The Martial Pool

The place to discuss the new d20 dice pool mechanics.

The Martial Pool

Postby Galloglaich » Sat Sep 27, 2008 5:31 pm

There have been so many developments in DnD over the last four or five years, I don’t know if this is new or not, but I thought it might spark an interesting discussion (and maybe I’ll find out if anyone else has done this). The Martial Pool is a system we have been using in our house rules for about four years now, it’s a new way of rolling combat dice for 3.5 OGL games. The system works like this. Each person gets a ‘pool’ of up to four twenty sided dice, they can roll each dice for individual attacks or what we call “active” defense, or they can combine two or more dice together for the same roll and only count the highest number.

We see this as a way to avoid the dreaded ‘flat curve’, as a sort of a sweet spot between the way a dice pool works and the twenty sided dice. You get the speed and reduced arithmetic of the former with the wide probability range of the latter, while still keeping the twenty sided dice we know and love in DnD.

How we got there
We were running a gritty, low-magic campaign with an emphasis on martial arts and the tactics of fighting. We had made up our own neat little feats based on armed combat techniques from medieval fighting manuals we had. We were already using a defense roll with damage reduction like in D20 modern or Conan RPG, and we already had weapons rated for attack and defense, and had come up with some mechanics for bypassing armor. We felt that our combat system was enhanced over the standard system, but the back and forth still seemed a little too routine and mechanical especially in longer fights, and people kept getting really frustrated with the whole ‘flat curve’ thing with the 20 sided dice. I remember one of our players had just bought a new set of rather nice dice, he rolled a “1” on an important attack, and got so aggravated he threw the whole set of dice out the window and into the bushes in my back yard.

From our group of a bunch of gun nuts and sword nuts, we had different suggestions on how we could ‘take it to the next level’ with our combat system. We talked about Gurps, The Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, older games like Runequest and Rolemaster, the Grim and Gritty damage model, all sorts of other systems. We decided that we were more interested in the mechanics of the fight than on a complex damage model for our game. I personally felt tracking damage was simply too much accounting work, and frankly, since a lot of us were into martial arts we were more interested in who could cut the other guy first than rates of arterial bleeding or lung deflation. (maybe because in sparring, you never get to that part)

We looked at the dice pool mechanic from shadowrun, and tried out a few sessions of that game. We really liked how the dice pool seemed to be pretty fast and cut down on the headache of arithmetic somewhat. But we felt the range of probability from a six-sider or a ten-sider was too narrow, and changing the dice would be too much of a departure from DnD anyway. So we thought about a dice pool of twenty sided dice, but the dice pool itself was just too many dice to mess with, it quickly starts to get out of hand. Who wants to carry that many dice? And I didn’t really like playing with target numbers either once I started looking at how to make the stats work etc.

How it works
So we came up with this ‘new’ idea. Why not keep the basic DnD mechanic of how the twenty sided die works, but only let the players roll two or more dice and take the best number? The idea occurred to us when we were rolling some characters, using that standard character generation method of rolling 4d6 and dropping the lowest die. Why not roll two or three d20s and drop your crappiest roll?

So we started thinking of how to implement this. I liked the idea of letting the player decide how to manage some of their dice for offense and some for defense, like in the Riddle of Steel and some other games. But that meant it would be quite likely that a player might run out of defensive dice. So we came up with the idea of passive defense.

Passive defense is like the armor class, except armor isn’t part of it. We give everybody a defense rating based on BAB, Dex bonus and the defensive value of their weapon. So passive defense is your defense rating plus 8. Active defense is defense rating plus your die roll. So effectively it’s a slightly higher average, plus to make this even more interesting, we decided that a natural 20 rolled on defense is automatically a counterattack. A tie when the defender meant you hit his weapon (if he had one) which leads to weapons being broken right and left. Makes maces more valuable than axes in certain respects.

This also fit well for attacks of opportunity. Instead of basic AoO on your Dex bonus, it’s based on your Martial Pool. If you have dice left, you can make an AoO, if you don’t you can’t. This gives you something else interesting to think about – do you use all your dice in attacks on that group of wolves or save some to keep one from rushing in to bowl you over? A feint could be modified so that it sucks away one of your martial pool points, so you could for example, feint at somebody, and if they fell for it, rush in to grapple range.

In fact we found this basic mechanic worked really well with all of our special “martial’ feats we had come up with. We were able to take away a lot of the arithmetic, +4 bonus to this or -4 to that, and play with the martial pool instead. It lent itself very well to all kinds of special circumstances which could give you a ‘free dice’, or an extra die for your pool – thus increasing your odds for a good die roll.

Bottom line, we have had a ball with this. It has made combat much more interesting for us and never routine. Some of the fighter characters occasionally fight duels over matters of honor now – to the first blood. Our wizards or the one guy who is holding off the enemy horde use all their dice for active defense. It lends itself to all kinds of drama. The desperate attempt to stab that soft spot in the dragons scales can be tried with a four dice attack.

To keep this managable, we made a rule on the die, fighters get 1 die in their pool per BAB, but it maxes out at four dice. This way the lower level mooks still only get their one die.

If you had a system which was even more combat oriented than ours, you could increase the ‘Martial Pool’ to a much higher number. We wanted to keep it fast.

Who might like it
Not everybody would like this. If you are in a campaign where you are slaughtering orcs by the dozen, this could get a little tedious. I’m not sure how well it would work for a higher level campaign either, I think all of our testing was mostly done with mid level characters. It worked really well for us in our game, and beta testers of the new combat rules manual I wrote seemed to like it a lot, but they were mostly HEMA, escrima or Iaido people I knew through martial arts forums. I think quite a few people might also have fun with this idea, but definitely not everybody. A lot of people really aren’t interested in the mechanics of combat and many folks who play RPGs are really turned off by anything resembling realism. I think this is suitable for those few games where there is a heavy emphasis on tactics or realism or real cinematic combat as it seems to enhance drama somewhat.

I think this is a natural for Samurai based games, historically based games set in the middle ages or renaissance, or pirate / three musketeers type games. I also think certain gritty types of horror genre games like a lot of your Call of Cthulhu (Cthulhu Dark Ages?) type games might be suitable, where a fight is a fairly rare and deadly thing. It might be a good fit for high action zombie settings? I haven’t played many sci fi type settings in a long, long time but I think it could be really cool for a setting like the Matrix. It would probably be a lot of fun for a Star Wars setting. It might be good for some superheroes settings, I'm not sure.

And basically any games with an emphasis on martial arts or cinematic combat.
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Re: The Martial Pool

Postby Galloglaich » Sat Sep 27, 2008 5:32 pm

There is an active discussion about this on Enworld right now

Enworld Discussion
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