There a few good ones we’ve had over the years, but I’m going to go with the combat system a friend and I cobbled together one evening to address the weak combat system for Castle Falkenstein. We had been running Space: 1889 in CF to remedy the badly flawed mechanics of the original GDW rules, but found the pause/move thing they were trying to emulate didn’t play for cinematic sword fights and fisticuffs. Something more was needed, so we took a page from Lace & Steel‘s book…

We had characters’ hands based on their agility or skill. You had between 4-6 cards. The suits represented different lines of attack: diamond (intellect skills otherwise) became head, heart was chest and arms, clubs, lower; and spades were a defense only card — dodging, etc. that could be used for any line defense, but not for attack. You would pull a card for an attack, announce the line, the opponent would draw a card (if you didn’t have the line of attack in your hand, each card could be thrown as a 1, otherwise, it was the number of the card.) Add to your skill and the higher won the round.

It worked quickly, gave the players a chance at strategy in combat, lent a real cinematic flair to fights. You could see the uppercuts, jabs, the slices and stabs.

Here are a few of the house rules we’ve developed over the years to make Castle Falkenstein flow faster and better.

1.  Each player and the GM get a deck of cards for play.  Discards get shuffled back into your own deck.  This seems to speed play by not depleting the a solitary player deck.

2.  New combat rules…

Initiative options for gunfighting — an opposed Perception and/or Gunslinger test.  (Skill is in the Six-Guns & Sorcery book.)  For fisticuffs or fencing, draw a card from your fortune hand and add to the applicable skill.

One we use for speed and a bit of random chance: for brawling and fisticuffs, as well as for gunfights in the same is all characters and the GM cut their fortune deck and add the result to their fisticuffs, fencing, gunslinger, or firearms skills — whichever is appropriate.  It’s a fast way of knowing who goes first and is more random than drawing a card for the action.

Once initiative is determined, firearms tests are conducted as per the usual rules — marksmanship or gunslinger test+card drawn from the fortune deck v. athletics draw of their target.

Fencing/fisticuffs is where we changed things up a bit.  This is the only time the fortune deck changes from the standard 4-card hand.  Characters with skills of good or great gain another card (5), excellent or extraordinary two more cards (6.)  this represents the greater number of opportunities a more skilled fighter can see/exploit.   This is the number of cards they will have for the whole of the action round.  It is replenished at the end of the round.

Those with initiative go first, making their attack.  Attacks do not have to be skill suit specific (i.e. clubs for fisticuffs.)  Instead, the attacker chooses a “line of attack”  based on the cards in his deck.  He can choose upper (torso and head represented by diamonds), middle (arms and abdomen/groin represented by hearts), or lower (legs/groin represented by clubs.)  Spades are an all purpose card used to defend on any line of the attack and represent the ability to dodge and weave out of the way of an attack.

The face value of the card (if in the correct line of attack) is added to the appropriate combat skill.  If the player chose upper, but had not diamonds, they can play multiple cards of other suits — each adding one.  [Yes, players have had to do this…]  The defender must play a card of the proper suit (an upper attack requires an upper defense), but if they don’t have the right suit, they can play the spade for full face value, or any number of the other suits in their hand at a face value of one.

Example:  Sir George is fighting the nefarious Han Ping with swords.  George has the initiative and goes for an upper attack.  He pullss a 10 of diamonds, giving him an 18 with his great fencing, and holds it, waiting to show.  He calls the line of attack, and Ping’s player draws a card from his deck.  He has no diamonds, but does have a jack of spades.  With his good fencing, it’s a 17 — doing Ping an injury. (You can use the original rules for weapon damage and injury or the Comme il Faut with this…I prefer the CiF, myself.)

Had Ping gotten an 18 (a queen of spades or hearts), he would have stopped the blow.  If he stopped the blow, or was still able to act, he would pick a line of attack, Sir George would defend.

Changing initiative:  Once a player/NPC has initiative, they keep it unless on of three things happen: 1) their attack on someone fails by three or more points (UNLESS they pull a spade of equal or higher value to the attack card!), 2) they are struck by their opponent after having made an attack, 3) the opponent disengages from the fight.  Once the opponent has initiative, they keep it until one of these factors is met.

Example:  George clipped Ping, but the injury was not serious.  Ping strikes back with a quick slash lower (clubs) with a 4 of clubs: 10 total.  George has nothing in clubs or spades!  He plays two hearts for a total of 10.  He stops the blow and retains initiative.  The fortune hands are replenished.  (5 for George, 4 for Ping since Ping has one hit to him [ordinarily, with a GOOD fencing he’d have 5.])  George has crap  cards, however:  he plays a 4 of hearts for a total of 12.  Ping draws a 6 of spades:  he equals George to stop damage and beats the face value of the attack with a spade…he takes initiative for the round unless George can beat his next attack by 3 (or has equal or higher spade to the attack card.)

EFFECTS OF INJURY:  each injury taken lowers the fortune hand of the character 1 card.  This is the only time the fortune deck can drop below 4 cards and reflects the effect of injury on the person and the limitations they have to exploit openings in combat.

When you no longer have cards, you can no longer fight and drop unconscious for the rest of the scene.

STOP HITS:  Sometimes, you can make a desperate attempt to stop an incoming attack.  You don’t have the right suit or a spade to defend.  If the player has a 2 or 3 in their hand, they may “stop hit” — attacking to stop an incoming attack.  The unresolved attack card is placed face down on the table and the attack defends against the stop hit as normal.  If successful, their original attack follows through.  If their defense fails, the original attack does not happen and the card is discarded.

If a stop hit succeeds by three or more, the defender gains initiative.

Example:  Ping goes for a head strike and lays face-down his queen of diamonds.  George’s player, seeing the delight in the other player’s eyes, knows his 3 of diamonds isn’t going to cut it.  He calls “stop hit!  Upper!”  Ping’s player has no other diamonds and his queen is committed.  He has no spades and plays all three of his remaining cards for a total of 9.  George hits with an 11.  He injures Ping again, and stops the attack, but does not gain initiative…

JOKERS:  Jokers play like a 15 on an attack or defense, but also give a special bonus as an attack or defense.  In an attack, the player may chose to disarm their opponent, grapple, or knock them down or back.  A joker played in defense allows the defender to disengage from the fight, and either run for it or find a better position and retest for initiative, if they want to reengage.  I have allowed them to disarm their attacker if they succeeded by a wide margin (3+.)

If both players draw jokers, the defender gets to disengage without harm, but the attack may disarm them.  Initiative is redrawn.

GRAPPLING:  conducted as Physique challenges using the ability suit (clubs.)

I’VE ONLY GOT SPADES….AND INITIATIVE:  You lose your attack.  you just couldn’t see an opening.  You do not lose initiative next round unless the other player succeeds in striking you.

MULITPLE OPPONENTS:  There are only so many openings that can be exploited by multiple opponents.  For each extra attacker, the GM may add a card to the attack fortune hand (which is a base of 4 cards.)  Example:  4 guys jump Sir George on the Wapping Docks.  He pulls his swordcane and gets his attack fortune hand of 5 for his great fencing.  The attackers have 7 cards in their hand (4+3 extra attackers.)  The opponents only get one attack/round, but they’re more likely to hit.

While a bit fast and loose, these combat rules make combat fast! and aid in giving a sense of what your character is doing.  Calling lines of attack gives ideas for what they are trying to do and gets away from the “18!  I hit!” mediocrity of a fight sequence.

Have fun!