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A Philosophy of Fightin' Words


As promised, with this installment we're going to examine a combat system that is widely criticized for being "unrealistic." The game in question is the venerable Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (tm) fantasy game, and we'll evaluate the combat system in the terms previously mentioned: does the system provide "realistic"--reasonable--results?

Cogs and Gears

An overview of the system shows several components that work together to provide the end result. The parts of the system we'll examine are the melee round construct, the attack tables, hit dice and hit points, and armor and armor class. There are more parts to the system--say, weapon damage ratings and initiative, for instance--but the four parts mentioned are sufficient for our purposes.

We'll need a test scenario or two to measure the results generated by the individual parts of the system and the whole system. An even match of combatants really won't work for our purposes (it would be reasonable for each to win roughly half the fights), so we'll posit an uneven combat. Say we have a couple of combatants from two different mercenary outfits: Abe, a relatively inexperienced soldier, and Kane, a seasoned trooper. Our reasonable outcome is as follows: Kane is the more experienced of the two, tough and wily, and can reasonably be expected to vanquish Abe many more times than not.

We'll also toss in other possible combatants as we go along, to illustrate various points, but our two soldiers will work as a basic test group. We'll look at each of the system components identified above, to see if they individually generate reasonable results. We'll then look at the whole system to see if it generates a reasonable result.

The Melee Round

The melee round is the frame in which combat occurs. The AD&D round has often been criticized for being far too long a time for the few things that happen within its confines; the contents rattle, so to speak. The round, it is said, is far too long for a single attack sequence from each of the combatants.

To measure this against our standard of realism, we have to measure what exactly it is that the round is said to encompass. The AD&D round is said to encompass multiple feints, slashes, parries, dodges, rushes, lunges, and so on. An "attack" in the game is not a single blow, but instead is a measure of the combatant's overall performance in that time. That the round encompasses much more than a single blow or quick series of blows makes the length of the round more reasonable.

We can also look to what else can be said to happen in the course of a round. Mages can cast many spells in the course of a round, and castings from a few seconds' length to roughly a minute are reasonable with the game's approach to magic. Flasks and tubes can be retrieved from packs or pouches, opened, and the potions within consumed--activities that would reasonably require more than a few seconds to perform. The AD&D round is looking a bit more reasonable at this point.

There are weaknesses, however, in the one minute round. Movement allotted to participants in combat--and non-participants--is unreasonably slow. There are reasons given, but the rates listed for most actions are unduly snail-like. The rate of attack for some missile weapons, which by their nature don't have lots of feinting, thrusting, parrying, and the like affecting success, seem a bit odd. Considerations of game balance require that the rates be kept low, but our measure is disregarding such, for now.

How well does the one-minute round serve our test fight? Kane is more seasoned than Abe, so he has the upper hand in the fight. He's not so far beyond Abe's measure, however, that Abe would fall quickly. It is conceivable that Abe could stand against Kane for a couple of minutes--particularly if the fight were a heroic climax, so perhaps the long round would work.

If Abe were to face a giant, however, the long round fails to make the standard. Only by claiming Abe is cut from the most heroic cloth would it be possible to maintain that he could last even a minute with a giant.

Overall, the one minute melee round seems reasonable in some situations. If it were of lesser duration, it could be said to be more reasonable on some measures. When the notion that the game is based on the idea of grand heroic fantasy, however, a basic measure of one minute may be entirely reasonable.

Attack Tables

The attack tables in the game involve simple incremental progressions based on a d20. Each increment then becomes a 5 percent change in odds, basically, and the differences in capabilities then are determined by the general weapons skill of the character classes. Trained warriors use weapons best, as would be expected, and those least-concerned with weapons as part of their daily focus use the table with the slowest progression. This is an entirely reasonable basis for invoking weapon skill in the game.

A closer look at the table with Abe and Kane in mind is necessary for the test of reasonable results. Kane is the more experienced of the two, and the table shows that he has a better chance of successfully damaging an opponent--10% better, in fact--than Abe. Over ten rounds of melee, we can expect Kane to exhibit noticeably better attack skills than Abe, and that interprets as damaging an opponent more handily. This is reasonable, although the amount of difference provided solely by the attack table doesn't make a good gauge of the difference between the two as overall combatants.

Hit Points

Hit points in the game are a measure of a lot of different things. They measure how hardy a character is, how fit the character is, how lucky, and so on. They are not simply a measure of physical damage. When a creature or character is damaged by an attack, it is not necessarily physically wounded, but is probably only a but more fatigued than previously.

The measuring of Abe and Kane show us that Kane has the benefit of greater experience, or a couple of hit dice. The larger number of hit points then shows us that Kane will tire less quickly, and prove more capable of dodging and slipping blows in the thick of things. The advantage he has isn't great (being about 10 points, considering all things average), but does show he has a noticeable advantage. Kane will be able to withstand a couple more rounds of melee than Abe, just on the face of it.

Comparing Abe to the giant mentioned previously, however, shows a great difference in hit points and the defensive capabilities they measure. The giant would be able to withstand many, many more rounds of combat versus an opponent than would wear Abe against the same foe. That is an entirely reasonable result, so this portion of the system seems to work to accomplish the end results sought.

Armor Class

The Armor Class mechanism is perhaps one of the most widely maligned constructs in the game. "Armor doesn't make somebody harder to hit, just harder to damage" is the refrain. That may be true, but remember that hit points don't measure only physical harm--physical damage is the least part of hit point ratings.

Armor Class, then, must be measured in how well it reduces fatigue and all that other stuff that hit points measure. The heavier armors may indeed limit the ability of the combatant to dodge and make him easier to physically strike, but armor also turns many strikes. Because the armor does turn away many blows that would otherwise have to be dodged, the combatant doesn't have to exert himself in dodging near as much, so the incidence of damage provided by attacks--governed by the attack tables--should be reduced. The Armor Class system can be said to be entirely reasonable, and in this fashion does provide reasonable results.

To place Abe and Kane back in the picture, then, one must compare how well the duo would fare when unarmored, lightly armored, and heavily armored. The results posited above can then be seen to apply in use, as the two fare better the heavier the armor worn. If Abe is wearing heavier armor than Kane and the two face off, the advantage provided by Abe's armor evens the odds in the fight, and that, too, is reasonable.

The Whole Thing

The individual parts of the combat system that we've examined have all passed the test of reasonable results, even if a caveat of heroic fantasy was necessary in places. In our test scenario of Abe and Kane, we find that the system supports all of the following:

  1. Kane is better-skilled than Abe, and the attack table supports this;
  2. Kane is better defensively than Abe, and the hit point totals support this;
  3. Abe can even matters up by wearing heavier armor, and the AC system shows this to be true;
  4. The fights between the two last long enough to be interesting without being drug out a completely unreasonable amount of time;
  5. Kane kicks Abe's butt more often than Abe wins--Kane won 5 of 8 test bouts.

The combat system can then be argued to be entirely "realistic" under the standard posited earlier. It provided reasonable results in all the situations mentioned herein--although I didn't provide blow-by-blow descriptions or detailed stats--without any truly weird results skewing matters. This was not an exhaustive test of the system, not including many other factors such as magic use, variety of weapons and tactics, and so on, but a basic test to see how well grounded the system is.

So why is the system so often decried as being "unrealistic?" That will be examined when we get fiddly again....

Larry D. Hols

What do you think?

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