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Mike's Standard Rant #3: Combat Systems

Started by Mike Holmes, April 30, 2002, 03:12:25 PM

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Mike Holmes

I post this here because I wanted to link to it from another discussion:

I didn't want to derail that thread. Besides, I feel like bomb throwing today, and this probably will suit.

Role-Playing games (and this refers to all modes, not just one or two) do not need combat systems. I'll restate that again so that it might sink in a little deeper. RPGs do not need any special rules for combat, whatsoever. None. Nada.

This is not to say that I think that there is no place for combat rules in RPGs. Some games may need them, even beg for them. But they are a legacy of the wargaming heritage of RPGs. Their inclusion is almost always an assumption, and an unneccesary one. What such rules do say to a player is that the game has some special slant towards combat. Even if the effect is slight because there are few special rules.

The idea that such need to be included is so pervasive, that very few RPGs are without them. It's a disease in our design stream. It should never, ever be an assumption.

There will still be some out there for whom this will not be sinking in. It's a hard notion to shake, and it took me years to break free of the Matrix. But I tell you that if you stand and look at it objectively for a moment, you will suddenly have an epiphany on this subject, and you too will be free.

Consider my standard example. Taking a look at the GURPS skill list, I pull off a typical skill, Photography. Lets say that, for argument's sake, I decide to make a game about photographers. Hmm. Wheelchair bound parapelegic photographers. All about exploring what it would be like to lead that life, very Sim. The traditionalist, affected by the Matrix, would put in a combat system. Because, "What if they throw their camera." or some such nonsense. Well, certainly, physical conflict can be, and should be representable in a simulation. But does it require any special rules? I'm betting there will be a resolution system, and I bet that if you use it to resolve a physical conflict that it would work. Just like it would work for taking a picture.

Player: I am snapping a photo of that tree. I rolled a fifteen.
GM: good roll, that will be an award winner for sure.

Player: I am flinging my camera at that tree. I rolled a fifteen.
GM: you hit the tree square, but being a pretty big oak, all you manage to do is break your camera pretty good.


Player: I am flinging my camera at Bob, because he's beig an ass. I rolled a fifteen.
GM: Good roll, the camera hits Bob square inthe forehaead and he stumbles back to the ground with a little blood trickling down his face.

Wow, combat resolution without any special combat rules.

Note that what I really should have in this game is special rules for photography. That's my stated goal for the game, right, to simulate that? I should have framing techniques, lighting rules. Lists of cameras, lenses, stands, diferent film, and developing equipment. Different skills for Black and White, and Color. Special rules for developing, and maybe even stuff for presentation. And a ton of stuff I don't know to include yet, as I know next to nothing about photography. And all this says nothing about the wheelchair portion of the game, which I know even less about.

The point is that all Simulations focus in on particular details more than others. What details you choose to enable through the system automatically become part of the focus of the game. If you don't want combat to be the focus of a game, do not include special rules for it. Especially if you don't include special rules about anything else.

>end rant<
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J B Bell

Preach it, brother!

"Have mechanics that focus on what the game is about. Then gloss the rest." --Mike Holmes

joshua neff

Mike, I completely & totally agree with you. I'm not really sure there's even a point to posting, except to say, "Right on!"

But while I'm here, I'll rant & grumble a bit myself. After Jesse's ringing deconstruction of the Storyteller system (right here, folks:, I started thinking some more about Storyteller & found a few more things that make me wonder "Why did they make their so-called Storyteller system like this?"

--There are two separate skills for Brawling & Martial Arts. Why? They both function the same mechanically (roll Dex+Brawl or Dex+Martial Arts to hit). Why not just have one fighting skill & let the Player decide if the character knows martial arts or not?

--For a game about character development & storytelling, there are at least 5 different skills relating to fighting (Brawl, Martial Arts, Melee, Firearms, & Dodge) but only one for art (Artistic Expression). Now, I know what the difference is between studying painting & studying sculpture (& studying fiber arts). So, tell me, what is the game telling you it's focusing on? (I mean really telling you, not with it's frou-frou "story comes before anything" comments, but with the cold, hard mechanics.)

And here endeth my rant.

"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes

Ron Edwards

Hi folks,

Let's take a comparative look at some games out there. I apologize in advance for referencing some that aren't publicly available.

The Pool, Hero Wars, Alyria, Scattershot (I think), InSpectres
None of these games offer combat systems that differ from the essential conflict-resolution system. In other words, one handles scathing repartee, sword-duels, the clashing of whole armies, long-term intrigue, and composing a haiku in precisely the same way, in game terms.

Sorcerer, Dust Devils
These games' combat systems have distinctive features, most particularly the parcelling up of damage penalties, but upon inspection they represent nuanced or close-focus applications of the basic resolution system's Currency. Arguably, one could take Sorcerer's physical-combat system and apply it just as easily to a conflict based on dialogue or demon interactions; the rules even go over the Currency principle for this express purpose.

