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Combat Part I: We Don't Need Segments...Unless They're Awesome.

Updated: Oct 10, 2018

Dynamite Magazine delivered my first D&D crush

In the previous post, Brian Murphy asked why I don't just use measuring sticks to calculate movement and forego my feet-per-segment conversion. I think my answer inadvertently revealed my low tolerance for anything that slows the game down.

Ask the player of the 7th level magic-user in our current game (in a hypothetical run-in): When he starts sorting through his disastrous heap of character-related papers for casting times and command words, does he ever feel any pressure from me to hurry it up?

He's my friend and I love him dearly, but I share glances with other players after less than ten seconds of waiting.

Point is, this is a game of action. I don't tolerate ANYTHING that makes it a game of needless slog. And the point of this blog is not to speculate on how things MIGHT work, but to share humbly how it DOES work in my AD&D group, every session, year in and year out.

Most of the time, when you hear about things like Adj-to-hit-AC-type, weapon speed and segments, you hear the tireless chant: I don't use it, it just slows the game down.

Let me tell you the reasons these rules WILL slow the game to a crawl:

  1. The character sheets don't support the rules & all the info is hidden in a book.

  2. The DM is unfamiliar with the rules

For the single human in my audience that might want to give this a shot, you need those two things: sheets that support the rules, and a ref that's done his/her homework.

Our last session (May 21st) was the second half of the assault on WG4. George, who is new to my table and to 1st Edition, said (and I quote), "That was the most intense game of D&D I've ever played." George is a middle-aged nerd. When a player says something like that to a DM, the DM remembers it forever: verbatim.

WG4 is a hack and slash siege with unrelenting waves of ever more terrible foes. It is a genius module. Nevertheless, since the entire 5 hours of the session was composed of something like 31 rounds of combat and I had a spectator over Google Hangouts that also claimed it was a fantastic nail-biter right down to the last round, one must make some assumptions that to-hit-AC-type, weapon speed and segments (all of which came into play many, many, many times) did nothing to detract from the speed or drama of play.

This post focuses on only one of those things.


Part II: Segments: Setting Up Your Round to Resolve Like Dominoes

Have you ever driven through Nebraska? North Dakota? The Great Plains are beautiful...and seemingly endless. You accelerate because you feel like you are standing still. Even at 85 mph the terrain slides by in smooth, unbroken monotony. It is only when you begin zooming past signs, off-ramps, buildings and so-on that you suddenly realize how fast you are going.

Those things provide perspective, parallax, and therefore interest and drama. "Whoo-hoo! We're finally in Lincoln! Yipee!"

Segments are those things, providing perspective. And they fly by so quickly that sometimes you don't even bother to count them, you just revel in the breeze.

I need to cut away for a moment and explain Gary's love of a single thing doing double-duty. He often created game mechanics that were meant to be (or do) two things at the same time.


DM: "Roll for Surprise."

Caller: "Damn. We got a 2."

DM: "Not good. Anyone have reaction adjustment?"

Players: "No. We suck at being dexterous."

DM: "Ok, so you are all surprised for 2 segments. This means that as you round the corner, a draft drives the torch-flame in such a way that Mortimer's lovely tresses almost catch fire. This is so distracting that the gnolls waiting in the shadows fire a cloud of arrows before you know what's happening."

To expound on the above, surprise normally happens on a 1 or 2 on a d6. The 2 on the die indicates not only that the party IS surprised, but in this instance that the surprise lasts for 2 segments. Double duty. We capture not only the result (success or failure) but the QUALITY of the result with a single roll. Apply modifiers from DEX and then interpret the roll as narrative. The faster that results can be generated and understood, the swifter the pace of play.

The downside is that Gary assumed everyone would easily understand that AD&D does this sort of business all the time. Swords of sharpness hit like other swords, but on certain rolls, the QUALITY of the result means that something extra happens. Easy to understand. But if you apply the same idea to more complicated mechanics it requires another leap in thinking.

I'm now talking about the Combat Round. It is defined as a full minute of combat. But it is also abstracted as being filled with many un-narrated activities: parries, feints, desperate lunges etc. The round can hold up to a full minute of activity, a full minute of potential narrative. But very seldom will all of that space be utilized. It is, in fact, more like a bag of holding than a real minute.

