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D&D Burgoo (3.5): Don’t Get So Defensive

With D&D going more and more to static numbers for saves and defense, especially in the Fourth Edition of the rules, I know I’m swimming upstream with this suggestion for Third Edition DMs.

All the same, here it is: I think defenders should roll for their Armor Class, and thus, oppose the roll made by the attacker.

After all, the use of opposed rolls is a key component to 3.x rules. A Bluff check is opposed by a Sense Motive check and a goodly many spells are opposed by some sort of Saving Throw. Opposed rolls are an excellent mechanic, because they eliminated the need for a whole host of comparative result charts. It not only makes the game go quicker, the encounters become a series of back-and-forths, a punch and counter-punch, if you will. Oneupmanship is determined randomly, but the result is recognized immediately because success or failure can be determined with a quick glance of the dice. 

So it seems only logical — and fair — that the defender also gets the same chance to roll the dice.

This variant is mentioned in the DMG. Basically, the defense roll is 1d20 + armor bonus + shield bonus + natural armor + Dex modifier = Armor Class. (The defense roll replaces that static 10 on the Armor Class chart. Because of this, however, a roll of a natural 1 is not an automatic failure and a natural 20 is not an automatic success, rather just a number added to the Armor Class matrix). This roll can be made every round, or it can be once for each attack being deflected or dodged. 

(The rules suggest that making a defense roll once per round is preferable at higher levels, when there are multiple attacks per round, simply as a means to speed things up.)

But the key thing is having the defender be involved in combat, give them a chance in determining their fate. Instead of standing there and presenting a static target, it is presumed the character is doing things to avoid or deflect the blows, and these actions are simulated by the d20 defense roll.

And because the defense roll should be made simultaneously with the attack roll, no table time should be lost, which is an important consideration.

The best thing is, though, it behooves every player to remain focused on the game, especially tactical combat. 

Besides, the fun part of D&D has always been rolling the dice. Why shouldn’t players be given more opportunities to roll the dice? The more dice rolling, the better, I say. 

The 3d6 variant

Some might say that the 1-to-20 range of a d20 roll is too extreme for a defender’s opposed roll. And it’s a good argument. The attacker should have a broader range of success and failure than the defender, mainly because the attacker has initiative, while the defender must be reactive.

A shorter defense roll range also simulates the reliability of the defender’s armor and not completely negate any bonus gained by having a high Dexterity. 

To answer this, I would suggest the defender’s roll be a 3d6 rather than a d20. This gives the defender a shorter range (3 to 18), but because the results in the middle of that range now fall on a bell curve rather than a straight 5 percent chance for any given result, it is somewhat more predictable without being static.

The 3d6 variant is a good compromise for the DM to present to players if  the initial suggestion of the defensive roll variant is met with resistance.

Advantage of defensive roll

So, what do you think? Are there advantages and disadvantages with this variant? How will well-armored or highly dexterous characters react to this chance? And what about high-level fighters, who were once pretty sure their primary attacks could hit?

What do you think about this approach?

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "D&D Burgoo (3.5): Don’t Get So Defensive"

#1 Comment By Ish On June 23, 2008 @ 5:24 am

While this option has worked for me just fine in the past in small groups, with my regular group of 8 players it is an absolute “no go.”

I have yet to be able to convince them to speed up their turns by rolling their attack die ance damage dice in the same throw. Anything which adds to the combat turn is something I need to avoid. Hurah for static defenses!

#2 Comment By robustyoungsoul On June 23, 2008 @ 6:23 am

“Why shouldn’t players be given more opportunities to roll the dice? The more dice rolling, the better, I say.”

I say the exact opposite, the fewer rolls the better!

Seems like an approach that could work for a group that likes to roll the as many dice as possible though!

#3 Comment By Rafe On June 23, 2008 @ 6:27 am

I agree with Ish. Smaller groups might accommodate “active” rolling, but larger group sessions will grind to a halt with everyone rolling defence rolls.

I certainly wouldn’t go with 3d6. While most gamers can add d6s faster than they can figure out 2+1, it will still slow things down even more than a d20 roll. Again, this may work alright for a group of 2-4, but it will not be very time efficient for groups that are larger.

#4 Comment By arthwollipot On June 23, 2008 @ 6:58 am

Both the defense roll variant and the bell curve variant are presented in Unearthed Arcana (2004), so you’re not presenting anything new here.