Violence Future, The Riddle of Steel, Swashbuckler
These games do have distinctive combat systems with their own sequences and standards of resolution. In each case, the role of violence and physical conflict in the game feeds directly into thematic issues and is intimately related with the metagame mechanics. I would say that they represent "system distinction for a reason."

Vampire, many others
I can't add much to the comments made above and in Jesse's (obviously instant classic) post in the other thread.

So, have I laid out the possibilities? Clearly, we could do the same for magic or mutant powers or any similar stuff.


Mike Holmes

Quote from: joshua neffMike, I completely & totally agree with you. I'm not really sure there's even a point to posting, except to say, "Right on!"
Well, I was going to post it in the other thread, but I wanted to keep any responses from happening there. And, having posted it, I can now simply refer to the thread instead of retyping it each time I want to say it. I may be selfish and do the same with the other Standard Rants.

Quote"Why did they make their so-called Storyteller system like this?"

It's interesting that you can see in attemps to simplify combat mechanics that people intuitively understand that a combat system is unnecessary. Hence only the five combat skills for ST, as opposed to a pagefull. But there is this clinging on to last vestiges that always seems to happen. It almost always comes down to character protection. Thing is, if the GM is on your side (i.e. this is not player/GM competition) then why does the character need protection? Or rather, if you give the power to protect a player to the player or to the GM, what threat is there.

Probably the relic of many dysfunctional Gamist sessions. Or as I said before simple tradition.

This is not to say that Combat Mechanics can't be a good thing. I want to re-emphasize that. If the game really and truely is about combat, then by all means, on with the special rules. But so often I see a game about inner exploration, or love stories, or some such that has more rules for combat than for that exploration.

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IMHO, this comes back to a basic design principle.  The focus of a gaming system will focus the play that results.  If you want to emphasize an aspect, then create special rules for it.  If not, then genericize your rules.

Let me give an example.

(I make my roll and resist the urge to be self-referential.)

A complaint that I once read about Unknown Armies is that it is a fairly rules-light system until you get to the Madness Meters.  Suddenly there are a lot of rules.  Now, while I think that the absolute measure of the "heaviness" of the Madness Meters might be in question, it is a fact that a lot of rules attention and space is devoted to the Madness Meters.  However, this is a deliberate design consideration.  Stolze and Tynes wanted to focus attention on the Madness Meters.  After all, they reflect (in large part) the consequences of the choices that you make during play.  Therefore they draw attention to the Madness Meters by focusing rules attention on them.

Compare this to insanity in D&D 3e.  Now, I'm not an expert on the rules of D&D, but I doubt that there are insanity rules laid out in the core rules.  Why?  It's not thematically important to the game.  I'll bet that a simple Willpower save (or whatever it is) would be used, with some dire consequences if the saving throw is failed.  However, the combat rules in D&D 3e receive a lot more attention.  This is because combat is a big deal in D&D, and therefore a lot of rules should be devoted to working out the combat.

It could be argued that the tendency to include combat systems in all RPGs is less of an unconscious design decision and more of an indication of what most roleplayers are seeking in their games.  But that is a topic perhaps for another day.
Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown

Mike Holmes

Absolutely Ron.

I would point out that your Sorcerer combat system in pointing out how to apply the mechanics to combat specifically is probably getting close to the line. OTOH, I think that combat is supposed to occur a lot in Sorcerer, so that's probably not out of place. It's certainly not an egregious problem or anything.

But the impact on other systems is more pronounced. For example, people playing GURPS should realize that in introducing all the advanced mechanics for combat and all the weapons list, etc, that anything you play with GURPS will likely end up in a fight at some point. This will be fine for some games, but be a real distraction for others. The obvious culprits, D&D and their immitators become problematic when they try to be anything other than games about combat (hell, early editions didn't have rules for much else).  

So, yes, there is a spectrum of abuse. My favorite example is that OTE includes a combat mechanic almost begrudgingly. He points out at one point that he is only including an armor rule because it is expected.

In any case, my rant has the intent of saying to anyone who would design a system to put some consideration into not accepting the tradition of ensuring that there is a specialized combat system. If you can't bring yourself to break with tradition,at least consider doing what Ron did, and make it just another interesting application of the broader rules. This has many obvious benefits.

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Ron Edwards

Hi Mike,

Do you agree that one corollary of your point is also: If your game is, indeed, about combat, then specialized and distinctive combat rules are perfectly all right?

Swashbuckler, The Riddle of Steel, and Violence Future are about combat in the most thematic and meaty sense of the word "about." Thus it seems to me consistent with your rant that these games do, indeed, have distinctive combat rules.

That's why I also favor (in some games, like Elfs) specialized and distinctive rules for magic, given that magic "means a lot" in the game in question. Arguably, Hero Wars crosses the line into "distinctive system" for its Animist magic.


joshua neff

I'd buy that, Ron. Swashbuckler & Castle Falkenstein have specialized dueling rules because dueling "means something" in those games. Magic in Hero Wars is another good example. Story Engine is "about" scene resolution, & all the dice tricks are about adding meat to the scene resolution (by burning descriptors of both characters & the place the scene is taking place, & objects as they relate to the scene). And I agree with Mike, there's a big difference between specialized rules (for combat, magic, debate, what have you) because those things "mean something" to the game or because "well, we have to, don't we?".

