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Author Topic: Making combat epic  (Read 2198 times)
n0mDePlume
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Posts: 7


« on: April 20, 2010, 07:28:12 PM »

This is triggered by thinking about what Exalted could have been, if you didn't need a spreadsheet to manage a battle.

How can each combat action be given as much potential for high-powered variety as possible, without rolling lots of dice and keeping track of four different bonuses and five different kinds of damage?  The feel should be a game where you have lots of meaningfully different choices of what to do, but those choices don't require a lot of bookkeeping.

I actually don't know a lot of game mechanics that do this, so I had a few brainstorms that might be similar to games I've never heard of.

One initial assumption I came up with is one action per character per round.  Multiple actions adds complexity.  They also add realism, but I'm only looking to add epic.


Combat stances

The rules should reflect what you're trying most to do this turn - attack at any cost, skirmish with a tough foe, keep yourself alive, protect someone else, concentrate on something other than the ogre in front of you, etc.

What you're trying to do affects not only which abilities you can use toward that goal, but which defenses you're ready to mount against attacks.  This allows the use of powerful reactive, defensive powers - common in MMOs but rare in PnP - without the balance problems created by being able to use the most powerful offense and defense back to back.  (MMOs use cooldowns to prevent abusive combos, but PnP needs a more generic method).

For example, a player might have to choose from the following stances at the beginning of their turn:

Balanced, Offense, Defense, Protect, Concentrate, Move.

Each power lists which stances it's available in.  "Ultimate power attack" may require Offense, making it automatically incompatible with a lot of defensive powers not available in Offense.  A power available in Defense and Protect is probably a generic power, such as a spell, which can defend someone else from attack.  But many defensive powers would not have this Protect keyword, meaning you can't use them while you're busy looking after someone else.  Concentrate represents traditional spells very well by making them require Concentrate stance, and by making most defenses unavailable in it.

A nice benefit of this is that the rules to use every power can come from six letters in the power description (present, absent, or highlighted): BODPCM.  No matter what crazy powers you come up with, you can just plug them into a system of tradeoffs which is a lot more natural than "this attack power gives -2 dodge".


Defensive Choices

Most PnP RPGs give characters a choice of attack, but not defense.  Computer games are much more likely to provide defensive choices, which makes things more interesting.  When using stances (as above), choosing a powerful attack can easily limit your defensive capabilities so picking defenses is less likely to be unbalancing.  (A big balance worry is that someone can have perfect attack and defense at the same time *cough*Exalted*cough*, turning superpowers into a slugfest).

When a player's overall defensive ability is limited by their attack, they can be given more choice and more tactical options and leave balance intact.  Classic physical defenses are dodge, parry, and passive (i.e. let it hit you and hope your armor holds).  A player in balanced stance gets to pick any to use (optionally, you could have them rely on one defense against all attacks in the round).  Offensive stance is armor only.  Protect stance means no dodge, because you need to keep between your charge and the enemy.  Or hey, look, Arcane Shield can be launched from any stance, pity about the mana drain.


I'm wondering about putting defenses into general classes, with attacks defined by which defense classes work against them.  Parry, dodge, intercept (ranged), passive.  I mean, how do you defend against a magically animated armor-piercing homing rattlesnake?  No matter how crazy it is, just say that parry and intercept defenses work, and passive defense doesn't benefit from armor.


Power Cards

This would be harder to do in a published game.  A lot of games seem to be designed for publishing and reading - straightforward book format that lists out rules that can be referred to when you need to know how your powers work.

It might be beneficial to simply eliminate many of the corner case rules, and put their specific-case applications with the description of each power.  This sounds silly if you're going to be looking the stuff up in a book - it's easier to look up a few rules than search for power descriptions.

It sounds a lot less silly if you've got cards in your hand (or photocopies) of every power your character has, and you can leaf through them.

This would work great with mechanics that classify each power in an only semi-predictable way as usable in certain stances or against certain defenses.

It also works great if you want to have a power use totally custom rules than you put in a lookup table.  Lookup tables are evil if they're part of the general rules.  They're not so bad if they're right there on the card you need to look at anyway.


Any thoughts about the tactical usefulness/variety/lack thereof of this stuff?  Are there existing systems that use mechanics like this?

Thanks!
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stefoid
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« Reply #1 on: April 20, 2010, 08:25:10 PM »

define 'epic'.
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Warrior Monk
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Posts: 85


« Reply #2 on: April 21, 2010, 07:44:09 AM »

as I see here, you're defining 'Epic' as crunchy but with less complex rules/less time wasted in calculations/quicker reference to relevant crunch. Right?
Your idea looks good, if it works for you go for it. I think it can still be simplified more with less rules, but from what I've learned here on the Forge it all depends on what you need it for.

