Building Bhakashal - Playtesting, House Rules and Combat Criticals
From a game design perspective I have at least one significant advantage over many other game designers, it’s not knowledge, skill, style or intuition.
I run a D&D business, my meat and potatoes is after school D&D programs. Before the pandemic hit I was running 2 games a week with 10 participants between them. When the pandemic hit my business took off, and for the last year I’ve been running 7 concurrent games a week with over 30 players between them.
That’s a lot of D&D!
In addition to honing my improvisation skills to a fine edge, this has also given Bhakashal a secret weapon: playtesting.
I have had the opportunity to test out game mechanics extensively. Not just with one group, but with many. My “home” group (my son and his friends) is usually my first stop. I can try anything with them, and I have! They are all gamers and brutally honest, so I usually get a fairly good sense of whether or not something will work just running it past them.
Then I can take it to my after school program (if the rule is appropriate for kids) and try it there. I don’t introduce new rules to every group, it’s useful to introduce a new rule to a few of my groups and not to the others, to see how it impacts the game.
The procedure for this is fairly simple. I introduce the new rule, explain it with an example, and if everyone is amenable we run it in-game for a few weeks. Most rules apply equally to the NPCs/Monsters, so anything that makes the game more deadly makes it more deadly for everyone. More than one house rule has been ditched because the players decided it was too much of a risk. If the players don’t like the new rule we drop it and I decide if it might be a better fit for another group.
I have play-tested all of the major rules systems for Bhakashal in this way. Some more than others of course, but it has allowed me to ensure that the systems work, and to see how they work at the table.
One of the first times I “questioned” Gygax’s design decisions was the section in the DMG about critical hits. Gygax was fairly clear that “heroic” fantasy doesn’t fit with broken bones or sudden, massive damage. However, every single table I’ve ever played at wanted critical hits. It’s one of those experience based observations that reminded me that Gygax was a brilliant game designer, but he didn’t get everything right.
So I wanted a critical hit system for Bhakashal. However, there are a number of known issues with critical hit systems based on “20’s” and “1’s”:
They have static odds, you roll a natural “20” 5% of the time, a natural “1” 5% of the time. So there is a 10% chance of a critical on any attack.
Criticals are not class specific, every class has an equal chance of getting one.
Your odds of getting a critical never improve.
Criticals are a bit dull after a while, double damage is fun, but it’s the same thing every time.
I’m sure others have things about criticals they don’t like, but these were the main complaints I’ve heard at the table over the years. Bhakashal’s system for criticals deals with all of these problems and a few others by adopting a threefold approach.
A. Combat criticals
B. Weapon criticals
C. “Lasting damage” criticals
A. Combat Criticals - It’s odd where inspiration hits. I was musing on how to execute criticals for Bhakashal and all I really knew was that I wanted to do something different than the nat 20 critical. Then one day I was browsing through the 1e PHB and reading over the monk entry, and I took a closer look at the monk’s “roll over” system for stunning. If a monk rolls 5 or more over what is required to hit an opponent with an open hand attack, the target is “stunned” for 1-6 rounds.
There it was, like a rare gem lying at the bottom of a lake, ripe for the plucking.
One of the design principles of Bhakashal was to BUILD on what is already there in AD&D rather than reinventing the wheel completely. And the game had given me exactly what I needed, a mechanic for criticals that WASN’T based on a natural 20 or 1 so it addressed problem 1.
It was tied to the required “to hit” roll for the PC/monster/NPC so it was class specific, those classes with better “to hit” rolls would get criticals more often. That sorted problem 2.
Your odds for rolling a critical change with your level, you improve at your ability to get critical hits. That sorted 3. I considered allowing a roll over critical on a roll with bonuses, but quickly rejected that, as AD&D is a game of cumulative bonuses, and by mid-level’s criticals would be happening all the time. So in Bhakashal it is based on a natural roll.
Not bad for a first pass.
That just left me with the variety issue.
