Sunday, May 24, 2015

Basic Combat in LSotN - Filling the Void II (another write up for a beta set of rules)

Combat is the heart of almost every role playing game out there. Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is not different in that regard and combat saw the most play testing compared to other aspects that make the game. But I'd like to say that it does combat in a way I haven't seen done in other systems: it encourages teamwork and tactical thinking deeply rooted in the system, ending in a very satisfying narrative in the process. The short of it is that an attack doesn't end with a roll, but begins with it. This is a big one and it will not only be a complete summary of the basic combat rules, but also heavy on examples and references. If you want to get an impression how combat will work in LSotN, this is where you get it ...

Part 1 is about character creation and can be found here and Part III about Qualities and Task Resolution can be found here.

Basic Concepts

Let me start with the reasoning behind this. Most role playing games work under the assumption that players first state their intend and then roll some dice to see if it works or not and how. There's nothing wrong with this, but in combat (and I have seen this argument made more than once) it becomes tiresome to not make this one time and be done with it, but (often enough) for every attack a character makes. It can end up being a dull exercise.

What I'm doing now in Lost Songs is very different in that the roll for a round is made at the beginning and not with a d20 but (for level zero characters) with 2 six sided dice (every 1 is discarded, every six with the first roll generates a new die to roll for the round). The sum of what a character comes up with is his initiative, the number of dice is the number of actions he'll be able to make that round (like attacking, defending, moving and so on) and the face value of those dice gives a hint how good he'll be at what he's doing.

The slowest character/NPC/monster has to declare actions first so that all the faster characters can respond to that, since they see it coming. Teamwork in this system is now not only doing something so another characters doesn't have to, but an action where one player gives a die to another, effectively raising that player's dice pool.

That's the main idea, I'll go into detail later on. The effect of this approach, though, is very interesting to watch in my opinion and worth pointing out. Since everything a character does is now connected to the dice he has available that round, players are way more engaged in what's happening at the table. If you're slow it's wise to see what could come your direction (since you see what the DM has rolled and see his potential for attack and so on) and prepare for that, if your fast, you'll want to see what the others do to have the optimal response to that.

They start discussing tactics and strategy immediately and from that emerges a narrative of the combat. It becomes an intense experience where good and bad rolls still are important, but the decisions the players make because of what they got really drive the combat.

Another basic concept is to make this work with D&D or, more specifically, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, since that's the edition I'm hacking here. I'll talk more about this at the end, but let me say right now that conversion is nothing more than adding or subtracting a few numbers and not more work than a DM would usually have using the RC.

Combat Rules - Introduction

Let's begin with what the players are working with in any given round (details follow below). The main actions a character can do are attacking, defending and doing (or avoiding) damage. Every other action he does that round is called a Drop Die Action. So far 5 Drop Die Actions turned out to be the most useful: moving, regaining Endurance back, binding an enemy, co-operate with another player and countering drop die actions of the opposition. Furthermore it is possible to carry up to two dice for main actions into the next round. It's like taking aim, preparing a strong defense or really putting some juice behind some damage.

Every round a player has to decide for a couple of those actions and is limited to the number of dice he has available. How many he has depends on what he rolled, what other players gave him and what he might have carried to this round from the round before.

At the end of a round actions are resolved from the fastest initiative down to the slowest, starting with counter drop die actions, resolving the remaining drop die actions and ending with the main actions. Main actions all happen at the same time, so a combatant getting killed in a round might still be able to land a hit before he goes down.

Combat not only potentially kills but also costs Endurance, so every die used for an action in a round costs a character one point Endurance. If a die is used to support another character, both loose 1 point Endurance for the effort. That's why regaining Endurance becomes an important option late in a fight.

Another important aspect of this combat system is that dice can correspond with each other in the main actions. Doubles and triples have their added value per die, so a double 4 will result in both dice having a value of 8 each or a triple 6 (what one would call a critical hit) would mean an awesome result of 18 per die if all of them are used in main actions that round (and who wouldn't do that).

This rule further emphasizes the importance of delaying dice to the next round and teamwork. It's regulated in that only doubles and triples are supported (if you use a quadruple of fours in your main actions they count as two doubles and so on) and that using lots of dice in one round (because of delay and teamwork) is very possible but also very exhausting (because of the Endurance rule described above).

Level zero characters roll, as stated above, two dice per round. The result of those dice count for initiative. Experience and higher levels will allow for more dice. Play-testing suggested that this makes combat in the beginning rather dangerous and brutal, but that's intentional because it enforces teamwork even more. Strength in numbers and all that. A group aware of this will choose their battles wisely and will work together as much as possible. 

