RPG Design – How detailed a combat system do you need?

   Today we’re going to be looking at a bit of RPG heresy.

   Many Role-Playing Games put a LOT of stress on combat, and the rules for it – and, as a result, have endless discussions of “balance”, now much healing a group should have available, and similar items. Now, you do need at least some of this for the old kick-in-the-door style of adventure and for the occasional equal combat – but not most of the time. To illustrate…

   Lets say we have a party of low- to mid-level adventurers. In the various incarnations of Dungeons and Dragons, lets make them about sixth or seventh level. A few months back a group of relatively minor monsters moved into the area, kicked a couple of bears out of a comfortable cave (a fact unknown to the villagers), and settled in to do a little village-raiding in the area. That’s why our band of adventurer’s is here. The local village, Tarnwill-on-the-river, is loosely under the protection / domination of “Lorath”, a very powerful dragon, but Lorath, secure in it’s lair on Mount Korim, hasn’t noticed the small-scale depredations of a few minor monsters. It would hardly be bothered coming out to deal with such minor pests even if someone went to go and tell it about them – and no one is willing to take the risk of going to do that anyway.

   Now, the vast majority of potential combats our party might get into in this area are foregone conclusions.

  • They could readily beat up the local kids – but they’d be much better off getting them organized as runners, so they can be quickly alerted to any monstrous incursions. That way they can try to deal with the raiding monsters individually – or try to follow them back to their lair.
  • A fight with the local woodcutters and herders would be another easy win, but they’d be much better off using them as a source on the layout of the local woods.
  • There are some potentially bothersome boars, a couple of bulls, two bears, and a few wolves around – amongst other wild animals – but none of them are even remotely a match for an armed party of adventurers. A little poking around would reveal that the bears have recently been chased out of their lair though – a fact which would be exceptionally easy to get if someone has a way to communicate with them.
  • The guy who works the stables and doubles as the bouncer at the local inn is another easy win. Better to talk to him though, he’s one of the few people around who remembers that Old Man Kerrig used to be an minor adventurer as a youth.
  • They could smack around Old Man Kerrig’s mean dog when it tries to bite them, and kick the old man off the two canes he needs to walk with these days pretty easily too, but he does know a back way into the cave where the monsters are currently lairing – if they have the patience to give him time to remember and don’t irritate him (such as by kicking his dog). It’ll take a lot of careful scouting to find it otherwise.
  • They could take out the entire village militia with little difficulty; after all, they can handle the individual monsters and the local militia can’t do that.
  • The assorted minor monsters will be fairly easy fights as individuals – whether to kill, to capture, or to try and drive them off in hopes of following their retreat back to their lair. Of course, that tactic does run the risk of them bringing in allies when the player characters aren’t ready for that yet.
  • The lair can be found with enough digging around, by tracing the creatures back trails, or by a bit of extended triangulation and plotting the attacks on a map – however, if the characters head on in without weakening the enemy forces by dealing with the lesser monsters first, they’ll almost certainly all be killed, and if they opt to retreat after a few of them are killed, the pursuit will wipe them out. If they weaken the enemy forces until the lesser monsters cease to come out, a drive through the front to take out the holdouts would be a very challenging fight – a probable victory if they’re willing to lose several characters in the battle. A siege might work, but if the remaining creatures start looking for another way out, they’ll find the back door – meaning that they’ll either escape or the player characters will have to split their forces, a situation certain to lead to one-half of them being cut down and the escape of the remaining creatures.
  • If they come in through Old Man Kerrig’s back entrance without weakening the enemy forces, they’re almost certain to be killed – but if they weaken the enemy in advance, coming in through the back entrance will be an easy fight if they were through enough, what most players refer to as a “balanced encounter” (one that will require some work, but which the characters are almost certain to win with no lasting harm) if they missed a few points, on up through “even odds” or “bloody difficult” if they weren’t so thorough.
  • If they decide to head up Mount Korin, and do battle with Lorath the Dragon, they’re all going to die unless it amuses Lorath to let one or two of them escape.

   In other words, out of forty or fifty possible fights, only one – and then only if the characters set it up correctly – is a more-or-less “even encounter”, and only a few are seriously in need of combat rules to resolve them.

   Of course, if the players fail to have their characters ask questions around the village, scout, plan, and gather any equipment or allies they can find, quite a few of those encounters may result in abrupt death. Still, games aren’t much fun without a serious challenge and equally serious risks.