"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes

Mike Holmes

Yes, Ron, that's right. I've tried to say that several times now, so I hope that part is sinking in, too. It's not combat that's bad, it's misplaced focus.

Seth delineated the overall principle. Mechanics lead to focus. Any mechanics to any focus (be it magic or photography or combat). So, yes, ROS is all about the fightin, so it's perfectly fine there. As a participant in an RPG with a certain system one has to conssider the density of rules and where they lay so as to determine what sort of play the rules will support. And to an extent it will be a personal thing.

For example, I think that your recent ideas that ROS is about character first supported by the fighting, is backward. It seems to me to be all about fighting, and the "relationship" mechanics just add color in the form of reason. But that's without playing it, or even reading it really closely. But that's enough for me to play given the right mood. I can play a combat focused game any day.

My point is that impressions of systems will differ, but it's good to look at it from your own perspective as a participant. So as to see if there has been a "bait and switch" ala Vampire. As a designer, you must look to design mechanics to support your focus. This overall point is really fairly obvious, it's just that it seems to get forgotten when it comes to Combat Systems.

So, a typical problem is that you get systems that have two focuses, one on the appropriate thing, and the other on combat for no particularly good reason. See Ars Magica for a good example. Purportedly about MAgic, the system says it's about killing with magic. The worse problem is entirely misplaced focus. See Traveller for a good example. Supposed to be about exploring the universe, but ends up in way too many wayy too lethal firefights. There's a game that would have benefitted from losing the combat system entirely.

Ironically, I've started to see some "lite" designs that are in games that are supposed to be about combat that don't have what I think is enough to support that focus.

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Mike Holmes

Quote from: joshua neffthere's a big difference between specialized rules (for combat, magic, debate, what have you) because those things "mean something" to the game or because "well, we have to, don't we?".

Right, combat systems are de rigeur. There must be one in every system. The level that this reaches seems to me to be like brainwashing. This is why I used the Matrix reference. It almost seems like the Orbital Mind Control Lasers are at work ensuring that people put a Combat System in every game. It seems to be a hard box for people to get out of. But it's important.

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Amen, brother, amen.

A more insidious version of this is the "Health System". Combat may be handled by the base mechanic, but there's a mechanic for damage and/or health, which still implies that PCs are going to get hurt, which usually implies combat.

For example, take one of my really early designs:

The emphasis on damage and healing (not to mention the WARFARE stat) sort of ruins my intent to have a simple, social LARP system.

I like to think I've avoided these problems in my recent (paltry) designs so far...

Success mentions combat, but only as essentially following the same rule as everything else.

Faster, Better, Cheaper doesn't mention combat at all, except passing reference to a Fighting trait in an example.

Rise Again certainly has a combat system, but the horror of combat is a big part of the theme...

Okay, part of that was just to plug my games. ;-) But I think my initial point is still relevant, and my early game is a good example of it: Even if combat is handled by the basic mechanic, sometimes "damage and healing" causes "combat creep" as well.
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Mike Holmes

Yep, often the "Health System" is the last vestige of the combat system to cling on after the rest has been excised. Again, I think the reason is some emmbedded notion that if such a system does not exist that your character is only one roll away from being taken from you. If you look at InSpectres it actually makes this impossible by having a combat system (stress) in which it's impossible to die as the player defines the outcome in terms of stress. The worst that happens is that a character needs a vacation. Talk about working to a focus.

Many people understand the points in this rant implicitly (it's an old and unoriginal rant, one that I've just gotten tired repeating). And many games have now been created with these ideas in mind. But it's not for those designers that I wrote this rant . It's for the many, many other wouldbe designers out there that are still trapped by the Matrix.

I hope that there are people out there right now who are taking the correct pill.

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Fabrice G.

Hey Mike,

I'm all with you on this one.

But...'ll have to remember that a LOT of people would lynch you for being such an heretical creep !!!

I fing such like minded people here that I could be dead wrong with the majority of gamers. It's always difficult to go speaking with unknown RPGer after discussing things on the forge, because you expect...i don't know...some maturity about such things. Only to discover that you're like an alien...

Well thank you Mike...that make two of us now. ;)



Ironically I was just writing up a rules summary for Riddle of Steel to run a one shot and was looking at the fact that basic resolution takes a paragraph, the funky spiritual attributes rules take a paragraph and the super condensed combat rules take 2 pages :)

I would have to agree that ROS is about fighting, but the spiritual attributes rules make it about "Why are you fighting?" as much as the fighting itself.  If you look at D&D, because there is no mechanical advantage given to any alignment, really "Why you're fighting" becomes a moot point in favor of more experience points and leveling up.

I definitely agree about the misplaced design focus of combat, and a great deal of it comes from the fact that death is still seen as the "worst thing" that can happen in any game, when in fact, it is not be able to act in the game that is the worst thing that can happen to a player.