It's a declared goal of this blog to post at least once a month. Well, I tried. However, I'm not just barging in right now to arbitrarily cast "Wall of Text" and be gone again. No. Main reason for me sitting down only now, at the last days of June, was research. Believe it or not. I'm working on a combat system for that dystopian rpg I'm currently almost-finished-writing, and here's how I went at it.
RPG combat is too structured ...
... and that's a bad thing. And a good thing. Sometimes it's ugly. Let me tell you why. First of all, it's just not called into question that much why fights have to be structured. You hit, the orc hits, some have protection, some get hurt, some get lucky, some die. All in order, maybe with some tactics, sometimes with light rules, sometimes heavy on the fighting rules.
Don't get me wrong, it's mainly a good thing, imo. However, this war-game based understanding of what a skirmish is fits well in most role-playing games, for that's the stories you want to tell. In D&D the characters go into combat ready for it (at least on the character sheet, right?). The game is more or less build around a war-game engine and the trappings changed, even grew over time, but so did the board game aspects that are in the DNA of that first game.
|H. G. Wells in action ... those roots are deep [source]
What it also does is telling a specific set of stories. And that's the limitation. It's where combat in a game can turn ugly or even bad. I've talked in other posts about how detailed power curves in rpgs practically force specific power structures on the worlds they emulate. If you can play a level 36 half-god, able to kill some old dragon in a fair one-on-one, the world around that character needs to be layered like that.
A king just can't (shouldn't?) be level 1 or a level 10 character could just force his will into the story, maybe killing that king for shits and giggles. There are consequences on stories for detailed rules like that, and to a degree those rules will dictate the rhythm of the game. This will mostly be felt on higher levels, though. It's probably the reason why many regard D&D levels 1 to 8 as the "sweet spot" as far as range goes (might vary a bit between editions).
Anyway, I digress ... Rules give rhythm to a game. If it's heavy on the combat rules, it's what will have lots of table-time over a course of a campaign. More so on higher levels, and badly if those consequences aren't taken into account for high-level games. Not only a problem D&D has, btw, look no further than WoD for problems with high level characters. I'm sure there's more.
Of course there's ways to solve those problems. The D&D Rules Cyclopedia, for instance, (the gold standard, if you ask me), shifts gears from adventurer to noble to legend to god, all playing out differently. I'd argue that's good design, because it takes into consideration the power curve of the game. The stories told in the D&D RC (if you go the distance) change as the rhythm of the system changes. This is because of the combat system (and to equal part because of magic, I should add, which is mostly written around combat, so ...).
That basic war-game structure echoes through almost all role-playing games. When there's a call for initiative, everyone knows the jig is up. If that's not the kind of story you want to tell, if you want to, say, copy patterns we know from action movies, if you want chaos and arbitrariness and tension, you have to change that rhythm significantly.
|The boardgame-kind of abstraction [source]
What stories? (patterns, not structures)
The first step towards this would be to stop seeing combat as an isolated incident, as something that needs to be fenced in a specific set of rules or a separate ritual with a specific set of terms attached to it.
The next step would be to integrate it into the system in a way that allows for enough detail to honor the implications and enough abstraction to make it manifest naturally in every possible narrative scenario the game on hand has. It needs to appear as part of the story as it would in a noir novel or a thriller.
This is about direct consequences. If characters are prepared and capable, the outcome of the confrontation should not only be just that, it should enhance and celebrate that. If they are in over their heads, it's that what the game should enhance.
We are talking the bar scene in Inglorious Basterds here or the first 40 minutes of Sicario. It's also when the hero fights his way through some extras in no time, only to face a tough one at the end. Both scenes need equal spotlights as well as feel different without having the system bog it all down too much or shift tone in a way that it doesn't feel cohesive anymore.
There is a flow in good action movies that constantly builds and releases in patterns that relate to the story, not to a template (although those exist as well). People are less keen on stories that get too formulaic. Of course, that's a bit different in games. When having an active roll in a story that includes random results, the average outcome of several rolls is what lets a character's abilities make manifest*. That needs to be considered and addressed (which can be done with the level of abstraction, but more on that later).
