Wednesday, January 1, 2020

D&D as a Combat Game

I’ve been at D&D for about 35+ years, off and on. I started in high school, played in college, and played intermittently after that until about 6 years ago when I started running regular games again for my kids.

In that time I’ve seen a lot of different styles of play, both in my game and at gaming conventions, in games run by friends, and that sort of thing. My system of choice has been AD&D 1st edition for the majority of that time. I’ve tried dozens of other games over the years, different genres, different systems, but I kept coming back to AD&D as my home game.

The first summer I played in high school we did what I suspect most kids did before the arrival of the internet, we figured out the game for ourselves and did our best approximation of the rules. We didn’t even start out with all the rule books, for our first games we had the DMG and PHB, that’s it. We had fun with those games, but they were mostly hack and slash monster slaying combined with ridiculous amounts of loot. 

That lasted for summer, but we got bored of that fast. Once we had all the books we made a concerted effort to learn the actual rules as written. We didn’t use all of the rules, there were too many of them, and some not to our liking. But we did our best approximation of BTB, and as the years rolled forward my understanding of the game grew.

By the time I left for college my style of gaming was BTB with some combat related house rules (mostly tweaking badly worded spells, a few new classes and adding flairs to combat like critical hits). I’d say my games were about 1/3 exploration (resource management, planning, discovery), ⅓ social (forming alliances, character development) and ⅓ combat. I’ve been sitting in this distribution of play for the majority of my gaming years. Combat is sometimes dominant in a session, sometimes we go a session with none.

I was a regular on the 1e Dragonsfoot forums for  about 6 years, I polled about people’s breakdown of play a bunch of times, and the results were pretty uniform, almost no one claimed more than 50% of their game play was combat. Most claimed around a third to a half of their game was combat focused at most. In short, combat is not the majority of the gaming experience for “old school” gamers. 

I don’t think I’m an outlier, or that the poll respondents were outliers either. If you play AD&D anywhere close to BTB, the game doesn’t reward combat focused play. That may be a surprise to those who haven’t played the system, who have only read about it, but the rules as written do not produce a primarily hack and slash game. I want to do a brief run through why this is the case.

By Design: AD&D and Combat
Let me give an example first, then explain some of the game design behind it.

A few years ago I ran a one week one shot adventure, sent the PCs through Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. It’s a classic old school module, and I had a group of 9 players to send through. Chargen for that sort of an adventure is a big thing, and we worked together to generate 18 PCs for the module (9 PC main characters and 9 henchmen). To save some time I came up with a hack.

I have the Rogues Gallery, a 1e character resource that has hundreds of stats for pregenerated characters. So rather than have 9 players roll up 18 characters, each player picked their class and rolled on the Rogues Gallery table for that class. This produced an instant set of stats that met the requirement for their preferred class, but it randomized it so you weren’t guaranteed to have good stats. 

One of my players wanted to play a ranger, so he rolled on the table and got entry 70, the stats for which were the following:

S - 18/90
I - 17
W - 17
D - 17
C - 18
C - 18

The group kind of freaked about it, but he rolled the result, we all agreed, so fair is fair, and that was his stat list.

We ran a one week long module, played 7 hours a day for 5 days, 35 hours at the table. Everyone in the group expected that this players PC would clean up, dominate the game. He had maxed stats in a game with heavy stat modifiers for high scores. He did wild damage, had big to hit bonuses, low AC, he was persuasive, tough and smart. As a ranger he already had great HP, with the spike of an 18 CON HP bonus he had mad HP.

And guess what happened? He did no better or worse than anyone else in the game. He didn’t kill more monsters, he came close to death just as many times as the others, etc. Because, and here’s the punchline, stats and mechanics don’t determine success in AD&D, not the way it is designed. Yes, they help, and yes, they can make it a lot easier to do certain things, but having more HP, better damage stats, better AC, none of this assures tactical dominance in D&D. 
This is not the stereotypical view of D&D, as a matter of fact it’s almost the opposite. But this is due to a misunderstanding, from version 3 onwards the focus of the game has shifted more and more to stats and builds, abilities and such, as the focus shifted to prioritizing challenging the character, not the player. 

But in old school D&D you challenge the player, not the character. This is explicitly how Gygax saw the game, as a primarily adversarial enterprise between the players and the DM, where the job of the DM was to challenge the players. My understanding of Arneson’s game is that it was like this as well.