   Presuming the characters win, they’ll have some treasure – most of it loot from the local villages, and not especially impressive by adventurer standards. Of course, giving most of it back to the local villagers will get them an assortment of local contacts, ensure their future welcome (and free lodgings and such minor assistance as the villagers can provide), spread their reputations as heroes, and possibly bring them to the attention of more important people.

   Now that’s a pretty simple scenario. When you come right down to it, it’s a basic situation that involves a village, a distant overlord, a few monsters, and a cave – but it’s still going to require an investigation, talking to the villagers, scouting, some tactical discussion and setup, several minor ambushes and fights, a bit of sneaking, and a final confrontation – although that final confrontation may be easy if the characters have done well. It may also be quickly lethal if they skimp on the scouting, planning, preparation, and whittling-down of the opposition. That’s what makes it challenging. It’s also what tactics, strategy, and command are all about.

   So do you need a detailed combat system?

  • The ideal “fight” is the one where your superior opponent surrenders unconditionally because you’ve gotten them into a position so utterly hopeless that they give up. Those are hard to arrange, but can be pretty satisfying if you EVER manage to pull one off. Even if you can’t manage to make it that clean, finding a way to pull a victory out of a situation that started off near-hopeless is the basis of virtually every literary quest and fantasy adventure ever written. Wasn’t this what throwing the Ring into Mount Doom was all about?
  • The most exciting fights are the ones where the stakes are high, victory hangs by a thread, and you could easily lose if everything doesn’t go just right. For this sort of thing, you might want a detailed combat system – but sensible characters, and long-term campaigns, generally try to avoid such fights at all costs. If you throw in a one dramatic 50-50 battle per month of your weekly campaign, it’s not going to be long before all the characters are dead. That’s no problem in a skirmish game, but most RPG’s are intended for a longer term than that.
  • The most valiant fights are the ones where you’re doomed, know that you’re doomed, and are sacrificing yourself for some greater cause. Now honestly, this sort of thing does not need a combat system at all; what you need is to allow the characters to pull off some heroic stunts, make valiant last stands, give a few speeches, seriously delay or damage the enemy, and then die dramatically.
  • The most common fights are over lesser stakes than life-or-death. Being held for ransom, or inconvenienced, or suffering a minor wound, is a loss – but you won’t have the characters frantically looking for every possible advantage, and wanting every detail accounted for, if the stakes aren’t so high.
  • The most boring fights are the ones where you know the outcome already, or where you’re almost sure to win – but you have to grind through it anyway. For them, you want a quick-and-simple combat system. The truly satisfying part of fights like this lies in the characters having worked hard to find a way to turn a potentially-deadly fight into a near-certain victory. Doing it for them – the “Balanced Encounter” philosophy – will quickly get boring. Phony risks are only exciting for so long.

   In other words, the only situations in which detailed combat systems are truly required are the ones that the characters will be trying to avoid at all costs.

   Given that… what a RPG really needs is a combat system that:

  • Is relatively quick and simple.
  • Offers a substantial chance to withdraw if the encounter is going badly. Note that this applies to the opposition as well as to the PC’s!
  • Places the characters at substantial risk if they haven’t “done their homework”.
  • Provides major advantages for groups that HAVE “done their homework”.
  • Provides chances for heroic rescues, speeches, and other dramatic actions.
  • Allows for grossly one-sided battles.

   Next time around on this topic I’ll see what I can throw together as an example.

16 Responses

  1. This seems a brilliant analysis, well done! What I struggle with as a GM is parties that have grown to expect balanced encounters. They attack everything assuming they have a chance to defeat it. Of course a few PC deaths would likely cure them of that particular conceit…

  2. Nicely argued case, but I think your examples were chosen to support the point you were going to arrive at. Sure, if you design adventures the way you outline, detailed combat is unnecessary.

    But what about folks who like to play in a more open, sandbox-y way for example? For them, every encounter has the potential to be lethal, so detailed rules that support /require a more tactical way of playing matter more.

    Also, some people just enjoy more detailed combat because they enjoy that aspect of the game and the GM designs settings and encounters with that in mind.

    • Hm. “I know the situation in the area, the characters are free to do whatever they please or to go elsewhere”. That seems to fit most definitions of “Sandbox”. Were you expecting a extensive discussion of the diplomatic or travel possibilities in an article about combat systems?