And this brings us back to segments.

Aside 1: What we're about to get into is nitty-gritty. It assumes that you have read ADDICT at least once and that you have read the DMG many times. When you watch the NBA you are there for the game, and the refs are simply assumed to be top notch. You expect the refs to know the game better than you and to never have to consult a rule book. Reffing one-off games using alt systems are a whole other thing, but if you're reffing YOUR regular campaign, I'm sure you've memorized your system like an NBA ref has memorized basketball. You've done this because you LOVE it and because you LOVE it, it was NOT a difficult task.

Aside 2: Imagine being back in the worst part of algebra, plotting points on a graph (you're already feeling warm and fuzzy about segments, I can tell). The way you did it was to determine where each point belonged and then mark its location with your pencil. There were countless locations the points COULD live, but you only cared about the places they DID live.

Segments are like that empty graph (before you mark the points). They are the empty space in the bag of holding.

But there are only ten of them in the round. At the beginning of the round, after declarations and initiative, the DM organizes any special actions as points on the graph and then resolves them in order, thereby generating a physical record of the most important events that happened during the round.

Bear with me.

Most of the segments in the round are not spoken of. They are glossed over because no noteworthy/unusual actions occur during them. In addition, because combat always resolves in the same general order (first volley of arrows, then melee weapons, second volley of arrows etc.) you don't have to plot everything—just the special stuff. This "special stuff" probably includes the potion of speed (when it's drunk and when it takes effect). I'd also jot down the fireball scheduled to fry gnolls on segment 3. If those are the only two special events scheduled that round, then note-making is done.

And of course, if there are no spells, or potions, or wands and special abilities or effect-durations to track, guess what? The segments almost completely disappear. You can have rounds go by without ever referencing them at all because no one's moving and everyone is simply striking blows. The segments vanish and reappear only when you need them.

I am now going to show some of my cards and reveal that I am NOT in 100% compliance with either ADDICT (or) the DMG. But I am close, certainly in spirit.

Do I use one of these trackers for every combat? Yes I do!

Skip surprise. That's for another blog post. In the above combat, the gnolls win initiative on round one with a 6. The magic user declared magic missile and the thief (hidden in shadows) declared drinking her potion of speed. 1d4+1 indicates the potion quaffed on segment 1 will take effect on segment 5.

Resolving Round One follows thus:

  1. The gnolls loose an initial volley of arrows. One strikes the magic-user so his spell is ruined.

  2. As their second volley of arrows must wait until end of round, the gnolls pass initiative to the party. This happens on segment 3 but there's no reason for the DM to mention it.

  3. The sad magic-user marks off the magic missile as wasted while the fighters close on the gnolls. They use two segments to reach them (move the minis) and then strike blows. Their blows fall on the gnolls on the same segment that the thief's potion takes effect (yes, she ages 1 year and all that stuff about system shock)

  4. Since the gnolls fired arrows and are now in melee with the fighters they cannot launch their second volley and are essentially done with their turn.

  5. The thief, however, still has about 5 segments left in the round and decides to try for a backstab under Haste. The DM rules that this is possible as the gnolls are very distracted with the fighters but also rules that because this is happening at the very end of the round she will only get 1 attack even under the potion's influence.

  6. The thief hits and kills 1 gnoll. End of round.

On Round Two things are much simpler and segments essentially vanish:

  1. The magic-user goes first because he is throwing a dart. Of course he misses.

  2. The thief goes second because she is under Haste and has multiple attacks this round.

  3. If the gnolls had won initiative, they would go next but, since they suck, the fighters now stab away with their swords. The magic-user throws his second dart into the melee, risking hitting his friends.

  4. The gnolls finally get to go. One attacks the thief while the others deal with the fighters.

  5. The thief now takes her second attack.

  6. Lastly, the magic-user lobs his third and final dart, after which the DM mentions that reinforcements seem to be coming from the south.

Round Three, wherein the useless dart thrower announces a fireball for the reinforcements and says he will then pull his wand of magic missiles from his hip holster. Sure, why not?

