Called Shots, the Quick, Easy, and Traditional Way

United States Marines practicing striking

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There’s a critical point that games designers often tend to forget.

The people they hear from are their customers. If you keep getting calls for a particular feature – like called shots – and you don’t respond to it, that’s a segment of customers that you’re not pleasing.

And it’s not like you hold a monopoly on some vital service. If they get fed up, and go find a game that DOES have the features they want, you can’t do much about it.

Now, players often do want to try called shots in d20 games. That’s because they see that sort of thing in movies, and fantasy novels, and in other sources – and they’re cool. Even if it’s just “with an arrow in his leg we should be able to outrun him now!”, rather than “The arrow through his eye drops him like a rock!”, a called shot is a LOT more interesting than “Yep, that’s another eight hit points off his triple-digit total!”. That’s why the default first edition system of simply assuming that a high damage roll represented a critical or vital hit was replaced by more exciting critical hit rules.

If your RPG system cannot simulate some simple, obvious, action – such as “I shoot him in the arm to try and make him drop the knife!” – in an equally simple fashion, it has a problem. Assuming that such simple details are abstracted into the system simply will not satisfy large portions of your audience.

Now, a lot of arguments for and against called shots are strawman arguments in the face of one simple fact – in a fight, the characters are presumed to be doing their best to inflict damage on their opponents anyway. If they can get in a shot to an unarmored area, or in a vital location, they’ll be taking it anyway. About the only time they might not is if they were in the middle of striking a blow at another location anyway, and can’t change it in time to take advantage of the opening.

Ah. There we go. Taking a called shot means passing up opportunities to strike in hopes of a better opening coming up. On the good side? You might inflict more damage. On the bad side, you might not get a better opening, or only get a worse one, or you might get no opening at all.

Wait! I hear a voice from the distant past, speaking from the old school… “Sure, you can try that, but at a -10!”

And there you have the core of a quick, simple, simulationist system for making called shots:

  • You may trade penalties on your attack check in exchange for inflicting some special penalty on your opponent if you hit despite the penalty.
  • When attempting a called shot, a “natural 20” does NOT guarantee a hit.
  • Thanks to effects like “True Strike”, the ablative basis of D&D combat, the hit point system, called shots have relatively minor effects – at the most (at -20) equivalent to a first level spell or basic feat.

For an untested list off the top of my head…

  • At -5 you might get a +1d4 damage, or leave an opponent effectively dazzled, deafened, or at half movement for a round.
  • At -10 you might get +1d10 damage, knock an opponent down, avoid allowing an Attack of Opprotunity when attempting a disarm, grapple, sunder, or trip, blind an opponent for a round, or bypass damage reduction with the attack.
  • At -15 you might get to make an opponent drop a weapon, daze them for a round*, carve a symbol into the target (no damage, but very embarrasing), force them to take a 5′ step of your choice, cause a point of attribute damage*, prevent them from moving next round, or inflict one of the “-5” effects for three rounds.
  • At -20 you might cause two points of attribute damage*, cause an extra ten points of damage, stun an opponent for a round*, inflict one of the “-5” effects for a full minute, or inflict a “-10” effect for three rounds.

*DC 18 Fortitude save negates.

There. Very little fuss, two paragraphs, and very unlikely to prove especially unbalancing – especially since game masters have been doing this sort of thing informally for decades, and it’s worked just fine. Now, this won’t let you make instant-kill shots – except, of course, against opponents so weak that you’d have a pretty good chance of killing them anyway – but that’s what hit points are all about. Sensible players aren’t looking for a quick way to eliminate challenges, or for an equally quick way for powerful enemies to slaughter their characters – but they’re quite justified in asking for a chance to, say, injure an opponents leg and slow them down for a few moments.

The Immortal Rants of Sean K. Reynolds – “We need rules for called shots!”

LARP: Sternenfeuer group from Germany

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Editorial0 has contributed a set of article-replies to some of Sean K. Reynolds rants about third edition design decisions. Those decisions have heavily influenced a lot of game designs since, so I’ll be putting those up – along with some additional comments.

To avoid excessive reprinting, you can find the general introduction to this series in the first article, HERE.

This particular rant is entitled “Called shots do bad things to the game!” – and explains why Mr Reynolds feels that called shots are inherently disastrous.

