Friday, November 11, 2011

Combat Complexities

Last Saturday I started the big fight in our game at 11pm.

Your reaction to that will probably say a lot about your age and what kinds of rules you play. This particular group's split pretty evenly between forty and thirty-somethings...older gamers by some reckonings and younger by others. Once upon a time our games regularly ran past midnight, but not so much now. Some games, of course, allow you to run the epic fight from start to finish in under an hours. Some games go the other way- we used to play a lot of Champions, and a fight like the one we had (6 players, 18 mooks, 7 named baddies) would have taken the entire evening. A friend who runs Pathfinder had a big fight the same evening. He started it at the beginning of the session just make sure he could finish it, and he only has four players. My fight used a heavily modified FATE variant with damage rolls and detailed stress tracks it still took a while

So today I want to talk around a couple of questions about combat complexity. Obviously system complexity doesn't solely determine how long a conflict takes to resolve- but I suspect it is the major factor.

Let me start with one of the places where I have my real love/hate relationship with combat complexity: martial arts systems. You can see some examples of this in a couple of lists Boot to the Head: Martial Arts Treatments in RPGs and RPG's that feature Fencing (by Bruce McGeorge). Primarily I love the idea that you can create a set of options that give the flavor of a particular 'style' and make different builds of fighters feel distinct. So narrowly, we're talking about MA, but more broadly any system which offers sets of combat maneuvers which players can add to their character.

What really got me thinking about this again was the game I ran last Sunday (the day after the big fight in the other game). We'd missed a couple of sessions and then we had a couple without fights. That night the players transported into a major bad guy base, facing a dozen+ mooks and eight named adversaries. And the fight felt like molasses. At the start players had to shift around their character sheets, pull out the rules and organize their combat options. Some time back I'd hit on what I thought was a fairly decent idea. I ended up using it as the basis for the Wushu campaign I ran and for the combat system in this fantasy campaign. Basically players learn martial styles- with each style offering elements (like additional damage, defense bonus, grappling bonus, sweep). Players can then mix and match those elements to create new maneuvers with limits based on the styles they know and a separate rank determining how many they can apply. In theory, it works. In practice it works, up to a point. When a player knows one style, they have five elements to play with. Two styles doubles that, still a manageable number. Three styles and above- well, at that point we start to get into serious slowdown. Most of the players have written their options on blank business cards- which means shuffling through those, organizing them and trying to figure out what to put together with what. Some of the problem arises from figuring out the best way to access that information. But the greater problem comes from the base mechanic.

So some of the complexity issue comes from # of distinct choices and another comes from how you ask the players to organize those options. My system hoped to get around the problem of maneuvers all with slightly different parameters- with some choices not optimal. Some of the World of Darkness systems suffer from this. Beyond the "buyable" combat choices, as well, some systems offer a host of options that can be overwhelming. Any game where you have to have reference cards for the basic actions anyone can do seems to me to be problematic. Mutants & Mastermind 2e for example, overwhelms players with choices and discrete resolution systems for those choices. Even with a deck of reference cards printed and distributed to players, most fall back to "I punch him." I've commented on Champions as a slow system, but actually handles this well. All of the basic combat maneuvers and elements appear on the character sheet. You knew what you could do at any point.

Of course one major factor in determining combat speed comes from the players' experience with those rules. Hero System and Rolemaster both had a lot of complexity options and decisions in them, but I ran them enough that I was able to get the fights to go fast and smooth. Both systems had stages of resolution. For the former you had declaration, roll to hit, roll damage, calculate final results and apply effects; for the latter declaration, decide ability allocation, roll to hit, check damage, roll for critical, calculate final results, determine reactions, and apply effects. Systems like World of Darkness and FATE reduce these steps, collapsing and doubling up the purposes of rolls. But any of these will be slow playing with new or untrained players.

In the fantasy case I mentioned above, we hadn't gone to combat for several sessions. In effect, the players had to relearn the system and their own abilities. Depending on the campaign, the number of actual combats I have varies. Most games average one combat every other or every third session. Fantasy and superhero games will likely be higher. But rarely do I run more than a single combat in a session. That means, ironically, the games where more narrative weight rests on the combat because it happens less frequently are the same games where players may lose touch with the combat mechanics and options.

That's more true if those mechanics also differ greatly from the other resolution systems in the game. If, when we get to combat, it feels like a very different game, we'll have more of a barrier to player transitions. So some systems, like FATE and Heroquest, resolve everything in pretty much the same fashion: all tested conflicts and results are fairly equivalent. Consider how much space is devoted in the rules you're playing to combat. Then consider how much of the non-combat rules have an significant or exclusive role in combat (like many spells).

Another interesting issue comes up when you want to do something pretty specific with the combat: where you want to simulate a duel. These kinds of showdowns are crucial to Wushu, Samurai and Western games (among others). But they're actually hard to pull off. In systems where you have to wear down an opponent, like games with high HP values, then instead of a real sense of balance and shifts you instead get a weird dice-based race game: with both sides seeing how fast they can wear their opponent down. Introduce risky maneuvers, and the complications mentioned above, and you get more options, but at a cost. The blog Whitehall Paraindustries posted on that this week. Giving players the feeling of a deep one-on-one struggle adds complexity. And how do you balance that against what's going on in a larger scale combat?

Because of course, the difference between the classic duel centerpiece scene and that resolved at the table is that you have multiple protagonists. In films, even when you have a group of heroes, you have one (maybe two) actually fighting a "duel" and then we cut to the rest of the group carrying out supporting actions- like fending off mooks, keeping the castle doors shut, setting up a distraction. You could do that at the table- but you'd need a group with real trust for one another, a belief that if X persons gets the spotlight for this scene, they'll get there's latter. Doing an amazing job as support still comes in behind doing an OK job fighting the big bad. There's a mental calculation there- and if you aren't doing combats every session, then it can take a while for the non-aggressive players to get their "duel."

Then there's the functional part of the showdown duel. How do you best simulate something that happens that quickly- like a fast draw at high noon or the flash of a blade for an iaijustsu duel? L5R and some others use a raise system, with players wagering until we see who goes for the resolution first. Another approach is to have several stages of the conflict: rolls for assessing the opponent, for psyching them out, for maneuvering into just the right position- with those providing a bonus to the strike when resolved. Some systems have skills, advantages and abilities for just those narrow circumstances...which adds more complexity. And how can you integrate those moments into a larger fight or into the actions of the wider group of players?

I don't know if it is an absolute battle between highly detailed options (feats, maneuvers, advantages) and generic approaches (extra dice, aspects covering everything). The former can mean a slower game and players perhaps left out in the cold. The latter potentially means reducing everything down to sets of +2 bonuses or the like. They might have different names, but when they're absolutely interchangeable, do those names matter? I'm not sure yet, but I do know that we started that combat at 11pm and drove home pretty satisfied, if more than a little wired from caffeine.


  1. It strikes me that Champions limited look up time by assuming that all options for an attack are "On". You could remove an element from an attack (armor piercing, area affect, etc) but the attack stats written on your character sheet were for the full monty deluxe pizza with anchovies.

    Something like this could be done with your system, along with limited use attacks for use against boss villains.

    The question of duels at root isn't a question of system, it's a question of storytelling at the table. How do you want the drama to play out at the table? It's only after you have a tightly defined answer that you can figure out mechanics to support that story. This depends greatly on what the players at a table enjoy. Some will love the idea of building up to single meaningful roll, others will crave hex paper and chipping away at the enemy over several turns. Perhaps you could set up a campaign built on the premise that it's about dramatic build up to quick decisive duels.

    It's about building up a relationship between two people. A really angry vengeful relationship.

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