Derek Knutsen-Frey and I chatted a lot about Dragon Heresy in a prior interview. It was a great chat. We also spent another hour (ish) talking about the business of game design. Even if I do say so myself, it’s a very good discussion.

EPISODE 171 – DOUGLAS COLE DRAGON HERESY PART 2

Other links:

RPG Development Costs

Economizing on RPG Development Costs

James Introcaso asked a simple question.

What is the kindest thing a player can do for a GM? #DnD #RPG

The answers are well worth reading.

A few things spring to mind here, many of which are doubtless repeated in the thread.

Show up on time

If you’re not going to show or are going to be late, let folks know ahead of time. As far ahead of time as possible. A decent GM can plan for almost anything. “The Key Guy” didn’t show up? Not so much.

Play the game, not the rules

Metagame rules discussions are a hoot, and I enjoy talking game mechanics. Everyone that has ever heard me on a podcast or been part of a discussion with me on a forum like Tenkar’s Wedneday night Tavern Chats knows I loves me some game mechanics.

But the rules aren’t the game, any more than a skeleton is the person, or the riverbed the totality of the river. They support the game, give structure and guidance to it. Provide the framework in which amazing journeys can be taken. All that stuff. But the game’s the thing.

The rules set expectations and give the players and the GM guidance to what the result might be when “anything can be attempted.” Depending on genre, some things are sensible (“Wonder Woman lifts the tank over her head!”) where in other genres, that same thing is not just implausible, but stupid (“You give yourself a hernia trying to lift the tank over your head. Seriously, what are you thinking?”).

This can get dicey when you’re playing games with a strong tactical or wargamey feel, such as DnD, GURPS, and many others. Still, by and large, save or table detailed discussion for after the moment. Continue reading “Nice things to do for your TTRPG Group”

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.

GURPS

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?

Narrative
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,
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
hard.
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.
Finish
Him
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!