Shooting at Groups

For your consideration: Here's a new rule I recently drafted for my OED House Rules to handle shooting into large groups of combatants (like into a melee, or an advancing goblin horde). I'm actually kind of delighted by it, but I fear I might be the only person willing to actually implement it.

First, recall a few things about how I run my OD&D. I use a ranged modifier of −1 per 10 feet distance, because that matches a rather large amount of research we've compiled on the blog in the past. Second, I'm working on the continuing project to dial in mass-warfare mechanics well for the Book of War game (hopefully in an upcoming 2nd edition). 

Both of these goals span the man-to-man case and huge-army cases. An aphorism I now use as foundational is: Shooting a man at a hundred yards is impossible, while shooting an army is certain success. (Practically speaking.) Previously in OED I had two different rules to handle the two different cases. The binary switchover has troubled me for a while, and raised a few reasonable questions recently. (I dare say in my head this echoed the conflict in physics between relativity and quantum mechanics.)

So I did some computer simulations and scribbled out some math (I'll spare you that here), and then realized that I could round things off to a rule I could hold easily in my head, and give a smoothly continuous switchover between the two cases. So here's what I just edited into my next draft of the OED rules. First:

Errant Shots

Errant Shots: Fumbled or random attacks into groups are assessed with a d20 roll that ignores attacker skill and range modifiers.

Like the text says, this is a mechanic that I will (and have in the past) used for a few different cases. If someone gets in a fumble situation where they attack themselves or a friend, we invoke this. (Rules where a fumble results in automatic-damage against a heavily armored ally have always ground my gears, or even a normal attack roll as if the fumbler was aiming the perfect attack against a weak spot.) Also a shot against a faraway, large group will trigger this mechanic. (Likewise: close-up an archer should be able to target a vulnerable point on the target, whereas far away this level of skill is impossible.) 

To be clear, in an "errant shot", the attacker's base attack bonus gets ignored. I would want to apply the defender's AC as usual, and I guess also any weapon-vs-armor effect, and magic as well. But to date any time this has happened for me it's just the player rolling a raw d20, and me applying the defender's AC (under the standard Target 20 resolution process). Now consider this:

Shots at Groups

Shots at Groups: Attack rolls (including range, but before AC addition) below 10 miss a man-sized target. Each adjacent man gives a 1 pip chance under 10 to trigger an errant shot against a random target in the group.

As usual, I write that with some curtness in the document. What that means is for a close group of N man-sized combatants, the DM computes 10 − N, and an attack roll from that number up to 10 indicates a shot that completely missed the individual target -- but, close enough to possibly strike someone else nearby (randomly determined, and adjudicated the with the "errant shot" rule above). Some examples:

  • Say an archer shoots at an opponent in melee with a single one of their friends. Then a modified attack roll (again: including range but before target AC is considered) of exactly 9 -- no more and no less -- triggers an errant shot against the friend.
  • Next, the archer shoots at a squad of 5 men-at-arms approaching angrily. In this case an attack roll of 5-9 results in an errant shot check against a random one of the men.
  • Ten goblins are running together down a hallway and the shooter makes an attack. Now an attack roll of 0-9 results in an errant shot.
  • A formation of 20 orcs is posted outside a cave. In this case, any modified attack roll from −10 up to 9 triggers an errant shot. 

As you can see, for very large groups at very long range, the mechanic makes it more and more likely that an errant shot against a random target will be invoked. Obviously, the DM should be encouraged to round these numbers off to convenient values -- myself, I'd probably round it to units of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, etc. I've set it up so the lower bound is found by subtracting from 10 to make it as easy as possible. 

Moreover, the DM should be encouraged to invoke the errant shot rule immediately if it's clear that the shooter simply can't hit an individual man-sized target at the range in question. As a quick rule-of-thumb, if the range penalty is 10 points more than the shooter's fighter level, then they pretty much can't hit anything without a natural 20 (and you should just break to the random shot immediately).

