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

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

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

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

Thanks for playing!

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

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

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


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

Let’s start there.

Hey! I see that!

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

His Back was to Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-combat Perception

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

Everyone Else

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

Night’s Black Agents

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

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

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


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

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

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

Savage Worlds

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

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

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

Explorer’s Edition

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

The Drop

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

Dungeons and Dragons

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

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

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

Let’s start with thieves – err, Rogues.

Back Attack

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

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

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

Feats of Awareness

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

General Perception

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

Edit! A Find in the DMG

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

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

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

Finish Him

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fate Core

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

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

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

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

Alternate Takes

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

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

Aggressive Landscaping

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

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

Arcane Explorations

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

A Sufficient Quantity of High Explosives

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

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

Night’s Black Agents

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

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

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

A Sufficient Quantity of High Explosives

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

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

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

Dungeons and Dragons

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

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

Combat Lullaby

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

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

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

Crowd Pleaser

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

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

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

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

Magical Claymore

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

Savage Worlds

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

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

Claymore of Doom

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


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

Collateral Damage

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

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

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

Flash, Ah-ah! and the Rain of Pain

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

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

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

Nerf Magic

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

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

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

Human Artillery

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

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

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

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

Finish Him

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

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore

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

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

Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

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

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

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

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

The Name is
Bolt. Usain Bolt.

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

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

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

Dungeons and Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Moose in the Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bullets . . . lots of Bullets

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

Equipment Lists

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


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

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

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

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

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

Night’s Black Agents

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

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


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

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

Dungeons and Dragons

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

Bring the Hurt

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

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

Savage Worlds

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

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

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

Finish Him: The Purpose of the Numbers

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

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

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

The Warrior, not the Weapon

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

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

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

Enough is Enough

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

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

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

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

Conan: The riddle… of steel.

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

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

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

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

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

Calling All Monsters

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

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

Beginning, Middle, End, Surprise

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

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

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

Dungeons and Dragons

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

Morale (Basic D&D)

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

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

The following bonuses apply:

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

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

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

D&D Fifth Edition

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

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

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

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

Savage Worlds

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

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

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

Night’s Black Agents

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

I give up!

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

You may well see that foe again, of course.

Fear and Panic for Thee, Not for Me

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

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

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

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

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

Anything Can Be Attempted

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

Hindrances not Prohibitions

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

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

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

Positive Feedback

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

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

Finish Him

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

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

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

Grappling is probably one of the oldest forms of combat on the planet. It’s also the form of combat most often used when animals are hunting (some of them, like constrictor snakes, exclusively so). It’s also one that both children, animals, and child animals do instinctively for play.
And yet the rules are so often so poorly regarded they have their own entry in TVTropes.

Grappling with Grappling – What is it?

In the broadest sense, grappling and wrestling are about restraint. You are attempting, in a grappling-based fight, to restrict your opponent’s movements to the point where the only allowable actions your foe can take are those which you allow him.
Such restrictions can be:

  • He cannot use his hands (handcuffing, for example, is grappling with a mechanical aid)
  • He cannot run (bearing your opponent to the ground and sitting on him, or leg-cuffs, or gluing feet to the floor all qualify)
  • He is restricted to a position that you want him to be in, and cannot easily change that position (a wrestling pin, a police officer putting a suspect on the ground and kneeling on him)
  • He cannot speak (putting a hand or object over the mouth and jaw)
  • He can do what he likes, but you’re dragging him with you (alligator!)
  • He cannot breathe, or blood flow to his brain is restricted (choke and strangle holds)
The science and art of grappling is one of applied and denied leverage. You are going to use your own body weight, strength, and position, plus environmental and positional factors such as the walls and the floors, your relative positions to minimize the required effort to achieve the above restrictions, and also minimize the effectiveness of his own attempts to resist your restrictions.
Most of grappling consists of ways to achieve this sort of restraint on your foe while avoiding restraint on yourself. This is not always possible, especially with two skilled combatants. In fact, in many cases, grappling is fierce, mutual, and may have an outward appearance of near-stasis that either participant would characterize as anything but static!
In addition, the above restrictions are often applied while fully armed and armored, and not restricted or usually employed only by some specific ethnic esoteric martial art, either. It was a key part of the melee battlefield, and a short perusal of period manuals such as Talhoffer’s Fechtbuch shows a wide variety of grappling applications for any situation.
Grounding your opponent and then moving in for a killing or incapacitating blow is part and parcel of fighting.
So how is this dynamic, ancient, apparently difficult to model style of combat modeled in the five systems considered here?

“And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet.”
                                                                                         – St. Marher (1225)

Perhaps even more than the particulars of attack and defense, there is a game design decision that influences the entire feel of the game, especially in combat. That decision is how much time passes between actions.

For some games, that decision is precise and, in a very real sense, defining. For others, it borrows a now-marketable line from Dr. Who:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view it is more like a big ball of wibbily wobbly timey wimey…stuff.”
                                                                                          – Doctor Who (David Tennant)

Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, and each can both promote and inhibit drama and willing suspension of disbelief. This decision also dictates tactics.
But first, let’s take a look at our Fab Five. This is going to go a lot faster than usual.

Dungeons and Dragons

Ah, turn length. Turn length in D&D has moved around quite a bit, and Random Wizard has created a handy compilation of how this has changed over time. The current version adopts the same six-second convention used from D&D3 onwards.
Overall, turn length has varied from (more or less) one effective action per minute to as many as ten, thus the convenient (for easy division) into the otherwise perhaps-odd choice of six seconds per round.

Each player and each side gets to go in initiative order within that turn. The variety of methods to determine who goes first are many and varied. Fifth Edition has each player roll a die individually, and that sets the turn order. Some groups reroll initiative each round, while some will do it once per fight.

There are held actions that allow one to take their action after someone who would usually act afterwards, which enables team tactics, or simply delaying your moment in the sun until the tactical situation has resolved itself more.

Savage Worlds

Likewise to D&D, the turn length used in Savage Worlds is mentioned roughly once, stealthily inserted into the text at the beginning of the combat chapter on p. 64 of Savage Worlds Deluxe: “When a fight breaks out, game time breaks down into rounds of six seconds each. Ten rounds, then, is one minute.”

The key here, again, seems to be that there are a nice ten rounds per minute.

Who goes first is done by drawing from a deck of playing cards, and resolving actions in descending order, from Ace to Deuce. It is possible to delay an action to subsequent turns, by going “On Hold,” which allows you to attempt (there’s a die roll involved) to interrupt the action of any other character at any time. You may hold an action as long as you like . . . but you’re not doing anything else but holding your action until then. The die roll means that if you lose, your foe still gets their action in before you do. You’ll be “dealt back in” for initiative order next time.


