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!

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.

GURPS

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.

Fate

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.

GURPS

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:

Swinging a sword
at an orc is all well and good, but if your friend needs help, you have to be
able to reach him. Moving to (or fleeing from) a foe, or seeking a position
that gives tactical advantage, is part and parcel of fighting. In fact, an
emphasis on footwork, distancing, and movement is one of the key parts of
combat training in many styles.

I’d love to
generalize to “most” or even “all,” but I’ve not trained in most or all styles.
The ones I’ve studied and trained in emphasized footwork and movement, and I’ve
not see that contradicted in my readings of other arts.

In the games,
movement is important because (in the simplest of terms) it’s how one gets from
fight to fight. Of course, there’s more to the game than fighting. Well,
mostly. But getting into, and out of position can matter a great deal.
In any case, we’ll
be looking at several facets of movement in the five selected games. Speed and
acceleration drive the ability to position oneself on the battlefield (or
battle map, as the case may be). The impact, if any, of posture on  movement
and action determine whether that’s important at all. Finally, we’ll look at
several types of special movement, such as jumping, sprinting, and of course,
the ever-popular chandelier-swinging.
Overland movement
and hiking won’t be treated here; while important, they’re more key to
large-scale strategic movement than the kinds of personal engagement that
Violent Resolution treats. But while hiking isn’t treated, moving around
under the influence of materialism – that is, while carrying mounds of equipment
and loot – are examined to see if, and how, the games treat movement when
loaded. With stuff.

The Name is
Bolt. Usain Bolt.


Just to level-set
things at the high end of human ability, let’s take a look not at Barry Allen,
but the real fastest man alive, Usain Bolt.
Mr Bolt can cover
10m in about 1.9 seconds, and has a reaction time before his initial sprint of
about 1/6 of a second. From a standing start, then, with no encumbrance, but
with the knowledge that beatin’ feet is imminent, Bolt accelerates at
about 2/3 of a gravity, about 6.6m/s^2. In one second, including reaction time,
he’ll cover about 2.3m. His maximum velocity during his 100m race will be just
over 27mph, or 13.5 yards/second. If we consider a six-second round common to
RPGs, including his acceleration period, Usain can cover up to about 60 yards,
or 180 feet, based on the split times in some of his more well-documented
efforts. If we allowed maximum velocity for the entire trip (a terrible
assumption given a standing start) he’d cover 240′.
That sets an upper
limit on really fast humans, or if not an upper limit (given that high-level
RPG “cinematic normal” characters can push this sort of world record), at least
set the boundaries by which things start to raise eyebrows. On the slow end,
anything less than about 20′ in a six-second round is getting quite pokey –
that’s a treadmill set to about 2mph, an easy walking pace.
Stop Right
There!

Comparing maximum
sprint speeds is all well and good, but one of the kickers there is that such
comparisons are usually made without the assumption that someone’s going to try
to behead you at the end of your run, and that is all that
matters is how far you run during that turn – that is, it assumes that you’ll
still be running all-out at turn’s end.
For an RPG, this
is a poor starting assumption. Characters often move around the map (if one is
in use at all) like chess pieces, in discrete units. A D&D
fighter might move 60′ in one round, sit still for two more, then a 30′
move, no move, and then first a 60′ dash followed by a 30′ action. Any of the
movement contemplated in the prior example could have multiple melee attacks
and defenses in any segment that does not include a “dash” action.

This means that if
we use Usain’s notional acceleration (and again, it’s not constant – check out his velocity
vs. time graph
, reproduced to the right), ignoring reaction time, and force
him to a standing stop at the end of a six-second round, he’ll cover less
ground than an all-out sprint. If you trust my math and allow a few simplifying
assumptions (0 reaction time, accelerate at 6.6m/s^2 to max velocity equal to
2x acceleration, then maintain for two seconds, then decelerate at same rate to
a stop) this will cover about 170-175′, or about 28.8 feet per second.
Finally, the round
length is critical here! If you allow a 10 second round on the same profile,
60% of the trip is at full velocity, and you’ll cover 350′ in ten seconds – 35′
per second. If you have to start and stop in the same second, even
with Usain’s mighty limbs, you’ll cover less than two yards and
never get even close to maximum velocity.

Dungeons and Dragons

Getting around in
D&D5 is done by taking either a move as part of another action, such as
trying to beat the tar out of someone with an axe, or a Dash, which comprises
two moves.
Most characters
will have a base speed of 30′, which is the distance that can be covered in a
six-second round. This speed is described as the creature’s walking pace, and
that’s accurate – the average velocity here is about 3.5mph, which is a nice
steady treadmill walking pace. A dash, then, is twice that speed, 20 yards per
six seconds, or just shy of 7mph – elves can go a bit faster, at 8mph – roughly
1/3 of Usain’s top sprinting speed.
So no issues with
“too fast,” though perhaps one with too slow at the upper end. If a normal
human can walk 30′ and dash 60′, then Usain can sprint at 6x the walking pace
(!), or 3x the dash pace. It would be a small thing to allow an all-out sprint
at 4x the base rate, at some cost. Maybe you can’t do it if you’re carrying a
shield or wearing more than light armor.
Posture

The game calls out
crawling, which is moving when prone. The rules are worded oddly, but that’s
because of how they interact with terrain modifiers – they’re additive, not
multiplicative. Crawling adds an extra foot to the cost of moving a foot – in
practice, on good terrain, you crawl at half your walking or dashing pace.
“Difficult” terrain has the same modifier (adds a foot to the effective
distance per foot travelled), so 10′ of crawling (adds +10′) through difficult
terrain (adds another 10′) eats up the normal 30′ movement allowance. Other
postures such as kneeling or crouching are below the resolution of the game –
usually such a thing would be to take advantage of partial or total cover, and
that provides its own bonus and rules.
Special
Movement


You can do a
standing long jump up to half your Strength score (so STR 10 is 5′), and with
at least a 10′ runup you can broad jump double that distance – equal to your
STR. Jumping over obstacles, you can do a running jump equal to 3′ plus your
STR modifier – so 3′ for a STR 10 individual, and 8′ for STR 20. You can
standing jump half that: 18″ for STR 10, and 48″ for STR 20 – and that 48″
vertical is actually a pretty good approximation of what people like Olympians
Karch Kiraly and Eric Sato could do. Both of those guys were in the 40″ neighborhood,
and the world record is something like 55″.
You can swim or
climb roughly as fast as you can crawl.
As for
banister-sliding and chandelier-swinging? Roll Dexterity (Acrobatics), I
suppose! More seriously, such rolls should be allowed, as even someone like
myself could do, with maybe a 15′ runup, a dive roll over a standing tumbling
mat (5′ tall) without touching it. That might, for example, add your DEX
modifier to the existing STR modifier – so that technique (DEX) reinforces
power (STR).
Weighty
Matters

