THE BATTLE FOR THE RUBY SKULL: An Experiment In Alternative B/X D&D Combat


To me, the best "time scale" in old-school D&D (and any D&D really) is exploration. The time it takes to clear a room with 4-6 PCs in real life (~30 min) matches what is tracked in-game. Social interactions are very similar and very close to 1 to 1. Wilderness travel often deviates very noticeably, especially when a DM basically teleports the PCs to the next major location.

But combat always provides the sticking point. Each round is only supposed to track 6 seconds of time, but in reality, each round can really, really drag. When instead it should be fun and exciting.


I started reading Kill Team to see what the Warhammer folks had to say and a couple of things jumped out at me:

  • Initiative was side, not individual models (very similar to B/X)
  • Objectives were present
  • Five rounds is all the game lasts with a roll at the end of the 5th for one more round
Two other OSR bloggers also had some suggestions about combat. Chris McDowd of Into The Odd had this variation for 5e combat (scaled for B/X):

Roll 1d20 and compare to the opponents AC:
  • If a "natural 1", it is a miss- deal no damage
  • If less than AC, it is a glance- deal 1 point of damage, cannot drop HP below 0
  • If greater than or equal to AC, it is a hit- deal average weapon damage, can drop HP below 0
  • If a "natural 20", it is a critical hit- deal max weapon damage, can drop HP below 0

Next is Nick LS Whelan from Paper & Pencils fame with a really good suggestion thrown out on the OSR Discord:

  • If a hit, PC can deal damage OR maneuver the enemy (negotiated by player & DM)
  • If a critical hit, PC can deal damage AND maneuver the enemy (negotiated by player & DM) 
  • A maneuver is a push, pull, trip, disarm, grapple or anything else that is reasonable with the context of the PC and the weapon or item they are welding.
To test how well these rule work in combination I printed up some random parties of 4x 2 level random characters (+ random equipment; four parties of 4; sixteen PCs total), threw some random terrain on the table, and my friend declared that a ruby skull at the one side of the room had to be carried through the door of the other side of the room. But it could only be carried with two hands.

The movement was dictated by B/X rules mainly based on the armor you were wearing.
The beginning. Forces of Law upper left, Chaos lower left.
Ruby skull to the right (objective) & door to the left (end goal)

And-- this work really well! Were were able to play two battles of 8 v 8 in about two hours. It was a tactical challenge with some great free form moments borne by the maneuver rules as described above. Remembered highlights:
  • Wizards (wearing no armor) and Thieves (wearing leather) moving fast really meant a lot with an objective in play. That ~6-8 squares per round is amazing vs. metal armoring moving 4 square per round. You can one (light blue) moving quite fast in the picture up top.
  • Even with two spells, Wizards did their fair share as a properly timed Magic Missile or Sleep spell really changed the battlefield. And one of my wizards had the floating disc spell which freed up moving the ruby skull on her turn.
  • The "supercharged" combat rules really added nice intensity to combat. The glance rule definitely helped some amazing comebacks, but the slow tick even wore down those with chain and plate.
  • Combat did reach a decisive conclusion in 5 rounds in both games. It's like those Warhammer people know something about skirmish games.
  • So what about those maneuver rules?
    • Some characters had 8 and 10 feet of chain in their equipment and used them as improvised weapons (1/4) to also entangle & disarm weapons
    • A bad of sand was used to blind (and blinded creatures cannot attack in B/X)
    • Two PCs of Law dumped my PC, Zweihander David, into an open crypt and shut it.
    • The forces of Chaos were able to switch places with forces of Law at the door to clear a lane.
The end. The forces of Law pulled out a narrow victory by grabbing the ruby skull at the "goal line"
and went through the door (left). Over on the right, you can see a pile of dead thief and wizard bodies
-- an early and vicious knife fight.

MY ADDITIONS(?)...I guess I am still mulling this over.
  • I've always enjoyed the "notch" system by 10 Foot Polemic so maybe a hit that equals AC does 1 dmg but reduced the target's AC by 1. Notch weapons on a miss "natural 1".
  • I still feel like swords, daggers, axes, maces, two-handed swords, and spears should have some easy to use quality to them that is meaningful (like spears have reach).
  • I thought maybe some good healing rules might be:
    • Combat lasts 5 rounds
    • If the PCs route, defeat, or complete their objective, then they earn d6 x (5-current round) HP back after combat. If they retreat its half that-- cowards.
    • Maybe if they obtain an objective they get an immediate +1d6 HP
    • Roll HP per day
  • A way to make objectives concrete but can be chosen each battle- does Delores Stroke have an answer?


It's not surprising the GoblinPunch and Necropraxis has some good thoughts on adventure design. I like both of these posts because they help distill the source of the most enjoyment of D&D- player lead/initiated non-linear problem-solving. 


  1. The generic optimum is the best plan that's printed on your character sheets.
  2. Dynamism is the opposite; it's how much you have to change your plans each round.
  3. Nearly all games would benefit from more dynamism.  Let's talk about where it comes from.
  4. A common mistake that DMs and game designers make is confusing complexity and dynamism. 
  5. Imagine a lich with a bunch of spells and abilities: fireball, finger of death, teleport, disintegrate, counterspell.  It has a bunch of legendary actions each turn, paralyzing people and using cantrips.  As a monster, the lich is fairly complex to run.
  6. And yet, despite that complexity, the lich is not very dynamic.  A party facing a lich expects to take a lot of damage every turn.  Most of the lich's abilities do not disrupt the party's plans.

I was curious about the way in which players would choose to interact with various factions rather than intending to subvert tropes, such as, for example, presenting orcs as having a sympathetic subaltern perspective. For example, given two wicked factions in tension controlling different aspects of a dungeon, how would players react? What about two seemingly sympathetic factions locked in internecine conflict?
I wanted to play to find out who would become the antagonists.
In retrospect, maintaining a certain degree of discipline regarding avoiding moralization at the time of populating the setting enabled greater player freedom and, probably, more interesting and complex moral outcomes, without transforming the game into a simplistic morality play, or pandering to the idiosyncratic political ideals of myself or my group of players at the time.