If GURPS isn’t the finest resolution game ever, it is certainly the finest resolution in turn length presented here. Each turn for a character in GURPS is one second long. The trick here is that there is no universal turn In GURPS – each character goes in order, and each character acts once per second, but the turns of all characters are interleaved, and if there are four characters in a fight, that is not saying that character B goes 0.25 seconds after character A.

Characters act in the order of descending Basic Speed (a figured quantity), with ties broken by who has the highest Dexterity, then skill level, and then whatever the GM and players decide on to break ties.

Delaying who goes when is done by a particular choice – a “maneuver” called (unsurprisingly) Wait. A Wait allows action if a very specific trigger, player definable, occurs. “I’ll hit my foe after Bob goes” is definite and legal, as is “I wait for my foe to peek around the corner, then I shoot him in the head.” But “I wait until something interesting happens, then I’ll do something based on that” is not a well-defined trigger, nor does it invoke a specific action afterwards. The conditions may be broad but not vague, and are basically IF . . . THEN statements.

Night’s Black Agents and Fate

Normally one does not simply walk into Mordor and lump games together. And yet Fate and NBA both make the same basic choice with respect to the length of a turn, which is that a turn takes however long it needs to, no more, no less. Quite simply, both games embrace the shrug-driven philosophy of J. Michael Straczynski when asked precisely how fast certain classes of ships (my brain tells me it was the White Stars) was capable of moving through space. His reply?

“They move at the speed of plot. What of it?”

So it is with these games. A turn might be a split second, or an hour of weaving through traffic in rush hour. It might be a full round in a boxing or MMA match, or it might be a single blow.

There’s more or less no point to holding an action in Night’s Black Agents. By and large, attacks and other aggressive behavior is against a fixed target number, so going second is no help. Even if you do narratively go “second,” your action might be “I wait for the minion to make a mistake, then dart in and try and hamstring him with my razor-sharp vampiriblade!”

If the player has the initiative, she can describe the action in any suitable fashion.

Fate takes a similar abstract tack on things. Movement is separated into arbitrary zones that take an action or so to cross, assuming you can Overcome whatever obstacles (people, things, situations . . .) are in your way. Including other characters trying to do you in.

Timing is Everything

How does timing drive the feel of a game? It drives choices and complexity. It speaks to tactics – how much can a character do; how much can an adversary do before that character can react to it? It also has a surprising effect on group dynamics.

In the Blink of an Eye

Starting with the finest resolution game, GURPS, is instructive because it takes very small snapshots of what happens in a fight, encouraging/mandating very discrete actions. While there is some small amount of abstraction in a GURPS fight, mostly each move and countermove is declared – and with optional rules turned on, the specificity of the described action can be declared is quite high.

The abstraction is usually in terms of making sense of a series of die rolls from turn to turn. As an example, a fighter might be attacked by four thugs, and he might parry a blow from one, but then dodge two others, retreating against one of the attacks. The fourth missed.

This is resolved with three die rolls, but would be understood as mostly simultaneous movement. Still, this starts as many arguments as it explains at times.

The blow by blow, second by second declaration means that there’s a conflict of expectations for players used to more exposition of actions. Drawing a weapon might be a full-second action (a Ready maneuver), moving into combat range might be a few seconds more, and then blows might be exchanged one or two at a time until a victor emerges. A bout of modern longsword fighting that has a primary exchange lasting perhaps two seconds is resolvable down to nearly the millisecond.

That’s a lot of agency to hand players and GMs, and for those that like resolving fights where very little falls to the realm of abstraction, this is a great thing.

However it has its issues. I’m always shocked at how much people assume they can actually accomplish in a single second, and how long some events take. It is easy to lose track of how long (on a one-second scale) actions can take. Stooping to retrieve car keys is probably resolved with a single one-second Ready maneuver, but in reality, it might be several seconds to pick them up, depending on how much casual fumbling one does.

Consider this Pankration demonstration (at least I think it’s a demonstration – there’s not really enough resistance by the defender). I copied the video, and used an editor to add a quarter-second time clock to the demonstration, but one thing that stands out is that the actual throw – the time the recipient spends airborne – takes more than one second from initiation to completion. For a game that is resolved second by second, taking a turn to pause while the foe (and the thrower) sail through the air is highly unusual, and realistic or not, would represent a perceived loss of agency. Players will decide to forgo otherwise-excellent tactical choices because of a gap in their ability to choose a viable action each turn.

Time is what you make of it

On the other end of the scale, games like Fate and Night’s Black Agents attach no particular amount of time to any action or round. A declared action could as easily be “I drive across the city” or “I run five miles” as it might be “I shoot the vampire in the head.” The sub-second resolution required for fine resolution of dramatic moments in “bullet time” is as accessible as hour-long actions involving two agents shadowing a vampiric minion.

While this works well when every player wishes to take actions of equal length, chronological dissonance can result if one character is taking actions that can fit well within (or drastically exceed) the span of time of another’s.

While split-second increments can lead to frustration if each turn is not filled with action, vague time increments can also lead to confusion or situations that result in a breakage of suspension of disbelief, as one action might be “I shoot the bad guy” and the other might be “I reprogram the computer on the super-dreadnaught to process food instead of supralight navigation.” That can lead to the same feeling of agency loss, as those not taking long actions may be given many choices in a scene, while the person reprogramming the computer is basically off camera the entire time. That’s not unrealistic, nor does it break immersion or suspension of disbelief. It is, however, boring for the player taking the long action.

Still, there’s a lot to recommend to abstract action timing. A flexible GM can adjust timing and action order on the fly in order to both preserve immersion as well as ensuring that the passage of time is as elastic in the game as it can sometimes seem in real life.

A boxing match might be fifteen three-minute rounds. Each round is thus 180 turns in GURPS. In contrast, one might treat a boxing round as a few exchanges in Fate, representing a lot of punches and footwork, with an opportunity to inflict stress or consequences only a few times per round. We’ll return to the boxing match in a moment – it’s a very convenient example for what happens in a fight (though a circumscribed one – no takedowns, elbows, or other varieties of violence – but the rules can be acknowledged without making the example irrelevant).

Conveniently Awesome

Intermediate between GURPS and the pair of NBA and Fate are games that seem to have settled on a six second time scale.

The choice of six seconds was probably a matter of convenience, originally. A nice, even 10 turns per minute, and you can see this division in the progression of turn length through the various editions of D&D.

While the six-second time span may have been a matter of convenience, it happens to represent (in my personal experience) a near-ideal division in terms of granularity. It also makes some amount of sense when benchmarked against real-world sporting events, such as boxing. CompuBox is a website that quantifies such things, and this data talks mostly about records – but it also compares to averages. The junior middleweight average “power punches” per round (180 seconds) is 12 landed punches. That’s a solid hit every 20% of turns. In D&D terms, it’d be about 1d20+5 (say, a low-level Fighter with +2 proficiency bonus and +3 for STR 16 or STR 17) against AC 22, assuming that a “power punch” equates to a hit good enough to roll for HP. If we look at total punches landed, it’s closer to 20, which is a 33% hit rate – a saner low-level fighter striking AC 19. Still, you can see that fighters, even low-level ones, are a cut above average.

