A Treatise on Active Defenses in RPG Combat

Sometimes you want to do more than just stand around and let your armor take the hits in combat. Can the newest edition of D&D accommodate active defenses? 4E created an elegant mechanic that allowed active defenses to be used easily, and that’s something I don’t want to see lost.

So what are active defenses? Well an active defense means what it says; you have to take an affirmative action to defend yourself against an incoming attack. An example of a modern military active defense is the Aegis system, designed to shoot down incoming missiles and aircraft to defend ships from attack. In contrast, WWII ships and earlier mostly relied on armor, which is generally a passive defense. Armor just sits there, being hard to penetrate. It does not act.

In D&D armor has always been like that of the battleship. You wear it, it makes you harder to hit. It is a passive defense, and generally the only defense, at least in terms of physical combat. Even dexterity modifiers were passive, when applied to defense. Though you were probably dodging away from incoming attacks, you added a specific, flat number to your AC and that was the end of it. It definitely has the advantage of being simple, which can be very valuable to a game system, but it lacked flavor.

What’s more, as the armors got better (more magical) and Dex modifiers and other protections stacked up, the character became effectively impervious to lower level monsters, and even medium level monsters. Going from the 1st edition’s mechanics, a 10th level fighter with +3 plate mail, a +3 shield and gauntlets of dexterity (18 Dex) would have an AC of -8 (AC 28 in 3E and higher), which was enviable for the greatest monsters of the day.

Now you could say, “That’s the point, high level characters are supposed to be off dealing with high level threats,” and that is certainly true up to a point, but what if those high level characters are unscrupulous? I can’t tell you how many times I had players decide to lord it over a small or medium town full of 0-level people.

High AC PC “Hey, I want that pendant.”

Peasant “But sir, it’s been in my family for generations.”

High AC PC “Well now it will be in my family for many more to come, hand it over.”

What’s the peasant going to do? Fighting the high level fighter is going to be a no-go no matter what, but can he call on the local lord? His troops might all be 0-level too. Or even if they’re 2nd level and the lord is, say 6th, and he gets into the act too, the -8 AC will walk through them like they were a light rain. If the local lord had some serious equipment and stats of his own, it might become a challenge, but verisimilitude is going to suffer if you have to go that route to provide an effective deterrent.

Even if it’s not the PCs acting unscrupulously, there are always circumstances where I find myself wishing that D&D (in any edition) had the mechanics to allow low level common troops to seriously threaten high, or even mid-level PCs.

I know the previous example was 1st/2nd edition, but the ACs have only continued to increase and the common folk are still low level. 3E offered a limited remedy with its NPC classes, but again the vast bulk of the NPCs were low enough level to offer no serious resistance to the offender. 4E’s cure seems to be, “15th level PC? Make the guards at least 8th to 12th level. That will be a challenge.” Again the cure is to sacrifice verisimilitude for challenge. Not satisfying. I’ve tried to deal with this a little more palatably with squads, but those are really stop gap measures and still not completely satisfying.

So we want a character that can, at higher levels, kick some butt against high level baddies but still be able to be threatened by the local constabulary. I think active defenses are the answer. The concept that makes this workable in 4E is the immediate interrupt; more specifically, an immediate interrupt that affects an incoming attack. It would work like this:

Let’s say you’ve got a swashbuckler type of character, his immediate interrupt might be to shift away a square when the attack is made. Now, unless the attack had reach it is no longer viable. The enemy misses because before the attack lands the swashbuckler is too far away to be hit. There were some powers that operated similarly, but they tended to be based on a shift as soon as the enemy moved adjacent. However, a charge might cure that. Also those powers were usually encounter powers. These new active defenses would be at-will powers.