So I spent some time researching critical systems, Warhammer in particular had a nasty one, a bit TOO nasty for my taste, but between that and other systems I managed to put together a list that was long enough to create some variety but not so long as to make the game too complicated.
Here is the list:
The attacker gets to choose their critical result on the table, these are a mix of criticals that impact weapons, move the target around, neutralize various combat stats (e.g. AC, targeting, initiative) etc. Note as well that “double damage” here means doubling the base dice damage, not the damage with bonuses included.
I sat with that for a while, and ideas started to come to me. One big signal that a game design decision is a good one is that it inspires other ideas. And this one started to inspire me.
First, I decided to give fighters (“mercenaries” in Bhakashal) and monks (“spartans” in Bhakashal) a saving throw against any critical effect against them. Fighters are the forgotten child of AD&D in many ways, their abilities and advantages are baked into the game mechanics that all classes use, so they don’t seem very interesting on the surface. A critical system gave me a vector to give them a class bennie that would be useful in combat.
Next, I thought about natural 20’s and 1’s. I had decided from the beginning that I didn’t want a “critical fail” option. Missing your target is enough of a failure in a deadly game like D&D, adding some sort of whiffle to the process was unnecessary. Given the amount of posts I’ve seen recently that suggest you shouldn’t describe critical failures as incompetency on the part of the PC, I think this was the right decision.
Still, there is a lot of inertia behind the idea that 1’s and 20’s should mean something. So I decided that this would be a good place to introduce some weapon and armor criticals. On a natural 1 in Bhakashal your weapon takes a “-1” to hit until it is repaired. If it takes enough damage this way to reduce damage by the max amount that the weapon can deal (e.g. for a dagger that’s 4 hp) then the weapon breaks.
Similarly, if you roll a natural 20 against an opponent, their AC becomes 1 point worse until the armor is repaired or the monster/NPC is healed (if they wear no armor).
AD&D is a game of small cumulative bonuses and penalties, these sorts of small modifiers don’t seem like much, but they accumulate. This system makes armor and weapon upkeep important, and given that criticals happen 10% of the time, it actually impacts play meaningfully. I was giddy at the elegance of this, as it used both 20’s and 1’s and addressed the need for a weapon and armor damage system in one move. Another sign things were on the right track.
There was still something incomplete about the system, and it took reading Talislanta to have the penny drop.
In Talislanta when the attacker rolls sufficiently high on a d20 with bonuses they can trigger whatever critical effect they want. So for example, if your opponent is near a cliff’s edge and you want to push them off? Roll sufficiently high in Talislanta and you can do that. Essentially the PC states the critical they want, and if they roll high enough, they get it.
The disadvantage of the system is that it requires the PC to come up with a critical effect, and in my experience some players love this, some players have no idea what to do when they roll a critical
Bhakashal’s system solves this problem handily, if the player has no idea what critical effect to use then they can pick one from the table, or roll it off the table if they so choose. However, if they have an idea, then the ref can look at the existing criticals to “calibrate” their request, and Bob’s your uncle.
The spillover benefits to this system are well worth it, players pay much more attention to “to hit” rolls in combat as they know they might get a critical. They pay attention to the rolls of other players as it helps them to calibrate what they will need for a critical. They also pay attention as they are curious to know if a critical has been achieved and what it will be. They take a perverse pleasure in seeing how a monster’s critical upon a PC will play out, will they be knocked down, disarmed, blinded?
Also, as the HP of your opponents go up, criticals become more important. You are not very likely to kill that giant with your first sword strike, however, you may be able to blind them, or knock them down, or set up an opponent for their attack, etc. Roll over criticals have made my players more tactically minded and changed fights with high HP monsters from wars of attrition to coordinated tactical assaults.
And it has revived interest in fighters as well. Fighters are the most likely to get criticals on this system, as they have the best “to hit” matrix of all the classes. Giving them a wider range of options in combat has only served to draw more players to them as a class. Win win on that.