The defense roll increases the randomness of play, by making attacks more subject to contingency – you don’t have to beat a static number but an always-varying target. The player doesn’t have the same assurance that an attack at +15 will always beat an AC of 16. Players might get frustrated at not being able to automatically hit that orc. It’s not what they’re used to.

On the other hand, rolling 3d6 instead of 1d20 changes the probability distribution to make it less random. You’re more likely to roll a 7 than a 17. This (IMNSHO) would need to be applied consistently to all d20 rolls, which means that the critical threat range needs to be adjusted, the rules for taking 10 and taking 20 need to be adjusted and challenge ratings need to be tweaked. All this is spelt out on p.132-133 of Unearthed Arcana. Again, players may get frustrated at the fact that they have a different threat probability than normal.

OMG, I’m such a gamist.

It would probably work, but it would require a “breaking in” period with any existing gaming group. But the problem’s no more insurmountable than introducing them to a completely new system.

All that having been said, I ultimately agree with robustyoungsoul. But then, I’m ultimately a narrativist. The fewer dice rolls the better.

My opinion only. Your mileage may vary.

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 23, 2008 @ 7:20 am

Perhaps I wasn’t clear in the post, but the 3d6 application would only be applied to the defender’s roll. Attackers would throw d20s, as normal. I’m not converting the entire system to the bell curve — I’m simply tinkering with the defender’s stats, getting her involved in the combat. Basically, it’s a reaction roll, a random chance to brace herself, dodge or deflect anew with each attack.

#6 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On June 23, 2008 @ 7:40 am

I’ve gone back and forth on the idea of defensive rolls. I like the unpredictability, but it also adds an extra level of complexity. Defensive rolls also aid in roleplaying, as you have a better idea of how well you’re defending.

I think a good compromise would be to use both systems. Everyone is assumed to “take 10” on their Armor Class roll unless they decide otherwise.

You could also use the Defense roll to add unpredictable flavor when dealing with boss monsters or one-on-one duels.

#7 Comment By LordVreeg On June 23, 2008 @ 7:54 am

Well, I have not played D20 in years, but my groups have used a protection roll for 25 years.
(and Ish, we have a lot more die rolling, so the boys and girls have all learned to roll a handful and help each oterh out…keeps everyone involved, and brbing the rest of the group to make fun of the few who don’t roll them all at once is just a question of divide and conquer).

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On June 23, 2008 @ 9:43 am

I’d like the idea of a defense roll if it represented a real choice. If I’m just rolling to roll, it’s no big deal. If I can apply defensive feats to my roll [similar to power attacking, rapid shot, or whatever], then it might be cool… but that’s a whole new subsystem.

I’m a big fan of handing our ACs and DCs and just asking if they rolled success and failure, so I’m pretty far along the streamlining path. I doubt I’m the target audience for this.

Though, as an interesting variant, I could see using the players make all rolls variant, where they roll their armor save vs. the critter’s standard attacks [10+Attack Bonus]. That’d be a good way to move even more of the die rolling over to the players… and is pretty close to what I do for hide/sneak/spot/listen.

#9 Comment By ironfort On June 23, 2008 @ 9:56 am

When i used to run DnD I used the following two rules:

MidThreeD20 is better than 3d6 (this idea came from RPG Create IIRC)

PlayerOnlyRolls because if you use MidThreeD20 opposed is not needed.


#10 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 23, 2008 @ 10:07 am

I’ve always liked the idea of a defense roll, but in my homebrew game, it was coupled with the notion that hit points never got any higher as you went up in levels. You got harder and harder to hit, but a blow that actually got through was always dangerous.

There’s no way I could implement this in my current game, though. Chat-based combats take long enough as it is…

#11 Comment By Jonathan Drain On June 23, 2008 @ 10:53 am

I expect that defence roll would make it too random while slowing play, and 3d6 would slow play further.

Consider this: You excitedly roll a high 18, only to be nerfed because the enemy got a lucky high roll too. The effect is essentially bestowing a random attack bonus or penalty between +9 and -10.

3d6 helps with the randomness, but not with the time-consuming aspect. More rolling actually means more work to achieve the same goal. Compared to the traditional method, you have to add four numbers (three dice plus bonus) rather than look up a number, and that’s going to slow combat.

#12 Comment By supergnome On June 23, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

I like the idea of a more liquid combat, even prefering per-round init, but every little bit adds even more time to combat. It’s something I would consider with a smaller group though. I think it would be a lot more lively, and even help from a narrative standpoint.