You can also see, that at least in this sporting competition, that most of the time in a three-minute round is not spent throwing blows. It’s movement, feints, footwork, and recovering breath. The frantic pace of GURPS combat (and the unlikelihood of actually gaming out a single boxing round, much less ten to fifteen of them) either begs for a lot of chances to spend time “doing nothing,” or should encourage other things to do with that time. The typical boxing match seems to average a thrown punch every three seconds (about 50-60) with only a third actually landing (in the neighborhood of 20). So in a six-second turn, fighters will be moving, evaluating, gauging distance, and throwing roughly two attacks. Given three such turns, one might expect two hits. At least for boxing.

On the flip side, most people will think of a die roll as throwing a single punch, or shooting an arrow, or firing a gun. Given that many games ask players to keep track of individual bullets or arrows (Fate and Night’s Black Agents do not do this, which shows excellent consistency in game design philosophy), there’s only so much abstraction that can be subsumed.

The six-second turn allows time to flow by at a reasonable level, while still assuming that a few attacks per round are possible. It’s been shown by trick-shooters that firing an arrow every second is possible with a low-weight bow, and for the cinematic world of RPGs, assuming it’s doable with a 100-200-lb. draw warbow isn’t going to be the most unrealistic thing going on at any moment on a battlemap. The expected rate of fire for an English Longbowman seems to have been one arrow every six to ten seconds – when bending a bow that’s 150-200 pounds draw, it pays to take time to do it so as not to exhaust the shooter. That number varies, though, depending on the source. So with trick shooting, six attacks per turn might be conceivable, but sustained fire with a high-power warbow would realistically take place at between one and two turns per attack. And crossbows? Fuggeddaboudit.

One does have to be a bit careful: in a modern game going full-auto on an M16 (with a cyclic rate of 75-90 shots fired per 6-second round) will empty a 30-round magazine in less than half of the usual time for a turn. This is offset by the fact that it’s possible to swap a magazine in a scant few seconds (though it will often take longer). This means an expert can blaze away (though, of course, an expert will not blaze away) for a half-turn, do a speed-change of a magazine, and repeat until part of the rifle fails from the heat.

My own experience GMing GURPS showed that the five-second turn was ideal for group movement. It allowed a cautious walking advance (1-2 yards per second) for a few seconds, interspersed with Perception rolls (Evaluate or Concentrate maneuvers in GURPS terms) and ending with a Wait, so that if a threat appeared you were ready. In practice, this meant a full move (which is usually 4-5 yards per second, or 8-10mph) spread over three seconds, one of Ready, Aim, or Evaluate, ending with a Wait. It made for plausible rates of advance, and breaking the pattern to run across terrain was scary, since it denied the Evaluate and Wait parts of the turn, it left one open to attack. That meant when people would give up their paced movement for all-out sprinting, they’d move from cover to cover. Hey, real-world tactics as emergent behavior? Bring it on. I would, however, break back down into single-second time frame when the bullets started flying. This might or might not be realistic, but it was necessary.

Finish Him

Any time scale can work for a game. It depends on what is happening, and how the GM wants to describe the action, and what the players are content with. The important thing is that all parties understand what can happen between (as Lorien might have said) “tick and tock.” I very much remember a D&D 2nd Edition game – my first and only such – where my archer got caught between tick and tock, with a ready bow, and a thug popped onto the battlemat, moved his allowance, and hit and killed my character with him just standing there. In retrospect, this probably means I managed to not see a guy until he was within one move. That underscores the point, however. An archer can be set upon and killed (potentially) so long as his foes are inside of 10 yards. Want to ensure you can’t get hit? Stay farther away, because you will not get a chance to react

That same situation in GURPS? Assuming that our mercenary started 10 yards away, he’s moving with a typical speed of about Move 3 or Move 4. So the archer might see him on turn 1, Aim on turn 2, and shoot once right as the fighter gets within hitting distance. Perhaps this would be an Attack of Opportunity in D&D, upon closing to within 30′ of an archer with a ready bow.

The most convenient time increment for combat seems to be something like 3-6 seconds, with 5 or 6 being a very good compromise. That it happens to make ten turns to the round?

Not a bad side effect.

Still, one of the best options would seem to have the ability to telescope time as required. Fate and Night’s Black Agents can do this, under GM control. Other games might have to look at choosing discrete scales – a geometric progression that looked at 3 seconds, 10 seconds, 30 seconds, and roughly two minutes with smooth rules for moving between scales would probably be fun to play. It would provide a good “pick from a list” set of options for each time scale, and players and GMs alike could set expectations accordingly.

Because time after time, expectations mismatch is a great way to kill a game, never mind killing characters.

While getting up close and personal in combat is a staple of the genre, so too is rendering your foe ineffective from a distance. Archers and catapults were part of the wargaming scene from which RPGs emerged from the beginning, and this trend only increased as the games turned their focus to conflicts based on firearms.

This particular column will look not at details of the weapons themselves, but will look at how the ability to use ranged weapons varies from game to game.

This will include the concept of expertise: The ability to properly employ, with skill and effectiveness, various ranged weapons from thrown rocks to machineguns. It will also deal somewhat with effectiveness, which is what happens when a ranged weapon hits (whatever that means in a game) the target.

It will also speak to differentiation, the ability for otherwise similar characters employing ranged weapons to make themselves distinct from each other. In most cases, differentiation is part of – or really a subset of – expertise, and will be treated as such.

Dungeons and Dragons 5e

In fantasy games, typical ranged weapons include thrown weapons (rocks, knives, axes, and spears being pretty popular) and muscle-powered ranged weapons, such as bows and crossbows. Modern-flavored games (and some people who enjoy late-era fantasy including musket and shot) include guns as well.

When people consider firearms, however, they’re usually thinking about games closer in flavor to Twilight: 2000 or Delta Green than The Three Musketeers, so a lot of the comparisons or analysis will borrow from d20 Modern rather than D&D5, if only because it has worked examples.

Expertise and Differentiation

The key to weapon use is “Proficiency.” If you are proficient with a class of weapons, you get to add you Proficiency Bonus (from +2 to +6 depending on your level) to your hit roll. Additionally, there are Feats and Fighting Styles (such as Archery) that can give extra bonuses (the Archery fighting style, for example, gives +2 to all ranged weapon attacks).

Pretty much anyone can use any weapon regardless of proficiency – the character is just better at it with proficiency and additional skills. This is a bit different from armor, where if you are not proficient you cannot use the protection type.

The weapon proficiencies are broad categories – Simple Ranged Weapons and Martial Ranged Weapons, for example. Regardless of category, your ability to use these weapons is based on a 1d20 roll, plus your proficiency bonus, plus a hit bonus (and in 5e, damage as well) provided by your DEX modifier (up to +5), and finally any boosts provided by magic or quality equipment.

