Friday, August 21, 2009

Thoughts on Combat

One of the chief activities in most role-playing games is combat. Whether battling a horde of orcs in a deep dungeon corridor, or slaying a dragon in the skies above the ruins of a jungle city, or even the humble barroom brawl in a waterfront dive, battle often forms the high-point of an adventuring game.

There is a spectrum among RPGs when it comes to combat. Some, such as A/D&D, go for a more abstract system. Roll to hit, roll points of damage, continue. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some games aim for much more versimilitude when it comes to fighting; there are modifiers for a dizzying array of variables, aiming where blows will land, and of course lots and lots of "critical hit" tables, the most entertaining of which have results both humorous and gruesome. Arms Law, I'm looking at you. While most systems use random chance for at least part of the combat system, there are a few out there that are based entirely on players' choices (the old Lost Worlds books, come to mind).

As an old-schooler myself, I lean on the side of the abstract, but I wonder if a re-examination of some of the assumptions underlying real-world combat might not yield an abstraction that is at the same time more realistic while not getting bogged down in endless tables and modifiers. Who knows; we might even be able to win the Holy Grail of all role-playing games into the bargain-- a workable grappling system (yes, I do have a streak of hopeless optimism in me at times).

Melee combat, to my mind, consists of three distinct elements. Inflicting damage, avoiding damage, and taking damage. All combat activities can be set into one or more of these three broad categories. Weapon types? Mostly inflicting, sometimes avoiding. Shields? The reverse. Armor? Avoiding. Movement? Both inflicting and avoiding. Taking damage is what happens when one side does a better job of inflicting than the other side does of avoiding.

Speaking of armor, it should be pointed out that the way armor works in A/D&D is just a bit too abstract for me. Armor does not make one harder to hit. It makes one harder to damage, and, paradoxically, easier to hit, because it makes the wearer slower; but when both combatants are wearing roughly the same type of armor, that factor cancels itself out. Don't believe me? See the scene from Excalibur where the young Arthur is running around in padded cloth, dancing all around the lumbering knights in their field-plate. Or just try splitting logs while wearing a real riveted mail hauberk for a few hours. That could be married to a damage system that was equally abstract in the same direction, where hit points were more akin to fatigue, but the way it was originally designed has always bugged me. But I digress.

And, speaking of fatigue, I like the idea of a split damage/ fatigue system. Damage would be actual blood loss and broken bones, and would take a long time to heal (sans magic, of course). Fatigue would be a short-term thing, and could be regained with just a little rest. The interesting thing about fatigue is that it could be worked so that if you're more aggressive in attempting to do damage, you increase your own rate of fatigue. Do you want to fight like Clubber Lang, or Rocky Balboa? You could make a conscious choice, with a real impact on the outcome. But I digress once more.

So in its simplest (most abstract) form, combat could go something like this:
  1. Combatants A and B each choose to either inflict or avoid damage (running away or parrying), or both (parry-riposte, etc.).
  2. Determine which combatant's attack attempt goes first.
  3. Determine if that attack succeeds in doing damage.
  4. Inflict damage, if needed.
  5. Determine if second combatant's attack succeeds in doing damage.
  6. Inflict damage, if needed.
  7. Repeat until one or the other successfully flees or is killed/knocked unconscious/etc.
When you're dealing with a one-on-one melee situation, the process of resolving combat can be relatively simple. However, when there are many-on-one or many-on-many, the problems (both of abstract and realistic systems) multiply exponentially. Abstract systems can get too abstract (a la Battlesystem) and lose all flavor of combat ("Our side rolls a 4; we all attack at once" regardless of what each person might be doing, or where they are). Realistic systems can break down when there are just too many variables to have to keep track of ("orc #5 is flanking me on the right, but I've got an attack of opportunity on orc #8, who's currently in melee with the thief, but he gets a +5.6 because he's using his short sword in his off hand..."). Plus there's missile fire. And grappling.

And we haven't even dealt with the question of monsters and animals. The same system that works for guys with spears and mail needs to work seamlessly with lions and giant spiders too. Way back when Arms Law first came out, the problem was solved... sort of... by saying the lion's claws attacked just like a dagger, etc. That fortunately only lasted until ICE came out with Claw Law (and thence the whole Rolemaster line). It's not perfect, but it is an option.

In my own mind, I keep coming back to those Lost Worlds books. If the question of how one could deal with other than a one-on-one combat situation could be solved, I think that would be a nifty basis for an RPG combat system (if they managed it somehow in the intervening years, I'm not aware of it). But maybe I could do something similar, and get around the problem, by using some other mechanism. It's just an idea I've got rolling around in my head, but maybe cards.