  1. Because no missiles are fired this round, the thief goes first (even though the gnolls won initiative with a 6).

  2. Next up, the gnolls wail on the fighters and thief, but none of them are close enough to reach the magic-user.

  3. The DM judges movement for the reinforcements and notes that after 3 segments they are still some 40' away. Therefore the fireball resolves successfully and kills all of the new combatants before they ever reach the melee.

  4. After the fireball, the fighters get to go and so does the thief, who takes her second and final attack with the fighters on segment #5.

  5. Because the Fireball took only 3 segments to cast, the DM rules that drawing the wand requires 1 segment plus the 3 segments required to shoot a single missile from it per DMG p. 136. Therefore, the missile shoots from the wand on segment 7. Though the device can normally shoot two missiles per round, the DM rules there is not enough time to launch a second prior to 4th initiative roll.

There are a ton of potential questions now I'm sure, related to things such as "Hey, that kinda follows the DMG, but not EXACTLY...what gives?" "What are those vertical lines you drew between the segments?" "Why are the first 6 segments of the round separated from segments 7-10?" "How come the magic-user got to cast a spell AND shoot a wand?" "How come the thief got to drink a potion AND still attack?" "How come you don't use the weapon speed factor vs casting time rule, you liar? You said you used weapon speed factor, you liar!" And, I'm sure there are a bunch more where those came from.

Before we get into some of these questions, notice a few things.

  1. The actual record keeping is very sparse and takes almost no time.

  2. At first glance, the record keeping seems almost pointless and perhaps the notion of segments too; but on second glance and deeper rumination you may begin to understand the implications, especially for more complicated battles. The sheet tends to snowball slowly into a Cliff's Notes of the battle, which I have personally found invaluable. Players are often awed that I know better than they do when their mirror image spell ends and that "Oh, by the lost initiative in a bad way on round 7, and since your potion of speed ends on segment 5 (we rolled terrible with those 5d4), you only get one attack this round. Sorry thief!"

  3. Notice also that the rhythm of the round is not the typical round-robin of hit and dmg announcements that proves so conducive to players tuning-out for everything else. The round has a way of cycling though players over the course and keeping them engaged (minis also help); though yes, fighters do tend to be a bit more static at low levels.

  4. Also notice the way that DM fiat is used within the context of combat to place timing values on the actions that players want to do. Extrapolate this in your head, because it happens all the time and the banter between players and DM concerning when each event takes place fills the void of what can otherwise be little more than a litany of damage announcements.

Back to those questions now (and of course, I'm happy to answer additional questions you send me in the comments)

  • You're right. My combat does not perfectly follow ADDICT or DMG, but if you re-read the source material, I think you'll find it hews closer to the intent than you first surmise.

  • The vertical lines I drew represent the point at which I force initiative to change sides. In the first round, the gnolls won initiative but have only 2 segments to get stuff done, which is going to preclude multiple, complex tasks such as digging a potion out, drinking it and then climbing a ladder. In the second round, the Party won initiative and killed it! They not only get to go first but get 5 segments to do things. I will talk about this at the very end of the post.

  • The reason the first six segments of the round are cordoned from the last four segments of the round is because of the abstract way the DMG describes "things" happening at the "end of the round." First and third, second and last is an example of this, as is the notion of a second volley of arrows. Gygax also talks about Awaiting Action or holding action in reserve, essentially giving up initiative to "wait and see", perhaps doing something at the end of the round. I have taken liberty to assume that most all actions take place in the first six segments and I generally reserve the last 4 for mopping things up. Separating them on the sheet is way of reminding myself to think about what needs to be addressed at the end of each round and the order that those things must be handled in. If you surmise that not all of this makes sense in a strictly chronological way (6 segments of action followed by 4 segments of everybody just hanging around) you are correct. But think again in terms of the segments as abstract space on which you've plotted your points of action. Only the DM "sees" the discrepancy. Verbally, the DM condenses the round for the players into a tight sequence of action and rather than saying there are 4 empty segments at the end, simply says, "That's it. End of Round. Declare your intentions!" The segments are concrete only when they need to be (fireball on segment 3), and then they turn ephemeral and abstract once again. IMO, this brilliantly does what modern games don't: allowing for complicated sequencing of events based on consistent rules (casting fire ball always takes 3 segments) AND, instead of pausing on every segment or character to sort out what happens, the action simply FLIES, every event taking place in order until "end of round". Abstract and Concrete bonded together. Double-duty. This is the way of things in AD&D.