The  4E shifting that I’m talking about was automatically effective, which makes a certain amount of sense for encounter powers, and it is still simple. But active defenses that are at-will should be limited in some way. For instance the shift requires an attack roll against the reflex defense of the enemy. Essentially the defending character is trying to move quickly enough to dodge out of the way of the incoming sword stroke. If he’s quick and rolls relatively well, he skips aside. If the other guy is pretty quick he might not be fast enough to dodge.

The limitation of only one immediate interrupt per round might require some tweaking. For instance, the swashbuckler could use his shift away only once, but then he might have a parry power that he could also use, maybe even a parry and riposte as an encounter power if that mechanic still exists in 5E.

So how do these active defenses deal with the issue of high passive defense described above? Well this is one of the reasons that a stripped down version should be in the core rules. If the PC is largely relying in active defenses, the passive defense doesn’t have to keep creeping up, higher and higher to stay viable against high level baddies. The shift defense described above could be upgradable over the levels, possibly interacting with skills like acrobatics or athletics to increase the distance of the shift. So the swashbuckler could (if he rolled well) dodge out of the reach of a giant or a dragon’s breath-weapon zone. And it demands the swashbuckler stay mobile and not get pinned down, which was another point of  4E combat that is worth keeping.

So, back to our example of the swashbuckler, let’s say he’s 15th level and tangling with a dragon. He dashes in to cut it with his rapier, but the dragon wants to smash him with its claws. He uses his dodge (rolling against the Dragon’s reflex) and succeeds. He has a high level feat (or feature or whatever) that, coupled with his dodge, allows him to tumble forward into the dragon’s space, between its legs. The dragon tries to step on him, but he has another feat that gives him an extra interrupt and he tumbles further, out from behind the dragon. The dragon lashes at him with his tail, but the swashbuckler uses his last feat adding an interrupt (not unreasonable to have three at 15th level I think) to leap over the tail, while staying otherwise in the same spot. The dragon turns to breathe on him. The swashbuckler has no more dodges, so he’s probably thinking “where the hell is the rest of my party?” and hoping that the DM was just messing with him and that the dragon doesn’t have any more actions.

There’s an example of a high level character using active defenses against a high level monster. Each time he’s rolling against reflex and hoping he rolls well so the monster can’t land a harsh blow. Passive defenses don’t enter into it unless the dodge misses and then you take your chances against the monster’s own attack roll. The character’s dodge roll against the dragon’s reflex has been steadily increasing over the levels because of the character’s skill, maybe with a little magic thrown in. It is his primary defense. He needs to stay on the move to keep away from harm. His passive defenses need not be high because of his reliance on the actives.

Because of that mechanic, he can now be threatened by low level guards too. The swashbuckler (being the rake that he is) is on the run from the duke’s guards. If he stands to fight, he can handle up to three without much fuss. He has three interrupt defenses after all. His dodge skill is likely high enough to ensure that three low level guards cannot touch him as he keeps dodging. But what about four? The fourth guard to get a swing at him will be attacking a lower passive defense, one that he can reasonably threaten. The swashbuckler will have to get rid of the fourth quick or suffer a real risk of harm. And there might be reinforcements on the way.

If another dozen guards round the corner, the swashbuckler will need some seriously fancy footwork to keep them all off him. But that’s how it should be, isn’t it? And with all those improved dodge defenses; he may be able to keep moving enough to stay out of harm’s way until he can figure out a way to flee. Hopefully he’ll win, or at least escape, but the point is the same character is threatened by each of the encounters described above. In all the previous editions, his passive defenses would be so high that if he stood a chance against the dragon, the guards stood no chance against him.

Similar defensive schemes could be centered on parries and shield blocks and probably magical defenses. This allows for the creation of a dynamic defensive scheme which should be more flavorful and importantly, leaves low level creatures as potential threats throughout all level progression.

