System Design: Combat and Damage overview.

Combat in roleplaying games is a catch-22 most of the time. Most players fervently desire that their characters be competent in combat situations because the average group of protagonists finds itself in combat, a lot. However, the more cool stuff you purposefully allow for combat, the more complex the beast becomes, and that leads to a great slowdown.

When you work on a system that seeks to replicate exciting combats and takes place in game worlds of high adventure, combat becomes pretty important. It’s no surprise that I spent a lot of time thinking about the flow of combat. How do you allow players to perform cool and unique maneuvers without becoming a pen and paper video game, and how do you keep it fun when there are lots of enemies on the field?

As nobody wants to slog through combat, I’ve tried to prefigure values such as Initiative and Toughness. They are parts of the character sheet, and as they only change when the Attributes they are based upon change, they don’t need to be calculated all the time. The same can be said for the idea of rolled versus static defense. I chose to go with figured TNs for attacks because it again speeds things up. Once I had Defenses for combat values I created ones for the most common mental issues as well.

This solves two potential problems. Player characters shouldn’t be told they are in love with NPC#2 or that NPC Overlord #1 causes them to wet themselves. Forcing emotions and actions on players is a recipe for disgruntled players. So, when I get to the interaction subsystem, we’ll talk more about how I got around that, however having a Defense for avoiding being manipulated and a Defense for avoiding becoming frightened has a few benefits.

First, it again speeds up play. If you demand an opposed roll every time the players are affected by something, you slow the game down. If you make them roll against a TN to avoid the issue instead, you have to either keep track of various combinations of attributes, skills, and esoteric bonuses, or you need to show your hand every single time a PC is the target of a social attack, or there is something scary lurking in the room. However, even with 5 Defenses, it’s a simple matter to record these 5 numbers for each player and keep track of them to speed things along. And to be fair, you only really need to keep track of 2 of them if you’re worried about tipping your hand during a tense scene.

Second, it gives an actual number that the players can’t really complain about as their resistance. If they want to be better at resisting social attacks or fear, maybe they should bolster their defense directly or indirectly? Still, I know that some players don’t trust static numbers for defense, so players always have the option to use an action to actively defend against one of the five static defense areas. Now, on to dealing damage.

I had originally come up with a damage and wound system that turned potential damage into wounds without using dice again. It used a pair of simple math comparisons, and was slightly gritty in the sweet spot most players and enemies would reside in, but then I remembered that players like to roll dice. Now, each weapon is in a lethality class and that determines how many dice are rolled. I still wanted a system where damage might not become wounds. Wounds should be bad. They indicate a change in status that makes it harder to succeed at all tasks. Also wounds indicate lethal force was used and consequently demand recovery time. It’s the best way in my opinion to insert some grit in an otherwise fully cinematic experience.

The true gem of the damage system however is that weapons deal damage, not wounds. Characters acquire wounds when they are forced to convert it because they have more damage than they have Toughness. So, you can take and not worry about as much damage as you have Toughness, and when you take too much, you subtract your Toughness in damage and add 1 Wound. Characters are limited to having a certain number of Wounds as well, but what matters is that it isn’t as simple as a Hits vs Health system, most of which quickly get out of scale for the genres they emulate, nor is it left to chance like a system with soak rolls built in. If you take damage, it either gets dealt with before it becomes a problem, or it becomes a wound. It happens at a predictable point, and the player has an opportunity to lower damage before it becomes a first, or second or third wound.

About Byron D. Molix

I am an information technology professional in Missouri. I've been an avid fan of fantasy and science fiction novels, comic books, pen and paper role-playing games, computer games and console video games for the last two decades. My dream would be to one day make a comfortable living while having the time to pursue writing (novels, rpgs, etc.) as a full-time hobby.

Posted on June 15, 2012, in Editorial, Gaming and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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