Tuesday, 12 October 2021

The Gygax Time Machine, Part 4: Pummelling Rules(!)

Zeb Cook makes things make sense in the 2nd Edition books. Things are listed in some kind of comprehensible order. All the encumbrance information is in one place! Erratic subsystems are purged or integrated or simplified. Great!
 
Well...
 
My 1e table (Greyhawk) returned for the first time since last summer. We’ve had a few sessions, and they’ve been a blast. I’ve also been running 2e (Planescape), and enjoying that, too. And at both tables, there have been some unarmed/nonlethal combat efforts on the part of the players. I really enjoyed both (closely-related) systems, and think they say something about the games involved, including Gary’s own rules style.
 
Undeniably, the 2e version (PHB pp97-98) is much simpler. Punching and Wrestling involves an Attack Roll, potentially modified by the attacker’s Armor type if Wrestling. The die result of this attack, if it succeeds, then (in a quite Gygaxian efficiency) is crossreferenced to a table which details the result. Punching involves damage and a KO% - ¼ of the damage is “real”, ¾ is temporary Punching damage. Wrestling involves flat damage and defining whether or not the result is a Hold which can be maintained. Overbearing is also an attack roll, with three possible modifiers. Weapons used for subdual (in the same section and worth comparing) take a -4 To Hit penalty, and produce ½ real and ½ temporary damage.
 
This is more complicated than later editions, of course, but it is still integrated with the main rules system. Each attack type relies on a normal To Hit roll with a limited set of modifiers: Punching takes none; Wrestling may take a penalty based on opponent Armor; Overbearing considers comparative Size, number of legs (!), and number of Overbearers; and Nonlethal Weapon use takes a straight penalty.
 
The 1e version (DMG pp72-73) uses more words, is not integrated with the main systems, and uses far more modifiers. Each uses a percentile roll rather than a d20 roll. Pummelling (that is, Punching) has a base chance of “success” based on opponent’s ACx10. This then takes 8 modifiers – attacker’s Dexterity and Strength improve their chances, as does the AC value of any real armour; opponent conditions (e.g. Slowed)  also boost chances; opponent high speed and Haste reduce chance. IF the Pummelling hits, a second roll is made to determine damage (which is rendered ¼ to ¾ as in 2e), modified in various ways by armour, condition, and even what is being used to pummel (e.g. mailed fist, metal pommel); this roll may allow a second attack by the attacker, may stun the opponent, or may even allow the opponent to counter, all depending on the quality of the damage roll. Either way, there is usually a second chance to Pummel per round anyway.
 
Grappling (Wrestling) also uses a percentile die system, with similar modifiers (though only Dexterity, not Strength, matters for the attack roll itself), but the Defender’s Armor type acts as an additional modifier, because bulkiness makes wrestling easier. Then there is a “Hold gained” table, Similar to the Pummelling damage table this takes several modifiers, including whether the opponent is wearing a helmet or carrying a shield or is taller or shorter than the attacker. Wrestling then permits a counter-grapple by the defender.
 
Overbearing is comparatively simple; there is a base percentile score to hit determined by both attacker and defender Strength, contextual modifiers, height and weight difference, etc. This becomes the damage result as well, which is a step shorter than the other two categories.
 
So two of the Nonlethal attack forms are two-step in 1e, rather than one-step; none uses the normal To Hit system; they each have many more modifiers; and the actual “attack routines” are completely different to normal combat (Pummelling produces two attacks per round, Grappling involves a Counter stage).
 
Is the 2e version simply an improvement? Undoubtedly it is quicker to remember everything and run; undoubtedly it has some elegant features; it has one element which really is more Gygaxian than Gary’s system, with the quality of the To Hit roll determining the actual Punching or Wrestling result. But we run the risk of misunderstanding the purpose of the 1e subsystem.
 
It’s what the kids now call a “minigame”. Cook retains some of the flavour of this, with the separate damage table for Punching and Wrestling, but the fact that nonlethal combat uses different dice and takes many different modifiers points us to the simulationist, wargame background involved. Gary is offering a different way of engaging with the game and with the problems the PCs face, here – the specificity is the point.
 