Combat Rules - Basic Procedures

Characters have a base attack, a base defense, Health and Endurance to use in a combat and keep track of. Base attack (derived from Muscle) and base defense (derived from Finesse) are, depending on the quality-values chosen for Muscle and Finesse, +8, +10 or +12 respectively. Health has the quality Muscle as buffer, Endurance has the quality Grit as buffer. Both are determined randomly during character generation rolling two d6, using the low result for Health and the high result for Endurance (same method is used with every level advancement but may be modified).

Using armor raises the base defense, specializing in a weapon raises the base attack. Shields are treated as weapons and make defense actions easier**.

The base assumptions here are still D&D. Light armor gives up to + 3, medium armor gives up to + 6 and heavy armor gives up to + 9 to base defense. The opposition's armor class will reflect this. So if you want to hit something, you add the dice you used for the attack action and add it to your base attack, aiming to match or succeed the opposition's armor class:

base attack + die value in attack action
target armor class

Since dealing damage is also a main action, a player needs to assign damage every time he assigns an attack.

Health and Endurance each follow the same procedure, but come to different results in a combat. If the loss of Endurance exceeds it's value and the buffer, a character gets exhausted (effectively loosing one die) and if it gets beyond Exhaustion (zero or less, so to say), he's out of the fight, may collapse (roll d20 + Withstand (a Muscle based save) vs. 20) and may receive permanent damage to Muscle*. NPCs and Monsters would surrender when exhausted if a morale check fails.

If the loss of Health exceeds it's value and the buffer, he gets seriously wounded (the kind of wounds that leave scars) and if he's wounded below that he will go down screaming, may even loose consciousness (roll d20 + Stomach (a Grit based save) vs. 20) and receives permanent damage to Grit*. NPCs and Monsters would flee when when seriously wounded if a morale check fails.

Example: Two warriors, last round

Hugin (Fighter 1) - Health 5 / 10 (buffer) / 6 (Seriously Wounded) // Endurance 8 / 8 (buffer) / 5 (Exhausted) // 3 combat dice // AC 16 // Attack 12 // Status: End -17 (Exhausted), Health -14 (buffer)

Snöri (Fighter 2) - Health 4 / 9 (buffer) / 4 (Seriously Wounded) // Endurance 10 / 12 (buffer) / 6 (Exhausted) // 3 combat dice // AC 19 // Attack 10 // Status: End -14 (buffer), Health -15 (Seriously Wounded)

Hugin and Snöri are in it for five rounds and it's getting serious. Hugin has managed to put some serious hurt on Snöri (who is seriously wounded), but it cost him most of his endurance. He is exhausted and has maybe one good hit in him to finish this battle. Not that this is going to be easy, since he lost 1 combat die for being as exhausted as he is. But he won't surrender and pushes forward.

Snöri, on the other hand, is still fit enough to fight at full capacity (still being at least in the buffer zone), but knows he'll go down if he gets more damage. Fleeing is not an option and he sees his enemy's heavy breathing, so he also decides to see this through.

Both roll their combat dice and luck is not in Hugin's favor. He rolls a 5 and a 3, while Snöri gets a 6, a 3 and another 3. But the 6 generates a new die and Snöri comes up with another 3 (rolled live while writing this ...). It's a triple! This should decide the fight right then and there.

Hugin has lost initiative and has to declare actions first. He sees what's coming and knows he won't block it (he could manage a defense of (16 + 5 + 3) 24, but with Snöri having a triple there's no chance that it's going to be enough. He decides to reduce the damage he'll most likely get instead. For this he has to put one die into defense and one into damage (the value of the defense die doesn't add to his AC but indicates a defensive action, which is indicated by having a corresponding assigned as damage**). The choice is easy: the 3 goes on defense, the 5 on damage reduction.

Snöri sees his enemy's weak attempt to stem himself against the attack. Still, he's all in. He can't have more dice assigned for damage than for attack, but having a triple 3 at hand (each die having a value of 9) he's able to put the 6 and one 3 into his attack to get over Hugin's AC easily, which leaves two dice with an awesome value of 18 for damage!

Hugin's block reduces this by 5, but he's seriously wounded afterwards (1 blow zero) and out of the fight. He has a 50 % chance now to stay conscious ((Stomach: 10) + d20 versus 20) but rolls a 5. At least he doesn't see Snöri's satisfied smile as he gets his throat cut ...

