Sunday, March 20, 2022

Combat & Complexity in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

When Gary Gygax was transforming Original Dungeons and Dragons into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, one of the core components of the rules he focused on were the combat rules.  Combat was rather sketchily defined in OD&D, and that is being kind.  His priorities for the Advanced system were that combat was to have a sufficient rule structure so that one game of AD&D would play more or less the same as the next.  This was at a time when campaigns often had 35th level fighters and 26th level balrogs in the same party!  But perhaps Gygax was a little too overzealous in laying down rule after rule to govern every conceivable aspect of combat he had encountered to that time.  In this blog article we will explore some of the more obtuse rules and see how they worked in print, what may have happened in practice and how the 2nd Edition of the Rules tried to address issues with the 1st Edition.

One of the principal aims of any role playing combat system is to determine who attacks first, or in other words, who has the initiative.  A closely related concept is surprise and what happens when one group of combatants surprises another group of combatants.  Initiative tends to be challenged when characters have multiple attacks, shooting missile weapons and casting spells.  

Time in AD&D

In order to discuss surprise and initiative, we have to identify the units of time AD&D uses.  An hour is divided into 6 turns of 10 minutes.  A turn is 10 rounds long, where rounds are 1 minute in duration.  Each round is divided into 10 segments of 6 seconds each.  So in this system: 1 turn = 10 rounds = 60 segments.  The 1 minute round originates from the original D&D box set.

Combat is divided into rounds, with each combatant generally getting one attack per round.  Now this might seem patently ridiculous in that combat should take so long just to inflict a single hit, but Gygax had in mind a chaotic scene where thrusts, slashes, feints, parries, blocks, positioning and other combat maneuvers limited the opportunity to inflict damage.  While 2nd Edition dropped the segment measure, it still kept the 1 minute round, so the idea had some staying power.  Classic D&D from Holmes to Moldvay and beyond had 10 second combat rounds but kept 10 minute turns.  

The "segment" is a unit of time unique to AD&D 1st Edition.  The segment was first encountered in the Players Handbook where every spell is given a casting time.  Many spells are given a casting time of 1 to 9 segments, otherwise casting time is given in rounds or turns. The Players Handbook otherwise limits its usage of segments to movement and surprise.  Strangely, by modern standards, the rules for combat were not fully explained in the Players Handbook.  They are instead found in the Dungeon Masters Guide, released over a year after the Players Handbook.  


As the 1 minute round encompassed a fairly long period of time, relatively speaking, the Advanced system sought to offer nuance to make combat give a more believable flow to the action and a less predictable outcome.  The first stage is surprise.  Surprise is always a party-based roll and uses a 1d6 for each party.  Generally a 1-2 indicates a party is surprised, although sometimes the range can be increased by certain monsters or decreased if there are certain monsters or a ranger in the party. Both parties can be surprised, which tends to mitigate or negate the effect of surprise.  Depending on the relative die roll, a party can be surprised for up to 3 segments.  

Dexterity modifiers to reaction adjustment can add or subtract segments on an individual basis.  So while a party may be surprised, the thief may due to his high dexterity lessen or eliminate his own surprise segments but not for the cleric next to him.  If this thief has an 18 dexterity (+3) will not suffer any individual disadvantage from being surprised in most circumstances.  Additionally, if this party achieves surprise, the thief will gain additional segments of surprise equal to his reaction adjustment.

For the purposes of surprise only, each segment of surprise offers the ready party the equivalent of one round of activity for purposes of attacking.  So a party which is surprised for 2 segments will receive 2 unanswered attacks from the surprising party.  This does not apply to spell use, so if a spell takes 5 segments it will not go off until after surprise has worn off.  It also does not seem to effect other actions which take a distinct amount of time, such as drinking a potion, changing weapons, movement or applying oil.  One can use the surprise time to flee and put distance between the opposing party equal to the segments of surprise multiplied by their movement rate per segment (typically from 6'-18').

