The Stage is Set for an Epic Battle in Omu

Setting the Stage for a Grand Combat

Building from the previous session:

  • The warlock, as an eagle, carried a silenced rope kept close to the King of Feathers.
  • An aging (now hasted) Tabaxi, bent on a glorious death, lead the King of Feathers on.
  • A Tabaxi rogue/ranger nimble and fast, provided flanking support.
  • The sorcerer, barbarian, and cleric, followed several steps behind.

Random Tables

When you first lead the King of Feathers into the camp, roll…
d6 Result
1 1 round of inaction
2 2 rounds of inaction
3 3 rounds of inaction
4-6 Respond Quickly

I wanted to reflect that moment of confusion, when a large and silenced T-Rex charges into an encampment.

I told the players that each round there was a 50/50 chance that the rumblings of a nearby huge monster would wake any sleeping inhabitants.

The overall state of the camp
d20 Results
1 A wizard was out relieving themselves (and alert)
2 The wizards were in a meeting (in the same building)
3 A wizard is overseeing a dream spell
4 The guards on watch are instead gambling
5 The wizards are deep in a summoning ritual (and it won’t be long until it’s done)
6 The wizards just dealt with an incursion, roll 2d6 each, they each spent those spell slots; 1d6 veterans are bloodied.
7-20 The wizards were sleeping amongst their bone harem of their skeletons (they each get +2 cover bonus)

A camp of 20 or so humans has nighttime activity. I wanted to convey that reality, and not lay the conditions out ahead of time.

Players Roll

Since there were two groups of characters (those fast enough to lead the King of Feathers on, and those not) I had them roll to see how far the trailing group was behind the King of Feathers.

They rolled 1 round of inaction, that the guards were gambling, the faster barbarian would arrive at round 2, and the sorcerer and cleric would arrive at round 4. (They didn’t know but the veterans would awake at round 3).

I set up the location, and called for a group initiative. For initiative order for the combat  was: the players, King of Feathers, and the camp. (I had briefly thought of rolling group initiative each turn)

A combat map for a tabletop RPG, with dominos for buildings, dice for monsters, and other oddities

The Stage is Set for an Epic Battle in Omu

The Participants

  • Five 7th level PCs – a tabaxi ranger 4 /rogue 3; a half-elf cleric 1 / sorcerer 6; a human cleric 7 / a half-elf warlock 7; a dwarf barbarian 7
  • One Tabaxi Hunter, an ally of the PCs bent on a glorious death
  • Two 9th level Mages (CR 6)
  • One 11th level Mage (CR 7)
  • One flesh golem (CR 5)
  • Twelve veterans (CR 3)
  • Twelve skeletons (CR 1/2)
  • One King of Feathers (an augmented CR 9 T-Rex)

Everyone knew this was a dangerous gambit. Going into the session we all knew this would be an encounter that would require constant evaluation.

As I was preparing the situation, I kept thinking what are the likely responses of the players?

  • They’ll lead the King of Feathers into the camp and stand back to assess (and perhaps strike after any spells had worn out)
  • They’ll join with the King of Feathers and battle the camp
  • They’ll swoop in to help the camp, and ingratiate themselves with the wizards

When You Lead a T-Rex Into Battle…

The grand melee that ensued was among the most satisfying I’ve ever ran; Definitely the most satisfying I’ve run for 5e. But this post draws long, so I’ll save the report until next time.

Plan for Complications – Tomb of Annihilation

Random tables lead to creative solutions; or that time where they set in motion luring a silenced T-Rex into the camp of enemy wizards with whom they might soon form an alliance.

Large feathered T-Rex in jungle ruins

King of Feathers in Omu

Prior Sessions

Two sessions ago the characters had a harrowing three-way battle between a trio of ambushing assassin vines and a Red Wizard along with his cohort. The Red Wizard escaped and they spent the next session tracking him down, laying an ambush at the obelisk, and ultimately interrogating him (and throwing him to the conjured black tentacles).

The adventurers learned that the other three Red Wizards were to meet at the obelisk the next day. The adventurers weren’t able to tell if the captured wizard was lying, and set about crafting an ambush.

We ended that session with me saying – “Welp, I don’t know how this is going to go down, but I’ll write up some random procedures so that I lock in their actions while you discuss and work through yours.”

