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Author Topic: Re: Mike's Standard Rant #3  (Read 2211 times)
Person
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Posts: 11


« on: August 26, 2004, 07:35:47 PM »

Recently a friend (hi Albert!) recommended that I read Mike's [Holmes] Standard Rants, which I did. Overall I found them very insightful, but I found myself somewhat bothered by http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=2024&highlight=standard+rant">#3: Combat Systems. At first I thought it might be guilt over having designed special combat rules for a game that's not "about combat," but the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that some games that are not combat-oriented can still benefit from combat rules.

This is not because of combat as combat, but because of certain traits combat as a general activity possesses. Specifically, at least in the sort of system I'm working on (mostly rules-light, no setting/color-dominated rules-focus (e.g. parapalegic photographers), firmly Sim, resolution on the individual-action scale), combat rules are useful because combat is
    * life-or-death
    * physically-based
    * many-staged
    * decision-critical
    * swingy[/list:u]
    These issues are touched on near the start of the http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=3455&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=15">second page of this thread, but seemed to die down pretty quickly.
    I'll try to clarify what I mean by some of these terms below.

    * Many-staged: In the type of system described above, where each individual 'action' requires a seperate resolution, combat is typically going to involve several resolutions. Admittedly, 'action' is by no means a hard-and-fast division, but I'll get back to that.

    * Decision-critical: Although there can be a strong random element within the resolution of individual actions, the choice of action has definite and significant consequences on the outcome of the combat.

    * Swingy: At least for an individual, success can quickly turn into failure, or vice-versa.

    Off the top of my head, the only situations that fit this particular bill in a totally mundane, modern-day setting are combat and dangerous driving. I doubt I'm helping my case with this statement, but it strikes me that these are the only mundane task-resolution systems with special rules in Unknown Armies (excluding therapy, which is not heavy on player input.) That could be telling, or it could be a coincidence. If anyone else can think of some other activity that fits this bill, please post.

    I'm not claiming that a system like the one above needs a combat system; I am claiming that it can serve as added value even without a combat-focused game or equally detailed mechanics for every taskset.

    Comments, criticisms, and bricks appreciated.
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Bill Cook
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Posts: 501


« Reply #1 on: August 26, 2004, 08:45:58 PM »

Sure. If combat is part of play, that type of game experience can benefit from some treatment by the system. So long as such treatment supports the design goals and is not obligatory.

What I'd like to see are subsystems (going beyond the base resolution mechanic) that support a more complex experience of other categories of in-game activity. e.g. Investment, management, politics, economics. Also, disease, contests of resource allocation (i.e. material, position, station). Imagine those subs. They would provide a more meaningful counterpoint to the standards of combat and magic.

I have a vision: in the same way that an ARMA guy leveraged his specialized knowledge to produce TROS, one day, an economics professor or some such will publish a highly representational, non-standard sub, and we'll all have so much damn fun playing with it.
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DevP
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« Reply #2 on: August 26, 2004, 09:44:35 PM »

I think this is all reasonable. I especially notice:
Quote from: Person
* life-or-death

Just like players min-max their characters to ensure they have a chance in successful gameplay, they want a comprehensive system to ensure a fair shake at keeping their stakes (their character, and their time) in the game.

I would suggest that, if the game focus would otherwise not focus on combat, and simplified combat would put life/death improperly at risk, then what the game is really begging for is to take death just off the table. Death can still happen, but modify the rules to ensure it's tied to the actual focus on the game. (For example, I think you could have a game of violent supernatural horror with risk of mortality without deeper combat rules, except the understanding that death is not any more on the line in combat than in any other conflict resolution.)

But again, not of this would invalidate what you're saying, that the combat system can add value. The counterexample is a dynamic where the potential for combat death, without plot/thematic immunity, has a desirable effect on the players (horror, paranoia, etc.), and you still need a way to feel that player death does not come "unfairly".
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ADGBoss
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« Reply #3 on: August 27, 2004, 04:01:20 AM »

Person

I think Mike's point (and he can articulate it much more then I can) is that why do you need special rules for combat in a system where it is not the focus and or not likely to occur.  I would even go as far to say that why do you need special rules for combat even in a combat heavy game but that is just my opinion.  Combat Heavy being different then Combat Oriented.  Combat heavy would or could be a game about FBI agents. Combat oriented would be Cyberpunk, Shadowrun etc..

