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Variant Combat Rules

by Tracy A. Bandy

Variant Combat Rules

I have been promising my players this write up for awhile, and since I have a couple requests from the ADND-List for it following my brief allusion to "House Rules" in my campaigns - well, it's time I put these ideas and rules into electronic format at least. I'm also sending a copy to the Mystara List as it includes my adaptation of the OD&D Weapons Mastery rules. Though the Weapon Mastery rules may be hard to recognised except as a basis from which I developed my own adaptations.

The first important piece of information for any reader is that my game is entirely skills-based. I have alluded to this in many of my posts, but as I do not bombard the list regularly (generally in lurker mode) some may not be aware of that particular fact. This entire system is adaptable, even to ADND. It is not pure, as I have had 18 years of gaming to develop this particular set of house rules. (I realise "years of experience" is not necessarily equivalent to being good or well thought out, however this system is extensively play-tested and works very well for my games.)

A few general notes about combat. I use 10-second melee rounds, and add the roll of 1d10 to a character's or monster's Dexterity to determine Initiative. Highest Initiative gets first action in a melee round. Typical Initiative adjustments include a -5 for drawing weapons, -7 for switching weapons, a negative modifier equal to the mana-point value of a spell (unless spell description gives a different modifier), +10 for Haste spell or Potion of Speed, +2 for light-weight garments, -3 for two-handed weapons, and so forth. There are occasionally situational modifiers as well. These require adjudication at the moment of the game combat.

Hit points for characters in my games are high but relatively static. Because I do not use level progressions, I determine character hit point by taking the character's Constitution score and adding a base modifier based on race. This racial modifier is subjective on my part based on mass of creature and the race's innate toughness. Examples: Humans = 15, Elves = 14, Dwarves = 17, Hin (halflings) = 13, Minotaurs = 19, Ogres = 20, Rock Trolls = 22, Kobolds = 10. Bonus hit points may be added to this base score if the character comes from a background that I interpret warrants the bonus; such as a dedicated warrior (knight, mercenary soldier) gets a +5 bonus, a blacksmith would get a +1 or +2 bonus depending on how the character had been actively practicing this craft. I use the -10 hp "mercy rule" in my campaigns, except the negative hp is equal to the characters Constitution score before they are declared dead! (I instituted the mercy rule because of my tendency to occasionally deal massive damage to some of the characters.) Hit points can rise slightly through near-death experiences. A character that gets reduced to negative hit points has a slight chance of being a little harder to kill. I judge this extremely subjectively, and when I rule in favour of bonus hit points, the player gets to 1d3 for the character's bonus.

I use a two-fold armour system. The character gets an Armour Rating number based on what type of armour is worn (if any). The Armour Rating (AR) is the damage the armour absorbs from any melee damage suffered. However, any successful hit will always inflict a minimum of 1 point of damage to the character regardless of AR. Thus, even ridiculous AR characters can eventually be beaten into submission. The second measure for the character is Armour Class (AC). Armour Class is the combination of factors that make the character harder to hit with a weapons: Dexterity adjustment, shield bonus, magical adjustments, Weapon Mastery defensive adjustments, wearing leather armour or lighter protection while using a weapon the character is proficient with (from Player's Option series), plus situational modifiers (if any). The AC is then subtracted from the attacker's to hit score to determine what will actually make contact with the defending character. I use a 20-sider for combat rolls where a 1 always hits and a 20 always misses (more about this shortly).

As I stated earlier, my system is skill-based. Therefore, a character does not automatically know how to successfully wield any weapons. He or she has had enough exposure to weapons in general not to hurt themselves while handling one. When the character is created, if they choose to be proficient with one or more weapons, they will be. But that proficiency will be very minimal. They will have received basic training and not much more. This translates a little differently once you start speaking in game terms.

All skills and spells in my system are Ranked numerically with 0 representing no real ability and 30+ representing Mastery and Grandmastery with the skill/spell in question. (Those who read my post about my spell system from yesterday will note a recurring theme.) There are six groupings that describe the various numerical spreads within this ranking system: unskilled (0), Basic (1-5), Skilled (6-15), Expert (16-24), Master (25- 34), Grandmaster (35+). Each weapon that a player chooses for his character are treated as separate skills. It is possible for the character to have a broad or narrow base skill in a weapon type (all bladed weapons, short bladed weapons, polearms, axes, short spears, etc.), but skill improvements will occur for individual weapons as opposed to the entire selection range. In a few cases, this may break down to separate categories for weapons that can be used in more than one style: the bastard sword can be used one- or two-handed, short spears can be thrown or used in melee.

