A New Hope for Combat

Over the past two days I’ve had a bit of a break-through, or at least an idea that has captured my attention and hasn’t collapsed in on itself yet, so I consider that pretty good.  It’s a new take on the very basic premise of combat in RPGs.

Over on this thread on RPG.net’s forums, the OP asked why people seem to think that “do damage or do something interesting” is a worthwhile trade-off.  He was confused that someone would find damage uninteresting and “other stuff” interesting.  That, along with talking to people about FFG’s new Star Wars game, Edge of the Empire, and it’s…interesting…dice mechanics made me realize something:  Damage isn’t interesting.

And that’s not just because damage is the “default” effect that you do all the time, so you’re now numb to it.  No, it’s even more meaningless than that.  Damage, as an effect, doesn’t change anything.  Your raging barbarian swats away the puny enemy’s shield and swipes across the Orc’s chest with his battleaxe leaving a red (or black!) gash an inch deep…and the Orc, unphased, just gets back in his “on guard” position, totally unchanged from before the exchange.

There’s no opening to capitalize on, no opportunity to take advantage of, no new tactical information; you totally hit the Orc and it actually did nothing for you that you can tell.  When was the last time that was ever the case in a movie, TV show, comic, or book?  In fact, what does happen in the source material is usually a lot of positioning, a lot of harmless going back and forth, maybe one or two solid connections which draw blood, which finally ends in a decisive and sudden death for the unlucky one who must die to serve the plot.

The fight between Aragorn and Lurtz from the Fellowship of the Ring is pretty much one of the most intense battles in fantasy cinema, and has a lot of injuries/blows landed, but I think there’s a grand total of 7 actual hits exchanged, and that includes Aragorn’s tackle at the beginning, and both his running Lurtz through and decapitating him right at the end.  Most of what they end up doing is disarming, dazing, grappling, and knocking down (actually, those mostly all happen to Aragorn).  There are, AFAICT, 2 instances where damage is directly dealt for its own sake, and not along with another effect.  See for yourself:

Now I’m going to approach this from another topic, raised in this thread, which is that missing is also intrinsically boring.  Tactically, nothing has changed from before you attempted.  I’ll bet Aragorn wished he had that option!  The only fights where I can imagine nothing happening like that is a saber duel between two masters, like this:

And that included a lot of testing the other guy out and sportsman-like restraint (also note the complete lack of “damage”).

Posters in that thread claimed that tactics did change since you’ve spent your turn and that’s a resource.  That’s very true, and that argument is also technically true.  However, I think that is the most boring option available.  It doesn’t work that way in most games; even in Chess or Checkers, you can’t fail to achieve any change in the game on your turn.  I think RPGs, and in particular, After Next, will be helped by discarding the old Whiff Factor paradigm for one in which combat is far more dynamic, fluid, and full of effects.  Combat where failing is fraught with danger, and the tables can turn very quickly.

To that end I’ve got a rough working design, a very barebones framework that I have to expand upon and probably retool in the future, but so far the results excite me:

  1. No HP or any kind of health, at least not in the traditional sense
  2. Armor is rolled actively by the defender, but only when a Wound is triggered
  3. Wounds are triggered when the attacker’s attack total is at least 5 greater than the defender’s defense, and a Mortal Wound is triggered when the attack total is 10 greater
  4. If, however, the attacker’s total is 5 less than the defender’s defense, then the attacker triggers a Wound, and a Mortal Wound if 10 less
  5. There are other effects, based on weapon or character abilities, that can be activated depending on the margin of success that you roll (0-4 above, 5-9 above, or 10+ above)

So what this means is that if you have a +10 attack, and your target’s defense is 15, then if you roll a natural 20, you trigger a Mortal Wound, where they have to roll what is essentially an “Armor save” against a DC set by your weapon, or receive a mortal wound and die.  If you roll a 15 or higher, you trigger a regular Wound, which they still roll against the same way.  Once the target sustains one Wound, a second Wound counts as a Mortal Wound.  Wounds and Mortal Wounds happen in addition to another effect.