The encumbrance
rules are deliberately simple – in fact, they’re deliberately set at a weight
(15x your STR until you hit your limit) that won’t be troublesome, and there’s
no impact to load if you’re under this limit. A variant rule on the same page
reduces move by 10′ if you’re in excess of 5xSTR in pounds, and 20′ if you’re
in excess of 10xSTR (also, you have disadvantage to a whole passel of stuff –
attacks, physical saving throws, and physical attribute checks, which includes
all skill use).
Savage Worlds

The movement rate
in Savage Worlds is called “Pace,” and its given in units of physical inches
per second – but it’s inches on the tabletop. Savage Worlds is explicitly meant
to be played with miniatures, and so movement is measured with inches on a game
table or battlemat, and weapon ranges are given the same way.
That being said, a
scale is given: two yards to the inch. So to be equivalent with the D&D
measurement in feet, for comparison, distance moved is basically 6′ multiplied
by your Pace. The round/turn length is equivalent to D&D as well, at six
seconds each. So let’s see how movement compares.
Much like D&D,
there isn’t much inherent variability in the Pace for player characters: humans
start with a Pace of 6″, or 36′ per turn. If they run, they add another 1d6″ –
an interesting choice. On the average, then, a running character will move
about 57′ – pretty close to the D&D speed for a human using a Dash action –
but it could be as low as 42′ and as high as 72′. This makes foot races somewhat
interesting, and can actually mean that a chase between two characters of equal
ability has tension to it.
Posture

Running and moving
while crouching is given mechanical weight – half speed for
doing either while crouching, in exchange for -1 to hit such a foe with a
ranged attack. Crawling is done at a rate of 12′ (2″ on the tabletop), or 1/3
the normal Pace. In addition to either modifier, moving across Difficult Ground
is done at half speed. There is an Edge that can grant another +2 to the basic
Pace, increasing base movement to 48′ per round, and max speed to 84′. That’s
faster than most D&D characters, but still not out of bounds.
Special
Movement

Jumping distances
are fixed – a horizontal jump of 6′ standing, 12′ with a running start, and up
to another 6′ for either one with a successful Strength roll. Swimming isn’t
explicitly treated in the rules.
Encumbrance

Note: there’s
an erratum in my Deluxe rules hardcover, which lists Encumbrance on p. 17 in
the index; at least in my book it’s p. 49.

Each 5lbs. times
the die type for your Strength score gives a load limit, which should really be
thought of as a load increment, and passing each increment gives a -1 penalty
to Agility and Strength tests and totals. So there is a gradual decrease in ability
as you carry more weight – but it does not impact Pace. You may not normally
accept more than a -3 penalty, which means that your true load limit is
roughly 20 lbs multiplied by your die type (for a d6 Strength, your first
30 lbs. are no penalty, and you’ll hit -4, and therefore your limit, at
120 lbs.).
GURPS

In GURPS your move
is equal to the truncated value of your Basic Speed (if your Basic Speed is
5.75, your unencumbered Move is 5). This gives your movement allowance in yards
when taking a Move or Move and Attack maneuver. It is, therefore, basically
equal to a character’s maximum combat speed in yards per second. Typical
unencumbered heroes will have Move from 5-8 (often 5-6), and therefore will be
able to move 15-18 feet per second. 
This equates nominally, in the six-second
rounds common to the previous two games, to about 90-110′ per D&D/Savage
Worlds combat round. This is much, much faster (by almost 50%) than either game
. . . and yet because so many actions can happen during the six full turns that
is the GURPS equivalent
time span
, from a players’ perspective it can seem like forever to reach a
fallen friend being menaced by a bloodthirsty adversary.

As noted in the
introduction, almost anything that happens on a one-second timescale is going
to be limited to about 2 yards of movement – basically 4′ of travel at 0.5g
acceleration (Bolt’s is 0.66g), and 8′ at 1g – in other words, from a yard to
two yards. One would have to accelerate at about 1.12g in order to eke three
yards out of the movement . . . which is actually a higher acceleration than
the Indy Car used to look at if a human
could outrun one
 at sufficiently short distances.
That being said,
the maximum velocities allowed in the game are really only 20% higher than the
basic movement rate, which means that in order to hit Bolt’s real-world speed
of about 13.5 yards per second, his “Basic Move” needs to be higher than
11 (!). Further, to move that quickly, the character takes a flat -4 to attack,
and no matter what other penalties are assigned, the maximum skill may not
exceed 9 (meaning you’re hitting just shy of 40% of the time in the very best
case). These maximum speeds require more than one second of movement – your can
hit your Move on your first turn, and subsequent turns thereafter you may claim
a Sprint bonus of 20% of your (encumbered) Move.
Mostly, in combat
characters will be taking a Step (1 yard) with an Attack maneuver, two Steps
with Committed Attack, or up to half your Move (mostly two steps, maybe 3 for
some) with an All-Out Attack that relinquishes all active defenses. From
that perspective, the movement rates for actual combat motion are fairly
accurate. It’s just when Move and Attack or Move are selected one turn, and
then the following turn no motion is elected, that things start to get weird.
Posture

GURPS covers
movement while in a deep crouch (2/3 normal), as well as kneeling and crawling
(1/3 normal, similar to Savage Worlds), as well as movement while lying down (1
yard/sec). Characters swim at 1/5 their Basic Move. Posture is also paired with
penalties when attacking and defending, as well as a penalty to hit you if
you’re the target of a ranged attack.
Special
Movement

While GURPS
provides for special movement like jumping and sprinting was covered above, the
point-buy system that is used for character building contains enormous
flexibility to modify movement to more or less anything the player and GM can
agree on. Horses, for example (or Centaurs), will often take a level of
Enhanced Move, which basically treats the Move as an acceleration and gives you
more than one multiple for speed. So with Move 6, you can hit max normal speed
of 6 yards per second in your first turn. With Move 6, Enhanced Move 1, your
top speed is doubled to 12 yards per second, but it will take you two seconds
of acceleration to get there.

More mundane is
the direct altering of Basic Move, at a fairly low price of 5 points per
additional yard per second – and given what encumbrance does to Move, this can
be important.
Encumbrance

The more you
carry, the slower you go, and the more seriously your Dodge score is impacted.
Your strength determines a “Basic Lift” score, and at certain multiples of
Basic Lift (1, 2, 3, 6, 10) you start to feel the impact on your Move and
Dodge. Joe Average, with ST 10, has a 20-lb basic lift – so not much gear,
really – and will take a -1 to Dodge and a 20% reduction in move if carrying
between 20 and 40 lbs. Lift is quadratic in ST, though, so at
ST 14, you basically double these amounts.

