If one is to discuss combat in RPGs, one might as well start with the medieval fantasy genre that still dominates the industry. For many games, hand-to-hand (or hand-to-tentacle, hand-to-claw, hand-to-mouth . . . ) combat is a central point of the game, hearkening back to the origin of fantasy RPGs in wargaming.

This Violent Resolution column will look at several classic weapons that might be brought to bear on foes. A relatively inexpensive set of weapons that are mostly for brawlers and massed militia: the club, axe (weaponized), and a spear. On the other side of the coin, we have more classic weapons of war and status: a one-handed sword, a mace, a warhammer (which is really an armor-piercing pick), and a pollaxe.

The Weapons

Just to establish a common ground, here are the weapons.

Club: a lightweight piece of wood, perhaps even found lying around. In its refined form, it might be the handle of a tool, or its evolution into the roughly two-foot baton. Just a few feet of wood used for bashing. Clubs often lack a good concentration of weight, and are lighter than equivalent swords (usually they’re just wood).

Axe: A single-bitted axe on a handle that will often range from about 27” to about 33”. This is a weapon, rather than a woodsman’s tool. It can be used one or two-handed, and often the axe blade is a bit hooked (a “bearded” axe) which allows it to hook shields or limbs. Terrible chopping blows with the weighted blade.

Spear: A shorter spear, perhaps six to eight feet long with a pointy end that goes into the other man. This is neither a long spear of eight to twelve feet in length, nor a pike, nor a javelin designed for throwing.  More of the length used in Viking reenactments. Strongly reinforced spears are good for delivering penetrating wounds and keeping a foe at bay.

Sword: Something like an Oakeshott Type XVII, which is a hand-and-a-half sword with a blade that might be 34-40” or so. These blades featured a strong hexagonal cross-section and a point engineered for a strong thrust – claimed to be for armor piercing. Most weigh in at the usual sword weight of about two pounds, but some extant samples can be as much as five, very heavy for a real sword. Against an unarmored foe, especially, swords can deliver huge, gaping wounds.

Mace: This would be a footman’s mace, which is basically a baton-length piece of wood or metal with a heavy, weighted end. They tend to weigh about as much as swords (two or three pounds), but with the mass strongly concentrated at the tip. The concussion would do a number through most flexible armor and could dent and buckle certain types of metal armor.

Warhammer: If you’re going to stand a chance against heavy metal armor, go with a weapon with the weight and balance of a mace, but put a giant freakin’ spike on the business end. In modern days it would be called a pick, and D&D calls it a “military pick.” One of the only handheld weapons that even stands a chance at punching through properly made plate armor.

Pollaxe: When you can’t settle on a spear, a mace, an axe, or a warhammer, you might as well put them all together. Usually man-high, they were designed to help face men in full plate. They usually bore two of a mace/hammer-head, an axe blade, or a warhammer pick, and then mounted a dagger-like spear point on the tip, and a short spike on the butt end. It was a footman’s weapon.

Dungeons and Dragons

In D&D, the damage that is done to a foe is given by the weapon in the main, but modified for both hitting your foe and doing damage by the user’s STR, which for fighter types will usually be a bonus from +0 to +5 (for STR 10 through STR 20). For hitting, not only does the STR bonus get added but you gain a proficiency bonus as well. The damage type is useful when attacking certain types of monsters.

The club and mace are cousins, doing 1d4 and 1d6 bludgeoning damage. A typical fighter will often have a very high STR bonus, so a club is very nearly an accessory to a fighter’s strength, while a mace does 1d6. Against a 6-10 HP low-level foe, one or two blows will suffice to drop an opponent. The axe described above is called a Battleaxe in D&D, while the warhammer is a “war pick.” Both do 1d8 damage, either slashing for the axe or piercing for the war pick; the battleaxe does a bit more damage at 1d10 when used with two hands. With proper strength, any of these is pretty much a one-blow fight-ender against a mook.

The knightly weapons of sword and pollaxe are translated as a longsword (1d8 slashing) and either a halberd or glaive in D&D. A glaive is a poor fit (as is the pike, for that matter) which leaves the halberd, identical to the glaive for stats at 1d10 slashing. The longsword can do 1d10 in two hands, while the glaive and halberd are both two handed weapons that give an extra five feet of reach.

Weapon Modes and Skills

Of interest is that even weapons that historically could be used for multiple attack methods – especially weapons like the pollaxe, which traditionally will have a piercing stabbing mode, and possibly a swung hammer and axe. One weapon with three potential damage types. The longsword can only slash; it does not have a thrusting mode (piercing).

There are no true weapon skills, but there are categories of weapons with which certain classes may be proficient. This allows you to add your proficiency bonus (+2 to +6 depending on level) to your hit roll, but has no impact on damage (unless paired with a Feat like Great Weapon Master which allows trading -5 to hit for +10 damage; the proficiency bonus here allows that penalty to be more easily absorbed).

Savage Worlds

A fighter in Savage Worlds is likely going to have something like a d10 in both Strength and Fighting, or a d12 in Fighting and a d6 or d8 in Strength. The attack rolls are made versus Fighting, but damage is a combination of your Strength die and weapon damage adder. And given how Savage Worlds dice explode, rolling two dice is a very, very good thing.

For hand weapons, then, what does the game provide?

Well, in Savage Worlds Deluxe, the simple club and mace are not listed. We can make a guess, though. A quarterstaff does Str+d4, and an axe does Str+d6. We can guess a club is either Str+2 or Str+d4, and an axe and a mace really only vary in damage type, which doesn’t seem to be addressed, so Str+d6 for the mace is probably not far off. There is a battle axe, though, at Str+d8, and what seems to be a proper Warhammer at Str+d6, but getting benefits to penetrate rigid armor.

As expected, the spear and halberd (there’s no pollaxe entry, though this isn’t surprising – differentiating between a true halberd and the pollaxe is just darn rare) get extra reach for both, Str+d6 for a spear, Str+d8 for the 15-lb (!!) halberd.

The knightly sword does Str+d8 (the Japanese katana does Str+d6+2, for the same upper end of damage but a higher minimum) and weighs 8 lbs.

An aside: I think many games tend to get weapon weights drastically wrong. Savage Worlds is not unique in this regard. The world seems full of 5- or 10-pound swords and other oddness. My wife’s Korean-style sword is something like just under 2 pounds, a modern replica of a type XVII is about 3 lbs, while a true two-handed Landsknecht sword can be between 5-6 lbs (and I’ve seen lighter). Practical battlefield weapons tend to be in the 2-4 pound range, likely due to constraints of human physiology and the needs of defense.

Raising Damage

In addition to Str and the weapon’s damage die, if you successfully strike your foe with a Raise (four above your target number), you add a third potentially exploding damage die to the mix, but always a d6.

Down and Out

If you exceed your foe’s Toughness (2 plus half his Vigor), he’s Shaken, while each Raise (four over target number) causes a wound. A disposable Extra is removed from play as soon as they take a single Wound, but an important Wild Card (a PC or major NPC) is only removed after the fourth wound is taken. In either case, a Vigor roll is made, resulting in death, permanent injury, or temporary injury.

If d6 is an average trait, a typical foe will have Toughness 5. The probabilities of dropping a foe are such that an extra will be taken out (Shaken plus one Raise) in one blow 38% of the time with a d6+d4 blow (pretty feeble), and 65% of the time with a d10+d8. Toss in a Raise on the hit, for a third die (always d6), and our extra drops about 89% of the time. Against a Wild Card, two to four such blows will tend to fell the opponent, but you can actually one-shot the Wild Card (granted, three dice, and those being a high Str, a good weapon, and a Raise for damage) about one time in six.


In GURPS, your ability to hit is dictated by your skill, and damage given mostly by your strength, with the chosen weapon providing damage boosts. GURPS differentiates between thrust and swung weapons, with swung weapons doing more damage (more or less 2x). The damage type of crushing, cutting, and impaling modifies the rolled number (which is best understood as a penetration number, but delving into that concept is for another time) to get final injury levels.

Interestingly enough, the light club is related most closely to the knightly sword, in this case using the Broadsword skill – such is the case with all one-handed, balanced weapons including katana, cavalry sabers, and edged rapiers. In this case the club does either sw+1 or thr+1 if swung or poked at the foe. A typical warrior type is likely to have ST 14 or so (about twice as much lift capacity as Joe Average) so that will be 2d+1 (all dice are six-sided in GURPS) or 1d+1 crushing damage. The knightly sword is a Thrusting Bastard Sword, doing 2d+1 cut or 1d+2 impale. If you want just a tetch more damage, you can swing with two hands for +1 damage.

The way GURPS damage works, that results in an average of 12 HP injury on the swing (average of 8, x1.5 for cutting damage type) or 11 HP injury on the thrust. Why thrust? You can target the vitals on the thrust, increasing injury to about 18 HP. Any of those is enough to make an average (or not-so-average in the second case) foe start rolling for KO.

Axes, maces, and picks (the Warhammer) are likewise related by skill (oddly enough, the Axe/Mace skill), which is for unbalanced one-handed weapons. The classic medieval mace, with plenty of room for two-handed use, will do 2d+3 crushing damage for our ST 14 warrior, while an axe will do 2d+2 cut (a fearsome 13.5 HP on the average). A one-handed pick is 2d+1 imp, average 16 HP impaling damage, while a much larger two-handed proper Warhammer does a massive 2d+4 imp (and two yards of reach) for 22 HP per blow, enough to force a death check in one shot.

The pole weapons, the spear and the pollaxe, are also treated, with the short spear being 1d+2 imp in one hand, or 1d+3 imp and an extra yard of reach in two. The pollaxe is a special kind of badass in GURPS, with three attack modes, and all of them nasty with a one or two yard reach. The spear tip thrusts for 1d+3 imp, the beak can be swung at 2d+3 imp, and an axe blade hits at 2d+4 cut. Any can fell an unarmored man in one blow, and the swung modes, on the average, will start an opponent making death checks in one hit.

Night’s Black Agents

This really, really isn’t the game to bring out medieval weaponry, in the main, but when you absolutely, positively need to sever the head of a vampire or one of their minions, you make a Weapons roll and that covers it.

In fact, all of the weapons listed fall under the same damage type except maybe the club, which is -1 to damage. A mace might be a heavy club at +0, and the rest are in the category of sword and axe, at +1. The roll being modified is a simple 1d6.  It might be tempting to give the swung pole weapon a +2, but given the example for a +2 damage is a .50 BMG (a .50 caliber bullet with something like 13,000 Joules of energy), I feel pretty good in lumping all of the weapons into that +1 category.

A frightened civilian will have Health 2, a militiaman might be Health 4, and serious foes might be Health 6-8 on the human side (a Spec Ops solider is Health 8, for example). So any “real” weapon other than a light club or mace is likely 1d6+1 against a Health from 2-8. You need to get to -6 to really risk unconsciousness, which means 8-14 total Health depletion to drop a given foe. At 2-7 points per hit, one will need to score a couple of hits – or use the Called Shot rules to increase damage – to drop a villain that qualifies as a threat. The Night’s Black Agents mantra of letting the heroes be awesome (“Player-facing Combat”) means that truly faceless threats can simply be neutralized with a point spend.

Still, when push comes to shove, there’s very little differentiation in weapons, by design.


As with Night’s Black Agents, the focus is on the charaters and their story, not their gear – at least for the most part. The rules in Fate Core don’t really go into detail there – the damage you do on an attack is related to your Fight skill and any Aspects you invoke.

There is a rule tucked into the back of the book under Extras, which suggests that we classify the light club as a 2-shift weapon, most one-handed weapons as 3-shift, and two-handed weapons as 4-shift. In this lexicon, the mace, axe, sword, spear, and a one-handed Warhammer are all 3-shift weapons, while the pollaxe is a 4-shift weapon.

It’s hard to say how much damage one can do, because that depends on your skill and invoked Aspects as well as that of your foe. A “regular” attack by a Good fighter (+3) hitting with a +3 weapon (!) will on the average do 6 shifts of impact to the foe, enough for a pretty serious Consequence. Two of those, or even a good roll, and the foe is down and out of the fight.

Weapon characteristics beyond that are left to the narrative flow of the story. Weapons can notionally be treated as an Aspect, so a spear might have the Aspect “The Foe at Bay,” where you can use it to Attack at a Distance, or even Create an Advantage or Defend by claiming a benefit (and spending the Fate point) of the length of the shaft.

