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.”

I got a quick bit of feedback on using Conditional Injury in actual play. Recall this article was not playtested, and mostly theoretical. Granted I was musing on it for years, but it never really got a good stress test. So someone wrote me with one:

Dingo (Discord Forums) wrote:

A lot shorter than planned and got a ‘longer’ fight expected which I’ll do a proper play writeup for; but regarding the Conditional Damage it worked really well. It encouraged superior fighters to allow themselves to take more risks because being hit for low-damage hits wasn’t as threatening as before where 7 hits alone was enough to have you suffering penalties; there were a lot more all-out attacks and all-out defenses to set up counterattacks. It felt, to put a word to it – a great deal ‘meatier’. A 3v1 fight of one skilled fighter with just DR 1 on the torso involved a lot more hits than before without worrying about an instant escalation. Weak hits were still dangerous due to failed-HT rolls potentially making injury condition worse, but in practice this meant that the immediate danger wasn’t HP (a limited resource) but shock penalties, stunning, and knockdown – both attacking and defending these became priorities. Jabs to the face (using Defensive Attack) became a very effective tactic in the 3v1 for the trained fighter. So all in all, a good fun fight that didn’t cause the GM panic of ‘well it could end in 3 hits’.

Interesting. I’d not have figured that.

This report suggests that the GURPS Death Spiral has perhaps been tamed a bit. Risking more wounds, rather than fewer, wasn’t really a design goal. But then, it wasn’t not a design goal either. Some of the emergent behavior, such as more strikes to the face looking for knockdown and stun, are outstanding results, the kind of emergence one hopes for. An increased use of All-Out-Attack (I will take a minor wound in order to deal a major one!) seems more accurate for a game that tends to have to remind GMs that mooks, unskilled mooks, will not do the math on defending like players do. They want to hit you, and will happily fling Telegraphic All-Out or Telegraphic Committed (+8 and +6 to hit, respectively for the Determined option) blows to do so.

So this is a good report. I still have to do my Designer’s Notes commentary on the article; hopefully I’ll get to that today.

Ooo! Follow-up comment by Dingo (Discord Forums)

yeah it quickly became very appropriate to approach the fight less from ‘put hurt on the opponent’ and instead shift to ‘control your opponent’. The player I was testing it with wasn’t so confident with the grappling rules as to put that entirely in scope (It’s what we’re gonna add in for the next test to see how it comes together); but quickly made realizations like the importance of hits that risk stunning, or in a group fight – the fact going for more dangerous hits can be worthwhile if you’re confident you can handle the backlash.

Ultimately the fact victory comes down to a status game rather than a counter game meant you immediately had to shift tactics away from damage/attrition and instead towards control and disabling.
Especially if your opponent has a high enough HT that you can’t rely on Cumulative Wound severity increases without All Out Attack (Strong); one exchange against someone with 13 HT resulted in the player doing -repeated- Defensive Jabs to the face, solely waiting for a stun and outlasting their counterattacks. Once the stun hit – AoA (Strong) to the face over, and over, and over until they either were crippled from a sufficiently high damage hit, or recovered from stun (at which point it returned to jabs and defensive)

So really interesting stuff here, in that “go repeatedly to the face, and when stunned, ground and pound” is rather nifty because that’s exactly what you see in MMA fights with two skilled foes that are pretty tough, by dint of repeated experience.

There’s an interesting (drink!!*) thread over on the GURPS forums about what a “miss” means. It’s called Failed Attack Rolls, and there’s a concept in there that, especially coming from the source, makes one go “Hmmm” a lot.

Let’s start with two quotes, both originating from Sean Punch, AKA Dr Kromm, the GURPS Line Editor. Also, a note: I’m not looking to quote him to fight, or to agree or disagree. The thread made me think, perhaps even to reflect (I’ve been reading Steven Brust’s “The Phoenix Guards” and “Five Hundred Years After,” so if you detect a bit of Tazendra in my statement, you’re not wrong).

In any case: I reflect, perhaps I even wonder.

The Quotes

Here’s the original note by Sean:

Mostly this. You failed at your roll to capitalize on an opening and/or seize the initiative, so you stood there doing nothing but defending. You can fix this by increasing your aggression (All-Out Attack (Determined) for +4, at the cost of giving your enemy an opening), falling back on textbook attacks when there’s no opening (Telegraphic Attack for +4, at the price of attacking directly into your enemy’s strongest defense), or learning to fight better (improve your skill, at the cost of many hours spent in the dojo, gym, kwoon, or whatever).