      “For them, every encounter has the potential to be lethal”.

      The vast majority of “Encounters” are non-combat situations and – unless the characters are completely insane – are likely to stay that way. A very large percentage of the “Combat Encounters” are going to be “random drifting bacterium or spore versus characters immune system” – at a rate of thousands per hour. Those aren’t worth bothering with? You only need detailed rules for those situations where the characters are at substantial risk? In other words, you’re defining an “encounter” to fit the “exciting fight” category.

      The trouble with that lies in basic statistics: the odds catch up with the characters eventually. If fighting is a substantial risk, then – after six months to a year of weekly sessions – the remaining effective characters are going to be the ones who avoid fighting. The usual method around this is to reduce the risks by not having combat have lasting consequences – but the phony excitement of combat without real risks will soon begin to bore most players.

      That’s why I noted that detailed combat was no problem in a skirmish game. Personally, I find that 2-3 years of weekly sessions is about minimal for a RPG.

      Of course, I tend to view the investigation, scouting, manipulation of the opponents, strategy, maneuver, and attempts to counter the enemies attempts, as a part of defeating the opposition.

  3. Your post fails to encapsulate a pretty enormous chunk of what D&D is about for most people. Combat is supposed to be fun and entertaining, and a certain amount of rules detail adds to it. In a tabletop roleplaying game, combat is not simply one way of dealing with a problem, equal among all others. For many people it is the PREFERRED way to deal with a problem, simply because combat is often more fun than the other choices available. It is an excuse to have a mechanically engaging, imaginatively vivid chance to show off what your hero is made of, and for quite some time D&D (and many other tabletop RPGs) have been focused around the idea that combat would take center stage for much of the average game session.

    Combat for its own sake is not a bad thing, but it sure seems to get a heaping helping of electronic sneers from the RPG blogging community. I often get the impression that there is a certain group of gamers who feel that a game involving less combat is more refined, or superior to other playstyles, and that those who prefer or enjoy combat are “lesser” gamers.

    • “Because combat is often more fun than the other choices available”

      If the game master can’t keep the game engaging and fun regardless of the way that the players approach a problem, he or she is incompetent. The fact that this is true in many cases does not excuse it.

      Part of the goal for a “role playing game” is realistic, believable, and well-developed characters in a logical and well-developed setting. For a quick test case in the most realistic setting available, why not head down to the local mall, pick an argument with a suitable “encounter” – say a cop – and try to resolve it with combat? Let me know how that works out for you.

      If you want to have regular combat you can:
      Make sure that the characters have little chance of losing – and thus make it dull. Assured victory is boring.
      Reduce the risks – and thus make it dull. That’s the difference between playing at a casino with real money and playing around the kitchen table for poker chips.
      Accept that the characters won’t last very long – and thus eliminate much of the role-playing.
      You can’t have frequent combat, serious risks, and long-term characters, all together.

      There’s nothing wrong with a combat game. If you want purity there, try Chess – which I also enjoy. If you want pure roleplaying, there are plenty of games out there where nothing bad can happen to your character unless you agree that it should. Most tabletop RPG’s try to hit a happy medium.

      This is, as it says in the title, an article on RPG Design – and D&D (albeit no particular edition) is used as an example simply because it’s commonly familiar. The fact that you seem to have missed this entirely – as inferred from the “for quite some time D&D…” bit – does not say anything about the types of games you prefer, but it does indicate a failure to read carefully.

      • I do believe that I have read the article closely, and I’d appreciate it if you avoid taking my criticism of your analysis and attempting to make it look like a failure of understanding.

        I think you make some serious blanket assumptions about how RPGs “should be,” without giving much consideration as to whether or not these things should actually be.

        For instance, you make the claim: “Part of the goal for a “role playing game” is realistic, believable, and well-developed characters in a logical and well-developed setting.” This is a blanket statement about a “should” quality: you believe that RPGs should have realistic characters and logical settings. While I think that all (or nearly all) gamers can agree with statements like “Combat should be fun,” I think that far fewer might agree that a logical setting is preferred in any RPG, or that realism in characters is something preferred (if a definition for the word “realism” can even be set when discussing a shared fantasy space like a tabletop RPG).

        For instance, you may be familiar with Paranoia. This is a setting (and game) that does not lend itself to realistic characters, and you would struggle to find much logic in the setting itself. In fact, madcap characters and silly contradictions in the game world are part of the setting’s charm for many of its players.

