Thursday, February 10, 2011

Building a system for a new world, part 1

Earlier in the week, I spit out of lot of things I would like to see in a system that would work for the world I have in mind. The first major problem with a gritty combat system is, well, combat. Hit points just don't really do it, even low numbers of hit points seem wrong for something like that. However, a hit location table top game seems...distinctly terrible to want to play. Getting in combat, while it should be rough, should not be instant murder if a sword glances off a tree limb to catch you unaware. Well, I mean, it might have been in the Real World, but whatever.

I was thinking of a party combat system that might work out alright and give me the answers that I want. So let's talk about what I WANT to happen, and then I will see if I can get on the right track. First things first, I will outline what I WANT to happen in combat, the goals, if you will.

1) Combat should be quick.
2) No numbers should ever reach triple digits.
3) Armor as being representative of mitigation and ablation rather than avoidance.
4) More skirmish style in groups.
5) Magic as a game changer.

This is where I want to start. Before I worry about what numbers are assigned to what, I need to worry about how the system should work overall. I have five overall BIG GOALS. That's not too bad. Why these five things? Speed of game play and pacing. Combat being a big feature can be fun, but there should be more to this game setting than hacking and slashing. Combats might break out with almost no prior warning, and it's important that the person running the game has the option to spontaneously generate and resolve combat in a way that is organic.

Taking a look at the first point outlined: Combat should be quick.
What slows down combat, to me?
1) Action Choices
2) Mathematical Calculations
3) NPCs
4) Chatter precipitated by long combats and players going off topic

Those are the Big Four, if someone was asking my opinion. Four is a direct result of numbers one through three. Three is really a result of complexity with numbers one and two. So that leaves two big issues for combat speed.

1) Action Choices
2) Mathematical Calculations

In 4e, you have five types of actions you can take: Standard, Move, Minor, Free, Opportunity. That's a lot to keep in mind all the time, then you have the problem that all actions are not created equal. Leaders and Defenders often very much desire Minor actions. This leads to the gameplay style of deciding whether or not to call down your actions and forgo something else. Previous editions of DnD didn't have this concept, so something like healing was all you did on your turn. 4e makes healing important, but it makes it a secondary thing that every leader can do, and it's sort of glossed over. Leaders perform other roles, and they also heal. I like that model, healers get to do other stuff. However, healing in combat is something that I don't want. It slows down the pace of combat, and it doesn't fit the way magic works in the world, particularly healing.

Resolved: First step to speeding up combat, no healing in combat. So what do healers do? I will address that later on, it works out for them.

The other big use of Minor actions in 4e is the use of a Marking mechanic for Defenders. This is a "keep hitting me, I'm a tank!" mechanic that sort of makes sense realistically, but sort of doesn't. I like to think it's dedication to attention and the Defender does little things to try and hinder his opponent if he diverts his attention elsewhere. This is all rationalization though, and I know it. The idea of being a guy that takes all the punishment is interesting, but I think it can be supported in other ways. So let's go ahead and get rid of this conceit as well. Minors are used to sustain Magical effects as well. Do we need this? Probably not, but I might come back to it when I talk about Magic later on.

So that means I have effectively removed Minor actions. All of a sudden this looks a lot like 3rd edition, rather than 4e. Well, let's hold on and see what else we can get into. Let's talk about the Move action. Movement in 4e has really irked me, pretty much for ever. You have a couple of styles of movement, and all of them seem woefully underwhelming for my purposes. You can move your speed in squares, you have alternate forms of movement (teleporting, phasing, etc) you can Shift one square, you can Run, you can stand up, you can fall down.

I don't think there is any real reason to re-invent base movement. Redefine it maybe, sure. Let's face it, this game will use miniatures.

So now let's look at shifting and why I think it's just a sad, sad member of the movement family. Shifting is for repositioning, but it doesn't really allow you to reposition in any meaningful way. Some Defenders care about shifting, but most people do not. One square doesn't get you much. You can't avoid getting attacked in this way without then using your Standard action as a Move action, and then only sometimes does that help. It also leads to strange options where charge is king, and having powers you can substitute for charging is the way to go. When things appear that get increased shifts, or powers that allow shifting, it's clear how important movement really is in making combats change their course. Of course, you can just eat opportunity attacks and get somewhere, but is that the ideal way to make combat flow? I firmly believe the answer is no. Movement and use of a battlefield is so important to combat in just about every other medium, why not in a table top game too? On the party level it just falls to the way side a lot, and becomes a slogfest. That is not what I want. I want dirty, horrible urban fights with sprawling countryside skirmishes. I want people to be moving all over the damn place for one reason or the other, and not just because of Fantastic Terrain. How can I achieve this?

1) Shifting is a good start, but it's not enough movement.
2) Too much of this type of movement is not good either, because why would you ever move normally?
3) Adding more types of movement seems to be the answer, and getting rid of some also.

What to drop? Charge probably needs to go. Prone/Getting Up/Squeezing, they all probably don't need to be different. In-place movement. Run? Run can probably stay. Shift becomes different. Alternate forms of movement get simplified. Alternate forms of movement require concentration to sustain so their value in combat goes way down, once combat has started. This refers to magical alternate movement only. Mounted movement just needs to follow a couple of rules that change based on standard movement. Overall, some consolidation, some removal from combat, some outright removal.