The Called Shots rant might seem like a small side issue, but in fact it points out a huge discrepancy between groups of gamers. As usual, Mr. Reynolds math is flawless, his arguments logical and straightforward, and his conclusions fairly solid.

Unfortunately, while he addresses the mathematical rules of the system, he fails to give the players options. And role-playing games are mostly about letting players do cool things – which means that the right answer for some playstyles is wrong for others.

Called shots may or may not be worth doing in a game. They’re fun if they work within the system – when they’re built-in and flow smoothly. When they go outside the normal rules, then things become a problem. A game system which has hit locations can more easily handle called shots than one which doesn’t. A game system in which called shots use completely separate rules for damage, critical hits, and effects is a major problem.

Sean K. ignores that and focuses on the mathematical system he devised. And he’s quite right: the system abstracts everything to the breaking point. It doesn’t necessarily need rules for Called Shots. The rules abstract that away into the random hit and critical rolls.

But this doesn’t entirely satisfy some gamers, and we should all see why. They don’t have any input into the dice rolls and they can’t announce that they want to try a special trick. They may have precisely the same chance of critical damage at level 20 as at level 1. A high-level archer probably won’t have any critical enhancements on his bow – they don’t stack very well. A melee-type might or might not depending on his weapon.

Nonetheless, that high-level character can have a huge attack bonus, and it makes a certain amount of sense to hit the enemy where he wants to. And shouldn’t this cause some kind of problem for the target? Shouldn’t chopping off his arm make him less effective in battle? Well, maybe. Except that D&D characters don’t really have arms, either.

Part of the problem lies in the D&D concept of hit points, or the lack thereof. Are high-level characters super-tough, or are they just really good at somehow getting out of the way? The game is largely silent, Gary Gygax leaned in favor of the latter years back, and the rules themselves actually imply the former. D&D characters have always been milk jugs full of hit points: when you poke them they leak a bit. Nobody ever gave the rules more thought than that during design, so that’s how it stayed.

And there are a lot of good reasons for that. Hit points are an abstraction, but they’re a very useful one. But always remember that abstraction is a giant pain in a lot of ways. It’s a compromise, and it leaves a lot at the door.

We did something about that in Eclipse. Eclipse offers a vast array of specialized abilities. You can learn how to make all kinds of ways to cripple and hinder your enemies. But most D&D games aren’t using those kinds of options. It doesn’t help that the “Power Attack” feats favor strong characters over precise ones and don’t work with any ranged attacks. There were and are some considerable holes in the game system, which need a lot more than patches.

So, while the complainers are partly wrong in the desired solution, they’re pointing out a real problem. The game needed a bit more of a grounding and explanation, and it simply didn’t have it. D20 is indeed an extremely smooth system, but smooth is often less important than “easy to understand.” Gamers always make allowances for odd results. But when the basic structure of a game doesn’t allow for the obvious (or allows it, but doesn’t explain how to get it), they become confused or angry. And maybe they should.

For a brief counterpoint article, you can look HERE.

Federation-Apocalypse Session 149b – The Markets of Cyrweld

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)

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Marty sighed… It really hadn’t taken long to exhaust the rumor possibilities of the bar for the moment – and it looked like the Otters weren’t silly enough to be recruiting so publicly, even if the place WAS a “notorious gang hideout”. There was other minor gossip, but it was all trivia.

They decided to have a look at the local commodities market. Marty felt that those were always fun! People knifing each other was the very least of it!

Oh yeah, this wasn’t Battling Business World.

Kevin called for his attention-attracting sedan chair and bearers. Fortunately, no one was likely to have tried to take the “wheels” off it! The wheels might not have any weapons or armor, but they did have the usual Thrall-resources!

The Commodities Market reminded Kevin of the trading floors of classical Wall Street – although there wasn’t nearly enough blood to resemble Battling Business Worlds version. There were a lot of magical boards displaying information, including ship manifests, port of origin, port of destination, and share price. Despite the city guards recommendation, none too interesting unless you were a trader or a (genuine) pirate – which he wasn’t really.

Marty somewhat missed the blood, but otherwise liked it a lot. Those were some pretty good boards! He looked to see what was up today!

