Two 10th Level Fighters Dueling With Daggers

There is a guy on one of the OSE Discord servers I lurk in that reminds me a lot of Hurin. He isn’t Hurin under a different name unless Hurin has a secret double life in Australia, but that is beside the point.

This guy is one of the big personalities in the OSR/OSRIC/DnD nerd community. He happened to say the line that is the title of this post that two 10th level fighters dueling with daggers was a low point of DnD.

It was a throwaway line but it struck a chord with me. I can see the scene being imagined as two guys, probably with 60-70HP grinding away hours doing 1d4 + strength bonus damage when they did manage to hit. In old school DnD a combat round was a minute long. This fight could go on for hours.

Except that it doesn’t.

There are two flaws in this thinking. The first is that if a challenge carries no risk and has no consequences to the character’s story then you shouldn’t be rolling for it. The other flaw was the idea that 1d4+ strength bonus was damage, it isn’t.

I will take the second flaw first. The very concept of hit points is widely misunderstood. Hit points are your character’s skill, and an element of luck at avoiding being hit or harmed. In Rolemaster terms, it would be like having a finite pool of Parry that you burn through adding it to your DB.

That description of Hit Points was in the original Dungeon Master’s Guide. It would be ridiculous to think that just because a character had had a successful adventure or two, that they could now survive being stabbed with a sword more times. Hit Points as skill at parrying, dodging and evasion make perfect sense in contrast. This is why Fighters get more hit points than Magic-Users, they are trained to parry, dodge and evade. You Con bonus is not because you are ‘meatier’ it is because fatigue can slow a person’s reactions when parrying, dodging and evading.

DnD and Chainmail evolved out of tabletop war games where typically a unit that was hit was destroyed. To introduce named heroes into that needed a way for them to have more than a ‘one hit, you are dead’ mechanic. The core concept that if you are stabbed with a sword, hit with a mace or stabbed with a dagger, you will die unless someone saved you. That is why HPs go down to -8, each describing the severity of the mortal wound.

DnD characters are binary. They have 1HP if you think of hit points as meat. If you have 1HP then you are fighting fit, if you don’t have 1HP then you are dead or dying. All hit points above 1 are burned up in avoiding being hit.

Those are the rules pretty much as written in the original DnD.

The next problem with our two 10th level fighters is the hour-long combat. Knowing what hit points are has eliminated the idea of them each being stabbed 15 times and still standing. We have turned that into an interplay with both fighters lunging, feinting, dodging.

The problem is that the first half of the battle is of little or no consequence. You cannot kill a 10th level fighter is a dagger strike. Many strikes may but the first definitely won’t.

It is relatively easy to eyeball a battle as GM, or DM in this case, and see that Fighter 1 has a slightly better to hit number and slightly better damage due to a bigger strength bonus. Why not play the first round or two, let the Character get the size of his opponent. Ask the player how he intends to play out this fight, underhand and dirty or is it more an elegant gentleman’s duel? Now skip forward 10 rounds. If one fighter is more likely to land hits than the other then one takes four dagger strikes and the other may only take three. You can make sure that the number of hits and the damage is in line with the actual abilities of the two combatants. Now describe how the fight went up until this point. Is the other fighter the better or more skilled fighter? Is he or she using their strength to their advantage or is their speed frustrating your attempts to corner them? Tell the player what the character would know. If the character went into this thinking it would be an easy win but now finds themselves at a disadvantage they may want to change tack.

You get the player’s input and then skip forward another 10 rounds. Deal out typical damage and describe the impact this duel is having. Where was the fight taking place? In a banquet hall? In a clearing in the woods? Are there seconds standing by looking concerned? 10 more rounds have gone by, you could be down to half hits and your opponent is looking a lot fresher and more confident than you. What do you do?

By now it is possible that one or the other is at half hit points. Does that change their perception? Is the duel taking place in a larger context? Is now the time to concede honorably?

You can now skip forward another 10 rounds. At this point, you could if you wanted to, play out the rest of the combat. The banquet hall could be a complete wreck with tables upturned, benches smashed to smithereens and the floor awash with trampled food. From this point on the actions can have real consequences, the rule to not roll for things that don’t matter no longer applies.

What could have been a grinding hundred rounds of roll to hit, roll 1d4 for damage has been avoided and turned into narrative description in which the player gets to take an active part.

So What About Rolemaster?

A RM2 10th level Fighter probably has about a 100OB with dagger. Based on one rank per level of half of their sword skill, about +18 from Stat and +30 from Professional bonus.

