In this post, I'll continue to suggest minor changes that use pre-existing mechanics in a different way that solves these issues and improves the experience overall.
Note that I have the Chaosium Big Gold Book on my shelf, as well as Stormbringer 5e and Elric of Melnibone!, but I am not referencing these. My exercise is to take the original Stormbringer rules (I'm looking at 1e and 3e GW) and tweak these to make the game 1) emulate the source fiction better and 2) be more playable for a modern audience after 40 years of TRPG development, without pandering to power gamers.
Forget DEX ranks. In game terms, it overvalues that one attribute. As someone with a blackbelt in karate from years in a dojo here in Japan, I can tell you 100% that the combatant with the highest attack skill is the one who decides whether to go first or next. Even if you have natural talent (ie high DEX), someone who has mastered the art of combat will eat your lunch. And considering in my post on character generation I suggested using DEX as the base for Attack skills anyway, the attribute is still important, but now experience is factored into its utility in combat.
In karate, we talk about different types of initiative, but 2 main ones stand out:
先の先 (sen no sen) This translates as 'first before the first'. In other words, you are so fast you can outstrip your opponent. You stop them before they get started.
先の後 (sen no go) This translates as 'after the first'. Put simply, you let the other guy commit to an action first, and respond in a way that neutralizes him.
Other dojos list many other types of initiative, but they all point to one thing - high skill decides initiative. In combat, the higher Attack skill should always get the choice to attack first or anytime afterwards. This adds a strategic element where skilled fighters can see and seize their chance better than unskilled foes. The fastest fighter can thus attack right away, or wait until he sees an opening to distract a foe threatening a weaker comrade.
The original shield rules are exceedingly vague and scattered all over the combat section. Here is everything we know about Stormbringer shields:
1) Shields can block attacks, but doing so negates the use of a weapon to Parry
2) Shields are the only thing that can Parry arrows or sling stones
3) Shields are described as "nearly indestructible" and can parry "any number of attacks"
4) Shields are destroyed when they are used to Parry a Critical Hit
This is a good start, but here are a few extensions of these descriptions to make shields more versatile:
1. Shields add to the Armor value
As everyone knows, Stormbringer uses a dice roll to determine how much damage the armor stops. As a reminder, let's look at the armor ratings (and range of damage stopped) from the rulebook:
Leather 1d6-1 (0-5)
Barbarian 1d8-1 (0-7)
Half plate 1d8-1 (0-7)
Plate (no helmet) 1d10-1 (0-9)
Plate with helmet 1d10+2 (3-12)
I understand why Stormbringer armor works like this. The range provided by the dice roll reflects how armor can stop damage, but also be bypassed by an attack. Some people advocate switching to static armor values, but this doesn't sit well with me.
I propose using the shield damage as an extra dice of damage reduction. This reflects how shields can deflect an attack or reduce damage taken even if an active shield parry has failed. As a former SCA member, I can tell you this is exactly why people used shields - to cover their body better.
Now let's look at shield dice and damage ranges:
Buckler 1d4 (1-4)
Target 1d6 (1-6)
Heater 1d6 (1-6)
Tower 1d6+1 (2-7)
So if we use shield damage as armor rating, then combining armor and shields is a lifesaver. Here are some examples of damage reduction by shields, along with armor:
No armor, target shield 1d6 (1-6)
Leather with a buckler 1d4+1d6-1 (1-9)
Half plate with heater 1d8+1d6-1 (1-13)
Plate, helmet, and tower 1d10+1d6+3 (5-19)
As we can see, allowing shields to reduce damage ablatively really improves the chances of surviving an attack. Even a character with only a shield can reduce damage greatly, while a fully plated knight with tower becomes a veritable tank that can only be taken down by a Critical Hit or area weapons such as flaming oil.
You might object that shield armor reduction has a higher range than body armour. I have no problem with this, considering that whereas shields are disks of mobile cover that are reinforced against damage, body armour is by necessity both incomplete cover and full of chinks to allow movement in a fight.
2. Shields can be sacrificed
Here is a story effect based on the OSR houserule "Shields shall be splintered." Whenever a PC is in danger of taking a mortal blow, they can sacrifice their shield instead. Since shields are destroyed parrying a Critical Attack anyway, why not let PCs decide if they want to use this option? As we shall see, adding choice to the mix improves the combat in many ways.