  • The magic-user got to shoot a spell and fire his wand. The thief got to drink a potion and attack. This is because of the way I personally interpret p. 71 of DMG and other tidbits sprinkled throughout first edition rules. I encourage my players to consider the round as a full minute and consider reasonably what they might accomplish in that time. Handling rounds in this way provides for much creativity from players and more use of DM fiat behind the screen. Each round becomes more engaging when the thief is climbing the ladder and you (as DM) glance at your segment tracker and realize the fireball goes off just after, turning the ladder to ash. As you resolve actions in order, the segments will help you build compelling narrative on the fly (based on consistent non-arbitrary rules). The DMG's many references to the number of segments that various devices take to employ will aid you in using DM fiat to judge how many things can be accomplished in a round. Consider the following: Potions take effect in 2-5 segments; staves 2 segments, wands 1-2 segments. My interpretation here is not gospel, but our rounds are certainly dynamic playgrounds full of action. As a guideline I generally allow a character or monster to do most of the following in a single round: 1) Move 2) attack (or) cast a spell [from memory or scroll] 3) Use 1 other magical device 4) Use 1 innate special ability.

  • I don't use weapon speed factor vs casting time on regular initiative rolls because it doesn't seem to add anything to a system that is already checking spell casters at every turn. Plus, I have a house rule below that assists me in determining whether spells are interrupted. I DO, however, use weapon speed on every tied initiative roll and it works GREAT! Tied initiative rolls, however, belong to another blog post.

And now, finally, it's time to reveal my biggest transgression. Those vertical lines. They are a house rule that my players don't even know is a house rule. My players don't even know how it works because for them, segments are something the DM mentions in passing while he's telling them the order in which everything's going down. The minutiae of the mechanics are often invisible to my players but they sense the consistency. They know that missiles always fire first. I will now reveal a previously hidden portion of the Combat Round Tracking sheet:

So this is me, playing at being Gygax: "Winning party has 6 segments minus the Loser's die roll in which to act."

The idea came to me while trying to parse the horrid paragraph spanning p. 66-67 of the DMG. There were a few terrible bits to BTB combat that I knew I wasn't going to adhere to perfectly and I decided to add a simple mechanic that I felt was good.

Basically, the way this works is that the QUALITY of the initiative roll is also tracked. In the example of round one, the party rolls high. It is a very good roll, but the monsters beat them. Because the party's roll was good, it diminishes (slightly) the value of the monsters' win. If the monsters are already within striking distance there is no effect. The monsters will still get their full attack routine. But if the monsters needed to close before striking blows, they have only 2 segments of movement before initiative passes to the party. If that happens, the party effectively wins the initiative anyway and the monster will attack last.

Furthermore, I read the division (vertical line) as a hard boundary for spell-casting. This means that if the monster had declared a spell with a casting time of 1 or 2 segments, he is guaranteed (barring an arrow strike, since missiles always go first) to get that spell off because he won initiative and has 2 segments to act. However, if he was casting fireball (3 seg), initiative passes to the party at the beginning of segment 3 and if the fighters are within range they may attempt to strike him on the 3rd segment. Any hit will of course ruin the spell.

So there you have it. My filthy secret. It is an addition that I have used in every combat since we moved to AD&D and it works well, especially with minis moving on the board segment by segment. I have found it quite useful and in no way counter to the general order of combat outlined in DMG and ADDICT.

Q: "Hey Anthony, are you really being honest with us? Do you really run combat this way and does it really move as fast as you claim it does?"

A: "Yes."

Q: "Hey Anthony, why don't you just use system X? It's easier to understand."

A: "Because that's not what I want to do."

I think for the next post, I will talk about either surprise and to-hit-AC-type (or) tied initiative and the use of weapon speed factor. Your opinions may sway me on which I cover first.

Remember, this blog isn't trying to get you to change your game. It's just sharing with you how I run mine.

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