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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

MORE REALISTIC D&D COMBAT: Timing, Surprise, and Initiative

The greatest and undefeated Japanese sword master Miyamoto Musashi has once written in 1643, that TIMING  IS  EVERYTHING in HIS 10 Commandments to a swordsman who would be undefeated. Rules for timing in traditional AD&D 1st Edition combat rules is yet another overlooked element that can make the combat more realistic.

Combat is a team sport in AD&D, contrary to it being portrayed as an individual endeavor in the swords and sorcery literature. Its conceptualization is quite modern, concealed behind the medieval occult-like appearance of the game. In the immortal words of a 50 something LOTR movie fan and a novice to D&D, who exclaimed: "Hey, six man team is a special forces squad!", when I told him that D&D is set up for an optimal party size of six adventurers. Both, Gygax and Novice must have been drinking from the same pool of the Vietnam Era Green Beret radiance or something!

Gygax offers a very sophisticated and workable model for timing and initiative in D&D combat. I believe that it is based on the modeling of naval combat, from which he borrowed the concept of the Armor Class (AC). Two parties of combatants (i.e. adventurers vs monsters) encounter each other at a randomly determined distance. Surprise roll is then made for each team. For humans, surprise occurs by rolling 1-2 on 1d6. Cunning monsters, such as ghouls, surprise on 1-4.  The tactical time in Gygaxian AD&D is expressed in 10 minute Turns, 1 minute Rounds and 6 second Segments. The key, and most often overlooked component of being surprise is the team inaction under fire. Two teams roll 1d6, one or both may be surprised. Surprise may be impossible if the team conducted a successful reconnaissance etc. It will take precious time before the surprised team will react at all, expressed as the number of segments equal to the difference between the two die rolls. Loser rolled a 1 and the winner rolled a 4. The winner can act with impunity for 3 segments or 18 seconds before the enemy team starts reacting. The winner can close the distance and start attacking, cast and release spells, shoot the arrows. How much damage in real world? Historically, prepared British yeomen had to fire an arrow every five seconds, 7/12 had to hit the target at the 150 yard range. That is way too fast and furious for the AD&D, where 2 arrows can be fired per Round. How fast can the distance be closed? Self-defense Gospel is that a man with a knife ready, can cover 20 feet and stab another man, before he can draw a pistol from the holster and shoot the assailant. Again, a little beyond the pale of most role-players and re-enactors.

But let's get back to AD&D: This system of being caught with the pants down and open to attack is likely influence by the naval battle simulation as well, though, Lord knows there were enough infantry platoons, 20 men plus, going back to the WWI, which were surprised by a hidden machine gun and were cut down in less than six seconds or a single D&D Segment, and as to naval battle, archeological evidence shows that in one of the battles for the Nile, the French fleet readied one side of the battle ships of the line to fire on the British, and Lord Nelson surprised them and attacked the French Navy from the OTHER side, from which they weren't able to shoot. That carried the battle for him.

There is one tactical element, which makes Gygaxian model of surprise so much more sophisticated: and that is individual initiative. While surprise is done for the group, and my philosophy is, if the group is acting in concert as a team, then do group surprise, it is individual initiative that breaks the stunned stupor of the surprised group. One of the bonuses that comes with the high Dexterity is the Reaction Adjustment/Atack modifier. The attack is the bonus to the To Hit roll with missile weapon shooting/throwing. The reaction adjustment is subtracted from the number of segments that the character spends in the state of inaction as a result of being surprised. Let's look at our example of the team that is surprised and inactive for three segments. Among those, there is a fighter with the dexterity 16. He will be stunned for 2 segments, not three, and will be the first to react. Of course, there is also a Thief with DEX 18, with his +3 bonus,. he will not be surprised at all and will re-act immediately.

Starting with the quick Thief, the surprised team starts to react, and rolls for initiative, and in the next post we will examine the initiative and weapon speed.


  1. This is my first post on this site, and I have only read this most recent article, but I'll check out the earlier ones, too. This looks like interesting stuff. I don't know that I agree with any Gygaxian models being sophisticated. You mention the Yeomen firing an arrow every 5 seconds, and Gygaxian models show arrows fired at top speed... one every 5 MINUTES! The guy did everything in a bizarre, non-realistic manner, with case by case specific non-intuitive and non-derivable rules.

