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.