17 Responses to A Treatise on Active Defenses in RPG Combat

  1. I like low level campaign as a matter of theme and practicality. My current Pathfinder campaign we started at level five, I’m playing Sherlock Holmes (it’s a pop culture multiverse campaign) and I got taken down to 2 HP by a wight. I have the highest AC in the party thanks to the Investigator Talent that lets me add INT to AC, but for CR 5ish monsters, I still manage to get hit. In fact, I’d have been really dead if the DM hadn’t focus fired on the alchemist who we’d houseruled to get INT for ranged attacks. Turns out eleven 3d6 bombs a day is a bit broken when they don’t miss.

    Anyway, I like the feeling of squishyness, and I like active defense, that’s why I want them to bring back reflex saves. Fortitude and Will I think work ok as passive defense, but the whole point of reflex saves is the character actively getting out of the way. Not just a blasty spell, but a falling ledge, or tree. Basically I don’t like the flavor of traps or environmental hazards making a roll against you. It’s an inanimate object that may not be intended to harm, why should it take action? Plus, I’ve found that having players roll the save makes them a bit more responsible for their actions because it’s their roll, not the DMs. It makes the environmental hazards feel less like “rocks fall everyone dies” when the DM rolls well. I also like giving players who can’t stay in character make Will saves to not say their out of game stuff at inappropriate times in game, but flavorwise, reflex bugs me more than the other passive defenses.

  2. While this works with city guards it also works with higher level monsters too. In this system any time you have multiple monsters you can overwhelm a player’s defenses. I’ve seen many cases where a sneaky type is scouting when he gets discovered. The rest of the party is back further and it will take them a round or more to get into combat. That balanced encounter becomes a rogue-slaughter. (with the normal system it’s still bad for the rogue, but not quite as bad because they get their full defense against every attack) And the swashbuckler types are in deep dung if the monsters can back them into a corner. The parry and shield types are fine with that.

    Next, stunning and dazing become deadly effects. Not being able to make an active defense would mean a probable hit.

    This will also affect PC’s. The smart tactic in to overwhelm one creature. Smart players will change their tactics to this and the challenge goes way down. They’d pick powers that stun and daze as often as possible.

    There are a lot of consequences to this change that will ripple through the game.

    As for your original problem, there’s several easy solutions to your problems.
    1) No town is an island. The feudal system goes both ways. If you mess with the town guards, then the local lord will send men against you. If you defeat them, his lord will come after you. Eventually you’ll get the king’s men coming after you, and he’s going to have some high level people to spank them.
    2) Retired adventurers. A lot of adventurers die. But enough survive and decide that they have enough money to live comfortably. Some of them in the cities, some of them in sleepy old towns. When the players are standing there with the town guards stacked like cordwood, then old Ben Kenobi comes out and suggests that they give the peasant his heirloom back.
    3) Don’t play with dicks.

  3. I am very much a fan of this idea, as I’m a big fan of sword-n-board melee types. I can see all kinds of fun shield-bashy type things coming out from this. I want my paladin to be blocking, shifting, re-positioning with his shield, holding back his sword until he gets the chance to do one smite to a hopefully prone opponent. I love this idea, in theory.

    However, I wonder if this wouldn’t fix one problem to exacerbate another problem. Combat paralysis is already caused by the numerous options in offense. If we offer just as many defenses, are we not doubling the problem? Wouldn’t slog down combat, particularly at the higher levels when there are multiple interrupt abilities, leaving a player wondering if he should spend his turn doing his acrobatic flip at a +2 and hopefully get combat advantage, or if he should do his whirling cloak dodge at +5 and just avoid the hit, or just take the hit and then use the next action to make his attack. Is there any way that this could be helped?

  4. I have the same concern as R.C. I like the concept of active defense, but in practice I worry about slow combat.

    One potential idea is that you assume active defense, based on Dex. Most basic combat actions assume that you are also actively defending yourself, so you get the Dex mod to your AC (as normal). If you take certain complex combat actions, like a roundhouse kick or some kind of crazy rogue attack, you’re focusing too much on the attack. Thus you lose your Dex mod to AC for that round. This penalty would be applied in place of attacks of opportunity for actions like a bull rush or disarm or whatever other fancy combat maneuvers you want to create, which streamlines combat by eliminating all those extraneous AoO rolls.