For example, my approach to the same problem has come now to the use of a dice pool for combat resolution. Every player gets the same amount so it all becomes a mix of resource management and luck. You can use all dice for a single attack to represent that you go for it with all you got, but then you've got no dice for defense, except your passive defense. You can wait for the opponent attack and then roll enough deffensive dice to protect yourself and then roll the rest to counter. You can even use all your dice to run like hell. Crunch is placed over this and uses the same dice pool.

But again that's my approach and of course it's not my idea, I think I first saw this on DiTV or Classroom deathmach. Anyway the question is: is this simple enough for you? crunchy enough? how far does it let you go?
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n0mDePlume
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Posts: 7


« Reply #3 on: April 21, 2010, 12:35:08 PM »

as I see here, you're defining 'Epic' as crunchy but with less complex rules/less time wasted in calculations/quicker reference to relevant crunch. Right?

This came out of being frustrated at how complicated Exalted combat is.  I'm looking for something that can handle cool powers, and offer a lot more variety than just "attack, cast spell, other guy attacks".  But do it with way less crunch than the Exalted system.  I do not care about realism, I just care about having variety in combat so that players have more fun choices.  Real fundamental choices, as opposed to "I have 27 spells, one of which is obviously the best in this particular situation", or "I have phenomenal cosmic power, but I use this one combo 80% of the time".

Tactical variety tends to mean allowing the players to make tradeoffs.  I see that one kind of tactical variety most RPGs lack is on the defensive end.  Either defense is passive (attacker must beat your AC), or your choice of active defense is usually a no-brainer (perfect defense, which doesn't even interfere with your perfect offense).

Can we implement tactical tradeoffs without really complex rules?  Maybe a simple system of keywords, for example?

Well, I've never actually seen anything in a PnP RPG like the simple stance system I proposed, where you have a common pool of powers but choose a tactical stance which defines which ones you can use.  World of Warcraft uses that sort of thing.  I think computer games like WoW have a huge number of things than PnP can learn, but D&D4 is the only game I've seen that tries to pick them up (tank/healer/dps specifically).

Quote
Your idea looks good, if it works for you go for it. I think it can still be simplified more with less rules, but from what I've learned here on the Forge it all depends on what you need it for.

For example, my approach to the same problem has come now to the use of a dice pool for combat resolution. Every player gets the same amount so it all becomes a mix of resource management and luck. You can use all dice for a single attack to represent that you go for it with all you got, but then you've got no dice for defense, except your passive defense. You can wait for the opponent attack and then roll enough deffensive dice to protect yourself and then roll the rest to counter. You can even use all your dice to run like hell. Crunch is placed over this and uses the same dice pool.

But that has a big "flavor" restriction - you have to be able to describe all of your powers in terms where they are more or less effective depending on how many dice you roll.

Could you represent "my force field makes me immune to physical attack, but only as long as I don't move?"  With stances it's easy - force field is only available in Concentration stance, and really does stop all physical attacks.  Stances doesn't define your allocation of *resources* between attack and defense, it forces you to select between kinds of powers.

And you can make it feel very natural and intuitive.  Like the bit about where you can't dodge while protecting someone else, a "rule" that is implemented simply by not putting the Protect keyword on dodge powers.  But then you could define a hyperfast dodge spell which uses the dodge roll, but actually does work in Protect stance, just by putting that keyword into the spell description.

That's part of what I'm talking about when I refer to "epic" - if you can't represent something that feels kind of like an Exalted combo or a D&D2 9th level wizard spell, your mechanic is aimed at more conventional combat and less at crazy powers.  And crazy powers often have major on/off effects, which don't power up with more dice.  You could apply a dice cost to using them, but even so if you have three defensive dice you could use ANY three-dice defensive power, rather than only some selection that is most appropriate to the attack you used.
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Mobius
Member

Posts: 46


« Reply #4 on: April 21, 2010, 12:45:34 PM »

While not exactly the same thin I am working on a system that does something similar to what you are talking about:
http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=29602.0

I don't incorporate stances but instead there are only a limited number of times you can use your really good attacks and defenses.  So far I am very happy with the results but it may have more crunch then you are looking for.
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Mobius a.k.a Charles
n0mDePlume
Member

Posts: 7


« Reply #5 on: April 21, 2010, 04:11:26 PM »

While not exactly the same thin I am working on a system that does something similar to what you are talking about:
http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=29602.0

It looks like the only similarity is that you added active defenses.  You have them being usable at any time, and presumably attacks being usable at any time.

