Naked Combat

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 9, 2011

When was the last time you participated in an encounter without your weapons or armor? I’m not talking about characters like Monks that are designed for unarmed combat; I’m talking about characters like Paladins, Rangers, Wizards and Warlords that find themselves in situations where they have to fight monsters without the gear that they normally have equipped on their character sheet. It doesn’t happen very often.

Since we became dependent upon character builder and started printing out character sheets rather than writing them out by hand, any scenario that requires numbers to change becomes a lot more difficult to run on the fly than it ever was in previous editions of D&D. But that shouldn’t mean that such encounters are eliminated from the game all together. There are a ways to make combat without equipment work, and today we present four options.

Option 1 – Advanced Notice

If the DM knows that he’s planning an encounter where the PCs are going to be denied their normal equipment then he can inform the players ahead of time. You don’t have to give them specifics but you do need to tell them to have appropriate characters created. Since most players use character builder the work required to make these changes is minimal, however, they need to know to do it before they show up so that they can have two different character sheets ready.

The biggest downside to taking this approach is that the players know something up. Any surprise or spontaneity that might accompany a bare knuckle boxing match or prison stint is lost. A clever DM may simply ask the players to have two versions of their characters with them all the time or at least during certain arcs of the adventure. This gives the players a heads up that something might be coming but they won’t know if it’s this week, next week or three months from now.

Option 2 – Reactionary Manual Adjustments

Going this route brings surprise back into the equation. The players won’t have any advanced notice that they’ll need to fight without armor or weapons. When the danger happens the DM takes inventory. Everyone figures out who’s wearing what and who’s equipped with their weapons and other miscellaneous items.

Where this approach really has potential are encounters that happen during the middle of the night. Imagine the party camped out in the wilderness. They are confident that there is minimal threat so they’ve pitched tents and stripped out of that heavy metal armor in order to get a good night’s rest. However, during the dead of night they have to deal with some kind of threat.

By springing this kind of encounter on the players they have to stop and figure out their modified attack scores and defenses. Be sure to double check the math because there’s a greater chance for errors if players have to do the calculations manually.

Any encounter where the PCs need to step out of their comfort zone (like fighting without their sword) makes for interesting role-playing. Players have to decide what’s more important, taking three rounds to put on armor or getting into the fight and helping you allies? Is stepping away from the fight in order to grab a magic implement a fair exchange when other PCs are taking damage? What would the character do when presented with this scenario?

What I do like about a nighttime encounter like the one described here is it rewards players who choose certain races. Warforged, for example don’t sleep so they would have no reason to remove any of their gear while the rest of the party is sleeping. Elves only require four hours of rest while most other races require six. So it’s possible that if the party is attacked during the middle of the night the Warforged, Elf and Eladrin will be fully equipped while the Dwarf, Human and Dragonborn all end up fighting in their small clothes.

Option 3 – Make the Monsters Tougher

Any changes to the character sheets take time, whether it’s the time the players take before the game begins to create alternative versions of their PCs or whether it’s the time spent at the table doing the math by hand and writing out the new numbers. So why not leave the character sheets alone? Let the players run their PCs exactly as they’re printed on the sheet. Even though the defenses on the character sheet say chain mail +3 and the power card says flaming sword, let the role-playing describe the scene and have the PCs fight in flannel pajamas or attacking with their fists? Keep things moving and keep the players happy, just let them use the numbers they have in front of them and correct the details in the narrative.

In order to represent the fact that the PCs should actually be without key equipment, the DM can use monsters that are a higher level then would be appropriate or increase the stats of the level-appropriate monsters. If the defenses of the average PC are improved by 4 because of armor and neck items, then give all the monsters +4 to hit to offset it. Using higher level monsters will accomplish the same thing.

In order for this to really work, the players need to have some fun with it. They have to understand that just because the character sheet says they’re wearing their +3 Scale Mail doesn’t mean that they wear it 24/7. If they were awakened by the sounds of combat happening all around them it’s a good chance that they’ll be fighting without it.

Have the players describe the way their characters feels being unequipped. Are they scared or exhilarated by the challenge. Are they angry that they didn’t have time to get dressed or are they embarrassed to be fighting in their underwear? DMs should likewise have fun if the attackers are capable of communicating with the heroes.

Option 4 – Forget About It

The final option is, regrettably, the one I think most DMs go with. They realize that creating any encounter in which the PCs are not fully equipped is going to create too much grief and be too much work for the players, the DM or both. In order to keep things moving the DM foregoes his awesome idea. I have to admit that I’ve defaulted to this option on multiple occasions.

The mechanics of 4e D&D expect that PCs are always fully equipped with items suitable for their level (or that the PCs will have inherent bonuses applied). The monsters are designed with his in mind. Therefore encounters where the PCs are at less than their best are not something that can be easily incorporated into an adventure. In a way the rigidity of the mechanics can limit the story the DM wants to tell. Even though the DM might have an idea for a great encounter that takes place in the middle of the night when the party is unaware, he’s likely to give the PCs ample notice to gear-up before beginning the combat because it’s easier.

Weighing the Options

Experienced players and DMs are always looking for something to spice up their adventure. Combat in which the PCs are denied some or all of their usual equipment will certainly add some excitement. Regardless of which approach is used this is not something that I’d recommend doing with any regularity. As described above, PCs are at a significant disadvantage when unequipped. However, the potentially great role-playing that might come about from naked combat could be worth the head aches and will likely be a lot of fun.

