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Basic D&D Example of Combat

I want to talk about, reminisce, and maybe slightly rag on this example of combat from the old 1981 Basic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It starts thusly:

Four player characters, Morgan Ironwolf (1st level fighter), Silverleaf (2nd level Elf), Fredrik (1st level dwarf), and Sister Rebecca (2nd level cleric) enter a room through a secret door which was detected and opened by Silverleaf.

First thing that jumps out at me here, is the 2nd level elf. Silverleaf must have at least 4,000 xp; Morgan has less than 2,000 and Fredrik has less than 2,200. Even Sister Rebecca, as a 2nd level cleric, must have less than 3,000 xp. So we can see here that Silverleaf has survived a few game sessions, at least. Maybe he was the lone survivor and therefore got all the xp for the previous adventure just by himself – that would bump him up a level in short time.

When I was playing BD&D, we learned pretty quick that magic-users died easily (hell, all classes died pretty easy). In the first few months of playing, we never got any character to 2nd level. So when we made new characters, we started making elves – they could fight like fighters and use spells like magic-users. The fact that they required nearly double the xp to make the next level didn’t matter, since we never saw the next level anyway.

The room appears to be empty. While they are searching it, a second secret door opens (which Silverleaf did not find) and the first pair of 12 hobgoblins walks in.

Twelve hobgoblins? That’s twice the maximum possible listed in their stat block! That’s twice the maximum listed for them on the second level wandering monster chart! Some might think my pointing this out is a complaint about the number showing up in this encounter, but my thought is why did the designer even put a “number appearing” line in the stat block. Didn’t all DMs just put however many they wanted in an encounter?

Twelve hobgoblins against a party of four PCs (two 1st-level characters, two 2nd-level characters) is a pretty damn tough encounter. A smart party in this situation should immediately try to escape.

The DM checks for surprise: the party rolls a 2, the hobgoblins a 1; both sides are surprised. The two groups stare at each other while changing their order into better defensive positions. Since Silverleaf is the only member of the party who speaks Hobgoblin, the other characters elect him as their spokesman. The player who runs Silverleaf becomes the caller. He quickly warns the others that he may have to use his sleep spell.

Ah, the days of “callers” – a single player who served as the party mouthpiece to the DM (as opposed to everyone, individually, speaking to the DM at the same time). Although this concept was part of both Basic D&D and Advanced D&D, I never played or DMed with any group who ever used a single caller.

Silverleaf steps forward with both hands empty in a token of friendship, and says “Greetings, noble dwellers of deep caverns; can we help you?”. Just in case, Silverleaf is thinking of the words he must chant to cast his spell.

Instead of immediately attacking like dumb players, or trying to escape like cautious players, these guys are going to actually try parley with the hobgoblins. When’s the last time you’ve seen PCs try talking to monsters before combat? Good thinking, Silverleaf.

The DM decides that Silverleaf’s open hands and words in the hobgoblins’ language are worth +1 when checking for reaction. Unfortunately the DM rolls a 4 (on 2d6) which, even adjusted to 5, is not a good reaction. The hobgoblins draw their weapons, but do not attack. They do move aside as two more hobgoblins enter the room.

The largest of the hobgoblins shouts, in his language, “Go away! You’re not allowed in this room!”

“It’s okay; Gary sent us,” Silverleaf answers.

“Gary sent us.” I assume this is an inside joke reference to Gygax, and that makes me smile.

“Huh?” the hobgoblin wittily responds.

The DM rolls a new reaction with no adjustments. The roll is a 3; the hobgoblins charge.

Uh oh. And yay!

The DM rolls a 2 for the hobgoblins’ initiative; Silverleaf rolls a 4 for the party, so the party has the initiative. Silverleaf has already warned the others that he is going to throw a sleep spell if the hobgoblins attack, so the party moves to form a defensive line across the room (making sure that they do not get caught in the spell’s area of effect). Morgan has a short bow ready to fire, Fredrik is getting his throwing axe ready, and Sister Rebecca is pulling out her mace and bracing her shield.

Cool. Look at that: the frontline fighters know not to get up and in the mage’s spell area. I’ve seen experienced gamers completely forget that tactic, much to the annoyance of the mage (or their own annoyance when they get caught in the area of effect).

Since Morgan has her bow ready and Fredrik has his axe, they choose their targets and fire. First level characters need a roll of 13 or better to hit the hobgoblins’ Armor Class of 6. Since both attacks are at short range, Morgan and Fredrik each add +1 to their rolls. In addition, Morgan has a Dexterity score of 13, so she gains another +1 bonus. Therefore, Fredrik needs a roll of 12 (or greater) to hit, and Morgan needs a roll of 11.

