S&W: Eight little combats, all in a row

One of the fun things that happened in yesterday’s romp through the Castle of the Mad Archmage+Joseph Bloch ) is that we were able to clear out quite a few rooms. Each combat was short, sweet, to the point. The enemies (and if we screwed up, the players or friendly NPCs) fell like mown wheat, more or less.

This allowed us to probably do 6-10 short, lowish-risk combats in the three hours we played.

In contrast, in the GURPS Banestorm game I played with +Brian Ronnle and his crowd, we roleplayed for a while – a long while – but when we got to the final combat, it took a long time to resolve.

What’s going on?

I still mean to do a post on not fighting the rules, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help them along.

The S&W truth is that at the levels we’re at, and maybe even in general, you don’t have too many choices as to what you’re doing, especially as a fighter. Rul Scararm is a 2nd level fighter. His options are basically:

  • Roll 1d20+3 to hit with a magical bow; 1d6+2 damage if successful
  • Roll 1d20+3 (or 1d20+5) to hit with a magical sword (extra good against undead), and 1d8+3/1d8+5 vs undead if I hit
  • Roll 1d20+2 to poke with a mundane spear or bastard sword (which I probably should get rid of). 1d6+2 for the spear, 1d8+2 for the sword.

The spell users get to pick from a list of spells, but unless things have changed, they pick some spells each game day, use ’em up, and until the day passes, that’s it. Then they’re back to trying to hit with a crappy dagger, club, or mace. The foe’s ability to defend is all rolled into AC. Rul has +1 banded mail and a shield for AC 18. Mirado ( +Peter V. Dell’Orto ) has plate armor for AC 17. So their chances of getting hit by someone with similar ability is about 1 time in 3. If the foe can last longer than three turns, it can be assumed that the bad guys are going to start digging into Team Ogre HEDS hit point pool.

GURPS isn’t better or worse, but it is different. GURPS Martial Arts is so awesome I have yet to play with a game that doesn’t use it, but even in the Basic Set, there are a lot of tactical choices you can make/must make in a fight. If nothing else, you may, as a fighter, at the very least:

  • All-Out Attack
  • Attack
  • Move and Attack
  • All-Out Defend

But that’s not all. If you strike your foe, he must choose what options to use.

  • Block with a shield, if he has one
  • Dodge more or less nimbly
  • Parry with a weapon or unarmed body part

So you can throw a notional hit with a blow, and then find it parried. Each turn, you choose what maneuvers you use, and you can add Combat Options, like Telegraphic or Defensive Attack on top of those, or the popular Deceptive Attack if you’re skilled. There’s also goodness like Feints (or Setup Attacks, if you like Delayed Gratification), as well as a Riposte, a defensive version of the Deceptive Attack. Most of those (but not all) are found in Martial Arts. In many, but not all, cases, the defender may Retreat, gaining a bonus to defend that varies slightly depending on what skill you’re using it with.

So after all those choices, you may or may not have hit. If you hit, you roll damage, but if the guy has armor, it might bounce off.

The “good” news is that once you do reach the chewy center, it’s a big deal. It can set off a “death spiral,” where the bad guy’s skills go down, and you might get a turn or so where he’s less effective.

After all that, one second has elapsed.

That’s Bad, Right?

As I said, it’s not bad – it’s different. But what I’ve found it does – and I tried to write The Last Gasp to help address this – is a sort of view of the world where you feel like “I take a turn to catch my breath” is a big deal. Your turn might not come again, or it might be a while.

It’s a bit of self-reinforcing pseudo-complexity, because if each turn is that valuable, you might as well do as much as you can. Whether that’s to be effective, awesome, awesomely effective, or effectively awesome, in any case you try and get a lot done.

Heck, in the Banestorm game I just played, the only thing that made Radskyrta effective was he had a horse in an open field, with Move 8/Move 16 in a straight line. Even so, there was a time near the end where he had to take a few seconds to chase down a bad guy, and my instincts were telling me “find another way!”

Old habits die hard.

Whittle Down the Choices

Most usual fighters do not reach deeply into a big bag of varied options. They have things that they like ( Chuck Norris’ roundhouse kick) that become staples of what they do. For a rapier fighter, it might be a thrust to the vitals, or to (because the vitals might be well armored) a leg or something. An axeman may have a penchant for trying to chop off legs.

Each fighter should have a couple of if-then moves they like, and they should write them down. In many cases, GCA can help you.

Note that this doesn’t imply that you have to buy Targeted Attacks or Techniques, though you can, and probably will. But in a front-loaded game, why not front load a bit more so that you can do the things fast in play that you’ll probably wind up doing anyway?

