I was on the Geek Gab Game Night podcast just a few moments ago. Nearly two hours on adventure design and other topics – we didn’t hold ourselves tightly to a particular theme. As always, it was a hoot interacting with my gracious hosts, and it definitely plays out as a conversation rather than a lecture!

Give a listen, and of course, support Lost Hall of Tyr!

Last week I sat down with James Introcaso again, and spoke for more than an hour on grappling, Dungeon Grappling, how to publish a game, and how I approach running a Kickstarter, especially as a newbie.

It was a fun interview, and James is a great interlocutor.

Check it out!

TableTop Babble – 040 – 5e Sci Fi and Kickstarter Advice


I was invited by Jasyn Jones and John McGlynn to join them on their Geek Gab podcast to talk about Dungeon Grappling, after I posted my GenCon reports about the playtest.

Well, yeah, we covered grappling. But we also covered GURPS, the DFRPG, game design principles, and many other things, including HEMA and how useful first-hand research can be if you can do it. Roland Warzecha’s Dimicator videos got honorable mention. We talked a lot of 5e, some Pathfinder, a bit of Fate, and WEG’s d6 and GUMSHOE got a nod. I talked quite a bit about Dragon Heresy.

I had a great time, and we spoke for about 75 minutes. I talk kinda fast, but I don’t think I was incoherent, so yay.

Anyway: enjoy!

A long while back I got to attend a training seminar by the McChrystal Group. It inspired me to write a bit about using that business framework in RPGs, and in S2E7 of the Aeon game, it came up again.

How? We were trying to work out ways to use a recent treasure trove of information to split up our quarry, the selfish and violent Rep Singleton, from his major resource base.

As we were spinning plans, something was bothering me. Without rehashing it all, I felt that many of the plans were a bit convoluted, and also didn’t ring true to something that would not cause both our quarry and the mercenary army he used to lead to sit up and take notice of us rather than at each other.

We resolved this by reverting back to my six questions that all prospective evil overlords need to answer (or really, the GM must answer for them) in order for plans to make sense.

Without further ado, here they are again.

1. What will the world look like after the main actor gets his way?

There needs to be a concrete vision of the future here. Some picture – even if it’s twisted – where the main actor sits back with his or her beverage of choice (wine, beer, the blood of the enemy, whatever) and says “Ahhh. Now that’s how it’s supposed to be!”

If you can’t articulate that goal, then you need to keep going. I always rebel at the concept articulated in the Matrix movies – “What do all men with power want? More power!”

No. That power, wealth, or whatever isn’t usually the goal. In fact, it’s more like #6 – how you keep score.

But for our example case, as we were spinning plans to make it look like our quarry had betrayed this monstrously large power base, we needed to ask and answer a question – what could be worth it? He had access to a powerful army, influenced them heavily from behind the scenes, and wielded the power of life over death for any within his reach.

So . . . why betray something that huge? Either the end goal was revenge over someone, and he was willing to burn his resource base to get it, or his goal was to end up with something bigger. By perhaps offering up secrets from the one organisation, he can roll up and either collapse or assimilate his other competitors. And maybe even make a play for ruling the world (that sort of goal is more plausible with certain in-game and real-world mental disorders).

But we then had a few ideas for things that our quarry would like to see the world look like when he’s done, and that made the rest more plausible.

Turing it around, we then asked ourselves the same question. What would the world look like when we were done, as heroes?

Well, we wanted Singleton in jail, stripped of power and influence. Both because we promised, but also because he was a corrupt, violent man that was gaining in influence an using it to hurt people. As heroic types, that’s a problem.

We also wanted Blue Skies, the massive and powerful Private Military Company, to not have an army of 500 metahumans trained like SFOD-D. The redeemable should be working with other hero teams to help people. The neutrals should be left to guide themselves. The criminal should be brought to justice. Mostly we focused on the metahuman component there, but we seemed to have joined Team Iron Man for the moment – that much force needs a responsible check. And we also wanted to dissipate and disperse Blue Skies without leaving a spectacular power vacuum that would just allow it to be re-established “Under New Management.”

So that’s what our world would look like if we win. That let us get on to other things.

Heck, even more locally and immediately, we wanted Singleton’s wife safely in Witness Protection, Singleton arrested, in jail, and out of power, and not a single soul interested in his redemption.

2. What are the main actor and his helpers willing to do to achieve their goals?

Methods are important. We knew from the data dump that both players would be willing to do pretty much anything to achieve their aims. Blue Skies wants to remain the premier PMC, and probably has other goals of their own that we will need to figure out in order to oppose them effectively, especially since we have hard evidence of the atrocities they’re willing to perpetrate to accomplish whatever mission they’re on.

For the heroes, we are much more circumscribed, which is one of the things that makes us heroes. We’re much more tightly tied to the rule of law, to evidence, proof, and justice, due to our sanction by the MAPS program. Like a mini-Avengers team.

So we won’t purposefully cause plans that will hurt anyone but our quarry – Cannot Harm Innocents deliberately. We have chosen to work within existing power structures, but are willing to engage with some fringe elements such as hacktivists, and The Pusher, to ensure that the known violent criminals will be brought to justice formally.

Because almost certainly we will not be willing to, say, simply shoot the old management in the head from 700 yds. Or engage in a systematic anti-metahuman purge. Avoiding that was the climax of last season, so no.

And right in the moment, our S2E7 plans included lots of shady behavior, but we tried to break as few laws as possible. We were constrained in how we sought evidence, we tried to ensure that anything we did discover was not fruit of the poisonous tree, so we could act within our status as legal agencies and not vigilantes. We came close in a few places, but managed to do this right.

3. What does the process of winning look like to the main actor?

For setting up Singleton, we decided that winning looked like his selectively leaking information to competitors to set them up to be either eliminated or assimilated, so that eventually Singleton could sit at the head of an even larger PMC, also integrate Blue Skies, and either set up a government of his own, or continue to wield influence within the US government. That seemed plausible enough, and such machinations were part of ye olde data dump.

For The Cavalry (us), that looked like getting ahead of, and stopping, major illegal activity and various atrocities that Blue Skies was involved in. It looked like getting to the other metas who could be influenced and enticing them to leave Blue Skies behind. And it looked like the company tearing itself apart from within, since we didn’t have the resources to take them on directly.

Again back to S2E7, winning looked like Singleton telling his wife to get out of his sight to ensure he wouldn’t harm her, that we got enough data to help keep Singleton from exerting enough power to find and punish his abused spouse.

4. What does the main actor need in order to win?

This is part of the strategy part. What resources do we need, or did Singleton need, to get with the winning part.

For him, he needed clandestine contacts and arrangements with other PMCs and with large clients. Planting such evidence (especially variations of real evidence, which we had lots of ) to indicate that he was setting out to displace or replace the Board of Directors at Blue Skies, as well as start into another business for himself. So he needed money, contacts, independence, and plausible deniablility.

For out plot against Blue Skies, we need Singleton and Blue Skies focused on each other. We need to get Blue Skies’ key players likewise at odds with each other. We need access to the metahuman ranks and a way to pick off the ones that are good-natured enough to join the forces of light and sweetness. We need to have data as to their plans so we can interfere with the most egregious of them. We will need a way to keep our activities from betraying the fact that we have compromised their files and are reading their mail.

For our S2E7, we needed a distraction to give Leslie Singleton a reason to be first seen by her husband, and then to be told to leave – he had to want her gone. We needed a distraction that would keep him busy while we got her to Witness Protection. We needed a safe room that simply could not be found. We needed the information to prevent future follow-up attempts. The fact that we got all of this and enough data to start nibbling at Blue Skies was a bonus.

5. How does the main actor go about getting what she needed to win?

This is all about tactics, and it’s flexible. In the case of breaking up Blue Skies, we’re still working it out. For our notional plan for keeping Singleton on the run, we just needed a few hits here and there to keep them focused on each other.

The details of the tactics we used to get Leslie out were detailed in the play report.

6. How does the main actor know if his plans were succeeding or failing?

This is all about metrics. Concrete win/loss figures or some sort of scoreboard that we can use to determine what courses of action are worthwhile, and which are not.

For getting Leslie out, we were looking for how smoothly our plan went according to the timeline, how many contingencies we had to pull out (like dealing with metahuman protection instead of human bodyguards), and the extent we got data – almost literally ‘how many counts of criminal activity can we score evidence for?’

We didn’t do as well in pre-establishing metrics, so that’s an area we can do better on in the future.

