For those just joining us, I’ve been re-reading Old-School Essentials (OSE) with a view to figuring out how to run classic Dungeons & Dragons games with the methodological changes needed to achieve deeper Otherworld-immersion.
I had a playtest run through a dungeon adventure this weekend and it broadly went well. In terms of the structure of the dungeoncrawl I was satisfied and the players seemed to enjoy the challenges. The main problem I faced as the GM was how to make the combat outcomes more engaging.
The problem I ran into was a simple one: the players declare their characters will make an attack on a monster, I roll the attack die (1d20) plus the relevant damage dice behind the screen, I narrate the outcome. But without reference to the damage result, there is very little for me to hang that description from. I quickly felt under pressure to improvise… and that was stressful.
Weirdly, when I play in this style with more complex combat systems – such as GURPS, Mythras, or Imagine – I don’t have this problem at all. In all three of those games, the players declare an attack but they also need to declare HOW their character will attack because that stuff is mechanically important. Thus, the solution with OSE / classic D&D would be to make it explicitly clear that it’s not enough to just declare the attack.
This was also good reminder of the general advice the Angry GM has given us about basic adjudication in a roleplaying game:
When a player declares an action, you, as the DM, are looking for two things. WHAT is the player trying to accomplish and HOW is the character trying to accomplish it? I call these things the Intention and the Approach. Sometimes, figuring them out is easy. Sometimes, it isn’t. But you have to figure them out. Do not try to adjudicate the action unless you can state clearly in your head an Intention and an Approach.The Angry GM, Adjudicate Actions Like A Boss
An example might help: the fighter wants to attack the goblin. In OSE / D&D, players commonly state stuff like, “I attack the goblin with my sword,” or, “I swing my sword at the goblin.”
Fair enough, you might be thinking.
But in combat (as in almost all situations in a roleplaying game) HOW you do the action matters as much, if not more, than what action you declare. Thus, “I swing my sword at the goblin’s head,” is a better quality declaration.
In GURPS (for example), it also matters mechanically because hitting a goblin’s head is harder than striking the default torso body location. But we could easily add this to our D&D even if there is no mechanical difference.
How does this help the GM when they come to adjudicate and describe the outcome?
Simply put, it takes the heavy-lifting out of the improvised description. Now I know how your attack was targeted – you were swinging for the head – and so I can use the outcome to describe it more clearly. If you missed, you sword swooshed over the creature’s head; if you hit, depending on the damage roll, it could be anything from a glancing slash to decapitation.
While I will always prefer a mechanical benefit to such decisions – like, it’s harder to hit the head but if you succeed it is more damaging – I think it’s a fairly trivial to keep asking HOW the character makes the attack and then leverage that decision for the description. In other words, instead of relying on the game mechanisms to give the HOW meaning – such as when your player sees they have done 4 points of damage to the goblin – you can ensure that the description gives it meaning instead.