The penalty to
Move at high load-to-ST ratio can get nasty, especially when chasing down
fallen comrades. If the character is burdened with heavy armor, a shield, and a
heavy weapon, loads can hit 60-80 lbs. pretty quickly in fantasy games, and
looking at the potential gear list for US troops as deployed during Operation
Enduring Freedom shows combat loads in that same range, with
“emergency approach” loads of 110-150 lbs. depending on the specialty. Even a
ST 12 guy with a 30-lb. Basic Lift is in Medium encumbrance (0.6xMove, -2 to
Dodge) with the combat load there, and well into Heavy with the all-in loadout
(0.4 x Basic Move, and -3 to Dodge). Even the normally fleet of foot (Move 6)
is dropped to Move 2-3 at those levels, making movement only slightly (if at
all) more swift than using the Steps allowed during a Committed Attack. The
extra yard per second of move can offset this, if purchased, making it a pretty
liberating point spend.
Fate Core

The other three
games are overtly tactical. They might not be physically played on a map in
some cases, but the assumption tends to be real-world distances: inches on a
battlemat, feet or yards from a foe. At worst, one might wave the hands a bit
and declare “range bands” as Night’s Black Agents does with firearms
ranges
. Still, given that you’ve established that folks are about 300′ away
from each other, you know that it will take – depending on the game system –
20-30 seconds to purposefully cross that distance.
From the Fate Core SRD

Fate, being even
more abstract, does not have fixed units of speed or distance. Instead, it
divides the combat into “zones,” which are of a resolution large enough to
contain many fighters but small enough to meaningfully divide a large combat
space into segments.
Sound fuzzy? It
is, since it’s entirely situational, but that becomes very clear when a GM
sketches out the zones of interest on a piece of paper or VTT, or even simply
describes them for the players’ edification.
Crossing zones is
not a matter of hexes or feet of movement. It’s usually a matter of Overcoming
an Obstacle – a test against either a GM-set difficulty number or, if opposed,
the foe’s appropriate skill. This includes special movement as well – jumping
is almost a classic Overcome action.
Posture

As with most
things in Fate, such things as posture will be handled by temporary Aspects
that can be invoked to represent the difficulty in crossing a zone. It
would not be out of the question for the GM to define one or more Terrain or
Environmental Aspects that would “actively” oppose movement by characters
within that zone, or treating the environment as a character, which can spend a
limited quantity of Fate Points, or accrue free invocations if the terrain
“succeeds with style” in opposing player movement.
Encumbrance

As with everything
in Fate Core, if it’s not an Aspect, Extra, or Stunt, it’s fluff. That’s not a
slam, it’s a restatement of the Fate Fractal – you can treat anything in
the game as if it were a character. If it’s important, a character might take
the Aspect “Loaded like a Pack Mule,” which would be invoked against any
Overcome actions that involved physical stunting. On the other hand, the player
of that character might be able to invoke that same Aspect to procure a needed
piece of gear at just the right moment: “Oh, I just happened to have a spare
set of surveying tools with me; after all, one doesn’t carry this much gear
without a certain amount of preparedness and forethought!”
Night’s Black
Agents

It would be
simple, and somewhat accurate, to merely state that NBA does
not treat movement. And to a certain extent, this is true. There are no zones
discussed, as with Fate, and certainly there are no movement allowances in
yards per anything.
But that would
also be misleading, because the focus of the game is on the action thriller
genre, and from that perspective, Jack Bauer can cross LA in rush hour traffic
in as little or as much time as the plot requires. If two combatants need to be
in the same scene, they are. If they’re not and want to be, they can invoke the
rules (and that usually involves spending points from a relevant pool) to Jump
In. Movement is implied and implicit, and if you spent the points, you managed
to get where you needed to be.
In addition,
it is a thriller, and the game provides a useful mechanic
for chases. The GM establishes a Lead, and the chaser and
quarry spend points and make die rolls until the lead drops to 0, in which case
the quarry is caught – or at least caught up with – or it increases to 10, and
the pursuit is lost. This rule could also be invoked as a barrier to Jumping
In, where instead of Lead each group of fighters have a Separation, and moving
from fight to fight (or, in Fate terms, zone to zone) requires expenditure of
an appropriate total number of points or successful die rolls.
Everything
Else

Posture is a
description, encumbrance does not feature in thrillers much. The only nod given
to special movement would be an Athletics test. Certainly difficulty numbers
might be increased for certain tests by 1 or so if the GM decided it was
dramatically appropriate because the PC was particularly burdened with gear
(specified or unspecified), but that would be an in-play determination, not
something where wordcount has been spent to draw out rules or even guidelines.
The Size of the
World

The size of the
fight is not the size of the tabletop or the mapboard. It’s how far the players
can cover to either engage a new enemy or come to the aid of a friend –
especially if combat happens, more often than not, at arm’s length. GURPS
movement rates in absolute time are faster, even for average characters, than
those in both Savage Worlds and D&D. But where a D&D character might
spend six seconds to move 60′, while each of his friends and allies act once, a
GURPS character with Move 5 will require four seconds to cover that distance .
. . and therefore each friend and ally will act four times. Subjectively, then,
the players may well feel that GURPS movement is slow relative to other games,
because they’re denied agency (which is shorthand in this case for ‘usefully
beating the snot out of things”) for a longer time.

In my own
experience, I found this true – movement from one local skirmish to another
seemed agonizingly slow, and at least my groups have suffered from the “rush in
where angels fear to tread” syndrome – high movement rates and widely dispersed
vectors with no thought to formations or mutually supporting tactics. Given how
GURPS can punish such action, I’m surprised we didn’t have to generate new
characters more frequently.

This can be
mitigated by ranged fire to some extent, and guns and even bows can provide a
withering deterrent for such distance-closing action. Whereas a foe can rush up
to a D&D character and be in his face pretty rapidly, the GURPS character
can not only loose arrows or shoot bullets two to four times minimum, they may
also be able to retreat while doing so, buying them more time to shoot while
still out of range. So that can cut both ways.
The more abstract
method used by Fate (and to a lesser extent, Night’s Black Agents, if only
implicitly) of dividing combat into Zones pairs well with the lack of specific
time per round. 
It requires an adept GM, but with the right focus, closing a
long distance between a fighter that prefers melee and his ranged-combat
assailant can be represented by either an appropriate number of zones of
separation, a high difficulty to cross between zones (representing all of time,
distance, and terrain), or both.
Finish Him
Always in motion
is the future, and your character won’t have one if the right movement
strategies aren’t used to defeat your foes. Whether it’s grouping together for
mutual defensive and offensive support (especially key for many-on-one fights
common to fantasy RPGs), getting into, or staying out of trouble, how the game
rules treat movement will dictate how you do it, and whether you bother to try.
A game where movement is too difficult creates a fairly static situation. Once
you defeat your local foes, you’re effectively frozen in place and, for the
time being, your game is over. A game where too much movement is allowed with
no opportunities to respond can create similar issues, where local superiority
cannot be effectively leveraged because more foes can suddenly “teleport” in
with no recourse. D&D does try to deal with this with various rules
for Attacks of
Opportunity
, but there are still situations where movement can occur and
the players are left thinking “but surely I could have done something.”

Ultimately,
movement is used for critical tactical purposes in D&D,
GURPS, and Savage Worlds. It is used mostly for narrative purposes in Fate and
Night’s Black Agents. Given the intended play styles of each game, this is not
surprising. Unless you failed your perception check. Alas.
In a previous article, Violent Resolution looked at the skills used for ranged weaponry. In this column, I look at the weapons themselves.

