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11 June 2013 @ 10:43 pm
Dungeons & Design 6: Combat  
The more I read up on it, the more I'm leaning toward a kind of mix between True 20 and E6 to take most of the balancing load off. I still want to work in 2d10 and mostly opposed rolls if I can, though that will require messing with a lot of the set DCs. That's not a problem in combat where everything is opposed, but will be in magic.

There are still some changes I want to make, though, mostly inspired by Kenneth Hood's Grim 'n' Gritty rules.

This ended up really long, so I'll cut it to spare those who don't care

[Spoiler (click to open)]Complexity and Tactical Depth - Philosophy
Much is often made of the intersection between rules complexity and its relation to tactics. Going back in the history of RPGs, OD&D has very little complexity and essential no tactics in the rules. This is an important caveat, because stories about how it was played indicate that the original Lake Geneva group advanced down hallways three abreast to block the monsters from flanking them, with shieldbearers in front and spear-wielders behind, casters behind them to buff and lob spells, flasks of oil to set alight or to make footing slippery, and so on. None of this is in the books, though--the original game was developed by miniature wargamers who had internalized all these small-squad tactics--so the common interpretation is that fighters stood up in one place and swung until one fell over, Final Fantasy-style.

Much is made of emergent complexity, where a wide array of choice and consequences arrive from relatively simple rules. The common example is chess, which is an extraordinarily complex and tactically deep game even though each piece can only make a few highly-prescribed actions. I might say that Go is an even better example, since the rules are so simple--place stones on intersections, take the other stones when you surround them--but it is only within the last couple of years that computers are able to win against Go masters.

The obvious counterargument here is that the tactical depth comes out of the ability to control multiple pieces, whereas in an RPG each player typically only has one PC and the the complexity has to arise out of their available actions. OD&D's approach is that you can do anything you can describe, which does help versimilitude but isn't tactically interesting if there's no way to determine your odds of success or failure beforehand or which action is better than any other. You can ask the GM, of course, but the other players tend to get annoyed if every single turn you take is 5 minutes long.

Of course, even if the actions are rigidly prescribed, having too many of them and making them too complex can also lead to each turn taking 5 minutes. By all accounts I've heard, D&D 4e is tactically deep, has engaging combat, and takes forever to resolve a single battle. I've heard horror stories of it being run by a DM who hadn't absorbed the new paradigm and was making wandering monster rolls. Cue multiple sessions to advance through less than a dozen rooms. That's definitely not a direction I want to go either.

Weapon and Armor Skills
I already mentioned the weapon skills--Hand-to-Hand, Long Blade, Short Blade, Axe, Blunt Weapons, Spear, Marksman--taken from Morrowind as a compromise between earlier editions of D&D's greater focus on weapon distinctions compared to something like a "Melee" skill and later editions' BAB stat.

I know I want armor to function to reduce damage (apparently the most popular way to do it according to a completely unscientific poll), and I can use the old AC/Defense values as the amount of damage reduced, which is also the way that Grim 'n' Gritty does it. That part is sorted.

Well...mostly. See below under damage.

I've been thinking about how to do defense rolls, and I think I've come up with a method by stealing from Morrowind again. If you haven't played, Morrowind has four skills used to determine how well armor protects the PC, based on the quality of the armor: Unarmored, Light Armor, Medium Armor, and Heavy Armor. These happen to match pretty well on to the armor use feats in True 20, which I can dump and replace with skills.

The actual functioning of the skills is where I'm having some difficulties nailing things down. I was originally going to base Unarmored and Light Armor on Dexterity and Medium and Heavy Armor on Constitution, until I realized then that taking Unarmored and Light Armor would be a sucker's game because you could just buy up Constitution and be harder to killand harder to hit. It's the same reason all weapon skills are keyed off Strength except for Short Blade and Hand-to-Hand. I want to avoid any single stat that's better than all others, like Dexterity is in oWoD or Exalted.