Parting Shot
The use of these questions to figure out what a person or organization will do has helped me a lot in working out plotlines – even complicated ones – for my gaming. If I have (say) a Vampire Overlord near the top of a Vampyramid/Conspyramid, what is it they’re trying to do? What will the world look like? What about the competition? What do they think the world should look like? Where do those things overlap? Where are the different? What resources does each faction need to win? Are they the same or different?

All of this will drive how the bad guys carry out their plans. And those plans will make sense – or at least be consistent – because the tactics will be directed at getting the strategic items that the orchestrator needs in order to “win,” in order to bring about their new world.

The “nice” thing about this framework is it can also be used to logic your way through the illogical. If your Cthulhoid demigods are trying to rewrite reality, you can still get to “what do they need to do this?” and then drive tactics and plans.

If you’re working up Hydra or some other Nazi-like classically evil organization, you can work through the things they’re willing and unwilling to do, and what winning looks like – and look to real history to find metrics, horrific as they are.

And for the good guys? Working through at least one good answer to these questions will restrain the worst Leroy Jenkins impulses, which can lead to fairly campaign-destroying behavior at times.

Welcome to another session of Melee Academy. This cross-blog event is open to all who want to write about the topic chosen, in any system. If you have something to say, write it, send me a note, and I’ll add it to the list.

Today’s Entries

Melee Academy: Disarms in Four Systems

Taking your foe’s weapons away is taught in many real-world martial arts styles. It’s presumed – correctly – that a disarmed foe is simply much less dangerous than an armed one.

In my experience, though, disarms are rarely used in RPGs. Sure, there may be mechanics for them, but for whatever reason, they’re just not done.

Why Disarm?

The first question, regardless of the game, is why disarm a foe?

  • Reduce their threat to you. This may seem obvious, but it also might not be that way, depending on the game system. If the majority of a foe’s threat comes from weapons, taking those weapons away can make a big difference in the outcome. Examples where this is probably true include D&D, where the base unarmed damage is only 1 point (plus STR bonuses). A game where it may or may not be true is Fate, where the “disarmed” temporary Aspect may or may not really impact the outcome (Thor is going to be impressive with or without Mjolnir). 
  • Reduce their defenses against your attacks. Obviously, this only matters in games where weapons play a role in defense. If taking their weapons away means that their limbs are no longer effective for defending against your attacks, this can also be decisive.
  • Impress them/Intimidate them. Sometimes you can disarm someone just to rub their nose in the fact that you can. If the goal is not to kill or injure them, but to influence someone else’s behavior, or if you need them alive, casually taking weapons away is a good way to force a gut check.
  • Killing is bad: In the classic murder-hobo mode, foes are largely for killin’. So are innkeepers, animals, the town guard, orcs, half-orcs, someone in a fair fight, or was going to start a fair fight, or if there was a woman involved. (Thanks, Jayne). But in many less constructed environments, or where the town guard are all Level 15 Champion Fighters, random death and destruction might not be the best plan. Taking lethal instruments away from all parties can keep repercussions to a minimum.
  • Change the terms of the fight. This wraps up many aspects of the above, but if a foe is a weapon fighter that hasn’t invested in other skills, taking their weapon away – if you can – will change the fight, perhaps dramatically. A gunslinger that forgot or chose not to invest in fisticuffs will be a very different threat (or none at all) once that pistol or rifle is safely on the ground or in the chandelier. A weapon fighter who suddenly finds themselves weaponless, grappled, and on the ground might just give up. You might rather fight with Weapon B than Weapon A (due to your skills) but can’t (due to his weapons) – you like the knife but he has a morning star and dagger. 

So there are lots of reasons why you might notionally like to take a weapon away from a foe. But does the game enable it? It is too difficult, too time consuming? A bad idea all around? Or a instant “I win” button?

Let’s take a gander at a few games and see.

Dungeons and Dragons, Fifth Edition

In DnD5, disarming is an optional rule consigned to one paragraph in the DMG. The short-short version is you make a melee attack, and your foe rolls a contest of Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics). If you win, you disarm them. You can gain disadvantage on your roll if your foe’s got a two-handed weapon on the defense, and size matters – the target has advantage if larger, disadvantage if smaller.

For humans, then, you’ll be rolling 1d20 + STR bonus (or DEX with a Finesse weapon) + Proficiency bonus against the best of 1d20 + STR or DEX bonus + Proficiency if you have such with Athletics or Acrobatics. Plus Proficiency again if you have Expertise in one or both of those skills.

So pretty much even-up in terms of allowable bonuses. Two fighters of equal level and stats (or if pitting STR vs DEX, but with similar bonuses) will likely claim the same primary attribute bonus and get to add proficiency. Watch out for Bards and Rogues (double proficiency) with expertise in Acrobatics or Athletics. But if you can find a foe without the ability to add proficiency to his defense, you will probably pick up a 10-30% advantage in a disarm attempt.

Is it worth it? In D&D5, probably, if your foe relies on weapons. It eats up one attack, carries no inherent downside. Unarmed damage (assuming you’ve removed their only weapon) is 1 point plus the STR bonus, so if your STR 16 Orc with a battleaxe did 1d8+3 (4-11, average 7.5) on a hit, he now does 4. Given that fighting in D&D is often a mutually ablative war of attrition, this very much throws the odds in your favor. Throw them prone, and they’ll hit you less, too.

Impressing them depends on the feel of the game, but might give advantage on an Intimidation attempt with GM agreement. No real ability to alter defenses (because it’s all about your Armor Class). So really, disarming in D&D gives you more chances to hit him and reduce his HP than you’d have otherwise. It won’t work vs. creatures that can’t be disarmed, of course – that’s not system dependent, it’s just obvious.


Taking a foe’s weapon away in GURPS can potentially be a big deal. It can be a “swingy” game, where one hit can alter the tone and outcome of a fight. I wrote about it in more detail in a prior Academy: Unarmed vs. Knife – Technical Disarms

Removing the foe’s weapon matters most when your foe is really counting on the bonuses it gives. A long stick allows swing damage, where unarmed tends to be thrust. Swords and knives can give the cutting and impaling injury modifiers to wounds. Firearms can be particularly dangerous, because nearly all of them in modern games can threaten to hit you three times or more, with injury per shot in excess of 2d, sometimes a lot more (a modern battle rifle may well be 7d for three shots, and it only takes one to kill you). On the other hand, if your ST 30 ogre punches for 3d-1 and kicks for 3d, having a stick in his hand for 3d or 3d+1 doesn’t matter much . . . though 5d+3 cut for a swung broadsword (if not more) is certainly scarier than 3d cr, both can take Joe Average out of the fight in one blow. The second is more likely to kill him outright, of course.

On the defense, this is mostly an issue with melee weapons. But it’s a real issue, because if the fighter is depending on a weapon parry afforded by high skill, removing the weapon usually forces the contest to a secondary choice . . . or Dodge, which you never run out of in most games.

Modern GURPS games are more likely to feature the “killing is bad” outlook, and taking a lethal weapon from the foe and then subduing them (both probably best accomplished with Judo or Wrestling) is a good way to keep the law looking the other way.

Mechanically, there are a few ways to go using the Basic Set.

  • You can grab the arm or hand and force them to drop it by winning a regular contest of Strength
  • You can grab the weapon itself, and take it from your foe by winning a regular contest of Strength
  • You can strike at a weapon to knock it away by first striking his weapon, and then winning a Quick Contest of ST or DX-based weapon skills.
  • You can put him in an arm lock, and do enough damage to cripple the arm or hand; at that point, he’ll drop anything in it.

Regular Contests tend to be time consuming. You have to succeed in your ST roll, while your foe must fail his. This will only be practical if you vastly outclass your foe in ST. You also need to be skilled enough to seize your foe, which given penalties for such of -2 to -4, typically, may be rate limiting.

Knocking a Weapon Away (the third option) favors high skill again, but the foe gets their best of ST or DX and weapon skill. The Disarming technique can help an attacker; Retain Weapon helps the defender.

Arm Lock is one of the better bets here, as you can raise Arm Lock to Wrestling or Judo +4, and the defense is a parry (often low). From there, you are again contesting Arm Lock or ST vs your foe’s ST or HT in order to do damage equal to margin of victory.

All of these, of course, might take multiple seconds (Knocking a Weapon Away does not), and the foe tends to be a threat to you during all of them. Many players just opt to smash the opponent hard in the face instead.

Technical Grappling

My book, GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling adds the option to disarm a foe by causing pain instead of crippling damage. The arm lock requirements are still there, but it’s a bit easier to force the HT roll that makes them drop stuff. You must be willing to deal with Control Points, of course.

