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.


  1. I had the same issue. So I used three rules.

    1. The opportunity attack: one time in a round a character can make an attack out of regular order against an opponent who crosses in our out of the same square or next square.

    2. Melee is sticky: a character who takes melee damage must immediately stop moving.

    3. Cover: one character may cover another: adjacent characters as if in melee, friend or foe, grant 1/2 cover to one another from missile attacks. That is, an arrow that hits is equally likely to any character in that instance of melee (or if two good guys are adjacent.)

    It's not perfect but it gives fighters a good chance to protect wizards.

    But the other thing to remember is hirelings. It's okay, if not optimal, for several wizards to go adventuring without other classes to support them. They would have to hire a good retinue to serve them; or go without and just, ahem, roll the dice.

    1. Despite my obsession with house rules, I try to stick to certain "core ideas" of B/X when I run it. Here's one of the things printed in bold on page B26:

      "A character may not attack more than once in one round."

      This may seem like a big restriction to some, but it certainly speeds up the action and helps keeping everybody engaged. Also it's not fiddly to remember or judge, doesn't require exact positioning, etc. The moment you throw "opportunity attacks" in the mix, things get an order of magnitude more complicated. Note that I have nothing against the idea in principle, and in certain AD&D games I even enjoy it. But for my B/X game I like to keep things really simple and moving quickly.

      To some degree B/X is already more "sticky" than your rule: Combatants become "meleed" because they are attacking each other, not because they take damage. And once you're "meleed" you need to execute a "fighting retreat" to "disengage" (as modern D&D variants call it) otherwise the next attack from your opponent is +2 and ignores your shield.

      Finally, if I understand your "cover" idea correctly, it has trange consequences. Imagine a fighter with AC 2 next to a magic-user ally with AC 9. A kobold archer firing at the magic-user needs a 10 to hit, that's a 55% chance. The same kobold would need a 17 to hit the fighter, only a 20% chance. However, thanks to your rule, the kobold can aim at the magic-user (55% chance of success) and then there's a 50% chance that the fighter will get hit instead. That's a 27.5% chance overall (check my math, never quite sure of it) to hit the fighter. So basically the fighter has gone from AC 2 to somewhere between AC 5 and 4 simply because they are standing close to a magic-user. That doesn't seem right. :-/

    2. Sorry, I forgot to add "Thank you for your comment!" and I really mean it. (Also I'd like to apologize for the typos above, sadly I can't figure out how to edit comments on Blogger.)

  2. Hmm. I've toyed with "meat shield" rules before, but at the moment I can't find anything I actually wrote down.

    However, I'm not digging this particular take. It would seem to me there's a way to make it both simpler, and realistic, using the B/X rules as a base...specifically the "fighting withdrawal" maneuver discussed on page B25.

    A bodyguard's basic job (well, after being on the lookout for danger and pushing her charge into cover) is to intercept attackers that would otherwise do harm to the character she's defending. Kill the attacker if possible, sure, but MAINLY force the attacker to fight the bodyguard instead of the (less competent) charge. A fighting withdrawal allows a character a "back-up" move (even out of melee engagement) at a rate equal to one-half her encounter movement. For a character in metal armor, that's about 10 feet (one-half of her 20'/round movement rate)...a fighter in leather could move 15' (just going with page B20 of Moldvay).

    For the case of a bodyguard (any fighter or hireling charged with protecting a more vulnerable party member), I'd give them the option of performing an "intercept" move at the same rate as her fighting withdrawal. So long as the guard can get to her charge within her "intercept range," she can force melee attackers to fight her (i.e. make attacks against the bodyguard's AC and HPs), prior to being able to attack the wizard/princess/soft target/etc. In my games, an intercepting character would probably block "line of sight" to missile weapons as well...assuming the party is not surrounded by attackers.

    The nice thing about this is that it allows the interceptor to actually make a melee attack at the would-be attacker (since movement occurs before the melee attack), even when the bodyguard starts the round engaged in melee with some different, non-threating attacker. I mean, assuming that the guard considers it more important to defend her buddy than to kill the dude she WAS fighting. But to me, that's realistic...where's your focus? Which choice are you going to prioritize? Better decide quick!

    Chances are that low-level fighters executing an intercept maneuver are still going to be cut-down trying to save wizard folk when facing multiple foes (goblins and such)...and this rule only provides the ability to protect ONE character per bodyguard (no defensive bonus applied universally). To me, though, that's realistic...even a Lancelot type can't be charged with protecting a bunch of half-wit wizards who stumble into a nest of troglodytes. Not unless they can find some way to retreat and defend a bottleneck position.

    Each magic-user will thus want to hire her own retainer/grog for the protecting of her long as the bodyguard stays relatively close, the wizard can depend on having a round or two to get off that spell to save everyone's bacon.
    : )

    1. Always an honor to have you on my blog sir! I like how you describe the process of "body guarding" and it very much appeals to me. Much more so than my comparatively bland "mechanical" solution in fact.

      However I do have problems with the details of your approach (or mine for that matter). First please note that I also only allow the fighter to protect ONE character, not an entire herd of wizards.