  5. @ R. C. Anzaldua the potential for bogging down combat is certainly a possibility, which is why I presume that this (if ever adopted) would be in the optional realm of 5e. I do think that some limited version could be implemented in core rules, but mostly a type of opposed check without all the flashy options. Of course it will all depend on the combat mechanics used in 5e. The ‘transcript’ of the ‘next iteration’ seminar from last week suggested that they are onto the problem of defenses getting too high, so maybe my ‘fix’ will be irrelevant. Even so, i still think it would be fun.

    The general premise I was working from is a single character, particularly as he goes up in levels can really toe the line with another individual, but an be threatened by low-level enemies if they can swamp him. That just makes sense. as all previous editions worked the mechanical presumption was near total marginalization of low level creatures at high levels. If that’s what you want, fine, that can be fun too, but the rules shouldn’t be built on that presumption.

    @Philo Pharynx, the fixes you suggested aren’t sufficient for me. #3 is currently irrelevant for me (though our dwarf turned out to be CE last night, so maybe not entirely). The examples I was giving above were extrapolations of stuff from mostly my teenaged games, and at least one of those guys was a real dick. But even if its not he players being dicks, the previous editions fall flat when dealing with high level characters and low level troopers of any sort.

    For instance our last campaign spent a lot of time in Rome during a civil war between an arcane secret police and ‘godsworn’ rebels. there were relatively high level guys on each side, but most of the fighting was between legionaries from either camp. Yet the party went through them like a hot knife through butter, several times, even when fighting companies of them. by virtue of their levels and the game’s mechanics the only real way to challenge the party was with high level lieutenants all the time. In effect I was forced to script my story to the mechanics of the game, rather than the other way around. changing it too my liking took a hell of a lot of effort, and drastic house-ruling on my part. Much as I like coming up with rules, I don’t really like to reinvent a game to fit my story.

    Also I really don’t have a problem with stunning and dazing being deadly. They really should be if you think about it. Mindflayers? in 1/2e? scary as hell. no problem with that really. I know other people might not agree, but again, nerfing that mechanic should be an option, not the standard IMO.

  6. Also as far as bogging down, the dodges described are all essentially variations on the same theme. As far as fighters, for instance, I don’t think that say 3 attack options and three defense options at about 15th level are too cumbersome. I remember all the way into 3.5 that I wanted more options for my fighter. 4e gave that to me but far too much, particularly when selecting to build my character. I found that the conditional aftereffects were usually the hardest to keep track of, like if I crit on him, more bad stuff happens later in the turn if he does X. Ultimately I just ignored those options or trained them away.

  7. Discrimination. That’s what it is. He’s not Chaotic Evil as in the “I’m the Joker, let’s sow chaos in the world and murder as many people as possible.”

    He’s “chaotic” in that he abandoned the laws and traditions of his people and clan to pursue the taboo of wizardry. He’s evil in that, in order to further his studies in a land/place without any wizard schools (i.e. the dwarven homeland), he consorted with evil spirits and demons for instruction in the arcane arts, which has tainted his soul. At no time has he shown that he wants to go around murdering civilians or challenging town guards. IN FACT, as I remember it, it was the life-loving, tree-hugging ELF rogue who used a goblin child as a shield, NOT the dwarven wizard.

    Actually, maybe my dwarf is neutral evil.

    So, #3 remains irrelevant.

    You guys wouldn’t have even known he was evil at all if it weren’t for Ed forcing everyone to say their alignments in the open. What ever happened to a little privacy?

  8. To add to the actual discussion, as opposed to defending my story-driven alignment choices, another possibility to kind of mimic an active defense is to always assume, immediately after their round, unless otherwise unable, a character is actively defending.

