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:
- No HP or any kind of health, at least not in the traditional sense
- Armor is rolled actively by the defender, but only when a Wound is triggered
- 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
- 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
- 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.
Shall we run a sample fight to see how it would go?
First, some rules contexts here;
- 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)
- Expert (+7 Attack)
- Average (+5 Attack)
- Poor (+2 Attack)
- 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).