Intent-based Combat Alternatives

This post is representative of a lot of my thinking but is also inspired by my recent Amber campaign and in its current form, by this post at MiddleageDM. I really enjoyed his post about alternative goals in combat that lead to different tactics and different outcomes instead of “kill the other guy.” I’ve been thinking similar thoughts but on a much more “specific” scale.

I’m thinking about this on the character vs. character scale. When I watch a good action movie – that is, one where the fighting is actually visible and visually interesting instead of waist-up, close-up, chaotic camera angles – I’m always struck by how, during the fight, each “action” has an intent beyond “I do 2 hp of damage to the guy.” It might be wrestling for a gun, defending a fallen comrade, trying to help someone else out, or trying to just keep an opponent busy… Sometimes it’s all about killing the other guy as fast and brutally as possible. Ultimately, in these action sequences, the stakes are greater than just killing the other guy. Often, the other elements of the ongoing story make it unlikely that one or the other of the participants actually wants to just kill the other. And, the reason they spend so much time wrestling over weapons is that weapons end fights. You might not be dead but getting shot or stabbed creates a real problem for the hero.

Some games systems make a good stab at this with specific combat rules. Games have “combat maneuvers” (by whatever name you wish to call them) to help codify some of these types of things — “I need to get past that dude so I’ll try an overrun.” “I need to stop that guy so I’ll grapple” (no one ever grapples…). That sort of thing. Even D&D3e and Pathfinder jumped on that idea. 4th Edition D&D approached it from a different angle by codifying the sort of maneuvers and intents your character is good at into your role. If you are a defender you are far better at protecting your comrades than say, the Striker.

Other games are a lot more freeform – like Shadowrun. Even though there are defined sets of “actions” you can really say whatever you want in a scene… If you want to stand over a fallen comrade and attack whoever comes near, you can say you are doing that. Ultimately though, the rules themselves offer little structural support for this kind of work. Mostly, it has to be improvised because it deviates from the “attack to do damage” sequence which most typifies gaming combat.

I’m sure other games are even better about this. But I’ve realized that this is one of the reasons I love my diceless play. Because when there are no rolls, no combat actions baked into the system, no combat expectations to build on, players will get creative… they have to, no one is handing them a list and saying pick an option or a variation on an action… instead they have to really explain what they want to accomplish… and what consequences they are willing to accept to take that action. And that’s what I love. Players can micromanage combat from the point of view of intent and “what they want to accomplish” rather than from the complicated interactions of rules and random outcomes.

And this is what I’m working on for my own diceless game – something that will bring this more explicitly to light. I’m really excited about where I’m going with this and I’m hoping it will be of interest to, well, someone…

But all kidding aside… I know it’s not for everyone. But this works for me. I love the kind of play that appears when combat is more about what you want to accomplish – and not just overall, but on a round-to-round basis – than the mechanics of how you accomplish it.

For now, back to the grindstone.

As always, thanks for reading.


2 responses

  1. I like this idea. I can see how characters taking actions in combat which are combat related but not strictly geared toward “kill the guy fast” would give combat a meatier, more involved, on the edge feeling. I love gaming and GM’g but even though I enjoy combat in games, I also find it gets tedious really fast. This is probably why. I haven’t had the opportunity to try any diceless systems (I don’t get the impression I, personally, would enjoy them) but I’m very interested to see if I can work something out to simulate this sort of combat interaction in a dicefull(?) system.

  2. You can certainly make the intent-based combat work with dice systems. I find (for myself) that the impediment is that dice systems tend to (of necessity) parse actions in such distinct ways that it becomes more difficult to really keep the flow of intention going. But it is certainly doable and worthy of the energy.

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