Musings on “33 Things I want from Combat as a player” Part 2 (12-22)

+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.

This is the second part of a three-part response. You can find my comments on the first 11 of his wish list here.

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!

12. Everyone should have someone to fight.

Assuming that combat is the purpose of the character and the conflict resolution method at play . . . no, I still don’t necessarily agree. It does suck to want to be involved in the combat and not be able to either engage a foe, or have them all out of commission before you get there, though. I ran into that in my first Dungeon Fantasy game. By the time Cadmus got to the fight at Move 4, the other guys – either the archer that could engage at a distance or the magic user and/or gargoyle that could both fly – had already mopped everyone up. That was irksome.

13. There should be some sense of risk from the mechanics itself. By that I mean, I should be worried about damage or status effects. There should be a chance I could die if things go terribly badly– well, maybe not die, but that I’d get taken out.

I think this is a good general rule, and by and large I dislike the “I’ve got 1 HP left, I’m good to rock and roll” feeling. But then, in games such as Swords and Wizardy, my HP are basically my “awesome battery.” If my foes are hitting for 5-10 HP at a time, and I’ve got about 50 HP, then I can take about 5-7 hits before my “whack ’em in the face” strategy needs to change to “fight defensively,” “run like hell,” or “take a moment to slam down a potion.” 

In GURPS, the purposeful presence of the death spiral (shock effects impact hit chances; stunning is a game-over effect, mostly) to incapacitation means that once you take a hit, you need to be very aware of how that impacts your fighting ability. Crippled or grappled limbs, dropped weapons (not unique to GURPS), low ammunition or a jammed gun in modern games, or even the presence of an enemy with high DR or high mobility can all make a fight go from “I’m OK” to “HOLY CRAP” in one hit.

But basically: yeah. Fights should be scary unless getting in a long series of fights is the whole point, and (as referred to elsewhere in a post I should link to and will do so later) the real campaign challenge is resource management, not having any particular fight be a big deal.

14. At the same time the system shouldn’t be so risk heavy as to make me afraid to take chances. One hit shouldn’t take me out of the fight.

I think this is one of the really good reasons to privilege attack over defense in combat, and why even though I may rebel at AC-based systems from both a “realism” and “player agency” perspective, fact of the matter is that having a combat system that encourages or rewards turtling-up is likely going to be less fun if the primary conflict resolution mechanic is combat.

If as a GM, the story/campaign theme suggests that combat is stupid or just one-sided on the part of the foes (like a “purist” Call of Cthulhu game, where getting into a fight with the minions of Things Man Should Not Know is supposed to be a fatal proposition), then having the rules say “you fight, you die, go insane, or have someone pull your limbs off and eat them in front of you” sets just the right tone.

It’s one of the reasons that GURPS firearms combat can get very touchy. If bullets are flying around and a hit means you’re out of the fight even if you get tagged in a limb, then turtling may be the smart thing to do, but it may well not be fun if you can’t take a maneuver-and-fire approach. 

The key is to ensure that calculated risks pay off, and that the odds are enough in front of the players that – given the fact that the ‘whip’ of bullets as they travel past, the concussion of explosions, or the burning halitosis of a dragon’s breath aren’t actually in the players’ faces and skins – they can strike a good fun balance between inaction and action. And since most gamers get together to do stuff, action should be favored over inaction in most cases.

15. If I’m a magic user, I should be able to dish out damage relatively equivalent to a fighter. Some of those effects will probably be not measured in damage, but in my ability to debuff or disable. I accept that the flexibility of magic means a slight trade off, but I should not be significantly behind other characters. If magic costs mana, I shouldn’t tap out in a fight unless I’ve really pushed myself.

I think it’s critical to clarify what I know +Lowell Francis meant when he said “deal equivalent damage.” He’s definitely counting buffing spells! So if you cast a Rockification spell on Sly Balboa and double his damage output that counts. 

In terms of resource management, if the spells are even mightier than the typical fighter guys (DnD has a lot of this, and spells-as-powers in GURPS, Ritual Path Magic effects, or really awesome Learned Prayers from Divine Favor) then I actually do expect to tap out mana partially through the fight, so that – unless the game calls for it – the tactics aren’t “the meat-shields protect the magic user, who wins or loses fights.” 

