Old School Narrative Combat

Why I Love AD&D 1st Edition Combat!

Get ready for some true narrative combat!  While some aspects of AD&D combat may be intimidating and seem clunky, their purpose is to create a flow for combat that is both exciting and somewhat more realistic.

With the Rules As Written (RAW) from AD&D 1st edition, your characters truly get to be a hero.  They might unleash a volley of nearly 30 (THIRTY!) arrows at an on-rushing horde of orcs.  Or they may quickly stab an Ogre Magi wielding a Halberd with their dagger multiple times before the Ogre Magi can react.  AD&D is a true game of heroic actions.

Trust Your DM!

Players should Rest assured however.  The job of putting all this together is on the shoulders of the DM.  So sit back, have fun with your character, and play them the way you would play them to be a hero, and don’t worry about the rules. Your DM will guide you through those, to allow your Heroic Character to emerge without pausing the action to lookup how many attacks you get, with what bonus, before you even roll a die.

Heroic Combat!

     Anders, a 5th level halfling fighter is quietly scouting ahead of his party to ensure the way is safe before the remainder of his more ‘noisy’ companions arrive from down the corridor.

     His super stealthy halfling sneakiness has allowed him to discover 12 orcs waiting in the next chamber, but they’re too relaxed in their watchfulness and haven’t a clue of the halflings presence.

     Since, it’s just 12 orcs only 30 feet away, Ander’s isn’t worried about them, and decides to make quick work of these troublesome minions.  With his short bow already drawn and ready, Anders fires off 30 arrows into the orcs, before they even know they’ve been spotted by the little Tallfellow Halfling.  Anders quickly drops all but one orc, who stares around in amazement and disgust as his weaker kin who are now all dead laying about the room.

     The Orc draws a wicked looking two-handed sword and begins to advance on the lone halfling.  The Orc gains the initiative and charges at the little Tallfellow, but his swing is wild and misses.  Not only has the Orc missed, but he is now off balance from the charge, and open to attack by Anders, who quickly drops his short bow, draws a dagger and stabs the Orc.

     Bleeding the Orc is still alive but heavily damaged.  The next round both combatants attack each other simultaneously, however being armed with a nimble dagger, Anders attacks his opponent one more time before the orc can ready his two-handed sword.  With a surprised look on his face, the orc falls dead.

     “Gee…once again, you didn’t save anything for the rest of us!”, says a crusty old dwarf as he arrives with the rest of Anders’ party.

     “There were only 12.” Anders replies proudly as he examines his short bow and retrieves his spent arrows.

The mechanics behind this little scene:

1. When Anders and the Orcs meet, the DM rolls 2d6 (one for Anders and one for the orcs) to see if any of them are surprised.  Anders might be surprised on a roll of 1 or 2 on his d6, while the orcs might be surprised on a roll of 1 thru 4 on their d6 (due to Halflings surprising monsters 66 2/3% of the time when alone – PHB p.17).  The orcs roll a 1, and Anders rolls was a 6.  The results, Anders isn’t surprised, but the Orcs ARE surprised for 5 segments (Determined by the difference between the rolls – DMG p.61).

2. The distance is determined by rolling a d4 and adding 6 then multiplying the result by 10.  In this case however, the Orcs are only in a 30′ x 30′ room, so the maximum distance can be no greater than 30′.  The result of the distance roll is 80′ (a roll of 2 plus 6, times 10) which is reduced to 30′ due to the room (note: because of this, there really isn’t a need to roll for distance since you can’t roll less than a 3 on d6+4) – DMG p.62

3. How did Anders get 30 shots with his Short Bow.  Simple.  Anders is specialized in Short Bow, and proficient in Dagger (from spending 3 proficiency points for bow and 1 for dagger – UA p.18).  In a surprise segment, if you have a readied missile weapon, you may fire that weapon up to 3 times your normal rate of fire (DMG p.62 – 3rd paragraph…cause I know you’ll want to check!).  Normally a 5th level fighter with Specialization in short bow, may fire twice.  So, 2 time 3 equals 6.  Since Anders has 5 segments of surprise on the orcs, he can fire 6 shots in each segment for a total of 30 shots.  In addition to that, because of the distance to his targets being 30′ away, he’s entitled to a +2 point blank modifier to hit and each and damage, AND he also gets to do double damage with each hit for a range of damage between 6 and 16 (1d6 arrow damage and +2 point blank damage, doubled).  Orcs have on average 10 Hit Points, and since Anders is doing on average 12 points of damage with each shot, it doesn’t take long before 11 of the orcs are dead.

4. The orc succeeded on a morale check, and continued the fight.

5. Anders and the Orc roll for initiative, now that the surprise segments are over.  The orc rolls a 6 and Anders rolls a 1.  Even with Anders initiative being modified by +2 (for a 17 dexterity attack adjustment) that’s not enough to beat the orcs die roll of 6 (if it was, Anders could have shot his bow once more before the Orc charged).  The Orc charges, which means he no longer gets his Dexterity bonus and since orcs don’t really have a dex bonus, he suffers an automatic -1 penalty to his AC (DMG p.66).

