For this week, I thought I’d do something entirely different. For the last 25 or so post, I’ve talked about how to run existing games, how to deal with players and topics in specific ways and what sorts of tools you might have in your belt.
This week, I’m doing something entirely new. I’ll be talking about home-brewing and house rules. Not in abstract way or from a meta perspective. No, I’m going to try and present you with some thoughts I’ve had on a combat system. It’s not complete or even compatible with most games but I figured it would be a fun write-up and possibly a fun read.
Much like captain Ahab, I too have a white whale when it comes to RPGs. It’s no secret that I like the Dark Souls video games and similarly, it’s common knowledge that I really like heavily interactive games where play and counterplay are integral components of determining who wins a give exchange.
And yet, I’ve never really found an RPG system that does combat exactly the way I like it. Almost every system follows one of two design philosophies: Either they follow the ‘wack an inanimate object’ style of playing where the only choice the victim of an attack has is how they feel about the sword heading for their face.
Or they follow what I like to call the ‘whiff, whiff, whiff, crit, dead’ model. In this model, enemies wail on each other until one flubs their roll and eats a greatsword to the face.
There is one system that I’ve found that does this sort of well. Burning wheel’s combat system more or less has the feel I want for a combat system but it’s bogged down by an overly daunting and complex system. (Mind you, Burning Wheel is a great system. It’s just great at one very specific thing and not exactly what I’m looking for).
So with existing options out of the window, I’m just going to write one myself. Or at the very least take an honest stab at building a system that functions the way I like. And you get to come along on the journey.
But before I get down to the nitty-gritty or even write a single line of rules-text, I need to figure out exactly what I want this system to do. For the first few posts, I’ll be focusing entirely on the combat resolution system. Character creation, equipment or even stats will be ignored or abstracted as needed until I can get a feel for how I want the game to work.
With all of that out of the way, it’s time to flesh out some ground rules for how I want this to work.
– Combat should play out in short, deliberate and brutal cycles.
– Each cycle should contain an element of resource management within it as well as one external to it.
– All relevant math should be fairly simple to do.
– Positioning and engagement ranges should matter greatly, even for melee engagements.
– The decision to wear armor or not should be an important one and could define fights.
– The order of operations should be clear and action types should be standardized.
Right, so with that nailed down, time to dig in. First order of business: cycles and resource management. Every RPG has these to some degree. Most pen and paper RPGs have some version of hit points that tend to get depleted when characters get into fights and many have some sort of personal resource that players have to keep track of. Think things like spell slots, ammo, psi points, fate points and so on.
Cycles are also a frequently recurring concept. Most games have some sort of round system wherein everyone gets their turn before the first player gets to go again. I would like to take the idea of a rounds system and tie it to the resource management discussed earlier. I think several nested cycles of resource management could work nicely to simulate the feeling of watching your stamina during a fight, watching your expendable resources (ammo, mana) between fights and watching your long-term resources (health) during the game itself.
Cool, so we have three nested cycles of activity. Each cycle has their own resource that needs to be managed. As a result, these resources should always trade up, never down. What do I mean by this? During a fight, you expend stamina to protect your mana, your ammo and your health. In between fights or across fights, you expend mana and ammo, etc to protect your health. And as the game goes on, health is the thing that stands between you and your inevitable demise.
Next week, we’ll look more into specific implementations for these ideas.