        One final point: your typical combat in D&D very often is NOT about serious risk; there you are absolutely correct. But it often will carry the illusion of serious risk. That’s part of what makes 4e combat so exciting, for instance; you can have (and often do have) multiple PCs down and things looking pretty grim for the party, and then one round of well-chosen actions turns the whole thing around. For that one round, though, the players are on the edges of their seats waiting to see what happens. I don’t believe that serious actual risk is necessary to have exciting, engaging combat encounters. The illusion of risk is much more important.

    • Well, lets examine some definitions:

      The “Role-Playing” part of a Role-Playing Game is about playing a role. To have a “role” you need a background that works in the setting, motivations, and some sort of personal description. To play that role you need the ability to connect character actions to logical outcomes. Otherwise your decisions mean nothing.

      The “Game” part is where the rules come in. The rules are the governing logic of the setting. Asking for a set of rules – whether implied (“something like gravity exists, leverage works the same way because melee weapons do”), or stated (as in “detailed rules to govern combat”) is asking for a series of logical (as in “rules that can be applied to determine outcomes) statements about how the setting works. Wanting the characters to obey those rules is asking for characters that logically fit into the setting.

      “Believable” – this universe is sufficiently self-consistent that it could exist under the relevant laws of nature. For some examples, you could look at things like the “Elemental Physics” article. Universes which are not self-consistent contradict themselves – which makes for lousy gaming and lousy role-playing.

      “Realistic” – actions have logical consequences. For example, if you are not supported somehow in a setting with an applicable gravitational field, you’ll fall. Now, if you’re in Toon, you may be supported by your own failure to notice that you should be falling – but once you notice, you’ll fall. In it’s own terms, Toon is quite realistic; it applies the logical consequences of the local laws of nature.

      In asking for detailed and exciting combat, you are asking for the setting to be realistic, believable, and logical. In asking for it to be a role-playing game, you are asking for backgrounds, motivations, and coherent personalities. A random group of hallucinating madmen floating in primordial chaos does not offer any scope for either role-playing or meaningful combat.

      I suspect that you’re confusing “logic” with “consistency with common experience in the real world”. They’re not the same.

      Paranoia is, in fact, quite a lot of fun, and has been since first edition. It is also quite coherent, logical, and realistic in both gaming and universe-design terms; it’s various oddities are derived from its world assumptions. Toon, Tales from the Floating Vagabond, Amber, Mage the Ascension, Shadowrun, and Deadlands are also both logical and realistic. So are non-Euclidian geometries. They all take the setting assumptions and follow them to their conclusions.

      However, where we fundamentally disagree is a very simple point: I have found that the illusion of serious risk does not fool the players for very long. After a few years, even the most combat-focused players inevitably see through it – and I haven’t bothered setting up a campaign that I expect to run for less than a couple of hundred sessions in a very long time.

  4. Perhaps, Scott, it is because many of us associate the ‘hit it til its dead’ mentality with barbarians with low intelligence scores ;-)

    Once you’ve been playing a while, you tend to gravitate away from combat as the solution to all problems naturally, because you’ve been there, done that and got the bloody T shirt. Mysteries, people that must be talked round to achieve a goal and making peace between warring factions are all examples of adventures not built around combat that can be tremendous fun to play.

    • I have been playing a while, and that does not accurately describe me. While I find those activities fun, I don’t find them more fun than combat encounters. I’m not alone in this either.

      • Might I point out that “The Recursion King” didn’t say that alternative activiies were more fun than combat encounters. He simply said that they “can be tremendous fun to play.” The comparison is yours alone.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post, thanks for writing it.

    This is the type of game I’d like to find myself running more often, but I often find myself getting bogged down in the details that I don’t really need (like a ton of combat related statisics for the players and npc’s).

    I’ll keep a link to this article handy and hopefully it will remind me to not get dragged down the dark path of habit.

    Fat Alibert.

  6. “Phony risks are only exciting for so long.”

    Boy, that nailed it!

    I have been following this discussion with great interest and I feel that for a lot of folks “lots of combat” simply means their character gettting to kick a lot of tail as opposed to the PC actually being exposed to substantial danger. Everyone loves dishing it out but…

    For these players the ready availability of opponents they can inflict a beat-down on is more important than emounter quality anyway. I have found many players to be very wary when the actual danger level is perceived to be mutual between PC and baddie.

