(This is the eighteenth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
So let’s talk about combat.
If you open any RPG core rulebook, odds are pretty good there’s an entire chapter devoted to combat. This is probably a consequence of history: D&D had its origins in war-gaming, which meant that in its earliest incarnations — and to a large extent the later ones — the primary purpose of the D&D system was to help you kill monsters and take their stuff (which then helped you kill bigger monsters and take more stuff). It took a while for RPGs to start caring about things other than combat. And while you have games now, particularly from indie developers, that feature no rules for fighting at all . . . the truth is that many RPGs still assume you’ll want to hit somebody eventually, and that you’ll need fairly detailed mechanics for doing so.
How detailed? At a minimum, most systems mechanize the following aspects:
1) What order everyone attacks in
2) How often you can attack
3) How well you attack
4) How well your target defends
5) How much damage you do when you hit.
But within and between these questions, there is a lot of room for variation. For example, what does “defense” consist of? Can you choose to defend yourself extra carefully? Can you take cover? Is your defense reduced if you’ve done other things this round? Are there rules for armor? Does armor make the target harder to hit, or does it just “soak” some of the damage? Are there ways to soak damage without armor? How many of the answers to these questions involve making additional dice rolls, vs. static values you just apply automatically?
Or how about the attacking side of things? Can you sacrifice defense to get a better attack? Do you just hit your opponent in an undifferentiated fashion, or does the system pay attention to where you hit them? Are there ways to hit extra hard, and if so, what penalty do you take in exchange for doing more damage? If you’re wounded, does that affect how well you fight? Is it possible to “bleed out,” or will you just stay injured until somebody heals you?
The answers to these questions can get super crunch-tastic — “crunch” being a descriptor of complex mechanics. But the more complex they get, the slower a fight actually proceeds; if you roll your defense against every attack instead of just comparing the attacker’s roll to a static value, then that’s two people having to do math for every attack instead of only one. (And if you play with people who are actually efficient about rolling at the same time and doing their arithmetic quickly, well, you play with a group of unicorns.) It may be more realistic to pay attention to hit locations and what happens when you lose the use of a leg vs. an arm — but does the effort of tracking that really pay off with a richer experience?
That’s a trick question, because the answer will vary from player to player. Some people love systems that simulate combat in a very realistic and detailed manner, and rip their hair out when presented with a game that abstracts it all to a fare-the-well. Other people find the crunch deadly dull, and would rather just toss it all off with a couple of rolls and some cool description. Neither approach is “wrong;” it’s just a question of what you enjoy, combined with what actually works well. Just because a system is detailed or simplified doesn’t make it well-designed, and pretty much any approach to design has its flaws.
In my experience, the fundamental challenge of combat is keeping it from getting . . . kind of boring, really. This strip (from the webcomic DM of the Rings, whose conceit is “what if Lord of the Rings was a stereotypical D&D game?”) shows one of the major problems: when you have to roll for almost every single action your character takes, and the scene is proceeding in six-second increments of in-character time, it winds up sounding more like a bingo game than a thrilling fight. (There’s another strip from that comic, which I wasn’t able to find easily with a search, which also shows how much preparatory administrivia can wind up happening before you ever start the fight. Really, if you want to know what a typical hack-and-slash RPG looks like, you could do worse than to read that entire webcomic.) Time telescopes appallingly in a combat scene: you can literally spend two hours covering less than two minutes of action.
So how do you keep it exciting? Again, there’s no single answer, because it depends on what people find “exciting.” For some players, those bingo numbers are great! You never know when somebody will roll a critical hit, or suddenly get knocked down to their last hit point! For others, exciting combat means getting to describe flashy stunts, and to hell with the seventeen rolls you really ought to make in order to pull free of the henchman’s grip, steal his sword, leap from the balcony onto a chandelier, and ride it down to land in front of the villain and spear him through the heart. Everybody has different things they get hung up on; I mostly don’t care about really accurate simulation, but it annoys the snot out of me that the most recent edition of Legend of the Five Rings groups nunchaku and tonfa under “staves,” apparently on the principle that all sticks of wood get used the same way. (There ought to be a “bludgeons” category of weapons/skill for using same, grumble mutter grump.)
But I do think there is one principle of good combat that can be held as more or less universal: know the system.
When I played in a long-running Changeling LARP, some of the more crunch-inclined players kept looking for ways to improve the mechanics so that fights would be less tedious. Now, I won’t say they were wrong to look for design solutions; the Mind’s Eye Theatre system is kind of terrible, and never more so than when it comes to fights. But fundamentally, the real problem with most combat scenes in that game wasn’t the mechanics; it was the players. It was all the people who didn’t think about what they were going to do on their turn until the GM asked them to declare their action, all the people who forgot what was on their character sheet and how the mechanics for those abilities worked. We lost endless amounts of time to “wait, can I retest with Athletics?” and “how do I do a called shot, again?” and “does that cantrip count as chimerical or wyrd?”
If you want a good fight in an RPG, you have to learn the rules — the same as with any other game. You need the mechanics to be handled as quickly and unobtrusively as possible, so they don’t distract from the thing they’re supposed to represent. That requires good design . . . but also good play. One without the other will only get you so far.
Share your feelings on combat in the comments! Do you love it or hate it? Where do your priorities lie, when it comes to the crunch? How do you make combat exciting in your games?