Snöri will always be reminded of this battle because of the scars he got from it, though.

So much for the example. And this is not the only way it could have gone down, even after all the combat dice had been rolled. Hugin could have decided to make the move and regain drop die actions, forcing Snöri to react and spend a die to counter one of those actions, ruining a full attack in the process (because with 3 dice left Snöri wouldn't have been able to put two on attack and damage and either the triple or the 6 are threatened by it, too). Or Snöri sees his enemy doing nothing and decides to delay one die and hurt Hugin just a little bit (a gamble, for sure, but possible). I believe there is lots of room for some creative fighting.

It's no news for those following the blog, but the mini dice-games I posted earlier this year use a slightly different*** variant of the rules described above. For those interested to give this a spin, the rules and a "board" to play it on can be found here. Have fun!

Conversion guide and fighting groups

This will be the last part of this post (thanks for reading this far, btw!) and will handle the work a DM has to put into it and the tools needed to make this work at the table. The first problem I had to solve was how to convert the stats of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia to Lost Songs, but the main problem kept being to find a fast solution for a group facing several enemies without loosing the main features of the game. It'd just be crazy to let a DM roll for and keep track of, say, 12 goblins messing up the party. Each his own initiative, drop die actions with co-operation ...

Without a proper solution for mass combat (as a skirmish, not as army vs. army****) it'd not only be a mess, it'd be unplayable as a role playing game.

Initiative was the first problem I managed to get rid of. It's simply the Movement Rate of a monster in meters (a tenth of the original number, as it is in the German version of the Rules Cyclopedia). So a Blink Dog with a movement of 120' has a base movement of 12 m in the German version, for instance. And that's the difficulty players have to beat with their combat dice to be faster. If they roll less, the monsters are faster.

Having a fixed initiative made the use of the dice more flexible for me as a DM. For the rest of the monster stats I only had to tweak the numbers a bit. HP deserve a kicker, since characters have something like that with the buffer. So monsters get a +6 to their initial value. Once they get wounded beyond that, a morale check is in order and they either fight on or flee.

Base attack is 6 + hd. If there is a minus with the hd it gets subtracted from the base attack, so a Goblin (1 HD-1) would have a base attack of 6 (which isn't high, but they come in numbers and cooperate).

Armor class is based on size and the value given in the monster entry. Take 20 for big, 22 for medium and 24 for small monsters subtract the listed AC and that's the armor class to work with in Lost Songs (Goblins, for instance, have AC 6 and are small, so the AC in Lost Songs would be 24 - 6 = 18).

Number of attacks plus 1 is the number of combat dice a creature has and special attacks a monster might have will be treated as drop die actions. Now all is settled to fight big individual monsters, but masses will still be hard to handle.

My first idea was to treat groups of monsters as one entity, finding a way to involve the environment in a meaningful way. The way combat is structured in Lost Songs, it is very helpful to have a section on the character sheet where the players can put the dice they use in a round (the character sheet we are currently using can be looked at here). I needed something like that for the DM and came up with this:
I used inkscape for this, open in a new window for more detail.
I printed this in A3 and put in on the table for everyone to see. Those players involved in a combat got a number. Initiative is determined first and then worked from the lowest to the highest by assigning the number of attacking creatures per character, then rolling their combat dice. Distribution also happened according to initiative. So slow characters saw what's coming, but had to declare actions first and monster combat dice were distributed first for those faster. I started at the outer rings and amassed dice towards the center. Drop die action where collected on that circle on the lower right side, delayed dice in the middle.

After the first round of combat I used dice to illustrate the values initiative, base attack and base ac so that players could plan their actions accordingly.

Environment is the tricky part. The basic idea behind it is that while adventurers excel in fighting as a team, monsters will usually have a benefit from using their surroundings. So depending on how complex an environment is, I roll 2 to 4 d6 for the environment right before combat. A six in the initial roll also generates a new d6 to add to the fold and every one is discarded.

The values on the dice stay that way for the entire encounter, they may be used by a creature if it's combat dice came up with a corresponding number. In that case the die with the corresponding number is used by that creature for that round (and only by that creature). It may not be used to generate doubles or triples***** and it will be available for other creatures to use in the next round.

To indicate what is used and what not, I put the unused dice unto the outer set of squares and moved them towards the center when a creature was using it.