David Pulver Weighs In
An important issue in any “disarm” attack rule is not just the ease of making the disarm but the ease of _recovering_ from it. 

Example: if the game mechanics give two equal fighters a 50% chance of succeeding with a disarm to knock a weapon away, but allow a disarmed fighter to pick up their dropped weapon 100% of the time with a single action (or worse, a free or move action), then disarming is a bad tactic. 

If the disarm rules, however, cause a weapon to fly some distance away, or the rules for retrieving a dropped weapon mean (for instance) that a fighter must take multiple actions, or put himself at risk (kneel, lose his defense, whatever) to recover that dropped weapon, a disarm is viable. 

Likewise, a disarm may be viable parrying with a weapon is important in the rules (as it is in GURPS) and by disarming a foe you reduce his defense and can either follow up while it is reduced, or an ally can. 

GURPS generally makes disarming viable because its second-by-second time scale, separate active defenses, and posture rules all mean  fighter is at risk if he takes time to recover a dropped weapon. 

Some other game systems, like D&D, may not have this same vulnerability, relegating disarms to special cases (“I disarm the foe’s magic sword, and my friend, next in combat sequencing, picks up that sword for himself!”) 

Night’s Black Agents

As always, Night’s Black Agents is about on-screen awesome, rather than pure skill levels. To disarm a foe, you make an attack against their weapon, which is at an additional difficulty, usually +3, which makes the required difficulty 7 on a 1d6.

That target means that in order to succeed, the player will have to spend from their general point pool. This can be by Shooting a weapon out of their hand, using Weapons to make a disarm, or with Hand-to-Hand to twist it out. 

You’ll need to spend enough points to buy the success you want, though if you roll a natural 6 on 1d6 you will often succeed regardless of opposition. Conditionally, if you shoot it, you disarm them but the weapon is damaged. If you use weapons, you automatically disarm them if your weapon is heavier (and it still works if you roll a 6 with a lighter weapon). With Hand-to-Hand, again you take it with no fuss and no muss if you roll a 6, otherwise, you have to win a contest – basically, the Hand-to-Hand contest allows a grapple, but you still have to win another contest to take possession of the weapon.

The requirement to spend so many points means that a disarm is a moment of high drama and spotlight time, since the typical points in an important combat skill for a fightin’-focused agent is likely at least 8, possibly higher, such as 12. But that means that a certain disarm might well run you your entire pool at one go. You’ve used up your camera time, bub.

Fate Core

As one would imagine, disarming in Fate Core will be Creating an Advantage. If you succeed, you get to create an Aspect to invoke, while if you Succeed with Style, you get to invoke it twice.

For this one, however, as a stunt, I would probably create a removable aspect that denied the weapon to the other party, or negated his own weapon if that was an aspect.

As an example, if you Disarm Inigo Montoya, who has the Aspect “Sword of the Six-Fingered Man,” then until Inigo succeeds on an Overcome, with active opposition from his foes, he cannot reclaim, and thus invoke, that Aspect.

For a more mundane effect, or as an add-on, if you are using Weapon Ratings, then the extra +3 you get for the effect for a sword (as an example) is no longer available. 

Parting Shot

If someone’s shooting at you, GURPS generally has you shoot them back. Likewise with weapon vs. weapon – it’s usually fairly high percentage to just attack them directly.

Now, if you have mad unarmed combat skills, no weapon, and your foe’s armed . . . well, you can either disarm them or (more intelligently) run the hell away. Or you can, again, punch them in the face, or perhaps do a Sweep, which will put them on the ground for -4 to hit and -3 to defend.

Disarming is thus reserved for very strong creatures with natural weapons (teeth and horns) that also mostly bite to grapple rather than strike.

For PCs, you need to also be willing to spend  few turns on the disarm, in many cases. Players in my experience generally make the calculation that it’s better to incapacitate by striking than muck about with grappling and disarms.

D&D is a bit better. It only burns one turn, and while it still favors the skilled (that’s a feature, not a bug), it’s a good way to pivot the fight to ones favor.

Night’s Black Agents is neither easy nor hard; it is expensive in terms of spotlight time, which is the game’s true currency. This makes a Disarm something you do when you’re feeling like being awesome and the results are worth the high resource use.

Fate Core? It’s one possible interpretation of the Create an Advantage task, just like doing a Judo Throw might be a possible interpretation. Success on a throw might be that the foe gets the Aspect “Flat on your Back!” while succeeding with style might either give two invocations of that same aspect, or perhaps two different ones: Flat on your Back! and Oof! Where’d my Lungs go? The defender might have to Overcome both in order to be back on his feet. With the Disarm, I’d probably tag the foe with the problematic “disarmed!” aspect until he can get the weapon back – if he can at all. 

Got these in the mail today.

One two, hardbacks here before me
That’s what I said now
Drakul, his villainy abhors me
He’ll kill you dead now . . . 

As typical for Night’s Black Agents, the book is meaty and gorgeous. Dracula Unredacted – a complete version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with extra notes added, will doubtless make a fun read. I’ve never read the original, only seen the movie, so this will be really fun.

I’ll get into more of a chapter-by-chapter look at the Director’s Handbook over the next few weeks. 

For now, a hearty shout-out to +Ken Hite and +Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan for what is clearly a job well done. I can’t wait to dig in.

Over on the GURPS Forums, someone wondered why I’d chosen the games I chose. Why those in particular?

Well . . .

If you’re doing gaming you HAVE to do D&D. Whether it’s D&D5 or Pathfinder is your call, but that was the first big popular system and more or less remains so. D&D is an outgrowth of the CHAINMAIL wargame, and the influence still shows in that it’s a tactical system based on HP ablation. D&D in various forms probably accounts for 8-9 out of 10 bucks of RPG sales.

And for me personally, choosing D&D5 was good because it helped me learn the rules.

So that’s one.

For other tactical systems, I chose GURPS because. I couldn’t not. But it would make a fine choice no matter what. It’s got the finest turn resolution and the least abstract rules equivalency in combat – a blow really IS a blow, facing really DOES matter, and if you get injured a few times, you go down. It’s a blatantly tactical game at the core, though of course you don’t have to play it that way. Again, it shows the ancestry to Man-to-Man and The Fantasy Trip.

That’s two.

Savage Worlds had been held up as “the system people are leaving GURPS to go play” in some prior discussions I’d had. I frankly wanted to see if the system was “all that.” It too was wargame-derived, I later found out. Deadlands, then something about a Train, and Savage Worlds came out of a simplification of the mass battle system. Anyway, so again, tactical combat. A system I’d never played, too. It also has the unusual mechanic of exploding polyhedral dice. I’ve seen “big dice are better!” before, but I wanted to see how much better.

That was three tactical systems, and I wanted to include a pair of narrative ones. The GUMSHOE system is the classic narrative system by design. Heck, the entire purpose of the system is to avoid rolling, in a way. I’d played Trail of Cthulhu and did NOT like its combat or general skills resolution system. Then Ken Hite graciously took me to school in my interview with him about the metagame currency of screen time, and that changed my perspective on how things play. It’s also crazy low-resolution – roll 1d6 for everything. The die is only there for the seeming of variability to force different uses of the screen time mechanic. And yet NBA has some very specific rules for chases, for martial arts, for explosives. It’s the latest in the GUMSHOE evolution, and had years of suggested improvements and tweaks. It’s also a great read, with a lot of advice for how to write a camaign. And I love Ken and his work. So that made four.

Finally, Fate Core, which is another narrative game, but a very, very crunchy one, in a way. Again, the metagame currency of screen time via a limited number of action points (Fate Points), but this one you have some basic skill levels. The low resolution (though higher than NBA) combat mechanics (Attack, Defend, Create an Advantage being the most frequently used) were interesting, and the probabilities of victory surprisingly stark (4dF-4dF doesn’t have that much spread).

I considered more, but as it turned out, five was more than enough to nearly overwhelm me. Other options might make an interesting follow-up, but I’m liking the “write what strikes my fancy” phase I’m in now.

This marks the end of the Violent Resolution blog series here on
Castalia House. I’d like to thank Jeffro for recommending me, and Castalia
House for giving me a shot at publishing this series on the different facets of
combat mechanics in my chosen systems.
What did I take away from it all?