I picture each player with a deck of combat cards. High swipe, kick, shield bash, guard, turn, parry, dodge, spin, thrust (*SMACK*), etc. The game master as as many decks as there are enemy combatants. In each "round" of combat, they pick one or more actions and lay them down. As combat continues, the cards get turned over (in whatever order; I haven't gotten that far yet). The cards would, ideally, have some way to easily see how one action interfaces with a counter-action. You played a slash? The game master's "raise shield" card protects against that, and says so (maybe with a small "slash" icon with a line through it). The game master would have special cards that would only apply to certain monsters; wing buffet, toothy bite, etc. For those who've played the board game Robo Rally, I'm envisioning something kindasortasimilar, but not quite as programmed so many actions in advance.

Players would definitely have a "special action" card for that player whose action would be "knock the oil lamp onto the floor to set fire to the inn". Got to keep it flexible; one of the real dangers in this sort of system is the potential to stifle creativity by implying you're only allowed to do what you have a card for. The cards would be intended as an aid, not a straitjacket.

What does this accomplish? It allows players to quickly choose specific actions in combat, more than just picking a weapon and a target and rolling a die. If done correctly, it could serve as a visual aid to allow quick calculation of many (most?) combat variables; if they are somehow built into the design of the cards themselves, that is. It solves the problem of many-on-one or many-on-many combat, because multiple cards could be played against the same foe in a melee (with some restrictions, of course; maybe something else that could be designed into the cards themselves). Then again, I might be placing way too much faith in my ability to design all these limits and variables into easy-to-follow design elements on a card. That stubborn optimism again, I suppose.

And grappling. The cards will make grappling work like a charm.

9 comments:

Mike D. said...

I think you are on to something here. I especially like the idea of Fatigue and Hit points. In theory I like the idea of using cards, however this can get tedious for a referee in the middle of a melee. It might be easier to have 1 card with numbers relating to actions on it and he can place a die in front of each player as a token for the action to be taken vs. that player in each round. Then he can look up the number on this card and read out the results. Less cards for him, but still the same choices.

PatrickWR said...

Burning Wheel uses a system like this to script out combat actions. Rather than cards, players choose from a list of a dozen or so maneuvers, thus preparing a script of actions that resolve one at a time over the course of the combat. Some moves are purely defensive, and they work to cancel out more offensive moves. Others interact in variously cool ways.

Rob Conley said...

Armor does not make one harder to hit. It makes one harder to damage, and, paradoxically, easier to hit, because it makes the wearer slower;

Armor doesn't make a person slower. If properly fitted and strapped you wear it like a second skin. Most people complained about cumbersome armor because they where second hand gear. However it does impact endurance, it impacts anything involving body strength (try doing a kip off of the ground in armor).


So in its simplest (most abstract) form, combat could go something like this:

I would go with this sequence.

Side A
1. Choose one of three stances Full Attack, Attack-Defend, FUll Defense
2. Roll for Attacker
3. Roll for Defender
4. If Attacker beats the defender roll for Damage
5. If Damage pentrates Armor apply effects of injury

Side B
... see above.

The complexity of systems comes from making up dozens of modifiers for situations and effects other than trying to damage the target (disarm, knocking down prone, etc). The effect of multiple combatants is on defense side. Soldiers working together can have very high defenses due to interlocking shields.

I picture each player with a deck of combat cards. High swipe, kick, shield bash, guard, turn, parry, dodge, spin, thrust (*SMACK*),

In most other games they are called manuveurs. And they add complexity to the game. But cards will help midigate that. You can also include the rules for special effects like disarm if you want to got that route.

Here are GURPS versions

http://e23.sjgames.com/item.html?id=SJG37-0202

Joseph said...

Armor doesn't make a person slower. If properly fitted and strapped you wear it like a second skin. Most people complained about cumbersome armor because they where second hand gear. However it does impact endurance, it impacts anything involving body strength (try doing a kip off of the ground in armor).

We disagree. I'll make you this challenge. You wear your "properly fitted and strapped" armor. I'll wear a t-shirt. We both count how many times we can hit a carpet-wrapped telephone poll with a waster in 3 minutes. Bet I win.

And the reason, of course, is because you're making a false dichotomy. You cannot separate speed and "anything involving body strength". Swinging a weapon is by definition involving body strength.

Your suggested combat sequence, I think, seems the same as mine, except you break out my step my step 3 into your own steps 2 and 3, and don't seem to have a place to determine which attack goes first (unless you're assuming that all attacks automatically go simultaneously, which I wouldn't agree with). Or am I missing something in your suggestion?

Sure, maneuvers add some complexity. Anything that's more than "roll to hit/ roll for damage" adds complexity, by definition. I'm trying to sort out just how much complexity I like, without making the system too cumbersome for my taste.

Rob Conley said...

We disagree. I'll make you this challenge.

I accept. How shall we proceed? An exchange of videos? I don't own a waster, only boffer weapons, a pair of real swords, and an axe.

And the reason, of course, is because you're making a false dichotomy. You cannot separate speed and "anything involving body strength". Swinging a weapon is by definition involving body strength.