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#14 Comment By cubeblue On June 24, 2008 @ 5:46 am

I’m a fan of 3d6 vs. 3d6 rolls. Though in a system that doesn’t natively support it, like D&D, I can understand the reluctance. I like that it engages the players even when it’s not their turn.

When my character got hit by a baddie in D&D, I always felt sort of like my character was a wooden plank. The game system builds a certain expectation that every time you _do_ something (that has a reasonable chance of failing), you roll. When I don’t roll, I feel like I’m not doing anything.

At least if I rolled for defense before getting hit, I’d feel like I was participating, making an attempt to shield myself or parry. And too, I get a sense, perhaps, of how well I defended myself (or how poorly). That can go a long way to painting a dramatic picture of the action in one’s mind.

Plus, in a 3d6 vs 3d6 system, the combatant with the better skill tends to win more often, though there’s still some room for heroics and luck. Sure, it takes time for the players to get used to combat mechanics, but adding a dice roll here and there, or making a 3d6 rather than a 1d20 roll, shouldn’t have a significant affect on time or complexity once everyone’s used to it.

There are game types where less rolls is better, I won’t dispute that (games that abstract the details out at a higher level). Certainly if you have 8 people playing in a game at one time (that’s 4 too many for my preference) then you need to find ways to steal time.

#15 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 24, 2008 @ 8:19 am

CubeBlue, I think you’ve expressed what’s at the heart of my post better than I did. Your feelings about being an active participant in the defense of your character is exactly what I’m going for. “Wooden plank.” What a great term. I think I may add that to my DMing vocabulary.

#16 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 24, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

Troy’s model isn’t the UA variant; his has both sides rolling opposed; this is a HUGE variability in the attacks (+/-19 points, instead of +/-10 points). This really ramps up the ‘big dice/little modifier’ effect that (for instance) D&D has at lower levels. D20 vs. d20 is a no-go for me… too variable.

But the 3d6 thing… hmm. Basically, bell curves make the modifiers more important. I was close to making Skill checks be 3d6 rolls for D&D 3.5 (since skills don’t ‘crit’, and I don’t feel skills should have a linear probability).

I like the 3d6 mechanic, if it could be properly implemented (say, AC = 3d6 plus modifiers). Attackers could use d20s, or 3d6 as well, if you really wanted to get ‘average’.

#17 Comment By zilla On June 24, 2008 @ 7:26 pm

my group has taken the defensive roll one step further. To star with we use 2 die that degrade as you loss hp.
for the defense roll you drop the +10 but still add other modifiers normaly.

1 divide hp by 5 to find break points
2 use use modified dice for all “d20” rolls (attack, defense, saves, skills, etc).
3 the target number remains the same it just gets harder to achieve
4 this works on a bell curve so crit values have been adjusted

HP 100-81% d10 d10 crit 19-20 fail 2-4
HP 80-61% d10 d8 crit 16-18 fail 2-4
HP 60-41% d8 d8 crit 15-16 fail 2-3
HP 40-21% d8 d6 crit 13-14 fail 2-3
HP 20-0% d6 d6 crit 11-12 fail 2-3

this system is a little more work for the dm but we just round the monster hp down to the closest 5 and let excel do the math for us.
It also means the big bad fighter isnt going to be as efective when he is low on hp as he was at the start of combat,

#18 Comment By Swordgleam On June 24, 2008 @ 11:59 pm

I mainly play tri-stat, which has defence rolls. I’ve found that it gets tiresome, for all the reasons people have pointed out.

For one, it takes a lot of the joy out of a good attack roll. A player can roll a 3 to hit (low is good), and still miss. The next player can just barely make their attack check, but still hit the same opponent.

Similarly, it can hurt the party. The group lost what should have been a fairly straightforward tourney battle after three players botched their defense checks. It was frustrating for all concerned, especially since it’s rather hard to fudge and say “He didn’t hit” when the player says “I rolled a 19 on my dodge” for the second time in a row.

On the flip side, it can lead to great moments – one party’s assassin who repeatedly rolled 2s and 3s for her dodges comes to mind. Then there was the security guard, blinded in the first round of combat, who continued to roll 2s and 3s on his defense checks for the remainder of the combat, despite being unable to hit anyone.

When I play D&D, I enjoy the chance to just relax and know that a 19 means I hit. While it can be disheartening to hear “He hits you” without rolling any dice myself, Iron Heroes at least lets you roll armor, which puts some of your defense in your hands/dice.

