“KD&D,” Part 5: Simpler and Better Combat (Explained)

This post is part of a series describing the rule changes I've made for my current fantasy role-playing campaign. "Kilgore's Dungeons & Dragons," or "KD&D," is a full-fledged variant of the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game initially released in 1977. Feel free to use some or all of these rule changes for your own D&D gaming, no matter what edition you play.

After many years of role-playing retirement, I started, in 2020, running a 1st Edition AD&D campaign at the request of my neighbors and family. Coming back to the game, I’ve realized that, while it’s still my favorite, the mechanics of it can be clunky and difficult, and that some parts are lame.

To make what I consider to be improvements to the core rules, I’ve borrowed ideas from issues of Dragon magazine and later D&D editions, as well as come up with a few of my own. My operating motto for re-tooling the game is to make it, “Simpler & Better.”

Thus far in this series, I’ve talked about:

This time, I’d like to take a deep dive into making combat “simpler and better” by looking at the 10 steps to a  melee round that I listed in the previous blog post. Those steps are:

  1. Is Anyone Surprised?
  2. How Far Away is the Enemy?
  3. What Are You Going to Do?
  4. How Will You Fight?
  5. Who Goes When?
  6. Roll “To Hit”
  7. Is it a Critical Hit?
  8. Roll Damage
  9. Does the Enemy Hit You?
  10. The End of the Melee Round.

Again, I developed some of the revisions myself, but most of them, I cribbed from the 1e Players HandbookUnearthed Arcana, and DMG, as well as the 2e Player’s Option: Combat and Tactics book.

So, grab your favorite beverage (I take my tea with lots of lemon and sugar), and perhaps a snack, and let’s have a long chat.

1. IS ANYONE SURPRISED?

In most cases, the party or their opponent are surprised on a 1 or 2 on a d6; sometimes, characters or monsters have different chances of surprising or being surprised, and when this is the case, adjustments will be made based on percentages.

For example, suppose a halfling thief not in metal armor is attempting to surprise (and backstab) a ranger. The halfling normally surprises on a 1-4 on a d6 (64% of the time), but the ranger is only surprised on a 1 in 6 (16%). The halfling would thus have a 48% chance of surprising the ranger (64% – 16% = 48%), or surprising on a 1-3 on a d6.

When contact between player-characters and monsters occurs, each PC will roll individually for surprise, while the monsters will usually roll as a group, unless the monsters can be separated into distinct units (two fire giants and their three pet hellhounds), or are unique individuals in a small group (such as NPCs with character classes). In that case, I would roll for each group or unique individual.

Depending on situations and how the dice roll, all, some, or none of the individuals in each group may be surprised. In any case where some individuals (in either group) are surprised while others (in either group) are not, a regular combat round is immediately carried out, with only those (on both sides) who are not surprised are able to act.

“Surprise! I bet you weren’t expecting that behind this door there’d be a mind flayer–WITH A LASER GUN!”

Thus, those who are not surprised may parley, fire missile weapons (at the regular rate of fire), attack with melee weapons (with the normal amount of attacks), cast spells, use magic items, flee, etc.

Conversely, those (on both sides) who are surprised may not do anything—fight, shoot, cast, flee, what have you. In addition, their Armor Class cannot benefit from the use of a shield (being surprised, the character doesn’t have the shield ready to block blows), or from high Dexterity (being surprised, they may not dodge out of the way). Furthermore, they may not use Dexterity bonuses to help with saving throws.

2. HOW FAR AWAY IS THE ENEMY?

Under ordinary circumstances, almost all encounters in my campaign take place at the outer range of vision, whether that’s several hundred yards (outdoors, in daylight and clear conditions), or only a few feet (coming around a corner in a dungeon).

Some editions of D&D have very precise ways of determining distance between opposing factions; how far characters can move based on their innate speed, armor restrictions, and encumbrance; and how many (and what) actions they can take after moving certain distances. I prefer a much less codified, much more free-form approach.

In an outdoor encounter at long range, I usually say that it only takes one round for opposing forces to close with each other. Remember, a 1e melee round is 1 minute in length: you can cover a lot of ground in one minute, especially on horseback.