Now, I really want to avoid additive bonuses in After Next.  I’d rather situational modifiers and bonuses and such be represented by stacking Advantage or other non-additive mechanics.  So, so far I have a short list of effects available for the three categories of 0-4, 5-9, and 10+:

  • Tier I (Margin of Success = 0-4) –
    • Knock Off Balance/Feint/Stun (gives Advantage to next attack against target)
    • Jab (gives target Disadvantage on their next attack)
  • Tier II (MoS = 5-9) –
    • Knock Back (Disengages the target from you, moves them away from you)
    • Grapple (Neither you nor the target can attack until ended)
    • Dis-Shield (Target loses any Shield bonus until they spend a turn to retrieve it)
  • Tier III (MoS = 10+) –
    • Knock Down (Target is knocked Prone; all attacks against the target get Advantage, and the target’s attacks take Disadvantage until he uses a turn to get up)
    • Disarm (Target cannot attack with that weapon until they spend a turn to retrieve it)

OK, so, besides the fact that Knock Back and Grapple need a little more context to be very useful, that’s a good starting list.

In case you got bored.

Shall we run a sample fight to see how it would go?

First, some rules contexts here;

  • Weapons
    • Longsword (Wound DC 14, +1 Defense)
    • Spear (Wound DC 15, Reach weapon)
    • Battleaxe (Wound DC 17)
  • Armor & Shields
    • Leather Armor (+2 Armor)
    • Chain Armor (+5 Armor)
    • Plate Armor (+7 Armor)
    • Buckler (+2 Defense)
    • Shield (+3 Defense)
    • Tower Shield (+4 Defense)
  • Offense
    • Expert (+7 Attack)
    • Average (+5 Attack)
    • Poor (+2 Attack)
  • Defense
    • Expert (+6 Defense)
    • Average (+3 Defense)
    • Poor (+1 Defense)

So, let’s put 2 heroes against 4 villains, 3 of which are mooks, 1 of which is their captain:

  • Hero 1 (the Knight)
    • Spear, Shield, Plate Armor, Average Offense, Average Defense
    • Attack = d20 + 5, Defense = 16 (10+3+3), Wound = 15, Armor = d20 + 7
  • Hero 2 (the Barbarian)
    • Battleaxe, Shield, Chain Armor, Expert Offense, Poor Defense
    • Attack = d20 + 7, Defense = 14 (10+3+1), Wound = 17), Armor = d20 + 5
  • Bandits (3)
    • Longsword, Leather Armor, Poor Offense, Poor Defense
    • Attack = d20 + 2, Defense = 12 (10+1+1), Wound = 14, Armor = d20 + 3
  • Bandit Captain
    • Longsword, Shield, Chain Armor, Average Offense, Poor Defense
    • Attack = d20 + 5, Defense = 15 (10+1+3+1), Wound = 14, Armor = d20 + 5

All right, I’m going to run this simulation.  Initiative is as follows: the Knight, the Bandit Captain, the Barbarian, then the Bandits.

Round 1)

The Knight attacks the Bandit Captain (d20+5 vs. 15 = 13, MoS = -2), but the Captain evades and knocks him off balance (Advantage on next attack against Knight).  The Captain then attacks the Knight, instead (d20+5 w/Adv vs. 16 = 6, MoS = -10), but the Knight easily counter-attacks (Armor roll, d20+5 vs. 15 = 20), and though the Captain is thrown to the ground, his armor protects him.  The Barbarian seizes the opportunity and attacks the Captain, as well, (d20+7 w/Adv vs. 15 = 25, MoS = 10) (Cap’s armor d20+5 vs. 17 = 21), but it only disarms the Captain, who is able to evade his attacks.  Bandit 1 attacks the Barbarian (d20+2 vs. 14 = 9, MoS = -5), but the Barbarian counters (B1 armor d20+3 vs. 17 = 5), leaving a painful gash on the bandit’s forearm.  Bandit 2 attacks the Barbarian, as well (d20+2 vs. 14 = 13, MoS = -1), but the Barbarian is able to knock this one off-balance (Adv on next attack on B2).  Finally Bandit 3 attacks the Barbarian (d20+2 vs. 14  = 15, MoS = 1), and is able to knock the Barbarian off his balance (Adv on next attack against Barb).

