Hexed Press

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Grappling with OSR

Grappling with OSR

TLDR An old article by Gary Gygax highlights how to adjudicate grappling in OSR combat.

I forget exactly what I was looking up but, whatever it was, it lead me to reading an article entitled “Questions Most Frequently Asked About Dungeons & Dragons Rules” by Gary Gygax and published in The Strategic Review, Vol. 1, No. 2. If this issue sounds familiar it’s because the ranger character class was introduced within the same pages. Back, to the FAQ, Gygax presents a combat encounter and resolves the first couple of rounds. I was fascinated with his approach. I’ve copied the body of the example below (formatting slightly adjusted, bolding mine):

10 ORCS surprise a lone Hero wandering lost in the dungeons, but the die check reveals they are 30’ distant at the time of surprise, so they use their iniative to close to melee distance. Iniative is now checked. The Hero scores a 3, plus 1 for his high dexterity, so it is counted 4. The Orcs score 6, and even a minus 1 for their lack of dexterity (optional) still allows them first attack. As they outnumber their opponent so heavily it is likely that they will try to overpower him rather than kill, so each hit they score will be counted as attempts to grapple the Hero:

Assumed armor of the Hero: Chainmail & Shield – AC 4.

Score required to hit AC 4 – 15 (by monsters with 1 hit die). - Only 5 Orcs can attack, as they haven’t had time to surround.

Assume the following dice scores for the Orcs attacks:

Orc #1 - 06; #2 - 10; #3 - 18; #4 - 20; #5 - 03.

Two of the Orcs have grappled the Hero, and if his score with 4 dice is less than their score with 2 dice he has been pinned helplessly. If it is a tie they are struggling, with the Hero still on his feet, but he will be unable to defend himself with his weapon. If the Hero scores higher than the Orcs use the positive difference to throw off his attackers, i.e. the Hero scores 15 and the Orcs scored but 8, so the Hero has tossed both aside, stunning them for 7 turns between them.

Round 2: Iniative goes to the Hero.

Score required to hit Orcs – 11 (4th level fighter vs. AC 6). Assume the following dice score by the Hero. Note that he is allowed one attack for each of his combat levels as the ratio of one Orc vs. the Hero is 1:4, so this is treated as normal (non-fantastic) melee, as is any combat where the score of one side is a base 1 hit die or less.

Hero: 19; 01; 16; 09. Two out of four blows struck. There are 8 orcs which can be possibly hit. An 8-sided die is rolled to determine which have been struck. Assume a 3 and an 8 are rolled. Orcs #3 and #8 are diced for to determine their hit points, and they have 3 and 4 points respectively. Orc #3 takes 6 damage points and is killed. Orc #8 takes 1 damage point and is able to fight.

All 7 surviving/non-stunned Orcs are now able to attack.

Continued attempts to over-power the Hero are assumed, and no less than 4 Orcs are able to attack the Hero from positions where his shield cannot be brought into play, so his AC is there considered 5, and those Orcs which attack from behind add +2 to their hit dice. In the case it is quite likely that the Orcs will capture the Hero.

There are a few things to unpack from this example. The first is the concept that an enemy with overwhelming odds is likely to try to actually overwhelm and capture player characters rather than just try to destroy them. Gygax doesn’t explain why they would do this but it’s easy to rationalize any number of reasons to take prisoners if presented the opportunity: ransom, sacrifice, dinner. The possibilities are endless.

There’s also the concept of positioning, not just the orcs moving to envelope the fighter but the importance of the figher’s shield position. In the first round, when the fighter has enemies to both sides and his front, his shield is effective against all the opponents. However, when he is surrounded in the second round, he loses the protection of his shield against the orcs at his rear and off-shield side. If the orc to the fighter’s off-shield side in the first round did not get the benefit of a higher armor class (Gygax says nothing either way), we can understand this as a result of being surrounded. Additionally, the orcs attacking from the rear get a +2 flanking bonus to their attacks. Against those flanking orcs, the fighter’s effective AC jumps from 4 to 7. Getting surrounded is an even worse proposition than it sounds.

Finally, there are the rules for the grappling itself. I don’t think I’ve ever read a set of grappling rules that I really like. Fifth Edition has this make a skill roll even though it’s totally an attack but we’re saying it’s not mechanic that I find clunky and introduces odd situations involving creatures that should not be easy to grapple in the fiction but are mechanically because they’re not skilled at athletics. The mechanics Gygax describes here, I like.

Like most non-core mechanics in old school systems and in White Box D&D in particular, I’m certain that these grappling rules were either invented by Gygax just for this example, off the cuff, or his personal rules that he used for his games. There were (are?) probably hundreds of variations on these rules, or entirely different concepts, developed by different gaming groups. Either way, it’s hard for me to find fault with them.

Right off the bat, I appreciate that the grappling attempts are just straight attack attempts. That makes much more sense than trying, for whatever reason, to jam it into a different space. Second, dueling damage dice to determine the resolution is a bit different from the standard combat damage mechanic but it approximates the physical struggle and can accomodate a host of different combinations of grapplers and hit dice without breaking. You’re a 1 HD fighting-man and you want to grapple that 6 HD troll? Go right ahead. Lastly, the resolutions are simple and clear and provide risks and rewards for the attempt. Succeed and you’ve got your foe right where you want them. Fail and you fall back stunned. Tie and you secured an advantage for yourself.

One final thing I want to note is how the orcs were able to gang up against the fighting-man. Even though they rolled separate attacks, they pooled together their damage when determining whether or not they’d succeeded in subduing the player-character. This makes total sense from the fictional standpoint-- a bunch of orcs try to pull down the fighting-man-- and has the side-effect of enabling single or low HD creatures to remain a threat even to creatures that outclass them by overwhelming them with sheer numbers.

Let me know on Twitter if you find this useful (or not) or if you have any suggestions or ideas.