Before I came up with anything myself, I checked out what other games did in that regard (special shout-out to the mewe-group for their suggestions!)
|Random Kung Fu pic ... [source]
What's out there (just examples, not a list)
The idea is to look for as long at games as it takes to get an idea what I will need for the game I'm writing. Took me longer than I expected and I found more games that I like enough to regret never playing them.
One more caveat, though. Lots and lots of games offer nuance to the same old formula. No initiative, group initiative, one roll for attack and damage ... variations like that. When all is said and done, though, they really don't stray far from it. It's merely house-rules to the established. Nothing wrong with that, but also not relevant for this.
There's also a huge array of skill-heavy role playing games (CoC and the like) that either tend towards either D&D or oWoD, so I consider them covered as described below. If you know any game that strays from anything I describe here, please give it a shout-out in the comments. I'd love to check it out ...
Okay, let's have a look at some staples and some exotics:
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (all editions and clones) - We've talked about that above already. Strong templates, war-game roots, very specific rhythm. The only thing to add would be that newer editions try to expand the "sweet spot" described above and force the game into a ever more complex variant of the original formula on higher levels. While making the lower level a computer game like experience and short-term fun (like a boardgame would), it's not very successful to encourage long-term or campaign play.Old WORLD OF DARKNESS - Didn't check out what happened with the newer editions. The oWoD games where the first popular example of having a higher level of abstraction opening a system successfully towards the stories the game wants to tell. While combat still followed established structures, it offered different patterns to get to results and stayed vague (as well as consistent) enough with its terminology and how it all connected, that allowed an easy transfer between system and drama. In other words, it was easier to do a character's individual choices to solve conflict compared to older games.UPWIND RPG (cards) - The GM (mostly) offers "plays" if something is at stake, same is true for combat. It can be resolved in broad strokes or very detailed, just as the narrative manifests and the involved parties see fit. Plays will mostly involve 1 player and the GM (pretty sure the others can chime in, but not to great effect, as I read it), and it should be possible to have a detailed skirmish that way, even with several players having several plays. However, it would burn through cards quick and since card decks are "set" in a way rolling the dice aren't, players might end up less welcome cards if they want to or not. This encourages less detailed play, I'd say, as players like to plan with the cards they have to get things done ... Interesting system, just not what I'm looking for.AMBER Diceless - Combat here is about finding out if your enemy is superior or inferior to you and how to go about it. Combat is a narrative and has no strict scheme like rounds or even initiative. In a sense, players are observing, analyzing and reacting as the narrative manifests. Characters can only die if they are in over their heads and usually get an opportunity to avoid a fate like that or even chose it. Not what I'm looking for, but it most certainly works. It's basically the other extreme to using structures as described above. The story is the thing here, not so much the game.TUNNELS & TROLLS - T&T is notable for its very abstract and light combat system. It was designed in direct contrast to D&D and its war-gaming roots (quite early as well). In short, both sides roll and the losing side gets the difference to the winning side's result as damage. Since the hit points a monster has defines the dice it can use to attack, monsters will get weaker as they get hit. There are rules for armor and "spite damage" (where the winning side gets damage as well), but that's about as concrete as it gets. No movement and just a little maneuvering, the rest is played as it makes sense. It all evolved a bit from earlier editions, but mostly by adding detail to the existing system. A good example what can be done by thinking out of the box.
Let's leave it at that. There is obviously way more games out there than that, but there also isn't that much variety. Most of that might be due to the fact that it works. You can scale the level of detail somewhat, it's intuitive and it allows for tinkering as per taste. Some games do away with combat as much as possible, because they tell different stories (you could argue that they just shift the focus in the system from combat to something else).
