D&D Did You Know’s: Friendly Fire in Third Edition

The give-and-take between the granularity of simulationism and the ease of playability is a familiar conundrum to any role-playing game fan. The temptation to have the game rules function at greater levels of precision is quite often directly opposed by the desire for the game to be easy to learn and quick to adjudicate. Every edition of Dungeons & Dragons has handled this balance differently; indeed, it’s not inaccurate to say that how they handle it is the major point of differentiation between each edition.

Third Edition is typically regarded as when the pendulum moved closer to playability, reducing the simulationism accordingly. Issues ranging from checking morale for monsters and NPCs during a fight to fireballs melting gold coins were no longer concerns. But contrary to popular belief, there were a number of simulationist concerns that were still addressed under the Third Edition rules. Case in point are the rules for friendly fire.

Consider the following, which was a standard part of the rules for cover in D&D 3.0 (and so found its way into the 3.0 SRD) as per page 133 of the PHB:

Striking the Cover Instead of a Missed Target: If it ever becomes important to know whether the cover was actually struck by an incoming attack that misses the intended target, the DM should determine if the attack roll would have hit the protected target without the cover. If the attack roll falls within a range low enough to miss the target with cover but high enough to strike the target if there had been no cover, the object used for cover was struck. This can be particularly important to know in cases where a character uses another creature as cover. In such a case, if the cover is struck and the attack roll exceeds the AC of the covering creature, the covering creature takes the damage intended for the target.

If the covering creature has a Dexterity bonus to AC or a dodge bonus, and this bonus keeps the covering creature from being hit, then the original target is hit instead. The covering creature has dodged out of the way and didn’t provide cover after all. A covering creature can choose not to apply his Dexterity bonus to AC and/or his dodge bonus, if his intent is to try to take the damage in order to keep the covered character from being hit.

Interestingly, this rule actually survived into 3.5. However, it was downgraded to being a “variant rule” (and so was never added to the 3.5 SRD) and moved over the DMG (p. 24).

What’s less well-known today is that there was a more general rule for hitting unintended targets as well. Rather than simply being for people between you and your target, this covered missed ranged attacks in general, and required quite a bit more adjudication to resolve, enough so that the text made a warning in that regard. Listed as a variant rule even back in 3.0 (and thus not part of the 3.0 SRD), it was absent entirely from the 3.5 rules. Nevertheless, if you want to find rules for missed ranged attacks potentially hitting someone else under the d20 System game engine, the following comes from pages 65-66 of the 3.0 DMG:

Variant: Firing into a Crowd

Normally, if you fire a ranged weapon at a foe engaged in combat with someone you don’t want to hit, you suffer a -4 attack penalty (see the Player’s Handbook, page 124). Sometimes, however, a player wants to know exactly where an arrow went if she missed her target. For groups that want to simulate reality in a very detailed way, the following guidelines answer that question. Be warned, however, this is an example of how D&D rules, in the interest of simulating reality, can become fairly complex—there’s a lot of work here for very little payoff.

The attacker makes the attack roll normally. If it’s a miss, check to see whether the thrown weapon or projectile at least connects. If the attack roll would have been good enough for a ranged touch attack, then the thrown weapon or projectile has flown true but failed to damage the target. If the roll isn’t good enough for a ranged touch hit, then the thrown weapon or projectile is errant.

Now determine the path of the errant thrown weapon or projectile. For direct fire shots, an errant thrown weapon or projectile is most likely to veer to the right or the left. For indirect fire, a projectile is most likely to go too far or fall short of its target. The range out to which a projectile weapon or a thrown weapon makes a direct fire attack is summarized on Table 3-3, below. If the weapon is fired at a target farther away than the listed distance, then the attack is indirect fire.

TABLE 3-3: DIRECT FIRE RANGE

Weapon Direct Fire Range
Shortbow Up to 60 ft.
Longbow Up to 100 ft.
Short composite bow Up to 80 ft.
Long composite bow Up to 120 ft.
Hand crossbow Up to 120 ft.
Light crossbow Up to 200 ft.
Heavy crossbow Up to 250 ft.
Sling Up to 50 ft.
Any thrown weapon Up to 20 ft.

TABLE 3-4: DIRECT FIRE PATH

1d20 Fire Path
1-8 Left
9-16 Right
17-19 Long
20 Short

TABLE 3-5: DIRECT FIRE DEVIATION

1d20 Deviation
1-12 One-tenth of the distance between attacker and target (round to nearest square)
13-17 One-fifth of the distance between attacker and target (round to nearest square)
18-19 One-third of the distance between attacker and target (round to nearest square)
20 Half of the distance between attacker and target (round to nearest square)

Once the direction and the amount of deviation is determined, trace a path starting at the firer. If characters are in the path, starting with the character nearest the firer, determine if the thrown weapon or projectile has a chance to attack each character. A ranged touch attack roll is made for the thrown weapon or projectile with no modifications for the skill of the firer but using magical adjustments and modifications for cover. If the roll is a hit, then apply the same attack result against the target’s full AC (not as a touch attack). If that’s successful, roll damage. If it’s not, the thrown weapon or projectile stops.

If the touch attack was unsuccessful, the thrown weapon or projectile keeps traveling along its path, with each new target in that path using the same procedure. No modification is made for range, but direct fire thrown weapons or projectiles effectively travel no farther than the distances given above, at which time the thrown weapon or projectile drops to the ground.

TABLE 3-6: INDIRECT FIRE TARGET AREA

1d20 Target Area
1-4 Left
5-8 Right
9-14 Long
15-20 Short

TABLE 3-7: INDIRECT FIRE DEVIATION

1d20 Deviation
1-12 One-tenth of the distance between attacker and target (round to nearest square)
13-17 One-fifth of the distance between attacker and target (round to nearest square)
18-19 One-third of the distance between attacker and target (round to nearest square)
20 Half of the distance between attacker and target (round to nearest square)

Once the direction and the amount of deviation is determined, determine if there is a character in the given square. If so, make an attack roll for the ranged weapon with no modifications from the skill of the firer but using magical adjustments and modifications for cover. If this is successful, roll damage. If it’s not, the projectile goes no farther.

While it’s not hard to see why this particular rule was always an outlier, and was dropped as the game went to 3.5, it’s still interesting to consider how this would change combat. Certainly, wizards and sorcerers would (hopefully!) be a tad more careful about firing their disintegrate spells when they know there’s a chance they could hit their allies! That’s slightly hyperbolic, of course (the table regarding range for direct fire weapons doesn’t have a listing for spells…though it wouldn’t be hard to figure that out), but it underscores how rules like these can make an otherwise-familiar game feel very different.

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One Response to “D&D Did You Know’s: Friendly Fire in Third Edition”

  1. Thoth Says:

    I suppose it’s my simulationist tendencies and early-edition habits showing through – but it never occurred to me to NOT consider what happened to missed shots.

    Of course, in the interests of speed, if (and only if) there’s a reasonable chance of hitting something the party cares about, I usually just throw a d20, with low numbers (usually 1, up to 1-4 if firing into a friendly crowd or some such) indicating that you hit something you really didn’t want to hit, anything within twice that range indicating hitting something awkward (the main oil stores are now on fire!), and above that meaning damaged scenery at most.

    But then I also have fireballs set fire to things, lightning bolts fry electrical equipment, and so on.

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