For indoors encounters, I draw out the room/cave/whatever on my vinyl (and erasable) battle mat with 1″ squares, usually counting each square as 5′, and I place the monsters where it makes the most sense.

DM: “‘How far away from me is the umber hulk?’ Is that seriously what you’re asking, Dave?”

The mat’s mostly to give players an idea where their characters are in relation to each other and the bad guys, not to be a rigid grid to control movement. I’d never tell a player, “Sorry, your character’s movement rate is 6″, but the enemy is 6 1/4″ away, so you can’t reach him this round.” I don’t want movement in my game to be like it is in chess or 40K.

If, during melee, PCs need to move to engage a new enemy or help another PC, I don’t count squares, I usually just tell them that their movement delays them an initiative step (more about initiative later).

3. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?

Combat is supposed to move quickly, and players need to think fast. Unless the PCs are staging an ambush for enemies unaware of their presence, players will have limited time to prepare.

In typical combat situations, I give players 60 seconds of real time before the start of the battle to make plans and discuss tactics: this represents their PCs making frantic plans, asking each other questions, shouting orders to each other and henchmen, etc.

DM: “These guys step out of the mist. What do you do?”

If the opponents understand the PC’s language, they may, depending on distance and other conditions, hear what is said and adjust their plans accordingly. The reverse is also true: PCs may be able to hear and learn the enemy’s plans as they briefly discuss strategy (thus, it often behooves a PC to take additional languages).

In previous campaigns, I had let players take as much time as they wanted to devise with battle plans. This often ate up a good chunk of an hour–or even longer–as the more strategic (or timid) worked out every possible scenario, while the more impatient fumed and rolled their 20-siders to stave off boredom as they wanted for the combat to eventually come.

This generous allowance of time also did nothing to improve the players’ fighting skills. If you give even a newbie all day, they’ll almost always come up with a winning course of action. But force them to make split decisions, and then you’ll see who really knows their stuff, and who’s going to be rolling up new characters sooner than they would have liked….

4. HOW WILL YOU FIGHT?

At its core, AD&D combat was basically this:

  • Wait your turn.
  • Roll “to hit.”
  • Maybe roll damage.
  • Maybe get hit–subtract some hit points.
  • Repeat as necessary.

And that could get tedious fairly quickly, particularly if you had a lot of monsters to cut through (“How many orcs ARE there?”), or if a monster was particularly hard to hit, was tough, or both (“How many hit points does this thing HAVE, anyway?”).

Maybe you had a higher-level fighter who got to make extra attacks, but even that was no guarantee that you wouldn’t get bogged down, mechanically rolling dice. And it didn’t do squat for when you wanted your character to do something beside go toe-to-toe, like Rocky vs. Drago.

Short of coming up with a whole new way to resolve combat (which I have no inclination to do), one must use the building blocks of the fight sequence–wait, roll, roll some more, take damage, start all over–I listed above. However, I decided to add some choices to make fighting a bit more interesting.

In my campaign, there are three fighting modes that any character can use.

The first is the normal way combat’s done in AD&D, with the regular number of attacks for the character, and Armor Class calculated as per usual.

This mode balances making attacks with defending oneself from the enemy. This is the default setting, and I’d estimate that my players (well, not the berserker, but all the others) use it about 95% of the time.

Sometimes, however, player-characters want to just go all-out and kick some serious butt. In which case, they have the option of using the second mode, “Full Attack.” 

When fighting Full Attack, PCs gain two extra melee attacks each round, as well as a +2 bonus “to hit.” However, they are too busy swinging wildly to dodge or block blows. Characters lose any Armor Class bonuses for high Dexterity (penalties for low Dexterity still apply) and/or using shields, and suffer an additional penalty of 2 to Armor Class.

Right about now, Full Attack seems like the best option for our heroine…

PCs may combine a Full Attack with a charge, adding on all bonuses and penalties (+2 attacks, +4 “to hit,” but a penalty of 3 to Armor Class and no Dexterity bonuses or shield).

Because Full Attack is so strenuous, PCs may only carry out a Full Attack for a maximum number of rounds equal to their Constitution divided by 3. If the fight continues after that, the character is at -2 “to hit” and damage for the duration of the fight. The character cannot go back into Full Attack without a full turn of rest. Full Attack may not be used with missile weapons.

