Why You Don’t Really Want Realistic Combat In D&D

2007 October 28
by Vanir

When I was growing up, I couldn’t get enough sci-fi and fantasy. And the cheesier, the better. I remember many nights at my grandmother’s house watching Troma movies until 4am. Most of the things that happened in these movies didn’t make a damn bit of sense, but I loved them anyway. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere between then and now I found myself having more trouble suspending my disbelief when something goofy or unrealistic happens. (Which is kind of tragic, considering I’m a big Star Trek fan!)

I’ve played D&D a very long time, and for many years I never really gave a second thought to how combat worked. Then I read some passage in the 1st Edition PHB that talked about how a character’s hit points reflect a character’s toughness and experience in avoiding damage. I thought to myself, that’s kinda silly. And doesn’t Armor Class handle that sort of thing instead? This trend continued, and I began to notice more and more weird things that just didn’t mesh right with how combat actually works.

It must really suck to be an assassin in D&D. Zero-level targets are fine, you can kill them in one shot and sneak off into the night. But to kill a high-level PC…. geez, they’d need 20 minutes and a quiver full of arrows with explosive tips. And for their target to be unconscious already. All this just by virtue of him having enough hitpoints to soak the damage of a single attack.

And come on — SIX SECONDS for a combat round? Any idiot drunk enough to flail his arms can throw 10 to 12 seperate attacks in six seconds. But what do I know…. maybe that bar down the street is secretly training epic level fighters?

To Kill With One Blow

As we’ve mentioned on occasion here, all of us here at Stupid Ranger have some martial arts experience. This definitely does not help matters, because we have a lot more experience with hand to hand combat than the average joe. For YEARS, I’ve thought it silly that punches do nonlethal damage without the Improved Unarmed Combat feat. Sure, a trained person might have an easier time landing a punch, but that doesn’t mean some 300lb angry redneck at a bar isn’t going to push your off button with a big heymaker. A punch delivered by a skilled person causes a shockwave that can do all sorts of nasty stuff to one’s internal organs. I don’t doubt in the least that a hard enough punch to the head would kill a man, or at least cause him serious brain damage. (It’s getting past that pesky armor class that’s the problem.)

The nature of real combat is frequently that one hit does the job, especially if a weapon is involved. The blow might not kill the person outright, but a well-placed hit will end the fight (leaving the victor the option to coup-de-grace, if they so choose). This is what we’re taught to do in self-defense, and even when we’re sparring little weeny techniques are not counted. The Japanese term we use for this is ikken hissatsu, which means “to kill with one blow”.

I always thought it’d be completely awesome to have D&D or a videogame behave realistically in this way. That is, until I came across a game called Bushido Blade on the Playstation back in 1997. This game was all about realistic samurai swordfighting. One hit usually killed your opponent, and if it did not, it injured them somehow. And by “injured”, I don’t mean “his hitpoints decreased”. I mean “his leg doesn’t work anymore” or “he lost an arm so he can’t swing his sword”. As you may have guessed, if you got injured, you were very lucky if you won the fight. And usually the fights lasted about 15 seconds — 12 of which you spent approaching the opponent.

I thought it was completely amazing for the first half hour or so. Then I alternated between being really bored and impossibly frustrated (depending on how difficult my opponent was). And the matches were over so fast that it became a pain to start the game again and again. In short, it was an amazing idea on paper — but the execution left much to be desired. Applied to D&D, realistic combat would mean (like Bushido Blade) very few hitpoints or keeping track of injuries and their corresponding effects. And very short battles. And lots, lots more character death — which is really undesirable for a roleplayer (like me) who invests himself in a character.


The point of all this is, if combat was realistic in D&D it would be a vastly different beast than it is now. And I can’t honestly say it would be more fun. Need another example?

I don’t think D&D combat addresses the issue of adrenaline crashes at all. I can spar with Dante all night and usually we’re tired but we can go an hour or more and be basically OK. A real battle is a lot different — the body gives you a real nice hit of adrenaline which helps you out for a minute or so, and then you crash. HARD. While I haven’t been in many street fights, tournaments are frequently scary enough to give a lot of competitors the adrenaline crash. You drag butt to the point where you can’t breathe and you can’t hit anything to save your life. In D&D terms, I would say a CON check or a Fort save is necessary every round or you start getting fatigued.

Would it be fun to have your whole party panting and wheezing with large penalties to hit and saves during a long and protracted battle? Maybe, but I suspect not. The rules for combat have been balanced and they work — maybe not perfectly all the time, but they make for usually-just-long-enough epic battles. And you don’t want some random halfling to sneak up and shiv your 18th level barbarian with his tiny dagger, rupturing his pancreas and killing him in one shot. That would suck. However, if you’re playing an assassin — here’s hoping the DM sends you after a zero-level target or likes to waive the standard combat rules for the plot’s sake.

Que Sera Sera

After all this, I feel inclined to just suspend my disbelief for awhile, accept that the way the world works in D&D in a little different, and let combat happen. (At least, until my character dies and my rules lawyer decides to start issuing subpoenas!)

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Doug Hagler permalink
    October 29, 2007

    I agree that realistic combat in D&D doesn’t fit at all. It isn’t the kind of game D&D is. I’m speaking as someone who often likes grittier combat, and who also has some martial arts experience, so I have some idea of how absurd some systems are. I do like the Wounds/Vitality system of pre-Saga-Edition d20 Star Wars, also in Unearthed Arcana for D&D – I think it still has a lot of the excitement while not having too many ‘pincushion’ moments when someone’s been shot fifteen times and isn’t even inconvenienced.

    When I do play a game with a more realistic combat system, I like to split the difference. I like combat to be dangerous, but not to result in character death that often. This is accomplished by having some sort of shock mechanic where a person is dropped when seriously damaged but not killed outright in most cases. This is because I also put a lot into characters, and I encourage my players to do so as well when I run a game. I hate to see all that work wasted. So a combat will probably scar you, and its dangerous, but especially in a scifi or fantasy setting with augmented healing options, you need not even be out of the action for that long.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    October 29, 2007

    You should totally try Burning Wheel. The combat is chaotic, and one decent hit generally ends the fight, unless you’re really badass.

    That said, it’s rarely a lethal system.

  3. Yax permalink
    October 29, 2007

    I like to think of the 6 seconds round as a period of time during which a character fakes, jukes and attacks but you only roll one attack to simplify the whole thing.

    I need to find a way to introduce an instant-death factor in my game. Assassins are fun if the PCs are given the opportunity to think of a way to avoid assassination. And I’m more than willing to throw away the rulebook for a assassin strike.

  4. jerm permalink
    October 29, 2007

    Riddle of Steel is another game that takes a “realistic” approach to combat. Fights are short and brutal. I have experimented with it, but have yet to run a game. Most folks that I game with are more interested in some simple escapism: D&D, Shadow of Yesterday, even some Shadowrun, but are less interested in the terrors of having someone trying to cut you in twain with a big sword.

  5. Vanir permalink
    October 29, 2007


    While I can see where you’re coming from, I still think six seconds is about four seconds too long. We have a name for people that throw five fakes in a row before they attack: “makiwara” (striking post). 🙂

    Thinking of it as an oversimplification is probably the best way, though. I just always get the impression that there’s an attack and then five seconds of them standing there looking at each other. If you think of it as the end result of a bunch of stuff happening it’s a little easier to buy.

  6. ChattyDM permalink
    October 30, 2007

    In AD&D a d20 attack roll was for 1 full minute of fighting…

    Like you say Vanir, it’s a compromise to have a flowing game.

    I played Gurps for 10 years where 1 second rounds made for 20 minute turns where my players would say ‘I ready my Axe for next turn’s swing’…


  7. kanati permalink
    October 31, 2007

    6 seconds….

    The time doesn’t say you are unable to throw more than one attack in that time but also that you are able to block and parry enemy attacks. You throw one GOOD attack. And as you progress you are given feats that allow more than one GOOD attack per round if you choose to take them.

    If the rounds were shorter then there would be characters that couldn’t do attacks every round (such as the fully plated warrior with great sword.) Then, not only would you have players taking 3-4 rounds to load and fire a crossbow, but standard fighter types having a “backswing” or “readying” round for their blades.

    Six seconds is a good slice of time to ensure that nearly everyone can do something in a round without unnecessary downtime or even more unnecessary record keeping.

  8. H.Mushroom permalink
    September 1, 2008

    i think that as it takes only 6 seconds to move 40 ft (give or take a couple of feet depending on your characters size) then when you are running your character is probably doing more than a real person has time for. Combat is the other way round, but since this is a game mainly about combat they don’t want you to spend your whole time running round trying to get to battles, instead of fighting them. So they chose a round time to be somewhere in between the time it would take to run 40 ft and the time it would take to make one attack.

  9. Russell permalink
    August 2, 2020

    In my view combat SHOULD look like this realistically.

    1. You have to get past your enemies guard, and not get hit at the same time.
    That is a skill vrs skill check, modified by any implements themselves (swords, glaives, shields etc) and some imliments are better at this than others.

    Then the consideration that a sword and shield is easier to defend with than a single dagger. But it is still a SKILL CHECK.

    Also a dagger is great to get past the tip of a spear but thoroughly shit at defending against a sword or an axe. So the combination of the various opponents weapons need to be compared.

    2. Now you have gotten past their guard, you have to send damage through their armor.
    That is AC versus the weapon damage/damage type/force of the attack.

    A hit that penetrates the guard and the armor results in either a flesh wound, serious wound, knockout or a fatal blow.

    A serious wound may cripple a person who does not know their limits. They now typically surrender, pass out, or become unresponsive or due to the pain and shock. The more experience with pain and injury you have had, the more you can gauge how serious it is and if you can or should keep fighting. In this state of shock, many will except their inevitable death and may even prefer it.

    On the other hand, a braver, more experienced fighter may have been in the previous situation before and/or have more experience of real combat. They may have survived a stab in the past. A really tough opponent might be prepared to keep it together for another 2 or 3 serious injuries. All of which will be reducing their performance exponentially. They are now suffering penalties.

    Any injury above a superficial wound is going to a) bleed b) scar and c) have a high likelihood of long term effects.

    Finally, how much damage a person can take and keep fighting is partly a reflection of their motivation. The thief will not stick around for to get killed. Its not worth it. The parent, may fight ferociously to the bitter end summing inner reserves that will be paid back shortly.

    I don’t think anyone can take more than 1 serious injury and keep fighting (as) effectively.
    Perhaps HP in D&D are a measure of knowing how much pain you can live with and how much will you have to survive it.

    On a side note: The old Palladium Game, Advanced Recon used 3 percentile stats for characters.
    Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence.

    Strength doubled as hit-points and I found that system to be absolutely spot on for realism and simplicity.

    Just my ten cents.

    I’m an ex western (and eastern) martial arts student.

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