Musings on “33 Things I want from Combat as a player” Part 1 (1-11)

+Lowell Francis over at Age of Ravens threw down a mighty post: “33 Things I Want From Combat As a Player.” I read them, and had thoughts. I will share them, because that’s what I do on this blog.

My comments are in black, while his are in color. The original post was huge as it was, so I’m hiding most of the responses behind a page break!

1. I don’t want to have to look up complex maneuvers and abilities– if I have something special, like Martial Arts or something, I should be able to write the quick details on my sheet. The complexity of some of the Gurps MA (for Gurps 3e) is an example of this done badly. Basic maneuvers– feint, disarm, etc should be simple enough that after doing them once or twice, I don’t have to look them up again.

I think that GURPS 4e is much better in this regard, but I agree with the overall sentiment. One of the things I consciously tried to do in both Technical Grappling and a related D&D5e article that’s kicking around on my “shopping this around” list is to ensure that the basic mechanics for these actions are the same as for basic combat. 

In fact, one of the basic ideas that +Peter V. Dell’Orto and I have bandied back and forth is to take the “one unified mechanic” concept to a logical and fast-paced extreme. 

We’ll see how that works out.

But yeah – your favorite stuff should be easily noted on your sheet, and stuff that “anyone that fights should be able to do” should be easily noted, or even better, be obvious on how to do it from the basics of how the system works. I think Peter and +Sean Punch‘s Martial Arts for Fourth Edition succeeds very admirably in this regard. 

2. Maneuvers like feint, disarm, grapple, called shot shouldn’t be hideously complicated in play. Yes, maybe there are one of two extra rolls or tests, but they shouldn’t bog things down into a mini-game. At the same time, if I forgo my standard action I should have a chance of getting a benefit. That chance should be balanced against the potential reward. That’s not always realistic– disarming can be devastating, so it ought to be tough. As a player I want fun more than I want realism in the combat.

No surprises I agree – and strongly – with this. If something can be done, it should neither be stupid to try nor an automatic I win button. The mechanics should hew closely to the rest of the system, and not require a whole new combat flowchart.  

Grappling can be a bit tough because the effects are both persistent and changeable, in that quality of a grapple can theoretically vary all over the place, vary by hit location, etc. When I discussed grappling as presented in DnD5e Basic some of my observations were that as presented, grappling wasn’t that good. In some OSR games, a grapple that “misses” or fails can have a serious impact on the attacker rather than just being a miss. Not much reward and significant risk! 

I think mostly GURPS handles this well, and DnD could be modified easily to handle it much better.

3. There should be some mechanism for coordinated attack or aiding another person. If multiple people fight a target without coordinating, the target should get a penalty. If I forgo my action to aid another person, then the benefit should be tangible. It shouldn’t be overpowering, but giving up a possible attack should get me somewhere in the range of a bonus close to half of the original attack.

I wrote an entire article on this: Delayed Gratification. There’s a subsection called “Everyone’s Invited” that deals with exactly this. More on Setup Attacks

4. I should be able to do something on my turn. I should be able to move and take an action. That movement shouldn’t be too short.

With the one-second turn, GURPS arguably goes too far in this regard in that normal humans can’t actually go from stopping to full Move back to stopping in one second. In fact, the distance covered is more like Move/4 (basically 1-2 yards for most folks) if you wind up at a standstill, and Move/2 for an all-out acceleration doing nothing but imitating Usain Bolt. That being said, with the one-second combat turn, if you start far from companions, you will, in all likelihood, stay there for the duration of the fight, because most fights are over that quickly.  

It may not be realistic or simulationist, but being able to come to the aid of a companion is great roleplaying fun, and it can hurt the game unless the players (and GM) keep mobility in mind.

In term of “doing something on your turn,” once again, The Last Gasp was actually an attempt to try and get GURPS characters to do less, not the least of which reason was to increase effective battlefield mobility by allowing more time between flurries of blows to accomplish anything. More on Gaming Ballistic about The Last Gasp concepts and weaknesses.

5. Drawing items, reloading, perception checks, etc. should be a freebie. If the system keeps me from doing multiples, I don’t mind.

I understand the impulse, but I don’t agree with this one. The players usually benefit from a substantial amount of hyper-awareness due to the presence of the map, limited fog of war, and lack of anything enforcing the tunnel vision that happens in fights on the players. 