Similar to differentiation found in hand-to-hand weapons, differentiation in ranged weapons, including the titular guns, provide a way of showing strengths and weaknesses, and providing different dramatic opportunities, within games. Most games (but not all, even in this list!) will feature the gross physical stats of the weapon: weight and cost.

GURPS

GURPS is a tactically-driven game resolved with one-second rounds, and it has a fairly large scoreboard for equipment statistics. Each of them can matter in play, and are listed in weapons tables in various books, including a generic one in the Basic Set Characters book (p. 278).

Tech Level tells you when the weapon was made, and will dictate availability in some cases older items are easy to come by (the TL6 M1911 pistol is manufactured and readily available in modern-day TL8), but in other cases they are not: a high-draw longbow that might have seen use in medieval or Renaissance Europe – TL3 or TL4 – can be had, but it will be a custom job, not available off the shelf, although a high-draw-weight recurve or compound bow will be. The other part of availability is a weapon’s Legality Class, with higher numbers being more available. Restrictive governments may well disallow even LC4 weapons, permissive ones might allow the possession of LC1 military grade hardware (for reference, LC0 is banned, LC1 is military only, LC2 is restricted, LC3 is licensed, LC4 is open).

Most weapons are also differentiated by Range, which gives the distance at which a projectile’s damage falls to half its usual value, as well as the maximum range at which a shot can be attempted at all. To a certain extent, max ranges rarely matter for many firearms. Even your bog-standard 9mm pistol has a maximum range of 1,850 yards, which is enough to suffer the penalty for a shot between 1,500 and 2,000 yards (about a mile): a whopping -18 to hit. Even with plenty of time to Aim, you’ll need Guns-15 (a reasonably respectably expert skill) to be able to roll at all, and Guns-22 (bordering on inhumanly skilled; this is a good baseline for a gun clamped in a vise grip/bench rest).

Mentioning Aim segues nicely into the Accuracy stat of the weapon, which is a bonus to skill you can collect by taking a second or more to draw a bead on the target. Really poor weapons can be Acc 0 (you need to steady for two or more seconds to get any value out of it), while a quality assault rifle with a full-length barrel is Acc 5, and a sniper rifle might be Acc 6, and with +3 more for a scope with a magnification of 8-15x. Since every +6 to skill is equivalent to reducing the range by 10x, this means that a boost of +6 means you can hit as easily at 1,000 yards a target that the less accurate weapon can engage at 100 yards. Man-portable Ultra-Tech weaponry can have Acc ratings as high as 12 in the Basic Set, and the mounted versions, such as the Rainbow Gatling Laser, can go as high as Acc 18 (with an appropriately enormous weight of 70 lbs., but a maximum range of over 13 miles).

Other game-useful stats of weapons can include the Rate of Fire (shots per second), which can vary by quite a bit, from single-shot to gatling guns with RoF as high as 60 or even 100. Also listed is the ammunition capacity, which in some cases might be lower than the number of shots that can be fired in a turn!

The Glock 18, a full-automatic 9mm pistol seen used by Morpheus in Matrix Reloaded, can be in this category. It cuts loose at over 20 rounds per second, and if loaded with a standard 9mm magazine will empty it in less than one second. Extended magazines of 30 rounds were used in the movie, and even so it’ll lock open on an empty magazine in the middle of the second turn . . . probably having hit very little in the process.

The game also notes how long it takes to reload, a Bulk rating that penalizes you when shooting on the move (and a few other places), and how strong the user has to be to use it properly. An M16 can be used by someone as low as ST 9, while our machine pistol or a .44 Magnum Auto pistol both require ST 12. Finally, it lists a Rcl score (shortish for Recoil), which tells you the required margin of success to achieve multiple hits. If your final, net skill is Guns-15 and you’re shooting 10 bullets from a weapon with Rcl 2, you will hit once if you roll 15, twice at 13, and seven times if you roll a 3 (the other bullets continue downrange).

The Moose in the Room


That’s all well and good. But how much damage does it do?

In many respects, that may be all the “typical” or “average” gamer needs or wants to know. GURPS provides some of the widest variation in penetration and injury numbers of any game dealt with here. The game differentiates by raw penetration (the dice of damage, always using d6) and final injury, represented by a bullet size modifier. Armor piercing bullets or arrows, which might cut the Damage Resistance of armor worn by a factor of 2 or more, are also available.

This allows the game to make very fine distinctions based on real-world numbers if you’re willing to do the math (disclaimer – I wrote that one), and it can provide such minor distinctions as the difference between a 9mm pistol (2d+2 piercing damage, for 9 penetration and 9 injury on the average) and a .45 ACP (2d large piercing damage, also written pi+, for 7 penetration but 10.5 injury – again on the average). So your 9mm penetrates better, but your .45 ACP wounds better.

Damage can get almost egregiously high. A typical assault or battle rifle will do between 5d6 and 7d6 damage per bullet that hits. A .50 BMG (a machinegun bullet used for long-range sniping and on lightly armored vehicles) would do about 6dx2. The Soviet-era 125mm tank cannon (the D-81TM Rapira) clocks in at 6dx33(2) huge piercing incendiary, with the (2) being an armor divisor. Mostly you will not be shooting that at people (though you may use the HE round, which explodes for 6dx6 crushing explosive damage and tossing 6d+1 fragments about the landscape).

The end result of this range of damage is that it’s just not that hard for any PC that can get their hands on firearms to have the capability to render an unarmored foe really, really dead with one successful round of fire. Three rounds semi-auto with a 9mm pistol to a non-vital area will average 27 HP of damage, enough to force a death check on an above-average hero with 13 HP. Upgrade that to even a semi-auto in .223, and that’s 52 HP (still not auto-death for an average 10 HP guy). On the other end, the anemic .25 ACP only does 1d pi-, which means the average penetration is but 3.5 points, and that’s halved for injury, so 1-3 HP per shot to a non-vital area (vital areas overwrite bullet size modifiers; you get the same x3 to injury for shooting someone in the vitals with a .22LR as with a .50 BMG).

Damage isn’t everything, of course. The player character still has to put lead on target. But with a wide set of differentiation possible by equipment selection, many with game-mechanical effects, the choice of hardware can matter, and small levels of differentiation can be had for players that care. If they don’t care, then using the limited selection of weapons – or even a reduced set of them – from the Basic Set Characters book will be fine, or even further reduced: Pistols are Acc 2, 2d, and damage is halved at 100 yards. Rifles are Acc 5, 6d, damage halved at 500 yards. Shotguns are Acc 3 and 2d but fire nine pellets at a time, and damage is halved at 50 yards. It doesn’t have to be detailed, but if detail is desired GURPS has your back. In spades.

