Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Combat Systems: Likes and Dislikes

Note: this is an rpg mechanics heavy post. I'm trying to put together a thick description of my likes and dislikes in the the combat systems of games I've run and played in. It is incredibly subjective, but I'm hoping it will help me organize my ideas.

I've been thinking about combat mechanics as I've been considering my system hodge-podge for the next Sunday campaign. I should say I generally think of an rpg system as having four basic modules: combat, skills and skill resolution, character creation, and powers. Those systems are obviously deeply linked, but generally you can disentangle the bits of one system from the other to see how they work. If you can pull them apart too easily, that usually indicates a disconnect to me-- that the systems don't mesh well or that the system uses too many kinds of differing resolution and description systems. I should say that by powers I mean class abilities (feats), magic, actual super-powers or other abilities that fall outside the scope of skills. That in itself is a tricky business-- getting those things balanced with the rest of the system. One of the reasons I don't like d20 or its variants is the feat system. I have the same love/hate with Exalted. My basic problem is that as you add more abilities, you actually limit the scope of previously created powers, and usually this comes at the expense of skills. Some feats and powers make sense, but many times a feat simply means that someone with a related skill can no longer use that skill for that purpose. For example, that track-reading is a feat in most d20 versions. I'm used to that falling under Survival or Observation skills. Some feats, a lot of them, mechanize the system. If someone tries to be creative about the use of a skill-- it can be overruled as falling under a feat. Maybe the GM will let it fly, but at a significant penalty, which diminishes incentives for creative thinking.

...which brings us to an rpg rule that I've quoted before: a game system encourages what it rewards. The opposite is also true, that a system discourages what it penalizes.

There's also the question of balancing other player investments. If I see another player doing something that I've invested experience or points to be able to do, my first reaction isn't going to be 'good job'-- it is going to be either that this player is getting away with something and/or I got screwed for buying that particular feat or ability.

That's kind of a side-track from what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to focus on combat which forms a core part of many rpgs systems. It is something I think about, even in games where combat will be fairly rare. I suspect that's because if we do get to combat I want it to be exciting and balanced. Or it could just be that I've played these games for so long that I've bought into the concept that combat systems are vital.

Huh. OK, let's take for a moment that combat systems are important. I don't want to knock down too many of my assumptions right now.

I generally believe that the complexity of a system should come in its character creation system. That's where a level of detail and perhaps asymmetrical systems can be allowed. By that I mean different things function or are bought differently. That front-loads the complexity of the game-- I believe other systems should be smooth, relatively intelligible, and easy to manage at the table. It isn't that the other systems shouldn't have detail-- but they should be easier to get through. Character creation systems you can work through away from the table and don't usually get in the way of the actual play...except for possibly experience, but that's another story.

I think what I want to do here is to briefly note my reactions to the combat systems in various rpgs I've read, run or played in. One thing I've realized in thinking about this is that my reactions to a combat system differ wildly depending on which side of the screen I'm sitting (not that I use a GM screen anymore-- I find they block contact with the players and rarely give any assist. If I have to look things up off the screen then usually I've done something wrong.) In any case, I think I've been approaching things from what I want out of a system as a GM rather than what I like when I'm playing. I need to consider that when I'm evaluating these things.

Hero System/Champions
LIKE: I like the single to hit roll. Targets have a Defensive Combat Value which you subtract from your Offensive Combat Value. You have to roll under that difference +8 on 3d6. It is a what I call a closed system in that you have to roll under a target number. Combat maneuvers are easy to manage and calculate, but a lot of them feel same-y. Status effects are clearly built into the system. I like the distinction between Stun and Body damage and the dice mechanic distinction between Normal and Killing Damage.

DISLIKE: The initiative system-- while it is a great concept for some things and was a revolution for its time, it slows the game down. It becomes a clunky artifact. In theory I like the idea that different players can have more actions than others. In practice, I think it sucks. Combat takes too long—even running at the fastest clip possible. Everything feels math and calculation heavy. It also suffers from the Kleenex/Steel flip-switch. Characters usually fall into one side of that division-- either dying easily or being able to suck up the damage. I'm not talking about that in the context of supers there, but for general purposes. The switch between those two states seems to me to happen in a fairly narrow band. Weapons also seem to be fairly alike-- but I think I'm going to have that reaction to all systems, so let's leave that aside-- that's probably a reaction I need to think about more deeply.

