Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Avoiding HP loss in AD&D

The PCs in my AD&D games have most often suffered death the old fashioned way - they ran out of HP after through attrition that wasn't able to be offset by the stingy healing in AD&D in general.

So how to avoid those HP losses?

Well, by avoiding fights when you can. This is admittedly isn't often in a tournament module, especially purely linear ones like the A-series. The PCs tried to avoid traps, avoid chokepoints, and avoid encounters. They failed, because the module doesn't let you do that.

But also you need to leverage your knowledge, paranoia, and real-world sense avoid places where HP can get bled off (like that explosive gas room.) You also need to constantly adjust your approach to combats round by round - if something is working, but it's costly, you need to see if there is a way to change that cost.

In our last session of AD&D, I noted especially a "grind it out" mentality would set in. After 2-3 rounds of combat, often sooner if things were going very well or very poorly, people would stop changing their options. They'd simply grind it out. "Same as last round" was the declared option most of the time. The support characters would stand around if they didn't use spells. The front ranks would fight whatever was in front of them and just keep fighting till it died or the PC dropped. Even a PC in major trouble - flanked, but able to simply back up to get out of being flanked - just stood and died. The player was exhausted at the time, and startlingly low on sleep, which certainly factored in.

But in a different game, you can potentially grind away - trade X damage to inflict X+1 and just win the exchange. In AD&D that always turns out to mean you can't win the next fight. It's a Pyrrhic victory. Win the battle but lose the war.

So what I observed - and discussed a bit privately - were ways to keep trying to shift the odds. You need to keep pushing in fights to find a way to tilt the battle in your favor. Spells might have the most value early but your casters might not be protected enough to cast until later. Do you skip them save your spells for "when we really need them" but lose so many HP you can't win those fights anyway? Or do you bust them out partway into a fight to decisively affect it? Is it worth risking a cast early when your caster is exposed to the enemy?

Potions, scrolls, spells, flasks of oil, shooting into melee - these are all ways to potentially shift a fight. So are simple tactics like having missile weapons at the ready to launch before melee, if only to shorten a fight by a few strokes later on when the enemy is within reach.

My players are learning - and I'm get a refresher course in - how to thrive in AD&D. And it's not grinding out battles, for sure, even if they are ones you need to fight. I'll have to dig around in my Dragon collection and find what I can in the way of tactics articles to help them out.


  1. One big thing I've noticed in various forms of D&D vs GURPS is that D&D is much more egalitarian about recieving Attacks

    Your GURPS fighter with high active defenses and a pile of armor avoids being hit, when he is hit a lot of it bounces off his armor, and if he actually gets hurt his 20+ HP means he gets double benefit of healing

    And he hits like a truck to

    So GURPS combat often revolves toward trying to expose your slugger, and only your slugger to the enemy, since your thieves and clerics don't hit near as well as the slugger, and they don't defend near as well either.

    In D&D the cleric will likely roll with just as good of Armor as the fighter, and the thief has lousy armor but an actual Dex score. Thus all 3 likely have a similar AC. So even though they don't hit things as well as your slugger, they present no liability on receiving a hit, so if possible wedge them right into combat and let them get their swings in.

    1. That's a very good point. They may not fight particularly well (although clerics have a reputation for being "nearly as good as fighters") but they often have excellent AC. In A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity the cleric had AC 1, same as several of the fighters and one better than the two multi-class characters.

  2. General advice for survival in early D&D I would offer:
    * Add more combatants. As noted, clerics (and sometimes thieves) have just as good defenses as fighters. They may not hit often or hard, but they are dividing up the potential damage of the enemy across a larger pool of hit points. If all those attacks were against only the fighters, they'd be knocked out faster and then the situation snowballs as the remaining characters don't hit well.
    * Force morale checks. This doesn't help in tournament games as the actions of monsters are usually predetermined, not random, but in a standard game do things to intimidate the enemy into fleeing, surrendering, or opening negotiation. Magic can boost this, and it doesn't hurt to be able to quickly kill someone in a flashy way, but don't forget you can lie and trick lower intelligence foes into believing you have a powerful advantage you don't really have (illusion and suggestion spells are especially good for this).
    * Gang up. If the fight is 3 on 3, you should not be fighting 3 bouts of 1-on-1 combat. If all 3 combatants can focus on one enemy, you kill it faster and reduce the number of counter attacks coming your way sooner.
    * Change the odds. If you can charm an enemy onto your side, paralyze or sleep a few enemies, summon or create the illusion of allies, or divide the enemy by magic or terrain you can improve the ratio of your team's attacks to the enemy team's attacks.
    * Change the venue. Remember, just because an encounter starts in a location doesn't mean it needs to be completed there. Often, especially in tournaments, the DM has customized a battlefield to give his forces some kind of advantage or your forces some kind of disadvantage through terrain limitations and environmental conditions. Don't accept that. If you can remember another location in close proximity that is better for you, try to draw the enemy there. Retreat, careful withdrawal, taunting, magic to herd the enemy where you want them, even setting fire to the battlefield can be of great benefit if it moves the fight from a place designed to favor the enemy to a neutral location (or even a place the enemy is ill-suited to if such exists nearby).

  3. The Best way to avoid damage is to avoid superfluous combat. Illusion magic can let you distract enemies in order to sneak by, or if doing so is untenable, get surprise. Enchantment Magic can turn a difficult encounter into a powerful ally for a few months. Talking to random encounters can often lead to avoidance if the DM is willing to reward you for good roleplay.

    For the combats that are more essential(I mean those orcs are standing right between you and that large chest of gold and gems after all), trying for surprise as mentioned above can make for all the difference by upping your chances of taking out 1-2 of them early. Force size matters a lot in AD&D, especially at low levels where all it takes is one lucky roll to take a character out. So, taking things that add to your side(summoning magic, illusions temporarily, or less reliably Enchantment/Charm) or takes away from their side in large amounts with either no save or save not save reducing damage to a point where their only slightly dead(Sleep, color spray, fireball once you get there) are essential to not getting wiped.

    Another thing to remember is you don't have to clear the entire dungeon in one go. In fact, earlier editions of the game assume that you're characters are delving into the depths of evil and depravity, then returning to a base of operations to regroup or marshal more hirelings. While it's true that random monsters are likely to wander in, or the positions could be re-manned by the inhabitants, the wandering monsters might not need to be fought(If some wandering alpha beavers take up shop in the above ground level a ranger or druid might even turn them into allies), and if the position is re-manned then that's less manpower that the inhabitants have in another location.


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