If it Bleeds, We Can Kill It

GURPS, D&D, and Savage Worlds all provide a strong equipment focus: what weapon you use matters. Interestingly, none of the three make it matter that much in terms of the weapon itself. A strong fighter in D&D (say, +4 or +5 to STR) cutting with a one-handed sword (1d8) or a more massive weapon (1d10) is still doing about 50% of their damage from the STR bonus rather than the weapon itself. If you want more damage, you need special feats, more strength, or the usual standby: more attacks per round as a virtue of higher level.

Likewise with GURPS, so long as you’re in “normal guy” territory, the +1 to +4 damage bonus on commonly-found weapons is less important than the fighter’s ST score (each point of extra ST is basically one extra point of swing damage, and a half-point of thrust), and maybe even more importantly, the damage type. Swung cutting weapons like axes (sw+2 cut) combined with ST 17 adds up to 3d+1 cut – a typical die roll of 11-12 points, for injury in the 16-18 range. Swung impaling weapons like picks are 20 HP per blow type weapons at that ST score. If you want more damage, you can use higher skill to target more vulnerable areas, such as the legs (cripple or sever!), vitals (extra injury), neck (extra injury, plus satisfying chance of decapitation), or skull (the brain is a x4 injury multiplier).

Savage Worlds blends Strength with weapon in basically equal measure, and you can do as well or better ensuring you get a Raise for the extra d6 that might explode as picking precisely the right hand weapon.

Night’s Black Agents and Fate take the opposite tack, where by default it’s the character action and narration that matter, with small shifts for weapon use. Using the optional rule in Extras in Fate (Fate Core, p. 277) provides differentiation . . . but in the box on the next page, the authors caution against the implications of providing so much detail, especially with high-shift weaponry.

Night’s Black Agents and Fate are well suited to cinematic realities where Natasha Romanov can go hand-to-hand with her electro-zapper things against an army of Chitauri and all that matters is how cool she looks doing it, or Jason Bourne is equally deadly with a rolled-up newspaper as he is with a .338 Lapua Magnum sniper rifle.

The other three games are, in essence, driven first by the character’s strength score. Weapon is about as useful as strength in D&D and Savage Worlds, while the big boost provided by weapon selection in GURPS is more about the damage type than the adds to STR . . . though that’s less true at low strength than high (at ST 10, which is 1d swing, an axe is a big deal, doing 1d+2 cut instead of a baton’s 1d cr (2.3x more injury).

In all cases, though, the designers have taken pains – mostly to wholly successfully – to put the character’s abilities at center stage, rather than their gear.

I got a nice response to Never Tell Me the Odds, Part 2 from +David Pulver and I thought it was worth responding in a fashion not buried in the comments!

Davids words will be in magenta/Arial, my replies in regular text.

Nice overview of the two game systems!

Thanks. I’m trying to keep it factual and impartial. My experience varies with each system, though, and that probably shows through.

Regarding FATE, I imagine that rolling 8dF is a bit awkward, which may be one reason that 4dF contested is preferred.

I also think that the split rolls is important to the game, and since it is possible (within the realm of house rules) for the GM to do things like say “I don’t care if your attack was better than his defense, if you can’t eke out at least a zero you just miss.” While mathematically identical with the rules as presented (8dF vs 4dF-4dF), splitting the dice certainly creates the illusion of agency, and the defending character can always not roll, which means that 4dF, with its swingier results table, is more appropriate.

Related to that, one neat thing about FATE is that since the 4dF roll centers on zero you can also roll non-opposed 4dF and still get the same average-0 even if the spread is -4 to +4 instead -8 to +8.

Yep. And as I mentioned above, this actually matters, since the distribution is tighter to zero the more dice you roll. From that perspective, the more dice rolled, the more that the only thing that matters is the difference in skill levels.

In some campaigns, I imagine this might actually be a feature. For example, some have criticized the ability to “dodge bullets” in GURPS. In FATE you could get around this by having in ranged combat only the attacker roll 4dF against the target’s fixed defense number, but continue to roll 4dF opposed whenever you have a more “random” situation like melee combat.

Well, there are definitely a few fixes to the dodging bullets (perceived) issue in GURPS, but you’re absolutely correct in the options it gives the GM to make the system serve his needs.

Regarding GURPS the statement that “all skills levels higher than 6 favor attack over defense” is a bit misleading, since you’re not normally rolling a contest between them. It would seem more accurate to say “at skill levels above 6, the attack roll is higher than the defense roll – but this is irrelevant since they they are not usually opposed outside of a few special maneuvers.”

Mild disagreement here, in that having Skill-12 (and Parry-9) means you will strike a potential hit three times in four, but only defend against a potential hit a bit less than two times in five. Of course, defense options such as All-Out Defense and Retreat rapidly can raise that Parry to 12 (more if it’s a fencing parry). 

Still, I get what you’re saying, and the “real” probability of a hit is P(Attack) x P (Failed Defense), which can be a bit different to wrap a brain around (which is basically your final point below). 

In GURPS, my experience is that high attack skill are typically seen by my players as license to reduce the attack skill by taking special options like aiming for the head, joints in armor, etc. and they often translate into greater damage. (Of course the might also be used in deceptive attacks, translating into degrading defenses, but against many foes this may be less valid).

All true. Skill above 16, especially, is basically wasted. In the GURPS games I played with +Nathan Joy and +Mark Langsdorf , some of the other players (maybe Emily, maybe +Theodore Briggs ) automated a homemade macro that would apply enough Deceptive Attack to bring your effective skill to 16 if you forgot to do it yourself. That’s exactly what high skill is for, especially, as you know, in Fourth Edition.

In contrast, the rules rarely provide any situations where you would voluntarily take a penalty to your defense roll, and several – the shield use, retreating, etc. – where you would increase it.

The one that comes to mind where you trade defense is the Riposte option, basically a Defensive Deceptive Attack, where you can take -1 to defend on your own blow in exchange for -1 for your foe to defend on your next attack. With enough defense to begin with (or enough armor to just sit there and take it), this can be a profitable tactic.

Aan oddity of GURPS is that for skill 14+ fighters who are just hacking at each other, if you completely ignored the attack roll and just assume the fighters hit, and only rolled defense, the fight would be kind of about the same result, the defense roll being the crucial one ( :

True to a point, of course, where such blows are 90% likely to succeed. You’re really just checking for critical hits (where 14, 15, and 16+ matters a lot) in this case.

Thanks for the commentary, and I’m glad you’re enjoying Violent Resolution!

In the previous segment, Never Tell Me the Odds 1 and Never Tell Me the Odds 2, the basic combat mechanics for five RPG systems were examined with the idea that if you don’t know the rough probabilities of doing what you want, you can’t really evaluate what you can do. Using the power of tautology for good rather than evil, perhaps.

Probabilities are one thing, but the basic decision process to resolve the success or failure of any course of action, the actions you can take productively, are strongly influenced by how the system decides to resolve tasks.

The basic steps of resolving any effort break down into three concepts: Action, Opposition, and Effect. Given the violent topics covered here, that’s usually something like “I bash him in the face,” “he tries to duck but fails,” and “I break his nose” if you come at it from a descriptive point of view. From a more gamist sense, it’s often something like “I roll to hit,” “he tries to dodge and fails,” and “I roll 1d6-1 for damage.”

Some systems merge Action, Opposition, and Effect together in various ways; others let the tests be basically independent. How this is done drives the decisions available to you, and dictates when it’s critical to make them.

Agent of Action

The term “player agency” will be thrown about quite a lot in this column. There’s a bit of definitional pornography involved (“I know it when I see it”), but basically I’ll steal a good concise definition inspired by Papers and Pencils: Agency describes the ability of a player to make a choice that will meaningfully impact the outcome of the event in question.

In this particular case, combat mechanics, the attacker nearly always has agency. He can choose his target, perhaps employ one of a variety of weapons, and decide what special perks, powers, or abilities to bring to bear depending on his character.

But to the “I know it when I see it” comment: Agency is provided to the one who makes meaningful choices. If as a defender, you just sit there and take it, you have no agency for that action at that time. You will likely face the opposite side of that coin if you live to your next turn: you get agency, while your opponent gets to take one for the team.

In each section highlighting one of the options presented below, there will be a bit of analysis titled Agency Enabled. This will discuss the kinds of choices for which the mechanic provides support. Those choices, when they happen, and how, will strongly influence – if not dictate – how the system provides flavor to combat in the game.

The Options

Looking at the possibilities of Action, Opposition, and Effect, we can create options from combinations of the three. Some of them are easy to see as primary combat resolution flavors, some less so. Ultimately, though, either all are combined, all are independent, or two are combined together, with the third independent. There are some variations in what that means, and I’ll take the interpretation that’s the most pertinent.

I’ll use some cheesy symbolic representation to show my work: A+O represents a combined Action and Opposition roll, while A, O shows two rolls done separately. An illustrative example, where possible pulled from D&D as a common reference, is provided for flavor. In many cases, other options are available (my current D&D5 GM has us roll damage against doors, for example).

  • A+O+E: Action, Opposition, and Effect rolls are all done as a combination subsumed into one trial. Many binary tasks are this way. In Swords and Wizardry, with STR 17, you open doors by rolling 1-4 on 1d6. 
  • A, O, E: Action, Opposition, and Effect rolls are totally independent, and executed in three trials. Make an attack roll, if that succeeds, the defender must roll to avoid the attack. If that fails, roll damage. GURPS standard combat resolution mechanic. 
  • A+O, E: Action and Opposition are combined into one roll, and the Effect roll is separate. The standard D&D to-hit and damage roll: Roll vs. Armor Class to hit, but damage is a separate trial. 
  • A, O; E=A+O: Action and Opposition rolls are separate, and Effect is determined from the balance between the two. Another way to look at this is that Effect is combined with both Action and Opposition. A grappling attempt in D&D5, or any Exchange in Fate. 
  • A+E, O: Action and Effect are determined in one trial, and Opposition in a second. Soaking a damage roll, or a “Save or Die!” trial after being bitten by a Giant Centipede. 
  • A, O+E: Action is an independent trial, but Opposition and Effect are combined into one roll. Damage reduction saves, where once an attack is made, the victim must pass a trial or take damage. 

One Roll (A+O+E)

The simplest method, and one that reaches back into the wargaming roots of RPGs, is the simple binary test. If you’re playing a game of tank battles, you might target an opposing APC, roll 1d6, and expect to hit and destroy the opposing unit on (say) a roll of 4-6. The miniatures boardgame Ogre, from SJG, takes another simple take on this, with a single die roll (again 1d6) allowing either no effect (for example, roll 1-3), a “disable,” (roll 4-5) or a destroyed unit (only on a 6). That is, the Action roll (a 1d6) provides a spectrum of effects directly. There is no opposition roll in this case; the agency for opposition is to maneuver units to not be in range.

Tests of Skill

The most common all-in-one test in roleplaying is likely a test of skill. Whether it’s picking a lock in GURPS (roll vs. Lockpicking at -3), or kicking down a door in old-school D&D (Open doors on 1-4 on 1d6), the action is the die roll, any opposition is simply a modifier to the roll, and the effect is going to be binary success or failure.


“From a certain point of view” the basic Fate success test for combat, which rolls 4dF for both attack and defense, is really just splitting up an 8dF randomization pool into even chunks. (And remember when Obi-Wan says ‘from a certain point of view,’ it’s in your best interests to find out what the other point of view is before you start passionately kissing your sister.) The probability distribution does not change even if you give the attacker 7dF or 2dF, and the defender the balance (1dF or 6dF). The agency that the players can bring to bear is whether or not to spend Fate points to invoke an aspect, or choose to go full defensive, or other options that change the mean effect, but not the randomization of the rolls.

That being said, this is likely a poor way to look at it, because while the basis of Fate at its Core might devolve to this, the infinite number of ways that the GM and players are encouraged to muck about under the hood with Stunts, alternate dice, and interesting mechanics means that very quickly it can be meaningful that the dice are divided up between attacker and defender, and vital that they be equal.

Night’s Black Agents

Night’s Black Agents invokes an unusual form of One Roll to Rule Them All in its Full Contest mechanic. The participants all take turns making a test of the ability in question, spending from their General Skill pools as they like. The first person to fail a test loses the contest. Each individual trial is Action, the Opposition is a target number, and the effect is “you lose,” but only if you fail. If you succeed, you narrate what happened, but in a way that holds out the scene for someone else to pick up. If your foe also succeeds, she tells what happens next, but again, it’s not fully resolved. This passes around until someone biffs a roll. The target number is typically 4 on 1d6, so it’s 50-50 if you don’t spend from your skill pool. Your foe is making the same calculus. The only agency denied you is the ability to narrate the end of the contest until someone fails.