Once you understand this, you see why the “D+D mechanics lead to combat focused play” theory is so flawed, if you end up with a combat focused game all that means is that your DM is choosing to use combat as the primary way to challenge you, and you are accepting that challenge. That’s all. The game itself works against this.

Balance, Randomness, Experience and Lethality - D&D and Combat Focused Gaming
The key to understanding how the game is designed to work against the use of combat to address the majority of challenges is to look at four pillars:

1. Balance
2. Randomness
3. Lethality 4. Experience


1e AD&D is not balanced. The classes are not balanced in their comparative power, spells are not balanced within levels, between them or between classes. Monster challenges are not balanced either. Take just one example, zombies, a typical “low threat” mook sort of enemy that shows up in 1st level adventure wandering monster tables, has a number appearing of 3-24. 24 zombies would crush a first level party. Wandering monster tables have entries that vary wildly in their power levels, ensuring that at least some of the options will be too powerful for most groups. 

All of the 1e modules are like this as well, the keyed monsters in the module are of wildly varying power, and have incredibly lethal encounters mixed with moderate to easy challenges. An unbalanced game means that even powerful characters with maximized stats and abilities are going to meet challenges they can’t beat, or monsters that ignore their benefits. For example save or die poison ignores hit points, and you can get that from monstrous spiders, a common low level threat. The lack of balance means that at any given time the group can be outmatched no matter what they have to bring to the table. 


D&D is run on randomization. There are tables for everything, including magic, spells, and monsters. Spells are randomly generated in treasure hoards, magic-users roll to determine if they can “know” spells, wandering monster tables randomize the opposition, hit points are randomly rolled, etc, etc. This means two things, one, opponents in D&D are tactically opaque, you can’t know how powerful they are or what they will be bringing to bear against you. Two, it is possible to encounter opposition that is quite powerful if the dice are not kind, I’ve seen this hundreds of times, a sequence of unfortunate rolls and the party is laid out. 

Randomization removes a layer of protection from PCs, of course DMs can ignore this, “fudge” results or give the PCs advantages, but as designed randomization means that the players will face challenges that are both unpredictable and very difficult. 


People joke about this all the time, but old school D&D is remarkably lethal. Many DMs give bonus HP or start at 2nd or 3rd level to keep their players alive. We focus on later levels when things seem “too easy”, but in reality the game is quite lethal if played as designed.

If you take away the HP kickers and the stat inflation, as designed most characters can be felled by the average damage from a single longsword blow at first level. Saving throws mean that until about 6th or 7th level most PCs will fail saves more often than they succeed, and there are tons of “save or die” mechanics in D&D. Rules for friendly fire in early editions are quite unforgiving, spellcasting is extremely risky, recommended numbers of monsters appearing are quite formidable.

As designed the game is very deadly if you engage everything in combat.


One of the most misunderstood aspects of old school D&D is experience points. Without going into too much detail, about 25% of your XP is obtained from slaying monsters, the vast majority of XP is from loot and magic items.

Take two gaming groups, one fights everything they find and gets to the loot, the other uses guile, tactical thinking, misdirection, alliances, research, preparation, role play and fights only when necessary, and they get the treasure. Both groups will advance, but Inevitably group 1 will suffer greater attrition. Group 2 will thrive.

And if you talk to old school players many will tell you this is exactly how it goes if you run the game close to how it is designed. Most started playing when they were young and for a time did the hack and slash kill everything style of play. If their DM massaged the rules they survived and grew in power to the point they had crazy amounts of magic and stuff. But if they didn’t massage the rules, what inevitably happened was that they died in large numbers. And then they started to be more tactical, to run away when needed, to find alliances, to plan better, to fight with their heads not just their weapons.

As designed, 1e AD&D rewards the smart, not the powerful

These four aspects of old school D&D, balance, randomness, lethality and experience, mean that at the end of the day your stats, the game mechanical aspects of your PC, are no guarantee of success in D&D. You will regularly meet challenges you can’t beat with a sword and a spell. I believe Gygax and Arneson designed and played the game this way as they were smart enough game designers to know that if they didn’t design the game to challenge the players they would eventually dominate and the game would be boring.