Why get rid of charge? It doesn't really work as intended, and it's explanation is poor. In-square movement takes your movement, pretty easy. No real reason to make them all different things. Run giving a penalty to defense and increasing movement is solid. It should probably give a bonus to attack or damage, and serve the role of charge as well, if used this way. That makes things a little more equal. Now shifting, you clever bastard. Shifting should probably be half of the base movement speed, and can be used offensively or defensively. So if you are defensively shifting, you gain a bonus to defense until your next turn, but take a penalty to attack. If you are offensively shifting, you gain a bonus to offense until your next turn, but take a penalty to defense. A balanced shift changes nothing. Now, this make shifting more complex, but I think it adds a lot to the skirmisher feel. More quick movement with pros and cons. It makes things a bit less static, but messing with math can cause problems, so this needs to be looked at when math is covered.

Resolved: No Charge or Run. It's all one thing. Shift becomes better and more important. Little things spread out become In-Square movement. Alternate Movement Methods are primarily out of combat concerns or Full Turn actions, so it matters less and causes less frustration.

Ok, so that takes care of minors and moves. I still have Free actions, Standard actions, and Opportunity actions to cover.

I will quickly cover Free actions and what I am looking for in Opportunity actions before calling it quits. Free actions are probably fine. You can use them whenever you would be able to use them. A better list of what falls under this is needed though, to limit what can be done in a way that makes sense. Without a better sense of everything else though, this waits. Free actions are tricky and deserve more consideration than it seems to warrant at first blush.

In Opportunity actions I am looking for some of the following things:
1) Not slowing down combat
2) Not discouraging movement
3) Doing away with vs. opponent and per-turn styles of opportunity/interrupt actions. This is an area that has been split wide open in 4e and needs some suture to make it a little less ridiculous and more wieldy.

A long rambling tale of ideas, to be sure, but hopefully it's an intriguing start.


  1. As it pertains to "hit points", I was pretty happy with how the Song of Ice and Fire RPG system handled damage. You had a number of health points based on your endurance, and incoming damage was often very severe depending on degrees of success. You could opt to turn some values of the damage you took into Injuries, which created die penalties, and you could in turn make Injuries into Wounds, which removed dice entirely. Too much of any of those (health damage, injuries, or wounds) would kill you. Wounds took the longest to heal, Injuries less so, and health was restored between scenes (bruising and fatigue, mostly).

    Systems that don't use raw HP or something similar tend to degenerate into frustrating death spirals, but the SoI&F was pretty good with giving you control over how fast you spiraled. Maybe that's something to look into.

  2. Did some thinking and came up with some ideas on your qualms with movement. How would you feel about action effectors? That is to say, the type of primary action I take in a round determines what my movement style can be. If I use some kind of defensive maneuver, my movement becomes a full-speed shift, or what have you. This is sometimes built into 4E powers specifically (attack with this thing, also move/shift X squares) but it's more binary than tactical. You would have to figure out how the order in which actions taken affects this sort of thing, but I think you get where I'm going with this.

    Just a thought.

  3. I haven't gotten into how you can move and how you can attack yet. My basic idea is that you take either offensive or defensive actions, and that parcels out your movement, what you can choose, etc. It's a lot like you are suggesting, only the order of operations won't matter quite so much then. Having a balanced approach is something I want to think about, but once I decide how I want combat to really work, that's when it will come about, I am sure.

    The general idea I am thinking of is a combination of Earthdawn, Over the Edge and actually some White Wolf systems for combat. Basically you roll whatever dice, and armor kicks in, then you decide if that is a superficial wound or not by what damage is left. If it's a superficial wound, you pretty much ignore it until it becomes a serious wound. Serious wounds give you penalties or let you perform feats of heroism, depending. Some things, such as magic, defeat armor and then cause actual wounds.

  4. My main concern with dropping Charge is its interaction with 4e's ubiquitous Daze effect. Charging is often the only solution for melee characters when enemies can daze them at range (including reach). Now, these may not be concerns for you for some other reason, such as not having Daze effects, or having another way to move and attack in a single action (as you hint at above).

  5. In 4e, it couldn't really be done, but 4e has so many movement types, and some are just better than others. We all know it. If you have a better movement type, you use it.

    Things that take away actions I'm not very fond of, in general. It's either a huge deal, or a non issue. I think there has to be some way that handles it better, I haven't thought about this yet, because I am filing it under combat.

    The idea is to combine Charge/Run in such a way that makes sense. There is no downside to Charge in 4e if you spec around the Charge, which some can, some can't. Sure, position limits it, but it's weird anyway. Giving up defense for mobility and offense is something that appeals to me, but I want to think about conditional modifiers before saying anything solid yet.

    I am just unhappy with the movement works in most games I have played that use figures. Which led me to my above thinking out loud.

  6. Makes sense to me. I'm definitely intrigued with the option of offensive skirmishing or defensive skirmishing; this is reasonably well in keeping with my experience of LARP-fighting (not that LARP-fighting is realistic, but it's what I know).

    I am, like you, not a fan of stunlocking.