Assuming this is an unarmoured fight in a banquet hall, just because I like the idea of food fights, with both combatants using AT1. They need about 90 to make contact with each other and about 100 to do a critical.

If they parried with half their OB and we give them a +10 Qu DB they, open ended rolls to hurt each other. One in 20 strikes will yield any damage and assuming a typical final roll of 96 + 50 at the attack roll, + 50OB – 60DB give a final result of 136 or 16ES.

Just eyeballing it suggests that you would need to do a typical 4 E criticals to take someone down, they are fatal or debilitating 25% of the time. So we are looking at possibly 1 in 20 x 4, or 80 combat rounds. I would say that the first bleeding critical on either side would finish the fight. Not so much from breeding out the penalties from lost hits would wipe out your OB, reducing your ability to deliver any damage and reducing your parry DB.

Almost all E Slash criticals do bleeding and 2-4 hits per round are common.

For all their training and experience, a Rolemaster fight between two high level fighters will actually be decided, more often than not, but the very first lucky roll.

You could even strategize for this. Fight until you have that first crit and then all-out parry until your foe bleeds out.

Looking at RMu and there is a bigger issue, passive DB inflation. Our 10th level fighters are likely to have +20 ranks (at least) in Running. By 10th level, you can have a decent Qu bonus with is x3 for DB. If you parried with +50 of your OB, you are looking at +80DB vs a +50OB, a net -30 on your attack roll. Open-ended is needed to even do hits of damage and a 96+50 attack roll yields only 4BP. I know that JDale has increased the damage in the RMu tables but they have not made 4 and a B puncture equal to 16 and an E slash critical.

I am not known for using things like exhaustion points but it looks like having to wait, a statistical average of, 20 rounds just to do 4 hits of damage. A fight like this could last three-quarters of an hour for the characters and take days of real time to play.

The chances of the fight coming down to just a lucky blow, probably a double open-ended roll is more likely than any actual skill on the part of the combatants.

This does not seem right to me.

9 thoughts on “Two 10th Level Fighters Dueling With Daggers”

  1. I have only ever been to Australia once (the beautiful Melborne), so it must be my Aussie Doppelganger.

    The argument that hits are also part skill and luck — which indeed Gygax himself made — has a certain logic to it. The problem is it breaks down rather easily. Why does a high level fighter who is caught by surprise, or hit when asleep or subject to a Hold Person spell, survive four times as long as a low level fighter? It can’t be skill, because the higher level fighter can’t use that skill when he is surprised, asleep, or paralyzed. I’m also not quite sure why higher level characters are more lucky. Higher level cats for example have used up some of their 9 lives, so they seem to get less lucky! (A facetious example to be sure, but just to illustrate the point that it is not a logical necessity that creatures get luckier as they age; one could easily argue the reverse).

    Then of course there are the strange places that ‘hit points are more than meat’ take you. The most recent example I can recall of DnD players rebelling against the concept of hit points as anything more than meat was the controversy around the 4th Edition DnD class the Warlord. The Warlord was a martial-based class that had healing. He would do things like send ‘Inspiring Word’s to his comrades, restoring some hit points. A significant number of players despised this, and argued vociferously against this. You will still find opinions on the class deeply polarized over this issue. So even players who were fine with ‘hit points are more than meat’ sometimes find themselves intensely disliking where it takes them.

    I also remember a GM on the DnD forums saying that although a character had closed the door between him and his attacker, his attacker’s attack still did hit point damage to the defender because the attack hit his ‘morale or luck’. Some DMs thought this was a good idea (I thought it was not).

    Note too that expressing blood loss in terms of hit points is really leaning towards hits as meat (or at least blood), and DnD doesn’t always deal with this consistently. I don’t think a level 10 fighter has four times as much blood as a level 1 fighter, but when they are both subject to a spell that causes bleeding, the higher level fighter lasts four times as long. The logic of DnD’s hit points breaks down in such cases.

    Rolemaster originally seems to have envisioned hits as more meat (or shock/pain) rather than luck or skill. RM2 Character Law defined a character dying due to hits as dying ‘due to pain and system shock (i.e. hits).’ It didn’t mention luck or skill as far as I can see. Arms Law described Hits this way:
    ‘Accumulated damage, pain, and bleeding that can lead to shock, unconsciousness, and sometimes death (also called Concussion Hits). Each character can take a certain number of hits before passing out (determined by his Body Development skill).’

    I personally prefer the way RM has defined hits. They aren’t pure ‘meat’, but they are closer to meat than in DnD. They include pain, shock, bleeding, etc., but I think it is reasonable to assume that a character who has seen a lot of blood and is a veteran of taking wounds and dealing with shock will be a bit more inured to it, and more capable of dealing with it. You might pass out the first time you see yourself take a bloody wound, but you’re less likely to do so the 20th time it happens. Boxers and Ultimate Fighters get better at facing these things.

