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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Chart-less Combat? What Took So Long?

Back in the day (OD&D and AD&D days, that is), we took it for granted that combat tables were necessary.  And how could it be any other way, really?  Seriously, how ELSE were we supposed to hit a monster clad in chain mail armor?  It was how we did it...

But combat tables were a pain in the ass, too.  We got good enough at using them, especially if we had the excellent DM's screen to guide us through the exercise (it also saved much wear-and-tear on the Dungeon's Master's Guide, which was a nice bonus).

Hey, fight enough foes and you'll practically MEMORIZE the tables, at least it'll feel that way.  But it STILL bogged things down.

This approach wasn't inevitable, however, and other systems were already experimenting with something much faster.  And to be honest, table-less combat should have been GROUND ZERO for RPGs...

DISCLAIMER: I understand that things also tend to become better consolidated and streamlined over time, and highly suspect that the general clunkiness of early D&D stemmed from its evolution out of historically accurate war-games.  But I wonder. 

In a hypothetical, ultra-simple game using only 1d6, combat could be resolved as follows (a chart, yeah, but you could memorize it with absolute ease, and NO ONE would have to read it ever):

                    ARMOR WORN*         1d6
                    Light           4 or better
                    Medium          5 or better
                    Heavy           6 or better

*Or its equivalent, per the referee.  Oh, and you could use this for Pits & Perils, but it'd actually be MUCH MORE complicated!

Now the above table doesn't take into a magical armor, and damage is assumed to be 1d6 across the board, but it works.  Moreover, it represents what would be the simplest and ground-level approach to combat resolution.  And I sort of wonder why it wasn't.

Oh, and then there's Rolemaster, with a separate table for each weapon (luckily, optional), which makes me wonder if these guys had girlfriends during the 80s (that's a JOKE)...

Enter 2nd edition and THAC0 (To Hit Armor Class Zero), which benefited greatly from an intervening decade of gameplay and seemed to recognize this problem.  Their solution here?  List the number needed for an attacker to hit armor class zero, which varied by class and level, and subtract the target's armor class to find the number needed to hit.  This was chart-less, alright, but it required calculations, albeit very easy ones, to use at the table.

This was a nice evolutionary step, and I imagine the designers felt like it transitioned nicely from AD&D by retaining the original armor class values.  But it defeated its purpose ever so slightly by requiring internal calculations, which slowed play somewhat.

Finally, 3rd Edition D&D decided to make armor class a target number on the roll of 1d20, which tells the whole story up front and with minimal fuss.  What do you roll to hit AC 16?  Uh, 16...

Now, intuitively, things start out easy and become more complicated over time.  But D&D almost seems to have evolved in reverse in Benjamin Button style.  Once again, probably because the original war-games were generally simpler, and D&D, out of necessity, grafted on more details (and more complexity) from the start.

We'd LOVE to hear everyone's thoughts on this particular issue... 


  1. I never played a LOT of wargames in the late 70s/early 80s, but from what I remember there were a lot of charts. My impression has always been that D&D imported that style, straight up (compare weapon type and target type). I do clearly remember Star Fleet Battles, which I did play a fair amount of in those years* working that you rolled 2d6 for each weapon and compared the result to the appropriate chart...

    * Yeah, it's basically a wargame, but I tended to play it like an RPG (at least in my head).

  2. I did not play OD&D (I have only read it) or AD&D but.... from my point of view, the two attack matrixes (men attacking and monster attacking) are still fairly simple compared to how complex is 3.5/PFRPG combat, the only drawback being that the advancement in the men attacking matrix differs from class to class. They may have simplified the first roll, but all that follows can get really slow; plus they introduced the problem of ridicolous target numbers and bonuses. IMHO a good way could be a unified, simple chart that even newbie players can simply look at a tell the outcome. It could be printed on their own character sheet, as reference.

  3. Combat charts were part of the first iterations of D&D because RPG's grew out of the hobby of wargaming, where EVERYTHING was combat charts.

    1. Ding! Ding! Ding!

      Without the knowledge of the history of the hobby and its roots, questions like these become commonplace.

    2. I began playing in 1978 and understand where this comes from, but pose an open question about the seemingly inverse relationship here. David Wesely's combat resolution was "roll a 7 or better", and this was the earliest iteration of the role-playing hobby. Glad to have him as a friend...

    3. Still as far as I've read Wesley was more focused on roleplay to emulate social struggles and personal agenda in the scenario. How often combat would appear in the original Braunstein games?

    4. There was a duel and a few non-combat situations where people could potentially die, and the resolution was pretty much an on-the-fly...

    5. Yep, that's right. Wesely's approach in gunfights did have some sophistication as different weapons or opponent skills might mean different numbers of dice. So a student with a pistol might get a d6 and a mafia hitman with a tommy gun might get 3d6 - high roll wins...

  4. Just like to point out To Hit AC0 was used as a monster stat in the 1st Ed DMG. Appendix E I think it was.

  5. Probably I'm in the minority, but I find charts dead easy to use, and I've come to prefer them over "chartless" methods. I don't have to waste time running multiple calculations in my head when I have a chart in front of me and can concentrate on other things.

  6. I realize you're focusing on D&D here, but remember that the first fellow who read D&D and created his own game was not a wargamer and that his game (Tunnels & Trolls, 'the second rpg') was chart-less when it came to combat and most other things. Heck, we T&T gamers, as a matter of course, don't even track movement or (honestly) even time even when we play the game BtB.

    1. So in that context, maybe D&D kept the charts so as to stand apart from T&T in those earlier days...