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.