Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - It's the Law

One day, Paul suggested we try an experiment with a new product that had been put out by a company called Iron Crown Enterprises (I.C.E.). It was called Arms Law, and it was basically a substitute combat system for D&D.

One of the silliest of D&D's silly rules was Armor Class, at least on the face of it. Basically, in D&D, armor made you harder to hit.

When you think of it in wargame terms, it makes perfect sense. Remember that the kinds of miniatures wargames that D&D evolved from featured highly abstract combat. When you roll to hit, what you are really rolling is whether you hurt your opponent. Armor protects you from damage. Therefore, whether you dodge the blow or whether it glances off your armor makes no effective difference; you're still taking no damage.

Except that in terms of flavor, it makes a ton of difference. If armor poses no trade-offs, such as protection vs. maneuverability, then there is no reason for anyone not to wear the heaviest armor they can find at all times, hence the need for artificial restrictions on armor wear by character class. You're trading one convenience (armor's damage absorption folded into the To Hit roll) for one PITA (armor restrictions by class).

So the dudes at I.C.E. came up with Arms Law, and looking at the ads, it seemed really cool: detailed charts for every weapon with more realistic To Hit and Armor rules and extensive critical hit tables. Paul picked up a copy and we grabbed some characters and tried to run an encounter.

Arms Law basically consisted of a booklet printed on cardstock, with every page perforated so you could tear it out and hand it to a player. On every page was a table. You can see a sample to the left (and as always, you can click it for a larger version).

This is a To Hit table for a broad sword, with lots of tiny numbers in 20 columns. And looking at the table, you can see the big differences between Arms Law and D&D. The 20 columns across the top are armor classes, ranging from 1 at the right (naked skin) to 20 at left (full plate, with overlapping plates to protect joints). But Arms Law handles hit resolution and armor very differently from D&D.

Number one, attacks are rolled on percentile dice, which gives a wider range of possible results, and there are percentages far above 100 on the chart, which is due to Arms Law using an early version of "exploding" dice. Basically, if you roll a critical success (96-00), you roll again and add the result to your first roll, continuing until you roll something less than 96.

So say I'm attacking some native dude in a loincloth and little else. In D&D, I would roll on a chart that correlated my level against his armor class and told me whether I damaged him or not. With no armor protection, he would be much easier to hit (even though it seems counterintuitive for a guy with no restrictions on his movement), but if I hit him, I would do the same range of damage as if he were wearing a full suit of plate armor.

Arms Law took a more realistic and more detailed ("crunchy," as the kids today like to say) approach. Say I rolled a 38 against my nearly-naked opponent. Unless I had huge bonuses to hit from level and expertise and magic pluses, I would miss, because I do no damage if my roll is below 80. On the other hand, if I were fighting a guy encumbered with a full suit of plate, I would hit him for one point of damage, possibly more with pluses. But if I managed to roll an 80 against my naked opponent, my damage would start at 8 points, while the same roll would only do 4 damage to a fighter in plate.

Basically armor made you easier to hit, but harder to damage, which just felt right. Also, the better your roll to hit, the more damage you did, so there was never the disappointment of making an awesome roll to hit (which we house-ruled as double damage on a natural 20) only to roll a one for damage.

The other big difference in Arms Law was the use of critical hit tables. Say that with bonuses, my roll ends up being 92 against my loincloth-wearing opponent.The To Hit table gives me a result of 12BP. The letters indicate a critical hit, meaning that after I apply my damage of 12, I go to column B of the Puncture table and roll again. I roll a 56 and discover that I have wounded his thigh, doing 3 extra damage, plus bleeding damage of 2 per round, plus he's stunned and unable to parry next round. The results go all the way from a piddly point of extra damage to instant death plus a bonus against your next opponent.

"Cool," we thought, and started playing. And soon, the problems became obvious.

Number one, although the rules were very detailed for man-to-man combat, there was very little in the way of rules for fighting monsters. Monsters fought by slightly different rules in D&D, based on hit dice, not level, and we quickly learned that Arms Law just didn't handle them well. There was a footnote in the book that I.C.E. would be coming out with a future companion product known as Claw Law that would handle monster combat, but that didn't do us any good at the moment, did it?

Another problem was that the Arms Law charts didn't scale. Like Arms Law, D&D had twenty armor classes (ranging from 10 to -10), but unlike Arms Law, the D&D charts had an easily discernable pattern that made it easy to scale them. What if you had a set of magical armor that was better than plate? The rules gave vague suggestions, but no hard and fast answers. Or what if you had a lot of bonuses and rolled really well on your exploding dice, so that your roll ended up above 200? The charts only went to 150, which limited you to 8 damage against a fully armored opponent (yes, you got a column E critical as well, but it still felt like your roll of 200 was being wasted somehow).

Also, the rules for determining pluses very infuriatingly vague (which made sense given that the product was supposed to be for use with any system). For instance, in D&D, characters of high level hit much more easily than characters of low level. How to account for this in Arms Law? See rule 5.24, presented here in its entirety:

A combatant judged to be at a certain level of experience may be given an offensive bonus by the referee.

That's it. That's the whole rule. There's no table or guidance to suggest what that bonus should be, just an indication that a bonus might exist (a completely different rule on another page suggests 5% per level, but you really have to hunt for it).

So in the end, we abandoned the Arms Law experiment. The tables were unwieldy, the monster combat was awkward, and the conversion rules were too vague. I.C.E. eventually brought out more supplements (Claw Law, Spell Law, and Campaign Law) to produce a full game system called Rolemaster (which was also the basic system I.C.E. used for Middle Earth Role Playing, or MERP).

I bought the Rolemaster boxed set in the mid-80's, thinking it might be fun to see if Arms Law worked better as part of an integrated system. But by then, I no longer really had anybody to game with, so the box just sat with my piles of other old games, with the books occasionally taken out and thumbed through, but never actually used. An experiment that failed.

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