Round 2-

The Knight goes to finish off the Captain (d20+5 w/Adv vs. 15 (sans Sword bonus) = 25, MoS = 10) (Cap armor d20+5 vs. 15 = 14) and plants his spear into the Captain’s chest.  The Barbarian attacks Bandit 2 (d20+7 w/Adv vs. 12 = 17, MoS = 5) (B2 armor d20+3 vs. 17 = 5) and leaves him wounded, in addition to a little dazed (Dis on B2’s next attack).  Bandit 1 attacks the Barbarian (d20+2 w/Adv vs. 14 = 14, MoS = 0) and is able to keep him off his balance.  Bandit 2 attacks him, as well (d20+2 (Adv and Dis cancel out) vs. 14 = 17, MoS = 3) and manages to keep him off balance.  Bandit 3 attacks him, as well (d20+2 w/Adv vs. 14 = 13, MoS = -1), but the Barbarian turns the tables and leaves him off balance.

Round 3-

The Knight attacks Bandit 3 (d20+5 w/Adv vs. 12 = 23, MoS = 11) (B3 armor d20+3 vs. 15 = 10) and spears him in the gut.  He falls to the ground.  The Barbarian attacks Bandit 1 (d20+7 vs. 12 = 14, MoS = 2) and gets a jab to his face (Dis on B1’s next attack).  Bandit 1 attacks the Barbarian (d20+2 w/Dis vs. 14 = 5, MoS = -9) (B1 armor d20+3 vs. 17 = 17), and though the Barbarian counter-attacks, he is only able to knock him off balance (Adv on next attack against B1).  Bandit 2 attacks the Barbarian, as well (d20+2 vs. 14 = 19, MoS = 5) (Barb armor d20+5 vs. 14 = 11), slashing him deep across the arm.

Round 4-

The Knight attacks Bandit 1 (d20+5 w/Adv vs. 12 = 19, MoS = 7) (B1 armor d20+3 vs. 15 = 7) and similarly manages to spear him through the chest.  The Barbarian attacks Bandit 2 (d20+7 vs. 12 = 9, MoS = -3), but the Bandit is prepared and leaves the Barbarian off-balance.  Bandit 2 makes a last ditch effort against the Barbarian (d20+2 w/Adv vs. 14 = 21, MoS = 7) (Barb armor d20+5 vs. 14 = 12), and scores a penetrating blow into the Barbarian’s side, leaving him on the ground.

Round 5-

Enraged at his friend’s demise, the Knight attacks the Bandit (d20+5 vs. 12 = 8, MoS = -4) but the Bandit is able to turn it around and knock the Knight off balance (Adv on next attack against Knight).  The Bandit attacks the Knight (d20+2 w/Adv vs. 16 = 22) (Knight armor d20+7 vs. 14 = 15), which leaves him shield-less, but unhurt.

Round 6-

The Knight again attacks the Bandit (d20+5 vs. 12 = 18, MoS = 6) (B2 armor d20+3 vs. 15 = 18) but only manages to land a jab (Dis on B2’s next attack).  The Bandit uses his turn to pick up the Knight’s discarded shield!

Round 7-

The Knight attacks the Bandit (d20+5 vs. 15 = 21, MoS = 6) (B2 armor d20+3 vs. 15 = 4) and despite the shield’s help, is able to run the Bandit through.  It’s over!

Wow, that took an obscenely large number of rounds.  Bandit 2 was way too lucky, I gotta say.

But this helped me realize one glaring flaw in this system, and that is when it’s more likely that less-powerful enemies will hurt themselves rather than hurt their target, their optimal choice is indeed to not attack, which I don’t want.  I mean, I suppose that’s a good time for a flee mechanic to come into play, but even that would mean once the captains (the ones supposedly keeping the weaker ones fighting the heroes) are gone, everyone flees, ergo killing captains is all that matters.  I suppose that’s an option, but it isn’t something I initially planned for.  That and the non-damage effects are a little weird.  Those need some serious work.

I’ll continue to tinker with this idea, but I do feel like it makes for far more tense combats, and more cinematic ones (if I ever manage to figure out how to do the non-damage effects right).

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Save or Dies in After Next

Hey, folks.

My work on After Next (and this blog in general) has been completely side-lined this semester, and I apologize for that.  Hopefully I’ll have more time to devote to it in the future, but until I’m more sure, I’ll try to keep posting shorter things that arise out of what I see on forums or my thoughts on network TV shows or who knows what.

Joker from TDK - coin flip

Today I want to talk about Save or Die/Lose spells in games like D&D; an ability (often a spell) which takes out a target in one shot, usually with a lower probability of success than a less lethal ability.  In D&D the target rolls a Saving Throw to try to avoid some or all of the effects of spells, hence the name.  The classic example is the Medusa’s gaze attack which turns on-lookers to stone.  These tend to be somewhat controversial in game circles.  I want to briefly consider some different implementations thereof and talk about the issues they raise for designers and some theoretical implementations that would address some of those issues.