Conversely, sometimes PCs want or need to cover up while some GAMF (God-Almighty Mother Fornicator) monster tries its best to rip them a new hole to poop through: these characters can opt to go into the third mode: “Full Defense.” 

Full Defense might be a good idea when facing off with this guy

In this mode, PCs forgo all attacks to defend themselves, gaining a bonus of 4 to Armor Class, to include all bonuses for shields and high Dexterity. In addition, PCs with magic weapons, specialization, and/or high Strength scores can add their regular “to hit” bonuses to their Armor Class to reflect them parrying opponents’ weapons (so, I disregard the rules for parrying in the Players Handbook, Unearthed Arcana, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide).

Note that certain monsters, usually leader-types. but also some others, can use Full Attack and/or Full Defense. My PCs were mighty surprised when a surrounded lycanthrope suddenly went off-the-chain Wolverine on them!

I encourage my players to get creative in combat: they can, for example, make “called shots” to hit (usually at a -4 penalty) specific body parts on monsters or against potent magical items that bad guys are holding.

I also use simplified forms of unarmed combat in case they’re fighting without weapons or want to tackle someone rather than run them through. I’ll detail those in a future blog post.

5. Who Goes When?

In the salad days of AD&D, I–and a lot of DMs I knew–handled initiative by having the PC party roll a single d6, with no modifiers, for their whole group, while the DM rolled one d6 for the monsters, with the higher number going first and performing all their actions before with group with the lower score.

In coming back to the game after many years away from it, I was no longer happy with that approach. Sure, it’s “simpler” than anything else, but it’s not, in my opinion, “better.” The old system I used:

  • Treated initiative as just straight-up luck;
  • Didn’t take into account adjustments for characters having high Dexterity, wielding fast or slow weapons, or using spells with short or long casting times; and,
  • Wasn’t very interesting to players.
If the orcs go first, you’re going to be waiting a long time for your turn….

So, here’s the new initiative system I came up:

To determine who goes first in a fight, players roll initiative individually for their characters; I, as the DM, usually roll for their opponents as a group, but I might roll separately for exceptional non-player characters (e.g., the evil cleric commanding the ghouls to attack the party), or for two or more groups of monsters (e.g., rolling once for the fire giants, and again for their hell hound pets).

Initiative rolls are made on one or more d10 (as noted below), with lower rolls beating higher rolls, and ties reflecting when the action is simultaneous. The initiative roll is modified by Weapons Speeds and Dexterity.

 

For initiative rolls, check the weapon Speed Factor (see page 38 of the PHB or pp. 130-133 of POCT) for each weapon and roll the appropriate number of d10 as noted below:

  • Weapon Speed Factor 1-3 (Fast): Roll 2d10, take the lower
  • Weapon Speed Factor 4-7 (Average): Roll d10
  • Weapon Speed Factor 8-10 (Slow): Roll 2d10, take the higher

Thus, small, light weapons that do less damage–daggers, darts, short swords–have a lower Speed Factor than large weapons that do more damage–axes, bows, two-handed swords–and thus, usually go first. Accordingly, it behooves players, when choosing weapons for their characters, to balance speed vs. damage, and not just take the biggest one they can get their mitts on.

If the wielder of the weapon has a Dexterity score of 16 or above, deduct the appropriate Reaction/Attacking Adjustment (ignore the plus sign in this case) from the die roll; if the wielder has a Dexterity of 5 or lower, add the applicable Reaction/Attacking Adjustment (ignore the minus sign) to the die roll, like so:

  • Dexterity 18: -3 to initiative roll
  • Dexterity 17: -2 to initiative roll
  • Dexterity 16: -1 to initiative roll
  • Dexterity 6-15: no adjustment to initiative roll
  • Dexterity 5: +1 to initiative roll
  • Dexterity 4: +2 to initiative roll
  • Dexterity 3: +3 to initiative roll

The lower the adjusted initiative (which cannot be adjusted below 1 or above 10*), the faster the combatant is, and the sooner they will strike in melee, with scores of 1 going before those with 2, who will go before those with scores of 3, etc.

*There are times when a weapon will go “FIRST” or “LAST,” but those are special circumstances that I’ll talk about in future posts.