If ALL actions use the same resolution system then the system is cleaner and easier to understand.  Take for example AD&D 1st & 2nd Editions. You rolled LOW for Saves, HIGH for attacks etc etc... the system was whacked even if you did understand Thac0.

Many games have what amounts to an entirely different system for combat then they do for everything else.  and I believe that is what Rant #3 is all about.

As for your points, well except maybe for Life or Death, they could be applied to almost anything: rock climbing, business ventures, etc...


just my 2 lunars on it...

Sean
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HMT
Member

Posts: 66


« Reply #4 on: August 27, 2004, 04:21:29 AM »

Quote from: ADGBoss
... As for your points, well except maybe for Life or Death, they could be applied to almost anything: rock climbing, business ventures, etc ...


I agree. All that's required is the pressure of a deadline. ( I couldn't resist throwing in the word "deadline" in this context.)
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Person
Member

Posts: 11


« Reply #5 on: August 27, 2004, 05:27:47 AM »

Quote from: ADGBoss
I think Mike's point (and he can articulate it much more then I can) is that why do you need special rules for combat in a system where it is not the focus and or not likely to occur.


I agree that this is his point; I am trying to offer reasons why those special rules can comprise (often significant) added value.

Quote from: ADGBoss
If ALL actions use the same resolution system then the system is cleaner and easier to understand.  Take for example AD&D 1st & 2nd Editions. You rolled LOW for Saves, HIGH for attacks etc etc... the system was whacked even if you did understand Thac0.

Many games have what amounts to an entirely different system for combat then they do for everything else.  and I believe that is what Rant #3 is all about.


Perhaps I misread, but he seemed to be against any rules relating to combat in a non "combat-focused" game. I agree that having wildly disparate resolution systems is a bad thing, but it certainly seems (at least to me) that I can have combat-specific rules that don't rely on changing the resolution system.

To give a simple example, let's say that the normal resolution mechanic is for me to roll 1d20 + skill and subtract 10, positive numbers being increasingly good successes and negative ones increasingly bad failures. If the system says that when I'm trying to hurt someone, I roll 1d20+skill and subtract 10, then reduce the defender's health stat by the result (if positive), there seem to be rules dealing with combat that aren't really relying on a different resolution system.


Quote from: ADGBoss
As for your points, well except maybe for Life or Death, they could be applied to almost anything: rock climbing, business ventures, etc...


Indeed: I think that a situation/task needs to have all of these properties to deserve any special treatment, at least at this level of detail.

- Peter
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timfire
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« Reply #6 on: August 27, 2004, 08:07:18 AM »

Quote from: Person
... but the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that some games that are not combat-oriented can still benefit from combat rules.

<snip>

I'm not claiming that a system like the one above needs a combat system; I am claiming that it can serve as added value even without a combat-focused game or equally detailed mechanics for every taskset.

It needs to be remembered that Mike was largely ranting against a common assumption that ALL games need to a combat system, when many games woulds benefit form a universal resolution system. I don't believe Mike or anyone else here would try to discourage someone who had a specific reason for including a combat sub-system. TROS is a common example of a game that has a conscious purpose for a combat system.
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--Timothy Walters Kleinert
neelk
Member

Posts: 126


« Reply #7 on: August 27, 2004, 08:31:02 AM »

Quote from: bcook1971

I have a vision: in the same way that an ARMA guy leveraged his specialized knowledge to produce TROS, one day, an economics professor or some such will publish a highly representational, non-standard sub, and we'll all have so much damn fun playing with it.


I'm not an economics professor, though I worked in finance for a few years. Most economic models aren't particularly well suited to simulation-style games, because economists typically don't bother modelling the dynamics of a situation. Typically, the way an economic model works is by specifying the model of the situation, and then solving the equations to figure out what the state would look like assuming everyone did the best thing for themselves. The path from the beginning to the equilibrium is generally not modelled -- that's typically handled qualitatively, by comparing the equilibrium model to what's observed in the real world, to predict how things will change.