Using shields as additional damage reduction and a throwaway damage block thus adds a strategic element to combat. Do you try to do more damage with two-handed weapons like the Melnibonean axeman and great-swordsmen of Moorcock's books, dual wield for a chance at a double attack like Moonglum, or do you use a shield and one-handed weapon like the Young Kingdom opponents they fought? Considering that I will be using the Encumbrance rules outlined previously, these new shield rules make them worth carrying.
Speaking of Moonglum and his dual weapons, I think it best to outline how they would work. First, the character would need to be ambidextrous. Google tells me 1% of people are ambidextrous, so if a player wants it, let them roll.
It is best to keep rules simple and logical, so dual weapons need one shorter than the other, ie a longsword and a short sword. This what the samurai used (大小 daisho or katana and wakizashi), and resembles the epee and parrying dagger of the West.
Basically, the player can do one action (attack or parry) with either weapon, with the same rules and restrictions as other weapons. This means any cumulative action is at a 20% penalty.
1. Guarded (normal) - The PC attacks with one weapon (usually the longer) and parries with the other. Resolve as normal.
2. Defensive - If surrounded or outnumbered, they can Parry with both weapons. This means they can Parry once with either weapon at no penalty, but incur the cumulative 20% penalty to skill for countering subsequent attacks.
3. All out attack - They can choose to attack with both weapons, and since these count as actions, any parries they perform after start at -20%.
Note that PCs can use a sword & shield in the same manner if ambidextrous, but still incur the cumulative 20% skill penalty if they use a shield first as a weapon before using it to defend.
If the PC has the highest Attack rating, they can wait to see what their foe does before deciding what mode to use. If their foe misses his attack, they can choose to do two attacks, or if they go first, they can attack and defend, or attack twice and hope they don't get hit. This might be a bit fiddly in practice and would need testing.
One of the main reasons given for Stormbringer's lethality is the critical hit rules, especially the wounds table. Rereading the rules, this criticism is entirely valid.
According to the rules, the following happens on a critical hit:
1) Damage is doubled
2) Armor is ignored
3) Any wound inflicted is considered a Major Wound regardless of amount of damage done
4) If parried, the parrying weapon or shield is destroyed.
This is all a bit much. Instead, I would use the following rule to give Players more choice over what happens.
If you roll a successful Critical Attack roll against an NPC or monster, you can choose the following:
1) Do double damage vs armor (or simply double damage vs unarmoured foes)
2) Do normal damage but ignore armor of armored foes
3) Do no damage but roll on Wounds table
4) Try to Disarm or Trip using rolled damage vs the opponents STR or DEX respectively
Conversely, if you suffer a Critical Hit from an NPC or monster, you can choose the following:
1) Take double damage vs your armor
2) Take normal damage but ignore your armor (NB: You can't choose this if unarmoured, sorry)
3) Take no damage but roll on the Wounds table
4) Sacrifice a shield or piece of armor, or ally if you are an Agent (see Sacrifice section below)
I think this is a fairer rule that empowers players through greater choice of effects, and the chance of a Major Wound for doing more than half Hit Points is still relatively large.
As for Player vs Player (PvP) combat, if what the attacker and defender choose conflict, I would keep the rules above, but have both players randomly compete (ie flip a coin, roll a dice, thumb wrestle etc) to see who's choice is enacted. For example, if player A does a critical hits and wants to ignore armor but player B wants to take double damage vs their armor, have them flip for it.
Like the Critical Hit rule, this is a bit overpowered. Instead, I would instead make Fumble effects cumulative. All the Fumble tables have 3 effects, which increase in penalty the higher the number rolled on d100:
51-85 Weapon breaks
86-00 Wound friend or yourself
51-85 Weapon flies away
86-00 Weapon breaks or wound yourself
51-85 Strain self
86-00 Wound yourself
In my conception, if a fumble is rolled on 99 or 00, you roll an additional d10. If you roll anything but 0, apply the lowest effect. If a 0 is rolled, roll d10 again. If you roll anything but 0, apply the second effect. If a 0 is rolled, apply the third and harshest effect. Basically, you need to roll 0 twice for a simple Fumble, three times for a moderate Fumble, and four times for a disastrous Fumble. This drastically reduces the odds or broken weapons and self-inflicted wounds.