LIKE: Simple resolution-- combat skill + stat + d10; target gets an active defense roll to beat. The system is open in that you're trying to roll above a number and it can keep going up. As we played it under Derek, things go fast. Does allow for multiple actions, but doesn't bog itself down too much in the handling of that. Useful and easily grasped for a quick pick up game on the fly. Mind you, I've only ever really played/run it without the chrome.

DISLIKE: I don't like the narrow result range the single d10 gives. It is open ended, but generally you're still rolling and accounting on a narrow set of numbers. Damage always felt a little odd to me-- weapons seemed either potent or weak. The chrome from various books seemed bizarrely dissimilar-- no unifying considerations for balance or cost. That applies to things like the Advantages...I mean Qualities. Never felt like the system made allowance for more interesting maneuvers.

I do want to qualify that I never read all of the supplement books, just a few. The Martial Arts book in particular bothered me as being generally unusable. Even when I ran this at cons (for Conspiracy X, AFMBE, Armageddon and City of Heroes) I stuck with the most basic form of the mechanics-- which I think worked in that context, but I'm not sure does for a longer term campaign.


LIKE: There's strong flexibility and adaptability to this system. Unlike some other systems, that doesn't absolutely come at the cost of crunch and detail. Wounds and wound penalties get resolved smoothly. As with Hero System, there's the pleasure of rolling a fistful of dice. That makes for a better curve in results than a single die up or down system. In some of the versions, equipment and weapons feel discrete enough to make them interesting. It scales pretty well across several power ranges. It has a built in mechanic (Willpower, Conviction) for spending limited resources to boost one's attempts. The Stunting system in Exalted was pretty revolutionary (at least for my games). There's broad definition to the skills, meaning that success in combat doesn't require insane specialization.

DISLIKE: To make this system work, you have to establish some House Rules which affect very basic mechanics. I'm unsure which version of the dice-- 6's or 7's count as successes, doubling for 10's, one's canceling-- I like. Multiple Actions, again while a good idea in theory, break down in practice. If you take the Multiple Action rules as written, trying to take more than one action in a round means you probably won't succeed at any of them. On the other hand, most of the house rules for fixing this end up letting the players take lots of actions. That ends up slowing combat down significantly. Defensive actions represent a real problem in play. When does a player declare those actions-- is there a limit on them beyond the dice pool? The way the system works invites a very mechanical approach to certain parts of combat. Essentially the players need to bleed off an opponent's actions so that others can follow up. That becomes a grind, which again slows the game down.

The fumble mechanic, no successes plus rolling a one, means that spending Willpower can automatically eliminate the chance of fumbling. In systems with easy Willpower recovery (ala Exalted) that can have a significant effect. There's also a discontinuity between the skill levels necessary for combat and for non-combat. Since combat is always contested by another roll, you have to heavily invest in those skills to get anywhere. On the other hand, you can get by with minimal investment in the non-combat skills. Successes above the target number in an attack translate directly into extra damage dice-- which makes the GM's job difficult in calculating how to power bad guys. There's the basic problem in handling Soak as a concept. If it is a fixed value, then some attacks will always bounce. If you use the option of always having a successful attack do one die of damage through any soak, then players will ping a baddie to death with small attacks. If it is a rolled ability then you've added yet another step to combat resolution. Martial Arts and other like maneuvers and abilities have fuzzy and dull rules.


LIKE: I should note that here I'm particularly talking about Scion. I've looked at Exalted 2e and the new World of Darkness. Most of what I like about this system actually falls in the character creation end of things. It shares the same set of broad skills as old ST, which is good. The epic dice for stats (with automatic successes) can be really satisfying for players. Willpower to grant extra dice, rather than automatic successes is a mechanic I like. The powers and abilities work well in combat. Scion does a great job of emulating the high-powered combat of semi-divine badasses. The way combat coordination is handled is a nice twist. It fixes the multiple actions problem.

