Tuesday, March 31, 2009

[Article] Combat Actions

Around about August time last year I started work on Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea with Jeffrey Talanian. The project is a micro campaign setting that will include a complete set of traditional adventure roleplay game rules designed to be fully compatible with already existing simulacrum games and their precursors. If you have a copy of Knockspell #1, then you have probably already read Charnel Crypt of the Sightless Serpent, an adventure set in Hyperborea. The setting is inspired by the fictional works of such authors as Robert Ervin Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft, to name a few, and the game rules strive to reinforce that sense. A feeling of fast paced and dynamic combat is part of our approach, and so aside from working with rounds of about six seconds, we have also been looking at ways to encourage tactical variability and innovation with regards to the declaration and resolution of both individual and combined character actions. What we have developed as a result is the notion of an open ended combat action subsystem.

Whereas one of the key design elements of D20/3e was the concept of feats, a finite character building resource that typically allowed players access to new or improved combat actions by level, and even more fully prevalent in the powers of D20/4e, a fundamental design aspect of traditional adventure games is the notion that characters should broadly be able to accomplish whatever their historical and literary analogues are attested or imagined to have been capable of. That is not to suggest that fully defined character customisation was an innovation of the D20 system; apart from the scads of other roleplaying games that have taken this approach, the allocation of discrete character building resources can be traced at least as far back as the weapon proficiency slots of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (Player’s Handbook, 1978). In fact, the line of development can be almost directly traced from weapon proficiencies, to non-weapon proficiencies, to specialisation, fighting styles, kits, point based classes, feats, mix and match multi-classing, manoeuvres, and most recently to powers.

The basic premise at the root of this impulse to mechanically define the abilities of otherwise similar characters is a desire to differentiate them from one another in terms of what they can do in combat. The supposition is that this makes individual characters more interesting, and by the same token the combats encounters and adventures they participate in. In reality, what it seems to have done is turned character creation into a sub-game, and largely decreased the variability of action in combat by encouraging players to rely on the specialties and synergies they have advanced during character generation and allocated additional resources to during level advancement. A parallel development to this has been the introduction and integration of critical hits and fumbles into the game. Initially these were a method of increasing the randomness of combat results, and thus of heightening the excitement, but eventually they also became a way of differentiating between the effects of weapon types. None of which, of course, asked players to make much in the way of decisions during combat.

As with play outside of the confines of combat, the key to engaging the interest of the players in a traditional adventure game lies in giving them choices and having them make a decision, often with limited information. At some point it occurred to me that critical hits and fumbles might be more interesting if players chose whether to risk them or not; and with that thought, a floodgate of possibilities seemed to open to me, and I began to think of all combat actions more explicitly in terms of choices, risks, and tradeoffs. For example, perhaps the most basic set of choices are what sort of movement to make on encountering an enemy; charge, advance, stand ground (maybe set to receive a charge or make a ranged attack), fall back, evade, or flee? Each is suitable for a different situation, carries its own risk, and relies to some degree on the player predicting what his opponents will do. However, once in close combat, options tend to become more constricted, and can even become a slog where the only decision is whether to keep fighting or attempt to withdraw.

It is frequently these sort of situations that combat action subsystem has been designed for, though it also applies much more broadly. The basic idea is that when a player declares a non standard action, the game master has the option of allowing for a variable outcome outside of the default rules. This is likely nothing new for experienced game masters, especially those used to playing lighter sorts of roleplaying games, but the purpose is to provide a very basic structure for the less experienced, and by presenting potentially new ideas and possibilities encourage additional development and advancement on the part of the more experienced. The underlying premise is that, given the right conditions, a character sacrifices x to gain y chance of z happening. A typical example might be an attempt by a character of greater fighting ability trying to disarm another of lesser fighting ability. The game master might indicate that the character must give up an attack and roll a 16+ on 1d20 to force his opponent to make a saving throw or drop his weapon.

There are dozens of possible ways to resolve that action, even just establishing the percentage chances involved could have a score or more variations. The conditions are also subjective, so one game master might allow one thing, whilst another would not. Our current intention is to provide a number of example combat actions and leave the rest up to the individual game master to develop, ignore, or ad hoc. The subsystem is entirely optional, and can be used in full, in part, or not at all, depending on the preference of the group. For my part, I think the concept is a strong one, well rooted in traditional play, and with a great deal of unexplored potential, especially with regard to cooperative actions, and differentiating between weapons beyond the typical statistics. That the subsystem only ever need get as complicated as the individual group desires, and can always return to greater level of abstraction I also find very attractive. Whilst the exact form of combat actions in AS&SoH are subject to the vagaries of future development, to further clarify what is intended, I have created a short example pdf of combat actions that are suitable for use with OSRIC or some other similar traditional swords & sorcery adventure game.