“… an arrow slid past his helm almost at the same moment the bowstring sounded. Elric flung himself to one side and sought about for cover, but there was no cover save the rock behind which the archer hid.”
- Beyond the Shade Gate
Although Cover is mentioned briefly in the rules, I thought I'd try to nail down their effects a bit more concretely.
Degree Example Effect
Minor Knee height or low archway Reduce Attack skill by 1/10
Medium Waist height or half profile Reduce Attack roll by 1/2
Major Window or arrow slit Reduce Attack roll to 1/10
Remember that you cannot Dodge if Attacking, so someone attacking from cover is a sitting duck betting on a higher chance of getting in a shot while not taking one. I thought about also adding a damage resistance roll as I have done with shields, but decided to wait until these rules are tested in combat.
Sacrifice is a major thematic device in the Elric saga. Elric sacrifices Smiorgan to escape after the dragons after the sack of Imrryr, and skewers Duke Avan to summon Arioch in R'lin K'rin A. I think adding this as a story mechanic is a great addition to the game.
Types of Sacrifices
There are two types of Sacrifices, depending on the type of game and characters played:
Normal Pulp characters: Once a session, a PC can sacrifice a piece of combat gear to avoid damage that would kill or cripple them. This generates broken swords and shattered shields, and fits the genre well.
Champions or Agents of Saga-style characters: Once a session, a Champion or Agent of a higher power can sacrifice a companion when in dire need. Again, this option suits the Elric saga well, but requires a PC of high enough stature to enact. Basically, two conditions need to be kept:
1) The sacrificing PC has to be an Agent or Champion
2) The sacrificing PC has to be of higher social rank than the sacrificed
I think this rule should be optional as many players or groups would find it unpalatable. For me, it suits the genre perfectly, and balances out the advantages of having an Agent or Champion in the group with the fear that they might sacrifice others.
Just as Elric did in the novels.
COMBAT WITH ANIMALS & MONSTERS
I think I ran animals wrong back in the day, and gave them one attack like humanoids. The rules state, "Some characters and some animals have more than one weapon being used at a time, and they are allowed one attack for each weapon." This means a dragon would get two claws for 9D6 damage (!), and a Clakar would get 2 claws and a bite.
In this respect, it is useful to clarify a few things about combat with beasts:
1) Whereas humans must choose whether to Attack or Dodge in a round but can Parry with either, animals & beasts can Attack and Dodge, but most cannot Parry. Since humans have advantages of armor and numbers that even out against the raw destructive power of animals and beasts, this makes sense.
2) Unless noted, animal or beast Dodge is DEX x 2%. Remember, most cannot Parry, but can either Dodge and Attack, but take the same 20% penalty to cumulative defence rolls as humans. In other words, a group of armed and armoured humans will wear down a beast, but one on one is to be avoided. This is in keeping with the novels, where a few Clakars are enough to wound Moonglum and Elric.
3) It also needs to be noted that many beasts and animals have unique abilities hidden in their descriptions. I think I probably missed a lot of these back in the day:
Dragons can Parry with their long talons.
Clakar bites cannot be parried.
Dharzi Dogs always fight to the death unless Masters are defeated. Can be summoned via Demon of Desire.
Matik Creatures have magical beak and claws, equal to their POW, capable of harming magical creatures.
Mist Giants: Immune to normal weapons, corrode normal weapons, paralyze any in vicinity with pain unless they succeed at INT x3% roll, do 2d8 to Demon weapons if they succeed POW roll (RUN AWAY!).
Oleb: Always get surprise (I would allow an Ambush or See roll save against this for PCs).
Note that in a future post I will look at creatures of Moorcock's conception, and how these reflect the themes of his novels, and offer a way to emulate this.
MORE REALISTIC COMBAT?
This is the last thing I want. I am trying to emulate the fiction I have loved all my life with an admittedly older, skills-based system that was my first RPG love. I think my proposed changes do that. I will address the whiff factor of Stormbringer BRP combat at a later date.
As someone on the Stormbringer / Elric! FB page reminded me, unconscious at 0 and dead at - CON is a great rule that I would use.