But perhaps the final signal that I was on the right track came when we introduced the system to my home game where the PCs were around 6-7th level. One of the party fighters attacked a group of low level “mooks” and got a critical, they chose an extra attack, and got another critical, and by the end had a string of 5 attacks in a row from criticals. I realized that this system allowed me to emulate the “multiple attacks per round against 0-level opponents” rule from AD&D, the “mook rule”, one of my FAVORITE 1e rules, and I hadn’t even set out to do so.
Now I was cooking with gas. And I thought I was done, but then I looked at the weapons tables…
B. Weapon Criticals
One thing I have always loved about 1e AD&D is that weapon choice matters, weapon speed, WvrsAC adjustments, length, space required, weight, variable damage, all of these factors make weapon choice important. And, as the fighter gets the greatest number of initial weapons and gets new weapon proficiencies fairly quickly, they get the most benefit from the system.
However, the weapons table in 1e also hinted at something more. Certain weapons allow you to dismount, disarm, set against charge, etc. I saw a vector to exploit here that would add to the differences between weapons, and give them another tactical dimension.
And the mechanic for it was already there, the “roll over” critical. In Bhakashal when you roll 5 or more than your required “to hit” roll, you can opt for a combat critical (described above) or a weapon critical. Bhakashal associates a critical effect with each weapon, which makes weapon choice even more interesting. Here are a few examples of weapon criticals:
Bludgeon - Weapon knocks opponent prone or back 10’
Charge – Weapon does 2x damage if used from a charging mount
Cleave - Weapon does full dice damage
Dismount – Weapon dismounts a rider.
Dual Wield – On a critical hit the second weapon also strikes, otherwise it is assumed to be blocking (one point AC bonus)
Remain – Weapon stays imbedded in opponent, does minimum dice damage each round until removed (e.g. arrow does 1hp per round until removed)
Again, fighters get these effects the most often, as they have the best “to hit” tables, so the system emulates weapon proficiency and hews to class archetypes. Anyone CAN get a critical with a weapon, but a fighter is most likely to do this.
People complain quite a bit that fighters can be “boring”, and that they all look the same due to weapon optimization (e.g. most fighters take a bow, a longsword a spear/polearm and a blunt weapon like a mace or a hammer). Adding weapon criticals to the mix led my players to make more tactical choices when setting up their weapons, and it has added variety and new interest to the class.
Between A and B, problem 4 was solved, between combat criticals and weapon criticals Bhakashal introduces 34 critical effects to the game, meaning your combat need never be a slowly unfolding war of HP attrition.
C. Lasting Damage Criticals
I thought I was done at that point, but one of the things that has bugged my players for years has been that in D&D you are either fighting fit or dead. You fight at full capacity until 0 hp, then if you dip below and are healed back you still need to rest for days to recover. Same for monsters, they fight full on until the last HP. Most of my players expressed an interest in a system that would create lasting damage from certain attacks, broken legs, severed hands, that sort of stuff.
Bhakashal uses a “location of hit” chart, and when the PC (or NPC/Monster) is reduced to less than a quarter of their total HP, they make a saving throw, if they fail, a location specific lasting damage effect is brought into play. So, for example, a fighter with full HP of 20 is hit on the arm with a mace and the hit brings them to 3 HP, they roll a save versus paralyzation, fail the save, and their arm is now broken, giving them a penalty to hit until it is healed.
If they are brought below 0 hp with a blow, then a save versus death is made, and if they fail that there is a lasting damage consequence as well, for example, if that fighter mentioned above was hit on the neck with an axe and reduced to -3 HP they would save versus death, if that save failed, the head comes off!
There is a tendency to think about these effects in terms of the PCs, but think about monsters for a moment. Say you are fighting a giant and they take a lasting damage critical on the leg, breaking it, now that giant can’t run away or chase the PCs, and they have another option.