What economics is really awesome for, though, is worldbuilding. The economic way of thinking about social and cultural institutions is ideal for gaming. Economic analyses of institutions are great for roleplaying, because they are a) typically quite simple, and b) grounded in individual decision-making. These two properties are just what you need to be able to do the what-if? reasoning that arises when you have player characters doing unanticipated things.

For example, Laurence Iannaccone's work on the economics of religion is incredibly cool, and has rather fundamentally altered my perceptions of religious activity.
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Neel Krishnaswami
Person
Member

Posts: 11


« Reply #8 on: August 27, 2004, 08:49:19 AM »

Quote from: timfire
Quote from: Person
... but the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that some games that are not combat-oriented can still benefit from combat rules.

<snip>

I'm not claiming that a system like the one above needs a combat system; I am claiming that it can serve as added value even without a combat-focused game or equally detailed mechanics for every taskset.

It needs to be remembered that Mike was largely ranting against a common assumption that ALL games need to a combat system, when many games woulds benefit form a universal resolution system. I don't believe Mike or anyone else here would try to discourage someone who had a specific reason for including a combat sub-system. TROS is a common example of a game that has a conscious purpose for a combat system.


At the same time, I would say that the rant is discouraging including combat systems in games that
A) Are not "about" combat in some sense, and
B) Rarely expect to see combat.

My point is that a game where neither A nor B hold can still benefit from treating combat as a special case, with corresponding rules. I'd like to think that my reasons as outlined above do qualify as a "conscious purpose," but a it seems like a purpose that lies outside of the consideration of the rant as written and commented upon.
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Vaxalon
Member

Posts: 1619


« Reply #9 on: August 27, 2004, 09:37:16 AM »

Quote from: bcook1971
I have a vision: in the same way that an ARMA guy leveraged his specialized knowledge to produce TROS, one day, an economics professor or some such will publish a highly representational, non-standard sub, and we'll all have so much damn fun playing with it.


There are such systems.

"Empire" is a D20 subsystem for politics.

"Far Trader" is a GURPS Traveller subsystem for economics (specifically, interstellar small-starship economics).

I find Empire very engaging, and I really can't wait to give it a real tryout in play.

I find Far Trader a hugely boring exercise in accounting.

The difference is that Empire accomplishes the job with a reasonable level of versimilitude without creating a huge amount of DM overhead, whereas Far Trader goes for realism and ends up creating a MOUNTAIN of DM overhead.
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"In our game the other night, Joshua's character came in as an improvised thing, but he was crap so he only contributed a d4!"
                                     --Vincent Baker
Marco
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« Reply #10 on: August 27, 2004, 10:04:05 AM »

I have noted that elements of games that the makers think will be *exciting* have more detailed systems. Even if the game is RISUS (which can be detailed or one-roll, depending on the player's preferences for any given action) the time you use the multi-role resolution will be where things are getting exciting or tense (IMO/IME).

So a game that wasn't "about" combat (which, IMO, is very, very few traditional RPG's--although I see Call of Cthulhu cited sometimes, and I think that's an interesting special case) and had "rare" combats could, IMO, still, in fact, benefit from a combat sub-system or other focus.

Why? Because when it does occur it'll be *exciting.*

Now, clearly there are some other factors--if combat is exciting then, won't it be done more often? Yes, I'd think so--so a game that isn't "about" combat that includes an exciting combat system may well wind up with more combat than the author intended.

But I don't think this is about subliminal page-count issues or sublte messages sent to the reader by chapter headings. If you put a really hideous or deadly car-chase system in a game (say, one that often results in dead, innocent, pedestrians) then I'd be less likely to use it than I would in a game that had no car-chase system.

It'd have to be an active negative though--because car-chases are exciting (I've run car chases in systems that had no support for them and they were exciting with the house rules we came up with).

So: yes, I agree. I also agree with Mike (although I think communicating things through a rant often leads to arguments over some common sense stuff). If you have either asthetic reasons not to want combat modeled separately, or you simply don't see the major source of excitment in the game coming from combat (as a game that adhered to the literary structure of Lovecraft might) then, no, you wouldn't need much focus there.

