21 February 2016

A close look at combat and other systems

I was thinking this morning about the combat systems in roleplaying games. With the exception of Fiasco (and possibly Amber Diceless Roleplaying which I've never been able to try), the mechanics of any game system focus very heavily on combat.

Rules systems vary from incredibly complex and detailed, with exacting descriptions of any foreseeable permutations described (like those in Dungeons and Dragons or GURPS) to vague and intuitive (like Little Fears). But no matter the system, it is always the most detailed part of the rulebook (unless you count the magic system, but given how many of the spells described in most games are usually most applicable in combat situations, the magic section may as well count as part of the combat system).

This makes sense, given the way that roleplaying games grew out of miniatures war games. It's only reasonable that the first RPGs were, in essence, a system for emulating combat between individual characters.

But with the expansion of gaming, and the appeal that the hobby has for Storyteller and Method Actor player types, it is surprising that other aspects of the game haven't received more attention. Fiasco, as mentioned above, is the only roleplaying game that doesn't have a combat system at all. If any sort of fighting occurs in that game (which actually happens very seldom), it is described narratively, with any injuries or death detailed as needed to fit the story.

Compare this to other events that may occur in a game. We'll look at just one example: Shadowing. In Changeling: the Dreaming, the rules for shadowing take up a little less than half a page. Conversely, there are eleven pages devoted to violence (not counting the charts and tables). To follow someone without being seen, you simply roll once per turn to see if you continue to know where your quarry is. The target can roll as well to see if he becomes aware of the pursuit, and these rolls can cancel each other out. There's a paragraph on working in pairs to make it easier to follow someone without being noticed. Otherwise, that's all there is to it.

Combat, on the other hand, involves exact rolls to whittle away a target's hit points, with things like armour and dodging and parrying to complicate the matters.

Wouldn't it be interesting if those levels of detail were reversed? I'd like to see a game system in which combat is a single roll by each combatant with the loser falling unconscious, and shadowing described as a lengthy system of rolls and counter-rolls with complications like evasive travelling, bonuses to rolls based on whether the characters are in an environment that shows footprints, and a running total of 'shadowing points' that must be exhausted before you can catch the subject or evade the pursuers.

Ok, maybe that's a bit of a silly system to use for shadowing. But I could easily see something like that working for, say, seduction. The seducer has a number of 'patience points,' and the seducee has 'inhibition points.' Each player describes what 'manoeuvre' they're going to attempt ('I want to use the "Witty Repartee" manoeuvre this turn!'), and that determines what they roll ('Ok, the "Witty Repartee" manoeuvre requires a Charisma + Subterfuge roll'). The other player then tries to resist that manoeuvre ('I roll my Wits + Streetwise to resist the effects of his clever banter'), and if unsuccessful, loses some of the points ('I failed my roll. I lose three points of Inhibition. I've only got two points left! Another amusing pick-up line like that, and I'll be making love to his character! I better try to blow him off quickly before I lose my resolve! I'll try a "Devastating Insult" manoeuvre on him to get him to leave me alone.') Then the other player can try to exhaust the first player's points ('I got five successes on the "Devastating Insult."' 'I roll my Willpower to resist the effects of that insult. I only got two successes, so I lose three Patience Points. I still have seven points left, so I should be good to keep going. I will try again, this time using the "Flattery" manoeuvre, and hope it does more than two points...')

The more I think about this system, the more I want to see it happen. What do you think, loyal readers? How would you like to see a system with social or mental tasks treated with the same level of scrutiny and exactitude as most combat systems? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and remember to check back next week! Until then,

Game on!

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