When I play Cadmus, a Warrior Saint (think paladin) in +Nathan Joy‘s Dungeon Fantasy game, I have a couple of things that are rate limited. Righteous Fury boosts my ST, DX, and HT by 1d6 each, and Nate lets me assign the rolls as I wish (thus far it’s always been DX, ST, HT in that order). On the average, it adds something like 150-160 CP to his sheet, which for 3d seconds turns him into a front-line fighter – but only once per game day. If he rolls poorly on 3d, that can last 3 seconds, and then oops, he’s done. Other things, like his Smite power, which does nasty, irresistible burning damage to undead within 4 yards of him (sorry, Em!), can be used over and over ad nauseum, but only makes him an unstoppable killing machine against undead.  

Point of that is that you want the (dare I say it) balance between participation of all players. This can be a steady-state ability to impact the battlefield, or many  opportunities to do a small amount, or few opportunities to make major impacts (plus some filler afterwards).

16. By the same token, if I’m a fighter I should have some options available to me so I can do more than just declare “I attack” every round.

This is where GURPS excels to the point of option paralysis. Defensive Attack, Attack, Committed Attack, All-Out Attack are all offensive combat maneuvers. They can be accessorized with options such as Deceptive Attack, hit locations, and multiple attacks (Rapid Strike or Dual-Weapon Attack). Then there are the defensive options. Striking and grappling, disarms, trips, feints . . . this is actually where people can throw their hands up and say “enough!” 

Fortunately, you can make this easier by printing and handing out combat cards, and SJG provides them for free. So does GURPS Mega Dungeon, and those are pretty, pretty, pretty. How did I not know of this site before? Awesome.

17. Archers should be able to fire every round.

I get this, I do. And if you lean on me just right, despite writing rules that might make drawing strong bows take even longer than GURPS usual every three to five seconds (draw arrow, ready bow, shoot; or arrow, ready, aim, aim, aim, shoot). Dungeon Fantasy has some nice rules on Quick Shooting bows and Fast-Drawing arrows that allow just this, so you can Legolas your way into the record books. 

The thing is, in classic cinematic dungeon crawling, you need this sort of rate of fire to make up for the fact that you’re doing thrust damage. Half the penetration of a guy with a sword or axe, and even though you do impaling damage (x2 injury behind armor), some foes don’t feel that vulnerable to your tiny pointy sticks. So when push comes to shove comes to perforation, being able to fire once every several seconds (realistic), but only to do half the damage of a fighter with a sword. That may be realistic, but it’s not terribly fun. 

18. Even in a hopeless fight, I should be able to go down swinging, taking some of the bad guys with me. There’s a certain satisfaction to taking out agents and mooks. But mooks shouldn’t be just blow-up dummies on the field– if they gang up they should have the potential to harm me if they coordinate or if I’m stupid.

Mooks can be somewhat dangerous in GURPS if they swarm you and grapple, or get behind you. Getting behind you, of course, is always bad, since you can’t defend. 

At very high power levels, with high enough DR, even attacks from behind can go “poing.” 

Even so, by and large, being swarmed is always something to be afraid of. 

In terms of going down fighting, that can be tough. If you couldn’t touch the bad guys when hale and robust, you probably won’t go down fighting, you’ll just go down.

19. If the combat is incidental, it shouldn’t take more than an hour of play time. If it is a larger, set-piece and important battle it can go longer.

GURPS combat takes time in proportion to the complexity of the actions, mostly. If combat is incidental, it needs to be treated that way. Abstract is better than tactical. Simple attacks, simple defenses, narrative outcomes. 

Despite all the rules in place to add options and mechanistic help to the game (TG being a prime offender here), GURPS can be played fast and light, quite effectively.

20. If I expend limited resources– like drama and conviction points, the GM should take that into account when describing consequences.

Fair enough – though at least in GURPS those extra spends usually have their own mechanistic effects. I agree that if you’re depleting a metagame resource, it should have appropriately metagame effects.

21. The GM should tell me the relative level of damage I’ve done– to give me a sense of satisfaction about my action. If something does bounce, the GM should either describe that as a rarity or make clear that some other tactic needs to be applied.

That’s an interesting take, and something I’ve seen done effectively before – you don’t always know just how effective a blow is going to be. Police officers – even beyond the inherently stressful nature of the job – have this problem as they often will have to “shoot until down.” The tales of the “Blackhawk Down” battle in Somalia are full of “but I hit him! I must have! But he didn’t go down!” reports. 

That could be several things. They could have missed (“We’re Rangers. That doesn’t happen. Hooah.”), for one, but the other, the M855 rounds were being fired from short-barreled weapons in many cases (I don’t remember if the M4 was a prevalent as it is now) and the bullet might not have destablized enough to produce the characteristic awful wound channel.  

Anyway, most of the games I play in and run let players roll damage, and so you actually get a quantitative sense of damage done. I’ve toyed with writing a wound system (I think +Luke Campbell has one too) for GURPS that’s not quite so much ablative hit points, so as to enable the description rather than the quantification of effects. Also to make injury a lot more swingy, as it is in real life.

