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General Forge Forums => First Thoughts => Topic started by: big dummy on November 11, 2008, 12:31:40 PM

Title: Martial Pool, a new (?) combat mechanic
Post by: big dummy on November 11, 2008, 12:31:40 PM
Ok hopefully this will be ok to talk about here, I'm not going to mention the name of my book, just discuss one of the principle mechanics.

I have probably only even seen, let alone really looked at or tested, probably 1% of the thousands of independent RPGs and OGL rule variants which have come out in the last ten or twenty years, (and I'm a fairly serious gamer) so I really don’t know if this is new or not, but I thought it might spark an interesting discussion (and maybe I’ll find out if anyone else has done this).

The Martial Pool is a system we have been using in our house rules for about four years now, it’s a new way of rolling combat dice (which we developed for OGL) which is kind of a fusion of a dice pool with the way you use the twenty sided die in OGL and some other games.  It works like this: Each person gets a ‘pool’ of up to four twenty sided dice, they can roll each die for individual attacks or what we call “active” defense, or they can combine two or more dice together for the same roll and only count the highest number.

We see this as a way to avoid the dreaded ‘flat curve’, as a sort of a sweet spot between the way a dice pool works and the twenty sided dice. You get the speed and reduced arithmetic of the former with the wide probability range of the latter, without being limited by target numbers or struggling with the flat curve.

How we got there
A lot of the people I play with are martial artists. We were running a gritty, low-magic homebrew OGL campaign like probably ten thousand other groups aroun the country.  Ours had an emphasis on martial arts and the tactics of fighting which also probably isn't that unusualy.

Being martial artists the various flaws and overall dullness of the combat system used to annoy us (a long with a lot of other things) whenever we were forced to notice it which wasn't all that often, but it kind of mounted until I felt the dangeorus urge to try to tinker.

The first real tinkering we did with the standard OGL system was making up our own neat little feats based on armed combat techniques from medieval fighting manuals we were familiar with. We were already using a defense roll with damage reduction like in D20 modern or Conan RPG, and we already had weapons rated for attack and defense, and had come up with some mechanics for bypassing armor. We felt that our combat system was enhanced over the standard system, but the back and forth still seemed a little too routine and mechanical especially in longer fights, and people kept getting really frustrated with the whole ‘flat curve’ thing with the 20 sided dice. I remember one of our players had just bought a new set of rather nice dice, he rolled a “1” on an important attack, and got so aggravated he threw the whole set of dice out the window and into the bushes in my back yard.

From our group of a bunch of gun nuts and sword nuts, we had different suggestions on how we could ‘take it to the next level’ with our combat system. We talked about Gurps, The Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, older games like Runequest and Rolemaster, the Grim and Gritty damage model, all sorts of other systems. We decided that while we were more interested in the mechanics of a fight, we really didn't want to deal with a complex damage model in our game. I personally felt tracking damage was simply too much accounting work, and frankly, since a lot of us were into Martial Arts and sparring, we were more interested in who could cut the other guy first than rates of arterial bleeding or lung deflation. (maybe because in sparring, you never get to that part)

We looked at the dice pool mechanic from shadowrun, and tried out a few sessions of that game. We really liked how the dice pool seemed to be pretty fast and cut down on the headache of arithmetic somewhat. But we felt the range of probability from a six-sider or a ten-sider was too narrow, and changing the dice would be too much of a departure from OGL to deal with all the other hassles (and we couldn't really agree on another alternative system we all liked). So we thought about a dice pool of twenty sided dice, but the dice pool itself was just too many dice to mess with, it quickly starts to get out of hand. Who wants to carry that many dice? And I didn’t really like playing with target numbers either once I started looking at how to make the stats work etc.

How it works
So we came up with this ‘new’ idea. Why not keep the basic OGL mechanic of how the twenty sided die works, but only let the players roll two or more dice and take the best number? The idea occurred to us when we were rolling some characters, using that standard character generation method of rolling 4d6 and dropping the lowest die. Why not roll two or three d20s and drop your crappiest roll?  Why not drop all the low rolls and just keep the highest one?

So we started thinking of how to implement this. I liked the idea of letting the player decide how to manage some of their dice for offense and some for defense, like in the Riddle of Steel (which I did some work for a few years ago) and some other games. But that meant it would be quite likely that a player might run out of defensive dice. So we came up with the idea of Passive Defense.

