Thursday, April 14, 2016

Re-Tooling Combat (for FUN!)

Another "thought exercise;" AKA Putting Off The Taxes.

Part of the problem with addressing a single element of RPG combat (like the form and function of armor mechanics) is that you're messing with a complex system that's elements have been designed to work in tandem. At best, it's a "patch" that (often) causes other problems to raise their head, not the least of which might be an impact on that all important playability (making a system clunkier in play, reducing the overall "fun level"). At worse, a change in a single element might cause the whole system to fall apart, and/or wreck playability to a point where it's more fun to not play (or play something different).

"Ooo, how melodramatic, JB." Look, folks...I'm not saying you can't tinker. But I'd guess there are other folks out there (like myself) who have tried other RPGs and simply found they disliked their mechanics for one reason or another, and have set aside a system completely because of it. In fact, I know there are, judging by the blog posts I've read around the internet of people adapting specific game settings to their own favorite system rather than use the system intended by a game's designer. Sometimes a "patch" just doesn't work...and people have different preferences when it comes to the games they play. It happens.

ANYway...when it comes to a complex game system (like combat), tinkering with important elements of said system simply to match your "world view" can have problematic consequences. To really make your system work, sometimes you've got to go for a complete rebuild...if only to ensure that all the different interconnected elements are working together.

FOR EXAMPLE: say you're using the standard D&D combat chassis. You roll a D20 and compare the result to your probability of hitting based on two parts: your character's class/level, and the defender's "armor class." Simple enough, right? But if you restructure "armor" to act as a form of damage reduction (as many game systems do), then what are you rolling against? A reduced "AC" based solely on dexterity and/or magical bonuses? As the alternate rules in Dawn of the Emperors points out, this will result in "a lot more hitting" with less damage being inflicted (at least against armored types). Perhaps this will appeal to some folks ("hey, I whiff less often!"), but it feels like it would simply draw out a fairly simple (often uninteresting) combat system.

There are other alternatives: Saga Star Wars bases a target's AC (I think it might be called "defensive class") on the defender's level of experience (higher level characters are harder to hit), and something like that might be adapted. Games where combat rolls are unopposed skill checks (like Chaosium's base system) only tracks the attacker's proficiency ("If I roll under 75% I hit, and then your armor reduces damage!"), but doesn't account for the defensive ability of the opponent except as an additional system (parry skill, dodge skill) made to resist. Palladium kind of splits the difference: melee rolls use a D20 and any roll over 5 "hits" (yay!), but then needs to exceed a defender's defensive roll (parry/dodge) IF the defender chooses to do so, and THEN perhaps another roll to reduce damage (roll with blow), before finding out how armor reduces damage (which is dependent on the initial roll and the armor's Armor Rating and Structural Damage Capacity).

Palladium system's are over on the extreme side of granularity in combat (though I'd argue against them modeling any type of "reality") but they're certainly not the MOST granular. That distinction belongs to The Riddle of Steel, whose system I won't bother to detail here, as it's system mastery requirements are a bit outside the pay range of myself and most of the dudes I play with.

Instead, let's just stick with D&D for the moment. What's nice about D&D (for me) is it's ABSTRACT nature. In a ten second round, my mind's eye imagines two combatants attacking back and forth and the success of their attacks can all be boiled down to a couple D20 rolls. Still, though, there are aspects that bug me: should a 1st level cleric really have the same chance to damage a 3rd level fighter, given that they're both wearing plate-&-mail and they're weapons do D6 damage? Should a wizard really be wicked in a knife fight? I had the chance to watch a midnight showing of The Revenant last Friday (need to write about THAT), and the whole climactic battle I'm thinking, who the hell thought it was a good idea to make the dagger the go-to weapon of a spindly academic?

SO (just to keep going with the thought exercise), if we take armor out of the equation, and we decide we want to leave combat abstract (unlike the multiple maneuver monstrosity of TROS), how can we determine if a character's attack is successful? Well, just looking at, human-to-human combat for the moment, let's consider perhaps the concept that (given both individuals are aware of each other and fight-worthy) the chance of inflicting mortal injury comes down to your own combat ability in relation to your opponent. In other words, if you're a better fighter than your opponent, you'll have an easier time, and if not, you'll have a harder time.