An earlier version of this has been tested last Friday and it worked very well. There's lots of room to expand in and especially the idea to have a static value for the environment opens all kinds of possibilities for dungeons and ruins. But this is what I use right now for the basic combat system.

All this is, of course, somewhat inspired by how board games work, but more to support the "theater of the mind" than the use of battle mats with miniatures and that's totally where I wanted to end up. I hope those of you reading this giant post in all it's glory could get an impression how combat will work in Lost Songs. It is, as of now, just the basics, but I'm expanding on those ideas on a regular basis, streamlining it whenever possible and I believe it will end up being an intensive experience for the players of Lost Songs.

Closing words

Combat was so far the most difficult thing to get done, but I'm very happy with how all the pieces fall into place. And I couldn't have done it without pestering lots of people about it. I feel there are some thanks in order, so I thought I'd get a bit emotional (you have been warned ...). For one there is that fantastic group of players (old friends and new ones) that keep coming back, give great feedback and seem to have fun finding out where this is headed. Thanks, guys! It's a pleasure to have you all along on the ride.

But I also have to thank the community, as there is already a small group of readers following me down that rabbit hole with some anticipation and great comments. I can't say often enough that without the people listening I'd have no drive to go the places I've been with the blog. I really appreciate that.

The one putting the most enthusiasm into this is +Mark Van Vlack from the Dust-Pan-Games blog (if you haven't checked out his work, I seriously recommend doing so, it's a great blog). Without him the combat mandala above wouldn't even be at the stage it is right now and he is the first (and only ...) person I know off that went and tested the Pub Brawl with his players. He even took the time to meet on skype for some bare-knuckle fighting and talking games and design. So Mark, I hope you're reading this. Thanks, man! Seriously good show. Finish Nova 74 and make people happy with it :-)

There's also the woman that gets to hear my unfiltered and crazy ideas on a day to day basis and still keeps hanging around and playing along. But her I'll thank personally.

Well, enough of this for now. Next up (I hope tomorrow) will be a post about the qualities and task resolution in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (with an updated character sheet, no less). Questions and comments are, as always, very welcome.

* This kind of permanent damage is what forms a character over time and a reason why the stats the players choose during character creation (see part 1) are fixed and rather high in comparison to D&D (they get six values to distribute among qualities: 18, 18, 16, 16, 14, 14). Characters will be able to get some of that back between adventuring seasons, but over time they will collect scars and decrease their qualities more and more because of the life-style they chose ...

** From the example above: using a shield would allow Hugin to just use a die (but only one die) for damage reduction. 

*** Additional rules introduced here are those for damage reduction and those for shields. In the version above characters also loose Endurance for every die they used in a round. You may either implement or ignore them. The final versions of those mini games will include the new rules, but it works either way.

**** A system for something like that is far in the future, but I think it will have some of the same principles as those presented above, just with units instead of characters ... Need to think about it more, but what works above should work there, too.

***** But if the initial roll for environment comes up with doubles or triples, it might be an additional benefit of sorts for the creatures, it's just something I have to think about for a bit for the final version ...


  1. I'd love to see an example of a small fight scene between groups were we can see cooperative actions

    1. I could give a few examples from our play tests. There are three drop die actions that can be used to help others directly: coop (giving a die), binding (forcing the enemies attacks on you) and counter (counters drop die actions).

      In a Team Deathmatch Pub Brawl one character helped my character gaining speed to charge into the fight (gave me a die I used for a move drop die action), some rounds later we faced the problem that one character had a really strong defense and would have blocked my otherwise devastating attack (I had won initiative and was to resolve first), so another player in my team went and bound that defending character (and nobody countered the bind ...) so I hit him hard while he concentrated on the binding character.

      A good example for a counter was two sessions ago when a baboon charged one of the players (and she had a very low initiative with almost no defense that round), but one of the faster players saw that happening and decided to counter the movement drop die action of that baboon, which I interpreted as him screaming at the baboon and making threatening gestures until the beast hesitated and finally stopped.

      What really happens often is that players with low rolls give their dice to those with higher initiative to support them, ending up making one strong and focused attack. I saw one player gathering 9 dice that way one round (lucky bastard had rolled sixes, too). That's the reason for the rule that all this is possible, but every die you use in a round costs 1 Endurance ...

      I hope this gave you some ideas. It is highly circumstantial how the rules are used and interpreted in any given round and simulating it just ain't the same as a group of people throwing their brains together ... But I wanted to write a summary of a live game as soon as the opportunity arises. So it will happen eventually :)