Bullets . . . lots of Bullets

Even if you’re happy with the equipment lists, there are treatments available for many types of ammunition. Conventional ammo is of course provided for, but hollow point (increased wounding, decreased armor penetration), armor piercing (increased armor penetration, often decreased wounding), explosive, incendiary, rubber bullets, dragon’s breath, and in at least one supplement, silver and wooden projectiles are all given specific treatments. You can even get custom-loaded match-grade ammunition and gain mechanical benefit. Or load “duplex” rounds which fire two smaller bullets from every trigger pull. Or, always a crowd pleaser, saboted ammo with ridiculous penetration and velocity. If it’s been done in real life, or been thought about, it’s probably been represented in GURPS.

Equipment Lists

Not only does the basic book have a reasonable list of equipment, there are volumes – multiple sets of them, actually – dedicated to statting out weapons from various eras, countries, and Technology Levels. Three hardbacks (Ultra-Tech, High-Tech, and Low-Tech, in publication order), plus a plethora of books in digital format, most of which are written by Hans-Christian Vortisch (and if you’re looking for a guy to write about guns, this is the guy).
These books sell quite well, and they often carry detailed descriptions about who manufactured the weapons, in which services or actions they saw use, and sometimes notes about famous people who used them, or movies in which they appeared.

Fate

A short story, and pretty much the polar opposite of GURPS.
Fate does not inherently provide for differentiation based on equipment. Aspects can be invoked that are weapon-ish, of course. Stunts are the best way to drive differentiation that is related to character concept, but as with all of Fate, if it’s not codified in an Aspect, Stunt, or Extra, it carries no inherent mechanical weight.

That being said, Equipment Aspects are real things, and powerful if you’re willing to spend the points. Since an Attack roll involves both a hit and damage roll, spending a Fate point to invoke an appropriate Aspect will give both an increased ability to hit as well as increasing damage (it’s an opposed roll with stress and consequences based on margin of victory).

Equipment Extras might give a boost to damage. Creating an Advantage might be used to Aim – each successful advantage might give +2 shifts to hit (but not damage) or damage (but not to hit), and success with style might allow invoking both at once, or two of each.

But overall, there are no hard and fast rules or exceptions for ranged weapons in Fate. If you have the Shoot skill, you either have or can use a gun (and likely bows and crossbows too). If you have the right Aspects, you may invoke them, or have them invoked against you. I suspect that the #1 cause of running out of ammunition in Fate games is an foe invoking a firearm-related aspect to force his opponent’s gun to run dry.

There are no lists of equipment in Fate Core or Fate System Toolkit.
There are lists and extra Stunts and specific rules for firearms and other projectile weapons in genre treatments based on the Fate rules, such as Nova Praxis, a sci-fi game using the customized Strands of FATE system.

Night’s Black Agents

As with Fate, NBA is a strongly narrative game where the characters and their abilities drive the story, not the props and their stats. Certain weapons do get better or worse attributes, but these situations are somewhat limited. There are no equipment lists per se in NBA . . . but for a narrative-heavy, gear-rules-light game, there are a surprising number of ammunition types with game-mechanical effects. Hollow point, dragon’s breath, depleted uranium, and armor-piercing ammunition are given some love, with special focus on silver, silver nitrate, and special wooden projectiles, for obvious blood-sucking reasons.
So by and large, NBA has mechanics only where the Bond- , Bourne-, and Batman-esque hunters can look cooler by pulling out some fancy ammunition to make for a moment of coolness in the narrative. It uses semi-defined range bands for all weapons (not too far wrong; it’s a simplification used in GURPS too in some games) as Point-Blank (face to face with the target), Close range is in the same room, Near range is something like 30-40m, Long is up to 100m, and Extended depends on the weapon – rifles and assault rifles can shoot to 500m, while purpose-built sniper rifles can shoot to 1,000m. Speaking of purpose-built, the game limits pistols and shotguns to Near range, and rifles to Long range, unless you spend a few Shooting points to make it happen.

Ammunition either doesn’t run out or runs out when dramatically appropriate.


Damage

Relatively speaking, larger and more powerful weapons get minor bonuses to the standard 1d6 roll for damage. A small pistol such as a .22LR does 1d6, a 9mm pistol or 5.56mm assault rifle does 1d6+1, while the .50 BMG might do 1d6+2. All firearms get +2 to damage at Point-Blank range, and +1 at Close range, so most combat firearms will do 1d+2 within a room, against Health pools that (for bad guys in the ‘mook’ to ‘bodyguard’ range) will be 3-8 until the foe starts taking wounds.

The variability is thus low, with small pistols doing (at Close range) 2-7 points, and giant anti-materiel rifles up at 4-9 at the same range.

Dungeons and Dragons

The latest edition of D&D is parsimonious with stats that differentiate weapons, while still allowing differentiation where it matters to the game. The Player’s Handbook gives cost, damage and damage type, weight, and some notes, such as if the weapon needs to be reloaded (as with crossbows), counts as a heavy weapon, has a range beyond which shots suffer Disadvantage, and so forth.
The d20 Modern variant, as one might expect, gives more stats for firearms: it uses a range increment instead of a range maximum, includes a statistic for rate of fire (single, semi-auto, or automatic), and tells you how many shots are in a magazine, belt, box, or cylinder.

Bring the Hurt


There is relatively little differentiation in damage with firearms in d20 Modern, though perhaps more than in NBA. A small revolver like a .22LR will do 2d4 damage while the mighty .50BMG does 2d12, roughly 3x as much. Bows will either do 1d6 or 1d8 plus any attribute bonuses, and for a DEX 16 character with a +3 bonus to Damage (in 5e) that means 4-9 points from a shortbow, or 4-11 points for a longbow. That’s not that different than a small pistol (2-8 points) and a standard 9mm one (2-12 points), which isn’t too far wrong for injury, if not penetration.

There’s no great way to represent armor-piercing weapons in the PHB or the d20 Modern SRD. House rules would be easy to come by – lowering the AC of the target by a few points (but not below that given without any armor at all) would work. Bullets like hollow-points similarly might add a point or two to the foe’s AC if he’s wearing armor at all, but if it hits, might either add a point or two do damage, or increase the die type (I like that one) by one step.

Savage Worlds

Much like D&D, Savage worlds keeps its differentiation by stat block short and sweet. It gives a unique range (in inches, since it’s based around a tabletop with miniatures in the rules text), damage, rate of fire, cost, weight, and shots (which corresponds 1:1 with the usual magazine capacity). Some weapons have a minimum Strength die needed to use it, and many firearms have special properties, most often negating points of armor rating (AP 2 seems common) or restrictions on being able to move and fire (Snapfire Penalty).
Rate of Fire and Damage

Savage Worlds allows multiple shots on a foe, each using a Shooting die (up to the weapon’s RoF, usually 1-4) for each attack, which may be at different targets. Full-auto attacks are the same way, rolling Shooting dice equal to the RoF, but more bullets are expended (each burst uses bullets equal to RoF; an RoF 2 weapon can shoot up to 4 bullets, while RoF 4 is up to 16).

Damage is by weapon type, with a .22LR doing 2d6-1 and a Barrett .50 BMG doing 2d10. Each damage die can “explode” if it rolls its maximum value on a particular die. That’s a range of about 1.5x accounting for exploding dice.