Games Run Like TV Shows/Movies
One of the biggest things that comes out of looking at games like
Night’s Black Agents and Fate is that if you approach them from the background
and mission of tactical simulations, you’re probably not going to have much
fun. “All guns are the same” doesn’t please the set of people that
expect their gaming experience to reflect a move-by-move environment, or a
gear-intensive experience such as that found in first-person shooter games such
as HALO or Borderlands 2, or even Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, where kitting out
your troops and yard-by-yard careful advances is part of the game experience.
Oh, sure – you can say you’re doing such a move, and even
declare that such tactics are part of (in Fate) Creating an Advantage to allow
you to get the drop on a foe, or even Overcome an Obstacle to prevent anyone
from getting the drop on you. Night’s Black Agents assumes such behavior from
the PCs, since they’re all Jason Bourne clones anyway!
No, these games are about screen time, and should probably be
played and approached as such. Your store of metagame currency drives spotlight
time. Fate Points, stunts, and free invokes for Fate Core, and your pools
of Investigative and General Skills for Night’s Black Agents (and any game run
off of GUMSHOE). The dominating advantage spending a point for a +2 brings,
however, is why you only do them a few times per “show.” Thor does
not call lightning and blow everyone up every single scene. Voltron Forms
Blazing Sword! once during the big fight. At the end. Because it’s cool.
As far as combat goes, it can – and will – be as exciting and
detailed as you let it in a narrative sense. That the mechanics are
often coarse doesn’t mean that it’s not engaging. But you won’t be depending on
the rules to provide the engagement. It’s up to the players and the GM to work
within a deliberately limited set of game-mechanics, and that’s not a bad
thing! One is more likely to have the kind of fast-paced thriller emulation
when the mechanical approach requires little differentiation to adjudicate.
This is not for everyone.
While I have not played Fate, I have played Trail of Cthulhu,
which is based on GUMSHOE, the parent engine of Night’s Black Agents. Until I
sat down for an interview with Ken Hite, the author of NBA, I can definitely
say I was approaching the game wrong. I was – it’s not too far wrong to say offended,
though ‘yanked out of the moment’ would be a better fit – disappointed to find
out that after a few uses of my medical skill, i was no better at being a
doctor than anyone else. I’d really approached the job and general skill pool
as training, rather than moments in the spotlight.
I very much want to try both games out, with experienced GMs and
players, to see how things “should” be done. I’d also like to try
them out, after that, with less experienced GMs and players,
possibly with me being GM, to see if I can swing it. I get the feeling that
these games run with the maxim of film in mind: “Nothing appears on film
unless the director places it there.”

As an aside, this nearly ruined movies for me, thanks to Dr.
Dennis Houston at Rice University. He gave a seminar in the loft of Hanszen
College that was no more than an hour or two long, but taught me a huge amount
about how to look at a scene in movies and TV. Does the camera pan across the
actor’s wedding ring? The director wanted it to be there to tell you he’s
married. Anything worth screen time is a message sent to the audience. 
 Well, except the stormtrooper bashing his head on the wall in
Star Wars Episode IV. That was just funny.

So when playing narrative games, the details that will make or
break the game are placed there by the GM and to a certain extent, the players.
If you’re used to tactical simulation games, this might rub the wrong way.
Since I personally am quite steeped in that style of play, I would like to see
how the other side lives, so to speak. I found enough to like in my breakdown
of the combat systems that it made me want to try them out.
Despite the Column, It’s
Not All About Combat
One of the nice things about both of these games is that the
common mechanic is really, really common. There isn’t much out there that
privileges combat over chatting with folks. If you want to “win” an
argument rather than a gunfight in Fate, you use the same mechanics. Car chase?
Same. Gymnastics routine? Yep. You pick from the same menu of four basic
choices, which are broad enough to make a basis set similar in tone to the Seven Basic Story Plots.  For Night’s Black
Agents, the game is tightly focused around a specific background and tailored
to the kind of challenges found therein. And since the genre is about my
favorite mashup (guns and monsters), this is a very good thing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the true glory of
Night’s Black Agents – and if I seem a Ken Hite aficionado (or raving fanboy:
your call), it’s because I have become so – is not to be found in the combat
rules. It’s in the fantastic story and plotting advice found within the book.
How to make a “Conspiramid” (or Vampyramid, for that matter) in a way
that the players can work their way slowly up not-obviously-related plot
elements to eventually reach the top dog? That’s story gold, and I’ve mined it
for my GURPS games with wild abandon and thankful glee.
Tactics Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink
The drinking thing is really just to make it all Rime.
GURPS, Savage Worlds, and D&D are tactics focused. To a
greater or lesser extent, they are turn-based tactics games where you deploy
and exploit game mechanics to defeat your foes.
This is not a bad thing.
Combat in D&D is more or less the default from which all
other concepts need to be compared, because something like 80-90% of the market
is D&D of one form or another (and according to Steve Jackson, if an asteroid were to hit WotC,
please let it hit elsewhere than the collectible card game department that
keeps so many gaming stores running!). The latest version of D&D runs
fairly smoothly and has some nice mechanics – I’m particularly fond of the
advantaged/disadvantaged system, which nicely disposes of a huge number of
modifiers and does nice thins to the probability curve of a 1d20 roll. Tactics
are important, and how and when to deploy your abilities make up part of the
fun of the game. On the down side, fighting can take on a slogging-through-mud
feel for those averse to the ablative nature of combat. A high hit-point
monster is a war of attrition – your party and their abilities vs. a giant bag
of HP (our party a while back went up against a 110HP fighter; an epic battle,
but wow it took a while). There are alternate rules out there, such as variants
on Massive Damage, which can address this, but it’s built into the game pretty
On the other end, we have GURPS, where one or two hits can
usually incapacitate any human, whether this is melee weapons or guns. The
trick is getting an effective hit, which means a successful
attack where the defender fails to parry, block, or dodge, and any
armor worn is penetrated or bypassed. GURPS combat can be done simply – roll
3d6 vs adjusted skill, eschew the optional rules from various books (and even
from within some of the Basic Set) for fine-tuning your action, your foe rolls
defense, and then damage if you score.
Or, you can turn it up to 11 and resolve an exchange that
happens so fast that you need time-lapse video to catch it, and resolve every
blow and trigger pull. When you finally make contact, extreme satisfaction.
Tune it to taste, as well, with a very strong Dungeon Fantasy sub-line with a
lot of support (and more coming). When you want a game where if you can dream
it, you can probably exploit existing mechanics to give those choices weight,
you can find it in GURPS.
Make no mistake here: I write for GURPS semi-pro, in that I’ve
published a bunch in Pyramid and written one book on grappling. Also was lead
playtester for a few books. So I come at GURPS with a 25-year history with the
system. I like it, I like modifying it, and I like both playing it and running
it. The game can and does reward some level of system mastery, but that mastery
is about knowing when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em more than it is about a
certain combination fo skill, weapon, and kewl powerz that provide an
unmatchable damage level. The options available to an experienced player are
the nuance of choice. Attack the leg and go for a crippling blow to a
less-armored target? Accept a defensive penalty to lunge in an extra yard and
also get a bonus to hit? Take the fight to the ground because you’ve invested
in the Ground Fighting technique while your foe has not? The possibilities are
nearly limitless, though that comes at a price in (usually pre-game) tracking
of the things you expect to do.
Savage Worlds is a bit in the middle here. It’s a roll-and-shout
system that’s got a tactical focus, but not too much. It’s got Edges and
Hindrances with mechanical effect that aren’t as wide open as Fate’s Aspects,
but are far fewer in number than GURPS’ list of Advantages and Disadvantages.
Combat is pretty broad brush – Fighting and Shooting rather than Broadsword or
Guns (Pistol) – and the somewhat lower differentiation pushes the resolution
more towards the narrative style while still remaining a tactically-driven game
explicitly meant to play out on a mapboard.
I do play D&D and GURPS. I would like to play – or at least
try – Fate and Night’s Black Agents.
Savage Worlds doesn’t hit my sweet spot; the very middle ground
that proponents tout doesn’t inspire me to play based on the rules alone. Of
course, the giant pile of well supported game material with what looks to be
very good production values helps the Savage Worlds case rather a lot . . . and
the (original?) Deadlands setting that spawned the rules is quite cool. Plus .
. . while I’ve not entirely decided on it, exploding dice are an elegant way to
get a large maximum roll without precluding a minimum one. Ultimately, while my
interest is less, how it plays at the table is the ultimate test, one which I’d
like to try.
I’m glad I took on this project – it got me familiar with games
in ways and with a level of depth and focus that were a lot of fun
(and a lot of work, I must note).
But when push comes to shove, it’s all really about whether the
rules and the game help you have the fun you want to have.

Thanks for playing!

