case B/X and many rules lite games are less a middle ground and hew closer to whitebox OD&D. There are rules for attack with melee and missile weapons, and casting spells, and maybe a couple of combat actions like defensive fighting, or charging. But nothing else. This means that the game does not especially support or leverage the kind of grid-based combat that require miniatures or VTT tokens to use. Who cares about any of that if all I need to know is which guy you're choosing to lock yourself into combat with? This is connected to the fact that B/X and rules lite games are often designed for theater of the mind style play. This is not a criticism, since I love theater of the mind play, but since there is not any rule support for different kinds of actions, this lends itself to a situation where fictional positioning doesn't matter much.
In general, what we find is that OD&D whitebox is pleasingly simple, but perhaps too simple. AD&D is very complex, closer perhaps in terms of complexity if not feel to 3E combat. B/X and other rules lite games are in a medium where combat can end up being a slow slog without a great deal of tactical choice or individual character expression beyond the choice of class. For something that can occupy a large swath of time and is very high stakes, combat in B/X and rules lite games often lacks a je ne sais quoi.
This all suggests that there is a design space for innovation that either hews to the white box or B/X side of things, maintaining simplicity or elegance, but opening up tactical or more dynamic combat possibilities. In other words, here's a design challenge that various rulesets have attempted to address to some degree: can we make old school combat interesting without going full bore AD&D? There are a variety of things we might explore here, many of which have been developed to some extent in different old school games or supplements.
These include ways of making weapon selection meaningful without devolving into baroque individual weapon system, either with or without variable weapon damage; the selection of character abilities with interesting consequences for combat, without devolving into feat trees and the like; more dynamic initiative systems; or rules that detach tactical decisions from space and so are more suited to theater of the mind than battlemap play.
Up today is a product that steps into this breach by providing new systems that add more choice, variety, and tactics to old school combat.
Fresh From The Forge
Fresh from the Forge: A Rebalanced Weapon System for Old School Play by Lucille L. Blumire is a 38-page zine presenting two new mechanics for combat, a whole new system for differentiating different weapon types, and a system for creating magical weapons with a broadly B/X or OD&D implied ruleset, like Old School Essentials or Swords and Wizardry. It is available for purchase here for $6.99.
The idea in this zine is to differentiate weapon types in meaningful ways for old school play by treating weapons as belonging to abstract categories, assigning special properties to weapons of each different type. This provides players with clear and simple choices between different balanced effects. (I once tried my hand at this approach, while eschewing variable weapon damage.) Interestingly, for melee weapons Blumire presents two different axes of abstract features.
First, the weapon can be one of four types: axe, blade, bludgeon, or simple. And within that type, it can be one of four different sizes: light, one-handed, two-handed, or a polearm. This is a neat framework organizing all weapons by the intersection two sets of abstract properties.
Weapon types have a base damage die and one or more special effects. For example, an axe type has a base damage die of d6 and has the special property of exploding damage on a max damage roll. Size provides further properties. For example, light weapons reduce the damage die by 1 step (for an axe that would be to 1d4) and can be dual-wielded; two-handed weapons increase the die size by one (for axes to 1d8), and so on. The size also has effects on "combat width", the number of party members who can stand in the front rank. (More on combat width below.)
As elegant as I find this framework, it is clear that the system either doesn't work, or that Blumire is lured by the siren's song of specific D&D weapons that don't quote fit the molds she's crafted. So, for example, instead of making "throwable" a property of some type or class, she introduces a couple of extra types here and there, e.g. "throwable light blades". At other times she breaks the rules of his own types where it doesn't seem quite right to her. For example, axe types do exploding damage, unless they're light. It also turns out there are no light bludgeoning weapons, and no simple polearms. And so on. So I salute Blumire's effort, but I wish she had been more thoroughgoing and ruthless with his vision, and had figured out a way of making it all work in an exceptionless single system. The whole promise of defining weapon types with two neat categories is elegance!
The zine also presents a neat system for handling a situation where a party is fighting as a unit in a larger battle. The idea is that the party faces off against waves of foes, with the option to retreat at any time. If they defeat one wave of foes, they can then opt to face a second wave, and so on. Each victory or defeat they have then affects the overall course of battle, by affecting a roll for how many forces are lost from each side in this phase of battle. This makes the PC combats a sort of microcosm of the larger war. Essentially the PCs are asked how far they're willing to push the possibility of losing some members of the party in order to heroically achieve gains for their side. I can see this provided a fun, tense, combat-focused session as a microcosm of a broader war.
The rest of the zine is less good. The rules differentiating missile weapons are perfunctory. Blumire does not apply the same sort of template that she applies to melee weapons, which seems like a missed opportunity. The rules for enchanting weapons are workaday. "Enhance" them to +1 or more by spending gold. One enhanced they can acquire some potency against a certain foe by killing a lot of them. The weapons produced in this way will be of the most boring variety of magic. There are some rules for having weapons "contain" spells that are a touch more interesting, but in the end it's very bland.
Perhaps the least well thought out aspect of the zine is a mechanism for handling lines of battle called combat width. The idea is to handle lines of combatants in confined spaces (i.e. dungeons) or in large military battle formations in abstract but meaningful ways. This is a great topic, since "holding the line" and formation seem like a hugely important aspect of combat that D&D ignores. It also presents what cold be in theory a happy medium between a full battlemap and pure theater of the mind, trying to operate in the happy medium space that seems to befit B/X style play. It requires at most a piece of graph paper to scrawl loosely on during combat.
Combat width tracks how many people can fit in a front rack of a given size to attack and be attacked. If you are large, or have a weapon that requires a big swing than you need more space to operate and take up more real-estate in the rank, so less people can fit in a line and so less people can attack. On the other hand, if you have a long pointy weapon like a spear or polearm, or are smaller, then you take up less real-estate, i.e. more of you can fit. The base combat width is 5'. Here is an illustration from the book showing a party of adventurers squaring off against two orcs and a troll in a 20' corridor (a huge corridor!).
Although the text doesn't specify, I think the idea is that combatants can attack anyone they overlap with. If your battleline is longer, or if someone on the opposing side dies, and you do not overlap with anyone, then you may attack anyone on either side of the gap with a +1 to hit and damage, or you may push through to the next rank, unless someone steps up to fill the spot or the entire rank reconsolidates to prevent this.
There are no rules presented for reconsolidating a rank or stepping forward. Can you do it immediately when someone falls? This is a crucial question for this approach, but is never clarified. Furthermore smaller combat width would appear to be a disadvantage for flanking if one doesn't have enough combatants to fill out the entire space. Blumire fixes this by declaring that one is "never punished" for having a smaller combat width, and so someone with 3 or 4 combat width may "expand" to block up to 5 spaces. This is just too fiddly. It also makes less sense for someone with a small combat width owing small size.
There are also rules about being able to shoot around a rank if it doesn't fill the corridor, but the rule doesn't specify how much space there must be. Another crucial question. In short, these rules are unclear and perhaps unfinished in their presentation. For rules that seem intended to abstract a feature of combat, they also don't seem to bring that much new to the table. It seems like a lot of fiddling around for less gains than we might have expected.
In sum, Fresh From the Forge is a neat attempt to make combat and weapon choice in old school games more interesting, with some excellent ideas sprinkled throughout. There are seeds of a very interesting approach, but they never quite grow into their potential.