Finish Him: The Purpose of the Numbers

Really, in this group of game systems there’s GURPS, and then there’s “everyone else” in terms of how detailed and differentiated a weapon’s stat list can be. GURPS goes out of its way to provide differentiation and mechanical support for very (very, very, very) fine resolution in why a player might choose to pick one weapon over another. The (endless and eternal) debate over the 9mm vs the .45ACP that has been waged for years can be waged in GURPS as well. The 9mm has more penetration, while the .45ACP does more injury.

Ironically, the answer to “which is better” in GURPS is actually quite clear: take a .40S&W. Due to mechanical breakpoints, it does more penetration than the .45ACP, but retains the x1.5 size modifier because the 10mm/.40 bullet sits exactly on top of the differentiator between pi and pi+

But why? Players vote with their dollars, and books full of guns with slight differentiation sell well enough that they keep being funded. But further than that, a character’s kit is often a plot point and a mechanism for narrative differentiation as well as characterization. These things matter to the characters and the players, and GURPS gives a very large number of mechanical handles to provide those talking points.

The Warrior, not the Weapon


The other games are not “worse,” in this respect. They are “less,” in terms of what differentiation they can provide from a “number of hooks” perspective, but in the case of NBA and Fate, this is mostly brushed aside in the focus of the rules – providing just enough mechanical hooks that it’s the character shining, using the gear as a spotlight with which to look cool. From that perspective, the focus is on the shooter, the warrior, not the weapon, in most cases. Though, of course, sometimes the weapon does deserve special focus – The Golden Gun is right there in the title, a pair of pearl-handled revolvers can make quite the statement, and, of course:

“Six men came to kill me one time. And the best of ’em carried this. It’s a Callahan full-bore auto-lock. Customized trigger, double cartridge thorough gauge. It is my very favorite gun … This is the best gun made by man. It has *extreme* sentimental value … I Call Her Vera.”

                                          -Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), Our Mrs. Reynolds (S1E06)

Enough is Enough


The other games provide stats where it matters to the games they play. D&D is mostly about HP ablation, and so while one could give a .50BMG 20d6 or 6d10 damage (and perhaps one should) compared to a 9mm’s 2d6 or so, being able to do that turn after turn with barely a pause will radically change the feel of the game. Savage Worlds, as usual, straddles an intermediate zone between resolution and Spartan rules-keeping, with enough meat to allow some differentiation, but not a lot – most of the weapons are functionally identical within a class
This is not an uncommon event, even with as high a resolution system as GURPS, of course. Sometimes, why one person chooses a Springfield XDM in .40S&W where another chooses a Walther PPQ comes down to personal aesthetics and feel, not mechanical stats. The character likes it because he likes it, not because of some obvious mechanical advantage that would make one stupid to choose anything else.

“In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte (Observations on Spanish Affairs, Aug 27, 1808)

Napoleon’s quote is stolen here for a reason, but mostly as a jumping off point. The mightiest weapons and the most efficient logistics train mean nothing if a soldier – or an army – will not fight when told to fight, persist in their mission even in the face of their own doom, and withdraw in order rather than flee in terror on command. This holds for armies and battalions, but also for small units as well. Or, as our buddy Thulsa Doom summed up:

Thulsa Doom: Ah. It must have been when I was younger. There was a time, boy, when I searched for steel, when steel meant more to me than gold or jewels.

Conan: The riddle… of steel.

Thulsa Doom: Yes! You know what it is, don’t you boy? Shall I tell you? It’s the least I can do. Steel isn’t strong, boy, flesh is stronger! Look around you. There, on the rocks; a beautiful girl. Come to me, my child…
[coaxes the girl to jump to her death]

Thulsa Doom: That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this! Such a waste. Contemplate this on the tree of woe. Crucify him.

In short, that which gives Conan his power is his moral courage, not his weapons or perhaps even his physical strength. That in the end, two had the heart to stand against many.

As one would imagine, fear and courage – the will to fight – can occur at all parts of the story, and the fight. At the beginning – when fighting is either decided upon or left behind. The middle, in hot combat or cold slaughter – who will maintain their composure, stay in formation with shields locked? Will fear of death and pain cause the heart to break and the will to leave the fighter with palsied hand? Or will (laying about me with the quotations) they stand as Ulysses: “One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Do any games support this mechanically? Not terribly well, at least among the core rules of the books presented . . . with one notable exception, and perhaps one honorable mention.



Calling All Monsters

One thing that seems to be generally true is that morale checks are mostly for NPCs. The players are given the choice of when their paper men stand and fight, press on, or run in terror in most games. This isn’t always true, but in most cases, it is.

But the fact that each PC has a human mind driving it means that the mechanics must carefully consider (or choose another method) just how the moral component of fighting is imposed.


Beginning, Middle, End, Surprise

Just to keep it simple, I’ll try and canvas the rules books (core rules, though mention might be made of older editions or supplements which I’m familiar) for the right keywords, such as “flee,” “morale,” “fright check,” and “disengage.” But I’ll be looking for four items:

  • How does a potential combatant decide to start a fight, engage in violence, and what kind? This is the beginning. 
  • How much persistence does a combatant show during the fight itself? If an ambush fails, will the fighter engage, or flee? This is the middle. 
  • When things go poorly, shields are splintered, and the battle turns against them, do they stand and fight, withdraw in order, or flee in terror, shedding weapons and defenses behind them? This is the end. 

  • The tentacled horror leaps from its dark perch. Arrows or bullets fell a hero with no warning and no mercy. The odds tip suddenly against the heroes, and it’s fight or flight – how does the game handle surprise? 


Dungeons and Dragons

Let’s reach back for a moment to older editions, and note the Gygax, with his wargaming background, was quite aware of a long history of morale-style rules for our four contingencies – Peterson mentions them in several places in Playing at the World, and such subsystems existed for each phase of combat. Chainmail gave a morale score; and it’s worth noting the entry for Morale in Basic D&D, quoted from the D&D Wiki in full:

Morale (Basic D&D)

Some enemies or NPCs will try to disengage from combat. This is not part of the actions, but is used to determine behavior of NPCs.
It is generally checked by a 2d6 roll against the monster’s morale score:

  • When a group tries to evade an encounter. 
  • Every five combat rounds while chasing. 
  • During combat, when a targeted creature takes 1 point of damage. 
  • During combat, when a creature is reduced to 1/4th of its starting hitpoints 
  • During combat, when the first death on each side takes place (regardless of which side gets the fatality) 
  • During combat, when only half of the creatures of their group is free to act 
  • When a creature is affected by a weapon master’s despair effect 
  • When a creature is affected by a magical item or spell that requires a morale check. 
  • When a PC’s retainer is ordered into danger while the employer remains in safer surroundings. 

The following bonuses apply:

  • If monsters have killed at least one enemy without taking casualties themselves, +2 bonus. 
  • If monsters have killed at least one enemy but have taken losses, +1 bonus. 
  • If monsters are on the receiving end of magic and have no magical abilities, -1 penalty. 
  • Other optional penalties may be applied, but the total bonus or penalty should be within +2 and -2. 