    As for RMU, you are preaching to the choir about DB inflation. My very first houserule for the new system will be eliminating the passive DB bonuses — happily, it is a pretty easy fix. One thing that does help to keep OBs high though is the new skill rank progression: 5-3-2-1 rather than 5-2-1-1/2. That extra category of +3/rank means OBs roughly keep pace with DBs even when you take passives into account.

    1. No system is going to be perfect. You could argue that a more experienced character is going to react to a surprise situation fractionally faster due to their experience. A sleeping character, for me, is hit point neutral. If something bad is going to happen and you are asleep then it just happens.

      You are right in that the system can break down. But it holds much more water as skill and reaction-based maneuvering than it does as meat/blood. I can rationalize why an experienced warrior is harder to kill than a beginner.

      My DnD experience started and ended with 1st edition AD&D pretty much. I did a bit of B/X before discovering AD&D.

  2. This was an issue as early as Gamma World, where hits were scaled to deal with energy weapons. The great joke was two first level characters fighting with clubs. It would take forever.

    In my system design I’ve decided to determine hits by combining strength and willpower (as I view hits as a combination of the physical ability to deal with damage AND the effects of shock). This means hits remain relatively static during a character’s playing time (they only go up if a player spends points to increase stats, which is a slow process). Given the way combat works, it’s also harder to keep the endless Parry cycle going, and I don’t have DB inflating skills like RMU. Damage is also tied to attack speed, which has an impact on Parry (do you block the one big attack or try to deal with a flurry of faster attacks?) and is helped by a two second round.
    I have always disliked Exhaustion points and am trying to avoid adding any additional mechanics to the system. The more I can “bake in” the better.

  3. I agree hit points are bizarre, and badly portray any poor version of reality. Too the systems that are used to help mitigate those failings always seem to fall by the wayside, regardless of the best efforts of the designers.

    However at least in Rolemaster you have other factors at play, leaving aside skills such as Disarm. Right off the top of my head I can think of Fumbles and Weapon Breakage for example, and the a-for-mentioned Fatigue, as well Hit Loss penalties (at least in RMU). Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t RMC have breakage rolls every time an attack doesn’t do damage (with 50+ needing another roll)? RMU I think it’s on any natural 33 or 77, regardless of final roll total.
    Additionally, a fumble on either side (1% in RMC/RMSS, 3% in RMU) could easily blows the combat apart. Lastly as we all know, Criticals, especially mid range ones cause a variety of nasty effects such as stun, daze, prone, not to mention target armor breakage rolls .

    I think for me, it’s a good reminder to keep in my mind that although I can change any rule in a system, those changes will have an effect, and it’s simply a matter of just how soon I notice it and if I can live with it.

  4. Is it a problem that two equally matched opponents should be at a standoff or that it will be a chance blow that will finish the fight quickly? As Siltoneous mentions, there are plenty of grind down factors that can sway the fight or grant a combatant a chance of calling for mercy. I could imagine a knife fight with both combatants gripped in a mutual knife lock holding on to each other (high parry) until one or the other is exhausted and there is an opening. OK not the hours of D&D but certainly a few minutes of intense combat. Would be worth running it a few times with RMU to see what happens.

    1. It is hard to run this with RMu as JDale has suggested that the penalties on the Critical tables have been moderated somewhat and the damage on the attack tables has been increased.

      So until we know how much damage a dagger does it would be hard to say how such a fight would play out.

      It is also a bit of a false situation. If you were playing this and you could not hit someone because they could out parry you, you would not just keep trying to hit them hoping for an open-ended. I would try some other skill, some unarmed combat or brawling maybe? Anything to see if you could gain some advantage. Most GMs also would not set up a fight that could not be won by anything but luck.

      The DnD fight will be won, there is nothing to stop 10th level fighters hitting most of the time. The result will be decided by who has the best combination of strength and dexterity. To either hit most often and deal out more damage or to avoid being hit so they can deal out more damage.

  5. For one on one combat we use initiative & weapon reach (https://www.rolemasterblog.com/initiative-third-leg-rm-combat-stool/). It makes a significant difference as a combatant may also allocate OB to the Init roll as well as DB. We’ve had quite a few interesting combats where the players have to make real strategic decisions each round–and the results have been fairly short combats.

    Of course, I use RM2 so I’m not dealing with these odd DB enhancers that see referenced for RMU.

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