They created a game where if you don’t avoid combat sometimes, if you don’t think rather than just hit all the time, you will be outmatched. They created a game that rewarded planning, parley, alliances and avoidance of combat where necessary, where you have some plot armor (e.g. HP and saves) but not so much that you can do anything. 

Twitter and Old School Gaming

This brings me to my latest observation. I’ve been seeing more and more Tweets like this:

“Hit points are pointless”
“Experience points are over”
“I’ll never play in another game with ability scores”
“Level advancement is dead”

The common thread to most of the criticisms I have seen of D&D is that things like hit points, ability scores, experience points, leveling, etc., contribute to competitive, combat focused gaming, hack and slash play, they end up marginalizing “role playing” (a misnomer, combat in D&D is role playing, unless the players start trading blows) or perhaps “non-combat role play” in favor of killing everything in sight to maximize rewards and advance. 

So the idea is that people who play with XP become focused on maximizing it, people who play with ability scores try to maximize them through combat, people who play with HP think of everything in terms of combat, etc.

I think this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how games work. There is an assumption that there is a one to one mapping of rules to outcomes, that given rule set X you can only have style of play Y. This assumption is widespread and strong. So if you play in a game with combat rules you will get a lot of combat because all aspects of game play have rules assigned to them. 

My personal experience, the experience of most old school players I know, and the rules themselves suggest that this is fallacious. The fallacy is assuming that any one part of the rules dictates game play. TTRPGs are emergent experiences, they are sensitive to the whole ruleset (or at least as much as is used at the table) and the group that is playing the game. If your group WANTS combat, and your DM WANTS you to have a primarily combat focused game, that’s what you will get. 

But almost every DM I know that has tried to run a primarily combat focused game uses house rules to make it happen. And from what I’ve seen of complaints about 5e most of them fall into this category. 5e has a ton of optional rules, and almost all of the complaints about them are about how they make the game easier, multiple death saving throws, taking average HP rather than rolling, forgiving spell casting rules, that sort of thing. Essentially 5e has codified what combat focused DM’s have been doing for decades, softening up the lethality of the game in order to allow it to be more combat focused.

But this is a choice made by the gaming group, and now a choice codified into 5e’s game design, it is not a feature of 1e AD&D as designed, or of any of the old school gaming systems that 5e is derived from. 

Read the Hobbit, there was a lot of planning and combat avoidance in that book. Elric regularly fought forces beyond his ken. Leiber’s heroes were outfoxed by magic and men on many occasions. Even Conan didn’t fight everyone all the time. Old School D&D, AD&D in particular, was designed to emulate these sorts of stories, not stories of superheroes, but stories of vulnerable heroes that took real risks.

What I believe to be the important lesson here is that jettisoning HP, or ability scores, or leveling, or whatever, won’t magically transform your game into one where combat is less important. Nor will using these things force you into a combat focused game. It’s how the whole rule set hangs together and how you want to play the game that matters most. 

So if your 5e game is too “easy”, you can borrow some elements from AD&D to make it less so. For example, mix your CR monsters up a bit, so the party isn’t always meeting monsters with the appropriate challenge rating for the group’s level. Randomize everything, don’t give out average HP or maximize HP for PCs. Tie XP to style of play so you don’t get the most XP for combat.

Finally, don’t assume that someone playing an old school rule set is all about hack and slash gaming, or that the majority of their sessions are endless monster slaying. Over the last 6 years of my home game my group (8 PCs) has enjoyed HOURS of non-combat role play, forming alliances, negotiation, exploration, entertainment, you name it. Having combat rules doesn’t mean that you fight all the time. We have played sessions where the PCs shopped for equipment for the whole 2 hours. We have had sessions where the PCs consulted sages and seers for the entire 2 hours. Game mechanics don’t uniquely determine play, it’s how those mechanics hang together combined with the style of play the group wants that determines what happens at your table. 

Don’t dismantle everything crunchy about the game in a misguided attempt to create an enhanced role playing experience, get to know the crunchy bits and how they fit together to tailor your gaming experience to your group.


  1. I've been away from DnD since 2e, and from what I've noticed , getting back into the scene recently, it's become very video-gamey.

    1. Me too. My return to DnD involves using my old books for that very reason (plus because I already have the old books and don't want to bother paying for new ones and learning the new rules).

  2. Well written. Thank you for your thoughts, and happy playing.


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