Prioritizing Defense, Prelude

This is going to be a bit of a meta-post, in that I’ve been trying to work around an idea about running defensive-oriented combat in RPGs ever since I published the related article Unpacking Failed Attack Rolls in GURPS.

In it, I note in the On Guard! and What’s the Point? sections that RPGs tend to prioritize attack over defense, while the practice of fighting with sharps and other potentially-lethal activity tends to bias towards setting up a defense and actively working to maintain that, and then open up an opening into which you can strike freely, with no consequence to yourself.

This is for a pretty simple reason: Attacking is fun. It’s also an outgrowth of the abstract nature of Hit Points, which can easily be reframed as something exactly like maneuvering for position, until you can land that fatal blow that reduces the target to 0 HP or fewer (this is very much a D&D-ism, but has application elsewhere).

I’m going to muse on this for a bit, and see if I can come up with a good way of making a “defense primary” mechanic that doesn’t actively suck. I will do it in GURPS first, and then see what I can do for Dragon Heresy.

I’m ultimately not sure that this will work. “Proactive defense!” sounds great in theory, and it’s a fighting style that can be observed, but we’re playing a game here, and games prioritize and emphasize action, not reaction or even positive defense. Folks “spam the Attack button” because it’s fun, and a mechanical system is going to have to go a long way to help those defenses become exciting, and emphasize the “victory” of achieving superior position on the foe.

Armor Class has DEX modifier in it; that’s a bit of ‘proactive defense.’ Hit Points have long had that mix of “defenses and active exertion” that we’re trying to capture here, and the more abstract games probably subsume a lot of what I’m talking about. GURPS has a series of maneuvers or options that somewhat enable this (Evaluate, Feint, Defensive Feint, Wait, All-Out Defense, Defensive Attack, Retreat, Defensive Bonus) that do allow one to prioritize defense. Mostly I’ve not seen these used, but they’re there. Might be something as simple as my favorite game design maxim: “Use what’s there.”

Stay tuned. I hope to think this through in a series of posts. Some of which will be inevitably “Game X already does this.”

3 thoughts on “Prioritizing Defense, Prelude

  1. One of the first things I tried when playing GURPS Man To Man when it first came out, was making light agile defensive character designs and trying to win with them.

    Eventually I got fairly good at it, and it remained one of my favorite play styles – carefully using Wait, Reach, Stop-Thrust, Retreats, attacks on weapons, Feints, Evaluate, and figure positioning, etc.

    It can be a very effective way to fight in low-tech GURPS, particularly against thoughtless foes who almost always just Step & Attack all the time.

    I’m excited to see your always-thoughtful investigation on the subject!

  2. I feel like the Attack of Opportunity from D&D was a bit unfairly maligned. Sure, it might have been complicated to track, but I liked the concept of it: that your opponents were always seeking to attack, that you got one “free” attack, and that if you did something risky, you opened yourself up to more attacks.

    I always like systems where it feels like dismantling your opponents defenses is a major component of the “gameplay” (it often has a more cinematic feel than attack attack attack) so I look forward to what you come up with

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