Baseline Assumptions

This is just a quick post to get the idea out of my head, I hope to come back to it after I think some more, but I also hope to get some feedback to help me shape the idea for myself.

It all started back when I was playing D&D 4e and I got involved in a conversation about why 4E has no “disarm” maneuver. Of course, the answer lies in the fact that 4E makes you entirely dependent on your gear. To have your character disarmed causes the math of the system to break down. While this is functional for 4E and works within the defined constraints of game expectation, it does create oddities for some players.

But another, larger part of the problem is that games don’t often reward fighting unarmed. That is to say, the math of most games is based around fighting with a “typical” weapon of the setting whatever that may be. The weapon isn’t an advantage it is an expectation. In other words, the game isn’t based around the lowest level of what your PC has available, with weapons working to improve that, the weapons are integral and not having them is a disadvantage.

A similar issue exists when you think about fighting tactics in say, duels. For example, when you see two fighters going at it in a lot of sword fights in movies you’ll often get the classic, swords are locked and the hero punches the other guy in the face… but that’s not really going to happen in most RPGs. The math of combat supports you always just using your sword, not your fist. And since games rarely have the depth of tactical description to support reasons for doing this, well, it just doesn’t happen.

Thinking about the baseline of games reveals other interesting artifacts. I’ve always been bothered by the way, in Warhammer 40K, that all “normal human baseline” stuff is based on 3, but the game math really revolves around stats set at 4… the stat-line for Space Marines. Even though stats at 3 are “average” they are actually a liability in game play — average is a disadvantage.

The closest I’ve come to a game system that seems to start with the kind of thinking I’m describing is the old Stormbringer RPG. I guess the BRP is based on this same system, but I haven’t really read it much so I don’t know. Ultimately, even this was only a minor thing, but I’m sort of wondering, might it be possible to create a system that works from some sort of “weaponless” baseline and then uses weapons to grant certain advantages, while still also allowing for flourishes like punching a guy in the middle of a sword fight and having that be mechanically valuable in some way?

I have a few ideas how I’d want to do this, but for now, any thoughts about the baselines of systems? Why this happens? Other?

Thanks for reading.


9 responses

  1. I think the error you’re making is that assuming that, to use the Warhammer 40K example, ‘3’ is ‘Average’.

    If you actually look at all the scores across the board, 3 is most definitely -not- average, i think even 4 might be a bit below the average, although if you cut out outliers it probably comes out at about 4. It’s not that ‘below average is a disadvantage’, it’s that ‘humans are below average.’

    In an RPG like D&D, the reasons are a little different. Due to the nature of the game, challenges need to be appropriately scaled to the characters. Some challenges being easier or harder is good, but no-one likes impossible battles (unless they’re intentionally so and in which case aren’t really battles) or fights where you just kick everything over by accident.

    Now, in order to appropriately scale the encounters, you need to know how powerful the players are and you also need to keep in mind that a -person- is behind all this. While some DM’s are fine with adjusting on the fly and can easily cope with PC’s that defy expectations, the vast majority of DM’s do not have that level of rule mastery, so in order to make the game as accessible as possible the rules need to make certain assumptions about what the ‘average’ PC is and provide challenges appropriate to that average.

    On the note of punching someone in the face during a swordfight, the reason that tends not to occur in P&P RPG’s is purely a lack of detail. The rules of your typical RPG just plain don’t go into that level of detail. The reason you would punch or knee someone during a swordfight is because you are presently unable to stab them for some reason, probably because you’re defending yourself or are currently locking blades, but in order to go into the level of detail required to represent the fact that you can tie up certain enemy weapons, forcing them to use others, you need to end up with extremely detailed and invariably complex rulesets (See 3.5e D&D’s Grapple rules for an example of what happens when you try this.)

    Now, theoretically, i don’t see any reason why things like this wouldn’t be possible, but i’d challenge anyone to make it smooth and accessible. Although it doesn’t go into a lot of detail, the 4e DMG does reccomend giving players little bonuses for things like this as a sort of abstraction, which personally has always worked for me. If a player wants to punch an Orc in the face, they make a quick basic attack roll of some sort, possibly as a minor or free action depending on context, and if they hit there’s a +1 bonus or -1 penalty in it somewhere.

    Basically, to conclude, it’s all about accessibility. It’s entirely possible to build an RPG system around a ‘weaponless’ baseline, but all that does is force the GM to manually take into account the specific weapons the PC’s are using or else make weapons largely a waste of time.

    1. In related news, i forgive you for making the 40k mistake in assuming that Humans are Average 😛

      It’s such a common trope in fiction that a lot of 40K players get completely thrown for a loop when they discover that in 40K, normal Humans are actually on the bottom of the pack (i think Gretchin are the only critters universally weaker than the average man), that’s why the Imperial Guard rely so heavily on heavy weapons and vehicles.

  2. Everything Will said is spot on in regards to this, and I would even go so far as saying that a lot of this is covered by 4th edition, with the improvised/unarmed weapon stats in the PHB, and the recent article redefining 0 HP for monsters. 0 HP on a monster means they’re not fighting anymore, not that they’re dead, though it is a possibility. A disarm is one other way to represent 0 HP.

