The Violent Revolution continues!

Perhaps even more important to how a roleplaying game resolves whether or not a fighter strikes home at his foe is how his opponent reacts when struck.

I’ve been reading  +Jon Peterson‘s “Playing at the World” recently, a densely packed and quite informative history of games, gaming, and (most specifically) Dungeons and Dragons. In it, he notes carefully the evolution of wargames from “one hit and you’re out” to the concept of hit points, partial damage, and other devices and mechanics that enhance the longevity of your hero and by doing so, promote drama.

I was going to make a joke here along the lines of “unless you’re a 1st-level Magic-User, then you’re screwed. Sorry.” However, looking at the more-pure spell-slinging classes in D&D5, the Sorcerer and the Wizard, while they both start with 1d6 base HP, the availability and free use of 0-level cantrips make this much, much less true. “Back in my day,” I remember that you were lucky to be swinging for 1d6 or 1d4 HP – usually with a staff or dagger – as a Magic-User. Now, you can do anywhere from 1d6 to 2d6 or 1d12 every round with a cantrip. You may only know a couple of them, but they can be used freely and often from the “back row,” with a range that can be quite long. Fire Bolt is 1d10 out to 120 feet, for example. And Blade Ward, which halves (confers resistance) mundane physical damage, is also a 0-level cantrip, though it’s one-round duration limits its utility at effectively doubling the caster’s HP. Alas, one can’t pick on the Magic-Users anymore.

He uses a useful taxonomy for this process that I’m going to steal: after accuracy, a target of a violent attack may invoke several types of life-extending mechanics, including avoidance, mitigation, and endurance. I paralleled this in a previous column, dealing with Action, Opposition, and Effect to some degree, but I read Peterson’s structure a few days after finishing that up.

In any case, character longevity and persistence in a dramatic fight – not just if a character can be incapacitated, but how, and perhaps as importantly, how suddenly – is a huge contributor to how the stories unfold. It can drive tactics, risk decisions, and ultimately how enjoyable a game experience can be – at least as far as the fighty bits go.


All Wounds are Not Created Equal


Wounding systems in different games usefully make their wounding and injury systems a jambalaya of different concepts – it’s difficult to make a breakdown of them that is both comprehensively exhaustive and mutually exclusive. The exhaustive part is fine, but when both of the more strongly narrative systems (Fate and Night’s Black Agents) take quantitative damage and then blend together a narrative descriptor with a wound status level and somewhat condition-based wound effects list, it’s easy to throw your hands up and despair of the entire thing.

Instead of setting out categories at the outset, we’ll go through the five games used as examples, pick out features of note, and see about categorization at the end.

Savage Worlds – Up, Down, or Out

One of the newer games on the block, perhaps ironically, perhaps not, is the closest of the five systems to an old-school wargame feel in how its injury system is described.

In keeping with its mission of providing a streamlined roleplaying experience for any genre, the wound system is streamlined as well. Characters come in two types, Wild Cards are the heroes, and Extras are the mooks. You’re either one or the other. That will be important in a moment.

The Benny Economy

One key feature of the Savage Worlds game mechanics that cannot be underestimated is the availability and usage of “Bennies,” which are tokens for the ability to alter die rolls that are available in a certain quantity. While characters start with 3 Bennies, the rate of their acquisition and spend is quite genre dependent, and of course subject to Rule Zero – the GM will hand out as many Bennies as she darn well pleases. They’re a type of metagame influence, and they are very important to how the game plays out. Some of the more severe consequences of being struck can be either avoided or dampened with the expenditure of Bennies, so their care and feeding is an important strategy.

Avoidance, Mitigation, Endurance

Avoidance of a blow is mostly a result of higher target numbers. Not too high, though; from the best to the worst (d4 through d12) the target number for hitting will vary from 4 to 8, while the presence of the Wild Die for Wild Cards means even a d4 gives 19% chance to hit (and 4% for a Raise), while d12 yields 50% hits and 11% with one Raise (which I only mention because a Raise gives another d6 for damage, which can also explode).

This column is about injury, so we’re going to assume a hit. That brings us to a damage roll, which is the total of (usually) two dice in melee (the Strength trait plus another die given by the weapon), against a target number equal to the victim’s Toughness (2+Half of Vitality). This sets the target number, but lacking armor, the same kind of probabilities can apply. Meeting the Toughness leaves the victim “Shaken,” while each Raise inflicts a wound. If the Damage roll is lower than Toughness, there is no effect. Armor adds directly to Toughness – for calibration, a mail hauberk is +2, while a Kevlar vest is +4 vs. bullets.

As for Endurance, this depends on if you’re an Extra or a Wild Card. As noted in the title, Savage Worlds combatants are up, down, or out. Mostly. If you’re an Extra, you can recover from being Shaken, but once you take a wound you’re out of the fight, incapacitated (might be dead, might be fear, might be KO’d – in any case, you’re done).

Savage Worlds has two explicit mitigation mechanisms – the concept of “soaking” damage, as well as negating a Shaken status. A Soak roll must be invoked by spending a Benny in the case where you’re about to take wounds that you’d rather not. Each success and raise removes a potential wound – so if you roll a success and three Raises, you can soak four wounds. If you remove all the wounds, you’re not Shaken by that particular blow, either.

Shaken and Stirred – Non-Crippling Wound Effects

Starting with what seems like it should be the more serious of the two statuses: wounds. Each wound inflicts a -1 penalty to your Pace or anything that counts as a trait test. If you happen to take fatigue damage for something, that can stack penalties (but two fatigues and two wounds doesn’t push you to “out,” it’s just -4 total penalties to trait tests). That trait penalty is pretty much the sum total of the impact of being wounded, as befitting the “up, down, or out” philosophy. If you’re a Wild Card, you are out when you take your fourth wound. And when you’re out, you roll on an injury table, which can slap you with an ignoble death, or result in some other dramatic consequence.

