I was reading Gameplaywright on my mobile phone on the way home from work, and they, in turn, pointed me to this blog entry by Ryan Macklin, which talks about how games that focus on story rarely focus and skills tests and vis versa.

Macklin’s comments about ‘beats’ within combat got me thinking about RPG combat resolution mechanics. 
As you do.
His point was, kind of, that RPG combat often loses that cinematic flow and excitement due to the artificial interruptions of dice rolling and rule deliberation. Yes. I see that. 
Then I thought of something. 
Wouldn’t it be great to have a combat that’s narrated between players without the interruptions of dice rolls, but still took the abstract concept of skill points etc in account?
Here’s my idea. 
Characters have a ‘Combat’ score. This score equals the number of ‘Combat Moves’ the character can perform in a round of combat.
A round of combat lasts an indeterminate length of time, and is best described as a flurry of activity within the combat – the participants circle each other, enter into a short burst of activity in which they attack and evade, then fall back to safer distance to plan their next move.
The character with the highest Combat Score goes first. If the scores are tied, then the GM arbitrates using such criteria as they find appropriate.
The players take it in turns to describe the combat, and are able to describe one Combat Move per point they have invested in their Combat Score. In an ideal combat, the players will react to and build upon the Combat Moves described by each other.
Once all Combat Moves have been described, the players roll their Combat Score + 1 Die. 
They then split their total between Damage and Defence – e.g. One player may roll a total of 9, and opt to allocate 5 points to Damage, and 4 points to Defence. This would allow them to apply 5 Damage to their opponent, and evade 4 points of Damage in return. Their opponent also splits their total in this way. Probably best to write the split down before declaring it. 
It could play out like this:

Classic Fantasy example
GM: Your characters are gambling in a tavern when you have a disagreement about the legality of concealed cards. Words are exchanged and it becomes clear you must fight. 
You leap up from your seats at the table and quickly take in your surroundings. The tavern is dark and smoke filled, with tightly packed tables and chairs and is currently incredibly busy. A set of aged wooden stairs against the far wall lead to a narrow balcony. There are chandeliers about ten feet above your heads. The bar is a plank of wood laid across a collection of barrels, and is next to the doors.
[Player A has a Combat Score of 4. Player B has a Combat Score of 3. Player A goes first. Player A can describe 4 Combat Moves, whilst Player B can only describe 3]
Player A: I kick the table towards the cheating bastard, hoping to knock him off balance, and draw my sword!
Player B: I still have my flagon of ale in my hands, so I throw that in his face and reach for my daggers.
Player A: I swing my sword wildly at him, laughing and wiping the cheap ale from my face.
Player 2: I try to fall back into the crowd. Hopefully he’ll hit an innocent bystander instead of me.
GM: Player A, you connect with somebody. You don’t think it’s the right person. Chaos erupts around you both.
Player A: Charge towards him, sword raised high, and land blows all around. One or more will hit him.
Player B: Dive forward, tackle him at waist level and sink my dagger into his side.
Player 1: Bring the pommel of my sword down on his head again and again and again.
[Both players have now described the combat using their assigned Combat Moves. Now they must determine their Combat Totals and decide how many points to assign to Damage and Defence.  
Player A rolls a 3, which he adds to his Combat Score of 4, giving him a Combat Total of 7.
Player B rolls a 5, which he adds to his Combat Score of 3, giving him a Combat Total of 8.
Player A decides he was more concerned with attacking than evading, so assigns 5 points to Damage and 2 points to Defence. 
Player B decides he gave as good as he got, so splits his total in half, with 4 points assigned to Damage and and 4 points assigned to Defence. 
Player A’s 5 points of Damage are partially countered by Player B’s 4 points of Defence, meaning he only delivers 1 point of Damage to Player B. 
Player B’s even spread means that Player A suffers 2 points of Damage, and blocks 2 points.

