Monday, July 4, 2016

Round One - FIGHT!

Hello internet, and welcome to Barking Alien for July, 2016!

A Happy Canada Day (July 1st) to my viewers up North, and a Happy Independence Day (July 4th) to those of you in the United States of America!

For July I'm lifting my self-imposed ban on discussing Sci-Fi, and Supers, opening the floodgates for talking about pretty much anything. Also, going to try for more, shorter posts this month. No guarantees, or promises, but that's the goal.

This post for example is about Combat.

I don't really have a definitive point to make, or even an objective with this post beyond, 'Here's how I feel about Combat in RPGs. Let's talk about it.'

Let's begin by pointing out the 800 pound gorilla in the room...

Minus all that power armor of course.

...Most RPGs have a heavy focus on combat.

No groundbreaking observation there, but it deserves to be mentioned at the start of this for the sole purpose of setting the tone for the rest of the post. This is a truism, a point of fact. Like science, and unlike belief, it can not be unproven, argued with, or denied.

Is it the focus of all RPGs? No.

Is it the focus of every campaign in RPGs where combat is normally a major factor? No.

Must it be the focus of our hobby by the very nature of both RPGs and combat? we be getting all philosophical up in here.

Now, what exactly do I mean by that last statement? Well, let's break it down shall we?

RPGs are largely improvisational storytelling with rules, geared toward action/adventure themes. RPGs about getting a job as an assistant copyright lawyer for a small, text book publishing house, however exciting you may feel that is, have just never caught on.

RPGs are descended from war games. They are about warriors, soldiers, mercenaries, and other fighting types going to battle against others of their kind, or other combat oriented opponents such as monsters, aliens, robots, or whathaveyou. Even when playing a thief, or a wizard, majors concerns are given to combat effectiveness in the form of special 'sneak attack' abilities, or damage causing spells.

With these conceits established, and for the purposes of this post (at the very least) accepted, I can finally get into the arena of opinion.

If combat is a central (if not essential) element of RPGs, why the heck is it so damn complex, and boring most of the time?

Oh no you didn't.

That's right, I said it. You heard me. Boring.

The majority of RPG systems out there make combat far too mechanical. What do I mean? I mean that it is reliant on rules, and the roles of dice, and not on any real input from the player, or even the GM in many cases.

Did you come up with a truly creative tactic, a 'smart move' as we're want to say? Does it matter? Isn't it just a plus one here, or an additional die added to your pool there? What influence does your creativity really have on combat?

After coming up with a brilliant battle plan, you get a +1 or +2 from some feat or other, and you still fail the roll, meaning all that planning was meaningless. Sure, that random element of rolling the dice can be part of the excitement, but I've often ended up feeling (and seeing players who feel) like they were just brilliant for nothing. The creativity of the player/PC is not nearly as effective in a fight as having the best stats, or the 'right build' (*puke*).

Even more importantly, what does it feel like?

One of the things that turned me off to Margret Weis Productions Marvel Heroic game over time was the feeling that a bunch of dice were being rolled against a bunch of other dice, with no real thought, or emotion invested in what it all meant in game. It was just a collection of numbers being assembled against other numbers. Was that a roundhouse punch, or an energy blast? Is there a difference? Combat in that game (and in many others), which is a huge part of each session because of the genre (Superheroes) feels so abstract it might as well not include saying anything. Just roll, compare, and note stress damage, or who won.

What can we do about this?

Well, I've discussed before how the GM can jazz up the in-game descriptions, and even conditions to some extent, but I don't know if that's enough. Does that fundamentally make the activity of getting to, and partaking in combat sequences more exciting?

The fundamental issue for me really does come down to mechanics for the most part. The most exciting, memorable battles I'm been in as a player, and ran as a GM were largely despite the mechanics, not because of them. It was the GM, not the game, that injected some amazing description, or made a rule on the fly to explain how the participants of the conflict, and the objects, and terrain around them were effected.

That's how it should be right? Sure...but then why do we have so many pages of rules in so many games dedicated to combat when the best part of it is coming from the players, and GMs. All a thousand combat options seems to do is slow down combat.

What's the alternative? Am I advocating we all just wing it? Should combat be purely narrative? Well, no...I don't think it works to have it be all narrative. What's to stop the PCs, or the GM from just doing whatever they want all the time. There has to be some rules, right?

I discussed this subject with a friend today, and although we didn't get to address it at length, it was interesting to note that his first words when I said, "Do you sometimes feel like combat in RPGs is..."

"Dull?" he replied.

Yeah. Dull, and sometimes tedious.

If combat is going to be such a big part of what we do, how do we make it continually interesting, without resorting to a purely narrative approach?

Any ideas?

Barking Alien


  1. About MHR: what I found likable about the game was the theory behind the mechanic. Why is my PC getting an extra die, or a larger one? Because he's paired up with someone and he works better in pairs than on his own. Because what is happening in the moment really speaks to one of his defining personality traits. Because his opponent is emotionally upset and that makes it easier to clock him. Because of this trait in the environment. Because (after a plot point) he's doing this stunt. It's only at the end is it about skills and powers. So all these cool storytelling "from the player" contributions in theory make the combat event go better.
    What I didn't like was that all of those previous things had the same net effect, namely either another die or a higher one. So a lot of environmental factors all were reduced pretty significantly.

