2020-04-12 The effects of stats in simple games

If you’ve played OD&D, or Swords & Wizardry, or any of the other old school games out there, you have encountered this before, regarding monster stats: monsters have hit dice (HD); this determines how many hit they can take, on average. Each hit die is 1d6, and each damage die is also 1d6. In later games, the picture is not that simple anymore. In B/X we already notice that many fighters have a strength bonus, but monsters also use 1d8 for hit dice. For the purpose of this blog post, I don’t care about the details.

I care about this relationship: every extra HD allows a monster to survive one more hit; every extra HD also allows a monster to hit more easily; extra HD also allow a monster to better resist spells.

What does it mean to survive more hits? It means that fights take longer, or that monsters can take on more enemies. It’s not that simple because the monster is also better at hitting the opposition. Without that twist, it’d be boring: four characters hit a monster with 4 HD and it’s dead; four characters hit monster with 8 HD and it takes two rounds to kill. The difference is that the 8 HD monster probably deals more damage to the characters. Most likely it also has special abilities that make it even more dangerous. That’s why I think save or die effects are important.

The net effect is hard to predict and that’s probably what makes the game interesting.

I’m trying to apply the same kind of analysis to Just Halberds.

Characters fight monsters by rolling opposed 2d6 checks. Monsters have hits (like HD in D&D) that allow them to survive longer but more hits don’t increase their ability to deal damage. So simply adding more hits just makes fights take longer and that’s boring, unless something interesting is going to happen. That means, the monster needs more special abilities to challenge the players.

Monsters have a bonus to their roll which doesn’t just determine the likelihood of hitting a character: the margin also determines the damage dealt, and winning the opposed roll also means that the monster keeps the initiative, allowing it to use special abilities that the players cannot easily defend against.

Let’s take an example monster from the latest copy of Just Halberds:

So, if the party has a strong fighter who attacks with a +3 and gets the initiative, I’d say that the medusa has to roll +0 against his terrible blows. If the medusa has the initiative, however, and the fighter hasn’t prepared for her snake hair with a mirror, then the medusa gets to attack with a +3 and the fighter has to roll +0 against her petrifying hair.

It’s interesting to compare OD&D and Just Halberds when it comes to the effect of increasing the important stat.

My problem, for the moment, is how to model really dangerous opponents. How strong is Lawin the dragon hunter and why is he interested in hiring the party to go and slay the red dragon Burning Bone of the Mountain? Hex Describe says:

I feel like the fighter is about the same level as the dragon, has about as many hit-points, can hit as easily, but only has one attack where as the dragon has three, not counting its breath weapon. The fighter, however, has a potion to protect against the breath weapon, so perhaps he just needs henchmen to soak all that brutal damage while he kills the dragon. Works for me.

But how do we create a similar dynamic using Just Halberds? Let’s check what my notes say:

As it is, the dragon slayer is going to avoid facing the dragon’s breath due to the potion, so I’m going to assume that whatever else the dragon has, it’s going to be less powerful: he’s going to fight with +2. That means that hero and dragon are on equal footing, more or less. The dragon can simply take more damage.

Hm. 🤔

I think this means that dragons need a much bigger bonus. Who’s going to be on equal footing with a dragon? A hero being a fighter (+1), a sword-fighter (+1), with a magic weapon (+1), knowing two or three extra tricks (+3) that I haven’t detailed, right? So dragons should get +6, in order to match that, right? And if regular soldiers attack it with a mere +1, the difference of 5 on average makes sure that most of the time, one of the regular soldiers dies. And that’s just when the dragon doesn’t get to use it’s dragon breath.

That’s a pretty devastating power:

I guess if I were to model the killing of Smaug by Bard in Laketown (Wikipedia), I’d say that the secret knowledge imparted by the thrush nullifies the dragon’s defenses so he must roll +0 and Bard gets to roll +3 for his job as archer, his specialisation with the bow, and his special black arrow.

The dragon still has ten hits, which would require a total amount of differences of twenty! How on earth is that going to work?

Maybe in this situation, we could simulate this as requiring one blow and the previous rolls leading up to it to be positioning rolls, entrapment, false trails, lures, deception. It’s not clear to me what sort of bonus you’d use to do that, though.

@paulczege offered some interesting ideas on Mastodon:

Give monsters a “recipe” of certain kinds of attacks it takes to kill them. An ettin might take a “suprise attack” (one rolled with Dex instead of Strength) plus a “heavy strike”, but maybe a couple of successful regular attacks is enough for players to keep the initiative until they get to it. A group of goblins might take a “mook flurry”. A dragon might take a sequence of successful “overstrike” attacks (where a player rolls better than the attack by the prior player).

