Facilitating better RPG combats

The best sessions I’ve ever played involved player characters bringing an agenda and reaching for it. They take their situation, charge forward, and set events in motion.

Characters often achieve their goals through conflict. In most games, that means combat. Characters will also quest for relics, knowledge, boons, etc. Or through subterfuge, try to avoid overt conflict.

For now I’m focusing on combat.

Combat

The best combats have had one or both of the following:

  • A goal other than “destroy the enemy.”
  • Multiple paths of engagement

If the characters want a physical object, assume they will execute a “smash and grab” plan. They must bypass the opposition. Let the players choose and plan how they do that.

Provide multiple paths to engage in the combat – a main entrance and a side entrance if you will. I personally enjoy when characters agree to attack a common point, but one group goes this way and the other goes that way. The players can make meaningful choices and plans; And they will discuss this in front of you. Listen to what they say. Build on that in the future.

You’ll also want to consider the following procedures:

  • Morale – in meeting heavy resistance, do we want to continue?
  • Chase – with the opposition routed, do we want to give pursuit?

Morale Procedure

Adding Morale checks into combat helps show that outcomes can vary. Morale checks also telegraph information to the players:

  • We can back down from a fight
  • Our opposition has yet to crack, perhaps we should reconsider our approach

Morale provides another strategy the players can use: strike hard and gamble on triggering a morale check. Surprise and planning become very important.

I find morale harder to remember when I use a set initiative for a combat. I have adopted either group initiative or re-rolling initiative each round. This creates another natural point to check morale.

I also enjoyed the “bloodied” mechanic of 4E; a clear indicator of the toughness of the opposition.

Chase Procedure

The chase procedure facilitates transitioning out of combat-mode and back to exploration or role-playing mode. Without a chase procedure, you either hand-wave the retreat or remain in initiative order, with characters moving tens of feet at a time.

By staying in initiative order you remain longer in the combat-mode – a more “precise” blow-by-blow mode that requires more time to play out. Combat-mode also reinforces slaying the opposition as the primary goal.

The 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide has procedures for chases. As does Labyrinth Lord. They have different approaches, but are useful in considering how you think about chases.

At present my procedures for chases are ad hoc. If the PCs choose to flee, I let them get away. But I want to tighten that up.

Update: Take a look at David Black‘s “Snakes & Swords” chase procedures. I’m adopting this!

Conclusion

In a future post, I’ll expand from the conflict to the character agenda.

Meanwhile, I encourage you to take a look at Burning Wheel’s “Range and Cover” subsystem. It has group initiative, morale, and chase all baked into a dangerous skirmish-style subsystem.

Trauma and Forced Retirement in DCC

This rule replaces the permanent loss of stamina for bleeding out (DCC p93). It builds on Goblin Punch’s “Death, Trauma, and Retirement: I’m Gettin’ Too Old For This Shit.” I have only established an algorithm, I have not brought this to the game table.

A character that was bleeding out suffers trauma from their near fatal injuries. Anyone that is saved from bleeding out gains one point of Trauma, adds a question mark to their Trauma score. They also gain a terrible scar from the wound that downed them.

Effects of Trauma

When the characters come to a place they could conceivably retire, the Judge may call for a Trauma check. All characters with a question mark by their Trauma score must roll a d20. If they roll equal-or-less than their Trauma score, the character decides to retire. Otherwise, erase the question mark as the character is ready to continue adventuring.

Retiring

When a character retires, the Judge records the following:

  • The character’s Luck score and modifier
  • The character’s Trauma score at the time of retirement
  • Complication score – it starts at 0
  • A Complication die indicating the potential severity of the complications the character might experience (d3 is minimal, d30 is Orcus knows their true name)
  • Possible complications – unfinished business, debts, patron bonds, etc.

Between each session the Judge should check how retirement is treating each retired character.

Retirement & Complication Procedure

  • Check the character’s Trauma
    • If the character’s Trauma is greater than 0, roll a Luck check
      • On success, reduce Trauma by one. If Trauma is 0, reduce the Trauma die by one step.
      • On failure, roll the character’s Complication die
        • If the result is 3 or greater add the result to their current Complication score
    • Otherwise, if the character’s Trauma is 0
      • Decrease the character’s complication die one-step
  • Check for any complications
    • If the complication die is a d3 or greater, roll Luck again, with a DC equal to the character’s complication score
      • On success, no new complications occur.
      • On failure, if a retired character is Desperate, that characters complications have taken out the character. Otherwise mark the character as Desperate.
    • Otherwise the character has tidied up all of their lingering complications

Characters with 0 Trauma are free to begin adventuring again. When a character reaches 0 Trauma, the Judge should ask if the previous player would like to play that character.

Design Discussion

There are a lot of moving parts in this algorithm, but the key considerations are:

  1. What was their trauma when they failed their Trauma check?
  2. What is their luck score?

I decided that a person still recovering from the trauma of adventuring is ill-prepared to cope with the complications that come from adventuring.

I also wanted a point when desperation sets in for retired characters. Their complications have finally caught up with them. It is a chance for them to reach out to the heroes.

Staring Complication Die Uneventful (Average Checks) Dead (Average Checks) Checks While Desperate
d3 54.9% (7.42) 45.1% (9.65) 3.12
d4 42.33% (6.96) 57.67% (7.95) 2.56
d5 34.36% (7.1) 65.64% (7.08) 2.25
d6 28.8% (7.55) 71.2% (6.52) 2.09
d7 24.75% (8.17) 75.25% (6.15) 1.96
d8 22.0% (8.86) 78.0% (5.84) 1.87
d10 18.78% (9.52) 81.22% (5.34) 1.72
d12 16.98% (10.3) 83.02% (4.98) 1.6
d14 15.76% (11.18) 84.24% (4.71) 1.52
d16 15.04% (12.07) 84.96% (4.49) 1.45
d20 14.26% (12.97) 85.74% (4.13) 1.34
d24 13.76% (13.84) 86.24% (3.9) 1.28
d30 13.44% (14.79) 86.56% (3.7) 1.21

The average checks in parentheses is the average number of retirement procedure iterations required to get to that state – dead or uneventful.

For those interested, I wrote a Ruby script to simulate through these procedures.

Additional Burning Wheel Procedures

Over the past few months, I’ve been looking at OSR rules and procedures. With the arrival of the Burning Wheel Codex, I wanted to map some of the OSR procedures to Burning Wheel Gold.

Reaction

When introducing new NPCs that are not part of a Circle test, consider their disposition based on their BITs and any relevant reputations of the PCs. When in doubt consult the following table:

2d6 Result
2 Hostile
3-5 Unfavorable
6-8 Indifferent
9-11 Favorable / Talkative
12 Helpful

Morale

When NPCs encounter stiff opposition, the GM should reference their relevant BITs to determine a response. When in doubt consult the following table:

2d6 Result
2 Routes
3-6 Retreats
6-8 Assess fight or flight
9-11 Fight on
12 To the Death!

Initiative

If there are multiple actions in which timing is critical, leverage the following procedure for simultaneous declaration:

  1. Players may declare task and intent (+1s for Speed tests).
  2. Game master declares task and intent.
  3. Remaining players declare task and intent (-1s for Speed tests).
  4. All participants roll Speed to determine order of execution.
  5. Resolve actions from most successes to least. Characters may cancel actions but not revise.

This is a refinement on my experience hacking together a Burning Wheel Conflict resolution – a conflict that involved 34 characters that took 20 minutes for talking, stabbing, and looting.