Monday, July 4, 2022

How to Read the AD&D Rules: Grappling with Non-Lethal Combat Part II

In my rush to pummel you with VATAPGOA last time, I overlooked some of the basics of unarmed combat. For instance, I kept calling it "unarmed combat." Of course that's not the term that was actually used in the original Guidebook for Masters of Dungeon-like Structures; rather, it was called "non-lethal and weaponless combat." Henceforth I shall call it some variation on that terminology. Or I'll make up another acronym.

I also failed to mention that there are three different forms of weaponless combat: 

  • Pummeling
  • Grappling
  • Overbearing

Pummeling is, obviously, punching, and grappling is wrestling--WWE style. Overbearing is that loud jackass who won't shut up about their stupid opinions. Yes, I included this list just for that punchline.

But D-Chux, what makes this combat non-lethal? 

I forgot to mention that only 25% of any damage inflicted from a punch or grapple is actual, "permanent" damage--50% of Overbearing damage is permanent, but overbearing tends to inflict a lot less damage than the other 2 forms of NLC (see, I made up another acronym). The rest will be temporary dmg which heals at a rate of 1 hp per round. 

So if you punch a guy for 4 dmg, he subtracts 4 from his HP total, but 3 of those pts are going in the temporary file, and he'll get one of them back next round. If he takes no more damage in the fight, he'll have all 3 temporary HP back in 3 rounds/minutes. He'll have to sleep off the last hit point over night. 

If you get knocked to 0 or less HP, you're out cold. You regain 1 HP per round, so if you get punched down to -3 HP, you will be conscious once you've returned to 1 HP, or 4 rounds. Unless your permanent HP have been reduced to 0, in which case you're dead. It can happen; non-lethal combat is not always non-lethal.

One more thing: First Attack Initiative is determined by following this order of operations: 

  1. surprise, 
  2. charging to attack, 
  3. higher dex, 
  4. higher die roll. 

It doesn't say what die to roll but presumably it's the standard initiative roll. There's also this weird sentence:

"Whichever first occurs determines the first attack for the round, so in most cases the pummeling attacker will go first in the first round." [L'emphasis est de moi]

Huh? Are pummeling attackers inherently more likely to surprise their opponents? To have higher dexterity? How does the second half of that sentence make any sense? If JB or someone can explain that to me I'd greatly appreciate it.

Next week we'll get into Grappling and Overbearing, I promise.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

How to read the AD&D Rules: Pummeling you with VATAPGOA

You all thought I was dead after that Cuthbert's Day party at Malishefski's place, right? Ha, I'm back.

Today's topic is, of course, unarmed combat. And more specifically, the art of Pummeling. We didn't use these very much back in the day because, like psionix, they just seemed like a different game. Also, they're clumsy and not always clear. Instead of rolling a 20-sider to hit, you roll percentile dice and apply a bunch of modifiers, much like DragonQuest, Star Frontiers, Top Secret, Gangbusters... I played all of those games to some extent back in the day so, by the mid 80's at least, the AD&D unarmed combat rules were no longer completely alien. But, barring the occasional barroom brawl, rare was the occasion that we turned to pg. 72 of the DMG.

Let's see just how much chaos unarmed combat brings to the game:

The first thing you have to do is determine your VATAPGOA. What the heck is that? It's your: Variable Applicable To All Pummeling, Grappling, and Overbearing Attacks. It's right there on page 72 of your Fungeon Masters Guide. And no, no one actually called it VATAPGOA, but they should have. 

This is done by taking "the number of the column he or she uses for weapon attacks." What the hell does that mean? My guess is that you turn to the combat matrix for your class (pg. 74 of the DMG), find your level in the column headings and count the number of columns from the left. So a 5th level cleric would be column 2, as are 1st level fighters, goblins, and 10th level MUs.

