The April 2015 RPG Blog Carnival is being hosted by RPG Alchemy with the subject of “The Combat Experience.” I was mulling over what to do for this particular subject and found I had two or three different things that came to mind, so I’m going to do a series of posts regarding the “combat experience” in role playing games. Let’s roll…
Other than the obvious issues of matching the tone and expectations of the genre your are gaming in, another thing that can affect and mold the players’ experience of combat in a role playing game is the set of rules mechanics being used. The mechanics can easily affect tone, verisimilitude, and player expectations for battling the forces of evil.
When I first started gaming, Dungeons & Dragons and Traveler were pretty much it, but soon TSR had Gangbusters, Top Secret, and Gamma World — all using the early d20 mechanics. Those were created for use with high fantasy wargaming with role playing bolted on as an after-thought. The rules promoted a tactical mentality, and a tendency — if not need — to use battle maps, design adventures that were fairly detailed. For the spy genre, which was already near and dear to me, d20 Top Secret had some serious issues, and it was delight for me to read the James Bond: 007 game that hit the shelves around 1983.
The rules push more roleplaying, with attention to weaknesses and skills, the quirks of specific gear, cars, and guns. It had a bunch of specific rules for things like gambling or seduction that, today, seem unnecessary, but combat…combat and chase rules were the shining spot of the rules. The game used a single d100 role, and based on the difficulty, your result had a “quality” to it. Ten percent of the needed number (so 9 or lower on a 90, for instance) allowed you to do much higher damage than an acceptable (46-90, in this case…) Damage was based on your hand to hand damage, which was based on your strength (plus a modifier), and for guns the damage was based on the muzzle energy of the weapon. Novel, and good for making the game feel realistic. But it was also a James Bond game — the heroes couldn’t just bite it without some chance of success, so it had the “hero point” mechanic, now common in a lot of games, that allowed you to buy down damage, improve a roll, etc. The game, for all its quirks, was wonderfully suited to the tone and expectations of the James Bond subgenre of espionage films — more pulp than reality.
GURPS was already out, and the intense mathematics of the character generation made it uninteresting to me, but one thing I noted was that its attempt to be everything to everyone meant it did everything acceptably, but nothing particularly well (Your mileage may vary.) Traveler handled quasi-realistic sci-fi well, and the system was simple, but the random character generation — like that of D&D, and other games was off-putting after the ability to craft your character to your concept, like you could in James Bond: 007. JB:007 would be my go-to rules set for the next 20 years or so, for modern and even some sci-fi settings. It had enough “crunch” to feel real, but enough wiggle room for storytelling to trump pure tactical simulation.
I dabbled with superhero games through the late ’80s, the height of the comic resurgence that is now informing most of the superhero movies these days. There was Champions, which really allowed you to dial in on character creation, but was so detailed and math oriented that you needed to buy time of a Cray supercomputer to build a character in less than a week. There was Marvel Superheroes (FASRIP) which had a very informal and unstructured feel to the rules that I found I didn’t like. I was looking for more crunch, more realism in my superhero games at the time (a holdover, no doubt, from cutting my teeth on JB:007.) I wanted to know how far I threw my villain, or how many walls he punched through from knockback, and I found that in the wonderfully metric and mathematical DC Heroes that Mayfair released. WE played the hell out of DCH for two years, until Space:1889 caught my eye, but looking back at it, there was a lot to like about the bare bones of Marvel, and I suspect that it would well match the tone of a four-color supers setting.
Later, I found Marvel Heroic from Margaret Weiss to be one of the best RPG rules sets to come out in years. It was perfectly suited to its subject — a Cortex-version of Fate, really — that was freeform enough to let you do what you wanted, and allowed for dramatically different power levels to work together. Hawkeye like characters might not be able to injure the Hulk, but he could distract, set up complications that would slow the opposition down, while Iron Man could blast the bejeezus out of him. Death was a possibility, but in the comics, no one stays dead (unless you want to lose the rights to that character down the line!), so the Fate complications that injure or impede the character, rather than killing them, is completely appropriate to the genre. The initiative system was superb — the guy with the best reflexes goes first, and then choses the next player or GM, leading to a very nice flow in combat, and allows for character to do their schtick. Example: maybe Captain America can’t hurt the robots from the trailer for Avengers 2 much, but he can throw his shield at Thor (essentially giving him dice for the attack), who then knocks the shield through baddies with his hammer like he was looking to set the Hall of Fame record for longest hit.
Space: 1889 is another excellent example of how mechanics affected play. The setting was superb, and the mechanics lent themselves well to traditional wargaming style RPGing. This was obviously the point when one looks at the extensive line of miniature and the cloudship war game that accompanied the release. But the rules weren’t great for dealing with role playing, and while it handled mass combat well, personal combat was unremarkable — the rules didn’t necessarily hinder play, but they lent nothing to the Victorian speculative fiction setting the game was placed in. I spent the middle of the ’90s trying to find a rules set that would better emulate the Space: 1889 setting. I liked the Castle Falkenstein mechanics, but they were kludged in many places.
With one of our players of the time, I kitbashed a combat system that would fit the playing card as randomizer main mechanic (which was light, swift, and excellent.) I tweaked the rules so that every player had a deck of cards of their own, and drew a number of cards for a hand. This allowed them options; they could plan their actions because they had a sense of what they could do — have a strong heart in the hand? Maybe talking your way out of a situation was better than trying to fight or slip away. Our combat system replaced the fencing-based action/pauses they had and created a more pulpy mechanic where the cards in your hand matched lines of attack — head, body, lower, or defense only. It played swiftly and was tremendous fun, and allowed for swordfights and fisticuffs that were much more fun than blasting the opposition with guns — and after all, Victorian sci-fi is more about two-fisted adventure than running guns on the fuzzies (although there is certainly a place for that.)
The next set of mechanics to come along that suited the setting were the Cortex rules set by Margaret Weiss. They used it for their Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, and Supernatural lines. It was a rules-lite system that allowed you to build your characters with a number of assets and flaws that helped or hampered them mechanically, and allowed for the accumulation of plot points (see the hero points above) and by doing so pushed storytelling over tactical simulation. It’s an excellent set of rules, and combat is well simulated with your damage being based on how much you surpassed your target number (plus the weapon’s damage die.) It is eminently, easily tweakable to fit a genre — as is obvious by the various iterations of Cortex Plus. It’s pretty much my go-to system –as evidenced by the heavy support for the old Cortex this website gives.
There are other games that had been well-suited to what they were trying to accomplish, but were very focused, s a result. Twilight:2000 was well designed to model military survival after a nuclear war, but the rules could be clunky, hard to manage, and did not really push role playing (I found; you may love it, and that is okay!) The Morrow Project was an mess of a role playing gam, but simulated gunshot injuries well — no surprise that many of the rules evolved out of a dissertation on ballistics and gunshot injuries. If you’re looking for realism in your violence, that’s the place to go.
In addition to addressing the expectations of your players, and the tropes of the genre you are playing in, choosing the right system can aid or hinder the sort of experience you want the players to have when addressing combat. Choose wisely, as a really old knight once said…