Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Streamlining Palladium Combat

There are three levels of "informed opinion" when it comes to Palladium's combat system (and here I'm writing about the multiversal system found in such games as Rifts, 2nd Edition Heroes Unlimited,  Nightbane, etc.):

- Folks who've been played through the evolution of the game (a bit more than three decades worth)
- Folks who've come "late to the game" (circa 1990 or later)
- Folks who haven't played but know the system solely by reputation or cursory reading

[I suppose the latter category might include folks who listen to podcasts and such, though I've found few of those on the 'net, and many of those are already...mmm...100% "by the book"]

Here's the thing to understand: Palladium combat has never been all that different from old edition D&D with A) added complexity, and B) active defense. Wrap your head around those two things and its not that hard to get a handle on it...nor deconstruct the system. Complexity isn't all that big a deal...crunch (what some might call clunkiness) is largely a matter of taste. Furthermore, the evolution of the game....development of, say, robot piloting and missiles (Robotech), supernatural strength and knock-backs (Rifts), MDC (Robotech/Rifts), vehicle combat (HU Revised), etc....has necessitated the addition of complexity over the years the system has been around.

So let's talk about "active defense."

The basic sequence of Palladium combat works like this: attacker rolls to strike against a target number of 5 or better (8 in ranged combat, post-Rifts), using a D20. Defender than chooses a defensive action, most often a parry or dodge, and rolls a D20. If the defensive roll equals or exceeds the roll to strike, the defender avoids damage.

[the additional wrinkle of rolling with damage...basically a saving throw to resist non-lethal-types of damage (punches) for half damage...helps draw out and emulate slugfests of the superhero or martial arts genre, or (in the case of rolling with "missile strikes") the giant robot anime genre]

One melee round =
45 minutes actual play
D&D uses a passive defense for resolving attack actions in melee: the D20 roll is compared to a target number determined by a defender's "armor class." While this has the advantage of being simple and streamlined, plenty of folks have argued for a system that takes into account a defender's "combat ability" with regard to defense, hence the creation of systems like Palladium or BRP (which, while %-based, still has the strike roll followed by defense roll). D20 actually provided a system of accounting for "combat ability" that did not involve armor (or rather, de-emphasized armor) with their Saga edition of Star Wars RPG, where character level created the "defensive class" target number for attacks, and something similar can be done with Palladium.

I look to the old White Wolf World of Darkness RPGs for an idea of how to handle this. In some of WW's games (I'm thinking the original VtM and WtA, but I'm too lazy to pull the books at the moment), the system provided the option of using an "active" or "passive" version of defense. In the case of Palladium (with its D20 base), you simply provide a defensive class ("DC") of 10 + bonuses. Bonuses can come from ability scores (physical prowess), certain classes (maybe), and choice of HTH skill (the real determination of combat differential between characters, rather than class ("OCC") as it is in D&D). In a game like Heroes Unlimited, certain superpowers (super speed, extraordinary prowess, heightened senses, etc.) might factor as well.

There's really no need to have separate parry and dodge skills...the only practical difference between the two defenses is that A) parry cannot be used against bullets and energy attacks, and B) dodge uses up one of a character's melee attacks (see below) to execute. Since the bonuses for both tend to be about the same (pre-1987 this wasn't the case as the Speed attribute could add a hefty bonus to dodge in 1st edition TMNT and HU), folks almost always opt to parry unless they can't (because of the type of attack).

Now about those melee attacks: one of the defining complexities of Palladium's system is that nearly all characters receive a number of multiple actions per combat turn as determined by their level, HTH type, and character class (and don't forget the +1 if you're smart enough to take the boxing skill!). Depending on the specific game, it's not unusual for a 1st level character to have three or four actions (called "melee attacks") per round. Just like 3E (and later) D&D, Palladium uses individual initiative (uses a D20, too!) but a strict rotation to utilize those actions (so you don't get your second action till everyone's had a turn, in other words). Actions may be used up in defensive maneuvers prior to their number in the turn order (for example, when executing a dodge), but one is only allowed to execute an attack when their number comes up (unless executing a "simultaneous attack" maneuver). Initiative order does not change from round to round.

[while that may seem cut-n-dry, there are some sticky places. For example, first edition HU has a bit more info on melee attacks, describing them as actions taken in one 15 second round, everything from lacing one's shoes to disarming an explosive device; from page 124:

"Example: the hero unhooks his grappling hook from his belt (one action), throws it across the neighboring roof top (second action), tests the line to see if it's secure (3rd action), and then leaps off his building swinging down to the other (4th action) in an attempt to smash through a window in that building. To determine if he successfully hits and smashes through the window the player must roll twenty sided die to strike his target."

(I laugh a bit knowing that the most fragile glass window in the book is 20 SDC and the player is likely to go "splat" against it, rather than breaking it...but I digress)

How this would actually take place (assuming the character is executing such a complex maneuver in the midst of combat...the only reason to be concerned with actions/melee) is a little wonky. Does the player have to forgo defense to conserve actions while attempting this course? I'd assume so. Would successful (damaging) attacks distract the character to the point that he can't 'test the line,' (or makes an inaccurate assessment) or whatever? Probably. Probably it all comes down to a lot of GM rulings, but that's what you get with such a system]

I think I'm on record (multiple times) with my disdain for systems like this that attempt to model specific "blow-by-blow" actions in a role-playing game. Give me an abstract system that allows me add "narrative color" (making an exciting combat) based on success of attack rolls and amount of damage rolls. So what exactly is it that we stand to lose if we forgo the melee actions? Better yet, how can we try to model the same things while losing this (IMO) silly attempt to objectively quantify time and action in the subjective chaos of a combat encounter?

Well, if we eliminate the idea of "attacks per melee" completely (might as well if we've eliminated active defense from the equation and combined both parrying and dodging into a single "passive" target number), we can still give our player's some options with regard to combat maneuvers during their opponent's turn (which is really what most of those actions are being used for). For example, in addition to their one attack action per turn, each player is allowed to:

- perform an entangle move on a melee attacker
- execute a simultaneous attack while allowing the attacker to automatically hit
- take no action because the character was dodging (i.e. using her passive defense against bullets or ranged energy attacks)

But what about the character with the multiple attacks and the auto-parry who is engaged in hand-to-hand fighting who would normally make three or four strike attacks? I hear your concern, but this is a matter of balancing bonuses attack and damage rolls based on level and ability. Having the ability to make multiple attacks means having multiple opportunities to inflict damage, i.e. an IMPROVED chance to inflict MORE damage. This is a matter of re-writing the hand-to-hand tables to reflect bonuses to both (to hit and damage) at levels where extra melee attack actions would normally be gained. If I have a chance, I'll try to mock up a couple of examples for folks (in a later post).

Things like modern (firearm) combat (aimed, short burst, long burst, etc.) can likewise be streamlined to simple attack/damage adjustments based on ammo expenditure. Similarly with rocket/missile attacks.

What about robot pilot combat (and the extra attacks afforded the martial artist robot pilot), i.e. the Max Sterling Emulator gambit? Look, there's a lot of problems with using the Palladium system (or other "old school" type RPGs) to attempt to model manga-style anime. Trying to accomplish that and then reverse-grafting said model onto other Palladium systems that utilize dudes wearing mech-suits in combat (see Heroes Unlimited 2E and Rifts) is doubling-down on the clunk. Personally, I'd treat a heroic dude (or dudette) in a robot chassis as no different from any non-pilot hero, simply providing augmented stats based on the power suit being sported. I mean, this whole post is about streamlining, right?

All right, that's enough for now. Might need a follow-up post or two on the subject.

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