Once things can happen faster, they will naturally happen faster for everyone, as the group (and the GM) get used to having more “Do Nothing” time in the game. Pausing for a single second to take stock, or get your breath, or whatever isn’t a big deal if you’re going to be asked for your next action in a brief moment.

Roll 1d6 for how to use your Cuisinart

GMs can play too, with a similar trick. Make a quickie d6 table, and roll against that each turn. Maybe even scale it with more aggressive numbers being higher, so you can penalize it if you get hit.

Something like this for an experienced fighter

  1. All-Out Defend, taking +2 to Best Defense
  2. No matter what, Step backwards, disengaging. Use  Defensive Attack if in range*. Wait otherwise.
  3. Defensive Attack, step forward if necessary to close distance
  4. Attack to the torso, step forward if necessary to close distance
  5. Attack to a lesser armored or higher value target like the legs, arms, vitals, or head
  6. Committed Attack to the head

What’s not on this chart? Lots of things. No All-Out Attacks (those are not the refuge of trained fighters). No deceptive attacks (only bring those out if net skill is 16 or higher), and no telegraphic attacks. Actually, there’s so much that could be on there that while one would be tempted to expand it to 2d6 or something, I wouldn’t. Keep it simple. Is the chart above a good one? Probably not. It’s the concept that matters here, not the details.

Animals are even easier, and so are unintelligent monsters. They will do one of several types of behaviors: hunting/eating behavior, killing for fun or territory, or dominance display or challenge.

Parting Shot

What I’m trying to say here is that one need not invoke all of the available tactical choices and options in GURPS every single turn. You will probably get more satisfaction, and certainly the game will move faster, if you don’t.

Or if you must do this, have the courtesy to your GM and fellow players to have it worked out ahead of time. People will thank you. In VTTs, this can even be automated in a macro. MapTools and Roll20 both have built-in macro capability, and Fantasy Grounds can have skill listings with everything pre-figured. Just drag it into the dice window. Again, that’s having a list of favorite options or stratagems.

That can also make your character pretty unique. A warrior who is always trying to stab or chop his foes in the legs, to reduce their mobility and make it hurt to even think about moving (plus, legs are crippled at a lower threshold) will play very differently than one that always goes for head shots, or just attacks the body the entire time.

It also isn’t a prescription for stupidity in the face of tactical situations. If a foe clearly has an inch of steel on their chest, don’t have a pro warrior hacking away with a sword at the heaviest part of the armor. That means, also, for GMs to give out visual and visceral clues about the foes being faced. Reward a player taking a turn to Evaluate, by telling them that they notice that the armor is particularly thick on the torso and left shoulder. Or something like that.

+Peter V. Dell’Orto points out in a comment that he’s covered this before. One on how he runs combat fast, the other on limiting your own choices. This advice was not new to me (they were both spawned, it looks like, from comments I’ve made before), and I kept thinking “I’ve read/said this before.” Still, it always strikes me as an interesting point when it comes up.

We’ll see if I can pull this off in my upcoming Alien Menace Game. The first one will be interesting. And holy crap . . . only three weeks away.

5 thoughts on “S&W: Eight little combats, all in a row

  1. Wow! That idea of a die roll table of maneuvers seems like it would be really, really useful. Hm. I think I will incorporate that into my solo game. I think that I'd use the table if no other action seems obvious. That would give each character a sort of "fight personality".

  2. As a player in the Banestorm game referenced above, I've developed a big list of maneuvers using the Wheel of Time swordforms as a basis (using something like this for description http://www.grey-tower.net/GTWarders/skills/swordforms.php) and then have notes for GURPS translation (Black Pebbles on Snow, for example, is "Counterattack following successful Parry; is swing to Torso"; and Lightning of Three Prongs is "Rapid Strike consisting of torso thrust followed by either a second torso thrust or a TA: Arm (swing)", so I can very quickly plug in the information (since we're using Fantasy Grounds) and move on.

    Toss in "Trademark Moves" which I use all the time, I'm actually done with my actions very quickly, as I think you saw in session you participated.

    But then, I'm something of a freak in that regard…

  3. One of the things running through my mind occasionally over the past few years has been eliminating some choices from less experienced combatants. e.g. unless you have 1+ points in a weapon skill you can only AoA or AoD with it, no balanced attacks, 2+ points buys you access to DA & CA. At 4+ points your options are wide open. I haven't used it but have repeatedly generated the idea when thinking of things like this.

    1. That's interesting. You could also key it off of relative skill level, and the only reason I say that is because it would be a neat way of differentiating between (say) Karate Sport (DX+4) and its default combat ability, Karate (DX+1). The DX+4 guy would have all sorts of options in his element. The DX+1 guy would have far fewer.

      Interesting. Sounds like a good Pyramid article (if you want to get paid) or blog post (if you don't).

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