    The thing about having so many detailed, and often tiresome, rules for combat is I think a symptom of a desire for a uniformity across gaming tables, and not putting so much say in the hands of the GM. The move away from arbitrary game mastering and instead having everything laid out has been going on for some time, and I suspect might be an implicit distrust of how GM's run games, either on the part of players, game designers, or both.

    1. Addressing MHR - I agree with the sentiment here in theory, but in practice that's not what I've experienced. More, and more it's, "And I add a die for, um, oh I have 'A Heart of Gold', and another for 'Tech Expert'..." without any role-playing or even an explanation for how having a Heart of Gold applies, or what Tech Expertise is actually being put into play.

      It should be cool storytelling from the player, but it ends up being excuse to add a die, excuse to add a die. As one player said, "I mean, I can add a die. Nothing is stopping me. Why shouldn't I do it?" >_<

      On to the issue of overly detailed combat rules due to, perhaps, distrust of GMs, I would think that to do a terrible disservice to the hobby on the part of game designers.

      Instead of trying to idiot-proof your games, why not teach the GMs running it how not to be idiots? For an example, read pretty much any West End Games RPG, especially Star Wars D6.

    2. I'm with you on tedious combat in general but I'm losing the path on this specific game because MHR seems to be exactly what you're asking for: Heavily player-narrative driven with a definite effect on the fight. This:

      "More, and more it's, "And I add a die for, um, oh I have 'A Heart of Gold', and another for 'Tech Expert'..." without any role-playing or even an explanation"

      ...sounds like a problem with the players not the system. When I'm running that game I expect a decent level of RP and explanation on why something is being included. Why is "Tech Expert" relevant here? Not just "'cause it's Tech" - what are you doing as say Iron Man the Tech Expert to justify it being included? This seems _especially_ important and particularly easy because you probably know whatever hero you're playing pretty well, well enough to put some effort into it, and if you don't why are you playing that character?! I've seen devices patched together and used on the fly and the environment used even more than in our other supers games to inflict complications on bad guys - and good guys too - because you don't need a bunch of specific mechanics to do it.

      Plus that approach gets rid of the tactical maps, gear-heavy focus, and d20 feat-type mechanics that get players focused on the mechanics instead of the action. I really thought that was a system you would like and I'm a little surprised it melted into a bunch of numbers for you.

    3. "...sounds like a problem with the players not the system"

      Possibly, but I played with a multiple groups, especially online, and at conventions, where the narrative story elements fade by the third combat and it just becomes faceless die pool vs, faceless die pool.

      I thought I was going to like it too, and I did in the beginning. I've run some great one-shots and short campaigns with it. Sadly though, what should encourage story-driven fights doesn't seem to do that after a bit.

      And that right there is what I want - Story-driven Combat. I'm just not certain how to achieve it in full just yet.

  2. @ BA:

    The unfortunate thing (IMO) is that the attention paid to a combat system (with regard to page count devoted to system/mechanics) ends up emphasizing this single aspect of role-playing to the exclusion of other aspects. I can think of two possible ideas to de-emphasize the "game within a game" of combat, neither one of which has been extensively explored in the hobby:

    A) Treat combat no different from any other task-related system in a game. You can see the toe-dip of this in games like Pendragon (though only with regard to mass battle) and Christopher Aldridge's Maelstrom/Story Engine. It might look like a simple skill called "combat;" a single roll determines the outcome of battle (just like climbing a cliff face or repairing a vehicle, etc.). If you need to mark off hit points or life points, etc. you can create a granular resolution system (with varying degrees of success) or simply assign random damage based on the success/failure of binary check. Don't make combat any more important than any other abstract task!

    B) Do away with "narration" and base specific, concrete results purely on random tables. This could be as simple as a single table of results, or multiple tables for various aspects of battle (the "salad bar" approach: roll once on 'damage received,' once on 'damage inflicted,' once on 'complications,' etc.). Die rolls might be modified by character aspects (higher rolls are better and more skilled characters receiving a bonus), or tables may be chosen based on player tactic ("aggressive" or "defensive stance") or weapon used (see DragonQuest crit tables) or both (see The Riddle of Steel).

    Regardless, it's possible to take away the round-by-round, blow-by-blow decision making combats that infest most RPGs. Most people just aren't willing (or able) to think outside the box.
    ; )

    1. Back @ you JB -

      I'm a little bit confused by your response. I'm pretty sure I'm not completely understanding you, or it is possible you didn't quite get what I was saying.

      While I don't disagree (at all) that most RPGs emphasize Combat over other interactions, my post wasn't really about de-emphasizing it. That is, I'm not talking about having less combat. Have as much, or as little as you like. The subject of this post is how can you make Combat more interesting, and less tediously bogged down by a heap of rules that think they're helping when they're not.

      To that end...

      "A) Treat combat no different from any other task-related system in a game."