Being down, however, is largely a result of the Shaken result, which on the face of it is quite nasty. You may only take free actions, including moving up to your Pace. Free actions include a bunch of things, but do not include action that requires a die roll – except for a Spirit roll to shake off the effects of Shaken. When you’re Shaken, you’re effectively in the “down” part of “up, down, or out,” though you may well be physically standing up, and you can move. The rules explicitly say that you’re not stunned, but you are momentarily distracted at the very least.

The Spirit roll, if failed, means you’re still Shaken. If you succeed, you use up your turn but are no longer Shaken, while a Raise allows you to instantly act normally. You can also spend a Benny at any time to remove the Shaken status – mostly players try to do this after they make the Spirit roll to recover, but there are times (such as if you’re already Shaken and don’t want a hit to result in an extra Wound) that you’ll do this before you get the chance to shed the Shaken status by rolling a Raise on the Spirit roll.

A recent rules update, I believe, has altered this a bit. You make the Spirit roll at the start of your turn, and if you make it, you may act normally. This means a Raise is no longer required to act on your own turn, merely a success.

Note though that damage rolls, especially if the hit roll scores a Raise, can be pretty high. A strong fighter wielding a good weapon (d8 for both) and hitting with a Raise can one-shot (deal four or more wounds in one blow) an unarmored person (Toughness 5) about one time in six . . . assuming you don’t have Bennies left to Soak the roll! An Extra, rather than a Wild Card, only requires a single Wound to take out of the fight – a Success and a single Raise. Against an average unarmored guy (Toughness 5) he’ll one shot him about 55% of the time.

Dungeons and Dragons 5e

As the market leader and pretty much the industry-defining product (the trope-namer, if you will), it would have made a lot of sense to start here. However, the Fifth Edition of D&D has some four decades or so of distance from CHAINMAIL and the wargames from which it sprung, and at this point, Savage Worlds’ damage and injury system is the closest to those wargaming roots of the games detailed here. So I started there, but that only means that in this case, D&D comes second.

So, as the progenitor of most RPGs, the mechanic by now defines the trope. Roll to hit, exceed the foe’s Armor Class, and at that point, roll damage.

Avoidance, Mitigation, and Endurance

Once you get hit, avoiding damage just isn’t in it for D&D in melee combat – avoidance for melee is in the hands of your Armor Class. That brings you right to mitigation, the ability to take some damage and make it not-as-bad.

Oooo. Failed a Saving Throw

For spells, this takes the form of the Saving Throw. For melee, it takes the form of Damage Resistance, which halves damage from certain types (or all types, depending on the nature of the resistance) of attacks. While “always-on” resistance is somewhat rare, as noted above, “Blade Ward,” a cantrip available to both Sorcerers and Wizards, can grant temporary resistance to mundane damage types (bludgeoning, slashing, piercing) if you can plan ahead by a round. Pathfinder/D&D 3.5 has Damage Reduction, which functions as a direct subtraction from certain types of physical/mundane damage, much like GURPS’ Damage Resistance subtracts directly from rolled damage.

That means that nearly all of D&D5’s injury mechanics lie in the foe’s ability to act like a big ol’ sack of Hit Points – a strictly ablative injury model. A 4th Level Fighter with STR 18 will roll 1d8+4 damage with a longsword held in one hand (1d10+4 with two hands) with a successful attack. dealing 5-13 HP per blow. An equal fighter will likely have on the order of 40 HP, plus Second Wind and any healing buffs (potions or friendly powers) that can be brought to bear. High-level spellcasters with Fire Bolt, again a cantrip, can hit for 4d10 plus potentially some stat bonuses every round from 120 feet out.

Wound Effects – Resource Management

By and large, if your character is hit by a mundane attack (and many magical attacks), if you have more than 0 HP remaining, you’re fully capable of acting exactly as if you were fully hale and robust. Granted, your personal Doomsday Clock is that much closer to midnight, but lacking specific special effects (as with a Sleep spell, or Hold Person, or a grapple) you’re good to go, cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.

Not at 0 HP yet. I’m good to go.

Ultimately, the character’s HP are a resource to be managed as a key part of the game, especially since many HP can be recovered (if not all of them) if the GM gives you time to take short and long rests.

Characters such as magic-users have relatively few HP (and can thus be felled even at high level by relatively few successful blows), but make up for that lack with fairly spectacular offensive power. The more melee-intensive characters have more HP – fighter-types usually have d10 or (for Barbarians) d12 for hit dice, and will double down on that with high CON, which gives a bonus to HP each level. With STR placed first and CON second, winding up with 150 HP by Level 15 isn’t out of the question, allowing absorbing quite a few blows.

The tactics this can engender can be a bit odd. The fighters, being huge sacks of HP, will often serve as a meat wall whose main job is to prevent monsters from physically accosting the real damage-dealers, the spellcasters. Some of the offensive capabilities of Rangers and Thieves are nothing to be messed with, either.

It’s not odd, of course, that the fighters, having the most HP, serve as shields or barriers to the more fragile types. That’s completely in-mission, and as an example, the Paladin’s Protection fighting style invokes the ability to give disadvantage to others’ attacks on an adjacent friend. What’s odd is that the damage output by a fighter makes it such that frequently, of all the guys you want attacking you, the fighter is highest on the list. I like playing plain-vanilla fighters, but when I made Rul Scararm in 5e, converted over from Swords and Wizardry, he wound up easily better with a bow in both accuracy and damage than with a sword (though his equipment helps there). My preference, and it is a preference, is to have the feel of a fighter being that you do not want to be standing next to a fighter when he’s hostile. Ever. Standing next two a 5e fighter is more like being next to a sand-blaster than a claymore mine. You’re going to be ground down over time.