Combat columns for clerics
To this is added a "secretly rolled" d6 if you're attacking or d4 if defending. Why is it kept a secret? To add work for the dungeon master. What do you do with this number? You add it to either the chance to hit or to the die roll for determining the result of your successful hit. When on defense, you subtract your number from the opponents roll. You get to choose how to apply your VATAPGOA prior to each attack. So if you're in a barroom brawl and you're duking it out with Elmo at the Welcome Wench, and you each get 2 pummeling attacks a round, you are making this decision at least 4 times per round, twice on offense and twice on defense. Considering that 3 out of the 7 possible results allow you to strike again, it's likely to be even more than 4 times.

While I get that VATAPGOA  is trying to incorporate combat aptitude into unarmed combat, but it's so clumsily handled and amounts to so little--even a 9th level fighter gains only a +6% bonus--it's far more cumbersome than useful. You're having to:

  1. look up your combat column number
  2. roll a d6 for attacking and a d4 for defending and add these to your column number. And since these are, for some inane reason, kept secret, the DM is doing this for every brawler and having to track who rolled what for attack and defense.
  3. decide whether to add/subtract the variable to the to hit or result roll
  4. roll to hit
  5. if you succeed roll the result
  6. add attackers VATAPGOA and subtract defender's VATAP... as appropriate, bearing in mind that only the dungeonmaster knows the result of your VATAPGOA die roll.

In case it's unclear, we never used VATAPGOA in our unarmed combat. It's already convoluted enough without this added layer of confusion.

Let's get to the meat then:


That jerk sitting next to you at the bar just called your mother a half elf; what are you gonna do about it? Deck the bozo in the chops, that's what! How? First you have to determine your Base Score to Hit or BaSH. Yes, I made this acronym up too.

For pummeling, BaSH is the opponents AC x 10%. There are modifiers based on Dex, Strength, the armor the attacker is wearing (less is better) and the mobility of the defendant. Even an average combatant is likely to have a +20 bonus. Which is to say that every blow is landing in a barroom brawl.

Got it. But how much damage am I gonna do?

Unlike regular combat where once you successfully hit your opponent you roll a die and the result is the amount of damage, to determine damage in unarmed combat you roll % dice again. This roll is also modified by your strength, opponents armor and general mobility. A successful strike results in a "glancing," "solid," or "crushing" blow and will inflict between 2 and 10 points of damage. Furthermore, a crushing blow automatically stuns your opponent. But if your modified result is less than 20 then you do no damage. So a successful hit can still result in no damage--and is very likely to do so if the defender is wearing heavy armor... couldn't we skip the whole Base Score to Hit and just roll on the results table? 

Seriously, this would massively de-complicate unarmed combat in AD&D. You would only have to configure modifiers once for each blow, you would no longer have to decide which die roll to apply your VATAPGOA toward, and you still get to deliver crushing blows to your opponent. I am absolutely trying this out in my next game.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Happy St. Cuthbert's Day!

Well, not yet; it's on the 20th. But while you're chugging pints of Guinness, snarfing down bowls of Lucky Charms, and jumping around to the immortal words of House of Pain today on the most celebrated of saint's days, I'm gearing up for St. Cuthbert's big bash a few days hence. I did a quick search and found this interesting article about Cuddy's significance in Durham, England, where Cuthbert posthumously chose to rest after many years of wandering the countryside dodging Vikings and searching for cows. 

The article appears in The Palatinate which is the student newspaper of Durham University. The name Palatinate, it stands to reason, is a reference to the Palatinate that was originally granted to St. Cuthbert by King Ecgfrith in 684. It is said that Cuthbert still patrols the campus, knocking sense into the skulls of Oxbridge rejects with his mighty cudgel.  


Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Havin' a Psionic Blast Part 3: Devouring Your Intellect

It's balls.

Today I'd like to take some time to talk about the psionic adversaries of the Monster Manual. There was a whole ecosystem of monsters in AD&D intended to make being a psionic character dangerous, much like rot grubs and ear seekers existed solely to kill off corpse-looting and door-listening characters. 

First off, see the list of attack and defense modes below showing the letters associated with each mode? (posted somewhere on this page, I hope) These letters are important because they are used as a shorthand for denoting the psionic powers possessed by the monsters in the Monster Manual. It should also be noted that the letters demarking modes in the MM do not, on at least a couple of occasions, match up with the powers listed or described in the monster write-up under the stat block. 