But, even in the latter case, I'm not sure it'd hurt--after all--those games with no car-chase rules didn't give me any help running the car-chase and they didn't stop me from doing it either. All a good mechanic woulda done is benefited me there.

-Marco
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timfire
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« Reply #11 on: August 27, 2004, 11:45:44 AM »

Quote from: Person
At the same time, I would say that the rant is discouraging including combat systems in games that
A) Are not "about" combat in some sense, and
B) Rarely expect to see combat.

Behind Mike's thinking is also a design principle. A common idea here at the Forge is that whenever you write down a rule, you bring attention to that situation. In other words, if you write rules for combat, you will bring attention to combat. It's kinda a sub-conscious thing.

'System Does Matter' as they say.

The logic follows that by writing rules for combat, the game will naturally tend to revolve around combat more than it would without combat rules, since the combat rules will stick in the back of the player's minds.

This is something the designer needs to be aware of. Whether or not this will disturbed the designers intended style of play is something that probably cannot be answered except through playtesting.
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #12 on: August 27, 2004, 09:29:41 PM »

Quote from: Peter Person
...I would say that the rant is discouraging including combat systems in games that
A) Are not "about" combat in some sense, and
B) Rarely expect to see combat.

My point is that a game where neither A nor B hold can still benefit from treating combat as a special case, with corresponding rules. I'd like to think that my reasons as outlined above do qualify as a "conscious purpose," but a it seems like a purpose that lies outside of the consideration of the rant as written and commented upon.

Yes, but--gee, can't that be said about just about anything? Can't a game benefit from treating everything as a special case? After all, everything is a special case.

Multiverser has an entire chapter on combat. It has a lot of detailed rules about how to fit just about anything into combat. Yet it's not a game focused on combat. Why not?
    [*]The combat system uses the core resolution mechanic in the game; in fact, the introduction to the combat system says in essence, this is done in large part to show you how to use the core mechanic of the game to resolve anything; combat is the example because it's fairly common and has a lot of wrinkles.[*]Technology also has it's own chapter, about twice as long as Combat, with quite a few rules that apply to wrinkles in the technology area. Within it there are extensive discussions of electronics, computers, artificial intelligence, mind/machine interface, genetic engineering, interstellar travel, and time travel (which also has a separate appendix).[*]Magic has its own chapter, and again includes extensive description of how to use the core resolution system in relation to magic skills.[*]Overall, the game has a lot of detail about everything; thus having a lot of detail about combat doesn't make combat stand out as in some way important.[/list:u]
    Mike would be the last person to say that you never need a combat system in a game, I think. He's an old wargamer from way back, and knows the value and the fun of a well-designed tactical system. What he would say, and probably be the first to say, is don't write a combat system for your game if you don't need it. Don't assume that because it's a role playing game you need a combat system. If you were writing "House" (yes, the childhood make believe game), or you got the license to create a role playing game for Mr. Rogers' Land of Make Believe, would you need a section on combat rounds, sword damage, ranged weapon advantages, and defensive maneuvers? You might think you did, because it's now a role playing game, and what would you do if a fight broke out?

    The answer to that question might well be, "You would use the ordinary resolution mechanic to determine who won the fight and what happened to the loser, and that would be the end of it."

    The very context of your object, viz.,
    Quote
    combat is

          * life-or-death
          * physically-based
          * many-staged
          * decision-critical
          * swingy
    says that you're caught in the very problem he's advising against. We're playing House, and we have an argument. Do we need to have an extensive tactical system in place to resolve the argument? Even if we're playing House in a highly dysfunctional family, is it really necessary for "I stab him with the steak knife" to involve "roll for initiative; roll to see whether you hit; roll for damage" and so much more? Why couldn't it just be, "roll the dice--that's a moderate success, you've badly gashed his arm, how do you both react to that?" You have assumed that combat will be life-and-death (uncounted games have demonstrated that it need not be, of which Sorcerer is a gem), many-staged (Alyria leaps to mind on this count, where all conflicts are resolved by a single roll), decision critical (which assumes a tactical structure to the fight instead of a simple resolution of outcome), and swingy (which again assumes extended tactical structure). You're thinking within the framework of "when we fight, we have to focus on fighting, because that's how these things are done". It's exactly that kind of thinking that Mike's rant is attacking. You can design a game in which the focus is never on fighting, and when you fight you resolve the outcome quickly and get on with the stuff that the game is really about.