One thing that using this rule forced me to do was to come up with rules for healing broken bones and such. There are no specific rules for this in AD&D, so I came up with something simple: whether a broken bone or a sprain, it will be healed when the target is back to full HP again, whether through natural healing (1 hp per day) or magical healing.
The final link in this chain came from Bhakashal’s HP system, I have detailed it elsewhere, but it introduces an exhaustion mechanic for combat. As the fight continues, and more specifically the more damage you take, there are penalties. When you are reduced to between 3/4 and 1/2 of your total HP you take a one point penalty on EVERYTHING you roll, “to hit”, “saves” etc. When you are between 1/2 and 1/4 of your total HP you take a 2 point penalty, and between 1/4 and 0 you take a -3 penalty. These are small penalties, but they become very significant cumulatively, and they make combat even MORE deadly. D&D has a tendency to give out a lot of HP to PCs, and that can take the sting out of combat. Exhaustion and location specific criticals make combat deadly not by just cranking out massive HP damage, but by introducing penalties that impact combat, and survival, directly.
Rubber Meets the Road
I have playtested all of these systems for the last year with 4 different groups, 3 of these groups were 10-12 year old kids, so I know that these systems are easy to use. Roll-over criticals are dead easy, while they are figuring out their bonuses on a “to hit” roll I read the roll and check to see if they have rolled over by 5. They understand the system, and once they saw the critical table they started to think of their own critical effects. It took about 2 sessions to introduce the critical system and have them using it without prompting. People suggest that this sort of system is “too complex” for kids, but they don’t sit with their kids playing minecraft and watching them recite the stats for 600 Pokemon more or less at will.
Complexity is a bogeyman, proper implementation and motivation (e.g. making the complexity useful) resolves complexity issues.
Of course, at first everyone took “extra attack”, or “double damage”, but then started to see that it was really best to take “extra attack” when they were at mid to high levels, as low level extra attacks are often misses, and that “double damage” was best chosen by PCs with higher base dice damage, weapons that had lower spans of 1 were less preferable to those that did “2-x” damage when choosing a double damage critical. That sort of thing. When you put a sufficiently rich but simple system in front of players, even 10 year olds, they figure it out and start to use it effectively. It’s a joy to see.
The effect of this on the game has been entirely positive, players trying to do new things inspired by the criticals that are there, varying weapon selection as players mix and match weapon criticals, working harder to avoid combat where possible as violence in Bhakashal is quite dangerous, and when combat does happen, it provides the referee with an abundance of prompts to narrate fast, deadly and cinematic fighting that inspires and terrifies.
The classic RPG combat dilemma is this: complex fighting can be slow, and in a multi-player game like D&D this is a recipe for boredom, simple fighting is fast and easy, but gets dull with repetition. I see endless complaints on Twitter about D&D fighting “taking too long”, speeding it up by changing monster HP or just hand waving things, like it’s a chore to play what should be the most exciting part of the game. This was a red flag that D&D combat doesn’t do the trick for many people.
In Bhakashal, combat happens for about 1/3 of the table time, you can go for 2-3 sessions without any fighting, you can have fighting every few sessions but for very little of those sessions, or you can have fighting for several sessions in a row. Most fights last 3-4 rounds, not that long, but every roll is a big deal, and every fight a risk. We have had a few mult-session combats, fights that spanned more than one session. We had a three session fight between a party of 8 PCs and 6 displacer beasts. That was epic, a hand was bitten off, a henchmen of 1 year of play was mauled to death and the party monk subdued a displacer beast he now has as a pet. They will talk about that fight for years to come.
In Bhakashal, fighting never takes “too long”.
Bhakashal has resolved the classic dilemma of complexity versus playability, by muting HP progression, introducing described damage, lasting damage, exhaustion, combat criticals, weapon criticals, WvrsAC adjustments, grappling rules and segment based deterministic individual initiative, combat is easy to run (easy enough for 10-12 year old players), fast (fights rarely last more than 3-4 rounds), deadly, tactical (presenting options and flexibility), unpredictable and handles large groups easily.