    Your emphasis on realism, however, THAT is something I like. The idea of using a man with a drawn knife running up to a gunman whose got a holstered gun and winning the fight, is something massively overlooked, and I agree with it, wholeheartedly. All things being equal that is. If it's Bruce Lee with the holstered gun, all bets are off.

    I don't know if I'm using the term properly, but, is the period where the party that lost initiative or surprise and unable to respond, what they call "flatfooted" in the more recent D&D versions? It's one idea I actually like in D&D. I can't say I think 18 seconds of being flatfooted in a tiny 6 man party makes sense. Those guys would be jumpy as hell, and drawing their weapons, or would have them in hand, constantly, in any kind of infiltration of a dungeon/enemy stronghold. Even if they had to draw their weapons, they'd quickly do so, even if the opposition got the drop on them for an attack. D&D made attacks so long (10 minutes), because Gygax based them on that 1937 Robin Hood movie. Not realistic, not "abstracted," just... based on false assumptions.

    I tried to highlight a quote from your post, and it wouldn't allow me to drag it to this post box. Is that fixable? Is there a way you could get a larger box, so I can read more of my letter, and in larger font?

    Good to finally see this site. I like what little I've seen so far.

  2. Greetings, Neal, and welcome to my blog!

    With regards to tactical timing in Gygaxian combat models, I am going by DMG 1st edition and players handbook. His very fist sentence on DMG pg 61 is that combat is divided in 1 minute rounds. His first paragraph covers his model - of melee opponents fencing and each trying to hit the other (to hit rolls) over a span of one minute. Gygax discusses rationale for his model, and it is not that much off. Subsequent editions of D&D further muddled and confused it, trying to center it around the game board and the miniature figures.

    The missile weapon speed table is based on number of shots per minute. So, an archer can shoot two arrows per minute, or arrow ever 30 seconds. Before you consider the inaccuracy of this, consider for a second that the rate of fire applies to an archer on battlefield. The sky is the ceiling for the archer and his arrow can fly at its optimal ballistic trajectory, the arrows are standing on their lips, foxed with the beeswax in special barrels. There are boys scurrying between the archers feet making sure that everything goes smoothly. In essence we have a human powered and human formed major battlefield weapon system. When shooting in a dungeon, shooting INDOORS... you can only shoot arrows in a direct line at the target. Standing in formation, you don't gave an elbow room, you are not in a firing position, you are shooting from a quiver, having to pull the arrow out and notch it in the dark. You are not aiming in the same way. The accurate rate of fire will be faster than an arrow every 30 seconds, but nowhere near as fast as an arrow every 5 seconds. Also, the archer (if you assume that he was trained traditionally) the archer should have a "To Hit" penalty, unless you assume that D&D fighters are trained to shoot in the dungeons and will not be able to shoot in the outdoors... things to ponder, and I didn't decide yet. I will have a future posting about modifiers to d20 rolls.

    With regards to flat-footedness of a surprised party, a couple of things. I like the fact that Gygax created a framework for case-by case palette of game mechanics for different situations that may arise in the game. That is better than having to fit your modeling to an overarching uniform game mechanic and a system of rules, that is the modern WITC D&D. D&D rules themselves were influenced by a game of naval warfare. Armor class was initially used for an armor class of a ship. Consider a ship, a tank, that gets surprised on a battlefield as it comes under fire. A delay of 18 seconds as the ship comes under general quarters is quite natural. Now consider a team of medieval adventurers, again, if they function as a team, any delay is also possible. In D&D, the party of characters is just that - a specialized team, with each specialist pulling in his own direction. A very modern concept. At least in the modern military, the team of a medic, a communications expert, and explosives guy etc, they all spend considerable time training as a tactical team. Medieval men at arms spent their lives training in the use of sword and fighting together in formation. They were not magic users. clerics. thieves, ort adventurers, they were professional soldiers trained to fight in melee with a chain mail, sword and shield, and to fight together as a team ... and that was it!!!!

    Historically, men on the battlefield moved and fought in formation. Medieval men at arms formed shield walls, to imitate the ancient Greeks and Romans, in later years, they formed Infantry Squares to keep the attacking cavalry at bay.