    And the last example to expound on is melee when mixed with sword fighting: that’s covered purely by description. Consider cleave, why does the extra damage have to be your weapon hitting someone else? Maybe you’re smashing a fist into an opponent about to catch you off guard for your initial attack?

  3. Thanks for the comments guys.

    @Will. I’ve played plenty of 40K and I think that the issues I have with the system is that 3 IS the average — average man, average eldar, average dark eldar (in terms of strength/stamina), average tau, and even average ork (strength). 3 is also the 50% mark on the D6 used for the game. Stat lines of 4 mark the divergent, augmented, or superhuman things in the universe. 5 and 6 are specific to certain types of beings and higher things are for monsters/demons/gods.

    Also, the scale of the game, despite effectively being a 1-10 scale for stats, is only rolled on a 1-6 range of numbers. But the problem for me, and what I was pointing to, is the fact that, mechanically, the game is kinda based on the number 4 on a statline. I assume this is because the roots of the game are with Space Marines. This creates a “disadvantage” for creatures with stats of 3.

    I don’t really want to get into 4E talk too much, I’ve posted a lot about my love/hate relationship with 4E, but the “ork is at 0 hp, ork is disarmed” bit is, in my opinion, silly and problematic. And this has been discussed on the forums for a long time. Yes, if you are a player and you don’t want to kill something at 0 hp, sure, you offer it a chance to surrender, or you say it’s out cold but not dead, whatever, but a disarmed ork is still a freakin’ strong, angry beast that if the situation is right will jump on your head and eat your face with it’s huge undertusks!

    4E combat is abstracted to a point where it’s practically nonsensical to view it in any way that is not purely mechanical — the descriptive elements are just layered on by individual players/DMs to make it feel story-like. That’s not necessarily a criticism of the system. I’m actually a big fan of the tactical, map-based combat, but it’s a very, very abstract combat system.

    Many games have done more with combat, elegantly (or not) than D&D, and some — since I’ve had time to think about it, don’t make weapon use an absolute pre-requisite or you auto-fail.

    But I’m still struggling with the idea a little, thinking about reflecting genre/cinematic type combat scenes versus mechanical play scenes. And I mean other than simply hand-waving a reaping strike as being a fist hit… that works, certainly, but I’m looking for more.

    Believe it or not, Savage Worlds is actually a system that does a pretty good job reflecting a lot of what I want out of a combat… I’m gonna spend more time with it and see where I get.

  4. You are correct about the roots of the game being with Space Marines, they are considered the “Average” race in terms of game mechanics. I feel it is kind of pertinent to point out to you that of the races you listed with a 3 strength, only Orks are ever expected to spend a lot of time in melee (the Dark Eldar melee units have special equipment, while Eldar and Tau in general don’t want to be anywhere near melee combat), as for the Orks, their melee Boyz and non-nob melee units compensate for their 3 Str by having a WS of 4, a T of 4, 2 attacks per piece and sheer numbers.

    A quick skim of the Necron, Space Marine, IG, Ork, Tyranid and Dark Eldar codexes i have seems to bear out that with few exceptions, units have a 4 or better in at least one, often two relevant stats and in the cases where they do not, there’s some other mitigating factor, usually point cost.

    While i agree with you that 3 is the average for humans and humanoids, i disagree that it’s the ‘average’ number the game mechanics start with. Based on the numbers in the codexes, the fact that the Space Marines are considered the ‘neutral’ or ‘average’ race and the fact that the game mechanics do seem to revolve around 4’s, i’d say 4 is the average from a mechanical standpoint.

    On the RPG note, Savage Worlds combat is even more abstracted and simplified than 4e, which is kind of the point 😛

  5. Have you looked at Exalted 2nd ed? The “baseline” is set far beyond human, and you can build characters that function well without relying on anything but their own bodies. It even allows for the inclusion of little details like punching that guy in the face while locking swords (I’d call that a 2 die stunt followed by a counterattack.).

  6. Doesn’t this kinda undermine the comment you left on my blog today?

  7. I’m not really sure how… My issue (which was, it seems misunderstood by many of my comment-leavers, was simply that I wanted a system that worked off of a more average base — and that proceeded from a different set of assumptions than many current systems. While I can certainly create this — I don’t know that it makes those systems “bad” just that I wanted to explore something different.

  8. cauldronofevil | Reply

    I can’t help thinking that you want something a Level-based system just can’t give you.

    The whole idea of dealing with ‘averages’ and ‘baselines’ is predicated on the fact that PCs (in D&D) are expected to eventually become ‘superhuman’ (at higher levels). As far as I can tell this is direct line from Chess->Miniature Wargames->D&D.

    Other systems handle this by throwing out levels and assuming that while your PCs will become much more skilled and ‘powerful’, they will still be ‘human’ and subject to a punch in the face.

    Of course, with most other games you wind up adding “Hero Points” and other ‘Script-Immunity’ style mechanics to make up for the fact that you are still fragile in the face of other fantastic beings.

    But having a smaller ‘scale’ (something like 1st-6th level only) it makes it much easy to add more detail to combat that won’t get unbalanced through the life of the PCs.

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