In 2nd Edition AD&D, surprise is rolled on a 1d10 instead of a 1d6 to reflect that surprise-affecting modifiers may have more of a cumulative impact than a 1d6 can handle with reliable randomness. A 1-3 on the roll indicates a party is surprised. Spells cannot be cast in a surprise round, but the surprising party can do just about anything else they could do in a round without triggering a response.  By implication, the surprise round is shorter than a regular round.


Initiative generally falls into two categories, group initiative and individual initiative.  Initiative is checked each round, and in AD&D group initiative is the expectation.  Initiative broken down by individual combatant or groups of like combatant is contemplated by the rules, but the DMG notes the complexity of trying to handle individual initiative with a large number of participants in battle.  Initiative is rolled on a 1d6 like surprise, with the higher roll going first in a round.  The surprising party has the initiative over the surprised party for that round, but initiative will be checked every round thereafter.  Initiative is rolled after the player character party declares its actions to the dungeon master for that round.

The party or the individual who has the initiative can attack first before any return attack can be made.  If an attack hits and kills the opponent, then no counterattack is permissible.  Dexterity affects the individual initiative score for using missile weapons and can permit someone who has otherwise lost their initiative roll to get his or her attack off first.

Initiative with parties containing combatants with more than one attack per round is less than clear in several instances.  My interpretation of the rules is that if a combatant with more than one attack will always get one attack off if the opponent only has one attack regardless of initiative.  The opponent's attack will take place in between the multi-attacker's attacks.  In this case, the initiative is rolled to determine which of the party member's attacks is made first.  After that, any further attacks from the multi-attacking combatant will take effect.  Characters with an equal number of attacks will use initiative to determine who strikes first and third in a round versus who strikes second and last.  

The segment time for spell casting has a role to play with the initiative roll.  Even if the caster's party gains the initiative, that does not mean that the caster has the full round to be able to cast his or her spell without fear of being interrupted or hit and losing the spell.  If the caster is attacked, then the caster's party initiative die roll is checked against the casting time of the spell.  The attack against the caster will come in the segment of the initiative die.  If the attack is made and is successful before the caster can finish his or her spell, then the spell fails.  

Here an example could be helpful.  The caster's party wins initiative with a roll of 4.  The caster can cast a Fireball spell, which has a casting time of 3 segments without being interrupted by the other party.  The Fire Ball would go off even if the caster was hit with an attack by someone in the opposing party because that attack would occur later in the round.  However, if the spell was an Ice Storm spell, which takes 4 segments to cast, then the spell and the attack would seemingly go off simultaneously.  

As you should recall, actions are declared before initiative is rolled, so a caster could be casting his spell even though his party has lost initiative.  In this particular case, the rules seem to say that any attack by the party which has won initiative will take place in the segment indicated on the losing party's roll.  So if the party who won the initiative for that round rolled a 4 and the party who lost it rolled a 3, then any attacks on the caster of the losing party would take place in segment 3.  

If the initiative scores are identical, then weapon speed factors are taken into consideration as to who strikes the first blow. A long sword (speed factor 5) will strike before a two-handed sword (speed factor 10).  In fact, the rules say the long sword attacks twice having a speed factor of 5 or more compared to the two-handed sword.  Weapon speed factors are not used if one side or the other has the initiative, so this is a curious rule that would likely only be applied 16.6% of the time.  

Weapon speed also has an effect against spell casting.  The weapon factor may permit an attack against spell caster who won initiative.  On takes the weapon factor, subtracts the initiative die roll, and compares it to the casting time of the spell.  In this case, the attacker is using a battle axe (speed factor 7) against a caster trying to cast Cloudkill (casting time 5 segments).  If the attacker rolled a 1 on his initiative die, then the spell will go off before the attack can be made.  If the attacker rolled a 4, then the attack will be made before the spell's completion, and if a hit is scored, the spell will be canceled out. 