The game makes no real distinction between aimed and unaimed fire for “everyman” actions. Feat selection can allow things like “Precision Shot” which trades a hit penalty for a damage bonus – which despite my previous sentence, can be seen as the impact of aimed fire despite not taking a formalized aiming action during your turn.

The basic roll applies anywhere within the weapon’s range, which is a property of the weapon, not the user. All shortbows can fire to a range increment of 80 feet, maximum 320 feet, while a throwing axe will hurl out to a max of 60 feet. Your attacks have disadvantage if you extend the range past the first range increment. Beyond that, you’re out of luck: Strength or skill cannot extend this reach. For firearms, the premise is the same – the 3.5E-based d20 Modern has a 9mm pistol’s range increment at 30 feet, while a 7.62 caliber battle rifle is 90 feet. As the maximum range of a 9mm pistol is on the order of 5,000 feet, and the max range of a 7.62x51mm rifle is on the order of 13,000 feet, the rough tripling of increment is about right, even if there are on the order of 150 increments contained within the maximum real range of these weapons. In games derived from d20 Modern, the penalty is -2 per range increment, to a maximum of five increments for thrown weapons, and ten for firearms.

Importantly, though, most hot combat does not occur at the range of a mile – that tends to be the realms of dramatic narration or even “out of combat combat,” – volley fire and precision single shots that take rather longer than a combat round in D&D to line up. From that perspective, the 900-foot maximum normal range (at -10 to hit) of a d20 Modern battle rifle isn’t too terribly wrong (though another 1.5-2x wouldn’t exactly hurt, either).

There will be several potential forms of differentiation in a D&D-based game. The first is the usual proficiency bonus for classes that focus on fighting. A modern equivalent of the Archery Fighting Style would be another good way to go, giving a bonus with all or particular types of ranged weapons. The other is of course proper selection of Feats. Sharpshooter would be a good choice, allowing trading skill for damage, while others such as Crossbow Expert could be modified to pertain to handguns or longarms. Games that are brought forward in time based on D&D 3.5 and 5e would invoke (perhaps custom-designed) feats based on weapon type (perhaps there’d be a Shotgun Master feat, paralleling Crossbow Expert, or even Close-Quarter Battle Fiend, which would give a boost to the utilization of long weapons at less than, say, 30′ range, or allowing firing with full accuracy after movement).


Assuming a hit is scored, damage is then rolled. An arrow from a shortbow hits for 1d6+DEX Bonus in 5e, a longbow is 1d8+DEX Bonus. For firearms, the damage is a flat roll: 2d6 for a 9mm pistol, 2d10 for a 7.62 battle rifle round, and 2d12 for something as large as a .50 BMG. In a game like D&D5, where high level characters have many hit points, this requires firm adherence to the notion that HP represent ablation of grit, luck, and skill – because a normal human getting hit squarely with a .50 BMG will usually end up in more than one piece, killed almost explosively.

There are a few “massive damage” alternate rules, many of which allow a character to take a hit from even a .50BMG and not be instantly killed. The 50HP threshold that is the default rule, and even the 25 + 2 x Level or HD rules allow a 2d12 hit to not trigger the threshold in either case, making such wounds (or at least one) eminently survivable. Only the alternative where your massive damage threshold is set equal to your CON will allow a single shot from a rifle to drop a character in one hit. Games where a single hit is supposed to be a threat may wish to invoke this threshold instead of others that might be suggested. Cinematic games will go the other way.


Much like any other combat activity, ranged attacks are handled by a Conflict, usually of a skill such as Shooting against a defensive skill – perhaps Athletics. The basics are no different from any other conflict – part of Fate’s appeal – and the particulars of the weapons are optional detail via Extras.

The thing about Fate and the way it handles mechanics-based activities is that “shooting” can be used for, potentially, any one of the four major action types – Overcoming an Obstacle, Creating an Advantage, Attack, and Defend.

While most will think of shooting as an Attack, if you are, for example, shooting out a light source in an Evil Overlord’s lair, you will probably be Creating an Advantage, rather than Attacking. So it’s important to remember with Fate that while you will likely be basing your roll off of some version of shooting skill, defensive rolls might be against Notice or Stealth as easily as Athletics – it depends what the scene calls for. A contest of fast-draw might be an opposed attempt to Create an Advantage as well.

The basic question in Fate is “what do you want to do,” not “what game mechanic are you utilizing.” The skill set listed in Fate Core is also only a recommended list, and is often customized for individual games – Fate wraps an appropriately-scoped skill set around a genre, and doesn’t force-fit a singular skill set to all genres.

While the analysis in Violent Resolution is, in the end, about game mechanics, the overall purpose of the game designer’s intent for any given game is important, as well. Fate keeps things high level by design.

Expertise and Differentiation

Expertise is going to be based on your skill level with the relevant category, in this case Shooting in Fate Core. The four available tiers for starting characters in Core (from +1 through +4) actually provide significant differentiation in expected result, as a +2 shift relative to a foe in a contest is a dominating one. Considering the centralizing tendencies of 8dF, even a one shift difference is a strong one.

The other side of the expertise coin, rather than base skill, will lie in Aspects and perhaps most importantly, Stunts. These are infinitely variable and based on dynamic discussion between the GM and player(s). Some good examples can be found in the link:

  • Scope User. You know how to use a scope. +2 to create advantages with Shoot related to aiming while using a scope or laser sight. (adapted from
  • Rain of Lead. +2 to create advantage rolls with Shoot when you create an aspect relating to suppressive fire. (adapted from Spirit of the Century SRD, §6.15.2)
  • Sniper. Once per scene, you may make an attack with Shoot from up to ten zones away, provided you have a sniper rifle and scope. (Peter Blake)
  • Shot on the Run. Once per scene, you may move one zone, attack with Shoot, and then move one additional zone, provided there are no situation aspects restricting movement. (Peter Blake)
  • Trained As a Unit/Team Player. You were trained alongside the rest of your unit, and now that unit is like a single organism. +2 to create advantages with Shoot whenever working with another character who is from the same unit as you and who also has this stunt. (A similar stunt could exist in many other skills.) (adapted from

So despite a high-level viewpoint that the system could be considered mechanically coarse, if you want your character to be distinctive even within a specialty, it can be done. Four Special Ops soldiers, each with +4 in Shooting, could be differentiated as a sniper, suppressive fire expert, CQB master, and a grenadier simply by choosing the right Stunts and Aspects.

Expertise (given by your skill level) and differentiation (what Aspects and Stunts you have on your sheet relevant to ranged weapons use) in Fate are really part and parcel of the same thing. In fact, the differentiation is the key bit, unique to each character, and built right in to the design process.


