Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Musings about Combat in Tabletop Role Playing Games

I've been thinking about combat a lot lately. Mainly because I write at two systems right now where I try to go away from what D&D did. It's harder than one would think. For me at least it is. "Combat Design" is something you won't find that much information about, as far as role playing games are concerned. And that's a shame, really, as I think it's a chance to build systems that enhance the experience of combat without being too complex. At least on the player side ...

Case in point: HALO (1)

Bear with me a moment. I will go back to the tabletop variant soon(-ish). But I really love me some HALO and some of the concepts that work here should work with the analogue step parents we love to play so much.
The Masterchief! [source]
It's the first ego-shooter that had huge areas to explore and a decent AI to make it feel organic, realistic even. How to engage a group of enemies is totally up to the player and the coop-feature (for the old x-box) is the icing on the cake. It's beautiful.

So what are the main factors to make this work? I see 8:
  • complex but realistic environments (laws of physics apply and so on)
  • different enemy types (groups with different strengths and weaknesses)
  • common sense (as in predictable) directs enemy behavior
  • wide range of possible tactics (from efficient to improvised)
  • mission goals and agile story arcs (small objectives in a "living" environment)
  • huge availability of tools and equipment (vehicles, enemy weapons)
  • (but) limited (!) weapon use for players (ammunition, number of weapons carried)
  • precise and generous interface with high basic character capabilities (runs fast, jumps far, reacts immediately, fair hit zones)
Environment is a neutral factor until a player or the opposition or the story changes that. Freedom of movement and the opportunity to explore allow a player to collect as much information as he needs to apply the tactics he deems necessary to complete his missions. In other words, a player gets a chance to make informed desicions (if he wants to). The interface supports this by getting out of the way during play and highlighting possible interactions with the environment where necessary, which, in turn, helps with the immersion into the game and encourages exploration.

My favorite level in Halo 1 [source]
So it's easy to navigate the game, with lots to explore, find and use before you even start shooting. Having the time to do so is just as important, in that regard. Limiting the number of main weapons a character can carry to two, with access to two different types of grenades (also limited) and (rarely) a fifth option where you are able to zoom in on a target, actually helps keeping it simple on the player side. It's furthermore important that all weapon and equipment options are viable options and what a player uses is to a huge degree a matter of taste (limited by access and tactical necessities).

The final three factors are now the opposition, objectives and the story as the glue. The character has a reason to be in the story and that story unfolds in front of the player because of his decisions and accomplishments or scripted events (most of the time when entering a new area, so as a result of exploration).

Having a story means narrowing the scope of a scenario somewhat, mission objectives will narrow it even more so. With the freedom a player has (as described above), I'd say this is a good thing, because it gives the player an opportunity to make important decisions and use all of that to his advantage and with a goal.

And only now we start shooting at the opposition. Story, missions, resources and environment inform our tactics and goals. The good design doesn't stop here. Enemies react "realistically" to threats, run for cover (and use it) or flee even. Line of sight is important, they are calm if they are just on watch and alarm others if alerted .. and all that means they are somewhat predictable for the player.

Even if he doesn't care to study them he will find them reacting as they are "supposed to", which is just as important as giving him the chance to study them. It's this openness to player choice or player approach, that makes the game so engaging. But it is still not enough. Diversity in the enemy design is the last factor. Hierarchy, power levels, different abilities and weaknesses are key here and make the experience complete.

The question now is how al that is relevant to tabletop role playing games.

War Game versus Theatre of the Mind!

The first thing you'll probably think now, is that role playing games in general (and D&D especially) have some very solid roots in war gaming, which is kindof, sort of doing most of the above. and you'd be partially right. There are some pretty solid skirmish rules for many, many tabletop rpgs. If you like to use (or have the resources for) miniatures and terrain, that is.

I know people go to great lengths to make this work at their table and I admire that. Honestly, I love looking at pictures of some of the set ups people come up with. I've seen things. And admittedly, if I had the space and the money, I'd have a room full with everything needed to build a huge dungeon and ...
Awesome! [source]
More awesome! [source]
Nah, I won't go down that specific rabbit hole (for now). Let's just say, I'm really not against using props like this at the table, but it has it's limitations. Except for the material part, which is immense, even if it might change with the advent of 3d printers as we see it right now (but that's not the point), well, except for that I often feel that ready access to another venue of commerce made some developers lazy enough to not only leave the bridge to war gaming wide open, but also neglect the chances to explore systems where the theatre of the mind is the only stage you have.