      Next, while I am with you about modelling "intercept" on the existing "fighting withdrawal" in terms of "reach," I am confused by your statement about the "non-threatening" attacker. If the attacker was truly "non-threatening" the fighter wouldn't be considered "meleed" and therefore wouldn't need to use a "fighting withdrawal" as I understand it. So then why not let him/her do a full move to reach the intercept target? (I believe B/X only restricts casting, not melee or missile combat, when it comes to moving in the same round?) Or do you mean "engaged with an attacker who is not threatening the magic-user" and I am just misreading it?

      Finally, you are correct in pointing out that there should probably be a limit to how many attacks the body guard can protect against. However, that was sort of the point of giving attacks against them a +2. Roughly speaking, if the fighter makes a big effort to defend against multiple opponents (all of which he/she has to still be aware of to get a chance), they will expose themselves more. In your version there's no "extra vulnerability" and there shouldn't be, after all you're using the existing B/X mechanisms in a creative way, everything SHOULD be as it always is. I wanted to give them a chance to do more. I guess there could be a limit to the number of attacks they can defend against. Maybe one per level? Or the to-hit bonus others get goes up by +2 every time? Seemed too fiddly when I wrote the rule, but maybe I should reconsider.

      Thank you so much for your input, it's appreciated! (And I really have to get my shit together and order your B/X books... :-)

    2. Ha! Glad to be helpful. : )

      Sorry my comment was unclear. Yeah, when I said the "non-threatening attacker" I was talking about any attacker already engaged in melee with the would-be bodyguard. Let me try to put my idea about:

      "A character wishing to protect a vulnerable member of the party may execute an INTERCEPT move during the movement phase of her party's initiative. The character may move up to her full encounter speed (or one-half if already engaged in melee; i.e. as when performing a "fighting withdrawal") to automatically interpose herself between her charge and any would-be attackers.

      "She may make an attack against the opponent she has moved to intercept, and the opponent is FORCED to fight against the interceptor before being able to attack the vulnerable party member. Any number of would-be opponents may be intercepted in this way, but only a single party member may be defended by interceptor at one time."

      [in other words...and to answer your second point...I wouldn't allow a single PC (of any class) to defend multiple vulnerable characters. If you have two magic-users, both being threatened by gnolls (or whatever), a would-be bodyguard has to pick ONE to defend. The other magic-user is on his own...or needs his own bodyguard]

      I wouldn't limit the number of melee attackers that can be defended by a bodyguard character. The point is, the interceptor is FORCING AN ENGAGEMENT. The threatening creature can't focus on killing the soft target wizard (or whatever) when some maniac (the bodyguard) is crying havoc and trying to stick him with a blade. The opponent is forced to deal with the bodyguard...because ignoring a ready opponent is tantamount to suicide.

      In the case of multiple attackers, the bodyguard is still whirling and slashing and threatening (i.e. forcing the engagement), but is still limited to making a single attack per round (i.e. the other attacks are just feints and whatnot). Personally, I don't think they need to receive an attack bonus (after all, in B/X players don't receive a bonus for "ganging up" on a big ogre or owl bear), but they'll certainly have an advantage by dint of their multiple attack rolls.

      I don't mind limiting an interception move to fighters and demihumans...or even limiting it to fighters alone. The "bonus skill" here is the provoking of a creature, forcing it to face the bodyguard. The movement is really different, but there's no such rule in B/X that REQUIRES you to attack one character in melee over another. So you ARE giving fighters a new option in combat here (bonuses or not)...and that's both interesting and pretty cool.

      Pretty cool for the poor magic-users as well.
      ; )

    3. [that last paragraph should say "...the movement is NOT really different, but..." Sorry about that]

  3. I feel tempted to weigh in on a number of points, but I'd like to concentrate on movement and "attention."

    Normally, we can think of the combatant as thinking of two things: defense of self and attack of other. Now we are asking the combatant to do three things: defense of self, defense of other, attack of other.

    It seems to me the combatant can only do two of those things. The third thing then becomes something the combatant gives up. Either the other has to manage their own affairs, the combatant gives up attacking and acts strictly in defense ~ or the combatant takes AUTOMATIC hits, since they are not actively defending their own body. The defended other then obtains the fighter's armor class and all hits against the PAIR is distributed according to who the enemy is attacking.

    The enemy, then, has a target: let's say the magic-user. The fighter fails to stop the enemy's attack, that is, the enemy hits the fighter's AC. Tough, the magic-user is hit.

    In movement, how does this work? Forgive me, but I'm going to put this on a game board. Thinking of a system where the bodyguard and the protected other occupy squares side by side, that arrangement doesn't really work, does it? The bodyguard has to protect all sides of the other; therefore, they are both in the same square, hex, whatever.

    Alternately, we could play a system where the bodyguard, when defending, shoves the other out of their position and steps into that position, to take the hit. THEN we could argue the defended other is not hit, even if that was the enemy's intention.

    I don't think a good rule can be made without movement and position being part of the system. I know you fellows in B/X don't like that; but I felt it was worth expressing.

  4. Sorry to necro this thread up but I want to tell you what they did in the old days before B/X even. I was talking to Mike Mornard who played in Gary and Dave's original games. He said that they had three fighting men abreast in any hallway, so that no small or man-sized creatures could get through to the weak members of the group. When entering a larger room, the fighters (and when they had them, thieves) would clear the room before the wizards were allowed in.

    By about 7th level though the power balance shifted somewhat and the wizards were taking care of their fighting-men in some situations. But when it came to melee, they tried to keep a 3:1 ration of fighting men to weaklings.