DISLIKE: I was at first quite taken with the action and initiative system of this game. You use a chart, broken into eight tics. Every action has a cost in tics-- so persons who take quick short actions will go more often than those who take longer ones. In practice, this mechanic breaks down. Tracking people on the chart is yet another task in the way for the GM. Faster weapons rule-- period. Standard actions take too long-- you could be attacking in that time for more effect usually. That's a classic problem from console jrpgs-- abilities like status effects usually don't matter except for something with a special weakness. Simply expending your action attacking is easier and most effective. The system uses a fixed target number for attackers to hit. It is easy to bump that up-- meaning that the GM has to uber-fixate on a fast character to actual do anything to them. It uses fixed soak as well, which causes the problems I mentioned in Storyteller above. While there are some good ideas here and it adds some new concepts it doesn't hold together as a whole.

I should also mention my reaction to the nWoD system when I looked through it. It doesn't have the same action count system of Scion. What it does have is a single attack roll which includes your damage dealing bonus which is pitted against the defense of the target, which includes both evasion and soak. Whatever successes get past translate directly into damage. At first blush, I don't like that idea-- there are problems with scaling, meaning it would be hard to simulate a broader range of things like weapons and effects with any significant detail. That's just an off the top of my head response, so don't quote me on that.

LIKE: Single actions on a turn, with mechanic to do more in that reduces your defense number. Combat can be deadly. Armor has both passive defense, an aid for avoiding attacks, and soak which reduces damage. System differences between Dodges and Parries are handled effectively. Manages to differentiate between damage types without getting too bogged down. Bell curve for resolution means fewer strange extremes, criticals and fumbles happen, but they're a nice surprise. Critical hit and hit locations handled in a balanced way. Various standard maneuvers, including disarm and feint, are easy to resolve and balanced. It is tough to disarm an opponent and a feint actually works as a combat tactic in the system.

DISLIKE: Weapons have a fairly narrow range of detail-- at least in detail that makes X weapon different from Y. That can make them seem a little same-y. The game doesn't scale well to situations outside the realistic. If you play strict rules, as opposed to the simplified system we've been running under, then combat can be insanely mechanical. System cripples mages in combat relative to their weapon-based allies or opponents. In combat, characters usually have to choose between moving and doing something. The Martial Arts system is wacky and mechanics heavy-- it moves in play like a soccer ball filled with lead; you have to keep kicking it to keep it rolling.

LIKE: Great extensive critical hit tables. Weapons heavily distinguished by having individual charts. Lots of combat status effects handled consistently (stuns, knockdown, bleeding, unbalancing, etc). Open die system using percentiles. The basic mechanic for having a combat value which a character shifts between attack and defense.

DISLIKE: Overly extensive critical hit tables. Weapons having an individual chart requiring a look up for everything. Has all of the usual problems of a level based system including the weird 'power up' for people as they go up levels and transform from a bunny-rabbit type threat to earth-shattering. Lots of math and heavy calculation. Insane number of combat skills. No mechanic for any kind of called shot or effective subdual-- takes major control out of the player's hands despite being billed as highly detailed. Multi-page character sheets. The action/initiative system as presented in RMSS is some strange math exercise in percentages.

LIKE: Nothing. I know that sounds weird, but what I like from this system comes from all of the other components. I love everything else, including the idea of separating risk challenges from the interaction and investigation mechanics.

DISLIKE: Narrow die range (essentially d6). Having to give away limited resources of skills to ensure a test actually succeeded. Weird refresh concepts on those skills. Hit points as a skill. System build for mechanics crunch avoidance, but so narrowly ranged that other concepts (martial arts, tasers, takedown, etc) which might be setting appropriate are are to work in.

LIKE: I've run this mostly from the Mutants and Masterminds side of things. I think for supers that system works well. In combat you have a number of maneuvers and options. Some of them are more obscure, but most can be resolved easily. Handles grapples in a clear way. Damage is abstracted but focuses on the cinematic quality of things-- that over the course of a combat the players have to wear down the big bad guys. However, a good and lucky shot can take out some enemies. Plays very quickly and at the same time gives the players a chance to do a number of satisfying actions. Has decent way of handling Martial Arts and includes good mechanism for drama points. Good and interesting magic system that works in combat.