I created the procedures following:

Table 1: Are they coming tomorrow?
d6 Result
1-3 Yes, use the Arrival Times procedure to determine timing. Note: the arrival hour is the number of hours after sunrise.
4-6 No, roll on Table 2: So they’re not coming today

 

Table 2: So they’re not coming tomorrow…
d6 Result
1-2 But they’re coming today; use the Arrival Times procedure to determine timing. Note: the arrival hour is the number of hours since the initial ambush.
3-4 But the yuan-ti are laying are gathering around the players and laying an ambush
5-6 Because they caught wind of what’s happening and will instead send an emissary. Roll 1d6 to determine the hour of their arrival

Arrival Time Procedure

For each of the 3 Red Wizard groups roll a unique 1d6 (after all each group is different). The resulting die is their arrival hour. For any dice that turn up the same, roll those dice again.

  • If both are even or both are odd, they arrive together.
  • If the larger is even, they arrive that many rounds later.
  • If the larger number is odd, they arrive the product of those two dice minutes later.
  • If you rolled 3 dice, treat each even as the highest result of all odds and each odd as the highest result of all odds.

This Session

At the beginning of the session, I rolled on the tables. The result was the Wizards got wind of the ambush and were sending an emissary instead. Poor Trevor, the veteran waving the white flag; He came to realize that the Red Wizards, while paying generously, were holding his family as leverage.

The adventurers began setting up their ambush. Moving dirt, checking houses near the obelisk, and establishing a perimeter patrol.

Moon (the Tabaxi Ranger/Rogue) spotted a soldier approaching, flying a white flag. After a brief parlay, he brought Trevor (the soldier) to just outside the ambush spot. The offer at hand was that the adventurer’s join (and in some PC’s cases rejoin) the Red Wizard entourage. The pay was good and they looked after your family, according to Trevor. Moon countered saying that his family was leverage for compliance.

During the extended parlay with Trevor, the group worked out the following plan (mostly outside of earshot of Trevor, who was now ready to turn an eye on the Red Wizards but not actively work against them):

  • Twelve Moonshadow and Hooded Lantern would track the wizards to their encampment
  • Ord, X, Regina, and Kruxus Craft would begin resting to swap spells
  • Kruxus Craft would cast silence on 50’ of rope
  • Regina and Moon would go to the King of Feather’s lair, lure it out, and drop (via Mage Hand) the silent rope on the King
  • Moon would lead the King of Feathers towards the wizard encampment
  • As they drew near, Hooded Lantern seeking song worthy death would anchor the relay and lead the T-Rex into the encampment
  • A bit of mayhem later and the party would attack

Analysis and Behind the Screen

Planning can bog down a game. I employed a tactic early on saying “What I hear the plan to be right now is…”. This helped draw the group’s attention to the current shape of a discussed plan.

Early we all lamented the nerfed spell durations of 5e (compared to 2e especially); they are static and short. I made a table ruling. A character may expend a higher level slot to extend a spell’s duration:

  • 1 minute
  • 10 minute
  • 1 hour
  • 4 hours
  • 8 hours
  • 1 day
  • 1 week

Because short durations are lame when the plan is to silence a rampaging T-Rex to aid in the ambush of wizards. And yes, this may impose on a Sorcerer’s metamagic, but we’ll get to that if it ever comes up.

Back to the Session

The Red Wizards accepted the request of the for one day to think about it joining forces. And they could meet at a neutral place; the accepted recommendation was the prior wizard encampment in which the wizards and yuan-ti last fought.

What transpired:

  • While following to camp, each group rolled for random encounters – the wizards, the tabaxi PC and NPC, and the other group
  • A shambling mound attacked the Red Wizards, the advantage was the wizards, so I had the players roll some random dice to see if there were any fatalities (there weren’t and I should’ve clarified what the rolls were about)
  • No other random encounters
  • Moon, ever curious sneaked closer, but Zagmira spotted him
  • A quick roll of initiative and Moon bolted back into the jungle before Zagmira could unload
  • Moon and Hooded Lantern returned to camp
  • with a 4 hour silence dropped on a knot in the 50’ of rope, Moon and Regina left wrangle up the King of Feathers
  • At the amphitheatre, there were signs of the King of Feathers (only a 25% chance at night), but it was not there now
  • Invisible in the shadows Regina waited while 5 deinonychus came to prowl; afraid of drawing attention Regina dropped a major image to lure them away
  • Meanwhile Moon found the King of Feathers. With haste and agility he barely kept ahead of King of Feathers as he lured the mighty T-Rex towards a waiting Regina and the hanging collar/rope. (Without levels of rogue and ranger, Moon would not have kept ahead of the King of Feathers)
  • As the King of Feathers drew close, it noticed the invisible and skulking Regina
  • A quick roll of initiative and to Regina’s fortune she won.
  • Regina promptly changed into a large bird of prey and flew up. Grabbing the rope, Regina flew low to keep the King of Feather’s silent while Moon’s lead it through the jungle to the encampment
  • Moon succeeded at keeping ahead of the King of Feather’s and avoided picking up a level of exhaustion (DC 15) as they all approached the camp.

