The clang of sword on sword, the hiss of arrows as they shoot through the air, the bellow of monsters and the girlish scream of paladins plummeting from tall buildings. Hybrid Dungeons and Dragons is a game of heroism, of standing up for the little guy, and seeing the quest through to the end. Not all enemies can be talked into submission. When words fail, there is no recourse but to fall back on violence: to rely on a strong sword-arm (or a thick spell-book) to overcome your enemies.
Combat is the lifeblood of any roleplaying game. No matter how much fun it is to talk up a storm, or roleplay your character to the hilt there is no more decisive and fitting way to end great adventures, or campaigns, than a final no-holds-barred throw down with a compelling villain. However, despite its potential for creating unforgetable moments for players and GMs, there is always the danger that combat degenerates into the sum of its parts – i.e. a bunch of people rolling some dice, adding some numbers and declaring the results.
Combat therefore has to be dynamic. Play has to move quickly from player to player, and all players should feel involved at every moment of the fight. Combat can’t last too long or the players will get bored, but it has to last long enough for the every one to feel their character has contributed in a meaningful way. Even if that contribution is as a millstone around the neck of the party’s effectiveness. It is the GM’s heavy responsibility to keep combat meaningful, swift and, above all, fun.
Combat is chaos. It is a gruelling dance of skill and steel; a flurry of feints, parries and spellcasting. Like previous editions of the game, HD&D organises this hellish pandemonium into a cycle of combat rounds and turns.
Round: In a round, every combatant takes one turn. The order in which turns occur is determined on a character’s initiative. Once all combatants have taken their turn, the round ends and a new round begins. A round represents about six seconds in the campaign world.
Turn: A turn is not a unit of time. It is your character’s ‘go’ during the combat round. On your turn, a number of prescribed events may happen to your character. You also have the opportunity to instigate actions of your own. There’s more on taking your turn, and action types below.
Combat is usually fought between foot-bound opponents going at each other in mêlée combat. Some characters often deliberarely back away from the fray to bring ranged or area attacks to bear against their enemies. The combat rules and the combat round assume this style of combat play. More unusual combats, such as aquatic or aerial battles are covered separately in this chapter.
Combat in HD&D follows this sequence of events:
- Determine Surprise: The GM determines which combatants (if any) are surprised. All those characters who are not surprised gain a Surprise Round against their enemies (q.v.).
- Establish Positions: HD&D doesn’t use a battle grid, but it’s still important that the GM acquaint the players with their relative positions to each other and their enemies. A verbal description is often sufficient, but if it isn’t then a whiteboard can be a helpful visual aid.
- Roll Initiative: Everyone who is not surprised by the battle rolls initiative. This determines the order of the combatant’s turns. Initiative is only rolled once per encounter.
- Take surprise round actions: If there is a surprise round, then these actions take place now. Everyone who is not surprised can take their turns as normal, with the exception that they only take one Standard action on their turn.
- Begin the next round: After all the active combatants have taken their turn, the round ends and the next round begins. If there was a surprise round, then all surprised combatants are no longer surprised; they roll initiative normally and enter combat this round. If there was no surprise round, then combat simply continues. Everyone takes their turns in initiative order.
- Continue the Cycle: Repeat step 5 until one side is defeated or until the danger has passed. Combats don’t necessary end with mass slaughter. Enemies may flee, surrender or fall unconscious from their wounds.
Each combat, all combatants roll an Initiative check to determine at which point in the round they can take their turn. To simplify matters, GM controlled characters may all act on the same initiative point, or groups of characters may act in unison. For example, if the player characters are battling a heinous wizard, five fire giants and their dozen hell-hound minions the GM may only roll initiative three times: once for the wizard, once for the giants and once for the hell hounds. The initiative check is:
1d20 + Dexterity Modifier
The Initiative check does not increase as you character gains levels. However, sometimes additional modifiers apply to the role. Some spells (such as Haste) and some talents (such as the warlord’s Combat Leader) grant positive modifiers. External circumstances may also affect the initiative count at the GM’s discretion.
By far the most common initiative modifier is granted by the feat Improved Initative that grants a +4 inherent bonus to initiative checks (rising to +8 at 21st level).
The character with the highest initiative result goes first in the combat round, followed by the next fastest and so on until the slowest character acts. In the event of a tie, the character with the smaller Size category goes first. If both characters are the same Size category then then the character with the highest Dexterity score goes first. If there is still a tie then roll 1d20 (with no modifiers) to determine the initiative order of the tied combatants.
Delaying and Readying Actions: Characters can choose to hold their action and act at a later initiative count than they rolled. Sometimes it is advantageous to wait until after your allies have acted, or your foes have moved into range. Some characters may wish to ready an action, so they may act instantly when specific circumstances are met. Both these options are covered in the Actions in Combat section (q.v.).
Rerolling Initiative: Once you have rolled initiative you are stuck with the result until the GM says otherwise. There is usually no chance to reroll initiative during a combat. However, if a character leaves combat and then rejoins it a few rounds later the GM may allow initiative to be rolled again.
Some combats begin with a Surprise Round. A surprise round occurs if any of the combatants are unaware of their foe’s presence or hostile intentions. Surprise is usually determined by rolling a skill check against one side’s Passive Perception or Passive Insight scores, depending on the situation. For example:
Stealth vs Passive Perception
Bluff vs Passive Insight
Usually it is the instigator of the conflict that rolls the skill check. So if you’re trying to sneak up on an enemy and plant a knife in his back then you roll your Stealth against the enemy’s Passive Perception. However, if you walk into a ambush then it’s the enemies rolling Stealth against your Passive Perception.
If you are trying to sneak up (or bluff) foes as a group then the member of the group with the lowest skill modifier makes the roll. You are only as stealthy as your clumsiest member. However, the rules for Aiding Another apply, so other party members can attempt to help their inept friend.
On occasion, the GM may allow characters to make opposed skill checks against being surprised, as opposed to using the skills passive values. This slows down play, and makes little statistical difference to the outcome of an encounter. Usually it should be reserved for characters who are deliberately on a high state of alert – a state that cannot persist for more than a couple of minutes.
Surprised Characters: If you are surprised then you may take no actions during the Surprise Round. Additionally, you grant Combat Advantage to your enemies. After the end of the surprise round, you are no longer surprised regardless of your initiative roll. You can then act normally.
Non-surpised Characters: Everyone who is not surprised (including the instigators of the conflict) can act normally, with the exception that they can only take one Standard Action during the surprise round. Normally, characters would take one Standard Action and one Move Action on their turn.
Tune in on Wednesday for rules on HD&D’s Action Types.