After the first Round of combat, Player A has taken 2 Damage, and Player B has taken 1 Damage.]
All the numbers used are off the top of my head, and don’t reflect what a balanced and well designed system would require. Probably. With these Damage totals, a characters hit points would either have to be very low, or we’d have to beef up the damage a bit.
Anyways – This post has been a bit of a tangent. I just had this idea, and really wanted to put it down before I slept. Any comments or improvements are more then welcome.

8 thoughts on “Fighting Talk

  1. The bare naked and swiftest means of 'snap' arbitration (besides. most importantly, having a decent GM), is to make a snap judgement about how high a number the concerned combatants need to roll to achieve the action and then make it. This can be achieved by the GM alone, or – if he has Players who do not like to procrastinate – consult briefly with said Players to find a number they all agree on. This system negates any need for a RPG system, or character attributes etc. What must remain are character profiles sketching out the Player-character's abilities and weaknesses and the skills he has acquired. Another benefit of utilising 'digit-free' character profiles is the ease by which PCs can acquire new skills and increase existing; or, allowing Players the creative right to tinker with their PCs as they develop, to edit them (deleting unused skills, adding new backstory, skills at a pace that is entirely harmonious with the progression of the story and their PC).

    E.g. A fight in a tavern (we'll call it the Badger's Bollocks – doesn't sound too warm and friendly – unless you're a badger):

    Barfly Pip Brokenleg picks a fight with Admiral Tunguski of the Beached Kraken Navy. The Admiral claims that Pip has stained his presence with his rampant body odour. Pip doesn't know what that means (a Bath? Just some ruins the Cyber-Romans left behind…).

    Pip lunges for the Admiral, who is half-expecting the action. The GM assesses both the Admiral and Pip's abilities. The Admiral is a strong, upright fellow, who advanced through the ranks by fighting as much as unzipping flies. Pip is belligerent only when drunk. The GM reckons the Admiral, even though partially-surprised, might have the upper hand. So, instead of having both characters make rolls (which many games require), only Pip needs roll. He is making the attack. The GM's only die (and he only needs one) is ten-sided (although a D20 would be preferable to accommodate greater odds). He declares that the odds are somewhat against Pip; an even fight with no obstacles would see Pip have to make a roll exceeding '5' (the mid-point of the 1-10 range). Now that Pip's charging a fellow who is a better fighter (but slightly startled), the GM increases the difficulty number to 7.

    And so on…

    This system can also allow for multiple actions to be resolved with but the single roll of a dice. Hard-core, rules-minded RPGers will go white with indignation at my preferred system, but in the end, role-playing is about a narrative, a story with a plot, sub-plot, character arcs and development, OR perhaps the staging of a battle in a narrative context, where the PCs' actions must take precedence above the screaming hordes of the enemy.

    BUT, while the rules can be stripped down to a massive extent, there must always be some form of randomised arbitration in place, to allow scope for unexpected events and PC or NPC deaths, for the shock of death can sometimes trigger some very interesting story repercussions.


  2. I think you hit the nail on the head, John, when you said “most importantly, having a decent GM”

    The system you champion clearly has its merits, and to my mind it requires the following to work:
    1/ A good GM, who is fair, has strong grasp of dramatic narrative and who can think on their feet
    2/ The trust of the players
    3/ Players who appreciate that style of play

    Some people like D&D, miniatures, battle grids and highly detailed rules for movement.
    Some people like to play the pen and paper equivalent of a first person shooter console game.
    Some people like total character immersion.
    Some people like resolving social conflict and navigating through political intrigue.
    Some people like having massive numbers on their sheet that allow them to “Roll of death, not damage”

    Unfortunately we'll never have a universal system, although I am entirely open to trying your way.
    It sounds like “The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen” in many ways.


