Friday, June 6, 2014

Dragon Breath and Artillery - Monster Design as a Basis for Rule Modification

Abstraction & Movement
In the recent online discussion of monster design, partially inspired by my Trick Monster post earlier this week, I’ve crystalized a few of my views on designing monsters for the type of battlemap free OD&D I prefer.  I find trying to use exact positioning and even calculated missile range hard to do in the context of an active game.  Early D&D shows its wargame roots though, adopting distances and strict movement ranges without examining these choices.  These rules have always frustrated me, and like many others I’ve largely ignored them. The issue then is how to better make use of the abstract elements and to create the same sort of tactical considerations and tensions without any sort of concrete or empirical spatial considerations.
Specifically, I want to look at rules for two kinds of special attackers that are extremely dangerous and should likely be treated similarly, Dragon Breath weapons and artillery (or any kind of heavy siege weapon really).  

Goya, Disasters of War I Think.
The first consideration is range, as there needs to be some consideration for range to keep tactical options open, but breaking it into broad classifications is better for my goals than tracking combat movement.  This treatment of  rsnge may seem cursory and makes closing range easy, but given that the majority of D&D combat happens in poorly lit mazes of 10’ wide stone corridors I think it will serve. 

Range should be determined by movement and in an abstract tabletop game combat movement is really only important in attempting to flank, charge, and most important for retreat.  I think a simplification (one I am undoubtedly stealing from someone) of movement into a value from 1-6 and treating it similarly to a specialist skill for difficult combat movement, while using opposed rolls for flight, is appropriate.  Since the unarmored D&D human, or at least most humanoid monsters in the old monster manual, seem to have a movement rate of 40’, setting ‘movement’ at 4 of 6 seems about right. Being encumbered or wearing armor one lacks skill in using reduces movement by ‘1’ point per level of armor (light, medium, heavy) or based on the level of encumbrance.   Thus a magic-user wearing plate armor has a movement of 1, meaning they move very slowly.

Movement works two ways, first in combat and second in pursuit.  My range categories (below) consists of five basic combat ranges (Grappling, Melee, Short, Medium and Long) and it takes a movement value of 2 to close one increment of range, or to attack (though attack ends any movement).  Likewise most actions take 2 movement points (swapping weapons or removing something from a pack for example) Charging allows an attack at the end of a full movement (meaning an attacker can charge from medium range to attack with associated penalties and bonuses).  Unless someone is actively trying to impede this movement in combat or the movement is tricky (pushing past allies into the front line) there’s no need to roll, but if there is a doubt about the viability of the movement a roll on a 1D6 under the movement value should suffice.  The reason I am simplifying movement to this extent isn’t just practicality, it’s because removing specific distances creates abstraction and should help with arguments about what a ‘real’ character could or couldn’t do, in the same way the abstraction of hit points decreases the number of arguments about character injury and death.

I think this simplified movement will work well in pursuit scenarios, as the runner and the pursuer can each roll a movement check on a D6 and the amount of success or failure creates a number representing distance gained or lost between the pair in  that round of flight.


Grappled – Combatants are intertwined and wrestling and subject to grappling rules.  Missiles fired at grapplers have an equal chance of hitting any party in the grapple.  Close Weapons do automatic damage in a grapple, and melee weapons can’t be used by the grapplers unless the grapple is broken.  Melee attacks against the grapplers will hit the wrong target on natural a ‘5’ or less.

MeleeMelee range, meaning that the combatants are actively engaged in hand to hand combat with melee weapons.  While in melee a combatant may not use a ranged weapon (with the exception of firing a preemptive weapon such as a pistol prior to melee or as an improvised weapon) Firing at a target in melee with a ranged weapon will result in striking an unintended target if the roll is less than a ‘5’. ‘Reach’ is a sub category of melee range, and represents the distance for fending weapons such as a spear or polearm.  Attacks against enemies in melee with an ally can be made with a reach weapon without penalty and without danger of reprisal, reach range is treated as regular melee if no ally is preventing an attacker from moving closer to the reach weapon wielder.

Short – The range that missiles may be accurately fired into melee.  Some missile weapons (scoped rifles, and longbows for example) have a penalty to hit at this range, while others (pistols) may have an advantage.