Agency Enabled

This particular mechanic finds a home in combat where the only real agency is “where do I point my weapon?” More directly, even if the agency and choices are mostly in the hands of the attacker at the moment of decision, there are plenty of ways for the defending or assisting characters to get in on the game. The first, though a bit subversive, is by pre-empting an attack by a judicious use of deferred initiative or something similar to GURPS’ “Wait” maneuver.

“If X happens, I act!” at a time of the defender’s choosing allows for ambushes, despite being in a (theoretical) turn-based game with a one-roll mechanic. Another way to drive agency on the defender’s side is to declare actions on his own turn that raise the effective difficulty of the attack roll. Taking cover, declaring a “full defense,” or a similar option does provide a meaningful choice that can influence the outcome. It’s deferred agency (or predictive, in some cases), but it’s agency nonetheless.

If limited defensive agency is a disadvantage (and that’s an eye of the beholder thing), one advantage that this mechanic has going for it is that it can be satisfyingly fast. The attacker declares her action, she rolls her dice, and that roll also dictates the effects. Boom, next turn. In a game where it takes many such effects to win, either because you get partial victory conditions such as ablative damage or because there are just that many orcs on the board, this kind of alacrity in resolution can ensure that a combat isn’t a priori the only thing going on that evening.

Of course, in the world of unopposed skill checks, in combat or no (“I fast-draw my sword!”), the basic One Roll to Rule Them All test is the go-to mechanic in most cases.

Contested Outcomes (A, O; E=A+O)

If a single roll that determines everything is one mechanic that appears frequently in unopposed skill tests, another that will come up more often in combat is the opposed skill check. In this type of trial, two characters roll against each other, and the victor is determined by a hierarchy of result, but based solely on the rolls of each of the trials for Action and Opposition.

The results can be based on the degree of success, or can be a yes/no matrix, but in this kind of trial, no independent effect roll is made.


GURPS has a similar mechanic – the Quick Contest of Skill – which is used for many things, not the least of which is to resolve certain combat moves, such as grappling takedowns. Each participant rolls a test of her skill, and the margin of success or failure for both is used to determine the effect.

Frequently, this effect is binary – you either take the guy down or you don’t. Sometimes, though – such as for determining the amount of damage inflicted by applying pressure during a joint lock – your effect is equal to the margin of victory on the contest. If you succeed by a lot, and your foe fails, you collect the Chewbacca Prize for impressive dismemberment.

There are two more versions of Contests in GURPS. The Regular Contest is a matrix effect. You only win the Contest if you make your skill trial, but your foe actively fails his. If the reverse happens (you fail, your foe succeeds), you lose. If both succeed or both fail, there’s no effect and the Contest continues. The archetype for this is trying to Pin a foe following a grapple (at least in the Basic Set. Some hack went and wrote an expansion.)

The final type is a more qualified type of Quick Contest, where not only must you win by more than your foe, you must also successfully make the underlying implied skill roll. The implication here is that not only must you do something right, it must also overcome your foe’s resistance. This is seldom used in vanilla GURPS, but is frequently found in the aforementioned grappling rules.


Because the dice are so easy to combine without changing the outcome, it’s easy to lump these two tests together and just call it a generic 8dF. That’s not how it’s going to feel to the players, though, and that’s important. Each is rolling their own set of dice, and the effect is determined by the combination.

Mathematics aside, the Fate resolution system is basically a contest of skill as well. The attacker chooses what Aspects, Stunts, or Boosts he will leverage (providing a flat bonus), the defender does likewise (including having declared a Full Defense on her own turn, for another flat bonus), and each rolls their allotment of 4dF, and the shift delta between the two provides the effect.

Agency Enabled

The contest mechanic hands agency to both actors in a struggle, and often pits identical – or at least highly related – skills against each other. A warrior wishes to grapple her foe, and must beat her foe’s Dexterity or Athletics with her own Athletics test (D&D5) in order to successfully grapple and incapacitate him. As mentioned, Fate Exchanges are an Action Roll as an Attack, a Defense roll as Opposition, and when the die rolling and point spending is done, the number of shifts between the result dictate the amount of stress or degree of wounding applied.

This works particularly well in games with a narrative or dramatic focus, especially where the turn order and length are somewhat nebulous. It’s not necessarily the right fit for an “I go, you go” turn mechanic in combat, and the finer the turn resolution, the less appropriate it can feel.

In a game like Fate, grappling someone and throwing them to the ground might be Creating an Advantage, and it would be opposed with a defensive action in the same way an attack would. The narrative might be that if you succeed, your foe is thrown to the ground or put into a hold (and the situation aspects granted might give +2 to something you want to do or -2 to a foe’s ability), while if you lose, you tried something and your foe struggles against you in a way that they can choose to have it not happen, or they get a benefit instead (at least, that’s how I’d play it). Continuing the same example, a failed grapple or takedown attempt might just be a no-result, or the defender, who won, might slap his erstwhile attacker with the “Off Balance” aspect.

Even in a detailed game, any time skill can be met directly with skill (as opposed to, say, the half-skill Parry and Block of GURPS), this mechanic is sensible. It’s also very intuitive, and lends itself to fast play and easy interpretation.

To-Hit Roll, Damage Roll (A+O, E)

The archetype for RPG mechanics for applied violence has to be the version of combat trials that has existed since at least I started playing D&D. It was present in the Moldvay Basic Set, and AD&D, it’s definitely still there in both Pathfinder and D&D5. Even where you might have to squint a bit to make it work, such as firearms combat in d20 Modern, the classic method of rolling to hit against a fixed target number, and if successful, rolling an independent damage roll is the standard by which mechanics are judged. One of the complaints lodged, for example, against games that allow active opposition is that you can throw an attack “good enough to hit,” but have that attack negated either by defenses or by armor on later rolls.

D&D Sets the Standard

As noted, when someone says “roll to hit,” the first question out of most gamers’ mouths is “OK, what’s my foe’s Armor Class?” Most editions of D&D are largely designed such that the highest unmodified (through magic or Feats) Armor Class (AC) is in the neighborhood of 20. In the most recent D&D5, this is nearly exactly true: full plate and a shield will get you AC 20. Lighter armors have lower AC, but this is usually balanced by the ability to receive DEX bonuses. So with the right combination of DX and armor, AC 17 without a shield is within reach (though you may need DEX 20 to claim it!), and AC 18 with full plate. As magical bonuses are more restricted than in prior editions, AC is likely to stay lower than 30 regardless of the level of the character.

Pathfinder is more lavish with bonuses, and full plate and a tower shield, combined with at least DEX 12 for a +1 bonus, can rack up an impressive AC 24 – if you can pay for it. If you can find them, stacking armor, shield, and special protection enhancements (usually on a ring) could potentially boost by another +15, putting the upper range of AC near 40. That’s OK, though, because a high-level Fighter (say, 15th level) will get his first attack at +15 for his level, likely +5 to +10 for Strength bonuses, and if you’re facing a foe with +5 armor, you likely have a +5 sword. So AC 40 can be met with 1d20+25 or 1d20+30, giving effective target numbers of 10-15 on an unmodified d20 roll: 25-50% chance of success when titans clash

Savage Worlds

Savage Worlds has the defensive actions subsumed into the target number, for the most part as well. You roll an attack against your foe’s Parry score (2+half the Fighting die), and the degree to which you exceed the total gives some benefits. However, there is a separate effect roll (see the next section) and the Raises you get from the attack roll influence, but do not replace, that roll. So that one’s related but not truly combined – and it’s more properly an example of combined Action-Opposition rolls, like D&D. The enhancement is that margin of success on the hit roll matters, with Raises boosting the effect, but not dictating it.

Night’s Black Agents

In keeping with its narrative base and simple flair, Night’s Black Agents resolves attacks with a single 1d6 roll vs a target number, while damage is likewise 1d6 plus a (sometimes surprisingly small) modifier – a .50 BMG is 1d6+2, while a 9mm pistol or sword is 1d6+1, and a kick or punch 1d6-2.

GURPS: Mookville

GURPS usually uses a three-roll mechanic (see below). However, in battles between low-skill foes, the chances of hitting can be so poor that one must take the “All-Out Attack (Determined)” option to even have a chance, and maybe even stack the “Telegraphic Attack” option on top of that, in order to have a decent chance of landing a blow. These two options give up your own defenses completely, and give your foe a better chance to defend because of how obvious your strike it, respectively. In exchange, you get a monstrously large hit bonus. If both foes are exercising this option (or at least your target is), then the usual sequence of Action-Opposition-Effect degenerates to Action-Effect, much like D&D.

Agency Enabled

This classic mechanic is a simple step away from its wargaming roots – the addition of a damage roll. The decisions that matter must be made by characters on their turn, be they decisions about fighting defensively, taking cover, movement, or what-have-you. Defensive agency is minimal, and by the time someone’s shooting or stabbing at you, all that matters at that point is the final decision.

Further decision-making power is added, however, by the separation of the hit and damage roll. This encourages a level of detail in the creation and employment of weapons, since the damage statistic is usually a combination of the character’s ability (often a Strength or fighting skill, or both) and a weapon’s properties. As the archetype, D&D takes a weapon-based damage (say, 1d8 for a sword) and adds to it a modifier based on the user’s Strength score. Savage Worlds combines, for melee damage, the attacker’s Strength die and a bonus for a weapon – axes and shortswords add a d6, while great swords and greataxes add a d10.

Night’s Black Agent’s compression of effect rolls into a range of 1d6-2 to 1d6+2 is almost certainly a design choice driven at keeping the awesome power of the spotlight on the players and their characters, not the fictional gear they tote around. Thus, a 9mm with just shy of 600J in its projectile is only slightly less likely to injure a character as a .50BMG sniper bullet, with something like 20x more energy (and a documented history of blowing targets into two pieces in sniper incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan). The hardware is flavor and chrome, not the central point – and a mook is taken out with narrative description and a point spend anyway, so why fuss over energy-to-dice-modifier conversions? It’s not that kind of game.

Set Dice Rolls to 11! (A, O, E)

The most agency in both attack, defense, and damage is obtained by separating the Action, Opposition, and Effect rolls into entirely separate trials. GURPS is the archetype for this, with a hit roll only showing an attack is “good enough” to possibly have hit, but then provides a great number of on-the-spot options for the defender to attempt to negate the attack.

GURPS, Master of Options

Of the five systems used as examples in this column, GURPS is the only one that uses the three-roll mechanic. Each of Action and Opposition has a continuum of options that can be as simple or as detailed as the group would like, but the upper end of the detailed spectrum can push right on past “varied” and clear into “option overload,” especially for new players. There are four attack maneuvers (including those in Martial Arts) ranging from All-Out and Committed Attack, to a plain-vanilla attack, to a Defensive Attack. Each has benefits and drawbacks in movement, hit bonus, and defensive options. There are also options that can be stacked on any maneuver, the most important of which is Deceptive Attack – a voluntary penalty to lower your own skill in exchange for lowering your foe’s defense rolls. This is very important (and all-too frequently overlooked) when high-skill opponents face off.

On the defense, you get full selection of dodging out of the way, parrying a blow with a weapon, or blocking with a shield, if you have one. You may retreat in nearly any direction, or not, and you may also employ the same sort of option on the defense as offense – a Riposte lets you lower your defensive score in order to lower your foe’s defenses on your own next attack – opening him up through fancy bladework of your own. Shields and some weapons (notably the quarterstaff) can provide boosts to the defense roll – armor, in a revision to prior editions, does not.

Once you throw an attack, and your foe fails his defense roll, you roll for damage, but your foe’s armor, if any, subtracts from that. It’s entirely possible to fight a foe encased head-to-toe in steel or sci-fi armor with so much protection he can simply stand there and let himself be hit. Some of the thicker plate armor can behave this way, especially with magical protection thrown in, and if a player is willing to have his character encumbered, plate over mail can provide double-digit Damage Resistance.

Other Games

While this column will focus on the five demo systems I’ve selected, it would be a mistake to think that only GURPS is the oddity here.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: You can declare a parry against a successful attack. This uses up one of your attacks for next turn, and if successful, subtracts damage from the incoming blow, rather than warding it completely.

Shadowrun (Fourth Edition): The attacker rolls a trial based on his combat ability, scoring a number of hits, while the defender exercises his own options, which subtract potential hits. Any remaining hits get added to a damage pool, which are then further reduced by the defender rolling a trial against the combined total of toughness and body armor.