Morgan rolls a 12 and Fredrik rolls a 16 – both hit! The DM rolls 1d6 for arrow damage and 1d6 for axe damage. Morgan’s arrow does 4 points of damage, and the hobgoblin she hit (who only had 4 hit points) falls; the DM announces “Hobgoblin #2 is dead” (counting from the first to enter the room). Fredrik’s axe is found to do 5 points of damage, but the first hobgoblin had 7 hit points. The 5 points are deducted from the hobgoblin’s total, leaving him with 2 hit points.

Back in the day, monster hit points were all, individually, rolled up randomly. Even published modules listed different hit points for a group of monsters. For instance, these hobgoblins might have been statted out like this: (AC: 6, HD: 1+1, hp: 7, 4, 5, 4, 6, 5, 7, 3, 2, 5, 6, 3, Att: 1, Dam: 1d8, Saves: F1). I quickly found this rather a pain to keep track of, so I started using the hit die average rounded up (1d8 = 5). In the case of these 1+1 HD hobgoblins, I would have written down that they all have 6 hit points.

Morgan kills on her first attack in the battle, but poor Fredrik only wounds his opponent. We’re going to see, reading the rest of this battle tale, that Morgan just rocks, and Fredrik just sucks.

Silverleaf casts his spell and finds that 13 levels of monsters fall asleep. Since hobgoblins have 1 + 1 hit dice, they are treated as 2 hit die monsters for this purpose. Therefore, six hobgoblins fall asleep: the 3 who are charging, the two coming through the door this round, and one standing just beyond the doorway.

Sleep: the tactical nuke of Basic D&D. When you absolutely, positively have to drop every mamma jamma in the room. Any elf or magic-user with any knowledge or experience in the low levels of D&D knew that you always took sleep or charm person as your first spells.

At least half of the monsters are out of action, so the DM decides to check the hobgoblins’ morale. Normal hobgoblins morale is 9, temporarily lowered to 8 in this situation. The DM rolls a 6, so the hobgoblins will fight on.

I miss having a core, standard morale check mechanic.

In the second round of combat, the party loses the initiative roll. Another two hobgoblins charge through the doorway. Since Morgan still has her bow out, she may shoot at the charging monsters. These start moving from 20’ away from her, so the party has time to get their weapons out. The DM warns Silverleaf that if he wants to cast any spells this round, the hobgoblins will be able to attack him before he can do so. Silverleaf decides to get out a weapon. Morgan rolls a 4 (a miss), and the hobgoblins decide to attack Fredrik and Morgan.

Why does Morgan get a shot at the charging hobgoblins on their turn? There’s no rule, that I can find, that says you get to attack when your opponent charges (there’s no “charge” mechanic – it’s just a description of their movement). This action/allowance seems to break the rules, and I can’t figure out why.

Regarding Silverleaf wanting to cast a spell, but the hobgoblins will get to attack him before he can do so: oddly, I can’t find any rule in the basic set that says being attacked and/or hit messes up spell casting. Until right now, being unable to find the rule, I had thought this was a core rule in BD&D. Have I been wrong in thinking this all these years? Is this just an AD&D rule that I backward added to my memory of BD&D?

The hobgoblin attacking Fredrik rolls a 17, hitting Fredrik’s Armor Class of 2, and scores 8 points of damage! Poor Fredrik had only 6 hit points, so his is killed.

“Poor Fredrik” is right. The dwarf failed to kill with his first attack, and then gets killed in the second round of the fight. Silverleaf will be getting even further ahead in xp. Damn lucky elves.

The monster attacking Morgan needs a 15 to hit her Armor Class of 3 (since she had her bow out, which required two hands, her shield was not included in the Armor Class). The DM rolls a 15, and Morgan takes 4 points of damage – not quite enough to kill her.

Shields were only 1 point of AC in BD&D, regardless of their size. The only reason they weren’t discarded by fighters in favor of big, two-handed weapons was that wielding a 2H meant you automatically lost initiative each round.

Morgan has already attacked this round, so she may not do so again. The DM does allow her to drop her bow and draw a sword, so that she may attack in melee combat in the next round.

Yeah, she got to shoot her bow on the hobgoblins’ turn. Cheater.

Both Sister Rebecca and Silverleaf can attack, however, and together they kill one hobgoblin.

The party gets the initiative for the third round. All of them choose to attack the only monster in the room. Rebecca and Silverleaf both miss, but Morgan hits (with her sword). She rolls a 4 for damage. The hobgoblin has 5 hit points. But Morgan’s great Strength gives her a bonus of +2 on damage, so she scores a total of 6 points of damage, killing the hobgoblin.