Missed attack rolls aren’t blows that hit with insufficient force. Too many things in GURPS (Melee spells, Contact Agents, etc.) rely on a mere touch for that to be a good ruling. Blows that connect weakly are things like successful attack rolls met by unarmed parries that prevent all damage*, and successful attack rolls met by failed defense rolls where the ensuing damage roll fails to penetrate DR.

* It’s safe to assume that in an unarmed fight, not all punches and kicks stopped by unarmed parries are warded off or blocked. Most are the blows you see sport fighters landing by the dozen in a match. A skilled fighter rolls with (not Roll with Blow – the realistic version), turns from, or otherwise minimizes the damage of these; his efforts count as a GURPS parry. These cases do result in contact under the rules.

This quote is from the first post of the thread linked in the intro, but was from a different-but-similar discussion.

Some of the responses were predictable – and not because they’re insufficiently thought-out. They’re more or less the way I’ve played GURPS for years, so I’m naturally sympathetic to the viewpoint. So sympathetic, in fact, that it’s how I run my own games.

In summary, some of the various replies:

  • Missing a roll has consequences, such as ‘weapon unready’
  • Making an attack has implications, such as when you are below 0 HP
  • Nothing in the above takes away from ‘you did do something, and it was ineffective’
  • What the heck is wrong with ‘swing and a miss?’

Sean followed up with another comment: Continue reading “Unpacking Failed Attack Rolls in GURPS”

I got a sometimes-rare opportunity last night – I got to use the rules I’ve written in the core of their design intent. In this case, it was the simplified and upgraded rules for grappling that appear in my recent Hall of Judgment book: Fantastic Dungeon Grappling.

These took the method of GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling, and seasoned them with lessons learned from DnD5e and Dragon Heresy. Unlike TG, which take 50 pages to do what they set out to do, Fantastic Dungeon Grappling (FDG) does it in just shy of four pages of text. That includes art.

Design Intent

Fantastic Dungeon Grappling is designed to be three things, and where that intent is the same as the original Technical Grappling, to improve them over the original.

  1. It’s designed to be more easily understood and better organized
  2. It’s designed to be fast and loose and somewhat abstract at the table
  3. It’s designed to enable effective grappling in cinematic play, because the Dungeon Fantasy RPG is a cinematic, “this goes to 11” game and genre

I’m not going to belabor the point: mission accomplished here, both for the player and GM. Continue reading “Fantastic Dungeon Grappling: A self-review”

A quick one this Tuesday morning.

I continue – via comments, Twitter, and other methods – to hear about HoJ successfully arriving in the UK, Finland, and even a copy to Australia over the last week. Excellent. Kixto got it done, which is all one can ask for.

For the US backers – and the US author – there are seven cartons of books in Exeter in the UK, waiting for DHL to do . . . whatever it is that they do in order to clear them for departure and put them on a plane. I contacted DHL this morning to see if there was anything I needed to do. They assured me that they’d get back to me before tomorrow at 5pm.

“Well, yeah. Everything’s supposed to arrive by tomorrow noon.”
“I guess that’s one version of hearing from us, then?””Right.”

If that happens, I should be able to get my labels and postage organized and printed. I’ll box up the multiple-order (HoJ plus LHoT or Dungeon Grappling, for example, or more than one copy of HoJ) because they’re “special” and then start boxing up the single-copy orders immediately thereafter. Since I’ll be shipping out 281 books, each of which is about 1.1 lbs, it might require more than one trip to the USPS. Good news is with pre-paid postage, I won’t have to ring ’em in individually.

Anyway: assuming, they show up, most folks should get them by mid-September.

In personal news: I spent three straight days in chain mail at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival with Asfolk Viking Martial Arts. Had a great time doing shield-and-sword, axe, and spear demos for very good crowds through the weekend. I’m feeling a bit baked today, but it was a great time.

Dragon Heresy: The Last 48 Hours

As always, the last 48 hours of a Kickstarter are crucial. One can frequently match the first two days’ funding totals in the last two days, and for Dragon Heresy, if we did that, we’d be seriously flirting with the big stretch goal at $16,000 for an offset run with sewn binding.

