My parents had a genius parenting technique to avoid my sibling and I fighting over shared things, like a cake: One of us split the thing in two, and the other one got to choose. It worked for shared playtime too. The basic principle was that one of us created the choices, trying to make them equally attractive. We knew that if they made one option clearly better, the sibling would chose that one; the other part then chose freely between those choices. Nobody had reason to complain and it taught us to be fair, if only for self-interest.
Why am I telling you this? Because the same principle is the foundation of my favorite rule for combat maneuvers on classic D&Dish games.
See, combat maneuvers are a pain to design. First, it goes both ways, so whatever sounds cool on the PCs hands is much less fun when it turns against them. Maneuvers are the kind of stuff that usually takes away some player agency. Some people like using saves, or opposed rolls. Adding an extra roll isn’t that bad, but the issue is that when the monsters make the 3rd maneuver in a row, the player who got their eyes full of sand, pushed aside and thrown on the ground isn’t having a great time. Or worse: no one likes being disabled (or killed) in combat from a failed roll on a houserule. Some others tie maneuvers to natural 20s and critical rolls, putting them outside the player’s control and making all characters more or less equal in that aspect.
The other issue is the matter of balance. You want your maneuvers to be useful enough to be attempted (despite this usually means forfeiting your chance to do HP damage), because it’s fun and creative and we want that happening, of course. But you don’t want to make them so good that they’re abused. It is difficult to find the right spot. You either make a comprehensive list or system of maneuvers to attempt, paired with their detailed, balanced effects, which is limited by a fixed list of options and gets impersonal very quickly; or you let it entirely to the referee’s fiat, turning the whole thing into a game of mother-may-I.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be easy, flexible and creative while stepping on no one’s agency. All thanks to the one-splits-the-cake-the-other-picks-a-piece principle. The rule can’t be simpler:
You declare whatever thing you want to do and make an attack roll against your opponent. If you get a hit, the opponent has the choice to either let the maneuver happen, or take the regular damage of the attack per normal rules.
For example: You’re stuck in melee with an assassin who’s trying to fight his way out of a botched job. The assassin attempts to kick sand into your eyes so you lose your next turn and he can get away easily. He hits your AC and you have a choice: If it was paramount that you caught him here and now, you could choose to turn your head and cover your eyes for a moment, leaving an opening for an attack and taking the damage instead, but staying in melee and ready to strike back next turn. But you’re confident the party members around you can prevent his escape, so avoiding 1d10 damage from a possibly poisoned blade sounds like a good trade-off.
Now, this is the part where I tell you why I love this little rule.
- It is open. Like, really open. Jump over the monster and ride its head? OK, go for it. Sliding between their legs? Sure, why not. Throwing yourself down the cliff, hanging from a rope, using your inertia to circle around the giant, tying their legs together AT-AT style? Holy crap that’s so cool, roll already.
- It self-regulates. The attacker creates a choice: Either take damage or accept this effect instead. Not taking damage is cool, but if the maneuver is “chopping his arm off” then 1d6 damage sounds much preferable. Knowing this, the attacker makes a reasonable proposal, good enough for them if the opponent takes them, but not too punishing, so taking it instead of damage is tempting. If your system uses critical hits, a nat 20 adds pressure to accept the maneuver as it doubles the damage, generally. In this case, the maneuver could be accepted in exchange of not doubling the damage, or maybe the maneuver can’t be avoided and it’s the attacker’s choice to apply it or doubling damage.
- It keeps the original balance of the game, since it uses the same AC, attack and damage rolls the system is built around. Any deviation from that is an agreement between opposing parties so it shouldn’t favor anyone specially. One could simply not accept any maneuver ever. You don’t get punished or advantaged for never using them, nor for attempting one every turn.
- Fighters are naturally better at it. Higher attack rolls and damage output means more chances at doing cool stuff and more pressure, in the form of potential damage, to accept the maneuver. Being a fighter becomes more fun, not because of new powers or abilities but because of added flexibility. And on that very same line…
- Thieves get great at surprise attacks, if you allow to use this rule with backstabbing. If you’re a 2HD guard would you rather choose 4d6 damage or getting abruptly pushed against the wall with a hand on your mouth and a dagger on your throat? Being pushed to the river by a rope-swinging rogue on the first round of combat isn’t very seductive but it might be better than being caught into the thick of the ambush with 4d6 less HP, and the rogue just got one less enemy for the party to deal with. Everyone is a winner.