To be completely clear, we're assuming that attack rolls that score 10 or higher are actually on-target, but are fended off by the person's armor if the final resolution (including AC) fails to indicate a hit. Note that this mechanic simulates attack values just a bit below hitting as indicating arrows zipping close by the target (the lower the roll, the further away). And it also allows you to separate out the effect of a critical-miss (natural 1), if you so choose. 

Let's momentarily consider a possibly alternative rule that comes to mind: If a shot doesn't hit, then a natural die-roll in the range from 1-N against N men triggers an errant shot (ignoring natural-1 fumbles momentarily). Seems nice. But the problem here is that it loses visibility of the range in which the shot was actually on-target but stopped by armor (which should be significant for heavily-armored figures). I suppose you could say that a roll of 1 - N (for N men) triggers an errant shot, unless the modified roll is in the range of 10 + AC to 20, in which case it was stopped by the original target's armor. But now you're tracking two different ranges instead of one, and that seems worse to me. (Plus this implies that both very high and very low rolls indicate close-to-the-target shots, while rolls in the middle indicate shots further away, which feels confusing and wrong.) So I would shy away from that alternate proposal.

Aside from all that, another thing that fairly excited me was that the same piece of math that generated this rule also spawned a really nifty rule for handling missile shots in Book of War at targets of unusual size, like solo heroes on the field -- but more on that later.

What do you think of that rule? I've used what I'm calling the "errant shot" mechanic before, but haven't tested the "shots at groups" at the table before -- but I'm pretty confident that would work for me. Would you want to try using that? Anything I could improve in the explanation?


Rumors, Information, and Legends

Medieval woman whispering to another
Original D&D has what I think is a marvelous little rule about gathering news, baked right into the core books (Vol-3, p. 23). This didn't get copied forward into any later edition, and it's at the bottom of a certain page in the DM's booklet, amidst unrelated information about hiring specialists and men-at-arms, so I think it's commonly forgotten. Here it is:

Obviously that's just loosely suggestive of the content of the news, and DMs can move in whatever direction they want with that. Reading it closely right now, I'll point out that the opening "Such activity as advertising" is referring to the immediately preceding section on advertising to hire men-at-arms and specialists ("Post notices in conspicuous places, stating the positions open and who is offering such employ; or have servitors circulate in public places, seeking such persons as are desired.") So read narrowly, the first 3 sentences seem to be thinking mostly about notable PC activity in town (maybe planning for competing groups of PCs keeping tabs on each other in a very large campaign?); and then very last sentence on legends seems to be a different thing ("to lead players into some form of activity"). 

So in my last campaign, I used this to basically drive all the action that was happening. Aside from the very opening of the campaign, there were no quests given, hiring boards, adventuring patrons, etc., unless the players first paid to gather rumors at the local tavern. So most sessions would open up with PCs going to the tavern with their current funds and gathering some new rumors this way (I charge the higher cost, 10-60 gold pieces based on a die roll; or in my silver-standard campaign, the analogous 10-60 silver pieces). I kind of like the flavor of this, of the PCs being essentially proactive in their nosing around for opportunities for loot and magic to steal from somewhere, and not an economy where "adventuring" is some kind of recognized industry. Also it kind of feels like an ante or blind payment before a hand of poker gets started.

Now, this keys into the trope that many early D&D adventure modules have, of a "list of rumors" table near the start of the adventure, which get handed out partially to PCs at the start, usually at random. (See D&D modules B1, B2, Top Secret TS001... and many retro-products like the DCC line and Rappan Athuk, etc.) Of course, the requirement for advance payment was already lost by the time published adventure modules became a thing -- and in some sense it makes sense for 1st-level characters in these cases, likely cash-constrained, to get a few for free to get started.

So I tried that same idiom in my campaign; drafting a list or lists of rumors, and dicing for which one to give out when the PCs went rumor-gathering. This attempt initially had a few problems, and I had to evolve it a bit before I got to something that seemed to work.

First, an early attempt had mostly "vague oracular idea-generators", that I probably yanked off an online adventure generator. The problem is that in-game I didn't own these, didn't really have a concrete idea on how to back them up, and they were usually so overwhelmingly weird and enticing that the players generally would pursue them exclusively, and not go anywhere near content I'd actually prepared. My attempts to fill in those ideas on the fly weren't that great (maybe not my forte, or I wasn't truly interested in them).