My 2e players go to Overbear a little Spinagon guard; they roll a To Hit roll – I check for the three possible modifiers. It feels a little different. It’s just another mechanical moment, though, to serve the wider game.
 
My 1e players throw a blanket over a Spelleater worm, and then start pounding it to capture it. We turn to a different system; a different mechanical challenge presents itself, with a different rhythm. The game palpably shifts in feel for the Nonlethal attackers. A different type of mastery is available, and a different diversion is experienced.
 
I think it’s quite natural to prefer Cook’s version, and I liked it. But it’s hard for me not to appreciate the angular Gygaxian form – it has a certain kind of artistry and focus which is lost by simplification.
 
There is, actually, at least two other obvious comparisons here. In 2e, THAC0 becomes a single line by class, with a natural 20 always hitting and a natural 1 always missing; Weapon Specialisation (from Unearthed Arcana aka 1.5e) becomes an important secondary modifier making it easier for monoclass Fighters to hit and do big damage. These more or less directly replace the assumptions of the 1e PHB&DMG, which use full two-axis tables for THAC0 and which assume use of Weapon Type vs AC (which in 2e becomes a rather perfunctory and unattractive optional rule about Armor Type which is fairly little like the original, but much simpler to use).  The full table, of course, still heavily favours the natural 20 (a 1st Level Fighter hits AC-5 with a 20), though there is no automatic fail and a To Hit required can be negative. Weapon Type vs AC is quite complicated and is massively eased by modern macros on Excel! (See Anthony Huso’s 1e sheet for that.) You see the reason for both of Cook’s changes there – but there’s some loss, too, particularly in terms of the skill of choosing weapon type to combat different armour types.
 
The second comparison is Psionics (which, whatever he said, Gary liked enough to rejig and reformulate in his own later rulesets). 1e Psionics (PHB pp110-117) has a bunch of clarity issues, and got a whole issue of Dragon dedicated to fixing it – but the mechanically distinct way of generating Psionic ability, the separate “magic” system of Psionic Strength Points, and the full attack matrices (DMG pp76-79) all repeat the same pattern of mechanical distinction and elaboration that Nonlethal Combat and To Hit do in 1e.
 
In 2e, Psionics is reserved for PHBR5, where it comes with a new Psionicist class (which arguably draws one or two ideas from the Dragon magazine Psionicist for 1e). There are a lot of similarities – PSPs are used, for example – but the default for Psionics is a specialised class who automatically has the ability, with Wild Talents generated separately. The Psionic powers themselves – very easy and very powerful to use in 1e if you had the PSPs – receive balance using a version of Nonweapon Proficiency rules (a Cook innovation, though PHBR5 is a Steve Winter book). Mental combat is simplified, though not by as much – though there aren’t multiple attack matrices and effects tables, there is a new system to learn that isn’t identical to normal procedures. (This would be “rectified” in 2.5, in Player’s Option: Powers, which introduced MTHAC0 and MAC.)
 
AD&D is always mechanically baroque and dense, but for Gary this is at least in part out of an irrepressible instinct to offer mechanically varied ways to engage with the problems the players face – yes normally fighting uses THAC0, but here’s a whole new system for Nonlethal; yes normally magic looks like this, but actually different classes use that system differently, and Psionics is a whole different system; yes the basic THAC0 roll is this, but have you considered your weapon and their AC? Mechanically the game is varied and demanding, pushing players to enjoy and master different methods.
 
2e takes inspiration from this in one direction (a direction I mostly like, too): multiplication of splats, options, specialisations. That can be taken to the absurd, and can be abused, but it is a legitimate extrapolation. But 2e “modernizes” and moves away from the Gygaxian legacy in its general preference for mechanical unification, and that has been undeniably the prevailing direction of travel since.

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The Gygax Time Machine, Part 4: Pummelling Rules(!)

Zeb Cook makes things make sense in the 2 nd Edition books. Things are listed in some kind of comprehensible order. All the encumbrance inf...