What I'm saying is actually a limitation on what players can do.

At the most abstract level it boils down to "each round you pick a keyword, and your player can only use powers that have that keyword".

It looks to me like you could actually do a heck of a lot with this idea.  Things that people would conventionally try to achieve with lists of rules about what you can't do with that, and what gives a penalty to what.  I simply use combat stances as the keywords, and I would set it up so that each one limited offensive and defensive power selection in interesting ways.

-2 to defense when using Mega-Attack?  Heck no! Mega-Attack requires the "Offense" keyword, so you can only use defensive powers with the "Offense" keyword.  These happen to leave your defense worse off on AVERAGE.  But the reality might be that you basically can't dodge, parrying is possible but only for one opponent, and relying on giant plate armor to deflect it works as well as ever.

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Callan S.
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« Reply #6 on: April 21, 2010, 05:49:00 PM »

Quote
"I have 27 spells, one of which is obviously the best in this particular situation"
Have you considered something like "I have 27 spells - I roll to see which five of them I can use on my turn, then decide which one of them I use to my best advantage"

In the end you'll realise that it's situation ramming against resources that creates new and varied tactics, and what situation does is to make certain options/resources unavailable.

Granting them even more options wont make the tactics more varied - it'll just take some more time to figure out the one single tactic to repeat over and over again.
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Philosopher Gamer
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Mobius
Member

Posts: 46


« Reply #7 on: April 21, 2010, 07:30:39 PM »

The limitation is that you cannot do the same Defensive Counter or Follow-up over and over because when used they are expended for the fight; although some can be recovered but those are always less powerful then non-recoverable ones of the same round.

But yes you can use your best attack and best defense in the same round, but you had better hope they get the job done because then they are gone.

As for selecting an offensive/defensive keyword and having it limit the abilities you can use, there is no reason such a system could not work but it would have to be very carefully balanced.  The biggest problem I see is that NPCs are effectively throw away characters in many campaigns so the can take the risk of using an offensive stance much more readily then player characters.  That could lead to situations where PCs spend an overwhelming amount of time defending.
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Mobius a.k.a Charles
Callan S.
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« Reply #8 on: April 21, 2010, 10:00:52 PM »

Oh, so your concern isn't the same pattern repeating over a number of combats, but is actually the same attacks being repeated over and over in just one combat?
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Philosopher Gamer
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n0mDePlume
Member

Posts: 7


« Reply #9 on: April 21, 2010, 10:50:29 PM »

Oh, so your concern isn't the same pattern repeating over a number of combats, but is actually the same attacks being repeated over and over in just one combat?

Either is repetitive.  There are major systems out there where you cannot even choose all-out attack vs. all-out defense.  My concern is that in most RPGs, there is typically one best thing to do for the great majority of situations.

Let's take the two most popular RPGs on the large forum rpg.net:

1. D&D (4e and earlier).  Defense is basically passive unless you're a tank, in which case your attacks can grant modest defensive bonuses, or a wizard with a defensive spell ready.  The typical player simply cannot decide "there are a ton of enemies around me, I am going to focus on defense and wait for someone else to rescue me".  All they can do is try to take down an attacker, then rely on their passive defense.  The only defensive option usually relies on trying to move to put yourself out of reach of one or more enemies.


2. Exalted (I only know 2e).  If you're making the best charm picks, you will probably put your best attack and defense powers in the same combo.  They're probably both perfects.  Against a serious enemy, you will repeat this combo many times.  Against lesser enemies you may not use it, but mostly because you want to save motes.


Real variety comes from being able to adapt to the situation, because the situation varies while your own powers do not.  You face many weak enemies, or a few strong ones, or a mix.  You are supported by a balanced team or fighting solo.  You are about to die, or you are protecting a weak comrade.  The best action for all these situations should not be "I use my favorite combo or at-will power".  Players should have realistic, meaningful choices.  Launch themselves in an all-out attack and hope their team can defend them, or protect themselves?  Choose a move that can protect against ranged attacks, or bet that those archers will target someone else?  Defend someone else at increased risk of leaving yourself open, or simply try to draw the enemies to you?

And so on.