Or when they do, it often enough gets (and some might disagree here) unnecessarily compartmentalized and crunchy. I'll tell you where I see the problem with systems (A) either ignoring that combat might be any different than climbing a tree or (B) going all in with the details: the perspective is wrong or, better yet, skewed and that's mostly because games tend to treat characters as single and disconnected entities.

Every system that designs combat around that premise will more often than not rely on the DM to fill the gap somehow (using props or the narrative, for instance) or expands a character's abilities to a degree of detail that creates the illusion of verisimilitude (characters in those systems can dodge, take cover, have ammunition and a normative handle of sorts how well they'll hit the target under several circumstances ...).

One could think now that it is important that a character is able to jump 2.13 meters or run 8.376 mph. But is it, really? I think the idea that we might want (need?) exact measurements for our characters that are somehow relatable to our "real world" systems (other than in an abstract way), is pretty outdated and proven as tiresome (to say the least).

All that being said, even if I feel that many systems I have encountered are lacking a proper Combat Design (or at least are missing a great opportunity there) I have to admit that it is very possible for a DM worth his salt to make every combat system all shades of awesome if it works for him. But that just doesn't mean we shouldn't think about alternate approaches for combat systems when we are writing games ...

Insights and directions

I won't present complete solutions in this post, as I don't have them. But there are a few insights I will share. Halo is an extremely good example for well made Combat Design. Players can just interact with the world without any prior knowledge other than common sense and basic usage of a controller (the rest is done with tutorials and the story). I think it's not unusual in tabletop rpgs to handle it similar. Players don't need to know the rules. Or all the rules, for that matter. They should be able to just have an idea what their character is about and play it from there.

Fight! [source]
I believe that's for many people the reason to go back to those older system where you just had a sword or a fireball (I'm simplifying, of course). Anyway, that's what I meant with a skewed perspective. There is a point where systems got popular which outright demand that a player not only knows all of his character's abilities, but even needs to plan his character development tree and what not.

WoW is to blame. For sure. And all the games that tried to translate the idea into tabletop gaming. I won't call names and it isn't important. Anyway, at some point people said "No more!" and went back in time systems where they found a freedom they had been looking for. Halo teaches us that an easy to handle system helps with the immersion into the setting and I think the phenomena are related.

Environment is another big factor. NPCs in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs get (randomly determined) dice support from the environment (if they are familiar with it) and it really helps remembering and integrating it into a fight. It's a start.

As I was writing this, I thought a (good?) idea for a system heavily supporting the use of environment in a game could vary the combat die depending on the type of environment the fight is in. Fight in a swamp? It's a d12! In light forest? A d20! Open field? Also a d20, but a d30 when using a horse ... or something like that. Scale dice by how difficult a environment is and how familiar the combatant is with it. Could work for D&D, too. Either way, it should count as an example :)

Next up is enemy diversity and we all know about that one. I believe we could do more on that front, although we seem to have 1000 and 1 monster compendiums out there. Halo is, again, a prime example of how it can be done. Quality, not quantity might describe it best. As i wrote above: "hierarchy, power levels, different abilities and weaknesses are key". Role playing games are traditionally strong on the different abilities and power level fronts, hierarchies are in there, too. Sometimes. But the weaknesses? I don't know ... Tell me if I'm wrong, but I really can't think of an example where it actually mattered. Maybe single monsters, but in general? I think not.

As a rule of thumb I'd say a DM should only have a handful of very well prepared monsters* in his campaign (and that's certainly not new advice, but something I'll repeat just because it fits, again, with what Halo does). Let them have roots in the setting, folklore, rumors and yes, weaknesses. That old shtick with the Goblins having trouble with the sun or the dragon having a weak spot. A DM that can pull it off, will make his campaign shine so much brighter.

Having only light rules on the players side means there is a need and a chance to connect all this with a system like a dynamic sandbox or storybox or mysterybox or whatever. Not doing this would leave the heavy lifting with the DM. Or forces him to BUY PRODUCT (TM). And there you see how some solely commercial calculation fucks up good (proper?) design. You need an incomplete set of rules to sell miniatures and splat-books ... Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit. But only a bit.