Critical Hits and Instant Incapacitation

Most critical hits double the damage dice rolled, so with a mundane longsword, you’re looking at 2d8+4 or so for damage on a critical; nothing to write home about when faced with a serious adversary. However, an alternate rule in the Dungeon Master’s Guide provides some hope: if you can do more than the foe’s Max HP/2 in a single blow, he must make a DC 15 CON save or else roll on a table that tends to end badly for him – drop instantly to 0 HP (maybe you’re stable, maybe not), or other nasty things. Note again, most fighters will not be able to do this on a foe with more than about 50 HP.

But by and large, you’re looking at beating down the other guy’s HP before he beats down yours. The characters most able to do this tend to not be fighters, though fighters can take a beating better than most.

GURPS

Another game that uses HP ablation to represent the ability to soak up injury, but as far as that is similar to D&D and other games with a numerical quantity that talks to (Peterson’s) endurance, the differences can be very stark.

Firstly, for normal humans, HP tend to be in the 10-25 range, as they’re typically set equal to a character’s ST rating (10 for Joe Average; human max is probably in the 20-25 range, but that can get odd), and the recommendation for how many extra HP beyond that you can buy ranges by genre from “fugeddaboudit” to “mounds and heaps of ‘em.” But on the order of 30% more than your character’s ST won’t break much. So a fighter-type might be sporting 14-18 HP.

But a swung weapon, say, a two-handed longsword (a bastard sword in GURPS and other lingo) with a character of ST 14 may well do 2d+2 damage (and all dice in GURPS are d6). Two successful blows and even a mighty-thewed warrior is looking at unconsciousness.

Avoidance, Mitigation, Endurance

More than most games, GURPS is about not taking damage in the first place. Avoidance is accomplished by active defense rolls: dodge, parry (with a weapon), and block (with a shield or cloak). Giving ground one yard at a time or giving up your attacks can boost this ability; so can using a larger shield or some kinds of weapon (staff is the big one here).

Mitigation of damage even on a successful hit is accomplished by wearing armor. Armor makes you no harder to hit (in GURPS Fourth Edition; prior editions sported “passive defense” of often very, very high utility), but instead reduces the severity of a blow by subtracting from rolled damage 1:1. If a ST 12 warrior swinging a mace with one hand does 1d+5 crushing damage, a mail shirt with Damage Resistance (DR) 4 will make that 1d+1. A DR 9 heavy breastplate (you’ll have to go to Low-Tech for that one) might set you back thousands of dollars (4x your starting wealth for a typical fantasy game for just torso protection), but it will rarely allow more than a point or two (if any) damage through.

The key is don’t get hit in the first place . . . 

Your endurance in GURPS is, frankly, limited once you start taking wounds. For one, taking injury gives you a temporary shock penalty (only one second, and only to attack rolls, not defenses). Dropping to fewer than ⅓ your HP has significant effects. And you just don’t have that many HP relative to weapon damage, especially when you can get critical hits delivering double or triple damage, or can start stacking awesome Advantages like Weapon Master which will take an already-impressive weapon swung by an already cinematically awesome character and significantly increase damage.

A Dungeon Fantasy Knight could notionally start the game at ST20; ST 18 for 3d swing damage is even more easily in reach. Stack on a hard-hitting weapon like a two-handed sword and the +2 per die damage from Weapon Master (a Knight’s staple advantage) and you’re looking at 3d+9 cut per hit. Against an unarmored person, the x1.5 multiplier on cut damage means you’re looking at a minimum of 18 points, and as much as about 40. That’s anywhere from “one shot and you’re KO’d and bleeding to death” to “I just cut you in two, and your little dog, too. And your neighbor and his dog.”

However, there exists in GURPS a pretty sure way to fight like D&D fighters – long bouts of fairly non-lethal combat followed by instant death: Drop 40-50 points or so into Health (HT). Once you drop to 0 HP or lower, you must make a HT roll each round (each second!) or go unconscious. Passing multiples of -HP forces a death check, again a HT roll. But the odds of surviving those rolls are something like 90% rolling against a 14 on 3d6. You can more or less fight down to instant death at -5xHP (no rolls allowed on that one). Still, at 30 points of injury per hit, above, a 10 HP average guy will still be auto-killed in two solid hits. An unarmored mook, because injury multipliers happen after DR is accounted for.

Wound Effects – Crippling Injury and Key Locations

While you can always treat your foes as a giant bag of hit points by swinging away at the torso, GURPS supports increased wounding effects through tactical choices and combat options. Certain body parts, especially the limbs, can be crippled by exceeding a HP threshold in one blow (often HP/2 for major limbs, HP/4 for hands and feet). A crippled foot means you fall down. You can’t swing a sword or hold anything with a crippled arm or hand. And any crippling injury means you roll to see if you’re knocked down or stunned.

And both Knockdown and Stun are bad juju. Penalties for attack and defense are large (-4 to attack, -3 on defense) when prone. If stunned, you’re at -4 to defend, and can’t attack or retreat. This is basically disaster – it allows your foe to deliver huge attacks without fear of reprisals. GURPS embraces the death spiral like (spoiler alert!) Romeo and Juliet in Act 5, Scene 3.

In addition to crippling effects and knockdown and stun, certain locations like the Vitals (in the chest), Skull (and the ever-popular eye), and the neck have additional behind-armor injury multipliers, so if you can reach that creamy center, damage can increase, replacing (not stacking with) the usual wounding modifiers with x2 (cuts to the neck), x3 (stabs to the vitals), or even x4 (headshot!).