Hm… Shares in Platypus cargos were not currently being traded, since they were pretty much the sole investors right now. They wouldn’t want to trade any at the moment or for some time to come either; at the moment they were basically penny stocks. Currently the ships working to the south were doing well, but those to the North were having trouble. It seemed that the northern tribes were organizing their resistance better these days – which was definitely a bother.

The big news on the market was the discovery of a new species to the South in the jungles. The ship had only managed to capture one, but the bidding on the cargo was high.

Kevin wondered if they might be the assassin-species! That would explain why they were so quickly available; they’d been in the area to rescue one of their own already! And of COURSE he’d be a prime suspect for being the captor!

For that matter… he might be. The local Thralls would have already spoken for their pick of somewhat more than the expected percentage of ensouled youngsters from each cargo. That was a new record! He’d had people upset with his actions before he’d even arrived in their universe!

Marty saw that thought and had to laugh. A new record! Go us!

Marty had been checking into the situation up North. It looked like the Polar Bears had begun organizing the northern species into an effective resistance against the slavers that had been raiding the area. They’d even begun building ships to patrol the waters – and had been planting icebergs in the shipping lanes that were barely visible above the water… Wait; could they be working with the penguin pirates?

Well, the platypuses were on city-to-city trade this time, so that shouldn’t be too big a problem this time around.

The new species… appeared to be a feline derivative with psionic powers. About the size of a typical house cat, they were incredibly cunning and elusive. Sedating one took had been a difficult project for the entire ship’s the crew. Ok, that was a completely different species.

Kevin concluded that – when you came right down to it – there wasn’t actually much to do here that wouldn’t actually be blind gambling. He’d prefer a market where things were actually being bought and sold… Besides, they still had no party invitations, or challenges to duels, or dimensional visitors wanting to negotiate while they were out of Kadia, and they only had four days to go until the Platypus expedition!

They could always come back after the expedition of course, but he’d rather do something NOW. He wandered off to find something. After all, they showed enough signs of money to draw attention – especially if some of the merchants had weird abilities to detect solvency and possible profits. If they didn’t show enough signs of money, they’d make it even more obvious. Besides… they could see if some assassins attacked their ships – or possibly tried not to hurt all the children while extracting their missing agent – while they weren’t there.

Marty couldn’t find anything else too juicy in the way of rumors, so he wandered off after Kevin. After all, this was a trade-city! The physical markets should be filled with all kinds of stuff!

The markets had… performers, swindlers selling trinkets, arguments between buyers and sellers, people wanting them to fund their latest get-rich-quick scheme, beggers wanting money, abolitionists causing trouble, food and drink vendors hawking their wares, and assorted other stuff.

Kevin tipped the better performers, bought a few trinkets at random where they appealed to him, give small handouts to the beggars, asked the abolitionists whether they want to abolish slavery, duels, predation, or debtor’s prisons, got some food (some of the most interesting – and expensive – stuff available), and looked around to see who else was out shopping – or pickpocketing. He DID still want invitations to the nobilities parties…

As for the items for sale… There were seriously exotic foods, alcohols, fabrics, plants, animals, magical items, spices, psionic items (rarer than magic, and roughly equivalent – albeit with different vulnerabilities. The more paranoid local nobles tended to covet them, even with the stigma of mind-magic attached to them), trade expedition shares, precious metals and gems, rare woods, art, occasional slaves, ancient antiques, and odder things, all being traded and sold. In fact, some of the stuff they’d been auctioning off had already made it here… albeit in far smaller lots and at even higher prices.

Well, that was usual for retail.

They hadn’t brought in much in the way of alcohol, plants, animals though – and ancient antiques were always fun.

Then Kevin had a better idea! He bought a box of small snakes (huh… they even seemed to have snake-souls! Had someone imported a couple of boxes of real snakes at some point?) awakened one, give it wings, and legs, and feathers, and made a small feathered dragon, and then imbued it with enough magic to be a fair match for the locals – using small sequential spells so that each step-by-step small change would be real, and undispellable…

City guard says there are no feathered dragons do they?

Marty saw where that was going early on, said “hi” to the small (and slightly confused) feathered dragon when Kevin was done, and continued with his lunch. Hopefully the kid would realize that – while the local mages could do that sort of thing too – it was a MUCH bigger project for them. That was why race-creation was normally left to the local gods… Oh well. Kevin did tend to lose all sense of proportion as soon as a whim struck him.