So, Morgan has a 13 Dexterity and a 16 or 17 Strength. She’s lucky, munchkiny, and cheaty. I wonder if she’s the DM’s girlfriend?

The DM decides to check the hobgoblin’s morale again. They began with a morale score of 9, adjust to 8 before, and further adjusted this time down to 7. The DM rolls an 8; the last three hobgoblins drop their weapons, and shout (in hobgoblin, of course), “We surrender! We’ll tell you all about this room if you don’t kill us!” If the hobgoblins had made their morale check they would not have to check again and would fight to the death.

Aren’t the last three hobgoblins still in the other room? This is why we quickly started using minis on a battlegrid, so no one got confused about where anyone or anything was in a battle.

Silverleaf tells the party what the hobgoblins have said. The characters accept the surrender, and tie up all the hobgoblins and remove their weapons. The helpful hobgoblins not only tell the party where the treasure is, but how to avoid the poison needle trap which guards the lock on the chest.

I like the way these hobgoblins are actually helpful when taken prisoner. So many times I’ve seen defeated enemies act like asses with contempt for the victors, refusing to give up any information without a hard debate.

Before the party leaves they gag the hobgoblins, to make sure that no alarm will be raised. Morgan is Neutral in alignment, and argues that it is not safe to leave a sure enemy behind them, even if that enemy is temporarily helpless. Silverleaf is also Neutral, but he believes that the hobgoblins are too terrified to be of any further threat. If Morgan wants to kill the prisoners he won’t help her, but he won’t stop her, either.

Don’t forget there are six sleeping hobgoblins in this room. They’ll wake up soon.

Sister Rebecca, a Lawful cleric, is shocked by Morgan’s suggestion. She tells Morgan that a Lawful person keeps her word, and that she promised the hobgoblins that they would be spared. Her god would never allow her to heal someone who killed helpless prisoners . . . .

Nice role playing Sister Rebecca.

Morgan agrees that killing captives is wrong, and that it was only the great pain from her wound which caused her to say such things.

Nice role playing Morgan. And this is played out without a big intraparty argument about alignment.

Sister Rebecca casts her cure light wounds spell on Morgan. It does 5 points of healing, bringing Morgan back to her normal 6 hit points.

Note: This is Sister Rebecca’s one and only spell for the adventuring day. Clerics get their first 1st-level spell at their 2nd character level. Without that spell, it would take Morgan at least two full days (48 hours) of rest to recover those 4 points of damage. BD&D healing rules say 1d3 hit points healed naturally per full day of complete rest.

On this note, let’s think about how this one fight affects the PCs and their adventuring day.

They were outnumbered 3-to-1 by roughly equal powered enemies.

The sleep spell took out half the hobgoblins in one shot. But that one spell was half of the spell allotment for Silverleaf – a 2nd-level elf has only two 1st-level spells per day. That’s all. That’s it.

The single cure light wounds was the full allotment of Sister Rebecca’s spells per day.

One PC is dead, so the party is down to just 3, now. And how will they get the new PC into the group? Should they pull out of the dungeon now, or continue ahead? Fredrik’s poor player will be ready with a new PC in a minute, but will he have to just wait – sit over there and play Breakout on the 2600?


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2 Responses to Basic D&D Example of Combat

  1. Brad says:

    I love this writeup!I am now 40 years old and haven’t DMed anything since I was around 16. Lately, I’ve been feeling a stron desire to try it again. I’m quite familiar with AD&D and 2nd ed. and mildly familiar with 3rd and 4th, and from that I can’t get over the feeling that the old Tom Moldvay/Dave Cook B/X version of the game is best. Too many rules, it seems to me, serves only to bog the game down. A fun night of gaming should move along in my opinion, and I think the B/X rules give a DM a lot of freedom where that is concerned.Your commentary here has caused me to take notice of things I didn’t realize or had forgotten. I really like your understanding of the game! Write-ups like this are good for educating DM’s in how to play well. It would be fine with me if you wanted to write many more.

  2. ashimbabbar says:

    Thanks a lot for this ! I love the B/X rules; I’m so very glad for having the combat example in original English and I just love your analysis.

    Incidentally, Morgan was the character creation example ( that’s it, the character creation example was a chick ) with STR 16 and DEX 13. Although in the example her player was asserted to be a woman, she actually was Tom Moldvay’s character. And Sister Rebeccah was Rebeccah Moldvay ( Tom’s sister – it was a family business XD )’s character

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