Medium – Medium Range, a distance that combatants are unlikely to close in a single round and still enter melee.  This is likely to be the range of most encounters in a dungeon environment as it corresponds to the edge of torchlight.

Long – The range outdoor combat often begins at, usually beyond the range of hurled missiles, but the best range for certain kinds of missile weapons.  In outdoor scenarios there is a use for longer ranges, say long range 2, long range 3 and so on to allow more round of missile fire against a closing attacker.

Perhaps ‘Artillery’ isn’t the proper word for it, but it’s always struck me as strange that there are these devastating attacks that powerful characters can shrug off.  Surviving  a falling stone block trap or the direct hit by a 12 lb cannon ball should be a function of absurd luck rather then the strange abstraction of HP.   So heavy weapons: cannons, catapults, anti-tank rockets or the results of a summon whale spell cast 40’ above the party, don’t attack HP.  These are save or die attacks with a save vs. Dragon Breath to prevent annihilation.   The only other protection is ‘cover’.  A character that takes cover in the face of such an attack (and can see it coming/i.e. isn’t surprised) may take cover and if they save will take no damage from the artillery attack.  Taking cover may simply mean dropping to the floor, or hunkering behind a shield, as it’s more a status then anything, will allow a miraculous zero damage in the event of a save, and the artilleries listed damage in event of a failure.  The key element of taking cover is that it eliminates all movement and must be broken to act (with the exception of firing certain missile weapons – mainly guns and crossbows) This may also explain why something like a ‘2 inch cannonade’ has a damage listed as only 2D6.  Outside cover (charging or firing at the mouth of a cannon loaded with grape shot)  a failed save is lethal to any normal creature or humanoid and a successful save results in damage as listed for the artillery weapon.

I like these rules as I can add the cover ability to certain creatures (devils/giants/dragons/undead abominations/turtle beasts) and to powered armor (HMS Apollyon Boiler-mail) as a big bonus in large-scale combat or against certain weapons.  Likewise I suppose a spell that allowed a character to act as if she was in cover all the time would be pretty cool.  I have previously used the same cover concept for automatic weapon fire and shotguns (which depend on a save v. wands, but lack automatic lethality).

However, as fond as I am of this artillery damage rule, how do I do artillery targeting?  Likewise this problem applies to thrown bombs and the adventurer’s favorite, the flask of oil Molotov.  I am tempted to use the automatic weapon save rule for these as well, but that hardly works.  For flung explosives and artillery I suppose some metric based on the maximum number of targets is appropriate.  A shell or bomb has a set value that is it’s max available targets, I’ll call it explosion value (or splash?)  – say ‘4’ for a cannonball and ‘8’ for a large shell.  A flask of oil might have a ‘3’ value.  Likewise a crew served weapon firing full automatic.  This is the max targets it can hit a round, but it’s unlikely it will get them all, because for attacker picks a target and if that target fails their save the attack moves on to the next target, who also saves, and if they fail onto the next. This process repeats until a target saves.  Even is this last target takes damage (i.e. isn’t in cover) the area effect is spent. 

I can’t decide how to treat grenades, I like the idea of treating oil bombs and other tossed explosives as artillery with low explosion values (and with damage not instant death), but this may make the flask of oil too powerful.  Also I enjoy making the use of burning oil tense due to the danger of a fumble.  Perhaps a first to hit roll to determine if the oil is a fumble.  Actually I can avoid this extra roll as follows:

Oil Bombs:  Explosive fire bombs that have an explosion value of less than 3 depending on manufacture.  The gout of flame they create is easier to avoid then a specially designed weapon and all targets are treated as being in ‘cover’ for damage purposes (0 damage on a successful save).  Oil Bombs do 1D6 damage the first round and 1D6/2 damage for each of the next following rounds to a target that fails its save.   If the first target rolls a 19 or 20 on its save (the thrower may also roll this, depends on the GM I suppose) it is a fumble.

Bombs and Grenades: fragmentation or explosive weapons are more effective then fire in some ways, but do not have the versatility and ease of manufacture.  A thrown grenade (often a small black iron sphere with a fuse) has an explosion value of 3 – 6 (depending on the type) and targets are treated normally, meaning they may take cover but aren’t assumed to.  A roll of 20 on the initial target’s save means the bomb was fumbled.  Normal thrown bombs or grenados do damage as a two handed weapon, but more advanced or larger explosives may be more effective. 

