Fightin’ (Some thoughts on Combat)

I’ve been struggling lately with the tension I feel between mechanically complex and more rules-light systems. I enjoy Pathfinder, but when I’m running it I sometimes find myself thinking, “there has got to be an easier way.” By that same token, sometimes when I’m running a more light system I find myself wishing the system gave us a little more clarity. And as much as I appreciate a “rulings not rules” approach — well — you’re going to run games for a lot of people and some of those folks are going to be more comfortable with rules not rulings. Fair enough.

But all of that is really just prologue. What I’ve really been thinking about is my own game — the one I keep tinkering with — and I find that whenever I work on it I get bogged down in combat. And I think I get so bogged down in working on combat because I personally, as a player and GM, struggle with being on both sides of the fence when it comes to complexity. I like both. So I thought I’d use this post to put down a few basic thoughts that I’m using to try and clarify my own thinking on combat and hopefully make it more clear through writing about it. And maybe, if I’m really lucky, get some useful feedback.

So, my three thoughts on combat:

1. I’m not the first one to say this but it’s appropriate: RPG combat systems have more in common with professional wrestling than real combat. Ultimately, I think that pro wrestling offers a lot of insights into designing a combat system for an RPG. Look at the way that the combat is almost cyclical in a match, choreographed more for drama than actual damage. Also, the fighters take what seems like a ridiculous amount of punishment but no one ever bleeds, or actually gets broken bones (except when things go wrong… it may be “fake” but it’s still hard work to fake it that way). And my favorite, I love the way the wrestlers will be all tired and defeated and then get that surge of energy (dare I say, Second Wind) that gets them back in the fight.

Designing a “realistic” combat system seems difficult at best, downright pointless at worst. First, even though I’ve been an athlete, done a little karate and aikido, and learned the basics in fencing… I wouldn’t ever claim to be a combat expert… and well, if you want to know what happens when you try to design a game to please gamers who think they are combat experts… try this experiment: watch any episode of Deadliest Warrior with a large group of gamers and just sit back and listen. Yep, you know what I’m saying.

So I’m not an expert on real life fighting — and certainly not real life injury — but I’ve been absorbing fantasy and cinematic fights through literature, TV, and movies my whole life and I think that capturing that feel is within the grasp of the amateur game designer — and might be the level to shoot for.

2. In the Amber Diceless RPG, a very good point is made about combat in Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. In the stories, combat gets page space equal to it’s story space/level of danger. So when a vastly superior fighter takes on a bunch of grunts (dare I say minions?) the reader gets treated to a sentence or two about how they are dispatched. But when two of the brothers are fighting… every cut and thrust and decision is played out before the reader. Because these fights matter. Even more, the fights are usually as much in the head of the fighter as they are his sword arm.

Now, I come from a gaming pedigree of D&D and D&D-like games (as I’m sure many of us do) where some of our first experiences were stumbling around a dungeon trying not to get offed by a trap while taking down every kobold in sight and taking their treasure. And let’s face it… sometimes when you play Star Wars, you just wanna kill stormtroopers, right? But when I got a little more involved in the hobby — and started to want to RP more than G — I discovered that I’m really more of a story person at heart. The random fights that fill up rooms in the dungeon just stopped being interesting to me. I wanted encounters to mean something or what was the point? And once I discovered some games like Amber, Castle Falkenstein, and Everway I realized that I was looking for different things in roleplay than the “standard D&D experience.”

And this colors my thinking about combat a lot. I want encounters to have their meaning and player investment weigh on the battle — maybe mechanically that weight is tangential, but it can be there. I’m still working on this.

3. But the problem I keep bouncing off of is that conceptually, I actually like some of the complex ideas baked into combat systems like D&D/Pathfinder. See, conceptually I’m a big fan of Attacks of Opportunity. I like the idea that the guy who brings a bow to a sword fight is at a disadvantage (if I’m close enough to hit him). I like the idea that the wizard can’t just stand right next to a guy who is actively trying to stick a sharp piece of metal through his unprotected guts and cast his most powerful spell with no consequences. I like taking into account things like fatigue on the fighters and wear and tear. And I like, conceptually, the idea of lasting injuries. I like the effect these have on stories — of changing the pace, forcing a character to slow down for a time and heal — or even better — fight on despite the injuries. The problem here, of course, is that in games where combat is basically a math problem, these just can’t be translated well and I’ve never found a system (or a combination of systems) that does it in a way that it just “feels” right to me. And simply saying, “just make a ruling” is easier said than done with some groups.

