Friday, October 16, 2020

Hit or Be Hit

Here is another idea for a game mechanic that D&D players will not use, but that I’m playtesting with my home rules. I was going to wait until I had tested it more, but I saw GURPS-oriented bloggers discussing the best order to handle the timing of rolls to hit and to avoid hits, and this seems to go along with that.

Last month, I wrote about handling combat as a contest, or as a clash of two sides, rather than as an alternating series of blows. To me, this simulates the feel of imaginary combat better. I deem it no more abstract than combat handled as a series of alternating blows. Combatants try to overcome each other’s maneuvers and attacks and parries and doges. The winner of the contest, the one with the higher total of dice + relevant stat(s), hits the opponent.

My home rules’ combat system is a direct outgrowth of the Fighting Fantasy system, changed in ways that reflect my preferences. The principles derive ultimately from Tunnels & Trolls.

Combat is a clash of 2D6 + [Ability + any single relevant Combat Trait]. The one with the higher total hits the opponent. There is no damage roll; damage is fixed according to the type of weapon or attack (with a modifier for characters with the Strength trait and when they win with a roll of doubles). Shields and armor give saving throws to reduce damage done. Damage types (slashing, impaling, bludgeoning) interact with armor in different ways (in a distant nod to GURPS).

This works for me and my players. Combats are resolved pretty quickly. Because this is not a strategic combat system based on the use of miniatures, the choice to fight or not is probably the most important combat decision.

The FF system was designed, however, for duels of one hero against one foe at a time in solo gamebooks. I have found that in larger frays the system slows down slightly around one real-world event: adding the combat totals. In the Barrowmaze, we’ve had five player characters fighting against a mob of zombies at once. When I, as Referee, need to roll for bunches of zombies, each one pitted against a player, and players are shouting their combat totals at me while describing narratively what that represents, I scramble to jot them all down and then digest all the number to interpret them.

The slowdown happens in the moment that the players declare their combat totals and wait for me to tell them whether they hit or not. Compare that with our 5e game. The D&D mechanic of alternating blows has one thing going for it: instant gratification. Players roll and immediately find out whether they hit.

My new idea is to emulate that virtue of speed and instant gratification in a way that suits my existing game rules.

The rule is Hit or Be Hit. I am calling it provisionally Fray Mode, as distinguished from Duel Mode (the default way to handle combat).

In Fray Mode, when many combatants face off, I simply declare a combat total for the different foes played by the Referee. Basically, it amounts to Ability + Combat Trait + 7. The seven is, of course, the average of 2D6.

This speeds things up by giving the player immediately a target to beat on the dice. But it gets even faster: if you, the player, don’t overcome your foe with a blow, you are struck immediately instead.

Mechanically, the combat score for foes works like armor class in D&D, but it doesn’t represent armor. It represents the overall effectiveness of the foe.

The combat total is modified by the normal modifiers that I use in combat. (Every outnumbering fighter adds one to the total of everybody on that side; situational modifiers apply; etc.)

If you, the player, beat the foe’s adjusted combat total, you hit your previously declared target. If it’s a tie, that turn is a draw as normal, and nobody is struck. If your total is lower, you are struck; make your shield block and armor rolls (1D6 each simultaneously if you have both) to reduce damage, if you have any.

In Fray Mode, a critical failure (snake eyes) means not that you fumble, but that you are critically hit. Double 6s still indicates that you hit critically.

Combat is going to go very quickly this way. One roll of 2D6 by the player will resolve the entire turn, pending shield block and armor rolls.

On each combat turn, when you roll, your character will hit or be hit. The player’s die roll determines that all at once. Instead of waiting for a retaliatory swipe, as in D&D, the player’s roll has already worked that out.

The Hit or Be Hit rule puts action and uncertainty in the player’s hands. If you, the player, do not overcome the foe and land a blow, that means you struck. I hope that this will have the effect of the Luck Roll on our game play. In my game, the Luck Roll puts the turns of fate in the player’s hands, via a roll that the player makes, instead of being the outcome of Referee fiat. For example, my players fled a volley of arrows in the last session. I didn’t roll to see whether they were hit. I had them each Test their Luck to see whether they were hit. They were all in bad condition from several fights, and this arrow strike would have probably killed any one of them. Their Luck scores were low, too. Each took a breath and rolled for their fortune. Against the odds, they each made it and lived to tell the tale. It wasn’t the Referee’s roll determining their life or death outcome. I think it’s more fun for the players to roll that themselves.

Fray Mode may have this effect in combat. It’s a player-centered dice mechanic. The Referee is not rolling in secret for anything in combat.

There is more to Fray Mode than I’m writing here, but this gets across the basic idea.

This could be adapted for D&D with two major modifications.

First, you would have to get rid of armor class and replace it with a target number representing each foe’s combat strength. That’s not hard. D&D used to use a hit-chart grid with levels vs Armor Class. You just need a Combat Score for each monster now rather than AC. That could correspond roughly with hit dice. Second, armor would be a saving throw to reduce damage. You could even have different saving throw targets against different damage types, so, for example, plate armor is more likely to reduce damage from piercing blows than from bludgeoning. The quantity of reduction could be a fixed amount depending on the armor type or it could be a fraction of the damage. In 5e, where hit points are highly inflated, this will be harder to sort out, but it could be done.

The outcome? No more DM rolls to hit players. The players’ rolls determine in the blink of an eye whether they hit or are hit instead. Combat is sped up vastly. Armor becomes a constant concern, realistically so, and a new rule on armor deterioration can be built in around the armor saving throws.

If you take this and try it, let me know.


  1. I think one-roll combat is an easier fit with D&D if you relax a bit on the hit-or-be-hit aspect and allow the possibility that both opponents' defenses are successful. The math works well with classic D&D's descending armor class where unarmored is AC9.

    On the defense side, players combat roll must be equal to their AC plus monster HD or take damage. A roll of 1 would always result in the PC being hit, regardless of AC.

    On the attack side, add the target AC plus any modifiers and damage is dealt if the total is 20 or greater (Delta's Target 20). A 20 always hits, regardless of modifiers.

    There's a middle ground of no effect where armor exceeds combat ability but it would still cut rolls within rounds so the blow of possibly needing more rounds to resolve combat is softer.

    1. That's interesting, FJ. Do you mean that the players roll to hit and then again to see if they defend? That would put the "dice power" in players' hands, and make the DM more of a referee who doesn't roll (as I like it). If you can make it work in actual play, I want to know. Please come back and tell me if you do.

      In my home system, there is the possibility that both opponents' defenses are successful in a single roll. Players are rolling 2D6+adds for combat. Because of the shape of this bell curve, the chance of a tie is high (17%) with exactly evenly matched foes (equal "adds," or, in Fray Mode, Adds+7). Ties mean that nobody is injured in that combat round and a draw results, leading to a snap decision: keep fighting, change tactics, or disengage?

  2. I was thinking it could be one roll since in both cases you're rolling a 1d20 but in one you're hoping to roll high and the other you're hoping to not roll low. So, roll a 2, you probably get hit and take damage. You roll a 19, it's probably the other guy.

    So instead of each side rolling to see if they hit or one side rolling for attack and defense, the player just rolls one die to establish combat effectiveness for the round.

    I'm between players at the moment but if I get a chance to get back in the saddle I'll let you know if it's just another crazy idea of mine or actually speeds play without major issues.

    1. I'm glad you're going to try it. If it works, I'd like to know, so do stop by again in that case. Meanwhile, may you find players!