With time running short, and a massive battle looming, we called it a night.

This morning, I’m doing what I can to prepare the situation:

  • a marauding T-Rex perhaps in an area of silence
  • a polymorphed warlock carrying said silenced rope
  • a wizard encampment (3 Red Wizards, a Flesh Golem, 13 soldiers, 14 skeletons) that previously caught someone following them
  • an urban locale that is overrun by the encroaching jungle

Behind the Screen

For the last 9 months or so I’ve been running a 5E campaign using the Tomb of Annihilation.

game books, notebook, dice, pen, pencil, and Hive game pieces

Behind the Screen

What you see is my typical behind the screen setup for each session. I have:

  • Bag of dice and two jumbo d20 dice out for rolling
  • Pencil and pen
  • An A4 dot notebook for recording campaign elements
  • Two Hive sets – one travel size and one normal size; I use these for monster tokens or terrain
  • D&D Books for monster reference – Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes
  • Tomb of Annihilation – the actual adventure I’m running
  • A print out of some of the likely encounters or monsters
  • The Tomb of Annihilation campaign screen

I cannot emphasize enough how much I hate the 5E WotC adventure format:

  1. Referencing monsters instead of inline stat blocks sucks. It is up to you to look them up from disparate sources. So you’ll need several books open while running, or to pre-compile the information.
  2. Overloaded with words. Try scanning these adventures as you are running; the adventure scatters information throughout in a baroque economy of words.
  3. They try to play zone appeasement. Is Tomb of Annihilation of hex crawl? If so, the map is shit and the area is mostly empty–except for the random encounters that at best add flavor. Is it a site-based adventure? Is it a time-based adventure? The scale of the map ensures any intertwining stories are lost. Why am I wasting 45 minutes on a random combat encounter in which there will be only one between long rests?

What I like, however, is that 5E is a great player facing game. Player characters have lots of options – there are plenty of bells and whistles with which they can engage into a robust-enough rules system.

The math is almost to my liking; Though truth be told I like clever solutions never require rolls and phoned-in solutions are more likely to fail than succeed (e.g. “I check for traps, roll dice” or “I bluff the guard, roll dice”).

I like that save or die (or incapacitated) effects are mostly nerfed. The original design principle and assumption that by the time a character is rolling a saving throw, they’ve already bungled something. However, with 5E, there is an assumption you’ll be charging into threats; After all XP is now combat based instead of gold piece based.

An Anecdote

Two sessions ago, the characters began the session under attack from assassin vines. They rolled initiative and as part of the count, some skeletons rounded a far away corner (along with some veterans and a mage). The resulting combat was intense and near deadly. After 7 rounds of combat, they dug it out, and scraped away a partial victory; The assassin vines were dead, a veteran and the mage had fled. This combat took 2 hours, and I believe most everyone enjoyed the ebb and flow.

Last session, they tracked down the mage, laid an ambush, and got the jump on him…with surprise. The combat was over in less than 5 minutes.

The big combat was great and felt very “modern” D&D. The ambush was great and felt very OSR; They planned, they pushed themselves, and the reward was capturing someone without an expenditure of resources.

Ultimately, I want more of the second. Reward clever play. Of which, WotC adventures appear to instead introduce set pieces that focus on multi-round combats and execution of character builds.

Which begs the question, in a role-playing game, am I engaging as my character? Or am I telling my character what actions to take?

From a GM stand-point, I much preferred the ambush. The characters had an agenda, laid out a plan, and executed that plan. From this they gained information to further take meaningful action. The combat was decisive and quick, and it resulted in a substantive fictional state change.

We’re about half-way through Tomb of Annihilation and I’d love to wrap things up. Soon we’ll move from hex crawl into dungeon delve. I’m already longing for quick decisive combats.

Doom of the Savage Kings – Review

Answering the Raven Crowking’s call, a review of Doom of the Savage Kings, DCC #66.5: A Level 1 Adventure by Harley Stroh.

