Fantasy Adventure #3: Combat system basics

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.

Initiating combat

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:

Initiative=I Next round
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.

Combat maneuvers

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.

Between rounds

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.


8 Responses to “Fantasy Adventure #3: Combat system basics”

  1. Johannes Kellomäki Says:

    We two don’t seem to get over adventure gaming. I’m too working on a DnD-done-right. You’ve done nice work but I would reconsider the initiative rules. My experience with action point systems like yours has been rather irritating: there is too much bookkeeping which slows the game down and therefore disturbs the hectic feeling which is IMO something you should have in a combat scene.

    I understand that the main feature of your initiative rules is that they allow interception of opponent’s actions, making combat more dynamic. Could you achieve the same effect with rules (something like ORE) where initiative is decided with the same roll as success. Just somehow make interrupting maneuvers faster than other maneuvers.

    In my heartbraker DnD the success roll is d10+ability over target number (AC or something). Everybody declares their actions before rolling (NPCs first and the protagonists second) and then everybody rolls at the same time. The initiative is determined by the numbers on the rolled dice: action with lowest succesfull roll happens first and so on. Damage and other consequences are handled before the next action. This allows for more skilled characters to have better initiative.

    Just toying with ideas, I guess.

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    I see your goal there, Johannes. Simplicity in combat system is a very fine and commonly sought goal in D&D re-tooling, and one that is sorely needed by the current game. My own preferences in this regard run very close to the original retooling, Tunnels & Trolls: the systemic simplicity of combining attack and defense into one roll, while also combining striking and damage, is very satisfactory and much more off-hand realistic than the classical D&D THAC0 model.

    However, that simplicity is also not quite what I’m going for here, as I want the system to have lots of hooks for mechanical character powers, like 3rd edition does; the combat system that uses the initiative system I describe here is not the primary vehicle for tense action scenes in the game, I might say. Instead, I’m going to layer systems like The Shadow of Yesterday does: basic, simple and fast conflicts will be ran with simple ability checks, while the full duelling system will be cracked out as a tactical consideration: different character classes gain the ability to invoke a combat resolution in different situations and in different manners: ultimately, the greatest difference between combat and non-combat classes is that the latter won’t even utilize the combat system, which is only reserved for the “professionals”.

    Anyway, the way I envision playing my initiative system is with simple poker chip piles. In my experience they make the necessary bookkeeping rather simple, as you can just have a pile of chips you use to pay for actions, and that’s that. I’ll trust that this won’t be too bothersome in a system where combat will only figure once per session or so.

    All that being said, I also adore the way Sorcerer does initiative, which is pretty much the perfect application of the idea you present in your post. In the Sorcerer system players all declare their actions before the rolls, and the best roll actually determines who gets to act first. Any other players have the choice to abort to block or to continue with their own action, so the system allows for complex combinations of interruptions, blocks, pre-emptive action and all that stuff without any discernible increase in dice-handling complexity. The way you do it is also very nice, mind, and I want to see a full system built around that core.

    The way I’m going about my tool-box D&D is to add all kinds of different systems for different needs, so I could well imagine having a separate kind of combat system for different fictional situations, just so I get to use all these nice and juicy mechanical ideas in different parts of the game. Abundance is where it’s at!

  3. Eero Laine Says:

    My experience is that complex initiative systems are very complicated and laborious to use. For a little time I used a system where actions were announced before the round, in reverse initiative order. It gave little advantage for those with best initiative, but the difference was minimal compared to the additional time spent. There are a few systems that use multiple actions for round, but they only come out as unbalanced, uncinematic and unrealistic at the same time. In combat a character able to attack twice in a round is usually twice as capable as “normal” character.

    If you save your initiative system just for duels it might work well, but when there are multiple opponents running around it may be harder to keep things rolling smoothly. Using poker chips sounds like a great tool, though.

    Watch out for initiative becoming a super-skill able to affect heavily on all the other skills. Thinking in crap fantasy terms, it should be able to create a slow-moving, low-initiative Dwarf who still is very dangerous.

  4. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Your warnings are well-received, Eero, I hope to be able to write a bit at some point about the particular ways I’m hoping to use to avoid the pit-falls you mention.

    The way I want my system here to work is that Initiative is, indeed, of superior importance for fighters. Notice that Initiative in this system is not “speed” in the sense of roleplaying fiction, where a character is somehow faster to act than his opponent. Rather, it’s the ability and courage to compose oneself enough to take decisive action, in which sense I want it to be common between all good fighters, whether “slow and strong” or “quick and nimble” (the primary reason I left out Dexterity as a physical stat was that I didn’t appreciate this particular differentiation on the rules level, note). Note that the components of the Initiative check are not very min-maxable at all:
    – Wits, the Ability, differs only a couple of points between most characters. A five-point difference is enormous in 3d6 distribution.
    – All martial characters develop equally fast in the “skill component” of Initiative, as per how I’ve described skills to work here. Consequently the only way to have a higher skill bonus to Initiative is pretty much to have a higher character level.
    – The die roll is perhaps the largest determinant in an individual’s Initiative, which is as I like it here. If the typical attack action requires ten points of Initiative or so, it’s a pretty rare situation where equally skilled characters gain a major advantage on the first round.

