What I want from a combat system

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?

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

6 thoughts to “What I want from a combat system”

  1. Nice. Another point for 1 is too many bonuses for specialised equipment or techniques. If one particular type of attack (say) is significantly more effective than any other, because of the way the character’s built, then there’s a massive incentive to do the same thing over and over. Much better to have a system that rewards inventiveness and variety (if that’s what you want).

    Re 4: I think the idea is that the realism is made up because the bigger guys will do more damage. I’d guess that may be effective for the first few levels? It isn’t once you start getting into magic items etc. though.

  2. It’s so interesting, isn’t it, that roleplaying games tend to have such well-developed combat systems… essentially ensuring that combat is a main component of the progress of the game. Not too surprising I guess given roleplaying’s roots in skirmish war-games, but one wonders if fighting is actually interesting enough to merit the amount of system it’s given in most games. Personally I much prefer something like Over The Edge where it doesn’t get any greater weighting as a means of conflict resolution than any other approach.

    1. That’s a really good point, Matt. I think it reflects the origins of mainstream roleplaying, via D&D, in wargaming. And I too enjoy games that don’t go down that road. But part of me wants the ability to create thrilling fight scenes – we get them in movies and books, not just games, and they can be exciting – and a simple roll-once-and-you’re-done mechanic doesn’t quite cut it[*]. That said, games like Dogs and Hollowpoint, which have a generic system but promoting an evolving conflict, are in the right space, I think. You can probably see how many/most systems without a specialised combat system might struggle to deliver the above criteria, anyway.

      [*] I haven’t played OTE, so that comment might be wide of the mark.

  3. “part of me wants the ability to create thrilling fight scenes – we get them in movies and books, not just games, and they can be exciting – and a simple roll-once-and-you’re-done mechanic doesn’t quite cut it”

    That seems to imply, though, that you are happy for roll-once resolution to simulate other types of thrilling scene? Why need fighting be particularly privileged abover other modes of interaction? (When the game in hand is not a wargame-descended one.)

    1. Mo: no, I think that’s an unwarranted implication. My last article was about intrigue systems, and I think a specialised system can be helpful there too. Trail of Cthulhu / Gumshoe has an excellent specialised investigation system. I think it depends on the game which of these is appropriate – not much point having a specialised investigation system unless the game is reasonably focused on investigation, forex.

  4. “but one wonders if fighting is actually interesting enough to merit the amount of system it’s given in most games”

    I know fighting and I know system, and I say it is interesting enough to merit a system.

    Fighting gets the attention in drama, games, film etc. because
    1. fighting involves win/lose situations with stakes that are interesting to the players, and
    2. the consequences of winning or losing a fight are easily understood (and for rpg, modeled with hit points, etc.)

    Other forms of conflict (social, political, on the sports field, in academic environment) are just as interesting, but they’re less common and I think it’s not for lack of interest but because the consequences are hard to model or make explicit (too big a scale for politics, too abstract for social fencing, etc). I reckon there’s a good appreciation of the need for conflict outside the physical–look back to 1991 and Vampire–but those mechanics are frequently an afterthought, and modeled on the base physical conflict.

    As for OTE it’s a great system but it’s a framework for arbitration, not much more–perfect for the late-90s minimalist gamer, which is probably the play style I identify with the most.

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