As noted in a prior column, there is no inherent differentiation between fists, arrows, and .50 caliber bullets where wounding is concerned. Such differentiation is the realm of “house rules,” though such rulings, rather than rules, are officially sanctioned and may be critical to the feel of a particular genre. There are plenty of ways to differentiate between weapons, including minimum shifts on a hit, adding to the shifts on a hit – perhaps randomly, perhaps as a fixed value, or the nature of the Aspects assumed when Consequences are taken.


There is, notionally, little distinction between ranged and melee combat in GURPS, in that in both the attacker will roll 3d6 against an adjusted skill, and if the defender is aware of the attack, he gets an active defense. One of the key bits that makes ranged weapons different in practice is that they are among the most heavily penalized skills in GURPS. The typical penalty for fighting in a room, hand-to-hand, without a single photon in it (total darkness, or being blind) is -10. This is also the penalty for shooting a man-sized target at 100 yards.

Against those penalties are set significant equipment and action-related bonuses. A decent gun (say, a full length M16) will give +5 if you take a turn (one second) to Aim. Focusing only on your shot, and taking a few more seconds, putting the weapon on sandbags or using a really good sling can give another +4 combined. A scope can add yet more (a 10x scope is +3). So that 100-yard shot will be at a net of +2 to skill if you take four or five seconds to make that happen.

The high resolution that is brought to bear, so that every choice is given high agency, is both the benefit and the bane of GURPS (the um and the yang of it in Korean terms). There are many ways to lump this together and make such choices easier for the players (range bands, packages of stuff to do all at once, etc.). But these have less to do with the character-facing items on the sheet than choices available to all those who would employ ranged weaponry to do others harm.

In fairness, my biases as a GURPS author, and one very much interested in the representation of ranged weapons in RPGs in particular, are on full display in this section. I own that – but there’s definitely more than one way go to here, and I’ve had as much fun doing West End Games’ Star Wars RPG as I’ve had with GURPS. I appreciate GURPS as providing a level of detail and resolution for this type of play, a style I enjoy very much.

Expertise and Differentiation

The way to demonstrate expertise within the framework of the GURPS system is by choosing the right skills to do the job. Most things a character bent on causing others harm wants to do will have a particular skill associated with them. Archery will use the Bow skill, while a crossbow uses the unsurprisingly-named Crossbow skill. Firearms will use Guns or Gunner depending on how the weapon is employed, and within (for example) Guns there are required specialties – Rifle, Pistol, Shotgun, Submachine Gun, Grenade Launcher, etc. Related skills may have strong defaults, such that (for example) if you know Guns (Rifle) at 14, you also have Pistol and Shotgun at 12.

While the fine resolution is perhaps the default of the game, there are numerous ways to bring that up to a less-differentiated norm. Wildcard skills cluster related skills and specialties together, and there are some good consolidations of Guns skills in particular suggested in an article in Pyramid Magazine (Pyramid #3/65).

GURPS specifies a lot of activities through the assignment of penalties: Shooting at the head is -5, being in close combat is at a penalty equal to the weapon’s Bulk rating (or -2, whichever is worse), and taking two shots at two different targets, each of which is at -6. If a character is supposed to be good at some aspects of shooting but not at others, there exist ways to fully or partially compensate for this by buying off penalties through the use of Techniques – a small point investiture relative to a full level in the skill (though having more than two or three is inefficient).

As with the Fate example, you can have a Close Combat Specialist, who has bought off the usual penalties for shooting on the move, a grenadier with high levels in Grenade Launcher (and maybe some explosives), a suppressive fire expert with high levels of Gunner instead of Guns, and a Sniper who has purchased the Deadeye perk as well as taken levels in Precision Shooting or (more likely) Targeted Attack, allowing you to buy off half the penalty to shoot at a particular location. For Gun Fu awesomeness, you can purchase Gunslinger, which halves penalties for Rapid Strike (more than one shot at different targets, or purposefully different locations on one target – such as the Mozambique Drill), or other high speed, low drag abilities.


Assuming your foe doesn’t dodge out of the way, in GURPS getting hit by gunfire can be pretty spectacularly fatal. If a typical hero has 12-15 HP (and Joe Average has 10), that’s looking at unconsciousness after 4d worth of damage on the average, death rolls starting after absorbing the average roll on about 8d. Absorbing 24d worth of hits (again, on the average) will kill any normal person.A pistol bullet might do about 3d of injury to a non-vital area per shot. A rifle will do about 5d-7d, while a big machinegun bullet like the .50BMG is rockin’ at 18d injury per hit. To a non-vital area.

Quantifying this in dice rather than points is something I find useful to show the impact of different projectiles, which show much, much more extremes in GURPS than many other games, and certainly more than all of the others considered here. GURPS rolls the dice to determine points of penetration, subtracts armor if present, and then applies modifiers for location and wound size. Talking about this in dice is a bit of a personal quirk.

Hit the vitals or skull? Pistols will hit for 8-9d, rifles at 15-20d, and a single .50BMG to the vitals is about 36d. Better wear those ballistic inserts (which, by the way, will stop about 10d worth of before-armor penetration; that .50BMG will average about 7 points penetrating causing about 10 points of injury, or a still-likely-fatal 21 points to the vitals).

You can also choose to simply adopt real-world tactics: shooting from behind hard cover, from ambush, or heaven forbid, not getting into gunfights at all.

Night’s Black Agents

Resolution of gunfire or any other ranged weapon in NBA has pretty much the same mechanic – roll 1d6 and hit if you roll above a target number that is often 3 or 4. It would be somewhat fair to say that gunfire is one of the assumed methods of communication, but it would be equally fair to say that no method of violence is mechanically privileged or penalized over another.

Expertise and differentiation

To first order, skill in using ranged weapons will mostly fall under Shooting (personal firearms, bows, and crossbows) or Weapons (most melee thrown weapons). Skill levels are deceptive in Night’s Black Agents, since they are more about spotlight time looking good than a mathematical simulation of every shot made and scored. Chewbacca may only appear three times on screen with his bowcaster – but when he does, something’s going to die.

The point expenditures are still somewhat functionally equivalent to skill, and allow a character to look good on screen more times per scene than another with fewer allocated or spendable points. If your agent has a Shooting (or other relevant) skill at 8 or higher, there are also special move she can do, such as suppressive fire, a sniper shot, or extra attacks.

Since any character with the right number of points in Shooting can use any ability, mechanical differentiation is low . . . but NBA is not about mechanical differentiation in most cases. If the agent is a sniper, then she will use the Sniping option, and never Suppressive Fire. A CQB specialist may well use extra attacks and called shots a lot, but not sniping or suppression. Differentiation is a matter of choices made in what your agent looks coolest doing, and that’s a matter of background and characterization.


Any mention of vampires and guns must
include an image of Kate Beckinsale

It is relatively likely that an agent will hit what she’s aiming at. If your bad guys are capable of making General Ability spends of their own, it is nearly certain that your agent will also be hit at some point. Perhaps often.