Since the release of 4e have you ever run or played in an encounter where the party was without their gear? Did you use one of the options described above or did you come up with a totally different way to run the encounter? As a player what are your thoughts on the occasional encounter where the party is unable to get fully equipped before the combat begins?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rutger September 9, 2011 at 9:53 am

Another option would be for the DM to ask for the character builder source files.
I could be a bit outdated here because I only used the client version of the builder.

The DM strips the characters and prints out new sheets.
And then Surprise! Yer nekkid! Here is your sheet.

Bit more work for the DM but a greater effect, imho.

2 iserith September 9, 2011 at 10:44 am

As well, this becomes a much easier thing to do when you use inherent bonuses in your campaign. But I personally use Option 3. It’s all just numbers on a page. Nobody remembers that stuff. They remember the tense moment when they fought an ogre in their underoos (with the feeties). A thin veneer of narration and roleplaying and that suit of scale is quickly forgotten.

Along those lines, I toyed with the idea of running an episodic campaign in 3.5 that was very much in line with the whole “easy come, easy go” mentality of Conan the Barbarian. In said campaign, the idea is that each adventure was in a different locale and your equipment changes based on the scenario. Washed upon the beach? Tattered clothes, a dagger, and a broken wine jug. Climbing a mountain? Survival gear and wrappings to protect against the cold (but no armor). The key was to give the PCs everything they need to get things done during the course of the adventure, kind of in a problem-solving way. (“Oh, the mirror is to signal the guy in the tower.”) I never did get around to it because I couldn’t wrap my brain around how that would affect the mechanics. So regrettably, the campaign never saw the light of day (as you said it does for most DMs).

Perhaps after reading your blog and having my memory jogged I’ll have to give it some new consideration with new tools at my disposal.

3 Benoit September 9, 2011 at 11:37 am

You could also just custom make one of the power boxes that character builder makes for “unarmed attack – at will.” Have them pencil in their unarmored/unequipped defenses in the margin next to their regular defenses, and voila, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Come to think of it, that would be a great thing for WotC to add to the character builder.

4 Brian September 9, 2011 at 1:23 pm

About a year ago I ran a campaign where I started the characters off imprisoned. Some evil Wizards were sneaking off with random people and siphoning their life force to fuel their grotesque arcane experiments. Well, some of the experiments including creating magically-enhanced super soldiers, which turned on the Wizards and left the castle in shambles. Without the Wizards to maintain their prison, the PCs woke up with nothing to find the castle in complete chaos. Bodies of guards and Wizards lay everywhere, various magical phenomena were malfunctioning, and a couple of super soldiers were still on the loose in the castle (including various other creatures that the Wizards had captured in an attempt to tame them). The PCs had to fight their way, unequipped, through several rooms before getting their stuff back, at which point they had to escape the castle and find out where the heck they were.

A couple of factors led to this not being a hassle at all: 1) the PCs were first or second level (can’t remember what I started them off at), so they hadn’t had time to accrue many miscellaneous modifiers, and 2) none of my players (nor myself) use the Character Builder (even when I had the downloadable one on my computer), so they’re used to doing their own math anyways.

5 Jeff Dougan September 9, 2011 at 5:22 pm

I’m playing a PBP game right now where we’ve started off unarmed/unarmored. I came in late, so I’ve managed to grab a staff, but no armor yet. (That will, hopefully, be coming shortly.)

6 Sunyaku September 9, 2011 at 11:21 pm

I always envisioned starting a Dark Sun campaign with naked characters having just escaped some form of slavery… be it mining pits, the gladiator arena, or servants to the wealthy/powerful. I like this idea for the Athas campaign world in particular, because it teaches players from the beginning that even the most mundane items are to be treasured in this harsh, unforgiving world.

7 Anaxetogrind September 10, 2011 at 12:11 am

This is one of the few times that a Virtual Table truly shines. Calculate your pc’s AC from armor (Prof + Enchanment), attack bonuses from implement/weapons/feats (Prof + Ench + Feat), Damage bonuses (Feats + Ench) and Neck Slot items (Ench). Create negative modifiers to apply when you spring your surprise. Then just have them roll d4s instead of weapon/implement for damage and voila. As they recover pieces of equipment remove the neg. mods and they are “re-equipped”.

I have done this three times over two campaigns with great success. It was a great way to level the playing field for non-optimize characters and allow them to really shine with creativeness. Nothing like fighting in a prison cell where you can see your armor and weapons but not access them. After all the Eladrin can teleport out but then how does he get back with everyone’s gear? Armor doesn’t fit through the bars, lol.

In my face to face game, I notate the players gold etc and update my online character builder. I can always print a copy of their Character sheet if they forget it. I have ran this type of session once face to face. Un-equipping everything in the CB to hand over was a bit tedious.

8 Astrolounge September 11, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Being attacked while lacking in equipment happens all the time for my group. So the defender I made is an Eladrin INT-knight. Long story short, he uses Hide Armor, so if he’s camping out somewhere dangerous he doesn’t have to take it off to sleep properly, and his Blade Initiate feat allows him to get +3 AC for an encounter once per day if he gets surprised without his shield on for some reason (If he’s using a shield it still give +1 AC so it’s still handy even if he doesn’t get jumped). The funniest example of this sort of thing was when I got attacked while bathing. I conjured my swordmage ward, picked up my sword, and the lack of my magic armor only actually cost me 4 points of AC. INT-knights are such fun.

9 RedNightmare September 12, 2011 at 8:36 am

The Campaign I play in right now started us off imprisoned on a ship and unarmed. After Bluffing a guard into the cell with me, escaping and freeing the rest we proceeded to navigate the ship and find our equipment, looting swords were we could.
Especially the first encounter was great. Bull Rushing a pirate onto a burning table: Best Fight Ever!

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