If the subtraction of the initiative roll from the weapon factor results in a negative number, the result is treated as positive.  This makes for counter-intuitive results because it is generally considered that a higher initiative roll brings fewer negative consequences to the losing party than a lower roll.  The example given in the DMG illustrates this issue.  If a dagger is the attacking weapon (speed factor 2) and the caster is casting a Fireball (casting time 3), then the dagger will potentially interrupt the spell unless the initiative roll was a 5, where it will occur simultaneously with the spell going off.  Ironically, the rules state that weapon speed factors do not apply in this instance in the case of simultaneous initiative.  

Like with surprise rolls, initiative rules in 2nd Edition are rolled on a 1d10, but with the lower score going first.  It has optional rules for semi-individual (one roll but each character's turn affected by modifiers) and full individual initiative (each character rolls and is affected by modifiers).  Spell casting times, if not given in rounds or turns or hours, are added to an initiative roll when using the individual initiative procedure.  Weapon speed factors are also treated in the same way.  In reality, while the term "segment" is not used in 2nd Edition to refer to units of time, the concept is still present in actuality with these rules.  It is just made a whole lot more simple.


AD&D has lots of attack modifiers.  Strength gives melee attack and damage modifiers, Dexterity gives missile attack (but not damage) modifiers.  Each class has a certain number of weapons in which they are proficient, a lack of proficiency in a given weapon will lead to an attack penalty.  Dwarves gain a bonus against certain enemies and elves when using certain weapons.  Certain spells, potions and magic weapons and items can give modifiers.  Situations like cover and concealment can give bonuses against missile fire, being grappled can be subject to a bonus to hit by opponents and being under a hold person spell allows for attacks to hit automatically.

One particular innovation of the AD&D rules is the variance in weapon damage between Small and Medium Sized Creatures versus Large Sized Creatures. Certain weapons, generally smaller ones, do more damage to small and medium creatures than to large creatures.  Other weapons have the opposite damage potential.  These alternate damage numbers could be forgotten in the heat of battle where a fighter is attacking a troll with a two-handed sword and rolls 1d10 damage instead of 3d6.

There is a table in the AD&D Players Handbook giving Armor Class Adjustments for each weapon.  Each weapon could have a bonus or penalty to the character's hit-roll depending on the armor class of the opponent.  The idea seems to be that stronger armor provides better protection against simpler weapons but heavy weapons may have difficulty against a more agile opponent not wearing more confining armor.  This table is rather problematic for more than one reason.  First, you have nine values for each weapon, which can be difficult to apply consistently.  Second, the values are not given in a linear format all the time. Third, armor class in AD&D can range from 10 to -10 and the table does not scale past 2 (or 0 with Unearthed Arcana).  The Dungeon Masters Guide notes that these adjustments are optional and are only applied to opponents wearing armor and not most monster armor classes, but some exceptions could be made for creatures like an iron golem or a giant centipede.  I think these Armor Class Adjustments were ignored far more often than they were used.   These tables were not included in the Dungeon Masters Screen, suggesting their relative importance was not great.  

2nd Edition simplified Armor Class Adjustments, but still kept them optional.  The chart gives each type of armor and the bonus or penalty against the three types of weapons, slashing, piercing and bludgeoning.  This is much easier to remember than the charts for individual weapons.  As some weapons, like a halberd, are both slashing and piercing, you can gain the benefit of the best type of attack against a particular armor. Monster attacks can usually be classified according to common sense, a bite would be a piercing attack, a claw attack would be a slashing attack and a thrown boulder would be a bludgeoning attack.

Final Words

If one looked at the changes in the combat rules from 1st Edition to 2nd Edition, it can be easy to see why 2nd Edition maintained the popularity of AD&D for several years after the changeover in 1989.  The 2nd Edition rules maintained the familiar and accepted while cutting down on the complexity of initiative.  There were no radical departures from 1st Edition to 2nd generally, although some deletions like the Half-Orc (brought back in supplements) and the Assassin (ditto) were missed by some.  I doubt many people missed the segment system and its less than streamlined rules!

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