Sunday, July 23, 2017

Protecting Weaker Party Members

I am currently running a B/X game that started with the sentence "We've all decided to play magic-users!" from one of the players. Luckily my adopted variant of "3d6 in order" prevented that outcome and they're a pretty typical "murderhobo" party now: two magic-users, two fighters, one thief, and one blood-thirsty halfling with suspenders but no shirt. (There was a cleric, but that's another story.)

In any case, one of the players was "completely new" and of course I recommended that she play a fighter. I sold this mostly with "it's the easiest class to run" but also with "all those robes-and-silly-hats people will need protection" which is what me got thinking:

There is no "rule" in B/X that would allow a fighter to protect a magic-user or anyone else for that matter.

Seemed like something important to offer at the time, but looking around the many B/X house rule documents out there I couldn't find the problem addressed by anyone. Even Delta who has probably forgotten more D&D than I will ever know left me out in the cold on this topic (aside from mentioning the need to have lots of fighters to protect magic-users in mass battles).

I wanted a simple mechanic that would make the protected character "safer" in some way (benefit) while also "exposing" the protecting fighter more (cost). I quickly settled on two "ground rules" for this:

  • The fighter must be "close" (within 5' say) to the character they protect.
  • The fighter must be "aware" of an attack in order to protect against it.

I guess you could say that I am treating the fighter as an "intelligent shield" of sorts? That approach seems fair to me because I don't want a fighter to simply throw themselves over the character they are trying to protect. I very much want "protector" and "protectee" to still be "in combat" instead of changing the focus to a Secret-Service-style "Get him out of here!" and nothing else.

The simplest thing I could come up with was to simply let the fighter take the damage. So as a rule, I'd phrase it something like this:

Fighters can choose to protect one character within 5' of them. If the protected character gets hit by an attack the fighter is aware of, the fighter can choose to take the damage instead.

Not too shabby in terms of simplicity, is it? But as always the "devil" is in the details. First of all this conveys almost complete immunity to the protected character. But the goal was to make them "safer" only, not "safe". In other words, I still want the magic-user to worry about maybe having their spell interrupted. Also we have reduced the fighter to an actual meat shield ("bag of hit points") and nothing else: Regardless of how good their AC is, they now get skewered because of the (presumably) much worse magic-user AC. That's not fun at all for whoever is playing the fighter. Finally, if we have multiple fighters protecting one character, the "immunity" could actually be complete and it could go on for a long time indeed. This may work great for Delta's mass combat scenario, but on the "party in a dungeon" scale I wouldn't want to deal with it.

So instead of letting the fighter take all the damage, let's try to do something about getting hit in the first place. Here's what I came up with next:

Fighters can choose to protect one character within 5' of them. Attacks against the protected character that the fighter is aware of suffer a -8 penalty. Attacks against the fighter, however, gain a +2 bonus.

The numbers are subject to debate of course, but this seemed fair to me. Presumably the kobold archers trying to hit the magic-user would notice that the fighter brushed away all their arrows, so next round they'd redirect their fire. But as so often when you design a rule with fixed penalties/bonuses, there's an exploit: Two or more fighters protecting each other would impose a -6 penalty against most attacks, clearly not the application that was intended. Except for that terrible flaw, however, we would get the desired effects: The protected character still has to worry about getting hit, and the fighter now makes for an easier target because they are "out there" trying to distract attackers.

What finally made me think of a better solution is this: With the fixed penalty, a naked fighter could protect a character in plate and shield. That makes no sense! What should happen instead is something like this:

Fighters can choose to protect one character within 5' of them. Attacks against the protected character that the fighter is aware of must hit the fighter's armor class instead (provided that armor class is better). Any damage is still suffered by the protected character. Attacks against the fighter also gain a +2 bonus.

I am reasonably happy with this rule. It's a little more complex, but not overly so. It does allow protecting weaker party members if they have a worse armor class, but it doesn't make them (almost) completely safe. It also has no obvious exploit that I can think of, mostly by virtue of letting the better armor class prevail. I'd also say that a spell like Protection from Normal Missiles cannot be used with this rule as it doesn't affect armor class, but your mileage may vary.

I've added the last version as a house rule to said B/X game, but after two sessions so far it has not seen any use yet. Admittedly the characters were not really in situations where it made much sense to try yet, but here's to hoping someone will attempt it sometime soon. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what everybody out there thinks of what I did here.

BTW, I am aware of the 5th edition Protection Fighting Style thing but it's just too horribly complicated and too far from B/X to try to convert. It's interesting however that the 5e folks also thought that the "big fighter protecting small magic-user" trope needed "a bit more rule" behind it.