Runequest (Sixth Edition): The attacker spends an action point to attack, and if the defender chooses to spend an action point, she may parry. If this is not successful, damage is done. RuneQuest makes use of pretty extensive special effect options when superior die roll results are scored. Other editions allowed one Reaction per combat action, so you could parry as many times as you could attack.

There are others, as well, but most place a keen emphasis to tactical and deadly combat as a common thread.

Agency Enabled

The benefit to all of this is that it allows very fine-grained “verisimilitude,” the seeming of reality. Moves can be broken down almost step by step, and for those that wish it, the fights can be almost perfectly choreographed in reverse.

The down side is option overload. If allowed, each choice can take far too long, and seemingly endless optional detail can be mistaken for required choices.

For the defender, the paradigm that once a turn is taken, she just has to sit there and let blows rain down on her is no longer operational. She can parry, dance backwards, do a grabbing parry to set up a judo throw or knee to the unmentionables, or even launch an Aggressive Parry that if successful injures the foe on his own turn. A “defensive fighter” is now fully possible in this scenario, via positive action at the moment of decision.

A bountiful supply of attack methods, skills, and locations, matched with defensive options and weapon stats to match provides unending flavor to fights, and every choice can matter. The down side is that if every choice matters, the game can bog down as one or more players (or the GM, running twenty foes) hit the wall of decision paralysis.

Save or Die and Spell Resistance – (A, O+E) and (A+E, O)

The last two combinations mostly occur when an attack or other move has a predetermined effect. Either the primary effect is part of the casting of the spell (such as the Fireball), where the declaration of the casting is automatically successful, and the only thing that the attacker does (in Fifth Edition) is to roll the appropriate damage type. The defender can mitigate this damage with a roll. In many cases it’s somewhat arbitrary to define the A, O+E versus its opposite number, since the binary effect is inherent to the attack. Some sort of attack reflection or reversal might qualify, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m not going to work that hard to separate these fairly closely-linked mechanics.


The saving throw from D&D provides a good example of how muddled the two can be. For attacks, spells, or traps that call for a saving throw, the action on the attacker (or just the inanimate trap) is often just to declare the event, possibly rolling some sort of base damage as the Action. Casting or triggering the trap is done without a skill roll (though this need not be the case), and the defender gets to mitigate usually-known effects with a die roll. The always-popular Save vs. Poison counts here – if an attack succeeds, the defender gets a Saving Throw to avoid instant death from poison. Whether that’s O+E or A+E could be argued either way.


Another common representation of this mechanic, and often used in the same manner for the same things. You see the combination of Opposition and Effect when resisting a poison or some other persistent effect in GURPS. After a poison is administered, the victim must make a series of HT rolls, sometimes at a penalty. Failure brings a known, set consequence. Similar mechanics are used (nearly always a HT roll, but it might be DX as well) if navigating an environmental hazard. Choking, noxious gas (roll vs HT-2 or become Nauseated) or navigating across a slippery surface (roll vs. DX or fall prone) would both qualify as O+E.

Agency Enabled

The agency is mostly still with the attacker on this one, and the defender’s actions (often providing binary effect results of on/off or full/half) provide an ability to resist an offensive action, but no real meaningful choices. “No, I don’t resist the poison” and “I don’t think I wish to roll my saving throw against that fireball” aren’t really in it – this type of trial is usually representing some sort of autonomic response.

In most cases, while the player may not have true meaningful choices, these mechanics are activated in order to provide some ability for the character abilities to influence the outcome. Whether it’s that high-level characters are less susceptible to certain attacks, or that a certain combatant has purchased an advantage like Resistant to Fire and is being bathed in flame, this mechanic provides something as important as agency: differentiation.

Finish Him!

Wrapping it all up, each method of resolving violent conflict could potentially be used within any given game system, and frequently some or all of these are employed in different situations. In D&D5, the standard attack method combines the Action and Opposition rolls, but many other tests are a Contest of skills. There are plenty of binary skill tests in the game as well, if not directly in combat.

Combat Agent Man

Of the types, the most active agency is provided when there are meaningful choices for each trial. Of my five systems, GURPS uses this the most actively in combat, as it provides meaningful and detailed choices for each roll. Combined with the one-second timescale (a topic for another time!), one can get choices in sub-second intervals. Looking at an example longsword exchange in tournament competition, this resolution is needed – each blow and defense (often leading into other attacks) can happen so quickly that the time mesh of one second is just about right for the decisive moment of a fight. “Micro-resolution” of each choice is appropriate and dramatic for this case.

Contests provide the next most visceral feeling of agency. Again, this is related to the fact that the maximum agency is almost always provided to the attacker – it’s “her turn,” after all – while the defender will get a chance to react. Fate provides agency here by allowing more or less the same latitude to the defender as the attacker – if the defender wishes to spend a Fate Point to invoke an aspect, he can. And those spends are important, mechanically and probabilistically. The same applies to Night’s Black Agents, as spending from the General Skills pool is the primary agency you have in the game. Both GURPS and D&D allow choices in what skill is being used to resist some contests, especially in combat.

The most common mechanic – at least by market share – is the rolling of attack against a target number, while effects (usually damage of some sort) are separate. Agency is provided to both the attacker and defender through choices made on their own turn, but if you didn’t choose to fight defensively, there are no takebacks. It would be relatively easy to hack such games, of course. You can declare some sort of last-ditch all-out defense in exchange for loss of agency on your next turn by skipping it or taking some huge penalty to attack (-10 in D&D5, perhaps?). But the existing rules put the choices in your hands only on your own turn. Savage Worlds has the roll against a target directly influence the effect roll, too, through the mechanic of Raises. A particularly good action roll can give bonus dice to the effect roll.

The last three mechanics, the all-in-one skill test (such as GURPS’s use of unopposed binary skill rolls to try and Ready a weapon as a free action) and the combination of opposition and effect into a combined trial are of the least agency. Sure, the combined all-in-one test allows for the actor to choose what he wants, but the amount of variation can be fairly limited. The opposition/effect roll seems to be mostly used for binary yes/no avoidance of something that’s already happening. Poison resistance, saves versus spells, and the like. The player may be rolling dice, but there are no meaningful choices in the heat of the moment – your choices ran out when you got into the situation to begin with (or when the GM cast bolts from the blue at you, if he’s that sort). Hey, it was your choice to delve too deeply, where the fouler things dwell.

Speed is Life

So, more agency is good, right?

Not always. The more meaningful choices that can be made in any given exchange (to borrow Fate’s term), the longer each action can take. The longer each action can take in real time, the more the players will feel compelled to get the most out of each one. If analysis paralysis sets in, this can go from tedious to interminable to wake me when the pizza arrives.

That’s no fun, and so a balance is often struck between agency and rapidity of action – especially when introducing new players to the game.

The Parting Shot
Ultimately, matching the right degree of agency and play speed to what is going on within a given scene, fight, or action sequence doesn’t have to be a fixed thing. Night’s Black Agents notes this explicitly with its Player-Facing Combat mechanic. When the plot dictates it, hapless guards can be taken out with a quick die roll and a small point expenditure (if needed), with basically no opposition required. When things get more serious, either point expenditures and target numbers can be raised, or you can break out the full combat rules. Night’s Black Agents was designed for this sort of narrative-based telescoping; not all systems handle it gracefully, but most can be made to do so.

Removing agency from NPCs usually doesn’t bother anyone, and can be a big help to a potentially overwhelmed GM. Even GURPS, with all its provided options, recommends in the chock-full-of-detail GURPS Martial Arts to remove agency from untrained or low-morale fighters, and recommends a simple 1d6 roll: on 1-3, the “fighter” will All-Out Attack the nearest threat, casting his defenses aside; on a 4-6, he will turtle up, selecting All-Out Defense and using any movement allowance to back off from battle.

Ultimately though, the mechanics selected for a game matter. They provide the default degree of agency to be expected, and increasing or decreasing this from what the players have grown to expect needs to be understood beforehand, either via conversation or (even better) by running trial combats.

Failure to account for this may lead to strife. It could come as easily from loss of agency (“what do you mean the opposing fighter closes thirty feet and brains me with his axe? I have a freaking bow-and-arrow ready to go here!”) as from the perception that the game is only moving at a snails pace (“will you please just make up your mind? Parry the thing and move on!”). As always, the golden rule is to have fun and meet the expectations of the entire group (including the GM).

In the previous post, I noted that roleplaying combat can vary from storytelling to a pure tactical exercise, but that in all cases it is important that both the player and the GM have a reasonable idea of how skillful their character actually is. In short, and to invert the title of the post: you have to know the odds – even in a basically dramatic system.

Beat-Downs, Mechanics Style

Part I of this post dealt with D&D, Savage Worlds, and Night’s Black Agents. All use “roll vs. a fixed target,” and don’t encourage much active participation on the part of the defender. This article will discuss the two remaining systems (of the five on which I’ve chosen to focus), both of which do feature active defenses on the part of the target: Fate and GURPS.

Almost Certain to Succeed

More than once as we look at game mechanics, the concept of “almost certain to succeed” will appear. Somewhat arbitrarily, if a task has a 90% chance of success or better, the player will usually feel pretty confident in attempting the feat. As a result, the 90% breakpoint, as well as the 50% probability point where you will succeed as often as you fail, will be used to look at the influence of mechanics on success.


Keeping with the flavor that we left off with in the example of Night’s Black Agents, Fate is another strongly narrative game, but differs in many ways from the previous three systems, even as it comes to mechanics.

Firstly, Fate rolls special dice – specifically Fudge dice – which can have a value of -1, 0, or +1, with equal chances of each. These dice, which I’ve seen abbreviated dF, are rolled four at a time to judge a task, and added together – this produces a bell-shaped curve with the most likely outcome being zero, and varying from -4 to 4. The odds of rolling exactly a 3 (or -3) are about 5%, so it’s as likely as rolling a 1 or 20 on d20, and the odds of rolling 3 or 4 are 6.1%, so more or less one chance in 16.

Success comes in levels in Fate, but can also be treated as numerical results. I will tend to do that here, but there are four classes of outcomes. If your roll, adding skill and subtracting any opposition (which may be treated as a numerical penalty, or may be the result of a die roll from a foe) results in a negative number, you fail. If you wind up with zero, you tie. A positive number is a success, while success by 3 or more is “Succeeding with Style.”

Without getting into too much “this is how to play Fate” detail, the key bits are that if you’re using a skill on your character sheet (and assuming the basic character design method from Fate Core), you’ll have a bonus from +1 to +4 in it, averaging (in the skill pyramid version of Fate Core) +2. If you invoke an Aspect, you get another +2. As an example, Thor, God of Thunder, Worthy Wielder of Mjolnir (an important Aspect for the character), Self-proclaimed protector of Midgard, and Battle-Lord of Asgard might have +4 in Fight. If he wants to, as it might be said, put his hammer down, he will likely be rolling 4dF+6, since he’ll be invoking an aspect and is using his best skill. He will roll between 2 and 10, centered on a very, very good result of 6. This is a huge bonus – befitting our Thunder God.

The other major difference between Fate and the prior three systems is that each attack is assumed to be countered with a defense action. In fact, of the four principle actions in Fate Core (Overcome, Create an Advantage, Attack, and Defend), two of them are obviously related to combat and always occur unless for some reason your foe cannot defend himself. This will usually be the same skill as used to attack – and in Fate Core, “Fight” covers an awful lot of ground! Differentiation can be found in the mixology of the narrative facets of the game, including Aspects and Stunts.

Probability-wise, though, the opposed 4dF rolls provide a range of outcomes from -8 to +8 – a very large (in Fate) swing in “shift” levels, but about 90% of the time, the results will wind up between -3 and 3. So, the odds of you getting a better die roll than your foe are determined – on dice alone, you’ve got about a 40% chance of actually getting a leg up on your foe.

How Awesome am I?

What that distribution implies, though, is that an awful lot depends on the absolute skill levels involved. If Thor (with a base +6 with Mjolnir in most cases) is fighting someone without much ability, say, +2 skill and not able to invoke an aspect, the basic difference translates directly into the results – the absolute “4 shift” delta between Thor and his foe means that the values work out well for our Thunder God: -4 to +12, and 90% of the time he’ll be +1 to +7. This translates into “smackdown imminent,” and suggests a final way to look at the results: Look at the difference in skill, and plot the chances of failure by 3+, success by 1, and success by 3+. As noted, skills will range from 0 to 4 during character creation, and Aspects can give a boost. I’ll focus on the range from -6 to 6 for skill delta, from “totally outclassed” to “you own the place,” more or less.