Kevin, still finding that no one was paying attention to him – they all just assumed he was playing with illusions or a temporary transformation or something since he wasn’t using too much magic at any one time – was considering just how much more conspicuous he could possibly get. Perhaps set up a balloon animal booth? He seemed to recall something like that in one of the ancient classic films… The Masque of the Red Death? No, that didn’t seem right. Oh well, he had one of the Thralls pick up a selection of local charms and talismans for the new dragon.

Marty liked balloon animals! He voted for the booth plan, and volunteered to help Kevin set it up!

He was kind of sorry when it got pre-empted – at least for the moment – by an offer of a business partnership from one of the members of the Smiths and Artificers Guild.

(Marty, privately) “What bought this on?”

(Kevin, privately) “I’d guess metals are either freely transmutable with spells of that level around here or can be created with them – and SOMEONE has noticed how much power we’re using.”

Hm… According to the local Thralls, common metals could be freely transmuted into each other, magical metals were much harder to transmute into each other, and converting mundane metals to magical ones was incredibly difficult – at least by direct spellcasting.

The Raccoon – one Ramal Hakkan – did indeed have a proposal for magical metal transmutation. The Smiths and Artificers Guild had been working on that for a long time – and they thought that their visitors might have the final resources they needed to make it work at a huge profit. Ergo, a partnership proposal.

Kevin guessed that they needed to charge the mundane metal with a vast infusion of magical energy – and then would need a high-order spell to bind it permanently to the metal.

Their proposed process required a great deal of magical lightning – and given the number of magical assistants that Kevin and Marty appeared to have – they believed that they could easily provide it for them. The Mages Guild wasn’t particularly interested in the proposal. They considered it a waste of time and resources – but if “Angkor” and “Martin” could afford to use slaves who showed the signs of substantial magical power as simple bearers and crewmen, they could surely afford to assign some to such a potentially-profitable project!

Well, that did sound reasonable enough. It meant that some of the more alert locals might soon connect them with the Amarant Solutions office – which had similar youngsters showing similar powers and power-signs – but that had been bound to happen sooner or later anyway.

Marty figured that Limey was probably chomping at the bit to unleash some lightning – while Kevin figured that it was another opening into the local system! An excellent thing to discuss, even if business arrangements were, as usual, more or less up to Marty…

Marty, not too surprisingly, wanted a few more details – and some information on what the guild was willing to provide in return. They were running a mercantile venture, after all!

It seemed like the amount of magical lightning required was considerable, at least by their estimates. They did know that what they’d tried up to this point had been insufficient to produce more than traces of magical materials. The biggest problem was that the input needed to be fairly constant for a lengthy period of time – requiring a lot more mid-level spells than anyone but the most powerful mages (who usually had better things to do) could supply. In return for their participation they were offering a – fairly reasonable – share in the future profits should the venture prove successful.

Well, there were accounting tricks that could rig a hugely successful operation so that it paid one set of investors but “never really earned any profits” – but there wasn’t a lot of point in trying stunts like that when they could just walk out.

Hm. Limey could help with the experimentation, but for long-term spellcasting they needed some of the thralls with specialities in evocation. Limey’s peak powers were a lot greater, but they could keep it up all day…

Ramal did know that a single sixth-order spell, or a series of first order ones was insufficient for the process. Ergo they’d need a team of three or four Thralls capable of casting 2’nd or 3’rd order spells over and over – possibly with Limey to provide boosts to even higher levels if necessary.

Well, they had a few days before they needed to set sail. Marty sent Limey and Elerra off with Ramal and Kevin dispatched three of the more bored Thralls with evocation from the crew – on the condition that the Guild kept the experiments in strict confidence; it would help keep the price up and avoid sabotage.

Marty directed Elerra to make sure that nobody tried anything untoward with Limey as well. He didn’t really expect anything like that, but he WAS trying to supervise the little guy at least a bit better now.

Meanwhile, the dragon wasn’t doing that well. Most of the people at the market were looking at it as yet another weird mage experiment with creating monsters – and even giving it some money and letting it do it’s own shopping (cautiously, since everyone here had magic) wasn’t changing that much.

Marty gave it a cravat, and Kevin got it a vest and hat. There was no need for it to go around naked!

Blast it! They might have to throw their own party at this rate!