When considering arrows and guns, even a Health of 8-12 can only make it through a couple of “hits” before wounding and unconsciousness are a real threat. At 1d6 or 1d6+1 per hit, two hits risk being Hurt, and four risk being Seriously Hurt – the kind of wound that hospitalizes you.

NBA is a game of dramatic tension, and that tension isn’t going to be the type that lasts over hours of monotonous exchanges of fire. It will be short, sharp conflict, and then victory, retreat, or death.

Savage Worlds

All of the games presented here except for GURPS lump most, if not all, ranged combat into a single skill, and Savage Worlds is no exception: like Fate and Night’s Black Agents, Savage Worlds uses Shooting to cover nearly all forms of ranged combat.

Savage Worlds is designed around miniatures combat (though it has advice on playing without them), unlike the more abstract Zones of a Fate game. As such it provides a list of penalties to be assessed for Range, Cover, and Illumination, though the list is quite short and general (by design). Firearms that fire many projectiles may get multiple attacks, represented by the number of Shooting dice you get to roll when making an attack.

Expertise and Differentiation

Skill and effectiveness in Savage Worlds is driven in part by simply being a Wild Card, and gaining the benefit of the Wild Die. It is also driven by the size of the die being rolled, with a d6 considered Average, and the highest die type being a d12. So die size is one axis of difference between characters

The other, more flavorful axis to make characters distinct is that of Edges. Combat Edges, in particular, allow specialization where a character is better than his peers at doing certain things.

Awareness can also be a good Edge – and truthfully, if there’s one skill, edge, ability, or point sink I will make regardless of game system or genre, it’s whatever stands in for Perception or awareness in the game. But that’s me.

Savage Worlds has a lot of supplements, and the prospective GM can draw Edges from many of them (helpfully collected here). Being good at suppressive fire or being fast on the draw are examples, but many others exist or can be created.


Weapons are not strongly differentiated in Savage Worlds, with most pistols doing 2d6 and a .50BMG doing 2d10. But Extras are up, down, or out, so the question is mostly if the damage is enough to deliver a wound, which against an average guy is rolling 9 or higher (Shaken plus a Raise). From that perspective, one hit from a pistol will render a foe Shaken, and two will take them out. One shot from a rifle (2d8) will, on the average, take out an Extra . . . and SMGs and assault rifles have rates of fire of 3, so bringing the pain on an Extra (or even a Wild Card) has a very real chance of a one-shot, taking the target down and out of the fight. To that extent, getting hit once by a .50 BMG or a 5.56 in the chest is probably “spectacularly messily dead” vs “likely dead when he bleeds out,” and is dramatically equivalent.

An aside: having damage/injury variable from very low to very high with a goodly amount of randomness is probably a design feature, not a flaw. Especially given how many scary wounds are actually survived, and how incidences of what should be minor injury can result in terrible consequences. So if I pick on games for giving a low upper bound on damage for vehicle-killing rounds such as the .50BMG when they meet a human target, you will not see me do likewise for a minimal lower bound. Grazes do happen.

Finish Him

Of the five games presented here, GURPS is the standout for the level of resolution that can be (and honestly, usually is) provided in terms of distinguishing between characters, weapons, and abilities within the already-narrow specialty of shooting holes in things. The ability to resolve with high levels of verisimilitude anything from a 1,000-yard headshot to a furious exchange of unaimed and inaccurate gunfire at a few yards distance plays right down the middle of the game’s strong suit. That it can also be expanded or blurred to handle high-action genres such as Monster Hunters (related to the series of books in spirit, but not a license), using Gun Fu rather than Tactical Shooting – each of which tunes the game to allow particular types of awesome makes it a very versatile tool if you are inclined to accept the game’s paradigm. The downside, as mentioned earlier, is that in order to offset the very large penalties that can stack up for range, target location/size, and environment, a character either needs to be ridiculously good, or take many turns lining up each shot – this can be quite frustrating to those looking to act every turn. On the flip side, it’s hard to get disemboweled with a sword from 50 yards away . . .

The other games paint with a broader brush. Fate can be surprisingly and delightfully crunchy, with the open-ended nature of Aspects and Stunts countered by the very well-defined mechanical support provided to invoking them. While Fate Core provides a scant paragraph on differentiation through equipment, the Fate System Toolkit and various worked examples allow as much tweaking as an individual game requires.

D&D treats ranged weapons like any other in most respects. Damage is similar to melee in most cases, and a relatively short unpenalized range is offset by the fact that in many of the standard environments where ranged combat is used (dungeons, unsurprisingly) the range is plenty long enough to span the dimensions of nearly any room. If the party is fortunate enough to perceive a threat at range, in a wilderness or larger internal cavern, the stand-off provided by bows and crossbows can be very handy. A melee Great Weapons Master and a ranged Sharpshooter can enjoy the same benefits (-5 to hit in exchange for +10 damage) . . . but our sharpshooter can do it from full range without suffering Disadvantage. While ranged weapons may not be preferred over melee (and neither are superior to many forms of spellcasting), they aren’t gimped either.

Night’s Black Agents paints with a very broad brush, with agency and differentiation provided largely via point spends and characterization, rather than detailed lists of skills, maneuvers, or equipment. While there are plenty of rules for common combat actions (Called Shot, Sniper, Disarms, etc.), they are kept firmly within the narrative basis for the game.

Savage Worlds splits the difference a bit. Deliberately aimed at “roll and shout,” the game uses easy to remember game mechanics (such as NBA or D&D) but also has a small list of commonly-assessed penalties (such as GURPS). Weapon damage is enough to threaten any character, and one can expect to see movie-like behavior when engaging foes: Extras drop in two shots with a pistol, or one with a larger weapon. The autofire rule hearkens me back to WEG d6 Star Wars: you have so many dice, spread ‘em around as you like. Easy to remember and to play.

In all cases you can design and play an effective combatant with ranged weapons, though each game provides a very different user experience. Depending on what game style you enjoy, you can definitely find a home that you want to live in; likewise you may well find that there are those that are anathema. More so than melee, the game design choices strongly influence how a scenario plays out, and how it feels from, to borrow a Night’s Black Agents term, a player-facing perspective.

First of all he forged a shield that was huge and heavy,elaborating it about, and threw around it a shiningtriple rim that glittered, and the shield strap was cast of silver.There were five folds composing the shield itself, and upon ithe elaborated many things in his skill and craftsmanship.He made the earth upon it, and the sky, and the sea’s water,and the tireless sun, and the moon waxing into her fullness,and on it all the constellations that festoon the heavens,the Pleiades and the Hyades and the strength of Orionand the Bear, whom men give also the name of the Wagon,who turns about in a fixed place and looks at Orionand she alone is never plunged in the wash of the Ocean.                                                -Homer, The Iliad 18 (478-489)

Weapons get their own special place, but fighting kit is not truly complete without some amount of armor. Or at least a studded loincloth. Armor is an important part of storytelling, and Homer lavishes upon the Shield of Achilles something like 1,500 words. and the taking and reclaiming of the armor of heroes featues prominently throughout the RPG campaign gone awry that is the Iliad. In modern cinema, girding Tom Cruise in his yoroi (The Last Samurai), or King Theoden in his magnificent armor (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), or the sequence where Bruce Wayne assembles his fearsome batsuit piece by piece all are given fairly long screen presence.