One-and-done is a real thing in GURPS, which is why defenses and armor (Avoidance and Mitigation) are very important. Endurance can be key too, since crippling thresholds are set as fractions of total HP, but your best bet is to not get hit, or have so much armor that you don’t care.

Night’s Black Agents

A strongly narrative game, Night’s Black Agents also uses an ablative model for injury and death. Every character has a Health score, and general faceless, non-combatant civilians have Health 2, a mook terrorist or militia might be Health 4, police and quasi-military forces Health 6, First-World soldiers Health 7, and Special Ops and Bodyguards will start at Health 8. Starting PCs get Health 4 for free, and have generous point assignments for General abilities (52 points that might be spent on Health).

So Health will usually range from 4 through 12 for PCs and serious foes. So long as you have Health greater than 0, you may act freely, much like in D&D. While a numerical health scale is provided, there are really three conditions of note: Hurt is Health 0 down to -5, while Seriously Wounded is -6 through -11. At -12 or lower, you’re Dead. Any Health of 0 or lower

Damage can be highly compressed in Night’s Black Agents: 1d6 is rolled for just about everything, with modifiers from -2 to +2 for the severity of the instrument (-2 for unarmed combat, +2 for a .50 BMG).

Called Shots

The other way to get extra damage is by using the Called Shots rule, where you can specify a hit location, which increases its target threshold by 1 to 4 points, in exchange for +2 or +3 to damage.

In keeping with the narrative bent of the game, the exact nature of the attack is not terribly specific or, indeed, important. Grappling attacks do the same amount and kind of Health reduction as striking.

When you are Hurt, target numbers for actions increase by 1, you must make a Consciousness roll when you’re first Hurt, and another if you spend any Investigative points. This is not considered a life-threatening condition – just seriously in some pain and possibly demoralized a bit.

When you’re Seriously Wounded, though, you’re out of the fight, consciousness roll failed or no. You lose more Health every hour unless you’re stabilized by someone with the Medic skill, and you must spend a day in a hospital or other healthcare facility for each point you went negative. There’s an optional rule to treat all gunshot wounds as being Seriously Wounded (if you have Health 4 and are shot for 5 points, bringing you to 0 or below, you take an instant extra +6 damage to make you Seriously Wounded instead).

Avoidance, Mitigation, Endurance

Attack rolls are against a target number; you’re assumed to be fighting, dodging, and otherwise do unto others before they do unto you without having to say so explicitly. However, there are some options to increase that target number. This includes having a high Athletics rating (increases your target number from 3 to 4), seeking full or partial cover, attacking from range, and taking Evasive action (each two points you spend increases your own target threshold by one and your foe’s by two).

Mitigating damage is largely done with armor, which directly reduces damage. Depending on the armor type, this can be from 1 to 3 points, though it’s often less effective against cutting and stabbing than bullets. Modern military body armor with its three points of protection from bullets and explosives is considered “very effective” in NBA. As most guns do 1d6 or 1d6+1, about half the time you’ll take no damage when wearing armor worth 3 points.

As mentioned in the intro, endurance is provided by your Health pool, and is a narrative measure of both injury tolerance and grit. It can be assumed that attacks that do not reduce your Health to 0 or lower are scary, loud, demoralizing . . . but ultimately did not do anything major to you. Even Hurt results are not life threatening, Consciousness roll or no. That being said, humans – even skilled ones – will usually range from Health 4 to Health 8, which means that if they’re not armored, they’ll be checking for consciousness in a hit or two, four will threaten incapacitation, and five or six hits will kill just about anything. Anything human, that is.

Fate

The final game system dealt with here is Fate. When an attack does more “shifts” in its execution than the defender rolls to counter it, the residual shifts must be dealt with by the character. This occurs in basically two ways. Stress and Consequences.

Stress is temporary wind, exhaustion, or even loss of initiative and confidence. Characters will usually have two Stress boxes, but higher levels of the Physique attribute can double this to four. Stress resets at the end of each fight or other dramatic partition in the game, with no lasting effects. The boxes are not cumulative – two boxes means you can absorb a 1-shift and a 2-shift hit; four means you can absorb each of 1, 2, 3, and 4 shift. If you take a 2-shift hit and your 2-shift box is already checked, you need to use a higher one, or (literally) suffer the consequences.

Consequences, on the other hand, add Aspects to your character sheet. Potentially temporary, but an Aspect exists to be invoked, and the foe that puts it there gets a freebie. An invocation of an aspect adds +2 to a roll, and being two shifts up on your foe is, mathematically, a pretty devastating advantage when fighting (8dF has a very strong zero tendency). If your Physique is +5 or better, you get an extra “Mild” (2-point) Physical-only Consequence slot; if your Will is +5 or better, you get an extra Mild Mental-only slot. Otherwise, you have a single 2-point, 4-point, and 6-point slot. There’s also a single 8-point extreme consequence, which if invoked replaces, permanently, an existing Aspect on your character sheet with something reflecting the nature and severity of the hit.

Basically, the combination of Stress and Consequences are used to “absorb” damage in a fight. If you’re hit for three shifts, and you don’t have any extra boxes, you will probably choose to take a 2-point consequence and a 1-point Stress (because there’s no such thing as a 1-point consequence, so if you have to use a 2-point consequence, you might as well only use your 1-point Stress box). If you have to take a six-point blow and you have 4 stress boxes, you can check off the 4-point box if it’s available, leaving a 2-point consequence . . . again, if you haven’t checked it already. You may only check off one stress and one consequence per hit.

If you can’t absorb all of the Stress or Consequences from a hit – you’re “Taken Out” of the fight. This means that the foe gets to narrate the result, up to and including violent death.