I have run Doom of the Savage Kings for two different groups (see my session reports).

What you get

  • An opening quandary
  • A rumor table
  • A dungeon
  • A village
  • A wilderness region
  • A situation with multiple possible solutions

What I love about this adventure

The situation starts with an immediate decision – do you save a woman being carted off for sacrifice? Do you defy the village lord and his strongmen? From here, a rich adventure situation and locale unfolds as the time pressures mount.

The adventure instills a strong sense of Norse/Celtic villages. As I read and play through this adventure, I think of King Hrothgar’s Hall from The 13th Warrior and Theoden’s Hall from the Lord of the Rings.

The tightly written Doom of the Savage Kings sits on the top-tier of campaign opening adventures. The opening quandary pushes characters to show their true colors and sets the initial tone of their upcoming career.

Polymorph, Wild Shape and the Barbarian Rage

TL;DR A barbarian suspends any active rage and may not enter a rage while polymorphed via a polymorph spell.

The other evening, in running the D&D 5E adventure Tomb of Annihilation, the players brought forth a raging King Kong. The warlock polymorphed the raging barbarian into a giant ape. We went with the rage continuing for the barbarian; after all we allowed the druid/barbarian to rage in wild shape. But that polymorph ruling festered as I thought through the long-term ramifications – a huge pile of hit points that burn at a far slower rate.

Before we get too far, let’s look at rules:

Rage In battle, you fight with primal ferocity. On your turn, you can enter a rage as a bonus action… Your rage lasts for 1 minute. It ends early if you are knocked unconscious or if your turn ends and you haven’t attacked a hostile creature since your last turn or taken damage since then. You can also end your rage on your turn as a bonus action.

 

Polymorph The creature is limited in the actions it can perform by the nature of its new form, and it can’t speak, cast spells, or take any other action that requires hands or speech.

That’s a little murky. Rage requires a bonus action to activate, so while polymorphed a character could not start nor deliberately end a Rage. But what about polymorphing someone already raging? Is it important that Enraged is not a game condition, akin to poisoned, restrained, etc?

Let’s look D&D team responses on Twitter.

From Jeremy Crawford, lead rules designer:

Polymorph replaces your game statistics, including class features, with those of the beast. If you’re a barbarian, you lose Rage.https://twitter.com/JeremyECrawford/status/905513072898531330

Mike Mearls, co-creator of 5e responded Yes to the following question:

Barbarian rages, get Polymorphed into Giant Ape. Does the character keep the rage on them as a Giant Ape? https://twitter.com/mikemearls/status/899824708027154432

Conflicting answers from two reliable sources. Jeremy Crawford’s response provides deeper transparency into the reasoning, so I’m inclined to lean towards that answer.

I also want to look towards why barbarian/druids can rage and wild shape. For reference, here is the relevant druid wild shape ability.

Druid Wild Shape You retain the benefit of any features from your class, race, or other source and can use them if the new form is physically capable of doing so. However, you can’t use any of your special senses, such as darkvision, unless your new form also has that sense.

Where druid wild shape grants explicit permission to keep the benefit of any features, polymorph does not. Polymorph instead limits the actions you can perform.

My refinement to polymorph is:

The creature loses the benefits of any features from class, race, or other sources and instead can perform actions according to the nature of its new form. It can’t speak, cast spells, or take any other action that requires hands or speech.

Let’s Read “Star’s without Number” – Equipment and Vehicles

A part of my Let’s Read “Stars without Number” series. Go grab your free copy of SWN and join in.

Equipment and Vehicles

Encumbrance

  • Readied Items – half Strength, rounded down
  • Stowed Items – full Strength

A readied item is immediately available during a character’s turn. A stowed item is on the character’s person, but require more time to draw out.

The system appears quick and easy to adjudicate. Some items require more than one slot for being readied or stowed.

Credits and Money

A quick concession on the interchangability of credits from planet to planet, followed by stating that even precious metals may not be precious after extensive asteroid mining.

Equipment Legality

A reminder that different systems may have different laws for weapons and armor.

Forbidden Science

Thou shalt not:

  • make tools of humankind – no genetic tech to enslave or control humanity
  • create unbraked minds – AIs must be braked
  • create devices of planetary destruction

Technology Levels

Postech – Any technology that is functional and maintainable since the campaign wide Scream Pretech – Pre-Scream technology more sophisticated than Postech

From sticks and stones (TL 0) to 2st century tech (TL 3) to Postech (TL 4) to Pretech (TL 5) and beyond.