I guess what it really comes down to for me, is that some systems, like tri-stat, have curved probability and opposed rolls. Some, like D&D, have linear probability and a lot of static rolls. Since I get the opportunity to play both, I’d rather enjoy each for what they offer.

#19 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 25, 2008 @ 1:21 am

Not to make things more complicated — but what the hey!

Should a defender who rolls under 10 be considered “flat-footed” — the equivalent of losing their Dex bonus to their AC — and thus be vulnerable to a rogue’s Sneak Attack (among other things).

It was just a thought I had on the drive into work today.

#20 Comment By robustyoungsoul On June 25, 2008 @ 7:36 am

If you’re interested in a combat system that kind of adds defensive choices to the mix, I encourage you to take out Eldritch RPG, pretty clever combat mechanics in that system.

#21 Comment By Swordgleam On June 27, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

Troy: That sounds like a fun way to make defense rolls add more tactics, in addition to just more rolling. Of course, you’d have to roll at the start of every turn, since if defense rolls were only made after attacks were declared, it would be too late to take advantage.

And you’d need some kind of ‘judge opponent’ skill or perhaps feat for PCs to notice that an enemy was all of a sudden screwing up his defense.. It doesn’t seem right to make it free information, and it would take too long in major battles to describe everyone’s defensive condition each round.

With a mechanic like that added, I’m starting to like the idea of defense rolls. “Do I attack the orc that’s low on HP, but seems to be defending himself really well this turn? Or do I go for the less injured guy that’s totally leaving himself wide open?”

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#23 Comment By Gammingreen On August 19, 2008 @ 12:04 am

Ok, I am not all that read up on other gaming systems, but I know D&D pretty well. here is an idea I have been working on. first I will sum up why I have been working on this. feel free to skip to ‘My Proposition’

Static defensive battles turn in to one big My-AB(attack bonus)-is-Bigger-than-your-AC fest. I am constantly playing with power gammers who love to add as many bonuses as they can to their weapons and armor. this in turn leads me to make creatures with higher and higher AC and AB. they are personally insulted when they do not hit or if they get hit, even though I tell them there is no adventure if they have no fear of fighting battles that they might lose if they play wrong. (I really need to DM for a different crowd but they are my friends and they like my DMing despite their complaints about being hit).

At low levels this is not too bad 14-16+ is still a hit and one or two hits will kill the enemy, but as we play campaigns that get them up in to the double digit lv’s the number of attacks they make increase, their AB increases and their AC increases; which leads me to fights where no one hits unless they get a 19+. On top of that, everyones HP has gone up so much that even when you get that 2-in-20 hit, it still takes 10 of them to kill the enemy. which leads to 6 hour sessions where all you accomplish is finishing the fight you started last time. Not to mention it takes 10-15 minutes per player per round, so that the other 5 player sit there and wait for their next action (and some of them even spend time thinking about what that action will be….some of them…)

MY Proposition:
so, I would like to make combat more interactive and quicker. I like the over all game mechanics of D&D more than any other system I have played so I don’t want to play a new game. on top of that I don’t like how other games chose one type of dice and make everything based on a d6 or a d10; D&D does a fair job of incorporating all the dice sizes. Still I want to overhaul the combat system, and here is where I need input from all you experienced DM’s.

I would like attacks to have a d6 base from the attackers perspective. if the defender has an advantage or disadvantage then he would roll an oppose roll of a dice size either bigger or smaller respectively than the d6. The attacker too would get an upgrade or downgrade of dice size if the advantage or disadvantage was his and not the defenders. the lowest dice size for the sake of this system would be a d2 and the biggest would be a d100. so a lv 1 fighter attacking a lv 20 (or a lv 10 for that matter) dragon would use a d2 to hit and the dragon would roll a d100 to defend. thus the only way that fighter would hit that dragon is if the dragon trips and falls on the fighters sword (aka the fighter rolls a 2 and the dragon rolls a critical miss of a 1). conversely, the only way the dragon would not hit the fighter is if the fighter rolls a 2 and the dragon gets distracted by a random princess running by (rolls a 1). (the ABs and AC bonuses are a factor as well but I am using an extreme case to
make the point).

now before I blather on incoherently any more, I am going to post what I have and see if any of you even think I am worth responding to. I have more Ideas on how to implement the existing feats and skills into this but I would like some feedback on the basics first.