We are currently sitting at roughly $11,000, with the initial funding goal having been $3,500.

But let’s back up a bit.

What is Dragon Heresy?

Dragon Heresy is a stand-alone Fantasy RPG based on a grittier take on the Fifth Edition game engine. It uses a two-level target hit roll, and differentiated between skill and endurance (“vigor”), injury (“wounds”), and retains Fifth Edition’s excellent use of Conditions, including Exhaustion. You do NOT need other Fifth Edition books to play the game; character generation, combat, social standing, flyting, grappling, wilderness and survival, and monsters are all in the book.

The setting is strongly Norse-inspired, which influences the cultures that are playable, but also the mechanics, since the vikings’ use of lightweight, buckler-gripped shields as very nearly the primary weapon heavily influenced the combat rules options.

Finally, it integrates one of the best grappling mechanics written for such games, making grappling interchangeable with striking on a blow-by-blow basis. One new player played a dragonborn berserker whose primary weapon was a net with no slowdown in play, full use of the rules, and outstandingly fun outcomes.

Tell Me More

No problem. I’ve done a lot of that – here are some additional resources for those who wish to check out the project

Podcasts and Video

Reviews

There have been two reviews of the pre-release copy of the game (it’s fully written).

  • Follow Me and Die! took a look and liked what he saw
  • Moe Tousignant is in the middle of a truly comprehensive review, and allowed me to host his first two sections on my blog
  • James Spahn (White Star and other games) took a look at a pre-release copy and liked what he saw.

The Kickstarter: What You Get

There are only a few pledge levels

  • At $5 you get a stripped down version of the combat rules in sort-of edited PDF format, with minimal layout and no art. It’s for taking the combat rules for a test drive
  • At $20 you get a full-color, hyperlinked, layered PDF
  • At $50 you get a Black and White POD hardback and the PDF
  • At the $100 sponsorship level, the hardback is upgraded to color
  • At $500, you get everything from the $100 level and I will hand-make for  you an authentic viking shield if you live within the USA. It will be fit to you up to 35.5” diameter, with hide-glued planks, Painted striðskjold battle shield with linen stitching and custom paint job1oz hide edging, linen stitching, and a hand-carved oak handle. This is basically “buy the shield and get the game for free.”

What Can You Do?

Obviously, the best thing for me is for you to head over and pledge. It’s a great game, with a great layout, and even if I do say so myself, the initial book block (the interior pages without the binding) from the most likely vendor unless we hit the big offset print goal are simply superb.

If you are interested in the game but can’t pledge, I’d ask that you share it on social media so that others that might be interested might see. Like Fifth Edition rules but want more grit? You’ll like what you see here. Like Norse mythology and vikings? You’re a prime candidate to love the game.

48 hours to go. Please check it out, and pledge if you can!

 

I was on a lot of podcasts this week. All different. Our discussion with Eric F on “martial arts in old-school games” was a different type of discussion than the “get deep into the mechanical weeds” with Chris S. Matt and David were both very interested in specifics on shields, while the second part of my discussion with Derek was about getting into, and staying into, the game design space.

A friend of mine told me that he was impressed I managed to cover substantially the same general territory with enough differences to make each podcast worth listening to without being repetitive.

Of course, that has a lot to do with my hosts . . .

Podcast Palooza

Each of these is pretty worth listening to, even if I say so myself.

First, I was on The Established Facts with Derek Knutsen-Frey, whom I’ve gotten to know through the IGDN. We had a long chat divided in two parts: a bunch on Dragon Heresy, and then 45 minutes on game publishing as a business.

The always-awesome James Introcaso hosted me for a while on Table Top Babble, and we mostly talked about Dragon Heresy

Chris Sniezak and I got deep into the depths of the game mechanics

Jason Hobbs had me and Eric Farmer on at the same time, and our take was more broad. Can you do “martial arts” in Old-School systems? What does that even mean?

Matt Finch and I had a great chat, and he was absolutely enthusiastic about the materials, construction, and use of period weaponry, and egged me on effectively.

Finally, I was on with Nerdarchy Dave for a live discussion and chat, and I had a great time talking with him and taking questions

Murder-hobos. Heavily armed vagrants, wandering from town to town. Tempers flare, and corpses lie still on the barroom floor. Like a samurai granted kiri sute gomen, the permission to cut and depart, only the presumed wailing of friends and relatives is left in their wake. Weeks later, they return, bloodied themselves, with heaping mounds of gold and treasure. They may glow visibly with newly-acquired power. And still they provoke the inhabitants of the town, who probably treat with them anyway, and take their gold, give them lodging. And as the Chitauri master (?) said: “The humans? What can they do . . . but burn.”