    Like a lot of GM’s I used to worry about combat balance, phony danger, ect. At some point I just had to ignore “balance” and just build encounters from my mind’s eye. Ambush my village tanner and notch an easy victory, but attempting to rob the town money-changer may send a PC or two to the boneyard.

  7. Hi there!

    Thanks for the article and the excuse to ponder analytically on what is too often left to the big-time game designers to decide for us! While I agree that a game that focuses very heavily on combat and combat rules tends to steer its players in that direction, I also think that it’s nice to have some more detailed combat rules for those situations that come up… you know which ones I mean. Inevitably, someone finds a hole in the rules and the GM is left to sort out what is most fair and believable in the situation. I’m in the process of trying to design some combat rules for a game right now, and it is an anxiety-ridden process for me. There are a lot of factors to consider, and I haven’t found a good example combat system that I like. It’s not a simple issue.

    That’s the biggest criticism I have of your article: it oversimplifies a very complex problem. Designing a game is essentially designing an entire world with all of its natural laws and whatnot, and trying to encapsulate the laws of fake physics into a simple combat system is a serious skill. It is not a task for the faint of heart. I would have liked to see what you came up with as an example. It’s not so easy, is it? Combat design is one of the finer arts of game design, and a simple system is the mark of a master.

    • You’re quite welcome – although, I haven’t found creating combat systems that difficult; you just decide what you want it simulate and what style of game you wish to encourage first; then write it.

      I never did get around to putting up the example I had in mind since I haven’t revisited this topic yet (the debate was too tedious to compete with all the other projects) – but there are quite a few of my other combat systems available anyway. For some examples:

      There are portions of the Continuum II rules on the blog, such as the basic mechanics and the Martial Arts design rules. Continuum II was a fairly abstract old-style combat system with graduated results. I haven’t used those rules in quite awhile, but they did just fine for a twelve-year campaign. Continuum II also has some fairly extensive physics and biomechanics (you can find a lot of it under the various lifeforms discussions over in the “Other Games” tab). Sadly, since the rules predate the blog – and owning a computer – a lot of that material is in nearly thirty-year-old notebooks.

      Baba Yaga has it’s own combat system (and physics). It was designed for WWII, although we’ve also used the rules system to replace the Exalted rulebooks, for space opera, and for a time-travel game since it was written. It uses a fast (and rather deadly) combat system with a fairly detailed wound location-severity-effect mechanic. The players packet covers most of the combat rules and is free here: http://www.box.net/shared/ht72j2esco The complete game is available on RPGNow.

      Magic The Gathering: The Role Playing Game is available for download on the site, and has it’s own combat rules. They’re loose and simple.

      Eclipse offers some notable revisions to the d20 combat rules, albeit mostly in offering new options for character abilities. You can get the free version at RPGNow or in the download box.

      The Legend of the Five Rings information contains a rewrite of the combat rules. Those rules are pretty detailed – intended for detailed cinematic combat and offering a wide variety of options – simply because personal combat is a major part of the samurai setting. There’s also a partial rewrite of the dueling system up on the blog, but there was never much interest in dueling amongst the players. The L5R campaign only ran about three years though; everyone started getting tired of samurai around session 150. There are some discussions of elemental physics and such in there too. If you want the packet, I’ll email you a copy.

      The Wild Dawn rules have a very quick-and-simple combat system, but it’s a one-page system thrown together over about twenty minutes when the players requested “something different for the evening”. It gets re-used occasionally between serious campaigns. It’s over here:

      If you want game-physics discussions, there are some articles up on elemental physics, the quantum mechanics and physics of the Manifold setting, how star trek technology works, and on several other subjects.

      There are a fair number of systems still buried in the old notes of course. For example, the Animania Adventures rules were designed to accommodate the more extreme anime characters, such as the Dragonball Z bunch (now that I’ve been reminded of those rules, I may put them up or put together a .pdf) – but the Magic Prairie Dogs rules were designed to handle small fragile animals trying to use low-level magic and sabotage to thwart the giant human land developers, and had much more lethal consequences.

      So yes; it may or may not be easy, but it’s certainly straightforward.

      As for oversimplification, the article is discussing how detailed a combat system needs to be to support a game – a rather specific question. The answer is “not very”. Simply from observation, games such as Tunnels and Trolls worked just fine. Some games, such as Amber, don’t even really have combat systems, and they still work.

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