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n0mDePlume
Member

Posts: 7


« Reply #10 on: April 21, 2010, 10:56:20 PM »

Quote
"I have 27 spells, one of which is obviously the best in this particular situation"
Have you considered something like "I have 27 spells - I roll to see which five of them I can use on my turn, then decide which one of them I use to my best advantage"

In the end you'll realise that it's situation ramming against resources that creates new and varied tactics, and what situation does is to make certain options/resources unavailable.

I think that most players would find it realistic to have their options controlled by attack/defense modes that they choose, versus silly and frustrating to have their options be random.

Quote
Granting them even more options wont make the tactics more varied - it'll just take some more time to figure out the one single tactic to repeat over and over again.

I'm not sure where you get that idea.  You'd need a pretty dumb design to have "full attack" always be better than "full defense", or vice versa.  It sounds practically impossible - if you're hurting badly, for example, then the only attack bonus that will protect you is one which slices up all or most of your enemies immediately.

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Callan S.
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« Reply #11 on: April 22, 2010, 12:41:45 AM »

Quote
"there are a ton of enemies around me, I am going to focus on defense and wait for someone else to rescue me"
Would you find that fun in play? Would you do that often as a player and be going 'yeah, cool, I'm going full defense!'? To be honest, going defensive and waiting for someone to save my ass sounds quite boring to me? But that's me and maybe it works for you - just checking on that.

I'm thinking you may want it available for plausible completeness or something, after reading the following

Quote
I think that most players would find it realistic to have their options controlled by attack/defense modes that they choose, versus silly and frustrating to have their options be random.
Well, this is where for myself, just me, I go 'Oh, I think he's talking simulationism and all this tactics talk is just it's aesthetic'. It sounds like no ones interested in whether they win or lose, just whether things seem to be plausible and have a tangible sense of causality.

I always get confused by the focus on detailed numerical procedures to think it's gamist play.
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Philosopher Gamer
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n0mDePlume
Member

Posts: 7


« Reply #12 on: April 22, 2010, 08:34:56 AM »

Quote
"there are a ton of enemies around me, I am going to focus on defense and wait for someone else to rescue me"
Would you find that fun in play? Would you do that often as a player and be going 'yeah, cool, I'm going full defense!'?

In most RPGs, "full defense" means "I forfeit my action and just sit there".  In a stance system, it means "I can only use powers with the 'defense' keyword".  Which might be a collection of ways to help save your ass, it's just that none of them are going to involve killing the enemy.  Defense says you trade hitting for not being hit, it doesn't say HOW.  Maybe you can cast a weakening hex to hit the next person who swings a weapon at you, or use an emergency teleport, or go invisible, and have access to a wider array of defensive moves to choose from when attacked.  There are five guys surrounding you so you're going to make five active defense choices.

As I implied above, choosing which stance the player is allowed to cast a particular spell in also controls how well you can protect yourself during casting.  The system makes it trivially easy to give wizards panic-button spells that they can use while under attack.

Quote
I think that most players would find it realistic to have their options controlled by attack/defense modes that they choose, versus silly and frustrating to have their options be random.
Well, this is where for myself, just me, I go 'Oh, I think he's talking simulationism and all this tactics talk is just it's aesthetic'. It sounds like no ones interested in whether they win or lose, just whether things seem to be plausible and have a tangible sense of causality.

I always get confused by the focus on detailed numerical procedures to think it's gamist play.
[/quote]

I'm sorry, the moment you said "simulationist" and "gamist" I pretty much tuned out.  I mentioned my specific goals, trying to pidgeonhole them is just useless styereotyping.  Not that the content of those sentences made, well, sense.

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Guy Srinivasan
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« Reply #13 on: April 22, 2010, 10:22:41 AM »

This idea sounds awesome. Really really good. I'm envisioning two very different ways it could be implemented...

1) Simultaneous selection. For example: there are rounds of combat. Each round, each participant is in a stance, and secretly picks an action. Some actions may end up changing participants' stances. (maybe go BW and pick your next 3 actions)
2) Turn order. For example: Each player gets a turn, probably just around the table in order or something. On your turn you are in a stance: pick an action that's possible and do it. Then maybe change stances.

There are plenty more, I'm sure.

Quote
I think that most players would find it realistic to have their options controlled by attack/defense modes that they choose, versus silly and frustrating to have their options be random.
Well, this is where for myself, just me, I go 'Oh, I think he's talking simulationism and all this tactics talk is just it's aesthetic'. It sounds like no ones interested in whether they win or lose, just whether things seem to be plausible and have a tangible sense of causality.

I always get confused by the focus on detailed numerical procedures to think it's gamist play.