Hrmph.

A really active facebook thread about what do to about murder-hobos got me thinking about the why and the what of the phenomenon. I’m not going to try and solve it her, per se, but I do have a few thoughts.

Free Action is not Consequence-Free Action

The biggest solution to what happens when things in town (or on the trail, or . . . ) go horribly awry is always the same: have the perpetrators treated like there are consequences for their actions. People remember when they draw axes during an intense political conversation at Ye Olde Pubbe and kill some folks. They won’t be served, at least. The town may just bar the doors to them. No service for you. No corselet, no sollerets, no service, so to speak.

Writing Dragon Heresy got me thinking about this more, though, because if you kill some random chap in Viking culture, if the cause wasn’t just – and the culture seemed to have a pretty good idea of ‘just’ and ‘unjust,’ or at least ‘he brought it on himself’ or ‘that was uncalled for,’ then the family of the deceased had not just the right, but the obligation to pay you back in turn.

And that wasn’t relegated to “oh, a 1st-level schlub gets to try and revenge himself on a 17th-level guy named Sir Cuisinart.” No . . . it extends a few relations over. They might kill your brother. Or your third cousin twice removed, or something. I believe there was a limit to the distance of the relations, but things would happen. They would, if I understand it right (and I’m still learning), happen at the Thing, (pronounced ting, I think). During this moot of the karls and jarls, a claim of grievance would be lodged, and folks would basically say whether the claimant was in the right for wanting vengeance.

Here’s the kicker: if it was deemed so, that just meant the wronged party got a nod that whatever they did was within the bounds of justifiable homicide. It was up to them to recruit friends, neighbors, and relatives to try and do the deed.

I might have that wrong; I’d love reference to validate.

But in any case: the culture supported quite a bit of give-and-take on violent retribution, and the expectation that not just you (hey, I’m high level), but your brother Bernie (Berndred? Bernr?) might get offed in vengeance. If you had a house, it might be attacked and burned, and if you were in it, so much the better. If not, that’s good too.

Consequences.

That’s easy, though. The key bit is not having it happen to begin with.

Restrained Dispute Resolution

Sometimes I wonder if the reason a lethal escalation to violence was so very common (is very common) is the lack of alternatives that are, for lack of a better word, fun.

It can be fun to roleplay a loud, boisterous, beserker shieldmaiden that will insult the town gentry, finish off three chickens and a cask of wine, and challenge the local tough guy to an arm-wrestling contest. But if some local hotshot goes for an inappropriate pinch . . .

. . . no question he’s gonna deserve a smackdown. But brawling is frequently slow, or geared to be not that much less lethal than weapons. Grappling makes folks flip the table over in rage in many cases, as I noted when writing Dungeon Grappling.

And yet, and yet.

Having Gudrun backhand said offender across the face, then wrestle him into a pretzel until he squeals for mercy is not just satisfying narratively, it should be fun to play out. Dragon Heresy does this with the addition of better rules for grappling that allow everything from conditions to applying pain. You can, with solid mechanical support, make poor Robert the Pincher squeal for mercy. And then have your part skald sing songs about it, renaming him Robert the Squealer. Telling the tales of His Yelpiness far and wide.

That’s a combat-oriented but non-lethal avenue that provides satisfying and decisive mechanical support for a narrative outcome that doesn’t involve entrails.

A Flyting Victory

Again with the Vikings! The stories and sagas, eddas of prose and poetry, show a particular kind of “combat” that was basically a contest of insults. Called Flyting.

Now there’s something neat. Engaging in a contest of insults would be pretty spiffy. It would give mechanical support to non-spellcasting combat that focuses on CHA and INT instead of STR, DEX, and CON.

love this idea, it’s culturally apt for the Dragon Heresy world, and I can completely see how to do this within my ruleset. So much so that I’m actively looking for a place to put it.

But again: defeat your foe in a formal contest of insults, have skalds on hand to sing the song of said stinging victory with cutting words. Your fame grows (Egil was renowned as both a lout, a brawler, and a poet) and your star rises . . . all without having to figure out where to dispose of the spare liver.

