Thursday, September 3, 2020

Abstract Combat In AD&D 1st Edition


People have deeply analyzed AD&D, especially the 1st edition, as part of the whole "OSR" project. Some detractors have characterized it as a "Rabbinical" exercise in excessively close reading, as though there were no point to trying to figure out exactly what the intentions were of old wargaming hands, especially the hands of E. Gary Gygax, in creating the rules that they did. Certainly, we know that a lot of how the game was played in those early days was actually developed by kids reading loosely and then adapting the ideas to their own needs. As a result, a lot of rules that didn't seem immediately useful were dropped by the wayside, and later editions would adapt those streamlined approaches.

But we can assume that the writers, in this case Gygax, had a very specific idea of how the game was put together, developed after years of play with hundreds of players. And it might be, the OSR thinking went, that we could find useful things that got missed. And the OSR did, indeed, find useful things in their deep reading.

But I think I've found something that got overlooked in the OSR project, too.

So, everyone knows by now that AD&D, like D&D before it, relied on an abstraction of combat. That's the reasoning behind the minute-long combat rounds, the nature of hit points, and a number of other factors that are taken for granted. It was a time when there was no need for complicated "attacks of opportunity" rules or detailed maneuvers and combat techniques because all of that was simply assumed and abstracted into some simple rolls. Good enough, though some early editions pulled the combat round back to representing 10 seconds, which is still long enough to keep combat abstract, but also conforms better to the intuition that a roll "to hit" in combat represents an actual attempt to hit the opponent. Of course, we know that the original D&D and early AD&D rules used the minute-long rounds for a number of reasons, ranging from the round's origin in mass-combat miniatures rules, the desire to recreate swashbuckling adventure movie swordfighting, with its scenery-chewing acrobatic movement all over the set and such, and most importantly with the desire to have combat be meaningful on the exploration scale that covered the main "game loop" of the dungeon crawl. A fight, that perspective holds, should be capable of taking up a full turn or two of exploration movement and action. Since a combat is unlikely to last more than 10 or 15 rounds even in most extreme cases, it is helpful to make those rounds last 10 or 15 minutes.

All of this implies a very abstract system. There should be no need to model movement within the fight, as that movement would be assumed in the context of the melee as a whole. Movement should only be meaningful in the context of moving into melee in the first place, from one melee to another, or fleeing from one. Thus, we see charge rules, pursuit rules, and so on.

Fine, we see that combat was intended to be abstract. We also see some interesting approaches to modeling combat so that players have to make tactical decisions. Missile weapons, famously, fired into a melee will have a chance of hitting any character involved in that melee, and a melee is specifically defined as everyone within 10 feet of anyone involved in that melee.

What nobody seems to have noticed, though, is the rule on page 70 of the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide, "Who Attacks Whom". This extends the abstract nature of the combat system, assuming that characters are moving about, striking at opponents as the opportunity presents itself. We see that this is treated similarly to firing into melee, except that a character can't accidentally attack someone on their own side:

As with missile fire, it is generally not possible to select a specific opponent in a mass melee. If this is the case, simply use some random number generation to find out which attacks are upon which opponents, remembering that only a certain number of attacks can usually be made upon one opponent. If characters or similar intelligent creatures are able to single out an opponent or opponents, then the concerned figures will remain locked in melee until one side is dead or opts to attempt to break off the combat. If there are unengaged opponents, they will move to melee the unengaged enemy. If the now-unengaged figures desire to assist others of their party, they will have to proceed to the area in which their fellows are engaged, using the movement rates already expressed.

 This changes a lot in the way combat in the game is played. Players can no longer simply team up on one target at a time, moving on to the next only as each one is eliminated. Picking out the thief for special attention becomes a matter for Referee/DM rulings* rather than something just simply done at will. In our experience, too, it helps speed up combat in play even more as players don't really have to deeply consider who is best to spend their fighting energies on, instead just attacking whoever the dice say is the available target for that attack.

Anyway, if you're playing 1st edition and trying to use the rules as written to whatever degree, consider having characters in melee target opponents randomly. It changes things a little, and gives more of a feel, in my opinion, of the energetic combats of the films that inspired D&D combat, like Robin Hood or Ivanhoe.

*One useful area for rulings in a combat might be opponents held in place by a spell effect or a trap.


  1. So many "ifs" in one rule.

    The out for intelligent combatants to choose their opponents means this is largely for unintelligent combatants, though, at least as-written. You could probably impose it on a group, but players are going to want to figure out how to ensure they get to choose their melee opponents, and prevent the enemy from doing the same.

    I love how it says to just use the movement rates, like AD&D has ever really made it clear exactly how to use movement in combat, other than just fairly vague references to "close to melee" or the rules for doing a charge.

    1. I guess, though I am not sure that the "ifs" account for more than different cases. In the case of intelligent combatants, the rule implies that it will not always be the case that they can select a single opponent, that it is something for Referees/DMs to rule on in specific cases, where the general rule is that they will not be able to, but a specific situation might allow it.

      My experience is that players are fine with just attacking whichever target presents itself. Even in a fight that had a major evil Cleric as an opponent, there was no real attempt to specifically target that Cleric, though to be sure he was separated from the main melee by more than 10 feet. It probably takes players who buy into the idea of abstract combat, though.

      The way we're reading the rules, the only movement in AD&D 1E combat are movement outside of melee (which is just "move up to your movement per round"), the "close to melee" (which is just moving your character as above so that it moves within 10 feet of an opponent), and the charge rules.

    2. That's the thing - it just seems like a lot of "ifs." If you can't pick a target, and if you're not intelligent, and the situation is a swirling melee instead of a more set-piece fight . . . I'm just having a lot of trouble seeing this as that much of a game-changer. And in typical fashion for the DMG, it spends a lot of words for a fairly vague "rule" that doesn't really state either way what's possible and not under it, or how to implement it.

    3. I don't think that it really is that many "ifs", though. The first sentence states the general condition: you can't select a specific target. The second sentence tells what to do in that normal situation. The third sentence, I admit, is odd, since it basically says that in the case where a particular enemy can be selected, then, uh, use the same rules that have already been established for melee ("…the concerned figures will remain locked in melee until one side is dead or opts to attempt to break off the combat", which is how things normally go). The fourth sentence seems to be saying that if a combatant kills all of the opponents in its current melee, it moves on to the next melee, which is kind of an odd thing to say so I'm not really sure of the purpose of that one. The last sentence seems to modify the previous sentence by saying that such combatants still have to use the normal "not in melee" movement rules.

      So, not "ifs" in the sense of exceptions, but rather enumerations of various cases that Gygax was brainstorming as he was writing, it looks to me.

    4. Specifically notable, there is no situation for a "set-piece battle" as opposed to a "swirling melee". The only thing described is a melee, which is described elsewhere (I think in the missile rule) as everyone within 10 feet of an opponent, and a single melee is all of the combatants who can be connected by being within 10 feet of anyone in that same melee.

  2. I'm an old B/X player rather than AD&D, but I really like this. A melee with multiple combatants on each side should be a chaotic mess, not surgically precise.

  3. You brought back a fabulous memory of the day we discovered that firing into melee rule. Oh, how I - the DM - cackled with glee. The players always sweated a bit before launching arrows into melee afterward. But they only sweated a little. We were young then and being full of Skittles and Mt. Dew the welfare of fellow PCs paled in comparison to the thrill of rolling to hit. Good times.

    1. That's right, if they didn't want to get hit by friendly fire, they wouldn't have run up into melee range!