So, if it wasn’t apparent already, I’m a system geek. I obsess about rule systems for RPGs. And none more so than the rules for combat.
Combat rules can be anything from “the players and/or GM describe what happens based on what they think would be cool and dramatic” to a sort of hyper-detailed miniature wargame. No matter. There are a list of things that I want to some degree or other from any combat system. Now, I think there’s a separate discussion to be had about whether some of these might be incompatible with each other; that’s for another day.
1. Drama. The whole point of having a separate combat system (as opposed to just using the bog-standard conflict resolution system for your game) is to deliver the suspense and excitement that a fight scene in any book or movie can provide. Will the hero live or die? Unlike most books and films, in an RPG that might be a question that could have more than one answer. The system needs to deliver that sense of drama and risk.
2. Colour and impact. A combat system needs to promote description that is rich and exciting. I want to feel like I’m in a fight. You might think any combat system can do this; it’s just down to whether the players and/or GM can manage to describe things in a sufficiently interesting way. Probably true to an extent – but there’s no doubt that a combat system can kill this off by encouraging a mechanistic “I hit him he hits me back” type dynamic.
3. Tactical depth. Being able to make interesting tactical decisions in combat and have them affect the outcome is an important part of why you bother having a combat system at all. You can do this (and many systems have!) through hyper-detailed battlemaps and oodles of options for special moves, feats and whatnot, or you can do this through a system-light approach where the GM and/or players assess the effectiveness of the tactics chosen and reflect this in the outcome described. The latter poses a risk, of course – I make what I consider a sound tactical judgement and the GM decides it wouldn’t work, for their own inscrutable reasons. Meanwhile the more “crunchy” approach ensures that there’s an agreed framework for making tactical decisions, but risks requiring unmanageable mechanical complexity in order to support a range of possible strategies. There are other ways of introducing tactics, through a kind of system-focused approach (like Dogs in the Vineyard’s see-and-raise approach), but these often lead to a focus on the dice at the expense of the fiction.
4. Realism. Controversial, this. It isn’t strictly necessary, but many of my gripes with commercial systems stem from a perception that they aren’t realistic in some way. Take D&D3e’s rule that smaller characters get a bonus to their hit rolls and a bonus to their armour class. Right: so in any given fight, the smaller fella is going to prevail, on average. Right? Let’s try putting the world’s best featherweight boxer in the ring with a mediocre heavyweight and see what happens, shall we? Of course, realism doesn’t mean you have to be hyper-detailed; there’s an argument that the players and GM are the best arbiters of what they consider realistic, so their own judgement is the best tool for ensuring a combat that has verisimilitude for them, without the need for reality-simulating mechanics.
5. Quick, smooth, easy to understand and reference. This is a basic requirement for any rule system. Systems which address tactical depth and realism best are often so mechanically detailed that they can be impossible for anyone without a maths degree to understand, take forever to look up and require five minutes just to count up the number of dice you have to roll. Needless to say, I do not consider this to be a good thing.
6. Supports a range of outcomes. Far too many systems are all about one party or the other being killed. Yet the majority of fights in real life are fought to subdue, intimidate, prove a point, force the defender to run away, and so on. For example, most RPG combat systems use rules for knockout and grappling which make these approaches very challenging in character (low chance of success) and also hard to handle out of character (mechanically complex). Again, not a good thing. I want it to be as easy for my cop character to cuff a perp as it is for my sniper to blow away a terrorist. Or whatever.
Phew! It’s no wonder I spend so much time thinking about this stuff – those are some challenging criteria. Anything else you look for in a combat system that I’ve missed out?