I guess in the case of Bard vs. Smaug I could say that the ten hits might also be due to awesome armour and actually knowing the weak spot would nullify the armour... Perhaps the dragon only has four hits when discounting the armour? That would still require a difference of eight in the opposed 2d6 roll... but at least it’s possible to pull off.

Some sort of extra “killing blow” rules might still be required. I have to think about this some more.

We could return to the OD&D +1/+3 vs. somebody magic weapons I love so much.

If Bard is using a +1/+3 vs. dragons arrow, and we’re more liberal with granting Bard special abilities, then how about this:

That’s a +7 attack vs. a dragon’s absolute weak spot, where the dragon has to roll +0. A difference of 7 would be worth at least four damage plus special effects. If the dragon only has 4 hits without his dragon armour, then it could work...

But wow. So much special casing. I guess that explains why it’s a feat worthy of being told.

And that also tells me that epic fights will go up into the +7 bonuses to the rolls and that epic armour will add up to six hits, and that I can use OD&D magic armour and weapon bonuses as-is.



Really enjoying your work on just halberds. Recent stuff I’ve been reading that’s rules light: 1) Silent Titans (based off Into the Odd, see also Into the Dungeon: Revived.) 2) Trophy Gold (recent Kickstarter, very interesting approach to streamlining adventure module design) 3) Searchers of the Unknown (probably most closely aligned with 2d6 ethos)

starmonkey 2020-04-13 10:35 UTC

Hm, the copy of Searchers of the Unknown is from 2009, collected with many variants in this collection from 2012. Is that the one you were looking at? As far as I know it uses regular D&D dice: 1d20 to hit and all that.

I have Silent Titans but wasn’t too impressed. Maybe I should take another look and focus on the rules for a bit.

Tells me more about Trophy Gold – or post a link?

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-13 13:22 UTC

Trophy Gold (there are 2 variants, the Gold one is the most relevant)

Silent Titans: Initially I was turned off for similar reasons you mentioned. What I’ve now found from reading it, spending time thinking about it, has revealed something very playable in my mind, a fire has been lit in my brain. I want to run this thing.

Regarding Searchers, I wasn’t referring to the mechanics, more the stripped back mechanics (apologies, I was not clear about that!)

starmonkey 2020-04-13 13:45 UTC

Thank you for the link. I’ll give Silent Titans another look. As for minimal d20 systems – I was a big M20 fan back in 2008. Good times! Sadly my players wanted to switch to D&D 3.5! 😅

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-13 16:55 UTC

The initiative rules are very cool - a blend of DW and more traditional D&D.

I really like that since combat is an opposed roll, the defender can damage the attacker, and then take the initiative.

Q1) How do you stop one player from continually nominating themselves to go next? How do you share that around? I’m assuming the PCs should nominate another PC to “go next”?

Q2) For ranged combat against someone without a ranged weapon, what happens if the defender rolls better than the attacker?

Starmonkey 2020-04-14 05:24 UTC

Good questions!

As for nominations, we’ve basically settled on “nominate someone else”. I also think that this is something that would self regulate. People do the right thing without needing a rule and sometimes that means that the player with a non-combat character never gets nominated in a fight! But then monsters will like attacking the non-combat character so every now and then they still get to roll.

As for ranged combat, on the occasions this happened, players fired ranged weapons until they lost initiative at which point the monsters either fled or closed in and their counter is actually their melee attack that their finally manage to pull off. You might have to spin a tale of slow giants throwing trees, or one failed roll standing in for many volleys of arrows in which the giant was able to approach, and so on. There is a slightly awkward moment when players counter with: “but we really wanted to keep our distance!” To that I say, “Yes, but the giant also really wanted to corner you and so he pursued you and now your standing with your back to the cliff and there’s no easy way out and he is swinging his club...”

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-14 06:05 UTC

Yeah, my instinct is to interpret the defenders win as movement. So the PC attempts to shoot the Tiger and fails, the result being the Tiger has charged the PC and now has initiative on the next roll. The Tiger doesn’t cause damage in the first failed roll, but it’s poised to do so in the second.

starmonkey 2020-04-15 02:55 UTC

Hah. I would have had the tiger deal damage on that roll.

I did not expect to see a tiger attack page on Wikipedia...

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-15 06:24 UTC

“Measures to prevent tiger attacks” – Tiger scarecrows!

starmonkey 2020-04-16 14:05 UTC

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