Every shift you can get from an Aspect, Boost, or skill delta counts, and counts huge. If you can outclass your foe on an attack by two shifts (say, the bonus you get from invoking an Aspect), you have more or less eliminated the chance of the defender succeeding with style, and you’re hitting more than two times in three. At four levels of difference, it’s all over but the bleeding.

Critical Thinking

Succeeding with Style is about as close you’ll get to a critical hit, and the benefits you get from multiple shifts are inherent – the result of your die roll is also your effect roll.

Parry! Dodge! Duck! Weave!

Fate Core is the first system of those considered where the foe’s opposition is active. You roll dice, and these influence the outcome. Roll well enough, and you can negate an otherwise successful roll on the attacker’s part. The book even suggests certain Stunts, such as a Riposte, where if you succeed with style on your defense, you can actually inflict two shifts of injury on your foe.

So defending, and defending well, can have both mechanical and dramatic consequences in a fight, and players can invoke Aspects, perform Stunts, or even go full-on defensive for +2 to the roll. And as noted, a two-level shift is a big deal when looking at the 4dF-4dF curve.

Mechanics aside, this (forgive the term) aspect of the game – actively responding to a threat with mechanical and narrative support – is a big boost to player agency. The feeling of being able to ‘do something’ rather than just stand there and take it is either loved (because it works out well for the players) or despised (because it can take a player’s perfectly good hit and invalidate it) it seems, but it’s definitely a distinguishing feature of the game.

That being said, having the defender roll his 4dF while the attacker rolls her own 4dF would be exactly the same as the attacker rolling 8dF, adding the skill delta, and then looking up the result. Minor shifts in skill delta, caused by invoking aspects or boosts, will shift the centerpoint, but there is no difference in the distribution of 4dF+4dF and 4dF-4dF. The inverse of a dF, or {1, 0, -1} is simply {-1, 0, 1} – that is, the exact same result.

So Fate provides a bit of the illusion of agency in randomness, simply by giving the same number from the dice pool to each player.


The primary dice mechanic in GURPS is rolling 3d6 under a target number, which is the attacker’s modified skill. Sometimes heavily modified, since the dice themselves are not modified. This means that if you know the final skill or target, you know – exactly – the probability of success. The basic skill roll is based on 3d6, providing a range of rolls from 3-18. The bell-shaped curve will look familiar to that of the 4dF roll from Fate.

GURPS is a “roll-under” system, which means that rolling low for skills tests is a good thing. The higher the skill, the better the odds of rolling under that value on 3d6. There are few enough target numbers, and their probability is symmetric around 50%, that it’s pretty easy to memorize should you choose to do so.

Combat in GURPS uses two separate mechanics, and the most important of the two is the attack-defense pair of rolls. These are mostly independent, but not entirely. The basic method is that the attacker chooses the kind of attack he wants to do – and there are lots of options – and the defender chooses the kind of defense she wants to do. Each participant makes a choice and an independent skill roll.

As it happens, the attacker has lots of options. The player can choose on a spectrum (if he wants) from All-Out Attack, which gives a significant bonus to hit, at the cost of being unable to defend, to All-Out Defense, which (obviously) doesn’t allow attacking at all, but provides significant options for improving defenses. Even within something like All-Out, or if you’re using GURPS Martial Arts, Committed Attack lets you choose between options within that. A Determined attack gives a hit bonus, a Strong attack gives a damage bonus, and there are options for extending reach.

The key to all of this is that you can get very specific about what you’re doing. The system differentiates mechanically between (as examples) thrust and swing, different hit locations with unique effects, the spectrum of attack vigor between All-Out and Defensive (plus All-Out Defense, which of course isn’t an attack at all), plus the ability to layer options such as Rapid Strike (throw two attacks while maintaining defenses) or Deceptive Attack (take a penalty to your hit roll in exchange for a penalty to your foe’s defense roll).

And that matters. Because though each one carries a modifier to the character’s full skill, impacting the target number to roll under, your foe still mostly will get to roll his defense. The key concept here is that if you make your attack roll, you have thrown a good enough blow to hit your target – forcing your opponent to do something or take the hit.

Which he will certainly try and do.

Parry! Block! Dodge! Retreat! Sideslip!

In order to prevent smackdown, the defender gets an Active Defense roll. He can choose between getting out of the way (Dodge based on his Move score), a block, which is warding off a blow with a shield, or a parry, defined as using a weapon (or your arm!) to deflect the attack. The probabilities of a successful defense follow the same pattern as attacks – because the die rolls are never modified themselves.

That being said, the target number – that is, the adjusted skill for defenses – is quite different than on the attack. For one, it’s based on 3+Skill/2 for defenses, which for all skill levels higher than 6 will favor attack over defense. Dodge is a bit different, but ultimately, it’s a number, usually lower than raw attack skill, that can be used to counter an attack.

This Active Defense score (and we’ll focus on weapon and unarmed Parry here, but the general principles are the same for the other defenses, Block and Dodge) can be modified in similar ways to the attack. Backing off and giving ground gives a bonus. Too much carried weight gives a penalty to Dodge. A shield, in addition to enabling a block contributes a bonus to all active defenses. Certain Advantages can give bonuses to defenses, such as Combat Reflexes and the aptly named Enhanced Parry.

Importantly, if you have a lot of skill, the Deceptive Attack option allows you to lower your foe’s defenses. This is important, because as you might imagine, combining high skill (say, Broadsword-20) with lots of goodies can push defenses very high. Broadsword-20 has a base defense of 13, boosted by +1 for Combat Reflexes, and (say) another +2 for a medium shield . . . now you’ve got Parry-16, and the odds of rolling 16 or less on 3d6 is something like 98.1%, significantly above our “almost certain to succeed” threshold. If you get a chance to roll, you’ll succeed. Deceptive attack lets high skill counter high defense (though in this case, defenses will still be very high no matter what) to a certain extent.

So ultimately, for straight-up bashing someone else with a stick or sword, a fighter’s chance of a successful blow is her odds of a successful hit roll multiplied by the probability that her foe fails her defenses.

The last interesting thing here is that in many cases, multiple defenses are penalized. While your first parry might be 16, your second is 12 and your third is 8. Unless, of course, you have wicked-cool BMF Advantages that make you more awesome.

How Awesome am I?

In GURPS your awesomeness is only somewhat in your own hands. That being said, if you’re looking at a 98% chance of hitting, you’ll strike home 90% of the time if your foe’s net skill is . . . Parry-6. That’s pretty low, and by and large you won’t find that in a stand-up fight.

What you will find is plenty of opportunities to weaken or lower your opponent’s defenses, and to some extent, your ability to do that is also part of your awesome. Leveraging a Judo Throw or Sweep to knock your foe prone for a -3 to defend is a big deal. Backing them tactically into a corner to deny a Retreat? Also good.

Critical Thinking

The other thing that high skill gets you in GURPS is the ability to roll a critical hit, which is always a roll of 3-4 regardless of skill, and can be a 5 at Skill-15 and 6 at Skill-16 or higher. If you roll a critical hit, not only does your foe not get to defend, but there are special effects, from double or triple damage to your foe dropping her weapon or falling down. Critical successes on defense rolls exist as well, and force your opponent to roll on a critical miss table, with anywhere from minimal to comical results.

Options, Options Everywhere . . . but gank him in the back!

The key bit of the mechanics from a “what are the odds” perspective is that, to some extent, trying to bludgeon or shoot your foe into oblivion is the not-so-gentle art of maximizing your bonuses while piling up penalties for the other party’s defenses. Or even better, arrange it through surprise or positioning, to eliminate the ability for the foe to see an attack coming at all.

Many Blows, Few Hits

The reason for this is simple, and important enough to mention in a post largely centered around dice probabilities and basic attack mechanics: A single hit can put you out of the fight, often regardless of skill.

There are no “levels” in GURPS, though there are point totals. If your super-experienced Navy SEAL gets shot in the vitals with a 9mm pistol, he’s human and he may die. Likewise with a sword or axe blow.

The key in GURPS is thus to not get hit (or have enough armor to ignore the hits!). This is accomplished tactically, by the use of active defenses with many options for making them better (or giving them up for other benefits, sometimes questionable – All-Out Attack, I’m looking at you). Getting hit a few times in GURPS with a real weapon (bows, guns, spears, cutting blades) will by and large render you incapacitated regardless of the skill level of your foe – if he can hit you, you’re in for it. This alters play dynamics quite a bit, especially combined with one-second turns.

But more on that in a different post.

Finish Him!

The two systems looked at today are based on actively defending against attacks.

In Fate, a system whose crunch is directed at narrative outcomes, the defense roll could potentially be lumped into a simple 8dF roll instead of two 4dF rolls (but it’s more fun to split the rolling), and a good roll on the defender’s part can impart significant negative consequences to the attacker.

In GURPS, a solid defense (or the inability to get attacked in return) is vital to survival, and a few actual telling hits will pretty much spell the end of most “mundane” foes. Sure, the GM can throw a Giant Bag of Hit Points at you, but real humans and animals tend not to be that way – and even a T-Rex (or more pedestrian, a Cape Buffalo) will die if you can reach the heart or vitals. GURPS allows the invocation of a vast sea of options – enough to surf on, or drown in, depending on comfort level.

To Each Their Own

I write for GURPS, and am, unsurprisingly, very comfortable with the system. When I GM, it’s my first choice. The depth of detail in description and the mechanical weight that can be brought to bear can make plausible verisimilitude soar to high heights. (Apologies to Dr. Seuss.)

That being said, I can easily see enjoying the heck out of all of these, in their own way. I play in a D&D5 game, and the new edition has managed to retain a lot of what I remember positively from far-too-long-ago, while streamlining the game and giving roleplaying mechanical weight. Night’s Black Agents is a few hundred pages of Ken Hite awesomeness, with fantastic tools for developing your campaign that can be ported, folded, spindled, and mutilated. The innovative part of the GUMSHOE engine has little to do with combat mechanics (and simulationists will run from the lack of resolution), but when played with an eye to “screen time” and cinematic flash can be fully engaging and engrossing. Fate will handle a degree of vagueness in character ability – for example, the ever-changing power lists of four-color comics characters – with a panache that most other systems that define abilities more precisely can’t quite manage. I’m the least experienced with Savage Worlds, but there’s always room for tactical play with a roll-and-shout feel. I got the same experience with the old d6 Star Wars system by West End Games (still one of my favorite game engines, and probably why I enjoy Fate as a concept so much). Each of these can be tremendous fun.

But you better know your odds.

Roleplaying combat can be about telling stories through the medium of action and physicality. It can be a pure tactical exercise, driven by achieving the best outcome (say, “crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentations of their women”) at the least cost. It can also just be fun fantasy wish-fulfillment, where you get to act out the role of your favorite Chop Socky star seen through the lens of a paper avatar.

One thing that is important for all of those things is that both the player and the GM have a reasonable idea of how skillful their character actually is.

In short, and to invert the title of the post: you have to know the odds – even in a basically dramatic system.

Part I of this post will deal with three systems that use “roll vs. a fixed target,” and don’t encourage much active participation on the part of the defender. Part II will discuss the two remaining systems (of the five of which I’ve chosen to focus), which feature active defenses on the part of the target.

What Happened to “Never tell me the odds?”

Ultimately, when it comes time to exercise your right to fight, you need to know how good you are – or at least how good your character thinks he is. Your tactics, not to mention your confidence in the outcome (or in dramatic terms, the tension caused by an unknown result) will probably depend on what you can pull off.

This isn’t just about gaming, either. If you’ve been training in Tae Kwon Leap for twenty years, you’re going to know pretty much what you can do. Whether it’s a quick kick to the knee, a jab to the solar plexus, a (jumping!) boot to the head, or a complicated arm lock and throw, the serious practitioner of applied violence will know what she can and can’t do. If they’re really serious about it and have made an effort (or had effort thrust upon them) to obtain a degree from a branch of the school of hard knocks, they will probably have a fairly good idea of what works and what doesn’t, and what works particularly well for them, and what doesn’t.

But that visceral knowledge of skill isn’t necessarily present when what you have on your paper is Level 7 Thief (D&D), Judo-16 (GURPS), or perhaps Fighting d4 (Savage Worlds). That leaves you reliant on math and a feel for the resolution mechanics.

That’s not always easy.