    For each attack directed at the character, they begin accumulating a penalty to AC. This penalty is meant to mimic a character defending themselves from multiple fronts. Sure, the first attacks is parried easily, but that has left the fighter more open. -2 to AC for all ensuing attacks. During the same round, another attack against the fighter increases the penalty to -3. The penalty increases by 1 for each subsequent attack. So, a fighter beset by a group of five enemies focused on him has a -5 penalty to AC against the last attacker. He is literally at his limit attempting to thwart that many enemies.

  9. That’s a really cool idea, but perhaps the basic flanking rule accomplishes it without the bookkeeping. Although a cumulative flanking rule might be interesting, instead of just a flat -2 or whatever, you get additional negative AC per opponent adjacent to you.

  10. Well, the way mine works is that as soon as you’re attacked, hit or miss, you start granting combat advantage to others. It only gets worse from there. You’d probably drop the flanking rules.

  11. Yeah, I’m just saying it requires you to track how many times you’ve been attacked each round. Hellish for a DM running half a dozen hobgoblins. Cumulative flanking, each attack you just look down, “Ok, four enemies adjacent to the defender, that’s -3 to AC for this attack.”

  12. I had actually considered similar rules changes in the last campaign. in fact, we never really implemented it, but I used ‘surrounded’ as a higher end flanking, giving a -5 penalty to defenses. But the problem with any of these mechanics, especially for 4e is that they don’t go far enough to fix the math that causes the problem.

    in 4e a 20th level character who is naked and unconscious still has a 20 AC (effectively 15 because of unconsciousness). If the unconscious character is in his plate +4, he has a 32 AC. So even if he’s completely, slack-jawed surprised and completely surrounded with a cumulative -1 for each flanking creature he still has at least a 24 AC, and probably more. low level guards are still pretty much incapable of hitting him without 20s.

  13. I’m with RC and Ed. There are already two rolls for combat – attack and damage. Active defence adds a third, and also a second decision point.

    So what if it was either or? Either the attacker rolls if passive defence is used (allowing slow characters with heavy, strong armour to just stand there and try and take it), or the defender rolls if active defence is used (like your examples above). Perhaps attack powers determine which is used?

    All that said, the other great benefit of active attack/passive defence is that the attacker feels they have agency. If I attack you, my character is doing something to your character, and so I get to do something too – I roll my dice. If I attack you and you’re the one rolling your dice, then you’re doing something and I’m not – even if the fiction is the same, and my character is acting. That wouldn’t very satisfying for DM or player, I fancy.

  14. Its always a good point that adding extra mechanics have the potential to slow down a game. That’s something that 4e did for all the classes i think.

    It’s actually been a while since I played 4e and the character I used was essentially for a one shot, but I had made a melee ranger who had a bunch of interrupt defenses and I have to say he was a hell of a lot of fun. I’m not sure how many other classes had those types of powers, and to be sure he was built to take advantage of them, but it really felt like some true swashbuckling combat. I didn’t have any at-will interrupts like that but i realized that if i did I wouldn’t have needed to worry so much about my passive defenses which caused the armor creep that has always bothered the hell out of me since 1e. So in my quite limited play test it worked fine for me as a player.

    I do have to say that I built some of these defenses into some boss type monsters and I think at least a few of them ticked off my players at times. Though I feel like that might also be because of the insidious assumptions that 4e created, that the party should be able to tank on anything the DM puts in front of them, particularly if they are fully rested. I guess they can chime in on that.

    Your point on the ‘owning’ of the action is also well taken. Here I’m looking at it from the point of view of the players/PC’s. that way the player is also owning his defense, rather like a saving throw. really it is in effect an opposed check though.

    That is also why i see this as primarily an optional expansion. And of course its implementation and some of my arguments about its necessity would entirely depend on what the ‘core’ rules of D&DN (or whatever the hell its called) actually look like.

    I appreciate the comments from everybody, by the way. I just love this kind of discussion.

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