Passive Defense is like the armor class, except armor isn’t part of it. We give everybody a defense rating based on Base Attack Bonus (which is basically +1 to hit per level), Dex bonus and the defensive value of their weapon. So Passive Defense is your defense rating plus 8.  Active Defense is defense rating plus your die roll. So effectively it’s a slightly higher average, plus to make this even more interesting, we decided that a natural 20 rolled on defense or a natural 1 rolled in an attack automatically generates a counterattack. A tie when the defender meant you hit his weapon (if he had one) or shield, which leads to weapons being broken right and left. (Makes solid iron maces more valuable than axes in certain respects).

This also fit well for the much loathed OGL concept of Attacks of Opportunity. Instead of basic AoO on your Dex bonus, it’s based on your Martial Pool. If you have dice left, you can make an AoO, if you don’t you can’t. No need to wory about special rules based on Dex bonuses or anything, or count how many AoO you (or your opponent) did.  This gives you something else interesting to think about – do you use all your dice in attacks on that group of wolves or save some to keep one from rushing in to bowl you over? A feint could be modified so that it sucks away one of your Martial Pool points, so you could for example, feint at somebody, and if they fell for it, rush in to grapple range.

In fact we found this basic mechanic worked really well with all of our special “martial’ feats we had come up with. We were able to take away a lot of the arithmetic, +4 bonus to this or -4 to that, and play with the martial pool instead. It lent itself very well to all kinds of special circumstances which could give you a ‘free dice’, or an extra die for your pool – thus increasing your odds for a good die roll.

Bottom line, we have had a ball with this. It has made combat much more interesting for us and never routine. Some of the fighter characters occasionally fight duels over matters of honor now – to the first blood. Our wizards or the one guy who is holding off the enemy horde use all their dice for active defense. It lends itself to all kinds of drama. The desperate attempt to stab that soft spot in the dragons scales can be tried with a four dice attack.

To keep this managable, we made a rule on the die, fighters get 1 die in their pool per BAB, but it maxes out at four dice. This way the lower level mooks still only get their one die.

If you had a system which was even more combat oriented than ours, you could increase the ‘Martial Pool’ to a much higher number. We wanted to keep it fast.

Who might like it
Not everybody would like this. If you are in a campaign where you are slaughtering orcs by the dozen, this could get a little tedious. I’m not sure how well it would work for a higher level campaign either, I think all of our testing was mostly done with mid level characters. It worked really well for us in our game, and beta testers of the new combat rules manual I wrote seemed to like it a lot, but they were mostly HEMA, escrima or Iaido people I knew through martial arts forums. I think quite a few people might also have fun with this idea, but definitely not everybody. A lot of people really aren’t interested in the mechanics of combat and many folks who play RPGs are really turned off by anything resembling realism. I think this is suitable for those few games where there is a heavy emphasis on tactics or realism or real cinematic combat as it seems to enhance drama somewhat.

I think this is a natural for Samurai based games, historically based games set in the middle ages or renaissance, or pirate / three musketeers type games. I also think certain gritty types of horror genre games like a lot of your Call of Cthulhu (Cthulhu Dark Ages?) type games might be suitable, where a fight is a fairly rare and deadly thing. It might be a good fit for high action zombie settings? I haven’t played many sci fi type settings in a long, long time but I think it could be really cool for a setting like the Matrix. It would probably be a lot of fun for a Star Wars setting. It might be good for some superheroes settings, I'm not sure.

And basically any games with an emphasis on martial arts or cinematic combat.

Title: Re: Martial Pool, a new (?) combat mechanic
Post by: soundmasterj on November 11, 2008, 01:01:53 PM
(and maybe I’ll find out if anyone else has done this).
Roll many, keep highest is found in, for example, Sorcerer and Inspectres. Here, pool size varies (in Inspectres, generally around 4 or something). Some RPGs also restrict their pool; like, you always roll 4d20 or 4d12, trying to roll under. One variation is roll (attribute)dX against TN (Skillrating); again, roll many, use highest. Shadowrun (1, 2, 3) had a combined pool system: roll (skill)d6 against target number; freely assign "combat pool" dice (refreshing once per round) amongst attacking, defending, dodging, soaking up damage etc.
The german RPG DSA had (in earlier editions) a talent check mechanic where you rolled against 3 attributes (1d20 each) where skill rating were freely distributed bonus points (so you roll a 16 against your 13 strength, spend 3 skill points and hope you don´t need any more for your roll against charisma). This system is terrible.

Here: is a discussion of another try at "fixing D&D" where roll many (here, exactly 2 or 3), keep highest is used. You will find the propability curves of such a system in that thread.

I never played D&D so I didn´t understand how your example works, but in general, I like the statistics of roll many, keep highest. Also, rolling a few d20 looks nice.

Title: Re: Martial Pool, a new (?) combat mechanic
Post by: big dummy on November 11, 2008, 01:22:18 PM
Thanks for posting that.

yeah I wanted to avoid target numbers,I think they are especially tedius with large dice.  For me anyway I went to public school so my simple arithmetic is painfully slow. 

