[OSR] Making mid-level combat interesting (Vs humans/mundane weapons)

edited December 2013 in Play Advice
So, when everyone is low level every hit counts and death is on the line if you decide to fight. Cool!

However once you get to, say, 30+ HP per character with ample healing between fights it
becomes hard to deal enough damage with normal(ish) weapons to threaten a PC with anything
other than HP attrition ... or does it?

Please tell me your OSR secrets for keeping these fights at circa 6th-9th levels exciting for the players.
Rules:
* no monsters as I realise they can deal more damage (too easy)
* no spell casters (ditto)
* no freaky Eero-style rules where damage scales with level, let's keep it trad so each weapon/hit can only deal a max of a d10 or so damage.

Comments

  • "Ample healing between fights"? Why?
  • "Ample healing between fights"? Why?
    Because when you have clerics at 5+ level they can pump out a lot of HP cures.
  • Heh. I should say that damage does not scale in the main branch of my house-rules! Besides, if damage-scaling is good enough for AD&D and Mentzer Basic, one is left to wonder why it wouldn't be good for an OSR game :D

    That being said, here are my "OSR secrets" on this topic:

    1) Realize that D&D goes through a progression of literary genre as characters get up levels: levels are not naturalistic progression of experience, they are steps in a ladder of heroism. At the first couple of levels we're playing "fantasy Vietnam" as the saying goes, then we play Die Hard -style action movies, and then we play even more high-brow conceptual high fantasy adventure at high levels. Hit points are a super-power that is justified by constructive genre expectations, the Hero simply doesn't get killed suddenly in the types of genres mentioned here. Once you understand and accept this, you no longer have difficulty with the mere fact that hitpoints protect high-level characters - they play by their own rules, and the most fundamental of those rules is that they are only occasionally in serious danger from swordsplay. This fact cannot be changed without changing the fundamental nature of the game.

    2) Add critical hits (and fumbles), they can only improve the game by introducing some absolute uncertainty into combat. (Those who say the opposite think that way because they find it a problem and not a feature when a 1 HD enemy one-shots your 5th level Fighter once in a blue moon.) The way I do it is that natural "20" explodes, and any attack roll that surpasses AC by over 20 "bypasses HP" and immediately causes the same effect you'd get by reducing somebody to 0 HP, whatever that is in your implementation. If you don't use degrees of success like I do, that extra math about "surpassing by 20" might be unnecessarily heavy, of course; I might suggest using 3rd ed. confirmed criticals, their math accords well with the purpose.

    3) Accept that hitpoints only protect you from a definite set of danger types, and they can be bypassed - if not by critical hits as suggested above, then by outright wrestling (save vs. paralysis or helpless, waiting for some enemy ally to slash your throat, or be forced into a raging fireplace), being thrown off a high cliff, being poisoned, being surprised, or whatever else. Hitpoints should only be used to measure a stritly defined type of character security in combat; other types of dangers should either bypass HP or cause proportional damage (as in, "half you HP"). If this principle makes a high-level character too frail when the enemy wrestles him down and slashes his throat while he's helpless, you might consider adding another layer of "save HP" like I have done with the "crosses" that high-level character collect when they fail saving throws.

    4) Maintain an organic fight choreography wherein positioning, maneuver, special attack types, utilizing terrain, utilizing the specific nature of the enemy, all things may matter as soon as a player takes them up and tries to do something with them. This can be achieved in several ways; the way I do it involves "stunting" with extra degrees of success from attack rolls, but whatever means you use, the important thing is to allow the players to have opportunities for two things: easier HP damage, and means to bypass HP.

    5) Add an absolute HP cap proportionate to how much damage can be caused. Most D&D versions already have this in the form of the "name level" (although it's only for adventuring classes and not monsters); my own house rules don't have a name level, but rather there is a strict limit of 100 HP - nobody, no monster, can have more than that, as that's a limit of HP simulation; if any god-like being is even more invulnerable, that has to be measured with other rules aside from HP. This limit of mine is strictly chosen to work with the way extraneous sources of damage and such work in my system - it is in proportion to how much one may expect even high-level characters to be able to cause damage with their slight damage boosts, extra attacks, magic and other trickery. The cause is simple: make it impossible for a combat to ever, ever reduce into a situation where the players are just trying to make HP go down in a tedious process that takes dozens of combat rounds. If the enemy is that strong, make them outright immune to normal weapons or whatever.

    6) Get rid of the poisonous idea that entire parties level up into new worlds of challenge where no longer the characters are enemies are 1 HD, but rather every citizen of this dark elf city is at least 5 HD. Just... throw that away. Rather, assume that individual characters will occasionally get ahead of the pack by hook or by crook, slowly pulling the lesser lights along with them; your parties will consist of pyramidical structures where most characters and henchmen are strictly 0-1 level, while some occasional characters are somewhat higher. When one character reaches "high level", that's when you might expect the rest of them to finally be "mid-level". All this, when applied to the opposition as well as the adventuring party, means that every fight will have plenty of softer targets whose HP certainly does matter, even if there are a few heroic individuals who are not in immediate personal danger in the midsts of melee.

    7) Magical healing is stupid; not because it allows characters to continue adventuring after a hard fight (that's practically mandatory for D&D - one might rather say that the original healing system is stupid, as it forces you to maintain magical healing as part of the game), but because it enables characters to reach peak HP again and again. For this reason I myself have reduced magical healing heavily, and replaced it with short rests akin to what 4th edition D&D does (but again, without the moronic peak efficiency issue where all characters are either at full HP or ready to quit it for the day): whenever the party spends an entire turn in rest, any character may opt to reroll their HP (we don't track permanent HP, only hit dice) with cumulative penalty dice. Thus e.g. a 5th level character taking their third short rest for the day would roll 8d6 (5 for level and 3 penalty dice), and drop the three best dice, thus achieving their new HP count. (If the roll reduces your HP, tough titties - your wounds from the last combat were worse than we initially thought.) The point of this system (aside from the stylistic point of getting rid of the videogame-y healing magic) is to reduce your peak HP as the day goes on; in combination with the above points it means that high-level characters don't get merely higher peak protection during a single fight from their HP, as in standard D&D, but rather they get much, much more longevity over a harsh adventuring day. This in turn encourages players to go into more fights with less than optimal HP, which reduces the "peak HP is too high" problem nicely in serious dungeon crawling.

    The above collection of "OSR secrets" should, when fully implemented, lead into a type of D&D combat that is extremely lethal at low levels, but then slowly mellows into a more heroic genre as characters gain levels, but the heroism comes without having the players lose their interest in tactical maneuver and their fear of death - your survivability should go up roughly as fast as your love for your high-level favourite character does :D In our campaign the occasional 5th level fighter could do heroic-fiction things like "a great leader always leads from the front" and "I am the only one here who can be trusted to light the fuse!" pretty reliably, relying on HP and other heroic properties that leveling up allows them, which is as it should be in my mind. Hit point grind was never an issue because of the above points: HP could always be bypassed by superior numbers pinning the fighter down if nothing else (you might remember, this is the canonical method for taking down Conan), living and relevant fight choreography kept players constantly working for victory, relatively random fight mechanics maintained some tension even against weaker opposition unless care was taken, and so on.
  • Interesting set of limitations. Have to think "outside the box".

    * no freaky Eero-style rules where damage scales with level"
    How about where level scales with damage? +2 hps per level to a max level equal to Constitution.

    * no monsters, no spell casters
    How about monstrous/spell-like effects applied to regular combat, using what's already on the character sheet?
    On Max Dam Roll (to keep the Dam Roll relevant)
    Save vs Paralysis (unconscious/grappled)
    Save vs Poison (infection)
    Save vs Death Ray/Magic (lethal blow)
    Save vs Petrification (mortal blow requiring specific healing; Stone to Flesh becomes Restore Flesh))
    Level Drain (permanent disability requiring Restoration)



  • Thanks biffboff and Eero. Great ideas.
  • Where does this list of easy solutions come from, and why do you wish to avoid them?

    Aren't giants and flaming swords, and especially dragons, kind of the point of the game? Is it a problem that they are important challenges at higher levels? Are you hoping to save them for even higher level?
  • If you want to make humanoid opponents interesting I'd go with the stunting approach Eero mentioned. I'd also use setpieces for the battles or goals other than "reduce the HP to 0". Fighting on sinking ships, while climbing down a wall secured with ropes and stuff like that. Making the environment matter and makingt the fight special by having it be "The fight when we jumped from one airship to the other" instead of "Some fight against orcs"
  • Along the lines of what Biest said: in the real world, people fight to accomplish a strategic objective. Lay siege to a castle; break through the siege; kidnapping an enemy officer from inside the base; drawing out an enemy's big weapon for research purposes, and then confront it later under better circumstances, etc. Too often in D&D, you've got the tactical equivalent of two gangs bumping into each other on a street corner and they just start brawling. Think bigger than that.

