the first grapple rules

This entry is part 16 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

A lot of ink has been spilled about D&D’s confusing Grapple rules. To refresh your memory, here are D&D’s first Grapple rules ever, which can be found inside a combat example in issue #2 of Strategic Review (1975):

Combat Example:

10 ORCS surprise a lone Hero wandering lost in the dungeons, but the die check reveals they are 30′ distant at the time of surprise, so they use their initiative to close to melee distance. lnitiative is now checked. The Hero scores a 3, plus 1 for his high dexterity, so it is counted 4. The Orcs score 6, and even a minus 1 for their lack of dexterity (optional) still allows them first attack. As they outnumber their opponent so heavily it is likely that they will try to overpower him rather than kill, so each hit they score will be counted as attempts to grapple the Hero:

– Assumed armor of the Hero: Chainmail & Shield — AC 4.

– Score required to hit AC 4 — 15 (by monsters with 1 hit die).

– Only 5 Orcs can attack, as they haven’t had time to surround.

Assume the following dice scores for the Orcs attacks:
Orc #1 – 06; #2 – 10; #3 – 18; #4 – 20; #5 – 03.

Two of the Orcs have grappled the Hero, and if his score with 4 dice is less than their score with 2 dice he has been pinned helplessly. If it is a tie they are struggling, with the Hero still on his feet, but he will be unable to defend himself with his weapon. If the Hero scores higher than the Orcs use the positive difference to throw off his attackers, i.e. the Hero scores 15 and the Orcs scored but 8, so the Hero has tossed both aside, stunning them for 7 turns between them.

– Round 2: lniative goes to the Hero.

– Score required to hit Orcs — 11 (4th level fighter vs. AC 6).

Assume the following dice score by the Hero. Note that he is allowed one attack for each of his combat levels as the ratio of one Orc vs. the Hero is 1:4, so this is treated as normal (non-fantastic) melee, as is any combat where the score of one side is a base 1 hit die or less.

Hero: 19; 01; 16; 09. Two out of four blows struck. There are 8 orcs which can be possibly hit. An 8-sided die is rolled to determine which have been struck. Assume a 3 and an 8 are rolled. Orcs #3 and #8 are diced for to determine their hit points, and they have 3 and 4 points respectively. Orc #3 takes 6 damage points and is killed. Orc #8 takes 1 damage point and is able to fight.

– All 7 surviving/non-stunned Orcs are now able to attack.

Continued attempts to overpower the Hero are assumed, and no less than 4 Orcs are able to attack the Hero from positions where his shield cannot be brought into play, so his AC is there considered 5, and those Orcs which attack from behind add +2 to their hit dice. In the case it is quite likely that the Orcs will capture the Hero.

Keep in mind that D&D was so new at that point that they were giving combat examples of things for which THEY HAD NOT WRITTEN THE RULES YET. The actual Grapple rules for which these are an example have, I believe, never been printed. You have to reverse-engineer the rules from the examples – kind of like learning a language via immersion.

I have to admit, I don’t speak OD&D very well. What’s going on here? The enemies all attack, and after everyone has attacked, you make a dice pool with 1d6 for every level of enemy who hit? and you roll that vs. a dice pool that has 1d6 for every level of the defender?

(By the way, the next time TSR printed Grapple rules was, I think, in the 1979 AD&D DMG and it’s MUCH MORE confusing. Lots of percentile modifiers based on what type of armor everyone is wearing, and special rules for rabbit punches and stuff.)

Here’s what Gary Gygax said in 2005 about the Strategic Review grapple rules:

We sometimes used the SR system in grappling melees, but most often the Dm simply weighed the situation and ajudicated without all that dice rolling. thus, eight orcs getting the jump on a 4th level fighter would be assumed to overpower him with some loss to themselves–d6 and another die roll for each KOed in the struggle, a score of 6 indicating killed in action.

The more complex system in AD&D was my error, mainly that of listening to those who wanted combat to be very detailed.

You are on target in regards the examples of low-level monsters seeking to come to grips with a strong PC. Eight orcs will likely be slain by a well-armored 4th level fighter unless they use their sheer numbers to overwhelm him.

I now have that happen when pack animals attack characters. Two wolves, dogs, or hyenas, for example, both successful in hitting the same target human (or humanoid), will knock him down and put him at a considerable disadvantage.

I do like the idea of a bunch of low-level guys being able to pull down heroes by sheer weight of numbers. It simulates fantasy and adventure literature. And it makes hordes of orcs dangerous at any level.

Series Navigation<< Warriors of Synnibarr by Gary Gygaxan early bad review of D&D >>

5 Responses to “the first grapple rules”

  1. jeremiah says:

    I’ve seen a few solo rpg/wargamers use a dice pool method mentioning it’s OD&D roots, maybe it’s related. They use the method to increase the uncertainty of how many hitpoints an opponent has (i.e. how would the players in OD&D know that the ogre is near dead and how can we represent this uncertainty):

    Fighters have 4 hit dice at 4th level in OD&D and *all* hit dice are d6. Most attacks in OD&D do d6 damage, or equivalently, 1 hit die of damage. To check to see if an attack killed an opponent, the attacker rolls a number of dice equal to the number of successful attacks they’ve made. This number is compared to the defender’s roll of however many hit dice they have. If the attacker rolls higher, the defender is dead. If the defending player survives, then they carry forward the amount rolled by the attacker, adding the value to future successful attacks (essentially reducing the their “hit points”).

  2. adam says:

    And here I thought I was being original. Sigh.

  3. paul says:

    Gary always gets there first.

  4. LS says:

    “I do like the idea of a bunch of low-level guys being able to pull down heroes by sheer weight of numbers. It simulates fantasy and adventure literature. And it makes hordes of orcs dangerous at any level.”

    I’ve been working on a rule to accommodate this. The short version is that every attack reduces the defender’s AC by 1 for the rest of the round. Regardless of whether the attack hits or misses.

  5. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Paul, you’ve got it pretty much right.

    So… you show up to game, and the referee says “you get this crudely scrawled note that says ‘giv us munny or frend dize’ “

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