Thursday, November 15, 2012

Holmes on Abstract Melee vs. Concrete Missile Combat

It is an old school trope that combat is abstract and that each “to hit” roll is actually a “to damage” roll representing several attempted strikes over the course of a one minute combat round. This understanding of combat, however, breaks down with the introduction of missile fire, where the use of ammunition necessitates the understanding that each die roll represents a single shot. Thus, the game has moved toward applying the same understanding to melee. One of the first to do this was Dr. Holmes:
In a melee the attacker strikes a blow or "takes a swing."
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.
Recently there have been a couple of attempts (Brenden at Untimately and Talysman at 9 and 30 Kingdoms) at reversing this trend by abstracting missile combat. As much as I like both of these (especially Brenden’s), they both break down once thrown weapons enter the picture (as Brenden himself acknowledges).

This suggests that missile combat was never meant to be abstracted, but rather a separate subsystem of combat. I say this because of the aforementioned Dr. Holmes. Despite his contribution to the modern conception of D&D combat, if one understands his work to be an edit of OD&D, he can shed light on a way for old-schoolers to have their cake and eat it too:
Once the party is engaged in melee, arrows can not be fired into the fight because of the probability of hitting friendly characters.
If one follows Holmes on this score, than melee combat is clearly differentiated from missile combat — they happen in different phases of the game and can therefore be handled differently. Melee can be abstract while missile combat represents individual shots.

The key to this is a proper understanding of movement, because there is a danger of completely eliminating missile combat from most encounters if opposing sides can close into melee before any shots are made. Here is movement according to OD&D:
Movement … is in segments of approximately ten minutes. Thus it takes ten minutes to move about two moves — 120 feet for a fully armored character. Two moves constitute a turn, except in flight/pursuit situations where the moves/turn will be doubled.
Melee is fast and furious. There are ten rounds of combat per turn.
Encounter distance in a dungeon is from 20-80 feet. Therefore, it would be possible for the side who wins initiative to close into melee and prevent missile fire altogether; however, take a look at how Holmes handles movement:
There are ten "rounds" of combat per turn. Each round is ten seconds, so a combat turn is shorter than a regular turn, but results in at least as much muscular fatigue. 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.
Note that if one ignores the fact that Holmes has shortened the combat round from one minute to 10 seconds, his combat movement is approximately 1/10 that of normal movement (for a more detailed examination of movement in Holmes, see my post here). In other words, rather than having a full move every round, a character or monster still has a full move over the course of a turn.

The upside of this understanding of movement is that in a typical encounter, the process of closing into melee (and thus ending the missile portion of combat) will usually take a number of rounds. Thus, the process of getting into melee is full of interesting tactical choices.

For those of you who have grown up with the notion that their character can fire into a melee, the subsystems are actually not as incompatible as one might expect. As Holmes suggests, firing into melee is fraught with danger — there is a very real possibility of friendly fire (my take on how to do this with Holmes is here and here). Thus, rather than letting loose as many arrows as possible into the fight, an archer would most likely be waiting until there is a safe opening through which to fire. Thus, in the abstraction of melee combat, someone who is firing into that melee is going to only have one clear shot every minute or so — which translates into one missile per round.

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