Protecting yourself comes in many forms, from many games. Let’s look at a few, taking some classic examples as above: a padded gambeson, a mail hauberk, a japanese yoroi, full plate harness, and finally, we’ll throw down with Interceptor Body Armor with trauma plates while we’re at it.

The gambeson, also known as a padded jack, was essentially quilted cloth. Often wool or linen, somtimes stuffed, sometimes faced with leather. It could be may layers thick – a dozen or two – and was reputed to be able to defeat even heavy war arrows.

Mail reigned supreme as protection worthy enough to hand down as an heirloom for centuries. It seems to have been utilized by nearly every culture that could fabricate, ,purchase it, and true to the spirit of roleplayers everywhere, was a popular target for looting after a battle. It varied in quality from poor iron butted together to hardened and flattened steel, drifted and riveted (a drift differs from a punch because no material is removed; its a stronger join). It was effective, especially the riveted version, against most penetrating trauma, though bludgeoning weapons could still deliver non-penetrating injury. The hauberk reaches from shoulder to mid-thigh.

The japanese yoroi armor suit represents a type of lamellar armor where small plates of material – the most effective of course being metal – are laced together or attached to some other backing in order to provide an overlapping defense. The lamellar technique tended to be used where huge plates of material were not available due to technology, materials availability, or expense.

The full plate harness was the most impressive of the armor technology from a metalworking perspective, fully encasing the wearer in iron or steel plate. By the time true plate armor was in use, it was steel that might vary from 0.04″ to 0.16″ within a single particular piece of armor (later shot-proof breastplates might be 0.25″ thick at the toughest part, and still taper to 1/20″ at places). Actual full suits were usually lighter than one would think – perhaps 40-60 lbs.

Finally, we have the ballistic vest. Usually with highly localized protection, the best armors have ceramic plates and ballistic fibers that can defeat one or more armor-piercing 7.62mm projectiles. Lesser versions are proof against pistol and SMG fire – in fact many high-threat vests are plates (for rifle protection) layered on top of ballistic fibers (aramid and polyethylene being popular) that will defeat pistols, SMGs, and fragments on its own.

Dungeons and Dragons

Nearly all of the game systems (save for D&D) are generic and can be expected to run (or in the case of Night’s Black Agents, are explicitly set in) modern games, and even the d20 system has a version suitable for present-day games, appropriately enough called d20 Modern. But let’s start with the current version and D&D5.

The armors in question are picked from a list, and given a rating that adds a boost to the character’s Armor Class. This makes him a harder target to hit, with each +1 boost to AC decreasing hit probability by 5% on a straight-up die roll (with Advantage or Disadvantage that’s not quite as linear).

A gambeson is “padded” armor, for AC 11; a mail hauberk is called “chain mail,” more protective than the “chain shirt” and is AC 16. The japanese yoroi is probably best described as a type of scale armor (AC 14), while a full suit of plate armor is the ultimate in protection for mundane armor, giving AC 18 without a shield.

Looking at the armor table, between the maximum Dexterity bonus allowed and the armor’s protective value, tells a slightly different story. A nimble character will have a DEX bonus of +3 to +5, and heavier armor limits that bonus (Medium armor limits it to +2; Heavy armor doesn’t allow a bonus at all). This means that the upper bound on AC for a +5 to DEX for each armor type is AC 16 for padded, AC 16 for scale, AC 16 for a mail hauberk, and AC 18 for plate harness. Basically, with the right stats (+5 DEX bonus), your armor table (cherry picking values):

  • Light Armor: Studded Leather – AC 17 and 13 lbs for 45 gp.
  • Medium Armor: Half-plate – AC 17 and 40 lbs. for 750 gp.
  • Heavy Armor: Splint – AC 17 and 60 lbs. for 200 gp, and Plate – AC 18 for 65 lbs. and 1,500 gp.

Obviously the conclusions change if you only have an AC bonus of +2 from DEX, but the key bit seems to be that lightweight armor does not inherently limit you, and with the right stats, Light, Medium, and most Heavy armors are functionally equivalent.

Ballistic-resistant body armor obviously doesn’t appear in D&D, but reaching back to d20 Modern, a D&D3.5 variant, we find the Concealable Vest (for standard duty), and the improved body armor worn by modern military units is probably closest to the Special Response Vest. The Concealable Vest is AC 14 and allows up to +4 from Dexterity, while the Special Response Vest is AC 17 and allows up to an additional +1 from DEX. Nearly all of the armor’s protective values combine with DEX bonuses to enable a maximum AC of 17 to 19. With the right DEX, the Concealable Vest and the Special Response Vest provide the same protection against attacks, the same trend as with D&D5.


A shield in D&D is a flat add to Armor Class. In D&D5, it adds +2, reducing the probability of a hit by about 10%. Other variants might give as little as +1, or as much as +3, depending on the rules and size of the shield. Given the importance of magic to the game, though, the shield can serve as another object to “hang” bonus protection from. Again, depending on the edition, magical AC boosts can top out at +3 to +5 – providing an increase to AC that can thus be from +1 (a small non-magical shield) to +8 (a hugely magical tower shield in Pathfinder). D&D5 tops out at about +5, a significant improvement to basic chances to hit.

Fate Core

As with weapons,  Fate does not inherently make room for armor. If’ it’s special to the character, you can define it as an Aspect. If it’s gear, it’s probably an Extra, reducing shifts of a successful attack the same way a weapon hit adds shifts to the value of the impact of a successful hit. Armor values range from 1-4, with padded armor being of armor value 1, a mail hauberk or samurai scale being armor value of 2, and a full set of late-era articulated plate has an armor value of 4. Prices and weight are not defined; armor (and gear generally) is chrome, not functional unless deemed so by an Aspect or given mechanical weight as an extra.

One of the more comprehensive lists of the options available for treating weapons and armor in Fate can be found at Roll for Critical. This fine list does a great job of offering up a summary of different ways of accounting for weapons and armor (the two are inextricably linked). A weapon tends to increase the potential for injury for a successful blow (but doesn’t guaranteed it), while armor decreases (including to zero) the injury received from a successful blow. Too-heavy or otherwise encumbering armor can make being struck more likely.

Working through possibilities is a bit out of scope for this column, but it’s too fun to ignore. Were I running a Fate game where weapons featured prominently (and of course, they would – have you seen the title of my blog?), my preference would be to do something that ensures a bit of separation between a hit and injury, but not as deterministic as “swords add +3, while plate armor subtracts 4.” One would need to keep it fast, though.