Emilio said...


Good Bloog my friend!! Congratulations!!

good luck!! See you!

Chris said...

Good stuff Matthew. Simple and elegant, and with none of the "you don't have the token for that" guff that afflicted combat actions in 3E.

Very yoinkable.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Thanks! As I say, it is an old idea dressed up and emphasised, rather than a true innovation. I first encountered the notion that second edition lacked "combat options" on a D20/3e forum, and was just amazed that people seemed to have read the combat chapter and ignored the spirit of the game!

So, for AS&SoH we are trying to make the idea more comprehensible without sacrificing the open ended way in which such things are supposed to be resolved.

A favourite non sequitur of mine is the question "How many hit points damage does a spike hammered into the head of an elephant do?" (a precaution taken to prevent military elephants from rampaging on the battlefield if control is lost), the answer of course being that it is a death effect, not an attack!

Edsan said...

They look simple and effective. Plus I like the way they are not tied to classes or levels.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Yes, indeed, it is pretty straightforward stuff, which paradoxically sometimes makes it difficult to explain. Whilst none of this need be tied to classes or levels, I should say that it is possible to do so, if the game master feels that such is appropriate (I generally do not).

Dan of Earth said...

I'm very much looking forward to seeing this game!

Solar said...

Another thorough post Matthew. I would argue (in agreement) that developing or being flexible with rules on-the-fly is not just more enjoyable but inherent to the RPG experience. This happens with almost any sort of game, be it a board game or computer game, people will always add 'house rules' or even be flexible to rule interpretation, just to make the outcomes more satisfying for the players involved.

A good GM will usually read a situation and adjust or add rules to make it more engaging or 'fair'. If a GM can compensate for a players desire to perform a well-placed shield bash in a moment, rather than consulting a rulebook or denying the action outright, the whole flow of the role play is preserved and happiness reins.

Some might say balancing such rules is a problem but I'm of the mind that preservation of the context is more important that keeping a stringent rule structure. In fact even having specific rules for additional combat actions is almost too defined for their purpose. The modifier to a shield bash would depend not just on proficiency but the opponent, how tired the player is, the ground underfoot, how much beer they had for breakfast...

The rules for any system just provide the backbone for that system, and one or two broken bones is acceptable if it provides a little flexibility. The great thing about RPGs is they have a GM to take account of this and not just make it fair but actually to inject a sense of interactivity that is beyond mechanical or procedural input-output mechanisms. Thus they graciously leave the player to simply relish the experience, rather than get hung up on a specific point and find themselves taking extra levels in ruleslawer or munchin.

Carl said...

I have always done something similar: rather than just letting my players say "I attack (shake dice, roll dice)..." I have them tell me what they are trying to do with the attack (just get in a good hit anywhere they can, disarm, try to strike the legs, try to strike the arm, etc.) and then I make up a modifier to their attack roll on the fly based on how difficult I think the attack they are trying to pull off is, and I give them a corresponding bonus to damage and/or a special effect (like you spun around the giant and slashed at his hamstring, and now it falls to one knee and continues fighting from this disadvantageous position). This has always worked just fine for me, doesn't slow down gameplay and allows for very interesting commbats. None of my melees resolve themselves in an endless series of mind-numbing dice rolling, they always end up being entertaining affairs that normally finish in dramatic fashion.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Well, I do not think I can say we have "always" done it, but as I say it is an old approach evident in previous works that just seems to have not been taken up (or made full use of) in the majority of cases. So, the point in this is to highlight the idea and encourage people who do not (or would not) to give it a whirl, and serve as a resource for those that already do.

As Solar says, it is a form of interactive flexible play that adds to the game, and often is already evident, whether via house rules or circumstantial rulings.

rredmond said...

Just wanted to say kudos on the wonderful pictures, enjoyed the post as well, but I do like your style sir!

Ryan said...


As an aside, where do you keep your block and parry rules? They are referenced in your advanced armor document but I could not find them.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Ron: We aim to please! :D

Ryan: Good question. I have used something like half a dozen parrying rules over the years. Probably the quickest one is to apply the number as a negative value when a character chooses to use the AD&D parry action (PHB, p. 104). So a character with 16 strength and armed with a long sword would subtract 2 from an opponent's attack roll, whilst a character with 17 strength would subtract 3 (this is obviously analogous to the normal state of affairs when the dexterity modifier and shield bonus is subtracted from the opponent's attack roll).

I have a short article planned to discuss the subject in more depth, but in the meantime you might be interested in this thread:

Alternative Defences.

and this earlier discussion:


Kersus said...

I plugged the blog and home web site here @ http://tripleoakleaf.myfreeforum.org/sutra10010.php

Matthew James Stanham said...

Thanks, Kersus! Very good of you to do that. I shall keep an eye on that thread. :)