Billy Ray Smith (Anthony Edwards): [outraged] You just shot that man in the back!Van Leek (Lou Gossett, Jr.): [unperturbed] His back was to me.                                                                        –El Diablo (1990)

There is an aphorism kicking around, perhaps actually taken from the US Military, perhaps invented or popularized from Tom Clancy novels, that if you can see a foe, you can bring the appropriate quantity of flaming death around its ears, be it physical, magical, or otherwise. In roleplaying games, this is partially true, and partially not. In some editions of D&D, for example, it’s quite possible to have a foe with Armor Class so high that you cannot land an effective blow. This can be particularly true in GURPS, where even if you can see a target and it’s not even moving or fighting back, it can have a Damage Resistance (DR) so high that attacking it is pointless.

This final column in the Violent Resolution series on Castalia House will deal with perception in combat, since the entire series is about that aspect of gaming.


We’ll start with the most detailed game, and draw distinctions from there. As noted in Time After Time, GURPS operates at a resolution of one second. As such, looking around to notice things can potentially take many turns. Further, GURPS embraces facing to a greater extent than the other games discussed here – which is to say, it considers facing at all.

Let’s start there.

Hey! I see that!

GURPS has a dedicated Perception sub-statistics. It defaults as equal to IQ (the all-encompassing ‘mental stuff’ stat), and can be raised and lowered independently.  Perception covers all senses, with vision being but one of them – hearing and taste/smell are also part of the suite covered by Perception. Usually, it can be assumed that these rolls cover a quick glance or sniff – basically tied to the GURPS 1-second time frame – but not always. You get bonuses – substantial ones – for something being out in the open (“In Plain Sight” gives you +10 to the roll), and penalties for distance. Vision uses the Size and Speed/Range table, while there’s a dedicated Hearing Distance Table for noise. The penalties for light level can be pretty interesting, and there have been successful efforts to quantify penalties in the form of units of illumination (lux) as well as more descriptive methods (“the light of a typical street lamp”).

His Back was to Me

GURPS in miniatures/tactical combat mode is played on a hex map, giving six potential nodes from which a bad guy can strike. Even in a more descriptive combat mode, care is taken to distinguish whether a foe is in one of three arcs of vision: the front, the side, or the back. This distinction is important.

I’ll refer to the “front arc” here, and that’s a term I tended to use in Technical Grappling to distinguish between the front hexes and the 180-degree hemisphere in front of the character, since the fighter may well be prone and facing the ground (his front arc is basically the floor, the basement, etc.).

While in the front arc, by and large foes may be attacked and defended against normally – you just play the game and fight the fight with no special action required. When considering weapon-and-shield fighters, both weapon and shield can be considered to cover the entire front arc. Importantly, you suffer no additional penalties to notice things in that arc unless you have special cases in play, such as looking through a vision device (like a telescopic sight) or a vision-restrictive helmet. A great helm, for example, bestows No Peripheral Vision, restricting vision to the front 120 degrees instead of 180 degrees, while looking through a scope might impose Tunnel Vision, restricting perception to only a 60-degree slice in front of you (that’s an optional, if sensible, rule found in GURPS Tactical Shooting).

Moving around to the back arc, this is the slice of your surroundings (unsurprisingly) directly behind you – defined as a 60-degree slice (the hex immediately behind you). The presumption if you’re attacked from that arc is that you can’t see it coming, and the character doesn’t even get a chance to defend unless special advantages or situations come into play. Those might include follow-up grapples from behind (you know that the puma is gnawing on your back; it does not surprise you), or if you have eye-stalks or a 360-degree panoramic vision on your combat robot.

In between the front and back hexes, there is the side. Each side hex covers a flank of the fighter, defining an area where you are usually presumed to be able to see a foe, but attack and defend at a penalty.

As one might imagine, starting in a foe’s back hex is a commanding advantage. Negating the ability for a foe to make a defense roll is very important where they are the first – and often most important – line of defense against being injured. Striking from a hidden position, especially with high-speed projectiles such as lasers or guns, can also negate the ability to defend.

While all sorts of options can be brought to bear, cutting the noise down is usually done by deciding if a foe can be seen at all. If not, attacks from that foe are surprise attacks, and cannot gain the benefit of active defenses. If there’s a possibility they can be spotted, Perception rolls are brought into play, and if successful the foe is treated as being in the proper arc, with penalties assessed accordingly. If they’re just out there (a mundane human trying to bash you in the face with a sword from a yard or two distance), no roll is required.

Non-combat Perception

Deciding what arc a foe (or foes, or horde of foes) is in isn’t the only, or even the most frequent, use of Perception abilities. Finding treasure, traps, or secret doors all will qualify. But those aren’t Violent Resolutions, so they don’t count. What does count is the ability to pick up clues that someone is about to get the drop on you. Such detection is resolved by an opposed skill roll (a Quick Contest, using GURPS terms of art), sometimes using an actual skill (Perception is an ability score, not a skill) such as Observation (acquiring tactical data about something) or Search (looking for items not in plain sight). Both default to Perception-5, so are quite difficult do to in a one-second time scale unless they have been deliberately purchased to higher levels, or the base Perception stat is very high.

Everyone Else

A quick note – none of the other game systems really deal with facing explicitly in a way that drives tactical decisions. Fate and Night’s Black Agents are narrative-driven games that don’t resolve themselves on a tactical map. Savage Worlds and D&D do use such maps, but also don’t explicitly use arcs of vision by default. It may well be a GM call that one figure is behind a foe, but that’s not automatic. How games play this out or allow for such in-game occurrences does vary, of course, and while no explicit allowance for arc of vision is made, implicit or results-driven allowances are made.

Night’s Black Agents

Combat-scale perception in NBA is driven by the Sense Trouble general skill. Casing a joint, or looking for clues, is an Investigative skill, which means if you have it on your sheet and you spend a point, you automatically succeed. General skills are the more traditional “roll vs. X to succeed” type, and Sense Trouble gives you the ability to use your senses dynamically and in combat. You can hear the click of a safety being removed, detect the odor of a monster around the next corner, or see a moving shadow or camouflage failure. Infiltration is the broad “stealth” skill; Conceal is the basis for camouflage.

The basic result of a failed test against a foes sneakiness is that the characters are Surprised. This means they go last in combat, and all of their difficulty numbers go up by 2 when making General Skills tests. If the GM is feeling particularly nasty, one or more rounds of no action may go by.

NBA is a narratively-focused game, and distances and movement and just about everything else is kept deliberately abstract. Likewise, the focus on thriller action means that even on a failed die roll to Spot Trouble, the fact that you’re rolling at all is a meta-game clue (the book says it’s the equivalent to a slow, ominous crescendo of music in a movie). Given the right circumstances (and that’s a GM call – narrative games have to be strong Rule Zero games), players can roll to be sneaky, or “Jump In” to enter a combat that they’re not directly part of. In those circumstances, depending on the almost-always player-facing die rolls, the results can be narrated as having attacked from a surprise angle or anything suitably appropriate.


As with everything in Fate Core, perception and its results are going to fit into one of five general categories. Story background that can just be stated is the first, and the other four are the classic four actions in Fate: Attack, Create an Advantage, Defend, or Overcome an Obstacle. Hiding yourself is probably Create an Advtange, where a successful roll (or even an unsuccessful one) puts a new environmental Aspect on the table, such as a good Stealth roll placing “Dug in like an Alabama tick” on the table to describe a sniper in a very well defended, well-concealed perch. A poor roll would either not work, or be on the table with a very low difficulty – there’s always the chance that the foe is more oblivious than you were obvious.

The best case for noticing a hidden foe is likely to Overcome an Obstacle (where that difficulty is probably the degree of success your Stealth roll when Creating the Advantage in the first place).

In the middle of combat, a player would also have to Create an Advantage (or utilize an existing situational or environmental aspect) in order to leverage attacking from odd angles or from a flanking position – the zone-based combat system of Fate Core doesn’t explicitly provide for such.

Savage Worlds

As with Dungeons and Dragons, Savage Worlds puts most of the miniatures on the board and all figures on the board are assumed to be visible – the metagame board position implies in-game awareness, it would seem. The only concession to something that might be facing or positional advantage seems to be using a Hold action to get in a blow before your foe gets to go. This includes Surprise, which treats surprised characters as not being dealt in to the initiative order.

Turn order doesn’t feel like perception or facing, but in an abstracted game, “I was able to get in an effective blow before you did” can be nearly anything, up to and including striking from behind or from favorable angles. While the rules for held actions call out opposed Agility rolls, having a sneak attack being resolved by an aggressive action (or a stealthy one) opposed by Notice or a similar ability.

Part of the reasons why facing is not addressed in tactical games in some cases is that with a long-enough turn length, it’s assumed that combatants have acquired head-on-a-swivel syndrome. One will not, it is assumed, in a swirling melee where foes are known to be in all directions, ignore all those other threats.