As a for instance, the infamous Mind Flayer only has 1 psionic attack listed: "B", which is Mind Thrust. This is significant because Mind Thrust does not affect non-psionic beings so they're really not going to be flaying many minds, right? But if you read the description underneath the monster stats, it states that M. Flayer's "most feared attack mode ... is the mind blast [sic] of psionic power." Clearly that is supposed to be A. Psionic Blast.

Other Monster Manual Oddities:

Stolen from GM Binder

Brain Moles can cause "Permanent insanity in non-psionically endowed creatures employing psionic energy through spells or magic items." SP even though their one attack mode is B, Mind Thrust, they can still get you if you're using a helm of telepathy or using a spell to do psionic-adjacent things. More on this in a later post.

Cerbral Parasite feeds off of a character's psionic strength without the character knowing what's up. And they reproduce as they feed so, after a while, your psionic strength is getting sapped at an extraordinary rate. They cannot be attacked psionically, so you gotta' cure disease to get rid of 'em.

Demogorgon splits its psionic strength between its two heads which is cool because that's 2 psionic attacks and defenses going on at once. But each head has a strength of only 150, which gives an attack strength of only 75, which is not that great. 

Type III Demons have only one attack and one defense mode: E. Psychic Crush and F. Mind Blank. As G. Thought Shield is the only defense you can use whilst attacking with Psychic Crush, Type III demons cannot both attack and defend at the same time. A huge weakness, to be sure. Or, possibly, this was another case where the letter does not match the intended mode but, since the defense mode is not mentioned in the description, we'll never know.

Some larger Grey Oozes can use Psychic Crush, though their psionic strength can be as low as 21 which... still gives you a 50% chance of taking out one of Demogorgons heads in a single blow.

Intellect Devourer not only does this monster have the creepiest illustration in the original Monster Manual (see illustration above) but, like the Mind Flayer, it also has a discrepancy between attack modes listed by letter: "CE", and those described in the text: Ego Whip and Id Insinuation, which would read "CD". 

Thought Eaters don't actually have psionic ability but they do consume the psionic ability of others. Sadly, the MM doesn't tell us how they do it or at what rate, just that it can be done. But this is the first time anyone ever noticed because no one ever included a Thought Eater in an encounter.

Yellow Molds, are similar to grey oozes in that when they form large colonies they can become psionically active. If such a colony senses psionic beings within 120' they can blast them with "the most powerful form of id insinuation." The most powerful Id Insinuation turns any psionic-folk in a 20'x20' area with a Psionic Strength below 260 into a Robot controlled by the victor. That means that a yellow mold could take over each head of Demogorgon at once! It makes one wonder, though, what would it mean to be a robot in service to a mold colony?  [Thanks for the assist, Grodog]



Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Havin' a Psionic Blast Pt. 2: Attack and Defense Modes

For those keeping score, this is, finally, my actual 300th post.


Yesterday, with the help of Ponce the Paladin, we demonstrated how one determines whether you have psionix and what your Psionic Strength is. Did I mention that half of your attack strength is dedicated to Attack and half to Defense? No? Well now I have. On with it.

Today we're going to talk about the meat of Psionics: Attack and Defense modes. There are five of each and they are descriptively named and lovingly--if not particularly usefully--described in the text of the PHB. But you have to crack open the DMG to the two matrices on pages 76-77 to see what actual effects the attacks and defenses are going to have. 

Attacks against another psionic being who has an operable defense mode in place are only going to impact the defender's Defence Strength--except Psychic Crush which has a small chance of killing even a defended being. But once the poor slob is out of Def Str, that's when the real fun begins. Now you switch to the second matrix and that Mind Thrust that has been slowly depleting your defense for all these rounds suddenly is crippling your psionic abilities for weeks at a time, causing you to slip into a dazed and/or confused state that disallows any psionic usage, or blasting through your Attack strength--or hit points!--like a chainsaw through your neighbor's white picket fence.


