Skill Conundrum: Combat

Combat seems to be the odd duck when it comes to rules system and skill design. There seem to be two mainstream approaches. Classic d20 rules have a combat system completely separated from the system rules for skills. The other approach is a rules system entirely constructed around the use of skills. In the latter fighting in melee combat is governed by the same mechanics used for non-combat task resolution as each roll is modified by an applicable skill modifier.

D&D’s roots is in war gaming. The original combat rules come from the Chain Mail mass combat rules book. Skills as a general rule are not included in war games because, as the name implies, the games focus completely on fighting, battle strategy and field tactics. A unit of longbows does not need to know how to pick locks. Skills and magic were additions to an already developed combat system. So it makes sense looking at it in that light why the combat rules are not the same as rules for exploring and social interaction.

Nowadays tabletop RPG systems are generally conceived as RPGs, not a metamorphosis of war gaming rules to interpret microcosm adventures. It would be remiss to say D&D has not changed its system over the years, it certainly has. D&D introduced new mechanics such as THAC0 in 2nd edition, and entirely static defenses instead of saving throws in 4th edition. But there is still a striking void of combat skills. Combat in many d20 systems is ambiguously derived.

Let’s look at D&D 4e’s To-Hit equation

Final Result = 1d20(Variable) + Ability Modifier + ½ Character Level + Weapon/Implement Proficiency + Feat + Weapon Enhancement Bonus + Miscellaneous (Class Bonus, Racial Bonus, etc.)

Versus the AGE System’s To-Hit equation

Final Result = 3d6(Variable) + Ability Modifier + Ability Focus + Fighting Style Activation

Right off the bat we see the AGE system’s to-hit is much easier to calculate. For most circumstances attack rolls are simply a 3d6 roll plus the applicable modifier for the weapon being used. Some combat styles allow characters to Activate to gain a bonus to attacks or defense. Players can also choose to focus in combat abilities at the cost of not choosing non-combat ability focuses.

D&D 4e’s to-hit equation has a lot of individual bits. Because 4e has the tuning of a race car when it comes to combat balance each bit of the equation is important for a character to have. PC power levels were taken into account when creating monsters. While it provides exquisite balance for creating combat encounters it means a certain amount of the game and the PC’s level up choices must be combat oriented to stay on par or above the curve of the monsters. This includes magic items, making them no longer powerful, enchanted artifacts but necessary adventuring gear.

Even the eponymous Fighter class is not significantly better at attacking with a weapon than anyone else. The fighter gains a +1 to either 1H or 2H weapons. At first level the fighter has a 5% greater chance to hit with these weapons. I find 5% hardly enough of a superiority to earn the class the title Fighter. This 5% edge can easily be outstripped by other characters at first level depending on the weapon, feat, class, race combinations chosen.

The AGE System does not use Skills. It instead uses ability focuses. Having a focus gives the character a +2 on an applicable roll. It’s a useful bonus, but having a character with an applicable focus in the party does not exclude other players from attempting the task.

Below is the To-Hit equation for Savage Worlds, a system with skill based combat:

Final Result = (Ability Die -2 or Skill Die or Wild Die) + Talent – Hindrance

I enjoy the idea of having combat skills. Given our previously determined definition of skill is the application of knowledge and experience to achieve a task combat makes sense. Assuming someone knows how to use a weapon they have either been taught some forms and techniques or learned by the seat of his pants. Either way attacking and defending certainly qualifies as the application of knowledge and experience to harm someone or avoid harm.

In rules systems without combat skills characters are limited in their weapon and armor selections based on their race/class/background. Systems with combat skills such as Savage Worlds have fewer restrictions on what weapons and armor a character can use. Some systems such as White Wolf’s Exalted require a character to meet prerequisites to use some weapons. For a character to wield a hook sword proficiently in Exalted he must have a minimum strength of 2, dexterity of 4, and a martial arts or melee prowess of 4.

With the systems we have been examining here is a general skill hierarchy concerning combat.


  • Attack

    • Hand-to-Hand
      • Magic (Close or Touch), Melee, Unarmed (Brawling/Martial Arts)
    • Ranged
      • Aim (Crossbow, Firearm, Magic Device), Archery, Magic (Ranged), Throw
  • Defend
    • Avoid
      • Dodge, Magic (Deflect), Parry
    • Intrude
      • Block, Magic (Shield), Preempt

I think Hand-to-Hand and Ranged are two basic, umbrella skills that can cover most combat attacks. Allow characters to further specialize by choosing focuses within each. Maybe you want to play a standard sword and shield warrior. You have mostly ranks in the Hand-to-Hand skill with a focus on Melee weapons. If you want more variation I suggest borrowing the prerequisite system for weapons. Characters may need a certain amount of strength or dexterity to be proficient at wielding certain weapons. It will help to avoid the kerfuffle of an intelligence based wizard running around with a massive club.

Defense likewise can be broken into two general arenas: Avoid and Intrude. Avoid is simply getting out of the way of an attack. Intrude means to stop the attack from hitting by placing something between the character and the attack. Using a shield to block an attack would fall under Intrude, while using a weapon parry to divert the attack is Avoid. The sword and board warrior from earlier would likely focus on Intrude and specialize in Block.

In our next and last installment we will take a look at Skills and their use in Exploration. So please leave comments and if you like what I’m doing on the blog make sure to subscribe and follow my posts!

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