As an example, the player of a character with a Dexterity of 18, armed with a dagger, would roll 2d10, take the lower die, subtract 3 from that number, and that would be their initiative. So, if they rolled a “7” and a “4,” they’d ignore the “7;” take the “4;” subtract 3, and get an initiative score of 1.

When running a combat round, I’ll tell players to roll their initiative, while I roll for the monsters (see below). Then I’ll call out, “Who’s going on 1?” If anyone is (which is usually the case: my current PC group has an assassin, and a thief), then we’ll resolve their attacks/actions, before I call out, “Who’s going on 2?”, skipping ahead if no one has that score. And so on.

(If PCs are taking an action–jumping across a chasm, climbing a rope, etc.–instead of attacking, they just roll a d10 and adjust for Dexterity)

Initiative for Monsters. NPCs and roughly-human sized monsters (such as orcs, goblins, gnolls, etc.) who use weapons roll initiative the same as player-characters do. Thus, an orc with a short sword will roll 2d10 (Speed Factor 3 for a short sword) and take the lower. Because few monsters have Dexterity scores listed in the various books, PCs with high Dexterity are often at an advantage against them; I’m fine with that.

Monsters, such as giants, who use larger versions of weapons will strike later than their human-sized counterparts, in keeping with the concept that the bigger the weapon, the slower it is. Conversely, monsters (such as pixies) who use smaller versions of weapons will strike more quickly.

What about those creatures–dragons, bulette, chimerae, wild animals, etc.–who rely on claws and fangs and other natural weaponry? Those monsters will strike based on their size. In general, the smaller the monster, the faster it strikes, and the larger the monster, the slower it strikes.

The smallest monsters will tend to be in the Very Fast speed category, while the largest will tend to be in the Very Slow speed category, as shown below (taken from POCT):

  • Size Tiny (Very Fast): Roll 3d10, take the lowest
  • Size Small (Fast): Roll 2d10, take the lower
  • Size Medium (Average): Roll d10
  • Size Large, 7′-12′ (Slow): Roll 2d10, take the higher
  • Size Large, 13′-25′ (Very Slow): Roll 3d10, take the highest
  • Size Large, 26’+ (Ponderous): Roll 4d10, take the highest
They may be small and wimpy, but they’re pretty quick. And that’s bad news for these adventurers….

Bear in mind that distance can affect who goes first in combat. If a PC has an 18 Dexterity and is armed with a knife, normally a very speedy weapon, they’re still going to go last (if at all) against someone with a 3 Dex who has a slow-firing missile weapon (like a heavy crossbow) if they’re 100 yards apart (if they’re only a few feet from each other, that’s another story).

Maneuvering and Initiative. If a combatant needs to approach an opponent, step back, or maneuver into a better position to attack, I as the DM will typically consider their initiative as 1 or 2 higher, so as to represent the delay.

Multiple Attacks, and Attacks with Two Weapons. Multiple attacks with a single weapon (say, from a high-level fighter) will be resolved at the same time. A combatant wielding two weapons at once (say, a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other), uses the Speed Factor of the slower weapon to determine initiative, adjusted by Reaction/Attacking, as normal.

6. Roll “TO HIT”

Since 3rd Edition, D&D has handled “to hit” rolls like so:

  • Roll a d20;
  • Add modifiers;
  • If the result is equal to or greater than the target’s Armor Class, you hit.

While that makes more sense, and is easier, than 1st Edition’s THAC0 system, I have no stomach for revamping the Armor Class system, and recalculating the values for all the hundreds of monsters in the Monster Manuals I and II, the Fiend Folio, and various Dragon magazine issues I own.

However, I do use Lenard Lakofka’s modified “to hit” chart,  from page 48 of Dragon #80 (December 1983), which evens out some of the progressions from the DMG version. More importantly, fighters (and fighter subclasses) improve their chances to hit every time they go up in levels.*

*In the same article, Lakofka also modified the saving throw matrix, which I use as well.

Even though I use adjustments for weapon speeds in combat, I do not use bonuses or penalties for certain weapons when used against certain types of armor. That’s an unnecessary nod toward “realism” that I just don’t want to have to keep track of.