In older editions of D&D as I have come to understand it*, powerful magic, including SoD spells, had a chance of backfiring or otherwise harming the caster.  This dramatically increases the risk associated with using such magic, with the payoff being dramatic, powerful effects like instant death or petrification.  In addition, due to their lower save DCs and higher save bonuses for many classes, SoDs were a large gamble to cast and likely to fail regardless of the risk of backfire.  This about evened-out their utility to casters, PC and NPC alike.

D&D 3.5 ported over the spells from AD&D 2e without much alteration, but changed both the way spell DCs were set (now based on the spell level and caster’s stats) and the risks associated with casting powerful magics; namely, it was all removed.  Casters in 3.5 had the risk removed and the chance of failure increased so that SoD spells were superior to almost any other choice of spell.

So, many people advocate simply going back to the AD&D paradigm, where casting spells was risky and the enemy made their save and negated the attack entirely more often than not.  While that would be a step forward, balance-wise, I think it’s kind of missing the point.  Casters didn’t like how that worked in AD&D, hence 3rd Edition changed it.  By focusing on just the spell’s odds of success/backfiring, we’re either putting arbitrary mechanical frustrations on the caster, or, by removing them, on the targets of those spells.  There’s an alternative way of looking at this problem, which I believe solves all of those problems while simultaneously making the game actually more interesting to boot.

The inspiration for this train of thought came from Extra Credits, which did an episode on a relevant topic a few weeks ago, called “Counter Play.”
The main thrust of the idea is this:

When designing an ability or a mechanic, you can’t only be thinking about how to make that ability or mechanic interesting for the player who gets to use it, you also have to think about how its interesting for the players its used on. And on a more rigorous level, it’s the idea that a mechanic or ability in a multiplayer game should increase the number of meaningful choices available both to the player using it and the player its being used on.

TTRPGs are not considered multiplayer games, but the psychology and importance of this principle is true because at the combat round level, they function exactly like one; the DM is one player controlling a single monster on any given turn (mostly), and the player is controlling their one character, and they are slinging these abilities back and forth in a way that is essentially indistinguishable from a competitive multiplayer game.

This tactical genius leaves grown men crying. Don’t ask about the grown elves.

EC goes on to make the point that abilities that are an interesting tactical option for the user but not for the target is a good way to create frustrated targets. However, when you consider both sides of that equation, you create a richer play experience for both. So the question of whether or not SoDs are cool for the SoD-user is not the only consideration we have to take into account when designing SoDs. We also have to account for the SoD receiver’s experience and what options SoDs provide to them. Obviously, the only tactical implication of a traditional SoD for a target is “jack up that save modifier in your build!” That is one-dimensional (it’s not really a choice if it’s the only way) and irrelevant in combat (the decision is made outside of combat and nothing in combat will change it). This is not an enriching option as-is.

So SoDs need to be counter-able by the party, whether that’s by beginning an SoD at the end of one turn and then casting on the next and where taking any damage in-between either negates or greatly diminishes its effect if cast, SoDs only working on targets below a certain HP threshold, or something else that gives the opposing party/character an actual tactical option it can take in the midst of combat to attempt to prevent or counter it.

A third consideration for these mechanics in a TTRPG, I would say, is how it interacts with the user’s allies. You want abilities that interlock with the roles/actions of others, and gives them interesting options on their turns, too. The mundane half of the party’s contribution to the battle can’t be meaningless with one successful SoD. The mundanes have to contribute to SoDs somehow, whether that’s as simple as protecting the caster from having their concentration broken during casting, or contributing to meeting the necessary HP threshold for the spell to work, or some other combination of tactics.

Also, giving mundanes SoD abilities certainly couldn’t hurt, either. At some point a rogue should be able to just sneak up and stab a guy through the heart, and the fighter should be able to cut off the monster’s head with one mighty blow, so long as those have tactically interesting mechanics backing them up.

I’ll come out with some samples, but first I think I want to talk about the tactical mini-game. Grid-less tactical mini-game, as has been described previously.

*My understanding of the specifics of older D&D editions, I admit, is pretty lacking, so this is going off of what I have come to understand from others.