Avoidance, Mitigation, Endurance

Avoidance is usually accomplished in Fate through defensive action. The defender gets to roll their 4dF, spend any Fate points to invoke relevant Aspects (including a foe’s Consequence if you’ve hit him before), and if you win, you either avoid the blow or if you defend really well, you might inflict hits on your foe instead (or claim a boost).

Armor and weapons in Fate can be a bit hand-waved, in that an unarmed blow can be, if you don’t invoke certain rules for Extras, could be the same as a bullet from a Really Big Gun. If the campaign calls for it, Weapons can add shifts of damage on a successful hit, while armor negates them. This is an optional rule, though, and the categories of injury are very broad – using divisions like Night’s Black Agents: unarmed might be -1 or -2 shifts for damage, while a huge swung polearm or .50-caliber bullet might be +4 or something (that’s just me winging it; the real rules are found on p. 277 under extras).

Fate has endurance be measured in how many combinations of Stress and Consequences you can take before the next hit overwhelms your remaining capacity to absorb them. This is going to vary a lot based on the combatants involved. Even if you “only” have 2 Stress boxes and the usual 2, 4, 6, and single 8-point Consequence (though I might not let that one be invoked for unimportant characters), if you have a skilled fighter against a mook, many-shift hits can be delivered regularly, but with 8dF on the table, the dice will be +/-2 about 70% of the time. In any case, unless mitigation methods are in place, the number of hits you can take is limited to the total number of Stress/Consequence boxes you have on the high end.

Run Away

One option that’s explicitly mentioned in the Fate Core rules is that if you simply don’t want to risk taking another hit, you can give up, and Concede the Conflict.

While other games certainly let you give up, Fate provides mechanical support for doing so. You get a Fate Point for conceding, plus an additional one per consequence suffered during the fight, and you get to avoid the worst parts of what might have happened to you otherwise. So if you are battling a fierce foe, and concede, you might agree with the GM that you’re knocked out and ignored, instead of messily killed and eaten.

Finish Him

A system of injury, then, will have certain features. Most of these are obvious.

You need a way of quantifying the severity of an incoming successful blow. Most games do this with a damage roll (D&D, GURPS, Night’s Black Agents, and Savage Worlds), but not all of the have this explicitly (Fate with the contest of attack and defense rolls; some GURPS contests likewise use margin of victory).

Secondly, this wound will need, somehow, to be scaled to the adversary in some way. D&D actually scales the adversary up (more HP), as do many systems with ablative hit points. If you take a very, very large creature, as an example, in D&D and to a lesser extent in GURPS you might simply have a giant pool of Hit Points. Savage Worlds probably would give such creatures very high Toughness (hard to get in a blow strong enough to render a creature like that Shaken or Wounded). Where humanoids fight other humanoids, this can be deprecated, but it’s a good idea to think about how it’s done.

Next comes the effects of one wound or many. Depending on what is being modeled, there might be no lasting consequences until a threshold is passed (D&D and NBA, if you have more than 0 HP or Health; GURPS has no lasting consequences at ⅓ of starting HP and higher). Fate has its Stress tracks for small, forgettable, temporary inconvenience. The effect could also be determined by comparing a quantitative damage and robustness number, and once that is determined, applying conditions or status levels. So a small damage and large robustness might be a no-effect result, and a foe could take an infinite number of these. A single damage/robustness ratio that is of sufficient magnitude might have some instantly debilitating effects. GURPS does this with Major Wounds and crippling hits.

Even if there are no lasting effects, there can certainly be temporary ones. Does a hit cause attack or defensive loss of capability (penalizing hit rolls due to “shock” in GURPS), or partial loss of agency (the Shaken result in Savage Worlds)?

This can be expressed by conditional statements as easily (and dramatically) as it can by a declining Hit Point total, and in many cases is more visceral than saying “My character has 5 HP left.”

Ultimately in the combat game, the point of fighting is to incapacitate your foe (or otherwise make him impotent). Injury is how one keeps score. Whether this is keeping track of wound status or a HP total, as long as the GM and players can understand what the effects are, the game can be made fun.

Make no mistake, though – injury mechanics drive tactics and decision-making! The mechanical weight given to Conceding a Conflict in Fate is likely to lead to fewer “fight to the last man living” scenarios. The lack of any real effects of HP loss up to hitting 0 HP in NBA an D&D drives much different behavior than taking a similar fraction of HP in GURPS, because of the short-term effects of being hit (you may or may not be stunned, your next-round attacks are penalized, limb may be crippled, or weapons may be dropped, as examples). The key currency in Fate, Night’s Black Agents, and Savage Worlds for both inflicting and avoiding injury effects is the expenditure of metagame tokens (Fate points, General skill points, or Bennies).

How you play is defined by how you lose in these cases, and result in a very different feel for each game, even when they borrow some of the same concepts!

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

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

The Weapons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dungeons and Dragons

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

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

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

Weapon Modes and Skills

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

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

Savage Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raising Damage

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

Down and Out

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

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

GURPS

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

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

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

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

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

Night’s Black Agents

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

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

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

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

Fate

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

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

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

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

If it Bleeds, We Can Kill It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agent of Action


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

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

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

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


The Options

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

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

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

One Roll (A+O+E)


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

Tests of Skill

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

Fate

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

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

Night’s Black Agents

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

Agency Enabled

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

GURPS

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

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

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

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

Fate

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

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


Agency Enabled

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

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

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

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


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

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

D&D Sets the Standard


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

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

Savage Worlds


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

Night’s Black Agents

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

GURPS: Mookville

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

Agency Enabled

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

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

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


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

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


GURPS, Master of Options

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

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

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

Other Games

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

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

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

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

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

Agency Enabled

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

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

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

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

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

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

D&D

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

GURPS

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


Agency Enabled

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

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

Finish Him!

