Thursday, February 17, 2011

Adjudicating Combat Maneuvers

Design Goal: Create a unified foundation and common basis on which to adjudicate special combat maneuvers.

I never liked 3rd edition's morass of rules for resolving combat actions like trips, disarms, sundering, etc. Whenever they came up in play, significant time was wasted looking up all of the pertinent rules and situational modifiers. Then, many cases resulted in either the player realizing he had little chance to succeed in his endeavor or that he had a trivial failure rate. So let's build a simple mechanism that these combat actions can all work from.

Whenever a character or NPC attempts a non-standard combat maneuver (such as a disarm or trip attack, anything that is not a standard hit to deal damage), the following mechanism can be utilized:

1) A normal attack roll is made. On a successful hit, the defender may choose to be affected by the special attack as described or they may elect to take standard damage instead.

For example, I declare that I will attempt to disarm my opponent. I make a standard attack roll and succeed in hitting. The defender chooses whether his weapon is thrown from his hand or he takes damage as a normal attack.

2) When attempting a combat maneuver, if the attacker's roll is equal to or greater than a 25, the defender is affected by the combat maneuver.

So a normal hit is going for Target 20, but if the attack hits a "Target 25," then the defender must accept the consequences of the combat maneuver.

This still requires (and leaves plenty of room for) DM interpretation. This mechanic covers the dice rolling aspect while allowing room for a DM and/or the players to come to a consensus on the results of special combat moves. With the dice rolling convention set, the following example could be used to interpret the results of a desired PC combat action.

Disarm. A success here throws the weapon from the defender's grasp. An unarmed attacker could wind up with the weapon in hand. If the attacker has only 1 hand free, he could end up with the defender's weapon if it is a one-handed weapon. Otherwise, the weapon falls to the ground. If the fight were occurring on top of a city's walls, the weapon could be thrown to the ground below. Or into a pit of lava. Or directly to an ally who is without a weapon. The defender should be able to retrieve the weapon if the situation permits.

That brings up a crucial point when making these sorts of rulings. If the defender can just pick up the weapon on his next action, the whole point of the disarm is made moot. The consequences for choosing to have the special affect should have a significant impact. As I said, this rule is meant to cover the mechanics of special attacks, but the real fun (and challenge) of D&D combat is coming together to form a consensus on the end results of actions.

Similarly, the defender's ability to choose whether or not to accept the special attack creates some interesting situations. In the disarm case, the defender may choose to have his weapon lost if he has a backup. If his backup weapon is not ideal for use in the current combat, then the disarm was useful from the attackers perspective. If the defender won't relinquish his grasp on his mighty +3 long sword, then he still took regular damage. The special combat maneuver will never be a moot point. When the attacker REALLY needs a success, he needs to be able to hit a Target 25, so he better be a good fighter or be able to leverage some other situation (beneficial spells, flanking, etc) to boost his chance at success.

Of course, situational modifiers still fit into this mechanic. If someone is attempting to run through an opponent, modifiers for size should be applicable when an ogre tries to bowl over a gnome. Heavy armor may hamper or help particular actions. At the end of the day, the whole mechanical side of these special moves in combat should be easier to figure out, allowing more time to be spent on thinking up these crazy schemes rather than doing book look-ups.

Edit: Ah, I found the original author of this idea over at Tales of the Rambling Bumblers.


  1. I think the original was called "Super simple combat maneuvers" and maybe it was on Rules, roles, and rolls?

  2. Also, we tried out that version but had difficulty finding situations where a monster or player would not just take the damage rather than the effect, since the effect was generally more advantageous to the opponent than just scoring a hit. I like the target 25 idea (the original just reserved that for natural 20s)
    We're experimenting now with "on a hit, the effect takes place unless the opponent can score a hit to stop it"; maybe we'd be better off making it a contest of higher to-hit rolls?

  3. Yea, I will be damned if I can remember where I first read of the rule.

    I agree that the whole point of a special maneuver is that it would be more advantageous than a regular hit, so who would choose to take it? Therefore, there needs to be more instances of guaranteed success than just 1 in 20.

    Contested rolls seems too "swingy" to me. Even with modifiers according to level, class, stats, etc, the dice allow for success and or failure in off situations, like the master fighter is disarmed by anyone if he rolls shitty. Just line up 5 goblins to try to disarm him and dice variance will eventually win out.

    With a target of 25, it allows skilled warriors to shine and leaves room for others if they can leverage another bonus like flanking.

    Of course, the ultimate test is game play which I cannot do...

  4. Well, I'll try out the target 25 version. Although I can't guarantee my players will actually try any maneuvers.

  5. Hey, don't feel compelled to adopt my lame vision for D&D :D

    But thanks, let me know how it works out.

  6. An additional thought:

    For this mechanic to work, there really has to be a way to 'force' the special affect to occur. I agree that in most situations a defender would rather take damage. So having a target number for guaranteed success is essential, leaving room for tactics to get that attack bonus high enough to roll a 25.

    The target 20 aspect is a personal issue that I always felt was kind of odd when considering these special attacks. Namely, why try to trip/disarm/whatever when the success chance was significantly lower than a normal hit? This way, if you roll enough to score a normal hit, you still land a blow.