Sound good? Well, I'm going with it anyway. Exactly what determines "combat ability" is pretty easy with respect to humans: training and experience (i.e. class and level) with fitness/athleticism (ability bonuses) playing some part, too...perhaps as a bonus or penalty. It would be a ridiculous exercise in "clunk" for me to do up tables cross-referencing every level of every class against every other level of every class, so what I need is some sort of short-hand for cross-referencing. For example, what level of experience would a cleric need to be to have the same combat ability as a 4th level fighter? 7th? 9th? In B/X a cleric of levels 5-8 have the same attack abilities of a fighter of levels 4-6, and while I may not agree with the scale of B/X, I do agree that when determining combat proficiency, there should be tiers of ability, with each tier containing a range of levels. It's not just as simple as "gain a level, earn a +1 base attack bonus."

[of course, that's my own bias when it comes to modeling. For me, there just shouldn't be much difference between a 4th level fighter and a 6th level fighter when it comes to attack ability...we tend to learn in stages and have sudden "leaps" of realization. In my experience fencing, I can easily take apart someone who has little or no experience, but would be hard-pressed against people of equal experience unless I had some advantage in athleticism (not bloody likely). Meanwhile, I might score a few touches against an opponent with a couple more years of experience, but would be hard pressed to win...and against my old instructor (only a few years older than myself) I probably wouldn't score even a point. And he wasn't even in the same league as individuals who pursue the sport on a national or international level...]

So, strike bands (as in bandwidth)...that's what I'm calling my "tiers of combat ability." Consider a range of about five bands (labeled A-E), with A being your average "normal, non-combatant trying to fight" and E being reserved for truly legendary fighters (and non-fighters being limited to D as their maximum ability). Strike bands would be cross referenced to find the target number needed for an attack to succeed, with two opponents of equal ability having a 50% of succeeding on an attack and success being adjusted upwards (and downwards) from that baseline.

It's not really a new concept...very similar to Warhammer (the war-game's) comparison of WS versus WS in melee combat to determine the number needed on a D6 (WS stands for "weapon skill" and represents hand-to-hand ability). My initial thought would be to have the percentages scale like: 95% (the maximum...for an attacker with 3+ strike bands more than the opponent), then 85%, 75%, 50% (even ability), 25%, 15%, 5% (the minimum...against a defender with 3+ strike ranks more than the attacker).

[there is a degree of diminishing returns. I would fare no better against an Olympic-level fencer than I would against my instructor (at least, back when we were both in our primes)...but I'd fare no worse, either. I mean, how do you do worse than "losing quickly and embarrassingly?"]

The neat thing about the strike band idea is that it's fairly easy to slide them up or down to account for  specific circumstances. A fighter using a shield increases her strike band by one when defending (for example). A magic weapon increases a strike band by one (when attacking). Characters using missile weapons would simply use strike band A, and then range would be considered for defense (with A, B, and C corresponding to short, medium, and long). Specialist marksmen could increase their missile strike band to B. Cover could increase range by one step (to a maximum of D).

Monsters would be assigned strike bands based on their size, speed, and general ferocity. I can see something like:

A: used for creatures who are small (kobolds) or slow (skeletons and zombies)
B: used for man-killers (orcs, tigers, etc.)
C: used for exceptionally large monsters (ogres, trolls, etc.)
D: used for incredibly fast, strong critters (dragons, bloodthirsters, tyrannosaurus rex, etc.)

You could even combine it with 5E's advantage/disadvantage mechanic. A (slow) giant might use strike band D with disadvantage, while super heroic types (vampires, wraiths) might use strike band C with advantage. Ability bonuses (for strength and dexterity) would still add to the D20 roll (yes, I'd change those percentages into D20 target numbers) rather than shifting strike bands.

Anyway...that's just one idea. I'm sure there are others. Now, I really need to get back to my taxes.

+1 Strike Band (offense AND defense)
when attacking unmounted opponents


  1. The first thing to keep in mind is that DnD combat is only intended as a slightly more granular mass combat result. Everyone is assumed to be "stuck in" infantry melee combat.

    The second thing to keep in mind is that each ROUND is 60 Seconds, so it is extremely consistent that inexperienced warriors in the front rank can be removed from combat in a single round (d6 damage vs d6 HP).

    HP never measured physical resistance to damage. It measures *staying power in melee*: a number describing morale, wind, luck, grit, what-have-you. When your HP dwindle, you have no more strength to fight; but until then, you are at full ability.

    So that's History. If you want to retool combat, keep those lessons in mind. I'll make the bold statement that most combat-oriented house rules break down combat 'smaller' than Chainmail. You even mention a 10-second round. Clearly, in a sixth of the time originally slated, one will have to search for system after subsystem to produce a satisfying result.