Thing is, a role playing game needs DM tools to make it complete in my eyes. If a DM is to pull it all out of his arse, it stays and falls with that DM. A good set of tools could avoid some of that. And sure enough, there is a lot of that out there in the www. But since we are talking chances here, it's worth considering that a DM tool made with a specific system and all it's idiosyncrasies in mind, might (just might) be better suited for that system than some general advice you find in the blog-o-sphere.

I just started to think that I went a bit off track here. But no, all of that goes somehow into combat: Swamp Goblins hate rain and will avoid fighting or even laying ambushes when the weather is bad (ruins their camouflage ...), so characters get told they should travel those swamps only when it's raining ... which brings it's own set of problems ... and so on and so forth. A living environment, story arcs and missions all help the players to decide where and when they need to fight and how they do that.

Lastly a word on cooperation. It's a big feature for Halo on the xbox back then and although people are already at the table and playing together for tabletop rpgs, I feel like it really helps when the system not only somehow retroactively rewards working together but actually has rules that make it a tactical option in combat. Something like if characters support each other, they could double their damage or get an extra attack or double their AC. You know, something significant. Something players would not merely consider (because of some stupid +1 more or less) but really seek out.

You can't make this unseen! ... and it's teamwork :D [source]
A good system tries to take all of that under consideration. Early D&D does some of that and I love the Monster Reaction roll, for instance, for allowing exactly that. But when we are writing games ourselves (and that's something I think every DM should at least try once), we could do more than that. Or at least aim higher. And if we do it with the purpose to get it published, we should make it as complete as possible.

One more thought: player skill is something that thrives when the rules are reasonably light on the player side of things.

Combat Design

As for Combat Design, I'll try to see the characters as part of the rest, not as singular entity. Part of that is in the card based mission generator I wrote about a week ago. The Grind will also feature a system where the environment factors into armor in a way that allows a character to reduce his position instead of his health (or vice versa) and cards will be used to support some of that in adding another dimension to the whole thing. Cooperation will be big, too, like giving others your successes.

Lost Songs adds another dimension to this in using board game elements for combat. Habtics is an aspect I didn't talk about in this post, but the short of it is, that it helps players to have, say, a number of dice you can use in a round and using them means actually putting them somewhere on the character sheet. Also helps "reading" a fight better.

In the end I think it's important to find ways to transcend the step-by-step thinking we see so often in combat systems and get to a more organic, fluid way to kill for xp. I've seen this to some extent with some indie role playing games and peope keep writing and coming up with awesome stuff, so all is good.

Well, I know I have yet a long way to go before any of that is done and mistakes are part of the deal. But trying, folks, trying again and again is where it gets better :)

It turned out to be a long one. Again. Still, I hope you guys found some food for thought ... If you have encountered some good Combat Design on your travels outside the mainstream, please feel free to share it in the comments.

*Yeah, a footnote. Sorry :) I just wanted to add that the same goes for settings. It's something you may observe in almost every good anime tv show: they'll take a couple of strong themes and mix them without blurring the lines too hard (take Samurai Champloo, for instance, as a fantastic mix of Samurai and Rap culture ... if you haven't seen that yet, check it out). They explore themes by reflecting them unto each other. I always thought that's a nice idea for building a campaign setting, too. Footnote: out.

Also: Samurai Champloo Opening Credits for those who managed to get all the way down here!


  1. You make a lot of good points here. A good one you raise is about monster flexibility and only detailing out the really important monsters, the infamous creatures and notable monsters. That's a great idea.

    To supplement that something I've been working on recently is to make monsters pretty easy to come up with on the spot, assign them a level and archetype and then some defining quality that separates them from the pack (i.e. amphibious assault lizardmen). Then you're good to go, takes a lot of burden of the GM, especially when you've got monster diversity and don't want to flip through a bunch of MM pages. With fast fluid monster creation you can stat up the legendary creatures and leave everything else to an adventure-by-adventure basis.

    1. Thanks! The point that I wanted to bring across (and maybe didn't) was that you need more than monster stats to run an encounter, you need behavior and tactics to not only make it feel "organic" but also to challenge the players within predefined terms (so it's something they could figure out). What you describe pretty much does exactly that with the name alone :)