    The way I want the fighting system to go is that the mere rolling of Initiative will pretty much determine who will be the attacker and who will be the defender in a round of combat: the higher Initiative character is able to predict and interrupt his opponent as long as the higher Initiative lasts, while the opponent has to content himself with blocking and doing other actions that cannot be interrupted, or are themselves reactions to interruptions (these are all categories of detail I’ll be figuring out at some point). As attack actions are slightly more expensive than blocks, I’m seeing the following general “arcs” of activity for a single round in this Initiative system:
    – My character gets superior Initiative and is thus able to be the attacker for the full round, perhaps even driving the opponent to below-zero Initiative, giving him an edge for the next round.
    – My character gets inferior Initiative and is thus forced to mostly react to what the opponent does, unless he wants to risk trying some hasty attack maneuvers. He should preserve his Initiative, though, and try to make the most of cheap Initiative actions, so as to balance the Initiative count.
    – The Initiatives are close enough to each other that the offensive opportunity passes from one to the other by the virtue of the Initiative costs of each maneuver. If attacking costs 10 points, say, and blocking costs 7, then this would be the result when the Initial Initiatives are at most three points apart.

    Anyway, all this is subject to playtesting, of course. I’m not a big fan of complexity myself in game design, but I do adore systems that have clear points of contact in the fiction, as well as play groups where all players invest in system expertise. I’m not that interested in playing any character-optimization adventure game with players who don’t care to learn the tactical implications of the combat system, so in that sense I don’t mind if the Initiative system only gets quick and easy after everybody already knows it. Many GMs content themselves with playing with a crew who leave all the system pressure on the GM, but not me; let the players learn the system and you’ll find that play can be surprisingly quick.

  5. Fantasy Adventure: Runeslayers « Game Design is about Structure Says:

    […] point management in its combat system, which might provide a learning point for me in my efforts to provide an intricate initiative system for my own use. The feedback has been that my initiative system, which practically needs poker […]

  6. Sami Koponen Says:

    It’s been interesting to read this, although frankly, as I have very little experience with D&D, most of the stuff just flew by. Anyhow, one thing got my attention.

    Eero, what kind of things do you see that characters perform during combat rounds? I mean that if the choices are just about how and who they attack, there doesn’t seem to be any necessity for both attack and defence rolls. Some nice bonus for the attacker and roll away, or something. T&T ought to go together with your idea, because it balances a bit the superiority of the attacker (she might also get hurt).

    Also, reference to the TSOY makes me wonder whether you would (because you certainly could) use this initiative system also in other kinds of conflict situations like in social or magical / spiritual conflicts?

  7. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    My first instinct is to only use this initiative system for elaborate combat situations, not other kinds of conflicts. Rather, I want to be very focused in the kinds of conflict I resolve, and how I resolve them. So, for example, a social conflict might be resolved with a simple die roll just because I don’t care to focus the fiction on them. Therefore character classes would also only have simple bonus features related to those social conflicts, while the special powers reserved for combat might be much more elaborate.

    On the other hand, it’s also entirely possible that I’ll get inspired to create a subsystem for resolving barter situations. In that case a merchant character class becomes feasible, with a raft of special abilities related to the barter subsystem. A lot depends on the kind of fictional material I want to emphasize when I get around to playing this game.

    As for activities during combat rounds, the primary reason for needing that defense roll is the need to scale attacker success based on defender skill. I did consider quite seriously the benefits of having fixed target numbers (kill your opponent directly by rolling a result of 25, that kind of thing), but although it would certainly liven up the D&D framework, and would also be quite in line with the way the system handles non-combat situations, I couldn’t quite balance it with the presumed rights of the opposition – at higher levels all characters would succeed at killing each other all the time, unless the opposition got some special defence abilities, which would again complicate things…

    Anyway, another reason to have a defence roll is to get a bit of bell curve on the expected results of combat checks, which doesn’t hurt with a d20. I might still get rid of the defence roll, but that depends on the overall aesthetics of the system – I want to make a system that looks pretty to me, not just one that works reliably.

  8. ROberto Says:

    i am new to dungeons and dragons, but i think that a good initiative system is this:
    “Random suggestion: Roll initiative for each round. Go through the initiative order once (from best-to-worst) and have everyone declare an action. Then go through the initiative order a second time (from worst-to-best) and see if anyone wants to change their action based on what the other declared actions are (this can be done very quickly). This gives a meaningful advantage to higher initiative results in a system where you’ve stripped most of the advantages away from it. You may find that it will work better if you roll a d8 or d10 for initiative instead of the standard d20.”
    found in this thread:

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