22. If the bad guy is going to escape, I should have been able to do something to him before that– reducing his forces, getting a wound in, thwarting some portion of his plan.

That seems more like a metagame agreement rather than a feature of the combat system. More properly in the 23 things +Lowell Francis wants from combat (or more accurately in this example, from the narrative/story arc possibilities) as a GM, instead of as a player. 

Nothing wrong with this; the concept of a partial victory or a recurring villain is rather central to many plotlines. Heck, The Empire Strikes Back applies this to the heroes! But it seems less a feature of the combat system than an agreement with the GM on what stories to tell.

So that’s the second installment. I’ll be banging away at Part 3 over the weekend!

6 thoughts on “Musings on “33 Things I want from Combat as a player” Part 2 (12-22)

  1. I don't know if I agree with the combination of items #11 and #13. In the GURPS example, spellcasters get easy access to area effect and affects insubstantial abilities, so they do full damage against swarms, oozes, most elementals, and ghosts. The warrior types, in contrast, do 20% or less of their normal damage against those types of critters.

    I'm okay with a system that says wizards are really good against the weird stuff, but do ~75% damage of the warrior types against the mundane stuff. It gives the warriors a niche of killing the mundane stuff and defending the wizard against them, just like the wizard kills the weird stuff and defends the warrior against them.

    I think everyone should have a chance to be amazing, but not everyone needs to be amazing all the time. It's okay to sit out a fight or two if you can turn a couple of fights from "tense, difficult nail biter" to blow-out.

    Of course, that means the GM needs to throw a variety of challenges at people, not just the Halls of Endless Orcs. But I think a good GM should be doing that anyway.

  2. 12 It's simply unfun to sit out a whole scene. Everyone needs to either have or rapidly gain the ability to do something in combat, just as everyone needs to either have or rapidly gain the ability to do something in social situations. That might be lowering the mook count or infiltrating people offices but it needs to be something.
    15 Generally fighters can fight and magic users can fight and also do almost literally everything else and in ways that are often superior to mundane approaches. If it's an almost entirely combat based game and the fighter occasionally gets to command troops or whatever than the magic user can be as useful as the fighter. Otherwise he absolutely can't. He should have things he can accomplish in combat and probably even specific threats where he is more useful than a fighter but overall he should be less good at fighting. Making magic users more densely powerful than fighters while fighters last longer
    When the magic user is hitting a button to win an encounter it's often anticlimactic and when the magic user is out of juice they're just bored. That's not even addressing how that pushes things to 15 minute workdays.
    17 It's not just average damage. Nor is it the unfun levels of doing practically nothing on your turn on a regular basis. It's that PCs need to be accomplishing something every turn. Sometimes you can screw around setting up single attacks but generally PCs need to hit hard and fast and overwhelm the opposition with their superior skill before the action economy crushes them. Tactical situations in RPGs are also often very quickly shifting so that any action spent setting up another action might be rendered irrelevant before you get to profit from it.
    18 A hopeless fight doesn't necessarily mean "can't touch the bad guys". That said while it's awesome to sacrifice yourself so that the other PCs can get away or something just going down fighting for no reason isn't really cool in my opinion. What RPGs make it so that you can't take down a few mooks before you die in a hopeless situation? Unless you are charging the Bolivian army unarmed in which case it isn't really a fight.
    19 Most fiction with incidental combat doesn't have set piece battles. Two guys get in a duel or something instead. That doesn't take too long for experienced GURPSers. If you want a game with incidental combat, don't throw tactical extravaganzas at people.
    21 Most games I'm familiar with have the PCs roll damage. I'm a hardass about what information I reveal in 3.5 D&D games because there are a lot of possible defenses and it's the job of the PCs to figure out what's going on.

  3. 14. There is a lot of fiction where one hit really does take the hero out of the fight (though rarely kills them).

    In GURPS this often means dodging, blocking etc. The GM has to drastically make it more likely the PC will hit versus be hit. So low skill for mooks high skills for PCs, luck, wildcard points etc

    In settings where DR, HP and healing outscale damage then GURPS swings back the other way. You can reliably be a meatshield.

  4. 21

    In all but the most realistic, gritty settings I am not a fan of obscuring to hit rolls, damage etc.

    It is so much more dramatic fun to know when you need to roll a certain number.

    Its a little like games of chance. Its fun not knowing whats in your opponents hand or what hes going to roll. Its not fun not knowing if your roll beat him or if you had a better hand than him the last ten rounds.

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