Dragon Breath
Dore does a nice etching
Dragon Breath traditionally has three modes of attack: cloud, cone and line/stream and due to the feelings of hermanutic discovery I felt upon first looking at the dragon breath diagram in the basic book (or was it the Monster Manual/DMG?) I don’t want to change it.  So here’s the idea, each type of dragon breath mode is optimal at a certain range and will thus dictate dragon tactics. I figure dragons aren’t firing a single explosive round (or fusillade of bullets) and aren’t instantly lethal so an explosion value is less necessary.  I might still use it from the breath weapons of lesser beasts, like hell-hounds for example, but a dragon has enough fire or whatever else for everyone within its reach.

Stream: A Stream is almost useless a melee & short range, with only a single melee target being subject to the attack and considered in cover due to the relative each of dodging a stream of deadly breath.  At medium range the dragon can walk it’s breath weapon over as many targets are reasonably available, especially if it’s flying. 

Cloud: Cloud or spray attacks are effective only at melee to short range, but will hit all targets in melee range.  At short range clouds are less effective, and targets are treated as in cover. 

Cone: Cones are effective at Melee – Medium Range and similar to a stream in that only one target at melee range can be caught in the cone.  Even melee range targets aren’t considered in cover though, and at short and medium range a cone can catch any reasonable number of targets.

A steward crew of three is defending a long gangway, lit with sputtering arc lamps.  The crew has just dragged up  and loaded a 2lb quickfiring cannon (a Pom Pom)  when  an abomination, an undead demi kraken surrounded by 6 war dead gun wights comes crashing into the gangway.  The stewards are well equipped with silver fragmentation shells (which run 100 GP a piece) but the Kraken is truly a nightmare beast, 40’ of ropey tentacles, stinking rubbery flesh with crude platting bolted to its beak and head. 

The parties are at long range, down a gangway, and the great undead horror lurches forward with a speed of 2.  The gun wights, undead soldiers, decapitated with an array of rusted gun barrels emerging from the stumps of their necks and capable of firing ghotly bullets, are speed 3.  The Pom Pom is a long range weapon that is quite versatile operable  even at short range, and firing every other round from a box magazine of 6 shells (which requires 4 rounds to reload).  The cannon shells have an explosion value of 5 and do 2D6 damage.  The stewards are level 2 fighters with 8 HP, Speed 4, and an attack bonus of +3  each.  The kraken has 10HD (41 HP), attack bonus +11, 8 reach attacks in melee (tentacles), a melee range ‘cloud’ breath weapon that targets all in melee range in the form of spray of necromantic bile, doing damage equal to its current HP with a save for 1/2 .   The Gun Wights are 3HD undead with a shotgun like missile attack of eldritch shot that attacks save v. wands and does damage as a 2hd weapon (2x1D6 pick the highest).  Yet for this artillery combat these other stats matter little, as both groups will be attacking saving throws rather than armor class.

Thumping down the hall at long range the demi-kraken, a rubbery mass of stinking flesh with a corroded bronze beak comes with a high keening.  Its servitors follow, lowering the rusty muzzles of the assorted gun barrels growing obscenely from their severed neck. Knowing this is their doom, but with no retreat, the Steward team stands and triggers the first round from their quick firing gun wishing that their supporting band of spear wielding militia had not deserted earlier in the day.  

The Kraken moves into medium range, as do the gun wights.  The kraken is a giant eldritch horror and its bulk and puissance grant it automatic cover.  The cannon fires, booming in the close hall and targeting the kraken.  The Kraken has a good save as a 10HD monster, but it fails and takes 2D6 damage as silver shrapnel rips at its rotten mantle.  It is a mediocre roll, only 5HP and the Kraken is reduced to 36 HP.  The undead leviathan continues hooting with fury, but its gunwight companions aren’t so lucky.   The blast might catch up to four more targets, and indeed the first two wights fail their saves, dying instantly in cloud of clotted blood, rusted metal and rotten uniform. The third wight saves, taking 2D6 damage, but a maximum damage roll of  12  hit points is enough to reduce the 3 HD wight to paste. 

In the 2nd round the wights surge forward from medium to short range, as does the Kraken.  The creatures could all attack (the wights have medium range gun attacks, and the Kraken’s bile is a cloud, moderately effective at short  range) but they have no movement left,  being sluggish undead.  The Steward Crew frantically primes the gun.