Regardless of weapon choice, a character has a basic 8 or under on 1d20 to hit an opponent (40% chance). If the character has a Dexterity adjustment (Aim for those using the Player's Option subabilities), this is added to the base to hit. The GM needs to note what an opponent's AC is to determine the final range in which a character will be able to score a successful hit. As the character gains experience with his weapon or weapons of choice, he improves in ranking, improving his base to hit number, damage potentially caused, AC (depending upon weapon), and gaining special abilities with that particular weapon (these abilities vary according to the weapon). The following chart illustrates the advancement:

Unskilled 8 1/2 damage
Basic 8 Normal damage
Skilled 9 +1 point of damage
Expert 10 Drop one dice size and use one more die +1 point
Master 11 Increase one die size +2 points
Grandmaster 12 Use two more dice in determining damage


Base damage for a short sword in my campaigns is 1d6+1. So, as an example of how much damage a character could potentially do with a short sword at the various category levels, read on. Unskilled with the short sword, the character would half the roll of dice rounded up; at basic skill, the character does the normal 1d6+1; skilled, 1d6+2; expert, 2d4+2; Master, 2d6+3; and Grandmaster, 4d6+3. Grandmasters can be very nasty opponents, regardless of weapon they use. Fortunately, there are not a great many weapons grandmasters in the world.

The special abilities gained and AC improvements based on category are dependent on the weapon used. those who have access to the OD&D Rules Cyclopaedia can find the appropriate information in Chapter 5: Other Character Abilities, pages 78-79. Otherwise, I would advise making up these abilities, as posting them to the list would be copyright infringement (no flames please; I have other things to do with my time besides receiving/answering TSRs warnings about this subject).

By now, I'm sure a few of you are wondering how ones Skill Rank improves in order to have a chance to reach these higher categories of weapon mastery. Practice, training, and practical experience. Use of a weapon gains one experience with it. Over time the character will improve. Training can help to accelerate the process slightly, but training is expensive and not guaranteed to teach you anything (think about it; not _every_ training or schooling course you've taken has ended up actually teaching you something). My judgment of when a character improves is subjective, with each new Skill Rank being harder to obtain then the previous (of course!).


First important notes: a character unskilled with a weapon cannot score a critical hit and Grandmasters never fumble - they may miss, but they never fumble! That out of the way, I do use both concepts in my game, though simplified compared to the charts in the Player's Options books.

Critical hits occur on a natural roll of 1, regardless of Skill Rank (except for the unskilled as mentioned in the previous paragraph). The opponent gets a saving throw (10 or less on 1d20; 50% chance of avoiding your most awesome blow). If the opponent fails his/her/its saving throw, the player gets to roll 1d6 to determine a critical damage multiplier. 1-3 means to double damage rolled; 4-5 means to triple damage rolled, and a 6 means to quadruple the damage rolled.

Fumbles have a different chance of occurring, dependent upon the character's skill category with his/her weapon. Unskilled characters fumble on a natural 16-20; Basic and Skilled fumble on a natural 19-20; Experts and Masters fumble on a natural 20; and Grandmasters never fumble. At this point I have the player roll percentile (1d100) dice. A result of 01-10 means a self-inflicted injury - the lower the percentile result, the more damage caused. On a result of 91-00, I have the player roll an additional attack against an ally nearby, or an enemy other than the intended opponent; if neither is reasonably possible, the character missed stylishly. Any result in between (11-90), I make up based on circumstance.

With fumbles and criticals, I recommend that the GM be very creative. Not all fumbles are entirely bad, not all criticals are perfect attacks ("Watch where you're swinging that bloody axe, Boris! You almost took off my arm as you cleaved that goblin in two!"). With criticals, I compare the damage done with the total hit points of the opponent. Regardless of how I rule the resulting hit, if the opponent took more than one-third of its total hit points from a single blow, it must roll a standard saving throw to avoid being stunned. Also, for each 10 points of damage caused on a critical hit, the opponent is knocked back one foot (unless its two sizes larger than the attacker, in which case it must make a morale check). Be creative! Critical hits are usually caused by the opponent's miscue, not the character's great skill, though an occasional decapitation does serve to stir the blood of most adventurers.

Fumbling can become a comic high point of a session or campaign. My players recall with glee more of the fumbles their characters have committed than the critical hits inflicted. Again, I implore you to be creative. In the huge mid-range on the percentile dice is the chance to put a sense of yourself in the melee. Why and how did the character miss? Distracted, itchy trigger finger on crossbow, bow string snapped, mosquito buzzing in ear, forget where he was for a moment, and so forth. I recently had two characters fumble in the same melee round. Just prior to this occurrence, one of their companions critically hit an orc, killing the orc. The killing of the orc was the character's first successful hit in combat in six or seven sessions. I ruled the two fumbles were because of the other characters' absolute amazement that their companion could not only hit an opponent, but could actually kill an opponent.

This creativity can be extended to the other ranges of the fumble "chart" as well. For example, a few months ago, one of the elves in a group was trying to assist the group's Amazon who was wrestling with an errant crocodile. The elf fumbled and the player rolled a 99 on the percentile dice. Possibly hit friend. Another attack was rolled which resulted in a critical hit. The attack was with a broad sword and resulted in a grand total of 36 points of damage (critical hit tripled damage result). I ruled that the elf managed to kill the crocodile by thrusting her sword through the Amazon. (This example has a lot of dice rolling, but the end result was worth it!) On the other end of the "chart", a character charges toward a melee between a couple of companions and an auroch (prehistoric breed of cattle found in Europe as recently as 3000 years ago). He runs up a small knoll and dives toward the back of the auroch - fumbles his attack. Resulting percentile roll was 01. I ruled the auroch spotted him and turned to meet this new adversary. The character impaled himself on one of the auroch's horns for critical damage.