Explorer’s Edition

One item not in my Deluxe Edition was a section on Ganging Up. This gives bonuses when surrounded, with each additional fighter giving +1 to Fighting rolls, to a maximum of +4 (which is between the average rolls of a d8 and a d10, so that’s a big bonus), and the Modern Martial Art supplement allows a trained fighter to mitigate this through the Edge “Bring it On!” which reduces that bonus by 2, allowing you to face three foes at once at no penalty, and “Bring it ALL On!” which allows as many as you like.

The Drop

Finally, I believe from the same book (Explorer’s Edition), it’s possible (by GM compliance) that you can catch a foe so off his guard that he’s basically toast. Sniper shots, or surging out from total concealment to put a knife in an unsuspecting Extra’s back. The attacker gets the On Hold status, and +4 to both attack and damage rolls – a large boost.

Dungeons and Dragons

Facing is not accounted for in D&D, and the rationale is likely the same as Savage Worlds (though of course D&D came first). The miniature’s position on a battle map dictates location, not facing, and so what is apparently a bow-shot to a fighter’s back – at least the back of the figure – is often defended against using the full AC of the foe. At best, such attacks will wind up ignoring the DEX bonus to achieve an effective hit.

So facing isn’t a big deal, right? Perception doesn’t matter?

Not quite. While other editions focus on things in different ways, Fifth Edition has abilities that are triggered by a lack of implied ability to gain full situational awareness.

Let’s start with thieves – err, Rogues.

Back Attack

Rogues – all of them – gain the ability to do a Sneak Attack in combat. If they have advantage on a roll, they can do extra damage if they hit with a finesse or ranged weapon – basically an extra 1d6 per two levels. So at 8th level, a properly executed sneak attack gets an extra 4d6 damage (this can rapidly outclass fighters and other expert combatants; a Paladin’s ability to spend spell slots – an expendable resource – grants 3d8 per 2nd level slot at 8th level).

That’s not all, though – if there’s another enemy of the target within 5 feet (that is, on a usual 5′ square map, if there’s a foe adjacent to him) he doesn’t even need advantage. The foe is presumed to be distracted enough that if the Rogue can land an effective blow, he can claim the extra damage. A Rogue fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with an ally can be a very effective front-line combatant, especially if she has a high DEX bonus and the ally specializes in Defensive Fighting with a shield.

While other character classes don’t get a bonus damage roll as with Rogues, if they manage to attack without being detected first (through judicious use of, say, Dexterity (Stealth), they may get Advantage on the attacks. Not nothing, but a higher hit chance, and some Feats allow exchanging hit penalties (-5 to hit) for increased damage (+10 to damage).

Feats of Awareness

Special abilities can also be acquired by selection of proper Feats as one levels up. Characters with the Alert feat have substantial initiative bonuses, as well as not suffering from surprise (which gives foes free shots at you), nor do they gain advantage if they’re hidden from your view. The Sentinel ability allows you attacks of opportunity even if foes Disengage, as well as allowing a reaction to attack a foe that tries to beat on one of your friends – the offensive version of Defensive Fighting.

General Perception

Everyone has a Perception score – it’s based on Wisdom, and bonuses can be obtained both for proficiency as well as Feats (Observant gives +5 to passive Wisdom(Perception) and Intelligence (Investigation) rolls). As noted in prior columns, the “do you notice stuff” roll is huge in most games. If you fail to notice foes, they typically get one or more rounds (usually only one) of free attacks even before initiative is rolled. No actions or reactions can be taken while surprised, either.

Edit! A Find in the DMG

While looking for something else, I discovered there are optional rules for facing treated explicitly in the DMG. Likewise for flanking. Flanking gives advantage on attacks if you’re pounding on someone from opposite sides of their icon on a tactical map. 

Facing does what you’d expect, and hits some remarkably complex notes. AC for shields only counts on the shield side. You can only attack into the front and side arcs. You can change your own facing at the end of your move . . . or as a reaction when any other creature moves (thus avoiding some of the run-around attack gyrations that you can see if you can move from the front to rear arc, and then strike).

But attacks from the rear have advantage, which is sensible.  The arcs themselves are 90-degrees each on squares. Front and rear are only 60-degrees wide on hexes, with the left and right side making up 120-degrees each.

Finish Him

It all, of course, depends on the game, and tactics will be driven by the rules in many cases – or be resolved by the influence and fiat of a GM. If a player wants to maneuver around behind a foe, well, the usual philosophy is “anything can be attempted.”

In D&D, there isn’t really any “behind,” but with the proper distractions, one can (if you’re not a Rogue) gain advantage on an attack. There is no real “tactical” surprise that can be gained in the middle of combat in D&D – it’s strategic surprise (you may not act or react when surprised) or nothing. If you are a Rogue, you can potentially gain the advantages of your Sneak Attack every round, provided your foe is suitably distracted or you have advantage on your attack via stealth. A dedicated Rogue crossbow archer at 6th level (assume DEX 18) will be rolling 1d20+7 to hit with a weapon they can fire every round, and will do 1d8+4 base damage, plus an additional 3d6, for 8-30 points of damage per attack under the right circumstances.

In Savage Worlds Deluxe, about the best you can do seems to be to act before your foe. No amount of tactical maneuvering will help. The Explorer’s edition adds a few items that feel, in kind, like the kind of advantage one gets for surrounding a foe in D&D – bonuses to hit and damage, especially for fighting multiple foes, who can use your distraction against you.

Night’s Black Agents would allow an Infiltration roll, which if successful makes your foe go after you (possibly after everyone) in combat, and difficulty numbers go up by 2 – that doesn’t seem like much, but it could easily put a foe into the zone of “can’t hit back at all unless many points are spent.” Those points are scarce resources in combat.

Fate Core has the sneaking be either Creating an Advantage or gaining a free or bought invocation of an existing environmental aspect. Once you have this in place, you can gain the (dominating) +2 bonus for your attack roll with the spending of a Fate point. Tactically this would be Create an Advantage in combat; strategically you’d be leveraging a pre-existing aspect to try and claim free invocations.

Finally, in GURPS, you would attempt to work your way, turn by turn, to a position where you begin your own turn in your foe’s side or (best of all) the back hex. This will enable maneuver selection (such as All-Out Attack or Telegraphic Attack from GURPS Martial Arts) that increases the chance of a hit . . . which can be turned into injury through hit location selection. So long as your foe doesn’t turn to face you, these advantages are retained. Strategic surprise can also be had – to be made even more devastating because that can stun the targets, which prevents them from doing much of anything until they snap out of it.

GURPS rewards tactical and strategic methods to use your foe’s lack of perception of your actions the most, it would seem. D&D and Fate probably come next, especially with the right tactics, with NBA giving a bit of advantage and Savage Worlds more or less impacting turn order.

And the Rockets’ red glare, the Bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our Flag was still there;
                                   — Francis Scott Key (1814 broadside printing)

Pretty much any time that foes gather together in convenient lumps, someone is going to try and find a way to paste them with whatever the genre equivalent of a cluster bomb strike is. It’s only natural, really – and well supported by some historical studies. Here’s one from the World War II Databook (Table 57, p. 257):

The percentage of battle wounds to british soldiers by weapon 1939-45 overall was:

  • Mortar, grenade, bomb, shell ………..75%
  • Bullet, AT mine………………………10%
  • mine & booby trap……………………10%
  • Blast and crush…………………………2%
  • Chemical………………………………2%
  • other……………………………………1%

While individual battles vary (at El Alamein, I saw a note that 75% of the wounds were bullet wounds), the overall trend seemed to support the conclusion that small arms fire, by and large, held foes in place so that artillery could turn them into casualties.

In some respects, this predisposes the conclusion, because on the one hand, plentiful and easy access to person-killing explosives is a thing of moderately recent history, over the last century or so (though obviously if the bombs are bursting in air, two centuries or more would be accurate as well).

The #1 genre in RPGs, though, is still epic fantasy. And epic fantasy has its own version of artillery, which is the battlefield wizard. Such characters fling pretty potent area effect spells about the landscape, either destroying foes, destroying or shifting the landscape itself, or perhaps both. More on that later.

The key bit for this segment of Violent Resolution is how well and easily do the sample games allow for one attack to impact multiple foes. And that’s what it’s really about, at the highest level – a directed attempt to inflict harm on one or more targets. Well, most of the time, since one of the original effective uses of explosives is to batter down a foe’s fortifications.