Beat-Downs, Mechanics Style

How you approach a fight in an RPG depends on many things, but one of those things is a level of appreciation for how skilled you are at fighting relative to your foe. That appreciation will rest to some extent on an understanding of the basic mechanics – usually dice mechanics – in play. This post will look at the mechanics in my five example game systems.

Almost Certain to Succeed

More than once as we look at game mechanics, the concept of “almost certain to succeed” will appear. Somewhat arbitrarily, if a task has a 90% chance of success or better, the player will usually feel pretty confident in attempting the feat. As a result, the 90% break point, as well as the 50% probability point where you will succeed as often as you fail, will be used to look at the influence of mechanics on success.

D&D Fifth Edition

The basic mechanic for how you hit and hurt your foe in Dungeons and Dragons has remained more or less the same through all its editions: Roll a 20-sided die plus bonuses against a target number. If you meet or exceed that total, you hit, and roll some other dice for damage.

This mechanic is common for unarmed and armed melee combat, as well as ranged combat with muscle-powered ranged weapons. In the d20 Modern SRD, the basic concept is the same for shootin’ folks.

The basic die roll is

1d20 + B ≥ Armor Class (or Difficulty Class)

which can also be written as

1d20 ≥ Armor Class (or Difficulty Class) – B (and your Target Number is AC-B).

 Why the pedantic math? Just to emphasize briefly that the basic probability distribution is that of a 20-sided die roll, a uniform distribution where you have a pretty easy grasp of the odds of success. It’s a roll high system, so bigger is better, and your odds of success are 5% * (Target Number -1). So if you have a +5 bonus and your foe is sporting AC 16? Your target number is effectively 11, and you have a 50% chance of success. Easy to understand, with the straightforward linear probability curve shown below.


One of the neat new (to D&D at least, other games may have used it first) mechanics for D&D5 is the concept of the advantaged (or disadvantaged) roll. Basically, roll your die twice, and take the most favorable result if you’re advantaged, and the least favorable of the two if you’re disadvantaged.

It saves a lot of time and mechanical effort to lump a whole lot of things that could be treated with flat bonuses into one category – advantaged – that basically skews the results to higher values. The amount of skew depends on your target number. With a flat roll, you are almost certain to succeed if your adjusted target number is 3 or lower (for example, 1d20+7 against AC 10). If you have advantage, your adjusted target number can be 7 or higher – someone with advantage with a to-hit roll of 1d20+7 (say a +3 proficiency bonus for level, and +4 from a relevant statistic like STR 18) can now hit AC 14 as frequently as he could normally target AC 10.

The break-even target numbers for a regular roll and an advantaged roll are 11 and 15, respectively . . . but don’t think that it’s always a +4. It’s not. As your target number goes up, the advantaged roll is always better, but gets much closer to the unmodified probability.

How Awesome am I?

This depends mostly on your level, which sets your proficiency bonus (which ranges from +2 at Level 1 to +6 at Level 20), and your attributes, which can contribute a bonus of up to +5 for an attribute (usually STR or DEX) of 20. There are some powers that allow extra bonuses, like a Paladin’s ability to boost hit rolls for a minute using Sacred Weapon by his CHA bonus. That means you will be looking at bonuses from about +2 on the (very) low end, to as high as about +15 – perhaps more with magical items and other boosts. Still, with AC in the 20-22 range still being fairly high-end, you will rarely be almost certain to succeed vs a reasonable opponent (say, medium armor and a DEX bonus for AC 16) unless your target number is 3, which means a huge +13 bonus. That’s a 17th level character with maxed-out stats and a +2 weapon!

That doesn’t much matter, though. D&D combat features wars of attrition in many respects, as the combatants’ ablate each others hit points until they exhaust them, which brings the fighters from “fully functional” to “incapacitated” with a jolt and audible squelch. The key here is “hit more, do more damage, more frequently,” and that’s aided by high level fighter types getting as many as four or five attacks, depending on your level and how you’re armed.

Critical Thinking

Finally, D&D allows for “critical hits,” which double the value of the dice rolled for damage – this includes spells, melee, sneak attacks, whatever. Most people score a critical if they roll a natural 20 on the die roll, but some classes get Feats that allow a critical on 19-20 or even 18-20. So the basic chance for an unusual event is 5% (almost 10% with advantage!), but it can grow to 1 in 10 or even 1 time in 6, which makes a critical unusually usual.

Parry! Dodge! Duck!

In D&D, there’s really no such thing as a defense roll – the best you get is a Saving Throw, and that’s usually against attacks that don’t roll themselves: “The Magic User casts his spell. Save and take half damage, or fail and take full damage,” or the ever popular “Save or Die!”

But in hand-to-hand combat, all defensive actions are subsumed into a combination of Armor Class (“the blow thrown was good enough to be effective and reduce hit points”) or Hit Points – which can represent exhaustion, shock, and defenses as much as bleeding, bruising, and evisceration.

The two options that are present are a defensive dueling feat, which increases your AC (raises your foe’s Target Number), or Dodge, which gives your foes Disadvantage when attacking you.

Savage Worlds

This system also embraces the concept of rolling polyhedral dice, and in this case, it’s taken to a bit of an extreme. Your stats and skills are rated by die size – having a d6 is considered average, d4 is poor, and the highest die type in the Deluxe game is a d12. So an amazingly strong, agile, and skilled fighter might roll Fighting d12 to hit, while an untrained, unskilled NPC might only roll the lowest d4 with an additional -2 for being untrained. The basic target number to hit is the foe’s Parry score (2+half your Fighting die, so a number from 2 to 8) for melee, and 4 for ranged combat – longer ranges subtract from your roll, rather than increasing the target number. If you exceed your target number by 4, it’s called a Raise, and nice things happen. Note this means if you’re striking untrained (d4-2), you’re effectively rolling 1d4 against a target that will range from 4 to 10 depending on your foe.

Two things are key about success rolls in Savage worlds. One is that maximum rolls on dice “explode,” referred to as an Ace in the game, which means you get to roll them again and add the result. So even a 1d4 roll can (in theory) roll a 20, or even 200, though the probability of that event will be exceedingly low. The other piece is that the probability of success is different for each unique combination of dice. Dealing with d4 through d12, adding from nothing to another d12, results in 20 unique probability curves.

That being said, the basic die types show strong differentiation in probability for that first success level of a 4+. A d4 will only succeed 25% of the time, while the d12 is 75%. Going from d4 to d6 is a big deal.

However, and somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, is that it can be better for basic successes to roll two small dice than it is to roll one large die. The d4+d4 is better than even a d12 until you hit a target number of 5. To get your first Shooting Raise at 8, d4+d4 is basically as good as d10. It also does funny things to the probability curve to roll two exploding dice, as the d4+d4 line on the plot shows.

If one were to make a full plot of all possible probability curves for one or two dice, it shows that – at least to me – it’s doubtful whether anyone could ever know exactly what the probabilities of success might be. The best you can really do is get a feel, generally, that the higher the sum of the maximum die face types, generally the better, though there can be some odd behavior for any given target. Since most targets seem to be low, basic success and even a Raise or two seems likely. Basic success is often 2-6; does one really ever need a success and six Raises? Maybe, maybe.

In fact, if we look at it just that way, looking at the chance of getting a 4, 8, or 12 – a success vs a 4, plus 1 or 2 Raises, you can see that it’s just good to roll two dice. Once you’re fishing for a Raise, the odds of getting one go up about 5% for each +1 to the maximum total. So going from d8 to d8+d4 should increase the chance of you getting that Raise by 20% (exact value is closer to 30%). Two Raises is pretty improbable until you’re rolling a pair of d8s or so.

Complicating this for player characters and important NPCs – Wild Cards in Savage Worlds’ lexicon – is the Wild Die. Wild Cards roll an extra d6 – the Wild Die – and take the better of that die and the die you usually roll on any Trait test (a roll against an attribute or skill). That does odd things to the probability chart in some places.

How Awesome am I?

Generally, then, bigger is better. The target numbers for at least basic success are low enough that, including the effects of the Wild Die, even if you’re rolling a d4 you’ll still succeed about 60% of the time. Even with a d12, though, you’re not quite hitting 90%.

That being said, with a d12 (which is really the max of d12 and d6), you’ll get a Raise 50% of the time. A quirk of how the dice explode makes a d6 and d8 (plus Wild Die) equivalent for getting the first raise, so having a d10 in a Trait is probably the entry level for being awesome here.

So only if you’re rolling a d12 plus a Wild Die are you almost certain to succeed. If you ever get the chance to roll more than one die and add them together (like damage rolls), your ability to get multiple Raises goes way up. That’s a strong post-success incentive.

Critical Thinking

One very interesting thing about the exploding dice is that they can be (not should be, can be!) used to simulate events of vanishingly small probability. As an easy example, you can actually stat out a “one in a million” event by setting a target number of 54 on d4, or 80 on d10. Why you would do this, I cannot say, but if you’re rolling d10 to see if a one in a million event occurs, it will if you get a success and 19 Raises.

Savage Worlds is – by self-declaration – a “roll and shout” system, designed for fast and loose play. It has, however, the finest resolution of any of the systems examined here.

You can critically fail, though – if you roll a 1 on both the main die and your Wild Die, the GM gets to do something evil to you. There’s no unique “critical success,” since multiple levels of Raises take care of extraordinary outcomes on the positive side.

Parry! Dodge! Duck!

As with D&D, Savage Worlds represents defenses with an increase in target number. There is Defend, which raises your target number by 2, and Full Defense, which actually allows you to substitute a Fighting roll at +2 for your normal 2+half of Fighting as a target number. So if you have a d8 (normal Parry 6), you roll d8+2. On the average, you’ll increase your defense by 1/2, but with the exploding dice, defenses can get very high.

Night’s Black Agents

D&D and Savage Worlds both have something in common: rolling polyhedral dice against a target number. D&D uses the d20 for hit resolution, while Savage Worlds uses exploding d4 through d12. Night’s Black Agents, a genre-specific treatment of the GUMSHOE engine, also rolls vs. a fixed target number – but the only die you roll is a single d6, and the target number is either 2 or 3 (for mooks), or 3 or 4 (with Athletics at 8 or higher) for major humans. Target numbers for nasty critters can be arbitrarily high.

The way combat works in NBA is really one of dramatic emphasis. It’s a skill test – roll 1d6 and if you want, you can spend from your pool of Hand-to-Hand, Weapons, or Shooting. Pool spends take some mental adjustment. A high pool (a level of 8 or higher) is typical for the better abilities for a character in NBA, whose premise is “Jason Bourne fighting vampires and their minions.” But even though the odds of hitting a mook with a TN of 3 are 66%, that’s not necessarily very Black Ops, since you can do that with or without training. But you can spend your points and get success – even guaranteed success.

But you can run out pretty fast. At a two-point spend for an automatic success, you’ll exhaust your pool in four blows, and have to refresh somehow. After that, you’re no better than an untrained person when it comes to exchanging blows. Sort of.

Player-Facing Combat

One of the key bits of the rules that also speaks to “I’m awesome” is that against certain kinds of opponents – namely the faceless  mooks and guards that, by definition your Bourne-esque character is mind-bogglingly better than – the combat resolution system changes. Explained in a box on p. 64 of the Night’s Black Agents hardback, the resolution mechanism is simple. Make an appropriate “I’m sneakier than a black bat on a dark knight” skill, but if you fail, you can spend some of your “I’m awesome” general point budget to succeed anyway. Then make a single attack against your foe’s usual target threshold. Thus far, that’t not really that different from the regular mechanics. The difference is that the “effect roll” is more or less bypassed; the mook goes down in as dramatic (or dramatically quiet) way as the player wishes them to. A silenced sniper shot, the knife-thrust to the neck or heart that manages to instantly drop and incapacitate a foe, the single arrow shot that manages to do the same thing. Basically, the staple of every commando movie ever, given mechanical weight. This is, quite explicitly, to keep the drama high and not let a die roll ruin a perfectly good plan.

How Awesome am I?

The real key is not thinking of point spends as ability level – what they represent is screen time. In an action-adventure movie, when you’re spending points, you’re basically swinging the camera your way. You can do that a few times per scene, and if you reach a Haven, you can fully refresh three general abilities. So you can shine more often than others in any given scene, and do that repeatedly during an adventure.

But that’s really it. The mechanics aren’t truly success-based, in the way that the other games are – though of course you are, in fact, rolling for and buying success. They’re drama-based, focused on how often you’re doing something great on camera. Thus the player-facing combat option, which keeps the spotlight squarely on the PCs doing awesome things with little resistance from foes that are merely scenery. Maintaining that perspective, in combination with a firm grasp of the narrative role of your character, is where it’s at for Night’s Black Agents.