What I haven't seen a lot is attempts to change the rhythm in a way that it cohesively allows an established tension to erupt brutally and as the story dictates, while considering that this needs to work within improvisation. That is, it needs to work unplanned and as the result of the system interacting with the players and the narrative ... Okay, okay. Wait a minute. You've read so far. Here, have a funny pic before we move on:
|He had it coming ... [source]
Crazy talk, you say? Hold my beer ...
The greatest and most memorable fight scenes are all about drama, not about the action, is what they tell screenwriters (a very interesting and inspiring article about screenwriting). I like that a lot. Those meaningful escalations are build over time and when they bloom, it is recognized. Normally something like this is arguably in the realm of a good DMs narrative power (or writer or director). It doesn't need a system, if the participants are able to produce that kind of tension as they manifest the narrative and interpret the dice results.
However (you probably guessed), I think a system should be able to build that kind of tension and allow the abstract room to apply it to whatever interpretation the players and the DM can come up with.
Here is the thing: we intuitively know the patterns necessary to evoke certain reactions. The Big Guy in the crowd with the scars and the Big Gun everyone else is shying away from? That's a clear set-up for a tougher opponent. If the characters recognize him from somewhere or he shouts at them something he did to them, for instance, like "I was the one that killed your wife! Hahahahah!!" or if he's about to do something that might escalate the situation further (like killing innocents or destroying something or ...), you'll load that scene further. Every bit helps to make it more intense.
For a system to offer that kind of output, you need to go away from seeing non-player characters as single entities, but as part of a potential instead (a bit like Tunnels & Trolls does, actually). How this potential is build up is totally individual as the story manifests. The system sets the markers, like "something is stolen" or "someone threatens the neighborhood" and keeps track of it, like "you get accused as the thief" or "people get beat up and there is corruption".
All that can be done randomly, and if done on a level abstract enough, it can be applied to every situation within the stories a game might want to tell. Actually, it'll influence those stories towards specific outcomes an occurrences you'd expect for a genre or setting by giving directions, not results. Oracles, if you will (if you've been reading this blog for any amount of time, you will have heard some of those ideas already).
There you have it, then, patterns and opportunities for escalation and hinting and interpretation, randomly created and with natural "hot spots" where the stakes are somewhat established, but also offer room for surprises as the story shifts from narrative encounter to narrative encounter and the reactions to that.
That's not all, but then we are done
It needs one more dimension to make it work properly, though, and that would be a bigger disconnect between player and character. An abstraction not only how hurt a character is, but (in this case) if the character actually is in the mood to fight or even pumped and eager for some of that ultra-violence.
Think about it. We monitor characters all the time for how damaged they are or how well equipped and there are some more or less established systems around for seeing if a character is hungry or thirsty or if it's too hot or cold. We already take those things into account when we decide how to play the character. Same is true for the never changing, but still relevant ability scores. If your character isn't strong, you will try to avoid things that involve using that ability score. It comes natural.
So a logical step would be to install a system that can have a character being very angry as well as not in the mood. Having characters getting frustrated or stressed will have players react to that and it all becomes part of the story just out of pure necessity. That's the beauty of having output like that come through the system: it will give impulses otherwise easily forgotten or neglected. Giving them importance is giving them power over the narrative and that is a great source of tension.
And that's where I'm at. It would be a post just as long as this one to go into detail how this will be done in that game I'm writing, but I can say that we gave the beta a test-run and it is promising. I'll have to write more about this soon, but I hope I was able to illustrate the distinctions I saw and how I addressed the problems thereof.
As always, thoughts and impressions on the ideas formulated above are very welcome here or wherever I share this.
In other news, the first draft for my next publication is almost done, we are already working on a layout and art is on its way ... You know what? Have a tease of some interior art by Daniel Petri (who can be found here):
|Copyright by Daniel Petri [hompage]
* Incidentally this is the weakest point of light systems with very few rolls allowing for a limited assortment of results: success conditions have a probability of occurring, but there is a number of rolls necessary to reflect said probability in a way that it is recognizable as good or bad probability. So limiting rolls and success conditions will have less controllable outcomes and discourage long term play.