  3. PT 2 of 3

    Even though that the rules explicitly do not mention it, let's assume that the player characters have to form for a battle, there must be special positions in the order of battle for the spell-casters and archers. Furthermore, surprise means that the party was not paying attention. Maybe they were talking like they were back in the inn, maybe they were busy arguing, maybe they were lost in their own thoughts passing time. US Marines did a study of surprise, their results are even more drastic than those of Gygax. Every soldier is trained to react and act in battlefield. You want the soldier to be in control on the battlefield. You want the soldier to act like a fighting machine, or more appropriately, like a Pavlovian trained man with weapons and battlefield gear. You WANT you soldiers to be Pavlovian trained, because Pavlovian reflexes work faster than conscious thoughts. The PAVLOVIANLY conditioned TRTAINING will save the soldier's life before the mind can react, and will carry the battle to victory. That is what happens when the soldier is on top of the situation and can react adequately to the events on battlefield. That is known as being in the GREEN. Suppose the situation is a little more overwhelming, soldier is not prepared for it. Soldier needs to process what is going on and THEN the training kicks in. That is known as being in the YELLOW. Suppose the battle gets even more overwhelming. The training won't work. Soldier does not know what to do. They have to think and figure it out. Fire is coming from all sides. There is no cover, etc. An untrained individual will get scared shitless and run away. A soldier is also scared. That is known as being in the RED. That is when a leader, a team, or more experienced soldier can intervene, but that is just me. The study was done in the 1988-1992 way after Gygax wrote DMG, and the research only concerned about how to keep the soldiers in the GREEN/YELLOW and pout of RED/BLACK. Remember, that while the soldier is in YELLOW or worse, he is NOT fighting or acting on the battlefield, he is out of the fight until the training kicks in and he starts acting on it. While the soldier is not acting (surprised?) the time is ticking. IF he lives long enough in the middle of the firefight, either the training will kick in, OR the soldier will keep losing control and will slide into shock and total panic, which results in helplessness. The study notes, that most soldiers who get killed in battle, realize that they are going to die and slide into BLACK about 3-5 seconds before they get struck down. The study claims that this is the most terrifying time in their life...

  4. PT 3 of 3

    Do we have a morale check/morale failure for the players? I don't even think that it is advisable to do so... Yeah, it takes maybe two seconds to draw the sword and get your shield ready..,. but to steady your nerves (control your fear/hands shaking fro, adrenaline)?... to get into formation with other characters?... That might take a bit of time. And considering all the other factors, to have players lose 30 seconds of tactical time, because they walked into an ambush while daydreaming in a world of their own, is NOT a bad trade off for all those other lethal tactical variables not considered in the game.
    Gygax himself had this to say about the surprise: DMG pg 62 Gygax writes about factors contributing to surprise. The first factor is the actual surprise of being attacked whole you are eating and unprepared and the sacrifice of realism for playability. The second factor is the Morale/Failure effect of surprise. Pretty much something similar to the afore mentioned USMC study. And finally, the cunning, initiative, and the success of the attacking party that achieves surprise, they get this "free time" in which to act, to represent what you get in the real world through tactical innovation.
    If you hadn't done so, I urge you to go on e-bay and pick up a copy of the original Gygax Dungeon Master's Guide with the red Efreet on the cover, so that you can examine the passages that I am referring to, so that we may have a more accurate discussion.

  5. Brooser,

    Agreed, firing indoors, in a tight formation, with tight ceilings, in the dark, with your buddies hugging the walls, or actually in front of you isn't something anybody trains for, historically. However... does Gygax's AD&D actually give archers their options to fire 12 shots a minute when they are outside, under optimal conditions, or does his system ignore that? Which makes the case that he didn't consider the math of the times involved to match reality, and his numbers are just rationalizations after the fact.

    To be honest, in my campaigns, the more I read about how actual medieval and ancient weapons, armor, tactics worked, the more I thought that D&D wasn't hard enough on the PCs, in SOME regards. Shooting arrows from the 2nd or 3rd lines, would only be doable if your front line fighters hug the walls. Otherwise, they'll get a longbow arrow (etc) in the back at point blank range. Probably a death warrant. Plate armor is penetratable by long bow shot at point blank range, as the Welsh ambushers proved time and time again. They'd hide behind a tree at 10'-30', step out, and... BLAMMO, dead Englishman with an expensive suit of newly holed plate armor. If there is actual combat going on, and you can't arc arrows over your buddies heads, cause the ceilings are only 8' - 15' tall... then I wouldn't allow you to shoot arrows at all. You can try, and you'll very likely hit your buddies who are dodging swords in front of you. However, you MIGHT get away with throwing knives in a straight line. If you train to have some kind of warning: "I'm going to throw a knife at the Orc on your left, Bob, on a 1-2-3... ok?" Bob: "huff, puff. Gotcha, on 3...." Bowman: "One... Two... THREE!" Bob the Fighter hugs the wall to the right, and Bowman THROWS his knife at the befuddled Orc. Roll to hit.

