Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Pondering on D&D Combat for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (additional thoughts on compatibility)

Most of this post works with what I already established for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, but since it is about compatibility, it should be easy to see the connections to D&D for anyone not interested or familiar with the concepts of Lost Songs ...

So the other day I wrote a post about compatibility and +Kurt Patz made a comment that shifted my perspective on the whole thing a bit. Here's the important part of that comment:
"Compatibility through statistics, removes barriers. When you hit with similar rolls, deal similar damage, and have similar action resolution systems you can breath new life into a library of books that are otherwise made obsolete by editions or game system divides."
My approach had been the complete opposite of this: I tried to write a system that uses what is (arguably) D&D to allow a bridge between Lost Songs and D&D, but mostly to make it a bit more accessible for the RPG/OSR-crowd. Didn't see it as a possible Rosetta Stone (of sorts) and that comment got me thinking: what would it take to make a skirmish system possible that'd allow to use any D&D variant at your disposal while mixing up the procedures a bit?

First thought would be that I'm not the one to attempt such a thing. What I'm able to do, though (and already do to some extent right now), is establishing a system that'd work both ways instead of just one. It might seem obvious, since the result would have been able to achieve this anyway (in theory, that is), but the aforementioned shift of perspective allows for a different approach in engaging the ideas I'm working on right now. Here are my thoughts on this.

The beauty of compatibility.

One of the main problems when expanding on an existing combat system like D&D is that you have to keep the DM in mind. A detailed mechanism enhancing a player's game might be just too much to handle for all the monsters/NPCs a DM needs to handle occasionally. The madness that started with D&D 3E to give every creature it's own stats might help illustrating why a DM shouldn't be forced to use the same systems for all the creatures as the players do for their characters*.

No, instead it's common sense to allow shortcuts in a system to make it work for a DM. So instead of having all ability scores and level appropriate skills and spells and whatnot for a random encounter, you got reaction tables and all the stats a DM might need for a combat plus the occasional fully fleshed out NPC**.

If this is not considered when tinkering with a system, it will fail in play-testing as the ideas that worked well for the characters will slow a DM down and end up in endless fights where every little detail deemed necessary by the rules ensures additional grieve for the endless discussions and back-paddling it produces at the very least in mid- to high-level fights (sounds familiar?).

I know this works for some people, but most DMs I know don't really like to put all that effort in an encounter that'll die faster than he's rolled up.

What I did now with the Bare-Knuckle Fighter and the Pub Brawl works on a PvP basis as it should and I'm confident that future expansions will be as balanced. But for a DM to handle all that for a group of encounters (the PvE basis, if you will) would be way too much to ask. If not impossible.

But then I realized that I needn't change anything. This is the beauty of compatibility. If I just change how the statistics are met, I might as well use the original system (of sorts) in a PvE situation with many encounters. So if the combat system I came up with for Lost Songs is truly compatible, this should work without too much fuzz.

Another beautiful illustration by Angus McBride
from the Germanic Warrior (p. 36)
The problem is the solution?

In Lost Songs a roll of 3d6 decides about initiative and gives the characters the potential for attack, defense, damage and combat related actions like movement, change of weapons, et cetera. It's all in one roll per round. So if a group of adventurers encounters a group of goblins, the characters would roll 3d6 while the goblins would roll 1d20 to attack and damage if they hit. Easy enough and it should work since ac and hp are still basically the same as in D&D (the probabilities are almost the same, too).

The first problem I see is with initiative and my first idea here was to set a difficulty to be faster than the enemy. Since it's better to use what is already there, I'll go and use the movement of a creature as base difficulty. This needs to be tested, of course, but the math is sound here as long as 9 is the base movement (I'm assuming that a player needs the results of two six sided dice plus his base attack to meet a difficulty, which could be done in 1 to 3 rounds, so a character could hit every 1 - 3 rounds and a 9 as difficulty roughly translates to a 50/50 chance for winning initiative).

Any factors needed to raise this difficulty would come from either the hit dice of a creature or the bonus a creature gets on it's hit dice or the number of special abilities (depends on how much more difficult is needed). If an initiative is higher than the difficulty, a character is faster so the creature rolls it's attack first and the player is able to react to that. If the creature is faster, the player has to declare his actions first and the creature might act accordingly. Say, every -4 they take on their attack would result in either countering a declared action, movement or raising it's defense by that amount and it's roughly the amount of a spend die.

The decision to take a -4 or more is done after the roll. This means even a miss could result in some actions and is congruent with what players can do with their 3d6 (also allows for a bit more tactical combat, which is nice).

Attacks of a monster would be (hd value + hd bonus or number of special abilities) + 1d20. I've seen similar versions done before, but the last time I saw someone propose a system like this would be over at The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms (an excellent post, by the way). Instead of making it deadlier, it would leave a DM with more room to navigate a monster's actions (-4 to attacks for counter-, defense-, movement-actions and so on).

Armor class would work like D&D 3E, so higher is better and conversion from older editions is quite easy. Damage and number of attacks stay as they are noted in the monster entry used and the ratio for a monsters Endurance (which LSotN will use but is not a regular feature in most editions of D&D) will be (4 + hd).

So yeah, this should work ...

So regular LSotN PvE combat should be completely compatible and won't be more work than it is in D&D. Special encounters could still use the rules for characters to make the fights more interesting and intensive. Most of this conversion work could be done on the fly, so it should be easy to port adventures, modules or monsters to LSotN. I'll test all this next time the group comes together, but since most of this already works one way or another in D&D, it should produce no problems.

Magic is the only other thing that needs some work and maybe I'll have some time the next few days to write a post or two about that.

* It's not the point here, but the considerations they must have had to take that route couldn't have been with the DM in mind. Enhancing the work-load needed to prepare a game that much can only mean they wanted their customers not only to buy the basic books and be done with it, but instead wanted to force them into buying so much more books. No big surprise, I guess ...

** Interestingly enough (but also not the point here) is the Vancian magic system one of the weak spots in D&D, since a DM will have a hard time knowing what or how many spells a NPC Wizard might have. And that fails even before he might need to consider how much of it he might have cast already when he's encountered. There are no satisfying shortcuts in the core books, it's either fully prepared or fully improvised.

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