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.