Critical Thinking

You can roll a critical in NBA. A natural 6 on 1d6, plus exceeding the target number by 5, gets you double damage. For a target of 3, the only way to secure that is a 2-point spend, so you roll 8 total with a 6 on 1d6.

Parry! Dodge! Duck! Weave!

The game provides several defensive options, all of which boost your hit number. Since the die roll is always 1d6, even a 1-point boost is a significant change in the odds, but if you’re fighting someone with a high point pool, you’re going to run out first.

Finish Him!

All of the games presented here take a fairly straightforward approach to the basic theme of beating the snot out of someone. On your turn, roll against a target number, and if you succeed, you inflict damage. Any skill or ability to fend off blows tends to be wrapped up into an adjusted target number. D&D is explicitly this way, with extra-thick plate armor giving a higher Armor Class. Night’s Black Agents and Savage worlds have variable target numbers based on fighting skill to some extent, but within that range, your target is what it is, subject to player choices to exercise certain defensive options.

Once you get used to this – and if you started in D&D, anything else often feels more than a little odd – the potential lack of agency in having to be a PC-shaped training pell or reactive target fades into the knowledge that your foe just gets to sit there and take it on his turn as well.

Who’s Ready for Round 2?

Next week, this post will continue, looking at Fate and GURPS. These are a narrative, or fiction-forward system in Fate, and a second-by-second tactics-focused engine in GURPS. Both provide at least the illusion of enhanced player agency in the form of defense rolls.

Or do they?

It’s perhaps old news to state that at the very least, the largest force in the tabletop RPGing market – Dungeons and Dragons in all its flavors – evolved from fantasy wargaming, and that combat is a huge part of the game, and therefore a huge part of roleplaying games in general. Gygax noted the evolution as follows:

“Rob Kuntz and I had acquired a large number of 40mm figures, and many of them were so heroic looking that it seemed a good idea to play some games which would reflect the action of the great swords and sorcery yarns. So I devised such rules, and the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association proceeded to play-test them. When the whole appeared as CHAINMAIL, Dave began using the fantasy rules for his campaign, and he reported a number of these actions to the C&C Society by way of articles. I thought that this usage was quite interesting, and a few months later when Dave came down to visit me we played a game of his amended CHAINMAIL fantasy campaign. Dave had taken the man-to-man and fantasy rules and modified them for his campaign. Players began as Heroes or Wizards. With sufficient success they could become Superheroes. In a similar fashion, Wizards could become more powerful. Additionally, he had added equipment for players to purchase and expanded the characters descriptions considerably — even adding several new monsters to the rather short CHAINMAIL line-up.” — Gary Gygax (The Dragon #7)

There are, of course, games (or at least campaigns) in which combat is not prominent, or even a focus. Sometimes it’s just to be avoided because the assumption is you’re spectacularly outclassed. I recall a game of Call of Cthulhu back when I was in high school where I was warned by either the other players or the GM that while our characters might be packing a pistol, shotgun, or maybe even a military weapon, that such things are to be used on the human variety of bad guy – cultists and the like – because any eldritch horror we might come across would be basically immune to it, and would drive us insane anyway.

That being said, that same group of friends and I played a game of Cthulhu Now, if I’m not mistaken, where we did go head-to-head with some minor horror, with modern weapons (my dimly recollected memory says a Steyr AUG was in my hands, because at the time I was much a fan of the Steyr AUG), and came out on top.
Briefly. Because, well, Cthulhu. One goes insane in the end. I believe I used a magical frost-wand of some sort to freeze my fellow player solid (in my defense, he was not behaving like a well-adjusted member of the human race at the time), then break him into chunks, squash them, and watch them thaw.
Yeah, my character was the well-adjusted one. Sure.
The point is – a point will be forthcoming – that violence and death as the common thread in resolving conflict and advancing the plot is such a staple of the games that it was borrowed for irony for the award-winning and bottom-line dominating Munchkin card game, by Steve Jackson Games: “Kill the Monsters. Steal the Treasure. Stab your Buddy.”
The column will focus on combat in games, mostly to the exclusion of other things. It will of course include fighting, but also how fights start and end. It will spend a great deal of time looking at game mechanics along the way, and will probably spend a lot of word count looking at what kind of storytelling environment is created by those mechanics.
Through the Lens
As the blog progresses, I’ll frequently be looking at combat with examples from different games. There will be others from time-to-time – notably when I have an anecdote from games I’ve played (or stopped playing) in the past. But by and large, I’ll explore this topic by looking at how certain games handle things.
I’m going to refer to D&D5 here frequently, because you can’t talk about RPGs – especially combat in RPGs – without talking about the moose in the room. D&D-based games dominate the market of tabletop RPGs that all other games combined are pretty much an afterthought.
I’ll use D&D5 as a proxy for the kind of resolution system that is found as variations on a theme in Pathfinder, the D&D-derived Old School Renaissance (or Old School Revival? Maybe both!), and other games that are recognizably the same basic mechanic. All are recognizable as essentially the same game that I learned to play when I was 10 years old, roleplaying for the first time in 1981 – the Basic/Expert D&D boxed sets, followed by AD&D. Stepping into Swords and Wizardry, Pathfinder, or D&D is usually a matter of fine-tuning. You may need to understand the proper use of a Feat hierarchy, or what will kill your character as opposed to knocking him out, or get the feel for various special mechanics, such as the Advantaged/Disadvantaged mechanic newly introduced in D&D5 . . . but by and large if you’ve ever played D&D you’ll understand what’s going on pretty fast.
As the largest player in the gaming scene, the D&D assumptions are what can be taken as a near-baseline for what players expect. Rolling dice to meet or exceed a target number, damage taken as hit points, and other mechanics that are staples of this game are easily embraced and discarded with some peril. But more on that later.
D&D employs a certain level of abstraction. In fact, in the first edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide (p. 82), it’s written:
It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage – as indicated by constitution bonuses and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the “sixth sense” which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection. Therefore, constitution affects both actual ability to withstand physical punishment hit points (physique) and the immeasurable areas which involve the sixth sense and luck (fitness).
Heady stuff there, with the assumption that loss of HP represents purely physical injury (as, for example, it does in GURPS) explicitly held out as “preposterous.” Likewise, one of the explanations for the old “one minute” combat rounds in D&D (which were later chopped down into segments of shorter duration) was simply an extension of that abstraction.
Still – the core mechanics of D&D, like them or hate them, are the default, and comparisons will often start here.
Steve Jackson Games’ Generic Universal Role Playing System has to be on the list. More specifically, it has to be on my list, and near the top. Simple reason: I write for it, nearly exclusively. With one book under my belt (GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling . . . and you better believe Violent Resolution will give some love to grappling mechanics at some point), three Lead Playtester credits, and something like a dozen articles either published or submitted for publication to Pyramid Magazine, this is my go-to game if I have to GM anything.
It’s also one of the games on the market that enables fine-resolution of combat tactics and details, to the point that it can be said to characterize the game to some extent. In a broader focus, this general class of games are more simulationist-friendly. With a one-second combat time scale and fine distinctions allowed for thrust vs. swing, hit locations, damage types, and a damage/armor penetration scale that can be supported using a physics model based on real-world units, if you can’t do it “realistically” using GURPS, you’re probably not trying hard enough. Though whether or not you should be trying at all is a matter upon which no small amount of vitriol has been applied.
If GURPS is high-resolution where it comes to combat (and it is), then perhaps the polar opposite might be found in the GUMSHOE system, which was originally written by Robin Laws and debuted with The Esoterrorists game in 2007. More recent offerings include Trail of Cthulhu, and the latest new game as of 2012 was Kenneth Hite’s Night’s Black Agents. The premise here can be summarized as ‘what would happen if a bunch of guys with the same talents as your typical Jason Bourne were to go up against the Vast Bite Wing Conspiracy?’ That is, a world where most of the high-level strings are pulled by actual vampires.
The combat resolution mechanics here are somewhat unique in that they’re extremely coarse-grained. You wind up rolling 1d6 against a target number of 4 for just about everything that uses General Skills (and not rolling at all if you’re using the core conceit of the system – Investigative Skills), and the key bit for a character with a lot of points in fighting skills isn’t necessarily that you can hit harder, or more reliably (though both may be true). It’s that your high “skill level” in fighting gives you more opportunities to be reliably awesome while “on camera.” If your skilled Sniper is awesome too many times (spends points for success) in a game, between point refreshes, you will find yourself no more likely to hit than the Field Medic.
It’s a very different currency than either GURPS or D&D – so different, that it’s worth dealing with, because with a game like that, you make different choices and resolve conflicts differently – violent or otherwise.
Derived from FUDGE, the Fate system (in its fourth edition with Fate Core and Fate Accelerated) treats combat with special rules called Conflicts – and they can be either physical or mental. Fate is either extremely crunchy about being abstract, or extremely abstract about its crunch. Not sure.
It’s strongly and explicitly narrative in nature. An attack is made with an appropriate skill or Aspect, and defended against. You and your foe both roll, and compare totals – your total on four Fudge Dice (basically a six-sided die on which you can roll 1, 0, or -1) plus any bonuses or penalties that come with the action. If you succeed, you may either inflict consequences or gain a “boost,” a temporary, spendable Aspect that goes away as soon as it’s spent – perhaps your foe’s off balance? There are no hit points, per say, but there are consequences and “stress,” which can impair you. Consequences are like wound levels. Bad bruising that lasts a scene is one type of consequence; being gutted with your entrails dragging behind you is another, legit consequence. If your foes are out for your life, and you’re taken out of the fight (that’s a term of art with game-mechanical weight behind it), they can declare you dead, captured, maimed – anything reasonable.
The fight is played out with a huge amount of room for description – near total narrative freedom. Aspects can be pre-generated or done by acclaim, right there at the table. Stunts – nifty tricks that you can invoke to produce the equivalent of a “two shift” effect – can be used to add dramatic customization and flair. As an example from Fate Core (p. 93):

My Blade Strikes True. Once per conflict, you can force the opponent to use a mild consequence instead of a 2-point stress box on a successful Fight attack with your heirloom sword.

Or, just trying this myself . . .

Go For the Eyes, Boo! During a fight, you can spend a Fate Point after a successful attack to force the foe to take Blurry Vision as a 2-point consequence.

Not sure if it’s fair or good, but that’s the kind of thing you’ll see in Fate combat. Instead of a series of rolls to adjudicate a Judo Throw, you might use Physique to Create an Advantage, perhaps throwing your foe to the ground and giving him an Aspect that must be dealt with before he can fight on even terms.
Both in terms of its narrative bent, and the spectacular departure from “roll to-hit against your foe’s Armor Class,” Fate is a game that lends itself well to thinking about things differently. It’s also quite crunchy, and relies heavily on GM and player improv, if in a nearly opposite way to the more concrete and defined trend found in GURPS.
A relatively newish system – and definitely new to me – I’ve seen Savage Worlds likened to the old West End Games d6 Star Wars system in terms of fast-and-loose, dramatic, generic play (though plenty of support is available by custom worldbooks and genre guides) that nonetheless supports some level of tactical play, and especially supports and encourages cooperation.
The Basic combat mechanic is a bit of a blend of D&D and Fate: you roll your dice against a target number set by your foe (for example, Parry is 2 plus half your fighting die, so if you’re a good fighter and have Fighting at d10, your parry is 7). If you exceed that, you hit. Damage is rolled the same way – as dice (frequently more than one) compared to a toughness score.
However – and this is where similarities to Fate can be seen – the dice can sometimes “explode,” so that a maximum roll allows another additive try at that die, and either that feature, or just rolling really well, can give you “Raises” – terminology borrowed from the Deadlands RPG (1996) of Cowboys and Zombies. These raises can give bonus effects, and basically create success levels similar in concept to Fate’s shifts. Some control over the environment can be found with the use of “bennies” in combat to reroll hit rolls or soak damage, giving the player some control over the narrative.
Savage Worlds is given high praise for being a fast, adaptable game with unique mechanics that is highly customizable, and less intensively front-loaded than GURPS or Fate.
Finish Him!
With those five games in mind and frequently used as examples, Violent Resolution will take a look at subjects related to violence in gaming. I might map out a real-world fight or sparring exchange using the different systems. Or look at injury, stress, wounding, and death as it can occur. The game mechanics and dice mechanics of the different systems, and how they facilitate certain kinds of fights or stories. Or just trying to figure out which system has the least-hated grappling rules.
So, in the immortal words of Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed, from Rocky III:

Apollo Creed: You know, Stallion? It’s too bad we gotta get old, huh?
Rocky Balboa: Ah, just keep punchin’, Apollo… you want to ring the bell?
Apollo Creed: Alright… Ding. Ding.