To build a Spike-drive (and FTL transporation) you need TL 4.

Armor

Because no one likes getting shot.

  • Primitive – useless against TL 4 and up weapons, but it’ll help against bows, arrows, revolver bullets
  • Street armor – lightweight and wearable under normal cloths
  • Combat armor – for military and law enforcement
  • Powered armor – immune to TL 3 or lower weapons, a step below a mech

Different armor takes up 0, 1, or 2 slots along different tech levels.

Ranged Weapons

A variety of weapons from TL 1 up to TL 5, each taking 1 or 2 slots. Advantages of TL 2 weapons are ease of maintenance; most any planet with minimal tools will do.

Some weapons can fire in burst mode; Spend 3 rounds of ammunition to get a +2 to hit and damage.

Melee Weapons

An abstract list of weapons with two variables: size (small, medium, large) and technology (primitive and advanced). From there you, as a player, name the weapon. Monobloade, knife, pulse-guisarme, chainsword, etc.

Larger weapons do more damage, inflict more shock, and require more slots.

Plenty of variation and options.

Heavy Weapons

These weapons require tripods, fixed support, or vehicle mounting.

Some heavy weapons can lay down suppressive fire, using double ammo, and automatically hitting everyone for half damage to anyone not under hard cover.

General Equipment

  • Ammo and Power
  • Communications
  • Computing Gear
  • Field Equipment
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Tools and Medical

A wide variety of equipment to support hacking, healing, communication, tinkering, and power.

Of particular note is the Lazarus Patch; A one time medical device that greatly reduces the difficulty (to 6 instead of 8) of the Heal skill check for reviving people.

Lifestyles, Employees, and Services

Guidance on how to pay for the type of lifestyle your character wants (or is living).

A quick chart of wages for employees by skill type and skill rank. And a chart for services and their costs – Bribes, forgeries, intensive medical care, interstellar mail, workshop rental, passage, and wildly decadent party. A laundry list of services an adventurer might want.

Vehicles & Drones

A list of vehicles and drones, and their game statistics. Plenty of interesting options.

Cyberware

Expensive personal modifications, that incur system strain; which reduces a character’s limit for psionic healing and stimulant drugs.

Artifacts

Stars without Number assumes a past when technology was more potent, even bordering on magic. This chapter provides some ideas of what that tech could be.

Modding and Building Equipment

Stars without Number provides a ruleset and framework for building and modifying equipment.

Modifications require three things: time, money, and pretech parts. Characters have ample time and can earn money, but to get pretech parts, they’ll need to search, scrounge, and adventure for it. And then spend time to maintain.

Characters may also build new equipment, choosing to jury-rig something, build it out normally, or even strive for a masterwork device (which allows a mod installation that requires no maintenance).

A character has a threshold of maximum maintenance – better of Int or Con modifier plus 3 times the character’s tech skill.

Conclusion

As is traditional with sci-fi, characters have access to a laundry list of equipment, many of which will require a significant number of credits or pretech components. All of which drive the characters towards adventure.

Which is what an equipment list should be; A list of aspirational items that the players seek to acquire.

Do you prefer your RPG Combat as War or Sport?

I was reminded again today of a long running thread on Enworld.org discusses the difference between Combat as War and Combat as Sport.

There are two competing ideologies about combat in RPGs. The modern one, Combat as Sport, is based around the idea of two more-or-less evenly matched sides engaging in combat where luck and good play within the intended rules of the combat system prevails. The older ideology, Combat as War, favors seeking every possible advantage in order to make the fight as quick and deadly as possible (and I do mean every possible advantage).

Combat as Sport assumes two sides crashing against each other, likely evenly matched. Here each side aims to build on tactical advantage and to gain tempo; optimize the action economy and so forth. The majority of dice rolls occur during the conflict.

Combat as War assumes each side engages in operational and strategic positioning, one side may well be unaware of the other. Then pow a surprise strike that aims to decide the outcome with minimal reliance on dice rolls. In a Combat as War game, a long-running combat encounter is a loss for the attacker. They are likely depleting more resources, and putting more up to fate.

I prefer “Combat as War”. I suspect other OSR advocates, acolytes, and adherents favor Combat as War as well. There is no room for LeRoy Jenkins in a Combat as War game.

