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).


4 thoughts on “A New Hope for Combat

  1. Let’s see if the internets eat the post again…

    So, I like what you’ve done here. It reminds me a lot of the CAN discussions (it may be linked in the TNE collection thread if you’re interested) on the Den from a while back. But you’ve managed to involve both sides of the attack in every one of them, since the attacker rolls the hit and the defender rolls the soak. That’s nice because it’s going to keep people from drifting off to do other things in the middle of a fight.

    It also reminds me of the “fixed hp, MoS combat” system I’ve been playing with on and off for a couple of years now (20 hit points 5-9 – x2 damage, 10+ – x4 damage), since I also used an attack vs. non-armor defense model and they work out about the same as far as when guys drop. I may like it more without the hp actually.

    Anyway, your concerns are a bit different than ones I had, but the solutions I came up with to sort things out look like they might help with the resolution speed you’re worried about. So I figured I’d drop them in here and see if they helped out at all.
    * Your attack and defense values could use a larger difference than the (in most cases) -1 you have above. If you wanted to standardize things a bit, you could do Defense = Attack -3 or -2. Then attacking is more likely to harm them than to fail / harm you, and resolutions are sped up slightly. And you have room to build in other actions you can take to boost your defense if you want that sort of tactical stuff going on.
    * The barbarian (and melee dudes in general) could use multiple attacks. This could be the somewhat cumbersome and slow 3.x individual attack model (except on by default at level 1, if levels are still a thing in AN), or a single roll AoE attack with -X penalty sort of thing (that is also on by default). The AoE sweep is my preference, because it’s the same number of rolls for the attacker and *might* generate a bunch of rolls from the defenders, but if it does so it’s also moving the fight to a close more quickly. The penalty in there is mostly to ensure it just gets used against mooks with a lower defense and not as the default attack option (though you could certainly do that too).
    * Lower level guys murdering themselves can be resolved if you’re willing to move towards an ‘enemy unit’ model. You get 4 guys who are basically the same and stick them together to give them +4 to their attack and defense values (or 8 guys to give them a +6), and then treat them like 1 creature. So they make 1 attack (or set of attacks, or use one combat option, etc.) and they are attacked as if they were 1 creature. If you define a ‘wound’ as 1/4 group dead and a ‘mortal wound’ as losing 3/4 group dead / rest fleeing, then you can infer a lot of the effects of AoE attacks (fireballs) and single target effects (trip, charm, disintegrate) that remove parts of the group without too much difficulty. But you do have to do a bit of work on the setup to accommodate the option. I think it’s worth it though, because it allows you to bring in large groups of guys without scaling up your die rolls (and it can also be scaled up to build a mass combat minigame without learning new rules).

    And here’s one more thought unrelated to the combat speed issue.
    * You may want to pull the “mortal wound on big failure thing”. It’s not going to be cool when someone uses AN to do the classic ‘gang up on the higher level boss’ fight thing, and someone fumbles and kills themselves. A wound on your own attack roll is probably plenty bad already.

    I don’t have anything for you on the non-damage effects, but I’ll let you know if that changes.

    • I especially like the enemy unit as unit idea, a la Marvel Heroic. The rest of these tweaks would definitely speed things up and make it more interesting, thanks for your response. I’ll have to write an update and incorporate them. Now it’s just down to really making non-damage stuff work.

  2. For mooks, I don’t think the odds of killing yourself on your own turn is a big deal. For them, personally, the smartest thing to do is to run away, but for their team, if they aren’t attacking they may as well be dead anyway. Bandits, as a general rule, probably should run away the second they realize they’re staring at a fight they have serious chances of losing, but creatures like orcs or goblins who may have been bred specifically for purposes of having horribly underdeveloped survival instincts could very easily charge into near-certain death in order to provide a momentary advantage for the heavy hitters on their side.

    The main issue that I have with this system is the fact that despite combat dragging out for seven rounds, it’s also extremely lethal. Every roll has a 1/20 chance of turning up a 1, and against any decently capable opponent that’ll probably get you insta-gibbed. It’s safe to say that plenty of heroes will be making more than 20 attacks in their careers. This can work if you want each individual combat to be a tense struggle and nearly every adventure sees the death of a PC, but I’m guessing that’s not the paradigm you’re going for here, in which case some heavier barrier between death is probably necessary.

    • And I can’t find an edit button, but I forgot to mention that the big problem with attacking being more likely to hurt you than your enemy is when players are fighting a boss. Unlike Orc #6, player characters are very rarely completely disposable.

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