    Now, if you want the focus to be on tactics and the back-and-forth of combat when the fight happens, that's fine--design for it. But recognize that in making that kind of decision, you are inherently deciding that when people fight, it's going to be an important part of the game and will take an inordinate amount of time and attention. You are making combat more important by giving it special treatment.

    To look at your example:
    Quote
    To give a simple example, let's say that the normal resolution mechanic is for me to roll 1d20 + skill and subtract 10, positive numbers being increasingly good successes and negative ones increasingly bad failures. If the system says that when I'm trying to hurt someone, I roll 1d20+skill and subtract 10, then reduce the defender's health stat by the result (if positive), there seem to be rules dealing with combat that aren't really relying on a different resolution system.
    This system inherently says that when we're going to fight
      [*]it's going to require more than one application of the core mechanic to resolve the outcome (because presumably we wouldn't bother to do the subtraction from the health stat unless it were reasonably likely that the fight would continue)[*]it's probably to the death, or at least likely to end that way (since presumably we're gradually killing each other, and zero health means dead).[/list:u]Why couldn't you have the resolution system be
      Quote
      The normal resolution mechanic is for me to roll 1d20 + skill and subtract 10, positive numbers being increasingly good successes and negative ones increasingly bad failures. The system says that when I'm trying to hurt someone, I roll 1d20+skill and subtract 10, and if the result is positive the defender is either intimidated or incapacitated, his choice, such that the fight is over and I won, while if it is negative, I am disadvantaged in whatever action I choose to make next.
      That doesn't eliminate the back and forth entirely, but it does keep the core mechanic intact (did I succeed or fail at winning the combat, rather than did I succeed or fail at landing an attack).

      The other issue here is, assuming that is a special rule concerning combat, does it thereby distinguish combat as special? That is, I can see a rule that says this is how you use the core mechanic in relation to combat, but then a long list of rules that provide the essentials for many other skills--
        [*]If I'm trying to scale a wall, the positive result indicates my velocity, and a negative result indicates the height from which I fall.[*]If I'm driving, a result below negative five indicates an accident, and these modifiers for road conditions also apply (listed).[*]If I'm haggling, a positive die roll indicates the percent reduction in price I get, while a negative roll indicates that the seller is offended and raises the price of this or other items by that percentage.[/list:u]And so on.

        You see, having a "special rule" or two for combat is only really "a combat system" if it involves having more rules for it than for anything else in your game, and they are more distinct from how everything else is done than those other things are from each other. If it's just a matter of everything having a few tweaks to make it work better, combat included, then that's not really singling out combat for special attention.

        I hope this helps.

        --M. J. Young
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        Person
        Member

        Posts: 11


        « Reply #13 on: August 27, 2004, 10:19:00 PM »

        I'm beginning to see that I was not nearly clear enough in my original post. I apologize if I've given the impression that I think all systems need special combat rules, or that Mike thinks combat rules should never be used. I don't think all systems need special combat rules, or can even benefit from them, and I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on what Mike is saying in #3.

        In addition, I'm speaking of this problem in the context of a specific type of system: namely, "mostly rules-light, no setting/color-dominated rules-focus (e.g. parapalegic photographers), firmly Sim, resolution on the individual-action scale".

        The arguments I have made apply to systems of this type, not to anything terribly far afield from it, though some aspects of the system could probably be changed without altering the argument significantly. I hope this clears things up somewhat: combat systems certainly aren't required in any of the systems M.J. describes, but they're not the sort of system I'm talking about. In retrospect, this specification was far too hidden.

        Also, just to say it again, I'm not even saying that a combat system is required for the abovementioned system. I'm just claiming that it's significant added value, even if few other situations get similar rules.

        Edit: removed stray tag
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