Combat rules compared across roleplaying games! [Part 1: D&D]

D&D Combat rules

Drawing your sword and facing that evil monster snarling at you with razor-sharp teeth is a lot of fun. While there are many ways to approach a roleplaying session, and not all of them involve combat, this series aims to only compare different combat systems. The roleplaying and skill bits can be equally important, but maybe we will look at those at some other time.

Different roleplaying games can have quite different power levels for a starting character.. but we will try to do our best to use a “level 1 equivalent” across the board. To do that, we’ll start off with our comparison case/gold standard, which will be the level 1 unarmored human fighter in D&D 5th edition. We will also assume the ideal build in all cases.. so if there is a chance to sink points into something that will give us a combat advantage, we will do that in all instances. Ignoring such things as charisma, social status, and all the other things that won’t impress the average before-mentioned evil monster snarling at you.

Almost everyone knows D&D already, so I won’t give you a lot of introduction to the system itself. It’s one of the grandfathers of the roleplaying genre and certainly the most successful tabletop roleplaying game to date.

D&D 5th Edition Player's Handbook

The basics of D&D combat:

(safe to skip if you already know D&D)

In case you are not playing D&D and are not sure how the combat system works: everything is based on a d20 roll. The higher the better.

A roll of 1 is always a miss, a roll of 20 is always a hit. You add a bonus to the roll dependent on your proficiency bonus (here +2) and, in case of a long sword, the strength bonus (here +3). This represents your weapon skill. Your total then must equal or exceed the opponents’ armor class (AC) value – if so, you hit and make damage. The armor class is a catch-all for everything that has to do with defense… how quick you are, how much armor you wear, defensive fighting etc.

Lastly, once you hit, you roll for how much damage you do. Depending on the weapon this is a specific die (in our case 1d8) to which you add either your strength or dexterity bonus (in our case STR, +3; so 1d8+3). That number is subtracted from the opponents’ hit points (HP). Opponent is down once HP reach 0 (or below). A critical hit (that’s when the attacker rolled a 20) doubles the number of dice you roll (in our case that would be 2d8+3 damage).

There is damage type for different weapons (a long sword makes “slashing” damage), but for our unarmoured opponents here these don’t make a difference.

Building an optimized “basic” fighter in D&D:

So for D&D we will follow the PHB Quickbuild recommendations and give her a longsword which she will use one-handed and a shield. Long swords or Bastard swords (which, essentially the D&D long sword seems to be) exist in most RPGs so should be easy to transfer across.

In order to select an opponent, we will make our life easy and actually have our “golden standard” fighter, let’s call her “Deean Dee”, to face a carbon copy of herself. I am feeling very creative, so let’s call her opponent “Carbonius”.

OK so here is what we have – our optimized build for Deean (or Carbonius) using the ability score selection method (15,14,13,12,10,8):

Our first level fighter called Deean Dee Fighteressa

Now our fighters also get the Second Wind ability at first level (requires a bonus action to activate) which will be useful! Second Wind can heal a bit of damage right away and therefore will likely extend the lives of our fighters by a bit. Their damage output is 1d8+3 slashing damage after all .. nothing to sneer at. They pack quite a punch!

Alright, cue the combat music and off we go.

Example D&D fight

Given that both have the exact same Initiative we will determine who starts with a d20: Deean rolls: 15; Carbonius rolls: 7. Deean starts.

(Below is an example fight, the point of these is just to demonstrate how the system works. It’s not really necessarily representative of every combat with first level fighters.)

Round 1:

+ Deean: 12 HP; Carbonius: 12HP.

Deean attacks: 11+5 vs. AC 14. She hits! 6+3 = 9 damage. Outch. Carbonius is down to 3 HP in one strike!

+ Deean: 12 HP; Carbonius: 3HP.

Carbonius‘ turn. He uses his bonus action for Second Wind: 9+2 = 11. Lucky! He’s fully recovered.

+ Deean: 12 HP; Carbonius: 12HP (second wind used up).

Now he swings his blade at the slightly disappointed Deean. Natural 20! (I am actually rolling these while I write.. so this isn’t a made up scenario here.)

He rolls 4+3 +3 = 10 damage. A bit more and this would be a one-shot kill! Deean is heavily wounded.

+ Deean: 2HP; Carbonius: 12HP.

Round 2:

Deean quickly catches her breath and uses her Second Wind: 7+2 = 9 HP healed. Now both have used their Second Wind, no more room for error!

+ Deean: 11HP; Carbonius: 12HP.

Deean swings her blade again, hoping to down her opponent: 10+5 vs. AC14. She hits again! 3+3 = = 6 damage. Half the HP slashed away in one blow.

+ Deean: 11HP; Carbonius: 6HP.

Carbonius tries to answer in kind: 17+5 – a clean hit. He rolls a 4+3 = 7 damage. This is getting close! Deean is not looking too healthy any more.

+ Deean: 4HP; Carbonius: 6HP.

Round 3:

Deean, likely bleeding from several wounds, makes a desperate attempt to end the fight:  8+5 vs. AC14 – not enough, this one was blocked by Carbonius’ shield!

Carbonius is probably feeling pretty good right now, despite his wounds. If his next strike hits, he wins the fight (minimum damage would be 1+3 = 4). His sword strikes at his opponent: 19+5 .. not a chance to block this one. The blade hits Deean, causes 6+3 = 9 points of damage and she’s out.

+ Deean: 0HP; Carbonius: 6HP.

Carbonius won the fight in the third round!


Now, of course, there is a lot of randomness involved here (duh!). That there was a critical hit in here was unlikely and probably wouldn’t happen if we played this again, but the point is: an unarmoured fighter in first level D&D can dish out quite a good amount of damage.

If you are not familiar with D&D: the combat system here, compared to some other roleplaying games, is quite simple, at least at first level. One roll to hit, one roll for damage. Complexity comes in as characters progress, and they get more options and abilities to trigger. That’s also the great thing about D&D, you get time to learn a few abilities at a time while your character levels up and the learning curve stays rather flat. That’s not really always the case (looking at you, GURPS).

In the next articles I will grab other books I have in my roleplaying games collection and basically try the same there. A simple combat with something that resembles a “first level human fighter”. Not all systems have levels of course, but we will do our best. Stay tuned!

6 Replies to “Combat rules compared across roleplaying games! [Part 1: D&D]”

    1. Haha, I would love to.. I’ve only done MERP right now (https://www.redtrolls.net/?p=321) which is kind of Rolemaster light. I’d love to get my hands on Rolemaster again though.. so many great memories playing that beast of a game.

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