The combat system is at the heart of classical D&D, which is something that is actually a bit annoying for me. The core content of adventuring never was violence for me, so the relentless focus on fighting strikes me as a bit dull and wrong-headed. Thinking back, this is the main reason for why I preferred systems like Runequest or MERP to D&D during the ’90s as well: while those systems as games are just as violence-focused, the basics of character depiction, which is the kind of surface feature a teenager will get obsessed about, strived for more of a balance in depicting the life of a fantasy adventurer.
Regardless, combat needs resolving, and I want to resolve it in ways that both synch well with other means of conflict resolution and allows interesting combat-specific tactical options. I also want to move away from the unrealistic and dull initiative systems of old, which requires a system pretty different from D&D.
Basics of initiative
I’ve been annoyed by modern D&D initiative for a long while. At first it was because it doesn’t really do much with low-level characters, while later on, when I took a hard look at the whole myth structure of modern nerd fantasy, I’ve been increasingly bothered by the dull lack of realism in it all: fighters go off like clockwork, each striking in turn, going for ages until one of them winds down. This has little resemblance with real fighting initiative and could stand to be upgraded.
One option would be to go back to the initiative systems of earlier editions, which are pretty good for what they’re trying to do, but I want to be more ambitious, really; initiative should be the decisive factor in a fight, not a formality. It should allow for interrupts and feints, misinformation and pressing for advantage, in ways that ultimately disrupt the fighting capability of the enemy (OODA loops are a definite inspiration here); this is a far cry from the current way combats in D&D tradition go, as pretty much the only way to disrupt opponents is with spell-casting.
A more general issue with D&D combat is the routine-like way they are conducted in regards to character safety. As the discerning reader probably already guesses, I want more danger and unpredictability at all levels, but also more player control at combat initiation. Combat should be preferred only as a last resort, and it should be undertaken only with accumulated advantages in terms of initiative and preparation.
When characters go into combat, they will roll an initiative check:
Wits + skill + d20
A surprised character goes with wits+skill only, while a prepared character goes with Wits + skill + 20. A surprise situation (really common in D&D, with the current version having a set of separate rules for conducting surprise rounds) is really just one side having a lot higher initiative score than the other. The initiative score represents mental preparedness, planning and immediate willingness to act upon the face of danger; a character with high initiative knows what he’s doing and probably also what he will do next, while a character at a low count is disoriented, overwhelmed or otherwise uncomposed.
The initiative score is then used to conduct combat maneuvers by the characters. Any character may declare a combat action, but any character with a higher current initiative may also declare to interrupt the stated intent. If nobody is outright willing to declare a maneuver (perhaps to avoid being interrupted), the players declare a pass in reverse initiative order and new initiatives are rolled. If nobody interrupts a maneuver it will happen, but another character might still block it, even if he has a lesser initiative.
The trick here is that declared maneuvers decrease initiative count as the character focuses on executing his task. A typical aggressive maneuver might cost ten points or so (with the average initiative of a non-combatant being around 20). Thus the character with the higher initiative will be able to act more, interrupt more and also block the other characters more efficiently, even if not all at the same time.
Meanwhile, an interrupted maneuver still costs full initiative points whether it is successfully interrupted or not, while blocking a maneuver is somewhat cheaper than executing it, although not necessarily successful; I’m trying to both create a sensible rules system for simple combat, as well as keep to a pretty realistic and sensible image of how fighting happens in reality.
Going forward, initiative 0 represents the moment when the character really should take a beat off from the fight to readjust his perception and catch his breath. I’m going by movie logic here: fighting rounds are when swords clash, but at some point the characters will pause enough to throw in an occasional witty phrase before attacking each other again. However, characters won’t necessarily get the opportunity to stop at zero initiative when other characters attack them and they need to react, so various penalties might accrue:
|I>Wits||Wits added to the next round’s score.|
|Wits>I>-Wits||Initiative added to the next round’s score.|
|0>I||The character may only react, not act.|
|-Wits>I||Character loses Wits and skill from next round’s initiative.|
In other words, a character may efficiently end the round with initiative points still left, or with negative points, but the difference follows him to the next round. A character who falls appropriately low in initiative points gets confused and loses most of their initiative for next round. The exact limits are up in the air, but something along the lines of the above table should work well enough.
A big open question is whether character class should contribute to the initiative count. Initiative is perhaps the most powerful individual combat bonus in this system, so if a character gets both an initiative bonus and bonuses to his combat checks from martial character classes, that compounds the benefits of martial training pretty strongly. Not that I’m too bothered about that, mind; if the game makes martial adepts overwhelming in combat, well, that’s not the most insane proposition ever. Either all characters need to be martial adepts (like the excellent RuneSlayers has it), or combat needs to be a specialized solution preferably avoided.
The actual combat checks will be normal, opposed Body + skill + d20 checks, I’d imagine. The most typical check would be an attack against a block, with the higher-initiative character doing the attacking and the lower-initiative one trying to stay in one piece long enough for the round to end. The results of blows would likely be determined from the difference of the rolls, in 5-point steps. More about the injury system later, but basically one good blow of 10+ points of difference should end a particular fight.
I’m a bit annoyed that the initiative system here differentiates the fight on such a detailed level that I do, indeed, need to have separate attack and defense rolls instead of just having characters roll against each other and the better roll injuring the worse one, which would be both simpler and, on a certain level, more realistic (as combat advantage translates to opponent injury in pretty short order). I can’t figure out how to do simultaneous attack rolls after figuring out such an intricate initiative system, though, so I guess I’ll have to stand for this for now.
Oh, and movement: instead of a grid I’d probably go with initiative count distances: characters can move to attack/aid distances of each other by paying initiative points during rounds (a couple of points in most cases, I’d imagine), and that’s that. Not much need for flanking or facing rules to my mind, except insofar as they come up as maneuvers in combat; I could imagine paying some initiative, making a movement check and putting an opponent to flank, that kind of thing. Makes much more sense than opponents who just stand around waiting for me to flank, instead of actively maneuvering for position.
Some of the action in combat happens between rounds, because a “round” is defined here as a fast, fevered exhange of blows during which the fighters have no time for anything except the exhange of blows and maneuvering for position. So things like perception checks, talking, switching weapons, maneuvering for position, spellcasting and so on mostly happen “between rounds”. Probably there’d also be some method for forcing a new round to start by charging or delaying it by backing off from the enemy and so on. Also probably a larger skirmish would consist of several separate fights, wherever the distance between individual combats was so much as to not be assailable within a round. Some simple rules for joining a round halfway through and so on are pretty much all that’s needed here.
Combat in context
An important point to all this is that while I like making a detailed combat system that gives a blow-by-blow account of combat, it’s also pretty obvious that I’ll want simpler and faster alternatives for all those various situations that don’t warrant such focus. Lessons from TSoY and other such games are well-received in that regard.