Of course, that does depend on turn length. If you have ten seconds to act, or even five, then these things are freebies. If you are resolving in one or two seconds, maybe not. Medieval archers would shoot 6-10 arrows per minute; it takes 2-3 seconds to change magazines on a modern magazine-fed firearm unless you really go nuts with practice and equipment. It’s easy and common to not notice stuff during combat, or even when you’re pondering what to cook for dinner.

So I think this depends on the time scale of the game, but it should probably take the equivalent of a Ready action unless you’ve somehow paid (a feat, spent points, an aspect) to make it instantaneous. Being able to get perfect situational awareness makes you Awesome, and having everyone be awesome just means no one is, to quote Dash Parr from the Incredibles.

6. There should be a bonus available for clever things. Usually I mean Stunting. If I describe my action to get a modest bonus, I shouldn’t have to make an additional check or take a penalty. If I’m going for something bigger, I accept that there might be more tests involved.

At least in GURPS, this can be a bit tricky. Most of the available “descriptions” actually invoke a particular maneuver, which can use a skill, or perhaps a Technique. Many “stunts” are going to be “I use an immense amount of already-present skill to do something cool and specific.”

In short, roll at a penalty and get nifty results.This somewhat has to do again with the discrete nature of the GURPS turn. “I leap up onto the barrel, do a flip over the ogre’s head, and stab him in the kidneys!” might be tough to resolve. Both Dungeon Parkour (DF2, p. 8) and Acrobatic Movement (Martial Arts, pp. 105-107) speak to this, but you’re likely going to make a couple of Acrobatics rolls in order to claim the bonus for a Runaround Attack, since you’re basically doing that, but OVER your foe. A pretty hefty skill penalty (or in a cinematic game, just freakin’ roll Acrobatics-6 or something), followed by an attack which your foe will defend against at -2. Basically, what Obi-Wan does to Darth Maul in Episode 1.

7. I like having more hit points or wound levels. If a system has a chunk of hit point– more than any one weapon strike can do– there should be a critical hit, status effect or damage bonus system that means we aren’t just grinding something to death round after round.

GURPS Fourth Edition definitely has this covered in spades. Critical hits bypass defenses and can do double or triple damage. Wound locations such as Vitals, Skull (often miscalled Brain), and Veins and Arteries can have nasty side-effects. Any wound to the head forces a roll to knockdown and stun. Limbs can be crippled. Lots of ways to take someone down other than treating him as a big bag of HP, though that can work too.

8. I want to be able to make a called shot and have it do something. Called shots shouldn’t be insanely difficult to pull off. I also should be able to pull my blow and not necessarily kill someone unless I happen to roll insanely well or insanely badly.

Again these are part of GURPS’ usual ruleset. Hit locations are a big deal if you let them be as the GM. You can also always strike with less ST than you have, but you’ll have to declare it. There’s really no such thing as ‘non-lethal concussive damage,’ and a face hit that leads to a knockout is due to brain trauma – so that can be bad. But you can certainly attempt a series of low-damage blows to the head at -5 and hope that the foe fails a HT roll for knockdown/stun.

The best way, of course, to incapacitate someone without killing him is by grappling. Though as the unfortunate case in New York demonstrates, that’s not always certain.

These last three are interesting in light of my shifting to playing more Fate-based games. Those games take very different, almost non-lateral thinking approaches to these concepts. 

9. The combat should more fast enough that I don’t forget what’s going on by the time the round gets to me.

GURPS can have an issue here, especially with large combats. I don’t know that it’s particularly unique to GURPS, but in my OSR game, my choices are pretty limited as to what I can do as a fighter. I smack the other guy with my sword (or one of them). 

GURPS has lots and lots of tactical possibilities, and unless the GM has the players write down their favorite tactics in a combat ahead of time (sort of an on-paper macro), those who love exploring all the details of the system can bog the rest of the group down in an endless morass of modifiers and detail.

10. I should have a decent sense of where we are in the turn.

I’m not entirely sure why this so a priori, since keeping track of a swirling melee can be a challenge for the character, but I agree that the player finds it convenient to know this. Mostly I play on VTTs, and they have some sort of initiative tracker, almost always. The one in Fantasy Grounds, I think, is only GM-facing. The MapTool and Roll20 versions are visible to all.