This is one case where I focus much more on balance and on mechanics I personally like than realism, or "realism." "Dodging" isn't really the proper way to use armor; blocking is much more common. Edged weapons tend to just bounce off unless they dent the armor, blunt weapons rarely penetrate but are good at denting, and the best way to kill knights way to drag them off their horses and stab them in the groin, the armpit, or through the visor using a dagger[1].

That's all pretty complicated to represent at the tabletop, though, so instead it's just a simple roll of Weapon skill vs. Armor skill. Armor skill high means the attack misses, Weapon skill high means it hits.

Damage, Healing, and Lethality
Grim 'n' Gritty reduces the hit points of everyone to a small amount, and True 20 has a health track a bit like World of Darkness. Well, it's actually more like WEG Star Wars with an additional step--damage rolled is compared to the defense, then a "Toughness Save" is made. The difference there turns into damage ranks ticked off the damage track. Less than 5 provides a penalty to further Toughness saves made until, 5-10 means you're Wounded and take another penalty to all your actions, and 10-14 means you're Disabled and bleeding, and 15+ means you're unconscious and bleeding to death. Get three Wounded results and it tips over into Disabled, three Disabled and you start dying. Nice, easy, simple.

I really like it, but I'm not sure I like the ability to one-shot people. As neat as it sounds in practice, hit points actually provide a nice pacing mechanic. It's easy for players to see how many they have left, how fast they're losing them, and whether they should run away[2], and that's less true in a system where it's possible to skip ahead to the later end states without passing through the middle.

So, I think I'll go with my original idea, which is pretty close to Grim 'n' Gritty and also borrows from WFRP. Attacker and Defender both roll. If the attacker wins, take the difference betwen the rolls, add (static) weapon damage, and subtract armor. What's left is how much damage the target takes. This has the benefit of only have two rolls like in normal D&D (to hit/damage) or in True20 (to hit/Toughness save), while also allowing the defender to feel like they're doing something. As I've said before, it can often feel like things are being done to you with no chance to avoid them in a system without opposed rolls. I know that bothered me in nWoD when dealing with supernatural powers, so we switched everything to an opposed roll.

Also, using 2d10 is a benefit here, because ignoring bonuses to the rolls, the distribution clusters so that half of all rolls of 2d10 minus 2d10 are from -4 to 4 with the occasional huge swing. That allows people time to realize they should disengage or change tactics instead of smashing them to dust with a single blow.

For hit points, my idea was to do 10 +/- Constitution, so ranging from 5 to 15 for humans, and then a featAdvantage to raise it by 3 than can be taken multiple times. Grim 'n' Gritty also has a system whereby a creature's size affects their total hit points that I'll probably use. The equation above applies to Medium creatures (those from about 4' to 7' tall), and Large creatures have twice that, Huge have quadruple that, Small have half that, etc. It says specifically that it's best in games focused mostly on humans fighting each other, because their weapon damage is increased in the same way, which makes being bitten by a dragon an instant death sentence. Even being hit by an ogre is really dangerous. That's fine with me, because I'm good with a game where most opponents are humanoids and rampaging monsters are pretty rare. And I can include an Advantage that lets you count as a Large creature for the purposes of being damaged (i.e., no doubled damage from Large creatures).

I'm also probably going to add nonlethal damage, off of which the damage spiral will be keyed. I have an idea where nonlethal and lethal damage accumulate at the same time, and then if lethal damage > hit points = death, lethal + nonlethal damage > hit points = unconsciousness.

Armor and Shields
As I said, armor is going to be damage reduction, with the same value as the usual AC bonus. Shields are going to add to the defense roll. Probably something like buckler +1, medium +2, tower +3/+4 vs. missiles.

