Actualizing Violence in D&D

A not-uncommon complaint about the usual Dungeons & Dragons fare is that combat is a slog, or if it is not a slog then it is repetitive. The usual wisdom is that without a variety of choices, or without the player being made aware that they exist, the player opts only to hit things with their sword again and again and again. Yet one solution that manifests recurrently and to not much avail (in my opinion) is to allow players to pick special powers or features off a list, which become proverbial buttons to click during an encounter and have something cool happen. The result is a lot of deliberation, a lot of book checking and, with a decent character sheet, a lot of writing.

One solution, popularized lately by Odd Skull and seeming to have originated from Delta’s D&D Hotspot [1], is to have an attacker choose to declare a maneuver before attacking another participant in the battle. If the attacker’s to-hit roll succeeds, the defender then decides whether to lose HP from the resultant damage roll or to accept the attacker’s maneuver. For example, an attacker might attempt to trip their target while attacking them; on a success, the target decides if they will trip over or if they will lose HP. The effect is, first of all, there does not have to be a list of hard-coded features for characters to make interesting choices during an encounter, provided that players are aware of the gamble.

Even more interesting, however, is that maneuvers represent a more violent violence than is often portrayed in D&D games [2]. The choice presented is to lose HP or to do what the attacker wants you to do. Weird Cranium of Odd Skull seems to consider maneuvers as physical actions one can take against a target. This by itself expands the set of possible actions players can do on their turn in an encounter, without worrying much about balance and bookkeeping. It becomes all the more powerful when you consider characters’ wills as prime forces of the game. We know better than to think violence is blood and guts. Blood and guts are the visual language of violence, and so we often take blood and guts as a metaphor to suggest violence being done with only a veneer of violence taking place at all. Swinging your sword at a goblin until its HP depletes and it disappears from the game-world is not that violent; it suggests a certain fantasy of violence, an image thereof, but your force of will is never at question. Besides, if we take violence as literal blood and guts, we all know that HP cannot simulate it. With free-form maneuvers, the target of violence must weigh whether they can afford to avoid the effects of it. At 0 HP, their force of will is extinguished and they are at the mercy of the other.

This suggests an even broader application of such maneuvers, from just tripping over enemies or slicing off various body parts when your target’s choice is ultimately between that or death. For example, it is a way to handle (as it were) morale checks. You can declare an intent to try to scare off a goblin at threat of harming them, and perhaps the goblin upon losing only 1 HP does not feel particularly shaken. You can also declare an intent to force the goblin to surrender and cease fire (or swinging?), at risk of the goblin simply refusing you or perhaps running away. The most violent dimension comes into play when you reduce a target’s HP to nil. We consider this to be the point of death, but when we think of 0 HP as more broadly the loss of insurance that one is safe from the effects of violence, we can notice that death is an outcome forced onto the target (duh) and it is one among many possible ones. A participant upon reaching 0 HP has no say in whether in not they live or die. They can be given the choice to surrender, but the choice is between that and death.

This also allows us to better characterize different opponents based on what they want, why they fight. An opponent being an opponent means we take for granted, for the sake of the game, that they are someone whose desires not only do not align with that of the players', but they are diametrically opposed at least until some agreement is reached. Do all living things fight to kill, and for nothing else? Sure, skeletons exist to fight for their necromancer, and minotaurs are apparently just like that. What of orcs protecting their village, or an owlbear protecting her cubs? Conceptualizing what opponents want is already a strategy to understand why an opponent might want to run away from a fight, not only because they value their life. Maybe what treasure you're carrying is not worth the effort to take it, or you have demonstrated your control of the territory they occupy. Yet it also informs the opponent's behavior up until running away. "Give me your treasure, or I will kill you here and now." "You are threatening my babies, so go away." Free agents do not seek risk to themselves if the potential gain is not greater than the potential risk. Realizing this lends depth to their actions, and makes one realize what is actually at stake with violence. It is about one force of will dominating another, and the prospect of this should be terrifying. Without this transparency, there is nothing interesting about it.

I didn't intend for this to be a long post, so thankfully it isn't one! I'd just like to close by suggesting that to-hit rolls are not necessary to handle such free-form maneuvers. In fact, by removing to-hit rolls and focusing exclusively on HP as a resource, the gamble between losing HP or accepting maneuvers is much clearer. Subtractive armor as in Into The Odd allows for the possibility of not losing HP at all, since it becomes possible for the attacker to roll damage too low and thus not deal any at all. So, maybe give it a shot? I think reflecting on what violence represents to us is a worthwhile exploration, and role-playing is a fine theater to consider how different desires conflict. What does it mean for one to win?

 

[1] I cannot find where the technique originated on Delta’s D&D Hotspot, but would appreciate a link! Here is Odd Skull’s post: https://oddskullblog.wordpress.com/2021/11/15/combat-maneuvers-the-easy-way/

[2] By D&D, I’m also referring to store brand or homemade, not necessarily (if even) name brand. There are likely not that many name brand D&D enjoyers reading this blog.

Comments

  1. I've had a similar rule in my game for many years, where after a successful attack roll the attacker may choose either to deal damage or to perform a maneuver. Shifting the choice from attacker to defender is an intriguing option.

    I'm a little concerned about the cognitive load on myself as referee, needing to ensure that a maneuver is declared with each attack, then needing to decide whether the NPC decides to take damage or not.

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    1. hi there, thank you for your comment! if it’s any help, i don’t think you should have to declare a maneuver for every single attack if the goal is just to kill the opponent. the intent is just that if you want to force an outcome, the opponent can decide whether to accept it or to bring themselves closer to death. even fighting to the death can be reframed as “X wants Y to die, but Y will choose to live as long as they have HP to lose.” i hope this makes sense!

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    2. That does make sense, thanks for the clarification

      (I have been told that adding a period to sentences like this has 'serial killer energy,' and so I am trying very hard not to do so here.)

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