7. Is it a Critical Hit?

Critical hits occur when a PC (or monster!) rolls a natural “20” *and* hits their opponent by a margin of 3 or more after all “to-hit” adjustments. If an attacker needs a “20” to hit anyway, they’re not getting a critical hit if they luck out and finally connect.

In the past, I used to rule that a natural “20” counted as a critical hit, but it often turned out that well-armored PCs were taking some serious hits from hordes of goblins and other scrubs (usually with bows) who needed 20’s to hit.

If I rolled enough dice, after all, enough of them came up “20” and dished out double damage, similar to the phenomenon in 40K where given enough Guardsmen with lasguns, not even Terminators are safe. Thus, the requirement for a critical hit to include needing to beat the “to hit” number needed by 3.

Ooh–THAT’S going to leave a mark

Critical hits do double damage, with bonuses for Strength, specialization, magic weapons, etc. added in *before* the doubling.

Incidentally, I also rule that a natural “20” is always a hit, and a natural “1” is always a miss. I don’t apply any sort of “fumble” or “critical miss” penalties for rolling a “1,” because that’s only fun for players who enjoy a laugh at their buddy’s misfortune.

8. Roll Damage

I haven’t made any changes to damage from weapons, aside from one or two (notably crossbows), based on recommendations from POCT. I’ll discuss those in the next blog post.

I have, however, on a case-by-case basis, adjusted the damage done by some monsters’ attacks, because they just weren’t fearsome enough. In particular, I’ve used articles from Dragon magazine concerning giants (Issue #109) and dragons (Issue #98). More about monsters in a future blog post.

9. Does the Enemy Hit You?

As mentioned, I have not tried to overhaul the Armor Class system that AD&D put into place. This, despite that I wholeheartedly agree that using the system from later editions, where the higher the number, the better the Armor Class, would be simpler and more easily understood by new players (“Wait–so I *want* my AC to be a negative number?”)

10. The End of the Melee Round

When the round is over, it’s time for the bad guys to check Morale, if necessary, and move on to the next round of combat.


Fun > “Realism”

Before I end, let me speak for a minute or two about D&D combat and “realism.” Ever since the early days of the game, there’s been a struggle between running combat in a quick, fun way; and with running it so that it accurately factors in realistic conditions.

While I’ve tried to bear in mind “realism,” I’m firmly on the side of “fun.” Which is not to say that I look down on realism: indeed, my use of weapon Speed Factors, and characters’ Dexterity scores, are nods (albeit not perfect) in that direction.

There are certainly more efforts that I could take to make my modified combat system more realistic. I could do what later editions did, and be more precise on movement, or the timing of certain actions. I could incorporate rules for fighting withdrawals, or attacks of opportunity.

I could use the more detailed rules from the DMG and UA on weaponless attacks, including grappling and overbearing. As mentioned, I could take into account weapon bonuses versus certain types of armor. I could also consider weapon length, because, as a Jungle visitor pointed out, someone with a two-handed sword has a much longer reach than someone with a dagger.

And perhaps some day, upon further review, I might incorporate some or all of those things. My “KD&D” rules are very much a work in progress, with me constantly tweaking them, often between gaming sessions (my players are very patient and understanding). So, who knows.

But for now, I believe that what I’ve developed thus far, and presented here, has the proper balance between realism and fun. If you have any thoughts, questions, or suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

Next time, as a follow-up to this post, I’ll talk briefly–I swear–about changes I made to some key weapons used in AD&D.


When I’m not playing or blogging about 40K, I’m writing killer SF/F  for young adults, and adults who are still young. In This Wasted Land, my latest novel, 17-year old Alyx is lost and alone on a nightmare world of monsters never before imagined–and if they don’t kill her, the witch who has her boyfriend will. 

I’m also the author of Lost Dogs, the story of the end of the world as seen, heard–and smelled–by a dog.  My first novel was Dragontamer’s Daughters, like Little House on the Prairie…with dragons.  With Jungle Guide Patrick Eibel, I created Our Wild Place, a children’s book about the joy to be found in exploring Nature.  

Visit kentonkilgore.com, and follow me on Facebook for frequent posts on sci-fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction.  You can also catch me on Instagram.