    Gimme a sec; I'll post a wild idea next.

    1. @ Muja:

      Oh, I am very aware of the 1 minute combat turn of OD&D (later called the round) it's adaptation to AD&D and its origin in Chainmail. I'm working from a B/X base, though, and there's still plenty that can happen in a ten second round...enough so that abstraction works fine for me (in fact, it's the only sane way to approach combat IMO).
      I don't believe you need smaller systems for the 10 second round of Holmes/Moldvay (& Mentzer)'s still a flurry of blows being traded between combatants in the chaos of mortal combat.

      Hit points are the subject of yet another post...when I return to the subject of armor.
      ; )

    2. (in fact, I don't think I brought up HPs at all in this post)

    3. It is a flurry of blows, but if you're wanting spry buccaneers to face off with bare-chested barbarians, you really need to make sure what Armor, what to-Hit, what HP are all modeling.

      If we strip the armor from Chainmail foes, we'd see people cut down in seconds like a samurai movie. (This is why all those column-inches were devoted to Weapon Speed, Reach, Initiative, Segments, etc: the rules of who "goes first" matter!)

      If we shrink down the time in a Chainmail Round, though, what is each exchange measuring now? Position. Advantage. Leverage. All that good stuff. Not the actual striking of a blow, but maneuvering within the melee to be in the position to strike that blow.

    4. @ Mujad:

      I guess we'll just have to disagree on that. Yes, maneuvering and positioning is an important part of the "imagined action," occurring in a round, but it doesn't come down to a single blow (or exchange of blows). It MIGHT, sure...but in the "combats" I've experienced...martial arts, fencing, SCA, a short 'fight club' is certainly possible for a person to execute and land multiple blows in just a few seconds. *I* can do it, and I'm no "high level fighter."

      It depends on what you're trying to model, of course. Real combat with live weapons is generally more cautious. Even so, one blow per ten seconds is incredibly slow. Cinematic fights are choreographed, of course, are staged, but there are still some good ones. Pick one that matches what YOU imagine a fight to look like and time it with a stop-watch into ten second 'beats' of action. I think you'll find much more than maneuvering occurring.

      What Gygax describes as occurring in the one minute round can easily be applied to the ten second round. I think AD&D's use of the one minute round was simply a stubborn holdover from Chainmail (where the time scale makes more sense), and all the breakup of half-turns, quarter-turns, and segments did little to rectify the issue: it is too long for personal scale combat, even in the abstract.

    5. The comments by Mike, below, are really the heart of the issue: "people are trying to recreate a certain feel, that is a certain verisimilitude, they find enjoyable." He also mentions quite rightly that the more 'accurate' the system tries to get, the more &$*#&%*# dice you need to roll every round.

      I did want to say that I wasn't implying 10 sec round = 1 physical strike. As you say, 10 seconds is a lot of time. The point of (most) combat systems, though, is the abstraction: not having to have a baseball "pitch count" be a governing mechanic.

      We can pick any fight from cinema, and find ways to explain the outcome via rules. Any combat system will do the job. The difference is in how those fiddly bits capture the imagination.

      I submit that the ideas of AC, HP and to-Hit rolls are inseparable from the "long combat, definitive resolution" 1-minute round. That is, if you're trying to model COMBAT, rather than OUTCOMES, the system is not going to satisfy.

      So, as Mike has alluded, "What's yer Combat Verisimillitude, Stranger?"

    6. @ Muja:

      Ah, I see what you mean. However, they may be inseparable from the 10-second round as well.

      The idea I have for modeling COMBAT (rather than OUTCOMES) is to break a battle sequence up into a number of smaller chunks, so as add more suspense as to whether or not the outcome is in doubt at all (due to the back-and-forth vagaries of fighting).

      The best system I've seen for modeling outcomes is (and still remains) the Story Engine system (scaling both on a personal and troop) level. But it lacks the expected level of granularity one would like to see in a skirmish-level game like D&D.

      I still haven't had a chance to write my HP post, I'm afraid (the 3rd part of this "mini-series"). Hopefully in the next couple days.

    7. Man, I can't find the link to the 'tavern brawls' system one of the game bloggers put up. It was a system of escalating potential damage; something like "Hurt em, Make em bleed, Make em scream, Finish em", where the fight can end after any of these rounds, but "hit point damage" isn't rolled for until the fight is over.