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

Combat Agent Man

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

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

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

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

Speed is Life

So, more agency is good, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happened to “Never tell me the odds?”

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

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

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

That’s not always easy.

Beat-Downs, Mechanics Style

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

Almost Certain to Succeed

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

D&D Fifth Edition

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

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

The basic die roll is

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

which can also be written as

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

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

Advantaged!

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

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

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

How Awesome am I?

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

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

Critical Thinking

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

Parry! Dodge! Duck!

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

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

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

Savage Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Awesome am I?

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

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

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

Critical Thinking

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

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

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

Parry! Dodge! Duck!

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

Night’s Black Agents

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

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

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

Player-Facing Combat

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

How Awesome am I?

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

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

Critical Thinking

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

Parry! Dodge! Duck! Weave!

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

Finish Him!

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

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

Who’s Ready for Round 2?

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

Or do they?

Some of the recent threads and comments about armor as dice have led me to think about alternate ways to get what I want out of Armor as Dice – less variable penetration so that if you armor rated for X (and GURPS defines X as 3.5 points per die for both penetration and resistance), and a bullet hits you with basically less energy than X, it won’t go through.

Some of these distinctions don’t seem like much, or important. And to a certain extent, they’re very much not. If you have (say) a DR 8 bullet resistant vest, in theory it should be proof against a .45 ACP (2d pi+) but not a 9mm (2d+2 pi).

Turning to AnyDice (and we’ll be doing that a lot this post) we see that the .45ACP will punch through DR 8 with 1 point or more of damage potential remaining just over 27% of the time in round numbers. The 9mm, which should always go through, will go through 58% of the time.

This is very easy to rationalize. Poor angles, uncertain coverage, and other variables make armor less certain. The tendency to treat an armored vest as if it fully covers the entire torso (a legit simplification) makes the push to make every thing just work out neatly less mandatory.

Still, players buy armor to buy protection, and some armors really are that good. The “solution” tends to be “if you want full protection in a gamist manner, buy DR6 per die of protection you want.” Thus, if you want to be fully protected vs. that 2d or 2d+2 bullet, buy DR 12 and DR 14 respectively, which will increase the weight of that armor piece by about 70%.

OK, fine, but I am going to press forward and solve the non-problem anyway, because though there are many instances where you can rationalize the roll, there are others where you can’t.


Armor as Points, Penetration as Points


Armor as Dice has gotten plenty of love elsewhere. But there’s another method discussed in Armor Revisited (Pyr #3/34), which inverts the method: instead of listing Armor as dice and keeping the damage as dice, express the penetration as a fixed number, and go with variable injury.

So instead of 2d, a .45ACP handgun would have a pentration rating of 7, a 9mm would be 9, a 5.56x45mm might have a 17, and a .50 BMG would be something like 40-46 depending on the barrel.

So the effect is the same. Compare Penetration to DR, and if Pen is higher, it goes through. This also allows either using HP or “Mass-based” HP as a blow-through threshold as a number read right off a character sheet, precalculated before play starts for the mass-based number.

So, for a straight-up, GURPS standard application, subtract DR from PEN, and then roll injury dice. Roll 1d for every 3.5 points of penetration that get through would be the most straight-forward conversion, though “divide by 3 or 4” would be easier in play. Remainders might just be adds. Actually, rolling 2d per 7 PEN, and converting so you always roll two dice might not be that bad.

So a notional M4 carbine might do 16 penetration, and impacting DR 10 would have 6 remaining penetration points. Injury results, and you roll 1d+2 (average 5.5) or 2d-1 (average 6).

A tank cannon that usually does 6dx20(2) would convert to 420(2), and faced with DR500 would be 420 PEN – 250 DR (thanks to the armor divisor), leaving 170 PEN left. Against machines, maybe you don’t roll, maybe you convert to 2dx24 or even 3dx17 if you want some randomness.

Explode it!


But what if you want even more random injury – because injury is far, far more variable than penetration?

I’ve recently been exploring the Savage Worlds system, which features exploding dice. Called an Ace in the game, if you roll the highest value on your die, you get to roll it again, and add it to the prior roll. Leading to the unusual circumstance that you can’t roll a 6 on an exploding d6. But nevermind that.

An exploding die is basically a geometric progression. It’s the average value of the die (3.5 for d6), multiplied by 1 + the probability that you get to roll again (1/6) + the probability you get to roll a third time, fourth time, etc.

In short:

and in this case, a = 3.5 and r is 1/6. If we were rolling a d8, a would be 4.5 and r is 1/8.
So our average values for exploding dice would be 
Of course, GURPS only uses d6, so a more useful table would be 
And one of the very interesting things here is that the first four values are of great interest to GURPS players, since they represent typical wound multipliers for crushing (Never), just under +1 per die (6), pi+ or cut (5-6), and imp or pi++ (4-6).
So you could replace damage multipliers with exploding dice, and each die explodes separately. So your .45 ACP that does 2d pi+ could legitimately roll a 2.
They All Explode!