I'm sorry, the moment you said "simulationist" and "gamist" I pretty much tuned out.  I mentioned my specific goals, trying to pidgeonhole them is just useless styereotyping.  Not that the content of those sentences made, well, sense.
My interpretation: Callan identified a potential concern (repetition) and a way to make the boardgamey puzzle-solving bits overcome that concern, by giving the player limits within which to express her creativity. Then you shared your intuition that e.g. a player would see her hand of cards, wish she had drawn her "attack three dudes at once" power, and then say she were frustrated she couldn't just use any power she wanted because realistically her character has no in-fiction reason to not have access to the option. The meat of Callan's response was saying his solution would satisfy the gamist urge but not the simulationist urge.

So! Here are a couple more possible solutions for reducing repetition, taken from board games I enjoy and adapted to fictionally justified mechanics:

1) Incentivize unchosen options. One way to use this might be having a little mat in front of you with 6 Stance areas. Place a figure representing your character in whichever stance you're currently in. Whenever you use a power, add a benny to each Stance that power is unavailable in. When you switch to a new Stance, you may take all of the bennies in that Stance area. Bennies do something on the turn you switch to the stance, and represent surprising your opponents, and must become (with sufficient bennies) more powerful than the difference between the best powers and the mediocre powers. Doesn't fix repeated patterns.

2) Impose constraints on power options. Callan suggested this one. Perhaps a more palatable form is to have some powers (including a basic action for each stance) which have the benefit "ingrained" that always start in your hand, and a stat "Mental Agility" which determines how many cards you draw at the beginning of a fight, or between each round, or something. Here powers represent in-the-moment plans your character has the time to make and the opportunity to implement on the field. This is equivalent to fog-of-war on terrain, except it's fog-of-war on exactly what's going to be plausible next round. Fixes both repeated powers and repeated patterns.

3) Penalize predictability. If the system involves simultaneous selection, include a varying unequal-payout rock-paper-scissors component to the choices so that if the GM knows you will pick your "attack three dudes at once" power that can only be used in Attack stance, she can choose her "jump backward out of range and if your opponent is in Attack stance apply a nice penalty due to her next action due to overextension" power. Fixes both repeated powers and repeated patterns.

4) Targeted removal. Player A pushes forward 2 power cards into her Semi-Bluff and Action spots. Player B plays a conservative defense which means the Action doesn't go off, the Semi-Bluff does. Alternatively Player B plays a risky defense which means the Action goes off instead. Pushes the repetition onto multiple power combos which enemies can choose to have do different things.
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stefoid
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« Reply #14 on: April 22, 2010, 04:21:35 PM »

Hey, Mr Plume.  Still not sure what 'epic' means to you.   

This is my own tangent, but maybe you can grab something from it and apply it to your own stuff.  I like the idea of 'dramatic' combat, meaning that realism takes a back seat.  Its more like cinematic 'realism' and everything that goes along with that.  epic for me, means dramatically, and tactically satisfying combat, where something situation-ally interesting happens every round. 

An (untested) idea that I like is exclusively using objectives instead of actions as the way character get things done.  This is pretty much the task vs conflict resolution thing applied to combat and with a finer level of granularity -- concentrating on what you are trying to achieve in a given round rather than the conflict as a whole.

example:  instead of saying "I shoot at him' or 'I swing my axe'  or even 'I go to defensive stance and use a multi-strike counter'   you say what you are trying to achieve for that round.  The way you achieve it isnt so important, so long as you have plausible skills and/or resources to attempt it. 

With task res, whether you succeed or fail at those example tasks above (I shoot at him) doesnt explicitly resolve whether you achieved your objective for that round, if indeed you even had one.  that is for the GM to decide, either on a whim or by applying a whole bunch of crunch which you are trying to avoid.

Whereas for con-res based combat, whether you succeed or fail is explicitly resolved according to your stated objective - i.e. 'I lay down covering fire' - if you pass your test, then by definition the enemy IS pinned.  there is no more crunch or GM opinion required to resolve that.  Another example might be 'I swing like a madman to make it back off towards the cliff ledge', again, if you succeed, then thats what happens, no further questions asked.

If the GM also ensures that your opponents have objectives each and every round, and you are testing your roll against their roll, then something interesting is going to happen every round, because either you or your opponent is going to achieve their objective, so SOMETHING is going to happen either way.  -- none of this "I shoot at him...and miss, he shoots at you...you take a small wound'  back and forth boring stuff.  (Unless of course, your objective is to delay or in some way purposely maintain he status quo, in which case if you succeed, then nothing happens Smiley   )
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