“Combat as War” assumes that the characters will engage in antics to eek out every advantage. The antics and scrappign together a plan is the wheelhouse of tabletop RPGs compared to other systems that have combat elements (e.g. boardgames, wargames, computer games)

When GM-ing a game, nothing compares to the crazy ass shit that players come up with when they:

  1. have time to prepare
  2. know the odds are against them
  3. scratch for most every advantage
  4. and decide to go for it

Take a moment to reflect on your most memorable game sessions and encounters there within. What makes them memorable? What details do you highlight? What makes you smile?

I believe the best “Combat as Sport” story pales in comparison to the story about planning for and executing a strike for a “Combat as War” story.

For Combat as Sport, I imagine the following:

I saw the ledge and knew if I could push the ogre over, we’d win. I went for it, and rolled a nat 20. Woo! Bye bye ogre!

For Combat as War, I envision the following:

We heard there was an ogre guarding a bridge. And they are nasty. So we hatched a plan. First, we’d lace a shank of mutton with a sleeping drug, then someone would approach and attempt to engage the ogre. The ultimate goal was to get the ogre to take the shank of mutton and eat it. Jehat, the rogue with a silver tongue and quite a few evasive maneuvers, approached.

If I have to sit through someone telling me a gaming story, I’d much prefer a Combat as War over a Combat as Sport story. In the real world, I’d rather hear a war story than a sport story.

Game Mechanics and Manifestations of Combat as War

In D&D, mechanics that circumvent the HP mechanic point towards Combat as War:

  • 3E’s poison that does ability damage
  • 5E’s exhaustion mechanic
  • 0E to 3E’s save or die mechanics
  • 3E’s coup de grace mechanic
  • 1E’s assassination table
  • 0E to 2E, and 5E’s morale rolls

Assuming an attacker has access to these, they can strike quick and decisively at a target (albeit relying on a failed save). The cost of spells, in early editions of D&D, was once spent they required far more time to get recover (a full night’s rest and 10 minutes per spell level per spell to re-memorize).

And at a more basic level, look to the XP rewards for early editions. Most of the XP (80%+) came from acquiring treasure. Whereas fighting monsters brough perhaps 20% and a higher chance of death.

Another thing to consider, combat in war-mode tend to be quick and decisive affairs. Not the multi-round grinds of 4e and to a lesser extend 3e and 5e.

Game Mechanics and Manifestations of Combat as Sport

In D&D, mechanics that shift position on the battlefield or are inexhaustable resources:

  • 3E to 5Es Attacks of opportunity
  • 4E’s marking an opponent
  • 3E’s 5 foot step
  • 3E’s cleave and great cleave
  • 4E to 5E’s Healing surges and hit dice
  • 4E to 5E’s “at the end of each round make a save”
  • Powers that encode rules for moving others on the battlefield
  • At-will combat spell powers

Combats in sports-mode tend to be multi-round affairs; Each team vying for position and building on their accumulated tactical advantages.

D&D as Sport or War

By default, the current incarnation of D&D is Combat as Sport. Characters recover hit points quickly and time is a bit abstract. To bring about a more Combat as War element, make sure that time matters. Taking a long-rest outside of a secure location should come with risk (random encounters). Likewise, short-rests should come with danger. Consider modifications to Death Saves (e.g. a failed save sticks with you until you complete a long-rest). Shift XP from combat towards milestones or wealth accumulation.

In other words, shift the game towards an operational and strategic perspective.

Litmus Tests for Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War

Within the fiction, what is the impact of a single roll? As a GM, how much could you place on the line with a single roll? How much does the system allow to be put on the line? The more at stake with a single roll, leads towards a system that is more Combat as War. In Burning Wheel, I could place an entire season’s military campaign on a single Tactics test (with a linked Administration test from the quartermaster).

Another way to rephrase this is: does a dice roll represent a change in momentum or a substantive change in fictional state?

Do you have a gruesome critical hit chart? What does resource management look like? What does the press your luck mechanic look like? What tools do you have to mitigate a bad roll of the dice? How long are your typical combats? What is the ratio of time between combat and not combat?

Further discussion

Systems

As I’ve looked at my game shelf, I thought I’d start to categorize. And there are varying degrees of War and Sport.

Combat as War

Combat as Sport

Tangent

As a software developer, I see analogues to compiled languages vs. interpreted languages. Compiled languages optimize execution, at the expense of greater upfront resources (e.g. compile the code into an executable). Interpreted languages distribute their source code, and when the time comes to execute, the entire code-base is read into memory and then executed.

Combat as War assumes more planning and quick conflict; It is the compiled software language. Whereas Combat as Sport is the interpreted software language.