      I've always liked that idea, and we're sort of dancing around it (or at least I am). Does that sound familiar?

    8. Ok, I didn't find the original blog post, but these are my notes; adapt them to your favorite resolution system:
      Appropriate for knockdown, drag-out pit-fights. Not appropriate for mortal, battlefield combat.

      1. Make 'em bleed!
      2. Make 'em scream!
      3. Break 'em!
      4. Finish 'em!

      Contest of Brawling. Winner ("Actor") answers the question "How do you (make 'em bleed)?!", but this must be roleplayed; a weak effort reverses the Actor!

      Victim must either Yield or Escalate: Escalation, the Victim rerolls Brawling and must beat or tie the Actor's old roll.

      Repeat until someone Yields or is Finished. The Final Victim takes wounds equal to the last Escalation level; the Final Actor takes one less.

    9. @ Muja:

      Huh. Not bad, but a little too narrative driven for the usual D&D session (well, maybe. Let me me ruminate on it a bit).

    10. narrative -- yes, it is pretty much solely narrative. It's more "They Live!" than The Hunted for sure.

      But what made me think of it are the ideas of momentum and reversal in cinematic melees, in general, and the "high hit-points, non-fatal battles" issues which D&D has had for forty-plus years.

      I have this idea in my head that you could simulate a pairing of heavily armored fighters with the above: each "resolution" represents the fighters not literally being wounded, but rather being in such a position that they're going to be stabbed critically if a) the opponent is not strictly honourable and b) they don't "roll away" and re-engage.

      Re-engagement, of course, means that both fighters go at each other twice as hard as in the first bout, making serious injury more likely.

      I envision this being implemented with real damage afterward; for OSR, the damage die size increases with each Escalation round, and the winner takes one die size less. (ie, bare-knuckles start at d2 then escalate; knife-fightin' starts at d4; fencing at d6, etc., depending on how the DM scales their damage)

      Just trying to capture the difference between a scrap in a tavern and two shield-walls colliding...

  2. The dice mechanic, and resolution flow path, pretty much do this.
    You got your binary (hit or miss) that can be based on linear (like d20) or non-linear (like 2D6 added for example) rolls. AD&D has a pretty resolution flow path, Level/Class based Roll v AC; then constrained variable effect (damage dice).
    The systems you mention above are more complicated flow paths with the extra rolls or cascading comparisons. Why?
    My view has always been people are trying to recreate a certain feel, that is a certain verisimilitude, they find enjoyable. The idea that armor and shield absorb blows, that fighters of greater skill turn aside or dodge attacks.
    Absent changing the flow path, you can modify the mechanic, adding a situation + or -, calling a really good roll a critical hit etc. You can also modify by a plethora of conditional bonuses or effects, e.g., position, feats, etc.
    The flavor, and nature of interaction, between high “level” and low “level” combatants will be noticeably different between the linear versus non-linear rolls.
    I will submit however, no matter linear vs non-linear, that the more you modify and add to the flow path, the slower the game becomes and the very slow down and convoluted nature will sap away the flavor you are trying to create. With binary systems, keep it simple, very simple, to keep playable.
    It gets even more complicated if you try to meld in something the roll doesn’t really cover, like movement. Typically you have a conditional where you make an attack/move combo with various bonuses and outcomes.
    No you also have your non-binary approaches, by this I mean what you roll has built in degrees of success. I think a dice pool is the prime example. Just a simple example, you roll a couple D6, where each 6 represents a “hit.” The more hits the better. If you make such rolls opposed, one could trade hits for defense. You could also loosen it up and say these “hits” are combat ability and you could trade them for movement. The flow path is simplified because you have more than hit/miss to play with.
    You can modify these mechanics by adding modifiers, for example a +1 to raise a die a six, or more dice.
    I will submit the non-binary mechanics provide lots of flavor without slowing things down, because there are less things to track, you have a currency of “hits”, in this examples die that read 6, to spend and it’s easy to track them as they are physically represented in front of you, and not a note on a piece of paper.

    1. @ Mike:

      I like dice pools ("non-binary resolution mechanics") for some games, specifically in combat. I've used them in a couple of my own designs, being influenced by Chainmail, WH40K, and even the board game Risk. For most RPGs, though, I find they tend to bog down play, both at the table and in "pre-play" (i.e. chargen)...see Shadowrun as Exhibit A in this regard (and one of the main reasons I started developing CDF on a B/X chassis).