Fate Core

The rules for explosions in Fate can be a bit tough to find, but they’re tucked under “multiple targets” in the index, and found on p. 205 of Fate Core. As with everything, the rules are basically the same – you choose your action (Overcome an Obstacle, Create an Advantage, or Attack are the most likely here), specify which, if any, Aspects, Stunts, or Extras are being invoked, and roll.

The rules for area attacks are straightforward if broad (a descriptor which can accurately be applied to the entire system). Area attacks are adjudicated by rolling the dice as normal, and then applying the strength of the attacker’s result by distributing it to all foes that are in the area. If you happen to roll poorly, all the targets in the zone may get off scott free. If you roll very well, then you’ll likely have an intermediate to low effect on your foes, due to the requirement to split successes/margin among your targets.

As a concrete example, if you toss a grenade or sling a fireball at a group of four foes, and you have +3 in the skill and the nature of the weapon (by dint of Weapon Ratings, special defiition of an Aspect, or whatever) gives another +2, then when you attack you’ll tend to cluster around 5 shifts to divide between the four targets (basically 1 stress each, with 2 on one foe of your choice, but you could notionally put all 5 on one foe and ignore the other two). A great roll would give 9 shifts to distribute. The victims defend against the attack shifts allocated to them, not the total.

Naturally, this is modified two pages later, allowing for zone-wide attacks to be a common thing if the situation demands it.

Alternate Takes

With a nod to the Fate Fractal, one can also treat the explosive device itself as a character/aspect with its own attack skill (or weapon value) and stunts. This is the method suggested in a thread on how to handle grenades in the Fate Core Google+ community. The boom-generator is inserted into a zone, and on detonation, attacks everything in the zone, or maybe even the zone itself, with a particular skill.

Depending on the referee’s preferences, one could tag it with a Stunt that attacks with full skill on everyone in the zone individually. With the right balancing appropriate to the genre, this can be tuned to a particular effect. Massive, catastrophic damage to all in the zone (a disintegration grenade!) could be achieved by having the base attack be some ridiculously high value – 6, 8, or even 12 shifts would make short work of anyone not able to invoke the proper aspects for Cover, Armor, or Luck. A low-grade attack with only one or two skill would have a decent chance of not hurting anyone, and at best would tend to apply a few shifts of stress or consequences.

Aggressive Landscaping

The definition of everything as a character with its own aspects, stunts, etc. means that using explosives creatively does not suffer from math overload or endless page flipping. Want to blow down a wall? Decide on the attack strength of the explosive, the defensive strength of the wall, and roll it. Stress and consequences can be assigned as needed. A high-enough consequence might bring the entire building down, while a mild one might allow a free invocation of an aspect when attacking that section again. Stress instead of consequences might be cosmetic damage, such as scorched paint or blown-out windows.

The narrative bent of the game keeps the focus on what the result of the attack, advantage, or overcome action is, not how many LottaJoules of energy were in the grenade.

Arcane Explorations

There is really no difference inherent to a magical explosion as opposed to a mundane one. They’ll be treated the same way in all cases, subject to the usual variations based on Aspect, Stunt, and Extra. From that perspective, it’s handy and self-balancing. Proper choice of aspects will keep magic magical if desired.

A Sufficient Quantity of High Explosives

How does one differentiate between a hand grenade, a Javelin missile, and a small antimatter charge in Fate? Dramatically.

The mechanics support various sizes of explosions largely through the ability to either use Extras to define the strength of the attack, or to treat the exploding plot device as a character by itself.  While caution should be used in assigning these values and care must be taken to keep them balanced for the style of play desired, there’s no reason not to allow scaling up the boom to reflect in-game “reality.”

Night’s Black Agents

Explosives are called out as a great equalizer in the battle against the Vampires, since there’s simply only so much that a physical body can take. Explosives up to and including a suitcase nuke are treated in the game rules.

The mechanics are geared towards personal deployment, and grenades are tossed with a difficulty set by range, such as 2 for Point Blank – which is touching range. And you’re throwing a grenade. Might want to rethink that one. But they can be thrown up to Near range (30-40m). Rifle grenades and other proper toys can reach to Long range (100m). Since the Mk 19 automatic grenade launcher can fire up to about 1,500m, allowing shots at Extended Range with the proper skills and spends isn’t out of the question.

Once you deliver the boom to the target, the explosion is figured as damage dealt based on range from the victim to the source of the blast. There are three considerations – annihilation, damage, and debris. Annihilation is just that – instant death, no saving throw, no passing go, and no collecting $200. If you’re in the damage range, you automatically take a hit, and it’s a significant one – a die of damage plus three times the explosions Class (see below). In the Debris range, you get a die roll (Athletics) to avoid the effects, but if you fail, you take a die of damage plus the explosion’s Class.

A Sufficient Quantity of High Explosives

Explosions in NBA are rated by an explosion Class, a number from 1-6. Class 1 explosions include homemade small explosives like a pipe bomb or door-busting explosive foam. Typical frag grenades are Class 2, and Class 6 is a suitcase nuke. Large explosions are possible, but are in the realm of plot device. You don’t get an annihilation range until you hit Class 3, and even then that’s only Point Blank (the RPG goes off within touching distance).

There’s an interesting bit of specificity for Class 5 explosions, which have a Damage range of Long. The only range farther than that is Extended, which is fairly arbitrary. So the book lists 240m as the debris range here. Probably a needed amplification, though an unusual one given the broad strokes that the game usually paints with.

Cover and armor are treated as an increase in effective range. If you’re behind appropriate cover you’re treated as being one range band farther away. This would need to be adjudicated with some discretion, however. Being inside a battle tank when a hand grenade goes off will probably offer total protection. The odds of being inside such armor given the genre are probably fairly low, but being behind a fortified door, castle wall, or other thick protection is probably well within the normal expectations of the thriller.

Dungeons and Dragons

The salient feature of the Wizard in the CHAINMAIL wargame was the fireball spell, and that seems to have defined spellcasters – or at least “magic users” ever since in many ways. CHAINMAIL was a wargame, to which RPG elements were derived. While spellcasters of all stripes have come a long, long way in the last 40 years of gaming, in D&D they started as a stand-in for artillery, and to some extent, that is still how they are perceived, fairly or no.

While there are many, many ways in which D&D magic users are no longer simply mildly mobile cluster artillery, for the purposes of this article, we’ll treat them within this narrow window – how to lay down the hurt on a whole group of foes at once.

Combat Lullaby

Ironically, the first time this really seems to come into play in many games is not a fireball at all. It’s the Sleep spell, which is such a staple of D&D in my experience it turns into a go-to, must-have spell in nearly all games I’ve played in (that’s a personal observation, of course). This includes the OSR-flavored Swords and Wizardry.

It’s a first-level spell, which means as soon as the caster has access to the proper spell slot (maybe starting the game for many magic-users), she can threaten creatures from 5-40 HP in value, from weakest to strongest, within a 20′ radius of the targeted point. 5d8 HP is enough to, on the average, snooze out five 1 HD creatures in the middle of a fight. Almost uniformly these slumbering foes meet inglorious ends at the sharp end of the PCs weapons after the surviving stronger monsters are dealt with. The spell scales, too, at an extra 2d8 per level of spell slot. So a 7th level spell slot will roll 19d8, even threatening fairly powerful heroes if they’re caught alone – the spell has no saving throw.

It’s not spectacular and there’s no fiery glare, but area effect spells are available right out of the gate.

Crowd Pleaser

The iconic fireball, the only spell available to the CHAINMAIL wizard at first, it too impacts a 20′ radius sphere. At its weakest (a 3rd level spell slot) it does 8d6 damage (half damage if you throw yourself out of the blast with a Dexterity save) to all creatures within that sphere, and the sphere wraps around corners, meaning cover is no protection from this magical fire. If a very high level character throws one with a 9th level spell slot, it will do 14d6 damage.

Relatively speaking, a few fireballs will play havoc with a tightly packed formation – which like their fragmentation grenade or artillery inspiration, is the entire point. Given a 1st-level character in D&D5 will have on the order of 6-14 HP, even the entry-level version can pretty much vaporize a small cluster of such fodder. Against a more potent foe, it will still be a threat. A 5HD monster might have 25-40 HP, and the damage done by the spell is 8=48 HP, which can nearly incapacitate the middling level 5HD creature even if they successfully save.

Explosive or area effect spells in D&D can get darn nasty, such as the potent Meteor Swarm – what may well be the baddest thing to hit the dungeon since TILTOWAIT. A 9th level evocation spell, it strikes everything in a 40′ sphere with 20d6 fire damage and 20d6 bludgeoning damage. It’s going to take a very, very high level fighter to not get turned into paste by that one.