And maybe skalds could actually turn that into actual injury. Fairly sure they can do that anyway, through magic, but having this level of support for it would be pretty spiffy.

Parting Shot

So two things, really. I think that in many cases “murder-hoboism” is played out because there’s mechanical support for it (combat rules are usually the most detailed), it’s the most fun (it’s a fantasy game based from a wargame in many cases), and there is little consequence for it (social, physical, or otherwise).

With Dragon Heresy, you’ll be able to engage in robust grappling to provide full-on combat experience with no fatality unless you mean it. The new flyting rules (gotta write those Right Now) will allow for an entirely different axis of combat.

And I definitely need to put in some reputation based rules for such, because your fame and honor need to come into play. Including a rep that turns you into “very dangerous, kill on sight.” And with enough arrows, you’re going down. Your’e certainly not getting into town to sell your loot and buy your supplies. And if the Thing votes you Outcast and Thrall . . . you’re not even a person. You can be killed and rolled off a cliff like so much trash, provided your assailant(s) has the might, or lots of people where quantity has a quality all its own.

But the more non-impaling axes one has to resolve disputes, and the more clear the consequences for murder-hoboing, the more easily players will engage with both story and rules to avoid it. Just make it fun.

It goes both ways, too. If the players can avail themselves of such avenues if a powerful NPC gets all in their face, that’s just juicy fun.

 

Viking, Shields, and Design Intent

Over the weekend and the last few days, I filmed a bit of “Doug talking, mostly about Viking” as something like a “Designer’s Notes,” or really, just talking about the inspiration for the game.

In this particular case, shields had to be more useful than the +5-10% decrease in hit chance that game stats show. I decided to try and find some Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) classes local to me to find out, and lo and behold, I found Asfolk. Not only was it “using a shield,” it was “using a Viking shield,” which fit in with the themes I was exploring for Dragon Heresy.

I talk a lot about shields on my blog, both for D&D5 type games, as well as GURPS, and general principles as well.

I think you’ll find Dragon Heresy adds just the right amount of cool options to go along with the shield in the game.

A Nice Compliment

David Pulver is a prolific game writer, and we’ve corresponded about things for a while. Heck, he’s working on a game with Gaming Ballistic, called Venture Beyond. In any case, he has seen some of the early rules and layout work, and he dropped this nice little compliment on my blog. I repeat it with his permission:

“I’m very pleased this is happening at last!

When you showed me the manuscript, one thing besides the new combat options that I was really impressed with was the new rules you added to 5e for marching, exposure, hunting, and so on – I liked the strategic options (trading speed for stealth, etc.) which is good game design. They seemed a lot more detailed and interesting then I recall from D&D (and a lot more playable than anything similar in GURPS). I suspect I might use them even if I wasn’t running a Viking game…”

Next Stretch Goal

Well, we’ve pretty much crushed the $3,500 basic funding goal. I like crushing goals.

The next two are kinda out there. The $10K goal is definitely within reach, and while projections are always uncertain, if we have a few more good days like we just did, we’ll pass the “more content” goal mid-campaign.

If we do, I’ll send out a poll and let folks force-rank what additional inclusions there will be. There are three more extra races, at least a dozen backgrounds, and of course both classes and archetypes/sub-classes ready for inclusion in that sweet spot from Level 1-5. If the time comes, the backers choose the new content!

Beyond that, there’s the offset color print run, hanging out there at $16,000. Truth be told, that’s the one I really want to hit, because I’ve always dreamed of Dragon Heresy getting the kind of quality print job that Symbaroum, ACKS, or the Dracula Dossier’s Director’s Handbook got.

Talk to you guys soon!

An update: turns out I had more wood than I thought.

1x Poplar experiment. Could be up to 36″ in diameter, good for someone up to 6’4″ tall. 
2x 33.5″ aspen. Good for 5’5″ to 5’11”
4x 35.5″ aspen. Good for 5’9 to 6’3″ tall

The smaller shields are going to be donated to the Cyprus Classical Academy silent auction. I will paint one with the Cyprus Logo, and the other in purple, white, and gold, and call it Vikings Squared.

Leave a comment or drop me an email if you’re interested. Tons of pictures of prior examples below the break, as well as a few details on materials.

Continue reading “Shield Blanks waiting to be built”