  3. Importantly, the GM and Players have to agree on the style of game-play before the game begins, and how they might amicably resolve any disputes. If a lack of communication is apparent at the outset, DON'T play! Remember that the GM is powerless without his Players, so don't remain silent and subdued while he 'goes off one one', or reneges on earlier compromises to cater to the group's well-being.

    On the other hand, the GM is entitled to have Players who are courteous, reliable and respectful of his judgement (so far as it confirms to mutual concerns laid in the table at the start of play).


  4. Pasted from Google Buzz:
    Sam H – Tricky.

    So many different systems, yet none of them succeed.

    For initiative, Runequest had a system of weapon speed ranks. Each weapon had a speed rating that specified how quickly it could be used. This number was added to one of the character stats. It took a bit of book keeping before starting the game, but once done, it was a case of the character with the lowest number going first, and the highest number going last. Circumstantial penalties can be applied to almost all systems.

    I also recall that NinjaBurger had an interesting approach.

    The hitting people bit is trickier. Far too many systems seem to be designed with computers in mind. However, simplicity leads to top trumps style combat. No ideas at the moment I'm afraid.08:47


  5. Arwel Griffith – How about not getting caught up in time and trying to simulate combat and keep it simple and narrative. Roll up hit and damage into one test.

    Player 1: I want to leap over the car into the shopping trolley, using my momentum to speed across the carpark gunning down Big Jimmy's mooks. As the trolley hits Fish Face Billy's hotrod, I somersault out of it and over the car and Fish Face Billy ending up with my gun pressed against his temple.

    GM: Ok, that's taking the piss a bit, you can manage the trolley thing, but not the somersaulting. Ok, what skill are you using for that.

    Player 1: Both Guns Blazing, which I have at 12

    GM: Ok, the mooks will defend using Shit! Take Cover. make your roll.

    Player 1: Three degrees of success…

    GM: Against my zero, which means a major success. Gain a +2 Insane Courage bonus to Both Guns Blazing until you fail a Both Guns Blazing test.

    Use whatever randomisation method you like that lets you roll one dice and work out degrees of success from. Against major villains you can have multiple contests, with successes contributing to the final result of the combat. First to five wins or something, with each test affecting the narrative of the fight, offering up new things for characters to take advantage of as the situation changes.

    Or just use Heroquest, which it seems I've been channelling while writing this post.

    How about cards instead of dice. I've been playing a skirmish game called Malifaux, and that has a very cool combat system. Draw a hand of cards at the start of a round, so could probably make it per scene for a roleplaying game. To resolve a test, draw a card, add your stat. Opponent does the same. Whoever fails has the chance to Cheat Fate, and play a card from their hand instead of the one drawn. Then the other player has a chance to do the same. Highest total wins. You then flip a card from your deck to do damage. You can modify the number of cards flipped from the deck, for each negative draw one more and pick lowest. Positives are draw one more and take highest. Degrees of success on the test gives +/- flips to damage. The suit of cards used on the test can trigger special abilities. Have a hand last for a scene. It works out nice and fast. Not sure how you'd balance hand size between GM and players though.12:10 (edited 15:59)


  6. Arwel Griffith – As to your large scale combat problem, the mook system that a few games use works rather will. Low powered enemies just need to be hit before they're eliminated.

    Deathwatch deals with larger scale combats rather nicely. In Deathwatch each player is a power armoured Space Marine, so power wise you may as well be a super hero. When you need to fight low level threats like infantry, you'll be taking on dozens or even hundreds. The game treats this as a Horde, a single entity with a single stat line, that of a single Imperial Guardsman if you were fighting a Horde of them, plus a Magnitude that represents its size. Magnitude dictates the Horde's number of attacks and damage, so instead of rolling a hundred attacks which would barely scratch the armour of what they're fighting, the GM rolls much fewer but for more damage, representing massed volley fire and such. When attacking a Horde you do damage against the Horde's Magnitude, do enough and they may break and flee. It makes masses of mooks a threat, and makes the combat nice and swift.13:15


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