Now, here's another situation where realism is ignored in favor of balance. In the real world, armor kept getting heavier and heavier and more protective until guns powerful enough to penetrate it and reliable enough to be used in mass battles were invented, after which everyone ditched armor completely and it only started to come back recently when we invented anti-ballistic materials. However, if I'm planning to have separate skills for the different armor types, then obviously having one kind of armor be strictly superior to another is bad. However, I don't mind if each category has better or worse armors, so here's the idea I have:

The first is Defense penalties. Heavier armors ignore more damage, but make it harder to avoid getting hit. I'm thinking of just having a flat penalty, which can be offset by your Dexterity Bonus if it's high enough. Something easy to remember, like Light -1, Medium -3, Heavy -5.

The second is damage downgrading. One place where I can keep that realism is in armor denting and knocking people out. Tracking nonlethal damage means that armor can cancel some damage completely and turn other damage into nonlethal damage. I can do this like the God-Machine Chronicles version of armor, where I split the protection rating into two numbers, one of which just eliminates damage entirely and the other of which downgrades lethal to non-lethal. The other option is just to do it as a static number by armor type. I'm currently leaning towards the first one, since I'd have to restat things anyway to accomodate some of the other changes I've made, but I could be convinced.

Complexity and Tactical Depth - Implementation
So, that's a lot of the foundations laid down, but right now it's still all about just hitting each other until one guy falls over. I do have ideas about that, though.

Grim 'n' Gritty does something pretty neat in that it's mostly based on conditions. For example, there's the "blinded" condition, which takes a -4 penalty to inflict, and can mean anything--sand thrown in the face, smacking the helmet with your shield, cutting across their forehead so blood gets in their eyes, etc. Everything is like that, so it's easy to reflavor to taste. This is pretty gamey, but so is dividing combat into rounds. There's going to be an unavoidable aspect of that in any tabletop RPG.

The part I'm divided on is how to implement triggering these. If I do it as a penalty to the attack roll, then the comparison mechanic means it's also a penalty to damage. That's not automatically a problem, but it does make it more annoying to decide beforehand whether you want to try for a disarm or a trip or whatever.

Another option is to make the roll first and then decide what to do based on the roll. That way, the player has all the information in front of them--how much damage they'd do, how much they'd forgo by using a maneuver, and so on. It's much like strategy RPGs that lay out your chance to hit, how much damage you'll do, the enemy's stats, and so on. Though not quite to that level, because unlike computers it's harder to lay everything out all at once in a fashion that people can easily process if you're just explaining it. Or I'd have to come up with monster sheets for everything, which is a terrible idea.

A third option is based on the game 13th Age that just recently came out. Apparently, warriors have combat options that trigger when certain dice conditions are met, like rolling an odd number and missing, or rolling an odd number an hitting, or rolling any even number, and so on. I could do that, or I could let maneuvers happen for free if doubles are rolled. I could even combine this with the previous system, or with the first one. Let players plan maneuvers before the roll, but let them happen for free on doubles, making doubles a kind of "mini crit." Speaking of...

Critical Hits
Just a brief note here, but overall they're not that great. Anything that has a small chance of happening but is terrible when it does is a balance worry in RPGs, for much the same reason daily powers are problematic--the monsters never seem to use them before the players show up and always have a full complement. If Bob from Team Evil can cast Finger of Death once per day, how come he's never already cast it when the players run into him? How come the evil lich has never just blown all his spells on magical research?

Partially, that's a problem with the format. It'd be much easier to check for all this stuff in a computer game that can easily roll a bunch of percentage checks in the background, and it would be anticlimactic to bust into the bad guy's lair and find that he's much less powerful than he should be, but I really don't like asymmetric capabilities like that.

Critical hits aren't quite in the same vein since they're not a limited resource, but they have the same problem of unequal effect. Since there are more critical hits aimed at players than aimed at any individual monsters the players are fighting, the odds of the players getting crit are higher, and the impact of critical hit rules is much higher on them than on their opponents. Critical fumble rules are even worse.

Then again, they are pretty fun for the players.

Critical hits, I mean. Critical fumbles are always terrible.

[1]: This is a reasonable justification for armor-as-AC. "Hits" are only hits that find an armor's weak spot, so some of the misses rolled are actually hits that fail to penetrate armor.
[2]: As much as PCs ever run away, anyway.
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