6. Once the Orc charges with Anders, the determining factor on who strikes first is based on the Weapon Length (DMG p.66).  Anders still has his Short Bow out, and the Orc’s two-handed sword has a length of 6′, easily beating Andrs melee weapon (a dagger with a length of 15″) even if he had it drawn, so the orc attacks first, and misses.

7. Anders doesn’t want to take the time to put his bow away safely, and instead wants to get his dagger out to fight back as quickly as possible, so he drops his bow on the ground, (the DM makes a secret saving throw – DMG p.80, and just needs to roll anything but a 1 on a d20, which is the saving throw for wood in a fall. The bow doesn’t break) and draws his dagger allowing him to attack immediately.

8. Since Anders is only proficient in dagger, he only gets 1 attack (for how many weapons you can specialize in when your character is first created, UA p.16). However the orc was wounded in the plethora of arrows during the surprise round.  He strikes and wounds the orc, but doesn’t kill him.

9. The next round, both the Orc and Anders roll the same result on the Initiative die, indicating that all attacks are simultaneous.  For opponents in Melee, this means that a comparison of Weapon Speed Factor is done to see who gets to attack first (DMG p.66).  Anders dagger’s w.s.f. is a 2, while the orcs two-handed sword is a 10.  Because Anders is lower, he gets to attack the Orc First.  IF Anders would have been entitled to two or more attacks (due to level or specialization), and because the w.s.f. of his dagger has a difference of 8 from the two-handed sword, Anders would have been entitled to attack the orc twice, before the orc could attack back.  But since he’s only proficient, Anders has one attack…which still takes place before the orcs.  One attack is all he needs however, and the orc is killed before he gets to attack back, EVEN THOUGH initiative is ‘simultaneous’.

AD&D 1st Edition Guide

Quick Combat Reference

BEFORE Initiative roll:

  • Casters declare what spell they’re preparing to cast.
  • Players state their intended actions (Charge, Shoot, Melee, etc.).

Roll Party Initiative:

  • 1d6 for each side, highest roll wins initiative.
  • Each side actually starts on the segment equal to the opposing sides roll.
  • Characters shooting a missile add their Dexterity Attack Adjustment to determine their individual initiative.

On their initiative, players may perform one Action and then Move if not engaged. Turn ends after movement.


Unengaged: (Opponents more than 10 ft. from you)

  • Shoot missile weapon:
  • Use magic device:
  • Cast spell:
    • Casting begins at start of round and completes on the segment equal to initiative roll for casters side
    • Interrupting casting. A spell is interrupted if the caster is attacked by Melee or ranged combat before completing the spell
      • If shot by an enemy with initiative
      • If attacked in melee, subtract the Initiative die roll from the weapon speed factor, and if the difference is less than the casting speed of the spell it is interrupted. (note, treat all negative results as positive)
      • If ‘hit’ by another casters spell, with a faster casting time
  • Turn undead:
    • May perform once only, unless max number turned, or optional targets selected
  • Set weapon against charge:
    • Double damage against charging opponent
  • Perform other action (open door, pick lock, pick pocket, Hide in Shadows, etc.)
  • Charge:
    • Move double speed
    • No Dexterity Bonus to AC (‐1 AC if no Dexterity Bonus), penalties still apply
    • +2 to Hit in Melee
    • First attack is determined by Weapon Length
    • Only one charge per turn. Must wait 9 rounds before charging again
  • Close to melee:
    • Normal movement, considered engaged after movement
    • No attack

Engaged: (Opponents within 10 ft. of you)

  • Attack:
    • Opponents make one attack each.
    • If combatant has multiple attacks in a round, then opponents take turn attacking one another with the side winning initiative attacking first
    • If Initiative is simultaneous, then weapon speed determines who begins attacking first
      • Weapon Speed Factor may allow an attacker to attack multiple times if their weapon is faster:
      • Weapon Speed Factor (WSF) Variation:
        • Less than 10 of opponents WSF ‐ lower WSF may attack two times before opponent and one more time simultaneously as opponent
        • Less than 5 or 1/2 of opponents WSF ‐ lower WSF may attack 2 times before opponent
  • Fall Back:
    • No attack, but you withdraw from melee
      • May also combine with Parry
    • Opponents may follow if unengaged during their action.
  • Parry:
    • No Attack, but your opponent subtracts you Strength Bonus from their To Hit Roll.
  • Flee Melee:
    • No Attack, but your movement rate is doubled
    • No shield bonus, opponents gain +4 to hit and make an attack routine

Give it a try and I’ll bet you’ll be loving Weapon Speed Factor, Surprise Segments, Casting Times and even Weapon Armor Class Adjustments as much as I do. 

What’s more, is I’ll wager you’ll be surprised at just how fast all of this flows together too! Especially after you incorporate random targets in melee (but that’s for another post).