- HP is a factor. Yes I know HP is an abstraction and that being at 1 HP doesn’t meant you’re on death’s door, that it represents a mix of endurance, luck and ability to avoid actual damage and that the first actual injury is the one that brings you to 0 HP. But this rule interacts with HP in a very interesting way. Remember the giant being tied up AT-AT style? Of course a full HP giant wouldn’t choose to be immobilized over losing a few hit points. But what happens if the giant is left only a few hit points? Suddenly being tied up sounds better than being dead, huh? The lower the opponent’s HP, maneuvers are more tempting to accept and, in consequence, more effective. If they don’t accept your maneuver, soften them a bit before. Lower level enemies might not even resist to the first maneuvers, knowing they have little chance in a whack-each-other contest. Which brings me to the next point:
- It offers a non-lethal way out of combat. When your goal in a given combat scenario is not specifically killing your enemies, usually you still have to kill or route your enemies before doing the thing you want: reaching the idol, getting somewhere, etc. As a maneuver, you can make your roll to get to your goal, and it’s up to your opponent if they’re willing to pay HP to prevent it. They also work well to handle submission, trapping, disarming, etc. You didn’t skip the combat because you were able to disarm me, it’s the other way around – you were able to disarm me and put me against the wall at sword’s point to ask me about the Duke only because you overpowered me in combat and I lost enough HP already that I preferred that over taking more damage.
Did you notice how I said it’s up to your opponent if they’re willing to pay HP to prevent it? That’s a bit of a turnaround, isn’t it? A different framing. You don’t take damage instead of accepting the maneuver – you pay HP to prevent the maneuver. With this change of frame, one could even see this as the core combat system, instead of an exception, assuming regular lethal attacks are just “killing my enemy” maneuvers. You know, stuff like separating their head from the neck, poking some ventilation holes through their bodies or scratching their insides with a spear. The opponent then, of course, chooses to pay HP to prevent it. Until they reach 0 HP, of course.
And don’t get me wrong, I don’t really like metacurrencies in my old school gaming. But it isn’t! It is a conscious in-character choice to exert yourself a bit more, losing the confidence, endurance and combat advantage that HP represents, to overcome your opponent attempts.
There are things it can’t do, of course. This isn’t supposed to work as an all-encompassing rule. It can’t deal with forcing bad situations onto unwilling, competent, full-HP enemies, and it leaves little chance to the kind of martial exploits that turn the tide of a battle with a stroke of luck or genius. But as a general ruling for many day-to-day maneuvers or more mundane effects, it is really handy.
To end the post I’m leaving you a few more examples of what I’m talking about. Thank you for your attention. I hope it’s useful for you too.
The rogue gets put of his hiding spot with his hands in the air. “All right, I surrender”, he says. “It was me, you caught me. It’s OK, I’m used to the cells”. The guards approach him, wary of any tricks. The GM says “OK, but the guard is going to tie you up as a combat maneuver”. “Hey, no need to get aggressive, I already surrendered!”. If the guard failed his attack roll or lost initiative, the rogue could have turned onto them on the last moment, but the guard hit his AC. “Crap. Well, I’m not getting caught today, so I pay the HP. How much is it?”. The rogue unseathes his long dagger in time to avoid being put the shackles, but not fast enough to prevent 1d6 damage from the guard who was ready for his tricks.
An elf shoots their bow with the intent to puncture the beholder’s anti-magic stalk. It’s not the first time the elf tries that, and the beholder has been adamant on taking the damage instead, not wanting to do away with its anti-magic field. This time the elf gets a critical! The beholder took enough of a beating already, and the prospect of receiving double damage is what seals the deal: An arrow just below the eyeball makes the creature shriek as the anti-magic field vanishes.
You’re holding your ground against the Duke’s sellswords to give your party the chance to escape. The mercenary is trying to push you aside and reach your squishy backliners, and unfortunately he hits your AC. You’re 8 HP left and you know they’re rolling 1d10 damage. You can hold your position and give your party one more round but, are you willing to die for it?
PS: As Ava from Permanent Cranial Damage pointed out, this isn’t an original idea of mine, I’m just a big fan of it. I believe I heard of it from d4 Caltrops (which you should visit as it regularly churns out very good RPG content), and the earliest mention of it found so far on the blogosphere is Tales from the Rambling Bumblers. If you know of an earlier iteration, please let me know!