This is a lovingly detailed system. It’s simple mechanically (roll 2d6 vs a morale score), and has a clear list of items to check, some before combat (or even dictating if a monster will avoid a fight), many during combat, and some afterwards. It even covers gently “leading from the front,” as ordering a hireling into danger while staying safe causes a morale check. The shock of violent death forces a check, no matter what side the casualty happens on.

That’s a hefty importance placed on morale, especially in games where bringing the treasure home, not defeating the guardians, is where you get experience. Of course, there aren’t three morale rules for every one combat rule . . . but at least they’re there, and they lay down some great ground rules as to when other games might think about who plans on dying today.


D&D Fifth Edition

The Player’s Handbook makes no mention of morale in its index. The Dungeon Master’s Guide, however, does cover it succinctly on p. 273. Much like Basic D&D, the morale rules require a simple test to see if a creature or group flees. In the new edition, it’s a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw (so even with Wisdom 20 and a +5 bonus, there’s a 20% chance of failure here on a straight roll). The conditions include being surprised, being reduced to half the original HP, or having no effective way to hurt the other side when his turn comes around. There are also group conditions, such as when a leader drops or sufficient casualties are taken (the book gives half; this is a huge number for real life, not so much so in RPGs – decimate meant to kill one in ten, after all!).

There are no real rules for creatures gearing up to attack, or receive an attack from, a foe or group of foes. This is somewhat understandable, in that this is often situational and always up to the GM whether an adversary will attack or not. Still, the GM will need a feel for whether even a mountain lion will decide to pounce on a group of foes instead of a single, weak-looking future meal.

The few conditions that are listed invite more. Animals would probably need to make a morale check – likely at Disadvantage – upon being hit with a fireball. The guidelines present are leading enough to allow for improvisation, and since every creature has a Wisdom score listed, the Saving Throw can be calculated easily. Some monsters may have saving throws that are higher than their stats might indicate, but you’ll need the Monster Manual for that detail.

Since a morale check is made upon suffering surprise, the possibility that a PC group waits in ambush, wins surprise, and gets in one turn of furious action which causes their foes to break and run is a real possibility if the GM chooses to play it that way.


Savage Worlds



Looking up morale and surprise in the core rules shows that there is a small section on morale tucked inside a section on mass combat. When an army loses a token (a slice equal to 10% of the largest army) the side makes a Spirit check modified by circumstances. Failure means an orderly retreat. Rolling 1 or less is a disorganized rout.

Surprise is really a function of initiative, and who acts when. The consequences of being surprised are usually dire enough in any game that being on the receiving end of a full turn of woe and carnage is enough punishment.

It would not be difficult to scale the morale table down to character scale. As creatures and characters get taken out or surprised, calling for a Spirit roll would not be out of the question. Fail the roll, and perhaps you’re Shaken. Since movement is one of the primary things you can do when Shaken, the logical course here is run and hide. Unless you’re a PC – more on that later.


Night’s Black Agents



Jason Bourne does not run away. Dracula might pause to regroup, but again, the cadre of “blood-sucking fiends from beyond the grave” (Pike: BtVS movie) isn’t likely going to be frightened into much. Besides, the wound system is coarse enough that if you go “unconscious” from wounds you might well have panicked and fled, rather than been filled full of holes. The details (and the broad strokes) are left up to the GM and players . . . but a powerful mechanic that in a real way represents “hit points of fear” is found in the Stability score.

The score is 4 for free and in some games might be capped at 12. It represents willpower and self-possession, as well as resistance to mental attacks and psychological trauma. One of the few games that deals with the murderhobo trope directly: NBA in “BURN” mode you lose 1 stability point (or a rating point in an interpersonal ability) for every human being you kill.

Stability tests have a standard difficulty of 4, so succeeding in one without a point spend is 50-50. Failed tests that rub up against mental phobias or quirks might compel even a PC to flee. Spending yourself negative can leave you Shaken, Shattered, or Incurably Insane. Night’s Black Agents plays mind games for keeps.

Stability might refresh automatically between adventures, or might require some purposeful narrative downtime. You can also be helped along by friends with the Shrink skill. But ultimately, there’s an impressive list of things that trigger stability checks, and most of them involve violence, horror, or horrific violence, or violent horrors. The impact of these things can last well beyond a particular fight.



GURPS

The primary vehicle for morale in GURPS – at least on the “oh God oh God we’re all gonna die!” end of things is the Fright Check (p. B360). But the book takes some small pains to remind the reader that Fright Checks are for unusually frightening events, not run-of-the-mill blood and violence, depending on the campaign. One of the reasons for this is that for the truly frightening event, the Will roll is capped at 13, leaving 14 or higher a failure (about one failure in six). Mechanically, you make your will test, and if you fail, you add that margin of failure to a roll on 3d6, and consult a fairly extensive table. Recall the average of 3d6 is 10.5, and the table shows results totaling from 3 to 11 being various versions of “frozen in place,” which goes by the technical term of Stunned in GURPS. After that, though, things get ugly. Vomiting for tens of seconds, aquiring mental quirks and disadvantages, losing Fatigue Points, fainting, or even being scared into total panic, catatonia, or a coma (the probability of those results is low unless your Will is modified to lower than 3 and you roll badly a few times).

The real meat to “morale” as GURPS would define it will lie with the Disadvantages a character carries. “Disadvantages” are things that flesh out your character by restricting your choices when faced with certain events. Sense of Duty (Companions) prevents you from ditching them. Sadism means you’ll indulge in cruelty when you can. Honesty (which should best be thought of as “Law Abiding” rather than the more mundane use of the word) means you’ll need to make self-control rolls to break unreasonable laws.

For the purpose of combat and staying in it, there are many that might apply. The lists and notes below are not comprehensive; they’re illustrative.

Bad Temper might force you to start a fight, while Berserk will make you attack anyone around you until you are felled if your condition is triggered. Bloodlust will eventually land you in jail or dead, as you will go for (perhaps unnecessary) fatal blows, even to the point of not accepting surrenders or taking prisoners. If you suffer from Combat Paralysis, you tend to freeze up in combat and other stressful situations; fail a HT roll (not Will!) and your body will not obey your instructions when you tell it to fight. Cowardice can lead you to refuse combat or even risk-taking; it can also provoke strong reactions in others. Fanaticism gives you unwavering dedication to a country, organization, religion, or philosophy.

One of the more interesting ones is Pacifism, which of course rather limits your options in a fight. Some flavors include Reluctant Killer (you’re not prepared to kill those you recognize as fellow ‘people’), Cannot Harm Innocents, Cannot Kill, Total Nonviolence, and a perpetual favorite of mine in days past: Self-Defense Only.