    One of the things we do in our game is simply declare that you cannot double-memorize a spell. So, a Magic-User has only one magic missile at best, only one sleep. And just as importantly, in B/X at least, the Cleric only has a single cure light wounds until hitting 6th level around 30,000 XP. While this arguably limits the combat utility of the spell-casters, it also forces the party to think creatively about these scarce resources.
  • * Defensive positioning / hard points - archers behind battlements, gates, walls, canyons, environmental and man-made obstacles;

    * nowhere to rest - take away close by safe-zones that the players can rest in - hostile territory, active battlefields, behind enemy lines;

    * extend their days - similar to above, make them earn their rests, take away easy places for them to retreat to and hole up;

    * pressure their resources - if their clerics are spitting out tons of heals, put them into situations that force the clerics into tough choices with their spells, if they're going to sit on a bunch of heals, make it a tough choice-- this could be via combat situations or puzzles, adventure situations, etc.
  • * pressure their resources - if their clerics are spitting out tons of heals, put them into situations that force the clerics into tough choices with their spells, if they're going to sit on a bunch of heals, make it a tough choice-- this could be via combat situations or puzzles, adventure situations, etc.
    What does this look like in practice? I'm asking because to me it seems like the causality is backwards in the short term for this to be accomplished: at the point where the cleric knows that they would really need a specific spell, they've already determined their loadout, which might or might not include the correct spell. Over several occasions players might learn to not rely too much on healing spells, but that's only if the campaign consistently provides challenges that consume clerical magic slots, which might be difficult to accomplish without sacrificing other values (e.g. causal dungeon design - with traditional cleric spell lists you don't have too many naturally occurring situations that require a cleric spell, aside from healing).
  • What does this look like in practice? I'm asking because to me it seems like the causality is backwards in the short term for this to be accomplished: at the point where the cleric knows that they would really need a specific spell, they've already determined their loadout, which might or might not include the correct spell. Over several occasions players might learn to not rely too much on healing spells, but that's only if the campaign consistently provides challenges that consume clerical magic slots, which might be difficult to accomplish without sacrificing other values (e.g. causal dungeon design - with traditional cleric spell lists you don't have too many naturally occurring situations that require a cleric spell, aside from healing).
    It may not be something that can be done very session without becoming contrived but, for example one thing I've experienced done to good effect was having injured non-combatants under the party's care. Rampant status ailments could work for a session or two as well (plague?). It definitely helps if you can get the party to a place where they can't prepare out the wazoo for everything.

  • Hah, plague is a fun idea. The way the rules work, though, at least our crew routinely casts that sort of magic (if we even have any for it, Cure Disease is not exactly 1st level) during downtime. This is probably because we've been rocking a historical fantasy setting for a long, long time (I've written before about how alien D&D fantasy is to me and many others around here), so it's simply not going to be some magical disease that kills you in 15 minutes if you don't do something about it. That bubonic plague or whatever is not going anywhere, it can easily wait until morning. (And the one time that it actually is a magical disease, of course we don't have the cure prepped, because we didn't expect a magical thing where a non-magical one would suffice.)

    I wouldn't get stuck on this detail otherwise, except that a lot of the cleric spell list is very situational, and that makes it difficult to reduce the magical healing dynamic by tinkering with tactical challenges. Frankly, if you play the magic rules even close to by the book, the cleric should just prep healing (whatever amount is indicated by the nature of the mission - if there's no particular objective, you need less healing, as retreat costs less in opportunity costs) and some utility stuff (combat magic, whatever - there are a few worthwhile things available at all levels) with the slots left over. Then if it so happens that you need a Detect or Augury or some special cure, you just retreat to secured position and cast that spell the next day. If you really don't have any time-pressure, you'll spend that entire day resting (healing everybody alongside the augury or whatever), and only continue with the mission after two days.

    (I don't know how common the above tactical paradigm is at other tables, but for us it is obvious. Note that "take away their chance to rest" does not actually fix this, as the situational spells are still just as situational, and you're no better off if you prepped Augury when you should've had Cure Disease. For this reason the player will still default to a widely useful set of healing and combat magics unless they specifically know in advance that they'll be needing something else that very day. Combine this with the moronic way healing magic scales to higher levels - you need stronger spells or more of them to heal a higher-level character - and you actually never get into a situation where the Cleric's player wouldn't want to prep 90% healing magic.)

    All this sort of stuff is why I ultimately chose to revise the healing system for my own use; it is simply very, very difficult to get around the nature of the clerical healing unless you change the actual rules.

    Todd's main point is good, though: if the combat system feels bland in detail (the topic of the thread, as I remember it), one approach is to micromanage the scenarios so that they play well with the system. Even if one doesn't go for magical equipment and monsters (which are indeed a basic strength of the system, as Adam points out - they are why the system scales up so aggressively), other ideas might be developed for one-off or continuous use. Todd's example of having non-combatant victims leach off excess healing magic is a good one in this regard, I'm sure that it'd work just fine as long as it's not overused.
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