      I'm not sure what game you mean here. Almost all the games I play (except for maybe Champions, and a few others) treat Combat the same way as everything else. On a basic level that is. If it's Stat + Skill + Die-Roll to determine whether or not you fix a robot, it's also Stat + Skill + Die-Roll to find out if you hit someone. THEN you add all the clutter of other stuff - the modifiers, special maneuvers, damage, and all sorts of ifs, and, and buts. Is that what you meant?

      It would be so much cooler, and more fun if you could describe the effect you wanted - I want to immobilize this guy, but not hurt him by pinning him down. I want to send him through the window so it takes him some time to get back into the fight. I want to blast the gun out of his hand. I want to leap over the counter to kick her with both feet doing extra damage - then there was some mechanic that let you translate that into making it happen.

      Which brings me to...

      B) Do away with "narration" and base specific, concrete results purely on random tables. This could be as simple as a single table of results, or multiple tables for various aspects of battle (the "salad bar" approach: roll once on 'damage received,' once on 'damage inflicted,' once on 'complications,' etc.).

      Right, that's the OPPOSITE of what I want to do. I mentioned in my post that "The most exciting, memorable battles I'm been in as a player, and ran as a GM were largely despite the mechanics, not because of them", and "It was the GM, not the game, that injected some amazing description, or made a rule on the fly to explain how the participants of the conflict, and the objects, and terrain around them were effected."

      What I'm saying is, what the players and GMs said were waaay more interesting then anything the rules did, or could do. I didn't want to advocate no rules for combat, or an entirely narrative approach, but maybe that's what it should be. Perhaps there is some middle ground that designers have yet to utilize because they are either creating old style combat, or hippy-trippy new games with none.

      As you say, it's time we think outside the box, but don't get rid of the box completely. We need something to stand on.

    2. @ Adam:

      Ha! I wasn't deliberately misinterpreting what you wrote, I just emphasized the wrong aspects of your complaints (combat is dull, boring, overly mechanical, etc....however, you want SOME rules rather than an all-narrative system).

      My own response was, thus, off-subject, not to mention colored by some of my own recent thoughts of late (and by "of late" I mean "the last 5 to 10 years"). ALSO, due to space constraints, it's probably a little bit of an amorphous mash that could stand to be fleshed out on my own blog.
      ; )

      RE: "A"

      Combat systems, even when derived from a game's basic task-resolution system (think World of Darkness, Shadowrun, Chaosium, etc.) tend to be far more complex, elaborate derivatives of the base mechanic. In VTM I want to swim across a raging river...I'm required to make a STR+Athletics roll (or similar). But if I want to kill an opponent? I need to make a PER+Awareness for initiative, check how that interacts with the opponent (and other combatants) decide the exact type of attack for a single action (to determine the particular ability+skill) possibly modified by tactic/weapon (different target numbers equating to different advantages with regard to damage inflicted LATER), than figure defense, damage, soak, all possibly modified by other sub-systems (disciplines, blood expenditure, etc.)...before finally (hopefully) marking off health levels.

      Then you go to Round 2.

      If extended sequences and systems are boring or dull, one COULD cut them down to a system as easy as the simple "swim the raging river" check. There's still inherent danger, etc. It just doesn't need to be drawn out.

    3. Hmmm. Already your description of combat in VTM had me snoozing. LOL. I'm teasing, but I am also serious when I say I feel like that kind of description somehow drains the excitement out of combat for me.

      A lot of those elements should occur 'behind-the-scenes' as it were. It would explain why I, and players I've had, feel like Champions combat is really fast, and smooth while my buddy Lowell Francis thinks I'm crazy to say that. The GM who taught me Champions, and I after him, handle a lot of the logistics 'off the table', so the players see, or have to deal with the tedious inner workings that make a Champions battle happen.

      As for Round may have something there.

    4. @ AD:

      By no means is WoD alone in this...and of course it all becomes easier/quicker with practice. However, GM doing work behind the scenes is just says (to me) "game to hard/boring for players to bother learning rules themselves."

      I've never played Champions, though I've known folks who swear by it. I picked up my copy (4E) a little late in life...after the birth of my first child. As a result I've never even been able to finish reading it, falling asleep every time I've tried. Now THAT's a snooze!
      ; )

  3. @ JB:

    "game too hard/boring for players to bother learning rules themselves."

    And therein lies a major different between myself, and most gamers.

    As a player, my interest in learning the rules is minimal. I get no kick at all from mastering the mechanics, that's a GM's job (Although as a GM I usually master, then heavily edit). I'm not getting every appropriate splat book so I have the 'best feats' for the 'perfect build'. That crap makes me nauseous.

    If there are rules lawyers in the hobby, consider me a rules activist, rebel, or even a rules hippie.

    My enjoyment as a player (a role I don't normally like all that much) comes from the character portrayals, the daring do, exploring and learning about the setting, and participating in the story.

    Rules are there for the same reason the floor is, to provide support beneath it all, but go largely unnoticed.

    In combat, the rules of most games are really in your face. It's when you becomes most aware of the mechanics of the game. I wish there was a way to either minimize that, or make that experience more fun so I don't mind it as much.