Roll many keep one has worked out really well for us so far, it's interesting to see that some other people have tried similar things I can't say I'm surprised.  I'm actually surprised it hasn't caught on more widely, is it considered a 'broken' mechanic?

My goal wasn't so much to fix DnD incidentally (wasn't sure if i could use that word here) so much as to just present another different way to play it, partly as a path to other independent games (burning wheel or tros probably the most likely path from this thing)  The current, accelerating trend in DnD seems to be to force everybody to play exactly the same way which I really don't get.  I wish there was a smoother connection between the indy games and people just discovering DnD, and more acceptable to tinker with that basic design as well as inventing brand new ones.

Thanks for the link to the stats page, we have an ongoing argument as to whether a 1 die per attack strategy can beat a "Roll many keep one" strategy (because in our system you can do both as you please.)  In practice rolling the multiple dice really seems to me to work better, partly because of the rule that rolling a 1 is an automatic fumble and rolling a 20 is an automatic critical hit (unless the other guy rolled a 20 too)  If you roll multiple dice you seem to almost never end up with both 1s but you get 20's much more often.

But to be honest, I read that stats thread three times now and I couldn't understand it, let alone extrapolate to using 20 sided dice with our particular rules.  Maybe the other guy from my gaming group can grasp it better than me.


Title: Re: Martial Pool, a new (?) combat mechanic
Post by: soundmasterj on November 11, 2008, 02:46:54 PM
Well, this sites´ founder uses roll many, keep highest (albeit in opposed rolls) for his most-known system, so I wouldn´t think they are considered "broken" here.

I don´t get how you are avoiding target numbers? What are the dice rolled against?

The chances of rolling a 1 with d20 roll many, keep highest are indeed astronomically small... 1/200 for 2 d20, I think.

Title: Re: Martial Pool, a new (?) combat mechanic
Post by: chance.thirteen on November 11, 2008, 03:05:17 PM
Could I ask for a concise version of the actual system used with some examples if there are more guidelines than hard core rules?

Title: Re: Martial Pool, a new (?) combat mechanic
Post by: big dummy on November 11, 2008, 04:07:46 PM
Could I ask for a concise version of the actual system used with some examples if there are more guidelines than hard core rules?

Not sure if I can post about it directly here yet for certain, after I get the ok from the moderator I'll post some stuff here if you like. 


Title: Re: Martial Pool, a new (?) combat mechanic
Post by: big dummy on November 12, 2008, 11:33:14 AM
still waiting on a moderator to clear that up ... this site doesn't seem as active as it once was, have all the ideas in independent games already been perfected?

Title: Re: Martial Pool, a new (?) combat mechanic
Post by: big dummy on November 14, 2008, 09:16:48 AM
Ok I got the ok from Ron so...


The system is called "Codex Martialis" it's a combat system based on Historial European Martial Arts.

Here is our one and only review so far (from onebookshelf):

The aim of this book is to bring the flavour of real-world fighting - especially that of master swordsmen of ages gone by - to your fantasy combat. The aim is not so much realism, particularly as most attempts to do that serve merely to increase the complexity of game combat without really making it more enjoyable, but to create the flavour of the various styles and schools of thought available to those who regard swordfighting as an artform, not just a means of killing enemies. To do this, both strategy and tactics are explored, and characters given a wide range of options to use over and above the "Swing sword, roll d20, do damage" model of game combat.

The game mechanics used to accomplish this are quite straightforward, and presented in a modular manner, so that you can pick the ones you want and discard the rest - although there is a warning that if game balance is important to your group, using this system in its entirety is the best way to guarantee it. The core of the mechanic is a die pool which can be expended in various ways over the course of a round of combat, allowing a wide range of options to each character. To add to this, a range of martial feats are available to give you an even wider selection of actions. Weapons and armour are also discussed, to enable them to be utilised fully with this system.

The things you can do in a fight range from leaping into the fray to choosing to hang back and wait for opportunity to present itself. You can choose to target the weak points in a foe's armour or hack away trying to destroy his armour or weapon before closing in for the kill. Dramatic lunges and bewildering flurries of blows become not only possible but it's straightforward to judge the sucess of the action as well.

Overall, it is a well-considered variant combat system, well-rooted in real-world fighting skills - which are both quoted in the text and referenced for those who'd like to learn more. It has the potential to bring fresh enjoyment to fighting for those players who'd really rather role-play than just roll dice and consult tables when a brawl breaks out.

Rating:  [4 of 5 Stars!]

There is a sample combat here: