Combat Basics

I figure for at least the next few posts it might be a good idea to establish my stance on various elements in roleplaying game design and play. It will help anybody reading this blog know where I’m coming from and where I’m likely to be going to.

Combat is featured in a good number of roleplaying games. The basics of the majority of combat systems trace themselves back to Dungeons and Dragons and its war gaming roots. You have a hit roll, which may or may not be opposed. There’s some kind of assessment of damage. A number of different actions are usually available to choose from, that have different benefits and costs associated with them.

Over the years, I’ve become extremely impatient with overly detailed, move by move combat systems. Part of this is due to changes in how I think about games, and another part of it is probably just getting old. I don’t like hit locations or detailed wound systems, which is actually going to be the subject of tomorrow’s post. I think tracking exact combatant location, having a pick list of  lots of maneuvers, detailed weapon statistics that include much more than damage and accuracy, or any number of minutiae add little to my play experience and more often subtract from it. I’m impatient and just want to know who did what, the results, and resolve it all in a dramatic way that doesn’t take too long. Physical combat is supposed to be fast paced and confusing, not the result of precisely figuring attack arcs and how many “Step” maneuvers can fit into a round.

That means I gravitate toward simpler combat systems, such as Silhouette, Interlock and the Synergy system. There is only one die type, with a unified mechanic. You make opposed rolls, figure out the damage (if any) and then move on. There aren’t complex tick systems, or step-by-step rounds, or action points. Everything after the rolls is colored by narrative and what makes the most sense.

Silhouette in particular has a fundamental mechanic that appeals to me. The die mechanic is to roll xd6, where x is the character’s skill level, and then take the highest. Multiple sixes add +1 to the result (so a roll of 6,6,6 is totalled to 8). This means that skilled characters reliably roll slightly higher than average. They are just as unlikely to roll a spectacular result as they are a poor result (granted, a skill 4 character is going to be rolling fives and sixes, which is remarkably good). Unskilled characters can roll high too, but they’re just as likely to roll poorly. They’re inexperienced and thus unpredictable. Even a seasoned veteran can be seriously injured by an unskilled, but lucky, attack.

Overall it’s the dynamic, chaotic nature of fighting that I think overly detailed systems detract from. There’s just too much going on. You might have gotten hit by the orc because another orc missed – maybe you misstepped trying to avoid the first one, or were put off balance. The guy who was seriously injured by a punch might have sustained the injury because he fell and hit his head on a sharp corner.

Because of this, I see initiative systems as less of a play-by-play breakdown of time and more of a pacing mechanic. In the shared imaginary space, everything is happening at the same time. The ones who roll higher on initiative or whatever are simply those that set the pacing of the round. Functionally it doesn’t make much of a difference, but it drives my preference for summarizing the exact order of events at the end of the round or exchange. In essence, my combats look like this:

  1. Make necessary rolls with only minimal details.
  2. Apply damage or other effects.
  3. Tie everything together into one cohesive narrative.

Even systems that lean a little heavy on mechanical detail work pretty well with those general guidelines. There was one exception – Exalted. Both first and second editions were just too mechanics heavy for me to be able to handle it. Sure, there are any number of various counters and sheets and battle wheels and other methods of keeping track of things, but there’s no room in my head for both keeping track of the mechanical bits and trying to piece it all together at the end (especially if the sequence of events goes on for 15 minutes or more). I wanted something quick and vivid, and instead got bogged down in DVs and soak.

Hopefully this gives a little more insight into where I lean when it comes to physical conflict in rpgs. Tomorrow I’ll talk about my views on injuries, hit locations and other after effects of combat (hint: it doesn’t involve d1000 hit location tables).

2 thoughts on “Combat Basics

  1. Hello…I am not a combat game player, but I do have grandsons and a son in law who would probably understand where you are coming from. Even though your subject is not “my cup of tea”, I do like to sample blogs that are different from mine. Yours is very well written. Glad you could join our Challenge this year. Best regards to you. Ruby


  2. Ruby, thanks for the comment! My blog is about tabletop role playing games, typically played with dice and pencil and paper. The best known of these is Dungeons and Dragons, but there are hundreds of others. Combat is a part of most rpgs, as well as lots of other elements. If you've ever participated in murder mystery dinner theater, you've done a form of role playing.


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