2020-04-20 To specialize in combat

Yesterday’s session was interesting in terms of playtesting. Remember our setup? We had one more spellcaster this time around:

Also remember that last session did not involve any fights. This time around, Boris the fighter wanted to fight! Soon, one of the sidequests that popped up was “retrieve the sword Meteorstrike from a band of bugbears outside of town.”

As explained previously, when taking notes for a fight, I just add up all the hit dice and go from there:

That’s a lot of hits!

The players managed to sneak up to them and surprise them. How did I handle surprise? I let the initiative system carry it: whenever a player acts for the first time, they can use any +1 they get because they’re sneaking or ambushing or assassinating, depending on their skill; and as long as the players keep the initiative, the bugbears count as surprised, meaning they can’t use any of their skills effectively, thus they fight at +0 instead of +1.

Sadly for the players, I still rolled very well and two characters dropped to below zero hits. One player noticed that there was always a chance to lose four hits in every roll, so the game was super dangerous. We decided to keep using the notorious Death & Dismemberment table. It’s very forgiving when it comes to dying. And so the two characters rolled one more time:

2instant death: beheaded or similar; the victim may only be raised by resurrection
3fatal wound and death at the end of the fight: pierced lung, cracked spine or similar; regeneration can avert death; the victim may be raised by resurrection or raise dead
4loose a limb; roll 1d4: 1 – sword arm, 2 – shield arm, 3, 4 – leg; death can be averted by applying a tourniquet or cauterizing the wound with fire, you can regrow the limb using regeneration
5, 6broken bone; roll 1d4: 1 – sword arm, 2 – shield arm, 3 – leg, 4 – rib; healing takes 2d4+9 weeks (sessions); regeneration can mend broken bones
7, 8unconscious for the rest of the fight
9stunned: at -1 for the rest of the fight
10knocked down: at -1 until you spend the initiative to get up
11you can take it!
12adrenalin rush! Get back one ♡

Remember we still use the names and descriptions of a lot of D&D-like spells with every spell being a special ability characters can learn.

Sadly, one of the players rolled a 2 and their character died. They announced that they are going to play a fighter, next.

Indeed, that’s one of the issues I noticed tonight. The lone fighter really dominated the game: it was very easy to nominate them for the next roll, and they interposed themselves a lot when the others got attacked (and indeed when they did not, the archer went down).

On the one hand, the player of the fighter got what they wanted. They wanted a fight, and they got a fight. They’re playing a fighter and they totally ruled. That’s cool.

The spellcasters realized that if they wanted to join a fight, they needed guards – they needed a front rank to hold back the enemies. The alternative would be a game like last session where the party decided not to fight. Sadly, they also don’t have many people versed in talking, so it’s a bit weird. They have a lot of spellcasters that want to fight.

I’m not sure: is this a problem of the rules that I need to fix, or is this a problem the players need to solve? 🤔

When I talked about it on Mastodon, @Halfjack said:

Be careful when playtesting of turning a player’s concerns into a failure to address the game. If they aren’t getting it, it’s possible the game isn’t pitching it yet.

Good point.



I love my random mini-setting generator Hex Describe spitting out magic weapons I added to it so long ago. Like this one: “The long sword Meteorstrike +1/+3 vs. dragons, an old elven sword forged in the dragon wars.”

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-20 17:14 UTC

I will say that from personal experience running a lot of PbtA and similar games with initiative rules like the ones in Just Halberds, those sort of rules tend to favour some players over others a lot. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a lot easier for a fighter to come up with a cool plan to keep up with a thief or wizard out of combat than it is for a thief or wizard to keep up with a fighter in combat. It also gives more talkative and outgoing personalities more attention. You can always try to put more attention back on the people that are more reserved but at that point it defeats the point of a fluid form of initiative (for me at least).

Your mileage may vary, of course, but classic D&D initiative is one of the first things I houserule into a lot of games I run. That’s the fun thing about simple rulesets though. If there’s something you don’t like, it’s super easy to change.

Malcolm 2020-04-22 04:12 UTC

Good point. For now, I think I can manage the more talkative players at the table. There’s a very extrovert dad and there are some introverted children at the table, and that dynamic has to be kept in check all the time or else we’ll do all his quests and follow all his suggestions.

Right now I fear the problem might be in the punitive consequences of failed attacks. The fire mage wants to throw a fireball in the fight. They roll +2 for being a fire mage and knowing the fire ball spell. The orcs are tough melee fighters and not particularly strong against fire so the roll +0. That is still a significant chance to take four points of damage.

In a Powered by the Apocalypse games, a hard failure isn’t always damage, it’s also other hard moves. I’ll have to think about that. On the one hand, I appreciate it more, now. On the other hand, it also puts more burden on the referee to decide the exact consequences and I don’t like that, speaking as a referee.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-22 05:11 UTC

In today’s game we used surprise rules again: the hidden troglodytes were well hidden, camouflaged as rocks in a dark cave, with a distraction set up, and the players looked up, expecting an attack from above. The troglodytes (6) ♡♡ ♡♡ ♡♡ ♡♡ ♡♡ ♡♡ +2 spear, stink, camouflage, had the initiative and while they had it, it was the surprise round and the players had to roll +0. It was brutal, they avoided the fighter and I ruled that as long as they were surprised, the fighter couldn’t guard anybody. One character dropped to zero and fell prone (-1 until spending the initiative to get up); another character dropped to zero and fell unconscious; others got hurt... then we rolled a few standoffs and I decided that this was enough to allow them a getaway, just as the guardian naga was approaching.

I’m happy with how it went.

Sadly I’m noticing how bad I am at basic math: I rolled an 11, they rolled an 8, that’s … uh … 3 … more than 1 … round up … 2 hits lost! It’s pathetic but that’s how it is. I wonder whether I can write a simple lookup table. 😀

I guess I still like Just Halberds because combat is so simple and by that I mean it requires so little involvement. It’s brutal and stupid, as it should be. It works well for kids and some adults alike. It’s a totally different mind space than deciding whether to risk alienating Melly the pyromancer, whether to visit Kevin the geomancer, whether to investigate the secret society of the Aurora, or to destroy two temples of Orcus. When you’re in a fight, the game is different, and I like that.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-29 19:10 UTC

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