11. I should be able to delay my action and take it later.

No problem: Wait (in GURPS). Actually, Step-and-Wait got some attention from me in my last post.

That’s the first 11 of his list. I think GURPS mostly does well here. Combat pacing can drag due to option overload. The one second turn means that most people aren’t thinking small enough when they describe their actions, and that can result in disappointment when doing all that stuff in one second results in gigantic penalties:

  • Mr. N Thusiastic: “I attack three times!” 
  • GM: Great! Attack once at no penalty, and twice more at -6 each! By the way, you can’t defend yourself this turn.
  • Mr. N Thusiastic: What? No way! I need to defend! GURPS is all about not getting hit.
  • GM: OK, you can attack three times. Roll Axe/Mace at -12 for each one.
  • Mr. N Thusiastic: What? I’ve only got Skill-18. That’s only a 10% chance to hit with each.
  • GM: Three attacks in one second is hard.
  • Mr. N Thusiastic: This game sucks.

With understanding that things often break down into much smaller actions, and perhaps some house rules to put some reasons to pause the action in there, this can work out both faster than you’d think, but also in a more satisfying way. But it does take some practice.

5 thoughts on “Musings on “33 Things I want from Combat as a player” Part 1 (1-11)

  1. 3 Delayed Gratification is excellent. Everyone's Invited is probably the best mechanic for actively helping someone fight someone else that I've seen. Even if you are totally happy with Feint and see no reason for Setup Attacks in general it may be a good idea to import them for the purpose of full value Everyone's Invited.
    5 I think GURPS is fine here. It's possible for things like drawing items to be free. I don't think it's necessary for drawing items for free to be, itself, free.
    6 Clever things should only be more effective if they are actually clever. Well described isn't the same thing as clever.
    10 If the system entitles a player to know what point in the turn order he is in I think it's fair for that information to be easy to keep track of. What systems are there where this isn't true though? I've never really encountered difficulty keeping track of where in the initiative I'm in unless there are tons of enemies and that will make things hard unless initiative is binary or otherwise super simple.
    11 GURPS has Wait but it doesn't really like things such as "I'm going to cast SPELL at an opponent after PLAYER takes his turn." where you just shift your turn forward and maintain full flexibility in things like targetting when your turn comes.

  2. I agree that clever things should only be more effective if they are actually clever, and add the comment that most of the spectacular moves we see in movies would not be effective or in many cases possible in a real fight. A real person in the uncontrolled circumstances of a fight cannot pull off the things that the world's best kung-fu stuntman with a whole day of preparation and rehearsal, co-operation from his "opponent", careful fight choreography, and well-chosen camera angles can pull off once out of as many takes as it takes.

    I spent the late Eighties and early Nineties GMing for Jackie Chan fans. Does it show?

  3. 10. "I'm not entirely sure why this so a priori, since keeping track of a swirling melee can be a challenge for the character". Perhaps it might have something to do with the fact that the player is audience as well as character. "A confusing mêlée ensued, which we won for reasons that I do not understand" is boring story-telling.

  4. 1. And 2. Theres nothing basic about disarming or grappling. For most GURPS games the PC is probably best off using deceptive attack rather than feint. Its easy enough to note down a -2 or – 4 to skill.

    6. Ive said elesewhere how much I hate games where the player describes some over the top tactic and GM goes 'ok -1 to hit + 1 damage' with no regard to what those modifiers mean. Either have rules that saying doing x is this, have good or bad results allow the player to describe stunts or actually assess whats happening and have those risjs to hit be proportional to the reward you get for the stunt.

  5. Actually, D&D 5e grappling is more useful than it first appears. Besides the obvious (if situational) ability to drag somebody around or toss them off a cliff, once you've grappled them if you or somebody else knocks them Prone with a shove attack, because their movement is 0 they can't stand up again without breaking the grapple. Prone characters are at a disadvantage on all attacks, and all melee attacks on them are at an advantage. That's a pretty nasty situation to be in.

    Also, if the grappling character takes the Grappler feat, then her own attack rolls (including Shove to knock it Prone) are at an advantage vs. the grappled creature.

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