Listed below are the attack modes, with the attack strength cost in parentheses. Each time you Blast something Psionically, that depletes your Attack Strength by 20 points while Thrusting someone Mindfully costs a mere 4, and so forth.

A. Psionic Blast (20): Can kill opponents who have a very low psionic capacity as well as simple-minded non-psionics; otherwise it can cause a dazed and/or confused state or insanity. Affects all creatures in a cone 60' long, 20' wide at base. Can only be used against non-psionics if your current Attack Str. is 100 or more.

B. Mind Thrust (4): This is the battering ram you use to beat down your opponent's defenses either by doling out big wads of psionic damage or rendering attack or defense modes unusable. Like Ego Whip and Psychic Crush, Mind Thrust affects only one individual.

C. Ego Whip (7): Generally a less effective Mind Thrust that costs more to use, though a powerful ego whip vs. a defenseless opponent can cause permanent loss of psionic ability. Also has decent range.

D. Id Insinuation (10): This power seeks to take over the opposition, turning them into "robots" controlled by the attacker. It is also effective at depleting defense strength. Unlike most other psionic attacks, this one affects all psionic individuals in a 20'x20' area rather than just a single target. It also has the longest range of any attack, up to 18" at long range.

E. Psychic Crush (14): This one kills your opponent dead--or does nothing at all. The chance of a straight-up kill is not very high if the opponent is using any defense mode so it works best if you're either attacking an unsuspecting psionic or one who has no ability to defend itself. 

Let's call up Ponce the Paladin and see how he's doing. He's rolling d100 against a table to determine how many attacks he gets; Ponce rolls a 62, that gives him 3 attack modes.  With a maximum attack strength of 41, he's going to need to attack on a budget so he takes Mind Thrust, the cheapest attack  mode.  At his paygrade, Ego Whip is never going to be cost effective, so he passes on that. Likewise, Psychic Crush won't provide much chance of an instant kill--except against other psionic weaklings like himself--and will quickly deplete his own strength, so he takes Id Insinuation for its range and area of effect. Psionic Blast is also pricey--a single blast will use half of his Attack strength--but at least it might daze or confuse a modestly endowed opponent, allowing him to make a run for it, so he pockets that as well. 


And your Defenses; like Attacks, the cost per usage is given in (parentheses):

F. Mind Blank (1): Cheapest and least effective defense mode--except it is the best all around defense against Id Insinuation attacks for an individual.

G. Thought Shield (2): Another cheap defense mode, generally better than Mind Blank, but it's real advantage is that it's the only defense you can use while simultaneously attacking with Psychic Crush.

H. Mental Barrier (3): A step pricier and more effective than Thought Shield--except against Id Insin, which it is slightly worse at. It's most interesting characteristic is in the intriguing description: 

"A carefully built thought repetition wall which exposes only that small area."    What small area is "that" area that is left exposed?? I need to know!

I. Intellect Fortress (8): The big jump in price reflects not only that this is a much more effective defense mode but, also, it protects everyone in a 10' radius, which includes providing your non-psionic friends a +2 saving throw bonus v. Psionic Blast.

J. Tower of Iron Will (10): The Cadillac of defense modes in almost every way. Even though its protection radius is only 3', it offers a hefty +6 save bonus to your closest chums vs. Psionic Blast.  

Now back to Ponce; he rolls on the table for defenses and gets a 29: three defense modes are available to him. Interestingly, you get 2 defense modes at the minimum. Cheap is always good and you can't get cheaper than Mind Blank, so that's done. [EDIT: As Faoladh points out in the comments below, everyone with psionics gets Mind Blank as one of their defenses whether they want it or not]. Ponce, being a chivalrous sort, also needs to be able to protect a fair maiden--should he ever meet one--from Psionic Blasts, so he needs one of the area of effect defenses; he takes Tower of Iron Will, ostensibly for its better protection but also because it gives him reason to keep the maidens within 3' of his person. Creep. 

What to do with number 3... he doesn't have Psychic Crush as an attack so there's really no reason to take Thought Shield.  Mental Barrier is still pretty cheap and a lot better than Mind Blank at defending against Mind Thrusts and Ego Whips so that decides that.