Friday, November 13, 2009

The deadliness of combat

I just managed to strike a really good deal on eBay for the old fantasy rpg classic DragonQuest. For some of us it's one of those games which the old grumbling grognards seemed to like, but we never bought ourselves when it was in print. I've been reading it a while now, and it have some interesting ideas, and one of the more verbose ways to present the rules I've ever seen. I'm going to talk a bit about the combat system today.

Everyone have probably heard the criticism leveled at AD&D, that with escalating hit points jumping off a mountain was always an option when a fight with a dragon went bad. Later editions have exacerbated the phenomena, and it sure can get silly sometimes.

Then we have those games where your stalwart hero marches into combat, only to be slain by a fist to the jaw. I own a few of those as well. DragonQuest made me think of another way to kill characters.

How many of your fantasy rpgs have rules for infection and gangrene? Harn probably have it, and maybe you, dear reader, can mention a few more. In DragonQuest the rules say like this:
The Base Chance of infection is equal to 10%. If the figure took any damage to Endurance, add (20 + the amount of Endurance damage in points). If the damage was inflicted by bite, claws, or talons, add 20. Specific Grievous Injuries may rise the Base chance even further.
Tough going! So if a Troll manage to rake you with his claws for 1 point of damage (note that there's less serious Fatigue damage before taking Endurance damage), you suddenly have a 61% chance of infection!  I wonder what will kill most characters, infection or the damage points?

In comparison I decided to check GURPS, which usually have a rule for everything. To my great surprise it was not that detailed, and the chance to avoid infection was a simple HT+3, which for a average human with 10 HT would mean roll over 13 with 3d6. Sounds very doable. I tried to calculate the percentage chance of success on that roll but my math skills just wasn't up to it.

Another game I checked was my old BRP derived Drakar & Demoner which had rules for infection, but far less tough than DragonQuest. 1% per hit, or 3% for dirty or natural weapons, and 5% to develop the infection into gangrene in 1d4 weeks. Those 61% start looking very grim indeed.

I am amazed by these numbers! While I am no longer very concerned by realism in my games, I start to wonder which of these games actually provide a picture of how it really works?

I guess everyone have heard of Papers & Paychecks, the rpg that they play in one illustration in AD&D? I am getting these ideas of a rpg where most of the time is spent is bed, coughing or lying on a battlefield with your guts spilled out, and the big drama is not combat, but the hours spent rolling on tables for disease, disfigurement and permanent injury. A new game called Injuries & Illness, maybe? Grim, is the word. It almost goes into silly territory for a moment there. Still, I find it fascinating.


  1. Armies in the 19th century were reported to lose up to 20% of their troops from infected wounds and dysentry due to battlefield conditions. During the Sin0-Russian war the Japanese made several advances (such as activated charcoal pills to destroy stomach bugs) and reduced their percentage to a measly 10.

    Combat in primitive conditions is deadly, just as would be exploring dank old dungeons without a tetnus shot. Tutankhamen&s Curse is thought to be just the result of millenia old bacteria being let loose.

  2. 13+ on 3d6 is about 26%. 21 + 15 + 10 + 6 + 3 + 1 = 56. 56/216 ~= 0.259...

    You need to create a little table to work out the number of combinations that yield each number from 13 on up. Or you can find one already on the internet

    You can also find fully worked out tables of percentages and cumulative percentages, but then you don't understand the result, and they can be a little hard to read. To answer a question like what's the chance of 13 or greater you usually have to look at the cumulative chance of 12 or less and subtract from 1...

  3. Thanks for the feedback! I knew it was deadly to go to war back in the days (well, it still is...) but not how deadly.

  4. 26% indeed. Hm. Quite less than 61% that is. Very interesting considering 61% was the least serious result you could get.

  5. Ah, Dragonquest, how I miss thee. Well, not really, but it did have some fun quirks to the system and I would love to have a copy for reference. Glad to see other people remember it too.

  6. It do show up on eBay, but you'll have to be a bit lucky to get a god price.

    There's more stuff I haven't read yet, so there might be more quirks up ahead. I only wish I had someone to play it with. :(

  7. "one of the more verbose ways to present the rules Ive ever seen." Ah, the legendary SPI Case System. That takes me back...

  8. Oh, yes. I have many of their wargames, so I've had exposure. But it feels so very out of place in a rpg context.

  9. Heh, would you kindly help me translate my copy of Drakar och Demoner? A Swedish friend of mine got it for me as a souvenir from his homeland. I've tried to read it on my own, but... well, I don't know Swedish. :P

  10. Well, Ryan. It might take awhile to translate it all, but mash up my name and add (at) "gmail" "dot" "com" and we can talk about it.

  11. Andreas,

    I was mostly kidding...I wouldn't expect someone to spend that kind of time and effort. I would like to know how to play it someday. Perhaps I'd better just learn Swedish. :)

  12. I guessed you were not totally serious. :)

    But, if you want to have me walk you through some of it, or translate some key words feel free to send me a note!

  13. WWII was the first war in which penicillin made a real appearance. Prior to that infection would kill as many as 80% of the wounded, even if they weren't killed by shock or bloodloss.

    Good hygiene, as developed first in the British Royal Navy of the Napoleonic period, could halve that mortality rate. It wasn't until the hell that was the hospitals of the Crimea became public that European armies followed suit.

    By WWI figures in modern armies was down to the 20% quoted above.

    Dysentry, Typhus and Cholera were also prevalent in armies of the 19th century. Malaria, especially in Africa and the West Indies could halve a regiment in a year. Again, good hygiene made a real difference.

    In the medieval period favoured by most fantasy games, post battle care was almost non-existent. If you weren't well-to-do you just had to take your chances.

    Prior to that only the Roman and Assyrian armies had any idea of the effect of hygiene on infection rates.

  14. Sometimes I'm lucky I live when I do.


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