Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Holmes & Cook: Combat

The more time I spend with Dr. Holmes and his Basic Edition, the more fascinated I become and, frankly, more surprised. I find that I am having to leave my own preconceived notions and prejudices at the door, because Holmes is constantly challenging them. This is no less true of the way he seems to envision combat.

As a point of departure, let us look at the Combat Sequence as it is found in Cook:
Each side rolls initiative (1d6)
The side with initiative acts first:
  1. Morale checks, if necessary
  2. Movement
  3. Missile fire combat
  4. Magic Spells
  5. Melee combat
Each remaining side them completes the above actions in order.


In Holmes, combat initiative is determined individually by Dexterity. Where Dexterity scores are relatively similar (within 1 or 2 points) a d6 is rolled to see who goes first. Dexterity of monsters is rolled on the spot. This order is static.

Interestingly, this style of initiative actually plays very nicely into the Variable Weapon Damage table I came up with by melding concepts from both Holmes and Cook. Characters with low Dexterity are incentivized to use bigger, slower weapons. If they are going to be going last in combat anyway (due to a low Dex), why not go with the slower weapons and do more damage? It also makes pole-arms (which automatically win initiative on round one) very valuable.


Though morale is mentioned by Holmes, there is no codified rules for them. He mentions henchmen loyalty in his explanation of Charisma. He also mentions in his description of Hobgoblins that they have a +1 to their morale. Interestingly, he equates this with a saving throw vs. fear. Does this mean Charisma measures some kind of magical aura that inspires people to loyalty or fear? It would be interesting to see what would happen if a morale check was actually a save vs. spell/death ray, etc. (Which one do you use?) I must admit, however, that having successfully used the morale rules from B/X for years (and given that they are very clearly laid out in Cook), I am very much inclined to use them rather than the nebulous saving throw that Holmes seems to suggest.


Holmes describes movement in a combat round this way:

Movement (if any) is usually at a sprint; an unarmored man can move 20 feet per melee round, a fully armored man only 10 feet.

This is radically different from the 60/90/120 feet implied in Cook (and what I am far more familiar with). The reason for this departure is that Holmes understands combat as a unique sub-system of time and movement:

There are ten "rounds" of combat per turn. Each round is ten seconds, so a combat turn is shorter than a regular turn

Indeed, rather than combat being an abstract representation of a flurry of blows, each round reflects single blows by each person participating in combat:

Melee is the most exciting part of the game, but it must be imagined as if it were occuring in slow motion so that the effect of each blow can be worked out.

Since combat is less abstract, movement and position become far more important. Indeed, Holmes suggests that

the Dungeon Master should be guided by the actual placement of the figures on a paper sketch or on the table in deciding how many opponents can engage as melee starts, always keeping in mind the dimensions of the dungeon itself.

Missile combat

This placement becomes critical when it comes to missile fire because Holmes limits the use of missile fire in a couple of significant ways. Firstly, he states:

unless in a very high roofed area, all slinging, as well as long range fire, is not possible.

Secondly, he states several times that missile fire is not possible once melee begins:

Once the party is engaged in melee, arrows can not be fired into the fight because of the probability of hitting friendly characters.

[When] melee is joined, after which no missile fire is permitted because of the danger of hitting friendly forces.

Remember that spells and missiles fired into a melee should be considered to strike members of one's own party as well as the enemy.

Two things, then, are going on. Firstly, movement is limited, not only because combat rounds are so short, but to allow for missile fire to be part of the game. Wandering monsters will represent a large number of combats, and these encounters happen at a distance. Since missile fire ends once the sides are engaged in melee, small movement rates necessitate tactics and resource management when closing with a group of wandering monsters.

Secondly, Holmes appears to envision missile fire in terms of volleys rather than in uber-accurate shots made by marksmen. When firing in a volley, archers aim in arcs — and this is especially true of slingers. This is how they get distance. Thus, when in a confined space, long range is not possible. Though Holmes does state that missile fire is not possible once melee is engaged, he does hint at the possibility — as long as you are willing to chance hitting your own party. This is exactly what would happen if a volley rained down on a melee.

In other words, combat according to Holmes is more war-game than RPG. Personally, I do not see that as a problem, given that Holmes still errs on the side of simplicity. However, it does bring with it an interesting pre-supposition.

Proficiency with a missile weapon does not equate to marksmanship. It means you are able to launch a missile at a general area, not necessarily a specific target. An interesting implication is that when firing at a group, targets ought to be determined randomly. This is an easy way to simulate the possibility of hitting your own party members when in melee.

Given that Holmes leaves the door open to both firing into melee (risking damage to your own) and to classes far beyond the four archetypes, here we see the suggestive shape of a marksman-type character. Since he mentions the ranger sub-class, it follows that by limiting weapon & armor choice, the ranger could target specific opponents, choose to fire into melee without doing damage to his own party and have the ability to fire at long range indoors.

As an aside, I wouldn't so severely limit the sling. Having seen these things in use, I believe it would be possible to fire indoors at closer ranges.


Holmes allows spells to be cast prior to missile combat:

When there is time, or when a magic-user says he is getting a spell ready, magic spells go off first. This is followed by any missile fire…

I think this is fair. Note what Holmes says about casting spells while engaged in melee:

If he [the magic user] is personally attacked he can't concentrate to use his magic but must draw his dagger and defend his skin!

Thus, if spells came after missile fire, a spell caster might never be able to cast any spells (where getting hit by a missile interrupts the casting).

Interestingly, Holmes allows magic users to use magical staves and wands as melee weapons — despite the fact that, as far as normal weapons are concerned, they can only use daggers.

Magic does raise an interesting problem not addressed by Holmes. Since turns inside and outside of combat are radically different (100 seconds vs. 10 minutes), what relationship do they have to spell duration? Since Holmes describes combat turns as resulting "in at least as much muscular fatigue" I think that the answer to spell duration depends on when the spell is cast. If cast outside of combat, normal turns apply. Inside combat, combat turns apply. This should encourage planning ahead…


There are few interesting quirks here as well. Holmes allows for up to three abreast in a 10 ft. wide corridor:

One would not expect to get more than two or three figures fighting side by side in a ten foot corridor, for example.

Attacking from behind only garners a +2 to hit (but the target does not get to use a shield). There is also the ability to Parry. This has to be done prior to the attack. Doing so subtracts 2 from the attackers die; however, if the attack succeeds by rolling the exact target number, the parrying weapon breaks!

Finally, there is this juicy little blurb:

If an opposing figure is killed or withdraws, the attacker may advance or pursue immediately — if the player desires — or he may take some other action.

I am sorely tempted to interpret "some other action" to include another attack against someone in melee range. The question becomes, is this choice available to everyone, or just fighting men? Personally, I am leaning towards the latter.

All-in-all, I find myself truly intrigued by Holmesian combat and am itching to try it out…

1 comment:

  1. Does this mean Charisma measures some kind of magical aura that inspires people to loyalty or fear?

    I'd say "yes," and refer you to my post on CHA based magic. but on Zak's axes I'm an out-and-proud scrambler/garage rocker - I am emphatically not trying to model the game as originally written, so my thoughts may have limited applicability for your project.