    Those Yeoman shooting arrows every 5 seconds were only the master archers, and only for short periods of time. On a battlefield, even masters wouldn't fire at rates that high, cause their arms wouldn't hold up to the rapid and intense abuse of pulling the bow back to the ear that frequently. I think that an archer would try to shoot about 5 arrows per minute. Knock arrow. Drawback. Select Target. Calmly Aim and hold breath. Release. Calmly rinse and repeat.

  6. Brooser Bear,

    Re: Part 2. The 1988-1992, Marine Study of being in the Green/Yellow/Red/Black. Do you have any links to that? I've never heard of this, and it sounds like something I gotta know! That is reality based stuff, and should be more widely known. I love things like that.

    Sure, marines facing machine gun fire, and grenades, mortars, etc, probably have more issues to deal with as far as "where is the machine gun fire coming from?" than a dungeon party does, where they hear orcs screaming from the only directions there are in a hallway: forwards and backwards. It can be in rooms with other doors, but it's a bit different from the jungles of Nam on all sides.

    Flat footedness can happen, and it can destroy training over conscious thinking every step through, which will probably be too slow for survival. However, that sounds like it should be some kind of morale-level based saving roll mechanic. The more hardcore you are, the more likely you don't panic, but just DIVE for cover and hit the ground (if there are machine guns firing at you.) Figure out where they are, and open fire in that direction. Figure out if you can run to a safer locale and return accurate fire with a view of the enemy, etc.

    I'm assuming that the Marines that slid into Black for 3-5 seconds before they were killed, managed to survive and relate these experiences for study? Does Black mean they stood there paralyzed with fear?

  7. Brooser Bear,

    Re: PT 3 of 3: I own the original AD&D books. I've now got them by my computer, these days, for reference. I've never even handled the later editions of AD&D (2.0, 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0)...

    If surprise lasts for 30 seconds, and a combat round is one minute (60 seconds), how many attacks does this allow to the surprising party against the flat-footed party?

    I can see medieval/ancient fighters needing time to get into a formation and move as a group, if they were trained that well. Medieval battles were known for their pathetic strategy and tactics. It was considered pretty good if you just managed to get your house troops to the right battlefield around the right time to fight for your lord. They'd follow you, not YOUR lord, since you paid them, or had their allegiances as vassals. If you had all the knights charge in a line, that was about as organized as it got. Maybe archers behind them firing a few volleys. But, for dungeon crawls, maybe we can assume they had Roman-like tactics (I do...) that give them hardened combat vet morale and a chance vs. blood thirsty orcs. After all, no sane person would go into a dark hole in the ground where you are blind if your torch goes out, and semi-blind if your torch is in front of you and wrecks your night vision, all the while the Groups of monsters can SEE IN THE FUCKING DARK, and are WATCHING YOU! Hahaha. Yeah, you gotta be kinda crazy to try and fight under those circumstances. If you don't have some kind of high morale and cohesive party tactics, there isn't any chance of playing this scenario as a game. You'd die EVERY time.

    I'm looking through these issues in the DMG pages 61-71 for combat, surprise, morale of monsters and their actions, etc. I'll have to reread these, since it's been forever since I last read them in any detail.

  8. With regards to going off to certain death. A lot of warrior cultures had the notion of voluntarily accepting death on the battle field. In Napoleonic times, drunken Hussars had placed bets on surviving being shot in the head with a musket at point blank range! These were not the common sense ordinary folk, these were the scions of nobility, who would wager their own inheritance on a game of Black Jack. In Lord Nelson's Navy times, Captains would stand on second story Quarterdecks and observe their junior officers and sailors blow each other away with volleys of cannon fire at point blank range. It was considered heroic, manly even to be able to stand and fight and take the shrapnel and the splinters rending your flesh.

    Compared to THAT suicidal bravado, what is going into darkness with a torch if you are going to come up with enough gold to last you a few years? What about those magical weapons and armor that will make you invincible on the battlefield?