If one really got enamored of exploding dice due to the variability, I’d simply apply a -1 per die to all damage, and let all d6 explode on a 6. That doesn’t quite balance out. It’s a 1.2 multiplier for the explosion, but -1 per die is x0.71, for a net of a 15% loss in damage.
In any case, you’ll wind up converting any penetration that gets through DR to dice. Exploding dice. So the injury can be pretty variable.I’d convert at 4 points per die.
Blowthrough

Though injury might be variable, it would be easy to make blowthrough not be that way. So if you were shooting with a firearm with PEN 25 at a person with DR 8 and a blowthrough threshold of 11 (maybe he weighs about 180 lbs), you’d have 17 penetrating damage, or about 4d+1 injury.
But what happens downstream? The bullet loses a flat 11 going through the guy, and stops in the DR 8 armor in his back. 
Let’s say it was an AP bullet at 25 PEN. So DR drops to 4, and so does blowthrough, dropping to 6. So the bullet punches through the DR on both sides and the guy, with 11 remaining to threaten others.
You then make a choice – do you apply the full amount (PEN 25 less DR 4) which is PEN 21, or 5d+1 to your foe, or limit it to blowthrough, either 11 or 6. 
This might call for revisiting the pi ratings of some rifle rounds – the 7.62x51mm bullet that we’re more or less simulating here can have a pretty impressive temporary cavity, which can cause some odd effects. But if it doesn’t hit anything vital, the AP bullet might just zip on through, with something like a 2d+3 wound. 8.4 damage on the average, about a pistol-sized wound.
Bullets that (say) tumble and fragment might expend a lot of energy blowing through, etc. But that’s a detail best left to other rules.
Parting Shot

We’re borrowing a mechanic from another game here (Savage Worlds, but other games have had exploding dice before SW), so one has to be careful. 

Still, it’s a better fit – isolated to effect rolls, and applied to something that’s highly variable, an injury roll – than the D&D Advantaged mechanic is to the GURPS space. 

The impact on actual damage rolled isn’t that high – a 20% boost in damage if you let the dice explode infinitely, but honestly if you let the die explode 3 times (providing a potential 4x damage multiplier at the high end) you’re already averaging the 4.2 that is the asymptote. Since that’s the same as a brain hit (x4), you might as well cap it at 3 extra rolls per die. 

I think this might be fun at the table. The fixed (or partly variable; I’d suggested something like a varability of about 1/5 before) DR and PEN values would make some sense. If you made a PEN of 18 into (say) 14+1d, and/or DR the same kind of treatment (though it might depend on the armor), you could account for “no way in hell” penetration values as well as some degree of random for both injury and penetration. Exploding dice are icing, since it takes fixed penetration, and gives back randomness to it without changing the number or distribution of dice you roll. 
Seems like with a good code base, such as the free-form stuff you can write in MapTool, this would be invisible to the user, even including variable penetration, armor, and exploding dice. 
The big issue I have in play with Armor as Dice is I like to let the players roll their damage, and by letting them do that, I must give them intel on the armor rating in dice of the enemy. That’s less fun, because it kills tension.
Fixed PEN values would pose the same problem, though. It would add a little high-end variability on the injury side, which is good. 
Ultimately, what we’re doing though is converting a fixed PEN-DR to injury. If you’re really doing it with a computer, the GM might as well double the penetrating energy (so in our example above, 24 PEN – 8 DR is 16 Penetrating Damage) and just roll 1d(2xPEN) or 1d(1.5xPEN) if you’re in (say) Roll20. That allows for grazes and lucky vitals hits, and the right kind of arbitrary where you can get a .50 that just wings you, or makes your head assplode. With rolling many dice, you get a mean effect that may or may not be swingy enough.
But I will say this in passing; while armor as dice does have some nice effects, it also has some drawbacks, so YMMV. For every case where you say “My vest should stop a .45 ACP cold!” you can find a case where your angle to the shot wasn’t right and it misses the primary protection. That might be best modeled as a clean ‘no DR!’ case, though. In that sense, the Rules-as-Written are no loss. The player gets to roll his damage (and players like effect rolls), and the GM can keep DR and injury hidden, if she wants.

I’m curious as to what people think of Savage Worlds.

It’s one of the systems that seem to have been adopted somewhat broadly, and people say good things about it. I downloaded the 16-page Test Drive v6 and read through it.

I definitely have opinions. But . . . I’ve never played, and you can’t usually fully judge a system without playing it.

So, when I asked about it, some things that came up were:

  • It rewards co-operative tactical play, and strongly encourages inter-party assistance 
  • It plays fast and encourages having side-kicks, etc. 
  • Well supported both by third party license and the company. 
  • Fairly simple but colorful (lots of advantages/skills/powers) while also supporting tactical play. 
  • Multi-genre, albeit in the form of numerous ad-on sourcebooks rather than unified concept. There are plentiful and interesting sourcebooks and world books. 
  • Decent production values in most cases 

I’d be very interested in actual play anecdotes, pro/con style feedback that’s constructive and well informed. If you think it sucks, fine – but please tell me why, and tell me where you ran into issues in actual play (or if it’s a mechanics issue that can be underpinned with math, that’s OK too).

The Responses
Most people respond on Google+ instead of commenting on the blog; no problems there. But I wanted to collect these in one place, as well. They’ll get long, so I’ll put a “below the fold” break in there for readability’s sake.
I’ve never GM’ed it, but I’ve played it a few times under a very good GM expert in the system, and the games were excellent because we had a very good GM who was expert in the system. The system mostly stayed out of the way except in combats, which (despite the exclamatory claims) weren’t notably fast (slower than most systems we were used to at the time), and were conspicuously fiddly, with cards and stuff yanking us pretty hard out of character perspective compared to what we were used to with other games. Overall: A good, but basically unremarkable, multigenre rulekit with some fiddly bits.