Note that Pacifism (Self-Defense Only) makes an interesting combination with Bloodlust if the GM allows it. You never strike first, but when you do strike, you finish the foe, if you can, every time. I played a character with this combination in college, and it was a lot of fun, and you could get the conversations between hated adversaries that you will see frequently in fiction and cinema but rarely in RPGs, where talking might be seen as an inferior option to impaling.

There are others. Some supplements, notably Hans-Christian Vortisch’s GURPS Tactical Shooting (for which I was Lead Playtester, and also a friend of the author), go out of their way to note that combat can be pretty horrific, and suggest Fright Checks be made for “coming under Suppression Fire (pp. B409-410); being the target of a near miss (by 2 or less) from any attack; being in the blast zone of an explosion (2 x dice of damage in yards); suffering a wound (even a grazemay set some people off); or seeing an ally incapacitated or killed.” All of these could be extrapolated to gritty fantasy easily.

The mechanical support for the “stunned” condition (you can’t act and defenses are at -4 until you snap out of it) means that it can be applied evenly to PCs and NPCs alike.



Fate

Fate has one of the most interesting mechanics that deals with morale that I’ve encountered, in that it’s one of the only games that provide direct mechanical support in the form of a game benefit for giving up and conceding a fight.

More on that in a bit . . . but it’s one of the unique elements of the Fate combat mechanics, and it’s a great selling point for it as a narratively strong game.

Getting into a fight is also going to be narrative choice, but avoiding one might be an interplay between Aspects – and avoiding a fight is a good example where an Aspect might come up directly, or even be played against a character. Thor has endless opportunities to go head to head with Loki in Thor, The Avengers, and Thor 2 (also jokingly called Loki 1, Loki 2, and Loki 3 with no small amount of truth). But in many cases, he does not – he talks, persuades, taunts, captures, and even partners with him. Drama, yes – but perhaps a good instance of a Compel (accepting a Fate point to have an Aspect used against you). A more direct use of the Aspect might be a predatory animal with the Aspect “Hungry, not stupid.” She’ll pounce on and kill prey separated from a group, but will not jump into the middle of a group of armed, dangerous, and noisy foes.

The very nature of the “damage” tracks for Fate in terms of Stress and Consequences can lead naturally to non-fatal outcomes to conflicts. As one or both build up, there will come a time when enough is enough. At that point the most interesting of the positive-feedback mechanics present in Fate comes into play.


I give up!



If you’ve had enough of a fight, you can concede. If you concede, you get Fate Points, the metagame currency used to regulate the use of Aspects to get extra shifts in a contest (that +2 you get is a big bonus). The more consequences you took in the fight, the more you get. So there’s an increasing incentive to bow out somewhat gracefully as the fight goes against any given combatant. Also, a written rule of conceding a conflict is that you avoid the worst potential outcomes. You’re left bleeding and unconscious on the field, or taken prisoner instead of killed. You leave your fallen nemesis alive to baste in the shame of his defeat . . . but take his prized heirloom weapon.

You may well see that foe again, of course.


Fear and Panic for Thee, Not for Me



Wargames are easy. If the 501st Motorized Rifles roll poorly on a “gut check” or some such and don’t act that turn, you can curse their hopelessness, send them back to Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy next season, and generally carry on with the rest of your units. The morale rules are usually clear, evenhanded, and are part of the game, rather than seen as interrupting or diverting it.

For NPCs, random die rolls for morale allow a broader spectrum of reactions to events. Sometimes foes will break and flee, sometimes they’ll stick to a fight. Sometimes your retainers will break and flee. All of that is well and good.

But tell a player that his character is frozen in fear and you may just get the stinkeye. Suggest that the six players about to attack the slavering gorignak-beast are starting to feel damp around the collar (and maybe breeches) and you’ll get cursed at for railroading. Force a character to run in fear mid-fight? Inconceivable!

Some of that is overwrought, and deliberately so. But RPGs put the decisive agency – the game equivalent of sovereign franchise, or the vote – in the hands of the players when it comes to their characters’ actions. If they want to fight until they’re dead, they can do so. If they want to just walk right in over the Dread God’s Threshold, they can do so.

The best mechanics and support will support a few concepts, I think.



Anything Can Be Attempted

The old adage that defines the RPG as a unique experience must still hold. No matter what, unless trumped by some other factor, agency should still be retained overall. Immediate gratification may be lost. In GURPS, if you get scared, you may well be mentally stunned, unable to take positive action (you have to take the Do Nothing maneuver, and active defenses are at -4). But once you break out of it . . . you can do what you want until the next cosmic horror emerges to make you soil your shorts.



Hindrances not Prohibitions

Games that permit action of any sort, but penalized or otherwise modified make for nice, evenhanded application. If you decide that failing a Scary Movie Check in your house-ruled GURPS game is the same as being “Grappled by Fear!” and assign -4 to both DX and IQ (and therefore -2 to Parry and Block, -1 to Dodge, and -1 to Basic Speed) then the characters that have high enough skills can still be Awesome and succeed despite their fear. Other characters or NPCs might decide that they’ve had quite enough, thanks. Or, even better, that -4 will have to be offset by All-Out Attacks or other things that will likely simulate Fight or Flight! behavior through emergent choices.

I’m working with GURPS here, but one could easily assign temporary Aspects in Fate, assign Disadvantage or a flat -4 penalty in D&D5, or increase target numbers or assign penalties in Savage Worlds or even Night’s Black Agents. It doesn’t matter – the important thing is to give the PCs hills to climb, and let the behavior emerge. High enough penalties will generate the response of “I can’t do anything useful here, at all. I might as well make a strategic withdrawal.”

So long as those penalties are evenhanded and the mechanics for both their imposition and removal are clear, things should go well.



Positive Feedback

Quite simply: Fate has it right. There are tangible and direct inducements to conceding or withdrawing from a conflict.

Now, not all systems have such strong metagame currency as Fate. But Savage Worlds has its bennies, D&D has (for some classes) superiority dice, GURPS can have luck points or bonus points for some genres, and spending points is the entire rules mechanic for GUMSHOE. Any of these or variations can be utilized if desired to create an actual incentive for not fighting until your foes or your party are all incapacitated.


Finish Him



The moral may be to the physical as three is to one, but it certainly doesn’t play that way most of the time at the table. It should be possible to run off an adversary – or at least some adversaries – by a fusilade of near misses, some convenient planted nearby explosions, and a clear path for them to run away. Mostly, that would be resolved in most games as “a bunch of misses for no damage, an explosion for no damage, and who cares about an escape path!”

With the right emphasis, “initiative” becomes a lot more than who goes first. The shock of contact and pressure of wounds may well cause mental capacity loss, which will be met by even decent troops falling back to blunt-instrument responses. Keep them guessing, pressured, and disoriented, and magic swords and repeating weapons will be forgotten. Disciplined fire will give way to blazing away with autofire. Carefully planned attacks and techniques might still happen, but they can only happen via an all-out telegraphic attack that gives bonuses, or tactics will be adjusted because the party is all rolling with disadvantage.

Tip your hat to the moral, and see what the physical can do in duress. If nothing else, it’ll make for great stories.