In the 3rd Round initiative actually becomes important, as the kraken is charging into melee (it only has a 2 move so it must charge to attack from even short range), while the gun wights are taking cover, being ranged attackers.   The cannon fires at the charging kraken and its companions (wights and beast are still at the same range as the kraken has yet to move), this time targeting the remaining 3 wights.  The first wight is blasted with a failed save, but is in cover so takes ‘only’ 2d6 damage, and with a damage roll of 4 it  still stands.  The kraken is the next logical target, but it saves and hence takes no damage as it is considered in cover.  With the cannon fire exhausted the kraken rears up over the horrified Stewards and unleashes a vile spray of filth over them.  The stewards cannot take cover, having fired their last desperate shell this round.  Two artillerists fail their saves, taking 36HP of damage each, and melting into puddles.  The last steward hides behind his comrades, but even with a successful save the 18 HP damage from the breath attack is lethal and the valorous gun crew is overrun.


  1. I use a very simplified set of Ranges, not too dissimilar to what you're describing above, based on/inspired from watching some really complicated calculations being done at the table for miniatures by someone who served in an artillery unit. I also had the distinct pleasure of participating in a naval skirmish referee'd by Uncle Chirine back in the day...he had quite a laugh when I started to lob stripped-down and very brave Shen marines into the rigging of the opponent's ships. After a few acceptable casualties (Shen don't swim so well), a lucky hit allowed one of them to take out the rigging, which immobilized them long enough for our more conventional marines to board and it was all over for the monkeys. Good times. ahem.

    Getting the range correct with artillery is a major hassle and challenge. Once you move past the point and shoot at what's directly in gets wildly messy and unpredictable. I won't even mention the host of other variables.

    Even once you finally get the range figured out, artillery is more likely to inflict damage across a dispersed area. I tend to parcel-out the damage on a decreasing scale the farther away from the center of impact, but it's deliberately messy and imprecise and open to interpretation as there are tons of variables one could quibble over and I'm not interested in the quibbling.

    Bombs and that stuff work fine using modified spell mechanics like say fireball. That approach makes them sort of an equalizer for the spell-caster's favorite method of bringing the boom. I do like to add-on the chance for a fumble, based on having made molotov cocktails and such in my wayward youth--flaming oil, as used in most games, is as much a threat to the thrower as it is to the intended target. There's also that embarrassing moment when the bottle/flask breaks, the oil/flammable-stuff spills forth, and doesn't least not immediately.

    I'm curious why something massive and bulky should get automatic cover, when in fact it ought to be far easier to hit...and maybe just be resistant to the damage, perhaps. I think that's probably where the abstraction of To Hit/Hit Points gets a bit goofy. Your solution seems to flow more cleanly, more quickly, so it might be a better way to go than what I'm used to, which is very cool. Thanks for another excellent post.

    1. Artillery in Apollyon at least is not likely to be actual artillery, but more likely direct fire cannons. I do however expect that heavier pieces will have minimum ranges (the example cannon has a minimum range of short). The reason huge and armored creatures have an auto-cover mechanic is because most heavy weapons are save or die. I don't want a Kraken going down that easy for example. Likewise suits of boilermail. Cover is also the key mechanic in my shotgun rules and i figure the idea is that huge magical creatures can absorb a lot of tiny fragments and such.

    2. Makes sense. I've been kicking this around a bit for a while, and have been leaning towards ways to use-up or demolish armor, degrade defenses...but it tends to get too fiddly. I'm not a big fan of Save-or-Die stuff, but it has its place. A one-shot-kill on a big beast like a kraken could get silly pretty quick.

    3. Well boilermail has three advantages - AC 18-20 in a game where AC 18 is the normal maximum, Damage reduction and the ability to wield giant weapons/artillery weapons. Its corresponding disadvantages are: Needs skilled pilot or it breaks down constantly (including catastrophic explosions) especially when it gets hit, usually acts last in melee, is hellishly bulky and hard to get into many spots, and very very expensive to own.

    4. I really, really like that sort of approach. Very clean, very effective, the odd-ball stuff is worthwhile because of what it does besides the sheer math. I don't have boilermail, but I can see how this would work nicely for some other types of armor. I'll have to try this out.