This is getting long so I’ll wrap up with this thought… when you consider all that I’ve just written, and all that I’m trying to do, and then you add the layer of complexity of “combat gear” (my other bugbear) on top — combat becomes a nightmare. So I’m still plugging away at it. It’s not so much that it has to be perfect — I know that’s impossible — but I’m trying to capture something that feels right, that meets in the middle of the triangle for me. And I’d love to hear what anyone else might have to say on the subject.

Thanks for reading.


6 responses

  1. As for the first point and third points, as a suggestion, have a basic damage system that is used for the vast majority of encounters. Make it really dangerous and deadly. Then, offer alternatives to taking damage that the players can elect to use. The idea is to reward the players for creatively gaming the system and surviving. Instead of the GM saying “you broke a bone” the player says “to avoid taking a point of damage, I’ll take a broken bone (and the modifiers that come with that)” or “I’ll take a facial scar”. Offload the complexity and the choice to the players. This way it’s what they choose.

    On the second point, I’m working on a system that kind of does this. Numbers of low rank characters are treated as one larger NPC and each movement that the characters carry out is part of the resolution. This makes combat descriptive but large scale combat is also fast.

    Just ideas for fodder.

    1. I’m a big fan of the damage system in the Warhammer Fantasy, 2nd Edition damage system, with a general damage pool and then critical hits for when you lose your buffer… and I agree, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to do something like you suggest without totally unloading the choice on the player and always putting them on the spot for damage.

      On the second point — I’ve seen several systems that now do this — Simon Washbourne’s SUPERS! uses a similar thing for thugs and henchmen, for example. It’s one of my favorite superhero games. I think it’s a great idea.

  2. Why not have it both ways? I seriously think you can.

    If you present it properly, combat can be complex, interesting and matter if you make it so by simply placing an emphasis on it when it does matter and (pseudo) ignoring it when it doesn’t.

    Basically make the combat complex when it’s important and interesting but fast and swift when it isn’t.

    In fact, I think I posted something along those lines a few months back:

    More to the point however is this…

    You’ll likely find some resistance to changing the expectations of the game by having two styles of combat. The reasons for this are debatable, but I think the real issue is that it’s easier to present combat challenges that don’t matter as filler to a game and that players have come to expect that filler (even seeing it’s removal as cheapening or lessening the gaming experience for some reason.)

    There, it might not be useful, but it’s feedback none-the-less.

    1. I’ll check out the post and take a look. Thanks for the input! Definitely useful feedback.

  3. Wow, I agree with you entirely as I feel the same way about combat coming from a both sides of the table perspective. I like combat but as I’ve grown and become more well read I’ve wanted combat to be both exciting and important. The original Star Wars trilogy does this wonderfully in that the fights aren’t solely about the giant lethal glowsticks and Lukes acrobatic strike feat, it’s a means to an end for two characters to resolve their goals and release some of the building tension in the story.

    The problem is, once you start tinkering you notice that it is very easy to fall down the slippery slope of too much fiddly complexity or too much hand-waving fiat. I think the Attack of Opportunity is a great example in this regard. Conceptually it’s wonderful, a melee is a very dangerous place and getting off a shot or casting a spell should be difficult if not overly dangerous, yet the idea comes tumbling done when it comes to the execution. I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to go about resolving the problem whether by tinkering with existing frameworks or starting from scratch. Its good to know there are others scratching at the same wall wondering what’s on the other side.

  4. And it makes me happy to know that I’m not alone in this arena too. It is a difficult slope to climb, though I will admit, I am more and more on the side of less mechanical interpretation as I delve more into my own writing.

    Thanks for commenting.

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