Works that have increased the availability of enumerated weapon and armor stats include Bulldogs, Day After Ragnarok, Jadepunk, Mindjammer, and Achtung, Cthulhu! – this isn’t a comprehensive list, of course.


Fate Core doesn’t provide for shields a priori, as with regular armor. It would make sense as a freely-invokable aspect on defense, since it will more have the impact of preventing hits in the first place than soaking damage.


As befitting its as-detailed-as-you-want-it nature, GURPS allows, perhaps even encourages, fine-grained representation of armor. While the armor kits that can be assembled can be arbitrarily detailed, by and large the effects of armor are very simple: a point of Damage Resistance (DR) provided by armor subtracts 1:1 from damage rolled, and one has to punch through DR before most wound modifiers are accounted for. If you have a sword (cutting) or an arrow or sword thrust (impaling), the x1.5 and x2 multipliers for injury for such wounds are applied after DR is subtracted.

The only complexity here is that some armor types – notably the flexible ones – are usually treated as being of lower DR vs. some types of attack. Mail, for example, provides only DR 2 vs. crushing blows, owing to its flexible nature, while it might be DR 3 to 5 (depending on the quality, thickness, etc. of the mail) vs. cutting blows.

In GURPS, especially with the addition of GURPS Low-Tech, a padded gambeson is considered layered armor, varying from DR 2 through DR 4 (recall a ST 14 warrior swinging a sword is looking at 2d6+1 cut for damage). Basic “cloth” armor not really intended as armor is DR 1. A mail hauberk will vary from DR 3-5, while the lamellar yoroi is a type of scale, and can vary from DR 3-5, but this is rigid armor – the mail -2 to DR against crushing attacks. Finally, a full suit of plate can be as low as DR 3 and as high as DR 9 – or even higher if you’re willing to pay the price. In Dan Howards “GURPS Loadouts: Low-Tech Armor,” he details the full-plate loadout of a 16th-century Italian Condottierre, a suit of armor that weighs in at nearly 80 lbs., costs $40,000, and provides DR 9 or DR 10 on the torso and head, DR 7 on the bulk of the limbs. Only the hands and feet have “only” as much protection as standard mail – DR 4 – but of course they’re armored gauntlets and sabatons, so not flexible.

In cames such as Dungeon Fantasy, enchantments such as Lighten and Fortify can magnify cost, decrease weight, and push DR into the double-digit realm pretty easily.

Note that these armor values are still quite penetrable. Cutting at mail with a sword is 2d+1 vs. DR 4, which by and large can be expected to put 6 HP of injury through the armor on an average blow, and this is even true of arrows as well. Armor did tend to be a bit more protective than this, which leads to house rules (some of them given more nods than others) to make epxensive armor a tad more protective for the cost.

Finally, GURPS deals with a wide variety of modern body armor as well. While differences in authorial approach between Low-Tech and High-Tech led to different assumptions, the Interceptor body armor with trauma plates is represented by the “Assault Vest,” and gives DR 12 to the torso and groin, with an additional DR 23 if the full range of ceramic trauma plates are worn on the torso – basically DR 35, or the equivalent of 10d damage, enough to defeat, on the average, armor-piercing bullets from an M16 (which do 5d damage but halve DR due to being armor piercing).


In GURPS, Shield is a separate skill, and enables an entirely different type of Active Defense, the Block. Useful in situations such as countering arrow fire where Parry is disallowed without cinematic skills, a shield also can be used as a weapon to bash and slam. Finally, the cover provided by a shield provides a flat add to all active defense rolls: Parry, Block, and Dodge. Finally, if using the rules for parrying heavy weapons (if you try and parry a heavy weapon with a fragile one it can break), the high weight of the shield makes for an excellent counter to such threats.

Night’s Black Agents

As befitting it’s compressed scale for injury, NBA takes a likewise compressed viewpoint on armor. The rules as prevented only deal with modern armor, and divides it into three segments – light ballistic armor that’s fully concealable subtracts 1 from rolled damage, while the military ballistic armor we’ve been discussing gets an armor value of 3.

On that scale, full plate would be at best an armor value of 2, if not 1. It’s cool enough one might bump it up, and call it a 2. On this scale, mail and lamellar are probably a 1, and a gambeson either doesn’t rate as armor at all, or is also a 1.


As with armor, there’s no specific provision for a shield, especially given that Jason Bourne is unlikely to be wielding one when not talking about Bite Club. The most likely house rule would probably involve increasing the target number for a successful hit by 1. Anything more would likely be unbalanced.

Savage Worlds

The armor in Savage Worlds adds to Toughness rather than altering hit probability. As such, it’s an orthogonal system like GURPS and even NBA, where the armor is on an entirely different axis than hit rolls. The armor values are compressed, with leather (equivalent to our gambeson) given Armor +1, mail (and likely our scale/lamellar yoroi) given +2, and a steel corselet and other plate given +3. Added to a Toughness value ranging from 4 to 8, this can be expected to absorb a bit more damage – but has no effect on Raises. The offset in target number means that higher and higher (and thus lower probability of occcurance) exploding die rolls will be necessary: going from Toughness 6 to Toughness 9 vs. a d6+d6 attack roughly cuts in half the odds of being Shaken or Wounded.

On the modern side, modern ballistic protection counters a certain amount of Armor Piercing (which negates armor but not Toughness), and also protects as +4 for most attacks, but +8 (due to the inserts) against bullets.


In Savage Worlds, shields are pretty effective. A small shield improves Parry by +1, while larger shields provide not just Parry increases (+1 or 2) but Armor as well (+2 to ranged shots that hit). That’s a good bit of defensive boost.

Finish Him

As with injury, protection from harm dictates tactics. In D&D5, it is very difficult (but possible with AC over 20) to become truly untouchable, especially since nearly everyone attacks with a bonus. Still, AC provides a way of extending endurance during a fight, avoiding injury on any given attack. GURPS allows a situation where a character might be hittable 100% of the time, and still never suffer injury due to high DR. In fact, a series of All-Out Attacks (forgoing defenses entirely) is not an uncommon tactic when encased in a full suit of plate.

For Fate, armor and shields are accessories and flash mostly – only as important as the rules allow them to be. As befitting the high-action genres the rules are designed to emulate, armor only makes a difference when dramatically appropriate (Stormtroopers, anyone?). Savage Worlds gives a minor but important boost to Toughness for most armor. Exploding dice on the attack means that you’re never safe, however. That’s also true for Night’s Black Agents, where the narrative impact of body armor is often secondary to the high action implicit in the genre.

Emphasis on gear can come to dominate the game. For some, this is part of the fun, if not central to the fun. The ability to specify the Shield of Achilles, or drop many times the starting cash value on a spectacularly awesome suit of armor (not to mention having a particular set of weapons) is a part of what makes a character distinct.