Second, after that, I started writing custom rumors about campaign locations that I had prepared. The problem here is that over a campaign, any list I'd write would get depleted relatively quickly. Do I just repeat the same rumor if it gets re-rolled on the table? Players felt deflated from that. So then I was crossing stuff off the table, and over time rolling more and more dice to get to an unused option. In either case, at some point the list would be totally used up. So then I was committing to writing a new rumor after a session to replace any that was shared, and my hand-written list started getting more and more cramped with overwritten replacements and the whole thing became totally unreadable. Ugh. 

Finally, I threw in the towel on that and decided to systematically improvise rumors about existing locations anytime they came up. This seemed to be what clicked, and I got at least a few compliments about how this felt in-game. The essential idea was this:

  • Roll a random location (which already exists in the campaign).
  • Roll for a true or false rumor: 2-in-6 it's false (based on the proportion seen in the B1, B2, TS001 lists).
  • Improvise the delivery of some detail in that location, and who in the tavern is telling it.
  • In any case, make sure that the detail given is something that will drive the action (an enticing true or false treasure, a promising strategy against some monster or trap, etc.)

So with this, I had an infinite-rumor generator that worked pretty well, and required no advance work or documentation. It also seemed that my "creative juices" flowed a lot better to fill in the rumor while my adrenaline was up mid-game, versus when I'd try to write stuff pre-game by myself at home.

What counts as a "location"? Well, you can shape that to taste (and I modified it over time). Some things I did:

  • When the action is mostly focused on a megadungeon, I'd roll for a random level, and then roll for a random location on that level. Or: maybe roll for the "current" level the PCs have recently been exploring, plus the next 1 or 2 (i.e., a d3 for level). That can keep it a bit tighter to things the PCs can achieve mid-term.
  • In the wilderness, roll for a numbered encounter location, and drop some tidbit about that place.
  • Sometimes I would even drop information about custom game rules in use for in the campaign that the players would be unlikely to know about. (Stuff of interest here would be bulleted in advance.)
  • Or, obviously, a combination: I think at one point I was dicing 1-3: megadungeon drop,  4-5: wilderness, 6: rules info.

This seemed very elegant to me, and it's what I'm still using today.

A couple other notes:

  • On the theme of game rules that "players would be unlikely to know about", note that this Rumors rule is itself in that class. It's both (a) hidden in the DM's book, and (b) not in any edition but Original. So make sure this is communicated to your players. Personally, I hand-added it to the Basic Equipment and Costs table. Then, I let my players "discover" the extra thing in the stuff-to-buy list, which was a nice moment (obviously if your players aren't as observant as mine, modify that).
  • This, combined with the monthly upkeep costs (OD&D 1% of XP per month), plus payments for healing potions, are the primary ways that extra cash gets sucked out of the PCs' pockets, and I think it worked well. Depending on success at the game, some PCs could get a nice store of jewelry, while others were begging for help at the start of each session from the richer ones (in a campaign that went up to about 6th level).
  • Note that this is sort of the inverse of the popular "carousing" rules. My method here happens at the start of an adventure, and directs PCs to some location that's already detailed in the campaign by the DM. Carousing rules, of course, are used at the end of an adventure, and (in the vague not-owned-by-your-campaign sourcing) generate ideas for new or improvised adventures. For me, I really prefer the flow of my rumors system better. And I really don't want to be handing out hundreds of XP based on a random roll outside of an actual adventuring session. Obviously your mileage may vary, and many people really really love those carousing rules. 
  • Also it differs from something like Justin Alexander's proposed Urbancrawl system, which creates a very elaborate, and very detailed, matrix of interconnecting relationships that one must work in a network to get information out of the town setting. My system here abstracts almost all of that away; I tend to make up a "character telling you this" on the fly, but you could skip even that and just say, "you hear that...".

Would you try something like that, or have you in the past? Tell me about your experiences!

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