I have called it “B/X to GURPS AD&D” more than once. It has some really interesting design ideas that I like a great deal, but sacrifices a great deal of granularity for speed of character creation and play.
The use of playing cards, which was thematically awesome in Deadlands, feels off in almost every other genre (though a nice tarot themed deck might help with a fantasy game).
The community around the game is very active and very creative.
It serves best in a game of cinematic heroes doing awesome things right out of the gate rather than remotely a “start at level 1” style of play.
I’ve played it a lot and run it a lot. In fact, I gave up on GURPS for SW. Mostly, this is because of prep time. GURPS is wonderful at detailed world building, but I have kids now; no time to build anymore. I DO find SW faster in combats than GURPS. And the cards don’t seem to get in the way. It’s not my end-all, be-all system, but it is my go-to when I want to hit the ground running. Plus, the support is amazing, with creators being available to answer queries online and many, many choices of games to play (some amazing, some terrible, most at least okay). The community is also very friendly and the games tend to fun. I still reference GURPS books when I GM, I just use the ideas in SW nowadays.
It’s a point build system like GURPS but greatly simplified. It is light, loose, and great for pulp style adventures. You are meant to be bigger than life and do awesome things. The initiative system works great especially with large numbers. But if you want a lot of crunch, this is not the system for you. Every thing from skills to abilities are archetypical and as light as possible. But if you want to play a Firefly style game, Indiana Jones, high fantasy, works great for all of those. 
It’s not my go to system, nor likely will be, but it is a good system for what it wants to be. 
It is fast on the table, with huge swings in momentum, but assumes you are playing with miniatures. There is no good way I’ve come up with to play online or in the “Theater of the Mind”. Prep super easy! That is probably one of the biggest advantages. It is also a little quirky for players who cut their teeth on other games. Lots of small rules that have a large effect. The shaken rules always seem to stump new players. The dice mechanics are fun. I heard Shane was asked one time why they added the “wild die” and exploding die mechanics and his answer was simple; “players like to roll dice, and it is fun”.
Simple to teach generic system that’s pretty much good at anything. Great for con games and new gamers. 
Rules: You need a 4 or better. The better you are at something the bigger the die you roll.
I’m always amazed by how well it handles a variety of settings. I’ve seen ghostbusts, cthulhu, spys, Tron and Transformers and all worked just as well.
My personal experience: I had been hearing about it on and off for about a year, poked through the book at the local game store finally and it looked interesting. So I said “heck, it’s only $10, why not?”
It sat there for about 6mo untouched (time constraints, real life, what have you)
Finally picked it up a few (2, maybe 3) months ago, gave it a quick read through (maybe 2 hours tops). Unfortunately my group was already running a game and had 3 more games lined up, so their interest was basically non-existent.
Last month I decided to heck with my gaming group and asked my GF (who’s got only about a year of tabletop experience) if she was interested in running a small game to test out the system.
15 min later we had her character finished. Note, that this is with neither of us having any of the skills and whatnot memorized, so there was quite a bit of flipping back and forth in the book and we STILL had characters done that fast.
Then we dove into a game, we had a blast playing for about 90min and had a fulfilling and complete adventure that left both of us wanting to play more.
We played a 4-adventure fanatasy SW-introduction-campaign (that unfortunately is available in German only).
It is an expansion of the Socath-adventure (the old starter-adventure).
This campaign showcases all rules – from skill checks (first adventure) to combat (second) to chases and mass-combat (third) to a full dungeon adventure including a “boss fight” (last). Boss fights do not always “work well” in SW, though.
SW indeed plays fast and fun – we especially loved the initiative by drawing cards and the benny-concept (already integrated in other systems we play right now). “Exploding dice” (i.e. re-roll on max number and add the numbers up) also are a fun concept, if you are not used to it from other systems.
The mass combat rules blend seemlessly with the rest of the system, with the player characters actions really making a difference (if you want).
We’ve used SW as system for a setting we wanted to play, but where we didn’t like the original system.
We also will replace Shadowrun’s system with SW next time we play Shadowrun.
SW’s rules are actually quite “slim” – no huge number of rulebooks required (although there are some available, like the Fanatasy- and SciFi-companion).
There are also countless “savaged” settings to be found on the internet – Fallout(!), Shadowrun, you name it.
Eric Simon explains on his blog why he chose Savage Worlds as his core system


+Dave Sherohman 
It’s a good system.  It’s a fun system.  It’s just not a system for me.

Savage Worlds is designed primarily for pulp, action movies, etc. and it’s really good at that.  It’s not so good at gritty, low-powered gaming.  It’s difficult to strip away enough of the plot armor to give PCs a more-than-minimal chance of dying.  Because of exploding dice, there’s always a non-zero chance of death, but it remains minimal even when the PCs are outclassed.

It does extremely well with situations where the PCs are supposed to be blowing through mooks with minimal (but not zero) resistance, and even more so if the PCs have a squad of good-guy mooks beside them.  It can also do enemies that are nigh-untouchably tough who you have to set up just the right situation with all the advantages on your side, plus have some good luck (or enough bennies to spend on rerolls) to be able to beat them.  It has trouble with anything in between, though, because the margin between these two extremes is rather thin.  Because of this, standard advice for Savage Worlds is not to even try to do “one big boss”-type fights – someone will get a lucky roll and one-shot him, so give the important bad guys a bunch of mooks, too.

Most importantly, it’s an inexpensive game.  If you think there’s any chance you’ll like Savage Worlds, buy a copy (or I think there’s a free quickstart version you can download) and try it for yourself.  Even though I ended up deciding that it doesn’t do what I want from my RPGs, I’m glad I tried it and I had a lot of fun in the process of determining that.  (I ran SW for about a year before finally realizing that my differences with the system were too deep to easily houserule around them.)

+Charles Saeger (from the comments section)
It plays fast and has loads of options. It’s kind of a rules-lite GURPS. It has a good selection of foes in the main book, which is something SJG should have heeded. I played in a fantasy game that had converted from Labyrinth Lord (B/X retroclone) and the characters all had sweet powers fast, with good characterization. I wouldn’t go for it as my main system (obviously GURPS) or anything really serious, but it would work great for things that are fast. Star Wars springs to mind as a good fit. You don’t have a lot of tactical options, unlike GURPS; it’s kinda like D&D here. Like D&D, no defense rolls.