DISLIKE: I don't think MnM scales well to lower powered games. I think that as a result True20, based on that, has some serious flaws. It has the problem that adding more feats excludes co-opts things you'd normally expect a skill or another feat to cover (the Expert's Companion is especially bad in this regard). The range of abilities is narrow-- so most weapons seem alike. Again, that may be a flaky perception on my part. The single d20 roll has a smooth curve which can be frustrating to players, especially if they aren't rolling much and have a bad night. Maneuver options fairly narrow-- especially since most of what you'd expect to be there require a feat or else they don't really function. Some people don't like the reversal of the perceived control over the damage portion of things. I prefer to picture that as: you always do maximum damage and your opponent has to make their soak test against that. Overabundance of status conditions in MnM.

These are impressions off the top of my head-- I'm sure I could go on if I went back to take a more serious look at them. I'm trying to isolate those mechanisms I like and figure out why I like them-- and if I like them as a GM or a Player. There are a number of systems I've read or played that I haven't mentioned here-- either because nothing sticks in my memory or I don't feel I understand the system enough to comment intelligibly (Fading Suns, Heroquest, Weapons of the Gods, DC Heroes, d20 3.5, Feng Shui, Zorceror of Zo, Burning Wheel, etc.)


  1. Really enjoying your postings, though I'm still catching up with some older ones.

    I haven't completely read all of the True20 Companions, but from just flipping though them it seems like about 1/4 of the contents are golden, but the rest...

    Related to this, and referring back to your 1/29 post, here's a recent short review of FATE/Fudge that might be useful:

    I really dig the Aspects, especially how they are used in Spirit of the Century.

  2. It's wierd, but I really liked Rolemaster for combat. It did definitely have the bunny becomes killer bunny switch at some point that I couldn't exactly discern--probably once you got your combat skill to 75 or higher and could dependably roll a crit of some sort.

    But I hated hated hated that there was no way to hold back (subdual) or call shots. That probably came from having played GURPS previously.

    Still, for all the GM labor and pain with those charts, stupid old Rolemaster really did make every weapon feel different. Every person in the group was bringing something unique to the skirmish.

    GURPS I liked for the control I had over what I could do--it was tactical without being overwhelming. However, there was a certain element of same-y-ness that could take over. But you know, looking back, I don't remember a GURPS game where the group played together half as carefully as the later groups did in Storyteller or M&M--the same tactics would have worked in GURPS, but the peeps just weren't thinking that way at that time. I think the game materials just presented teamwork as a very clear and sensible option in those systems--whereas GURPS was still just a big maneuver list with little discussion of teamwork. Least, that's where my head was at the time...

  3. I'm in agreement with all your opinions. Being me, I have even more gripes! But only with the games I have experience with.

    Champions math suffers from tradition trumping common sense. Here's a mathematically identical system (exactly the same odds) that's easier to use.

    Attack rolls are 3d6 + OV. Try to roll high. Natural 18s are crits.

    The Defensive Target number (write this down on the character sheet) is 13 + DV. This is much more intuitive.

    If you want to make attack rolls open ended, you could make a rule that if you roll a natural 18, roll another 3d6.

    GURPS has the same problem so I won't go into details on that.

    The skill list in GURPS is insane. Staff, two handed sword, broad sword, short sword, and fencing are all different skills and don't default to each other. So you could be the greatest gladiator in the world with the short gladius, but if somebody handed you the longer spatha you'd be a newbie. Historically, staff, spear, and two handed sword were considered one skill (duh, you use a staff to train in two handed), but in GURPS they're unrelated too.

    In GURPS 4E PD only applies to shields. What I really hate is the absolute dodge rule. Unless the attacker rolled a critical hit, a standard dodge roll means he missed. This means that an incredibly skilled PC can keep missing a mediocre opponent. This rule doesn't apply to fast missiles (bullets and lasers, but not arrows or shuriken) so archers naturally suck compared to riflemen.

    We haven't had problems with mages in GURPS combat because they are used for area attacks. They always take out more opponents than any single warrior. Last campaign the mage specialized in area fireballs. The current mage uses big glue traps.

    For MnM, a shortcut. Grapple should be a secondary stat written on all character sheets. Do the math, write it down.