Over at Castalia House, +Jeffro Johnson has written quite a large number of posts that he’s collected on his blog under the heading Appendix N.

He also threw my way a nod as one of the Top 10 Gaming Blogs of 2014, which shocked the hell out of me, frankly. He likes my interviews, he says.
So when Castalia went looking for new posters to their blog, Jeffro thought of me, and they asked me to contribute.
Hmm. Interesting. I already have a blog. Oh, but I retain copyright? Topics up to me, as long as they appear weekly? No issues with reposting at some point?
OK, I can handle that.
So, I’d like to point out that my first post of an ongoing column is up as of today.

Keeping with my interest in representing fighting in games, from martial arts to gunfire, and my interest in both quantitative and narrative storytelling, I decided to try my hand at looking at how a few representative games handle different issues. I picked five systems, four of which I’ve been exposed to or played (sometimes extensively), and one that I haven’t, but seems well regarded by those that play – and is fantastically well supported by its fans.
I hope that you take a gander at it. It’ll appear weekly on Tuesdays, and honestly, at this point I’m thinking of ideas of things to write about a heck of a lot faster than I have time to write them. As will be no surprise to those that know me, read my blog, or my published works – these things ain’t short.

This post has been a long time coming; I first mentioned it back when I interviewed +Kenneth Hite maybe. It’s not that important, but it’s an idea that has been growing on me for a while, and I think my discussion with Ken crystalized something.

Frankly, it’s why I want to play a game of Night’s Black Agents, since my mind was jarred like Hawkeye’s in the Avengers when Ken told me that your point totals were only peripherally related to your ability with a given skill in Night’s Black Agents.

No, what the points measure is how many times you can be awesome in any given scene. They were related to skill, obviously, since if you can be awesome a lot, you’re probably good at something.

But ultimately, NBA is about screen time, as in “movie or TV.” It’s a narrative-based game.

And that’s OK.

Don’t Fight the System

Each game is going to be tailored to a particular style of play. The games I’ve been playing lately couldn’t really be more different on the cover. +Matt Finch‘s Swords and Wizardry Complete, GM’d by +Erik Tenkar, and GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, by either +Nathan Joy or Emily Smirle. Both of those, by the way, are converted D&D modules.

I have tons of fun in both games, but they’re different. Very different. Not “better” or “worse,” but very different.

Swords and Wizardry

To me, the thing about S&W (and based on the free version, D&D5 as well) is that the key is really in resource management. You are either going to run out of resources – spells, hit points, healing of various types – before you destroy your foe(s), or you won’t. At lower levels, and for some classes perhaps even higher levels – you don’t really have much of a choice to make.

Rul Scararm is a fighter. On any given turn, his only choice is really “shoot with my bow, or take a magical sword out of my golf bag and smite away.” Other than what target I’m swinging at – which is usually “the one in front of me,” or failing that “the one with the lowest HP,” since it’s better to take a guy out of the fight than whittle down a few of them – my choices are few.

The spellcasters have more choices; they’re the Omega of the game. Have the fighters hold the line, the wizard casts Web, and basically it’s all over but the looting. Or it’s not, in which case the fighters mop up. Now, the alternate rule Erik uses allows you to keep attacking (cleave) if you kill a guy, so the fighters can cleave up to their level, while other classes can cleave once. +Peter V. Dell’Orto and I each have lain waste to 3-4 foes in one round this way.

So we’re useful, and we open a lot of doors with brute force. But the rate limiting step on our adventures is really a combination of our combined HP, the priest’s healing spells, the group’s potions (we always clean out the shop every adventure start), and the magic-user’s spells.

We embrace this. I’ve not noticed +Joe D (our magic-user) or +Tim Shorts (the cleric) complaining at all. Rul and Mirado go in first (sometimes we scout), set up a wall of pain, and then the other guys do something impressive if they can, or provide some additional carnage if they can’t. Any individual encounter isn’t that tense; the question is how much loot and how many experience points can we get before we deplete our resources. If we run out before we voluntarily quit – very likely someone’s going to die, or be about to die.

We don’t struggle against that. We strive to clear the most rooms and get the coolest stuff. We banter in and out of character. We tell really awful jokes, and without question it’s the most fun I have gaming these days.

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy – All Options ON

In Nate and Emily’s games, we use the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy genre treatment. Well, sort of. They turn on a lot of Martial Arts switches. Emily has decided to use the same Technical Grappling variant Peter uses. We use a lot of Low-Tech armor rules, and even a nifty new armor system made by +Mark Langsdorf. They don’t like the regular spell magic system, so we’re using some sort of Threshold Magic.

Here, the challenge is that any fight can be deadly.

Any. Fight.

Get cocky and throw some All-Out Attack? Expect to be nailed if you don’t kill your foe, because you can’t defend. And unless you have DR 10+, you are likely to be vulnerable. With the TG system i place, getting thrown down and grappled by a monster is a real threat.

DF character templates are cool enough that there are lots of options for each blow, too. You aren’t limited by low skills. You can easily step up with Weapon-16 through Weapon-20 right out of the gate, They key is using your unique skill set to do tactically superior and effective things on any given turn.

Most fights are over in a couple of very long (in real time) turns, but every action has tension. You can critically succeed or fail, which means you can be suddenly awesome or really in trouble. My Warrior Saint, Cadmus, dispatched a swordsman with Broadsword-30 in one blow . . . because he turned his back on me while within my Move radius. Splorch.

The key bit here is that the GURPS rules as we were using them reward detailed tactical choices, and the system is deadly enough that you’re not going to have a hundred turns of it.

Now, GURPS can be played fast and loose. I’ve never run it that way, but I’ve played it that way. But I think that, in terms of not fighting the system, GURPS really shines when you can turn the detail up as high as your group’s comfort/enjoyment level will allow.


I fought the system, and the system won. I just didn’t get it, so I played my character in Trail of Cthulhu like I would a GURPS character. My focus was on any specific task, not on “do I want to be Awsome this scene, or not.”

In a way, the General and Investigative spends make GUMSHOE systems games of narrative resource management rather than tactical resource management.

The kicker here is that’s true of combat too. And if you fight the system, and it bothers you to a large degree that a .50BMG and a punch to the face really aren’t that different in potential effects, then you’re going to hate it. A lot.

But if you don’t fight the system, if you decide that your awesome martial artist is going to simply hold his own this fight, and accept the narrative, rather than the tactical, consequences (because when you get to that final battle in the episode, it’s on, baby) then you can enjoy it the way it’s meant to be played.

Parting Shot

Recently I spoke about games I’d like to play, and NBA and FATE were high on the list. I’ve never played in a game of FATE, but I made Thor as a character with +Leonard Balsera, and I’d love to experience the game. +Sean Punch recommends it as a narratively crunchy, rather than tactically cruchy, bag of fun.

Once I can guarantee my schedule is such that I can make the game, I’ll probably pester +James Introcaso to run a game or five of D&D5 for me (and Peter) at the very least, so I can experience the new thing.

But ultimately, it would probably behoove designers to both know and say what kind of game they expect you to be running, and how they designed the rules to support that game. For a game like GURPS, which can support many genre flavors, advice on “well, if you want tactical crunch, do X, Y, and Z with these books,” while if you want narrative, low-detail flavor, you simply must have Impulse Buys, and may need to hide Low-Tech and Tactical Shooting in a deep, dark hole.

By and large, I have a lot of fun gaming. The few times I have not, it can nearly always be attributed to expectations mismatch.

There’s a lesson there.

Right now I’m in basically two games. I play a weekly Dungeon Fantasy game that used to be running through the Jade Regent Adventure Path, but with GURPS. The other is a monthly-ish Swords and Wizardry game.

I used to play in a Pathfinder game as well, and a brief dabble with Trail of Cthulhu.

But there are other games I’d like to play in, to experience them for both how they flow mechanically and narratively.

So, what games would I like to experience?


I’m terribly curious about how this one would run. I ran through creating Thor in my interview with +Leonard Balsera  and I would be interested to see, in the hands of an experienced group, how the game would go. Not just “oh, I played this one session, and it sucked/was awesome,” but a real min-arc at least, so I can feel what it’s like to experience a variety of challenges and see what character growth feels like.

Now, saying “I want to play a game of FATE” is like saying “I want to play a game of HERO, or GURPS.” It’s a ruleset, not a genre.

So I’d probably want to try it out in a genre that traditionally GURPS does less well – full-on four-color superheroes, for example. Making Thor was so easy with FATE Accelerated that I’d like to try something in a similar vein.

Night’s Black Agents

Again, this one was brought on by my interview with +Kenneth Hite. I’d been pointed to the system before, and grilled him pretty hard about the mechanical choices in a GUMSHOE game. I left feeling very impressed, and with a much greater understanding of how that system is supposed to run, and what point spends mean.

Ironically, or perhaps not, in rereading my interview with Leonard, I see it was he, core designer of FATE, that turned me on to NBA. Small world, small world.

There’s an entire post in that – how not to fight the mechanics – but for now, what I really want to do is run through a campaign of NBA. Experience how a Vampyramid/Conspiramid unfolds. See if I can make my own web of intrigue, like the interactions board we saw in Chuck (I wonder if Zachary Levi kept the Tron poster?).

Playing Jason Bourne fighting vampires sounds like my kind of game.

Dungeons and Dragons, 5th Edition

I’ve been enjoying the S&W game, and frankly D&D5 feels a lot like that to me, but with more options and what is certainly going to be copious support. As a creator, if you’re going to write for something, you can do worse to try your hand at D&D, also.

But it is how I got introduced to RPGing, with the Moldvay Basic set and the awesome splendor of AD&D. I’ve played a bit of Pathfinder. So I’m familiar with some of the forebears to what is still (lumping WotC and Paizo together) the only force in the market, if you’re going to be honest.

So I’d love to experience what the new D&D is at the hands of someone who loves it. Maybe +James Introcaso can hook me up.

Over on Google+ and the RPG Stack exchange, +Jeff Demers asks for help:

I thought some people here may want to assist in answer this question. I’m writing an adventure for tonight and I’m floundering! How to write an adventure where the primary focus is the characters being hunted?

I ran into some issues posting to the exchange, and given time constraints, threw down an answer here. Toss in your own comments. Maybe +Peter V. Dell’Orto+Erik Tenkar+Tim Shorts , or +Rob Conley would have good things to say. Heck, +Matt Riggsby writes great adventures. +Kenneth Hite wrote a book on this, from which I borrow heavily in my advice below. So . . .

I’d borrow heavily from Night’s Black Agents here. What you’re running is a thriller, where the PCs are, in a way, in the position of Jason Bourne. Very capable on their own, but outclassed by an enemy that keeps coming out of nowhere, and if they show up with great numbers, it’s all over.

First piece of advice: have a scene where some capable bystanders are utterly and thoroughly destroyed by the hunters. Or even better, have that happen off screen, to prevent the PCs from wading in to a TPK.

Night’s Black Agents suggests that there are only two types of scenes – information gathering and action.

So the first thing for this is “gather information.” In this case, if they come across a dismembered, disemboweled, folded, spindled, and mutilated battleground, where the losers just happen to resemble the PCs to some extent. This one was brown-haired and wearing mail…just like Bog. That one was fair haired with a bow and leather scale. That’s not quite Betterthanyouiel, but it’s close enough. Geez, fatal case of mistaken identity!

The tracker could say they were swarmed over and overrun. The point guy of the dead group is in two pieces – but only evidence of one blow (gulp – if they hit us, we’re dead!).

So there should be some fear there of individual beasts, as well as a pack.

Then you can stage minor skirmishes (action scenes) where if things go well they escape or can deal with a minor scout threat (a lesser beast?). That’s the action bit.

The investigation is (a) why are we being hunted? (b) What’s hunting us? (c) Do we fight, bargain, or run? (d) Do any weaknesses exist? (e) Do we need to go on adventures in order to obtain what we need to take advantage of those weaknesses? and finally (f) how do we set it up so we can kick their butts by using clever tactics and leveraging their weaknesses?

If there’s an action scene of some sort in between each question, that’s at least 12 sessions right there!

If only I could be this logical and easy for Alien Menace. Grrr.