Different sports have different type of training. As well as different weapon styles. A sword fighter trains very different than a fencer. For the traditional medieval fighters. What counts is power and endurance.

What limits speed is the weapon itself. A Roman fighter weilding a gladius is quicker than a German LandsKnescht weilding a hand and a half. But the Landsknescht has a lot of power behind the hand and a half. None of this has to do with armor the guy is weilding. If your armor doesn't fit it is going to hinder you. Properly fitted then the question become do you have the strength to lug that weight around. If you do then remaining issue is endurance. If you don't then you quickly tire and slow down.

I have experience with this stuff both with the SCA and boffer style LARP. Nearly 20 years worth.

For good measure let me put it another way. It isn't that Heavy Armor doesn't have an impact. It does. It just not what you think it is. Heavy Armor is an issue because of weight not because it hinders your dexterity.

The realistic way to handle is not to assign a minus based on armor. But assign it based on weight carried vs strength. Even properly fitted too much weight is going to bog you down.

I can carry a 30 lb hard leather armor with no problem. Put it on my 5 year old even properly fitted he is going to have issues.

The same with weapons. Given a high strength you can be swinging that hand and a half with one hand the same the lower strength guy can be swinging a broadsword.

Based your system on the mass the guy is carrying. However if the guy just picks up a suit without being fitted by all means assign a dex penalty.

except you break out my step my step 3 into your own steps 2 and 3,

Perhaps I misread you. In your system does the defender get a defense roll?

don't seem to have a place to determine which attack goes first

I left that out because system all over the place on that. You could use a initiative roll modified by DEX or as in GURPS some type of Speed rating based on attributes and some modifiers. I played under both doesn't seem to make much difference to me.

If you want realism then what really happens in combat is the person A goes attack attack lose a beat and the defender B now attacks attacks lose a beat then person A attacks.

I would say that person A keeps initiative until they miss. With a miss defined by either a missed attack roll or a high defense roll that caused the attack to miss his next beat.

Then there is the evaluations rounds. Combat often is like this.

Flurry of Blows
Break apart and look for an opening
Flurry of Blows
Break apart and look for an opening

and so on.

But doing the alternate rounds is good enough and a heck of lot complex.


Sure, maneuvers add some complexity. Anything that's more than "roll to hit roll for damage" adds complexity, by definition. I'm trying to sort out just how much complexity I like, without making the system too cumbersome for my taste.

I say do what you are doing but add a defense roll. It more realistic without adding complexity and players like it.

I understand that you are trying for simple but realistic. I understand that you will just be picking out elements of my suggestions. Otherwise might as well play GURPS or Harnmaster.

Joseph said...

I'm not sure why you keep coming back to "a defense roll". I'm actually contemplating something with no rolls at all... And the "defense" would be incorporated into my own steps 3 and 5.

Funny you should mention Harnmaster. I was a big fan of Harn when it first came out; it was quite innovative in its presentation. I never did get around to looking into the actual system. I'm sure it's every bit as complex and fiddly as the setting itself. In a setting you can get away with that (as Forgotten Realms proved). In a system... ugh.

Underminer said...

I think you both have a point, but I'll interject a differing view. I agree that armor isn't as cumbersome as some might think. I've read some Medieval documents indicating knights in full armor were capable of jumping onto a horse's back and even doing flips. On the other hand, it was draining to wear and the same sources indicate knights fighting one another actually taking breaks in combat because they get too fatigued.

From a personal standpoint, that's why I like the Chivalry & Sorcery combat. It takes into account fatigue, being trained in fighting in armor, etc, and includes manuvers such as the shield bash. Combat system seems slow, but it works.

One thing about various combat systems I've used, including C&S is how ineffective missle weapons are under most rules. In D&D, I've never bothered carrying one, particularly in a dungeon setting, other than a couple of darts I'd keep cliped to the back of my shield.

Rob Conley said...

sure it's every bit as complex and fiddly as the setting itself

Actually it pretty straight forward. Character generation is the involved part. But combat relies on a well designed chart the abstracts the complexity pretty well.

http://www.columbiagames.com/resources/4001/harnmaster-combattables.pdf

The character generation and combat rules are only $10.00 It doesn't include magic or religion or much of a monster manual.

http://www.columbiagames.com/cgi-bin/query/cfg/zoom.cfg?product_id=4001L

mace-hammerhand said...

I don't know if Midgard (a German RPG) is of interest to you. IIRC it has stamina and wound points. A spellcaster loses stamina whenever he casts a spell, and a melee combatant loses stamina whenever he makes an attack and/or parries. If a melee attack hits, but fails to penetrate the armor (which prevents damage) you lose the amount of damage in stamina. Once stamina is down to 0 a character suffers from big negative modifiers on all actions.

I'm not sure if the game ever reached the English speaking market, but if you are somewhat proficient in German you should take a look.