That being said, a 20th level fighter (1d10 HP per level, average 6 HP) with CON 18 (+4 HP per level) has a pretty good shot at tipping the scales at 200 HP, so 40d6 total will be a mighty blow at 70 or 140 HP average, but not necessarily an automatic fight-ender. Against a high-level spellcaster, with but 1d6 HP and CON 14 or CON 16 will eke out 6-7 per level, for 120-140 HP, which is a serious threat of one-shot incapacitation. This is a deservedly powerful spell.

Magical Claymore

D&D also features directional area effect spells, such as the Cone of Cold. Doing 8d8 out of the gate and 12d8 at max power, this spell reaches out 60′ and freezes things in its path, with a width of effect equal to it’s length (it’s an equilateral triangle). This makes it intermediate in effect extent and requires some stand-off . . . and no friendly characters blocking your attack line.

Savage Worlds

This is a tactical game meant to be played with miniatures and a map. As such, the rules for using explosive and area effect attacks are built around a blast template – a usually-circular cutout that shows the size of the affected area. To toss a grenade or cast a spell into an area, one makes a skill test using the appropriate ability (Shooting, Throwing, or an appropriate spell skill all come to mind) given the range being targeted. Success means you land the template where you want it to be. Failure means it deviates randomly, and with the right flavor of flub, you can indeed be caught in your own explosion, though the rules do prevent the thing landing behind you.

Damage is by weapon or spell, and affects everyone within the blast zone at full value. There is no effect if you’re out of the zone, and as always, impacted characters are up, down, or off the table. The two grenades listed in the Deluxe rulebook do about 3d6 damage to all targets in the blast radius, which means getting caught in the blast zone is as bad as getting hit by a .50 BMG (2d10) or 14.5mm machinegun (also 3d6). That is to say: very, very nasty.

Claymore of Doom

The actual claymore antipersonnel mine makes an appearance in the rules as well, and uses the formulation for canister shot. Basically, the mine reaches out for 24″ (about 50 yds) as if the blast template slides along its entire length, impacting everything it touches for 3d6 damage. Effectively, this turns both canister and the claymore mine into a cylindrical area of effect weapon. The damage here is about right given what a claymore actually is. The shape of the effect is a bit odd – a cone effect might be a better fit.


As one would expect based on its treatment of firearms, GURPS has a fairly detailed treatment of explosions and area effect weapons. It also allows for a bit of variation in blast effects.

Collateral Damage

GURPS assumes that explosions have a point of origin (this isn’t unique) and that the damage is strongest at the center for a “normal” explosion. Every explosion has a damage value and that only applies to the actual target struck. For everyone else, damage is rolled normally, but divided by 3x the distance in yards from the target. That means if you’re hit directly by a 6d explosion (enough to take Joe Average from fully healthy to his first death check at -HP on an average roll) you’re liable for the entire 6d, but at only 2 yards distance, you’re rolling 6d/6 (about 1d), and by the time you hit 12 yards, you’re looking at 1 point of damage at the best case, ever.

Unsurprisingly, the rules note this: the maximum impact of an explosion goes out to twice the dice of damage, in yards. That’s another way of noting the same point – X dice of damage will have a maximum roll, ever, of 6X, and damage falls off as 3D (three times the distance in yards). So for only one point of damage, you’re looking at 6X/3D = 1, or D = 2X. The math is not shown, merely stated – “an explosion inflicts ‘collateral damage’ on everything within (2 x dice of damage) yards. But you can see where it came from easily.
The blast or concussion damage, then, isn’t a big deal unless the explosion is very large or you’re very close to it. The baddest hand grenade in GURPS High-Tech (the M67) does 9d damage, which means from the blast itself you’re safe outside of 18 yards – which of course means in reality it’s impacting a sphere 36 yards in diameter, which is rather larger than the blast zone of the Meteor Swarm spell, but the zone in which you’re even liable for about 1d damage is only two yards in diameter.

That being said, the game gives you the ability to calculate the blast effects of the CBU-55/B as well, a 500-lb fuel-air explosive bomb which detonates for 6dx65 damage – 390 dice, which means you need to be 780 yards away – over 0.4 miles – before you’re truly safe. And yes, this can scale up to nuclear weapons if desired: the “Little Boy” bomb released over Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, hit with roughly the force of 12,500 tons of TNT, or 60,000 dice of damage, with a linked burning damage (due to the flash) of 6dx6,500 burn ex.

Flash, Ah-ah! and the Rain of Pain

As noted in the nuclear example above, there are many types of explosions and properties. Electromagnetic pulse, a thermal blast, shaped charges, and fragmentation damage can all be modeled accurately if desired.

This isn’t necessarily just fluff, either. A Hellfire missile (AGM-114) carries a warhead of “only” 20-lbs of explosives, which detonate with the force of about 23 lbs. of TNT. That’s about 60d worth of damage (call it 6dx10), which will do but 1d damage past 20 yards, and by itself won’t hardly scratch the paint on a modern tank glacis. But with the shaped charge rules, which divide armor by 10, penetration is more like 600d, enough to worry you if you’re behind less than 30″ of RHA steel, or 380mm of laminate armor.

The other critical piece is that modern antipersonnel weaponry doesn’t blow you apart as the primary method of destruction – it’s the fragments that get you. Each weapon that generates fragments damages out to 5x the dice of damage of the frag attack (the aforementioned M67 does 2d fragmentation, and is thus dangerous to 10 yds. The Mk 82 500-lb HE bomb does 14d fragmentation, and is thus dangerous to 70 yards). The fragmentation attack is an autofire weapons attack, throwing random fragments out with Skill-15. This is modified only by range, target size, and target posture, and it’s possible to get tagged in various places in one burst.

Nerf Magic

Direct damage spells using the standard GURPS Magic rules, which treat spells as learnable skills powered by fatigue points, are relatively weak compared to their high-fantasy ancestors. While supplements such as the ever-expanding Dungeon Fantasy line can up-gun this a bit, the fall-off of damage with distance means that even a 6d fireball (which in GURPS is basically a contact-only spell) turned into an explosive fireball will mostly be a point or so of damage past about two yards.

Not that GURPS mages can’t do nasty things to folks – it’s just that nasty is things like Create Fire and Fire Cloud – both relatively low-damage per second, but good for controlling movement on the battlefield, rather than laying waste to swarms of foes. Likewise Grease or Ice Slick don’t do damage but basically makes you roll vs DX-2 every time you look at something funny, or else fall down.

There are other magic systems that can be brought to bear if you want a more battlefield-style magic, as well as area-effect Innate Attacks and other things that go boom. But as written, and using the rules for explosions, it is both difficult and expensive to do something like Meteor Swarm in GURPS (though they don’t map well – a 3d attack is a borderline incapacitating one in GURPS against an average human; 6d is, on the average, lethal. You don’t need a 40d attack to smack down high point value humans in GURPS; 6-10d will usually do).

Human Artillery

Whether equipment is driving the boom factor or if it’s powered by magic, area effect and explosions are heady stuff. Some players make a rule of clustering into formation, with a definite marching order and a standard operating procedure of forming ranks against foes. As in life, this has advantages and disadvantages. In the tactically-focused games (GURPS, D&D, Savage Worlds) the benefits include denying attacks at the back rows (enabling archers and casters to do their thing in relative peace), allowing concentration of force and defenses, and where it matters, preventing being outflanked piecemeal.

On the down side, that many targets in once place is tailor-made to draw area-effect spells. I know of at least one player who would have a hard time not hitting his own party with a fireball given that many targets in proximity. It’s just too tempting to pass up.

More seriously, area effects make for a good tension and can provide some beneficial choices within a party. Cluster all together and risk being taken out all at once, or split into several separated groups, which can be attacked and overwhelmed bit by bit?

The narrative games each have relatively solid mechanics for explosives, but the GM will need to adjudicate who’s in range and who’s immune each time given the abstract nature of the systems involved. This is offset by the basis of the games being to make the characters look good. The various things that can be done with Fate (Create an Advantage and Attack) could easily be used in a straightforward manner to represent Rated G or Rated PG combat, where a grenade might toss you around or knock you out, but won’t leave you a bleeding wreck with the application of a suitable aspect.

Finish Him

This last weekend marked the Fourth of July. Since I’m an American, we celebrated by detonating vast quantities of explosives – this provided the inspiration for the title and timing of this piece. So with that, I’ll cherry-pick an RPG-suitable closing stanza from Key’s original poem. Poor hirelings; they always get the short end:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore

That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,

A home and a country, should leave us no more?

Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave: