My name is Mike Mearls, RPG Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.
I like combat in Dungeons & Dragons. It’s not my favorite part of my game, but it’s definitely fun. Combat has been in the game from the beginning, and you can trace its roots back to the miniatures wargaming hobby of the early 1970s. The fantasy literature that inspired D&D features plenty of battles big and small, and both 1st and 2nd Editions featured rules for large-scale miniatures battles in the world of D&D.
While combat has remained constant, it (like almost everything in the game) has changed over the years.
The Early Days
When I first picked up Dungeons & Dragons, starting with Basic D&D and moving on to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, combat was something we embraced wholeheartedly. Primed by computer games like Wizardry and Bard’s Tale, we loved slugging it out with monsters. It wasn’t until our later campaigns that we started to indulge in stories, plots, and exploration. Our first games were monster slug-a-thons, pitting our heroic adventurers against orcs, ogres, and worse. With each foe defeated, we piled up XP and treasure.
And I am 100% certain, looking back, that we cheated outrageously. My original gaming group shared DMing duties, so there was an unwritten rule that he who killed a character would suffer the same fate when the vanquished player was DM. This fact makes it a little hard for me to generalize how the game as a whole worked in this area, but I can make some observations based on my experiences:
First, combat was deadly. If you rolled poorly for hit points, then one or two hits knocked you out of the action. However, blessed with the confidence that comes from being young and wholly ignorant of probability, we charged forward into battle nonetheless. As it turned out (thanks to our arrangement), combat was deadly for the orcs and bugbears that we slaughtered like so many targets in a first-person shooter.
Second, combat was fast. We didn’t use miniatures, so we described a vague set up and started rolling dice. Monsters rarely had lots of abilities, with most just hacking away in melee, round after round. Our battles quickly degenerated into a race to roll double digit numbers on our d20s.
Third, we ignored huge swathes of rules. When we played AD&D, we kept using the Basic D&D combat rules. Speed factor, modifiers based on specific weapons vs. specific armor, the glorious mess that was the surprise and initiative systems—these we never used. We wanted to fight monsters, and tracking who got to go next or who surprised who was an obstacle to that end. We knew how to attack and cast spells, and that was enough for us.
Fourth, we relied a lot on improvisation and planning. Why charge into a room full of orcs when you could lure them into the oil-soaked hallway that you were ready to turn into a blazing inferno? As it turned out, endlessly rolling dice got boring fast. Doing weird stuff was a good excuse to liven up the game and tilt the odds in our favor.
This fourth point is really important, because when you take away the deadliness of AD&D combat you’re left with a fairly boring system. There aren’t too many tactical choices to make, aside from attacking enemies from behind. In our version of D&D, fights became fairly dull. Lacking a skilled DM who could bring a fight to life, and trained by a growing body of video games to expect lots of battles in our game, we grew increasingly bored with D&D.
I’m not sure that my experiences are universal, but looking at other RPGs that arose in that time period, we could not have been alone. Most games added more layers of complexity, such as tactical positioning, hit locations, critical hit tables, and so forth. I believe there was a yearning for more stuff to do in combat, and D&D’s evolution backs that theory up.
Feats, Powers, and Options
Starting with 2nd Edition’s Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics book and expanded upon in 3rd and 4th Editions, combat in D&D became more tactical. It’s hard to argue that raw complexity increased, as AD&D had its share of arcane rules. Instead, the game added more options, elements, and choices to all areas of a fight. The game’s tactical complexity jumped significantly with the release of 3rd Edition, even as the core rules became clearer and easier to use.
Tactical complexity and detail that appeared in games like GURPS, Runequest, and Rolemaster had migrated to D&D. I’ve talked about this transformation in the past in terms of miniatures, but it goes beyond that. Your choices in combat became more important in terms of the system, rather than solely in terms of the DM’s decisions and rulings. 3E introduced formal rules for flanking. The Book of Nine Swords and 4E included martial maneuvers to give fighters, rangers, and similar characters more choices. Even something as simple as the Power Attack feat from 3rd Edition added a huge array of options to a fighter who previously attacked again and again.
Is This Good for the Game?
Some people love tactical complexity. They like options and choices. Others prefer to keep thing simple. If the reaction to the Essentials line has taught me anything, it’s that people like their style of play and don’t want to see it go away.
Every edition of D&D has tried to pick a midpoint in its complexity and build from there. The challenge we face is that few people sit exactly at that point, and many place their preferences quite far above and below it. Wouldn’t it be great if D&D supported a range of complexity, that groups could use to calibrate the game to fit their needs?
The time it takes to run a fight is a good illustration of this. The typical D&D fight in the mid-heroic tier takes about an hour or so to resolve. The issue is that it’s difficult to drop the duration of that fight while keeping it a threat. In most cases, the minimum duration is about an hour, and it can easily go up from there. A shorter fight is often a fight that fails to pose any real threat to the characters.
Ideally, a DM could adjust an encounter to make it run from a few minutes to several hours, depending on how the group likes to play, while also scaling its threat as desired. If AD&D combat was fast but presented few options, modern D&D combat is slow and presents lots of options. Why not let the continuum rest in the group’s hand, or even in a player’s individual hands? Let some players opt for simple characters, and allow others to build complex ones regardless of class. Let some groups speed through fights to get to the roleplaying or exploration, while other groups focus on tough, complex tactical problems.
As a tactical game, D&D has made a lot of leaps forward over the years. The combat rules are clear and support a wide range of fun, interesting choices. The power system in 4E, and feats in 3E, helped give everyone a chance to play on an equal footing. A fighter and a wizard in 4E both have the same capacity to alter the course of a battle. That’s a good thing.
Let’s extend that in the other direction, too. I think D&D should also enable groups to focus on tactical combat, or dial down to simple, fast fights. At the end of the day, the gaming group, rather than the rules or a distant game designer, should determine the game’s focus. You can play a D&D campaign set in Kara-Tur, with the characters rallying the daimyo’s samurai to throw back a horde of oni. You can play a campaign of courtly intrigue punctuated with flashy duels, drawing from the works of Dumas. You might play a campaign based on Indiana Jones, with the characters dodging traps and exploring ancient ruins to claim forgotten treasures with the rare, quick fight.
All of those games are supported by the imaginative structure of D&D. In my ideal world, the DM would create a campaign concept and then tune the rules to match the exact type of game that such a concept embraces, from intense tactical combat to quick, sharp duels resolved in a few rolls of the dice.
What would the game look like in your ideal world? Drop your thoughts into the comments below.
Legends & Lore Poll Results: 05/24/2011
You brandish your holy symbol, incinerating the undead creatures with a pulse of radiant energy. The three undead collapse into dust. The lantern’s light flutters, shifting from grey to a clear white light. Now that the checkerboard wall is gone, you can see a stone door set in the middle of the western wall. When you move toward the door, the light flickers with a blue radiance.
Head west through the door: 87.8%
- Head north, then turn to the west: 5.8%
- Head south: 3.4%
- Go back north, then continue north: 3.0%
Beyond the door is a long, narrow corridor. The light of a torch flickers at its distant end. As you make your way down the hall, the lantern you’re holding begins to glow a cool green. The room ahead finally comes into view. This passage ends at a stone landing 10 feet above the floor of this circular chamber. Stairs curve along the edge of the wall—leading both downward to the room’s floor, and upward to another landing and a door. Below you, on the opposite side of the chamber, another door is set at ground level.
An enormous snake, easily 30 feet long, lies coiled on the chamber floor below. The snake’s eyes snap open and it rises up, barring its long fangs. Doubtlessly it heard the clang of your armor as you moved down the passage.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.