Friday, 2 March 2018

The scrum problem: more thoughts on RPG combat and some Whitehack hacks!

Stuck in the middle with ... yeugh!
A problem with D&D combat is that it's like a rugby scrum. Once you've engaged, you're stuck there until it ends. In rugby, that's when the ball emerges; in RPGs, it's when one combatant loses all their hit points. And that can be dull - a simple trading of d20 and damage rolls until one side wins out. It can also take much longer than the few seconds a scrum takes - even allowing for resets!

Other games do things differently, of course. Runequest's combat feels fast and realistic, but a consequence of speed is that the PC is highly likely to end up dead or maimed. As I've discussed before, that's great for a game in which combat is a last-resort, high-stakes affair - the climax of a session rather than part of its punctuation. But it's not so good for a dungeon crawl.

Tales of Blades and Heroes, the underrated RPG version of the classic skirmish wargame Song of Blades and Heroes, has a great risk/reward element. As in the skirmish game, players choose to attempt between one and three actions; two or more failures have unpleasant consequences - but two or more successes can be combined into more powerful attacks. And because the game has a "downed" or disadvantaged status for combatants, the balance of power can change quite quickly. It doesn't have hit points, though, so unlucky PCs can be killed quite quickly - they have a fate point or some such, if memory serves.

And Dungeon World really frees things through the Powered by the Apocalypse system, wherein descriptions trigger "moves". A combat description ("I slash at the orc's throat with my knife") might be the "hack & slash" combat move, but another ("I dive through the ogre's legs to get behind him") might be "defy danger". What's so great about this system is that it encourages the players to think creatively and doesn't limit them to combat mode - even when their characters are hard pressed by foes.

So there's a strong argument for greater choice in combat situations. But how to do this in D&D-style games without clogging the basic d20 system with  complexity?

The most obvious way is just to encourage players to attempt whatever they want. Most good GMs do this anyway. But it's a good idea to remind players at the start of a session that chandeliers are there to be swung on, chairs to be flung in enemies' ways and embers to be kicked in their faces. Mechanically, a sound rule of thumb is that any "stat-check" option (a DEX check to kick embers in faces, for example) doesn't do actual damage to foes, but inconveniences them or buys the PCs time. And the negative consequences for failure are some minor disadvantage - a missed attack opportunity, an negative (worst of 2d20) roll or a positive (best of 2d20) for the enemies.

Also, tactical retreats should be eminently possible. I'd allow a player to back away from a fight at half-move without any risk - and certainly no free hacks. Attacks would be forfeited, but defence would be unaffected - so, with the shield/parry tweak I'm going to propose below, a character could defend himself perfectly well against a pursuing attacker (who would suffer no penalties from following up). In the "scrum" combat of the recent Whitehack games I've run, players haven't retreated enough. They should be able to draw off attackers (perhaps so a colleague can achieve something in the meantime) and retreat to positions of strength (doorways, most obviously).

Then there are shields. As I argued in my earlier post, shields should matter a lot. They should be truly valuable in combat - much more so than a +1 increment to armour class - but they should be heavy, bulky and something that dungeoneers often have to discard in favour of treasure or escape.

My solution? Adding an opposed roll to d20 combat. I've no idea whether other iterations of D&D already do this, but for Whitehack, here's how I see it. In Whitehack's wonderfully streamlined d20 system, an attacker succeeds by rolling equal to or under his attack value (AV) and over his opponent's armour class (AC). Rolling the AV itself is a critical. In my games, henceforth, a defender with a shield matches the attacker's roll with one of his own. He's aiming to roll higher than the attacker's roll but lower than his own AV (broadened to be 'defence value' too).

So, if Vareesh the Red (AV 14) swings a sword at Tarya Twicefallen (AV 12, AC 3, shield), he needs to roll between 14 and 4 to succeed. But Tarya can block his blow with her shield if she rolls higher than his roll and lower than or equal to her own AV of 12. If Vareesh rolls 7, Tarya turns the blow with a roll of 8 to 12.

In the case of critical hits, the attacking player can choose to either disregard the shield roll (even if it exceeds the attacker's AV ) or break the shield. So, let's say Tarya ripostes after blocking Vareesh's blow. She rolls a 12 - a critical. She decides to do double damage (as with a regular critical) to Vareesh, but she could have opted to break his shield-straps instead.

A shield block can be used only against a single attack in a given turn. But let's expand the system too, to allow characters to fight defensively: forfeiting their attack for a weapon-based parry. This can't be used against the same attacker as a shield, but it could be used against a second attacker (or a second attack from the same attacker). And of course, it can be used by a character without a shield, to allow them to try to hold off an assailant until a friend can help. The same principles apply - including the choice on a critical of double damage or a broken weapon.

At the same time, we should abandon Whitehack's d6-based damage for all weapons and allowed two-handed weapons such as poleaxes and greatswords to do d12 damage (there might be nuances within that - perhaps a greatsword might do d12 + 1, while a poleaxe might reduce AC by 1, for example).

This, I think, gives the players significantly more choice - both within the combat round and without. Wield a two-handed weapon and gain greater damage capacity at the expense of a shield. Fight defensively, or retreat to a place of greater safety, but lose out on the potential to cut your enemy down there and then. These choices involve significant risk/reward tradeoffs - and that's just as it should be.

Shield and plate
Note that shields are of huge value in combat under this system. If you have AC 0, of course you're going to want a shield when a fight breaks out. Unless, that is, you're bedecked in plate armour (for which I'd propose a much higher AC than Whitehack does - perhaps as high as 10 for Wars of the Roses-style plate). In that case, you probably won't bother and will prefer the destructive power of the poleaxe - just as real 15th-century men-at-arms did.

But because shields are heavy, can get in the way and can break (particularly if a GM chooses to cleave one on a critical for narrative purposes), they involve tradeoffs of their own. Carry a shield, but be prepared to have to abandon it because of its bulk in certain circumstances. Grab a shield from a fallen foe - but risk being mistaken for them by a rival faction. Recall the words of Samwise Gamgee in Cirith Ungol:

'The Morgul-stuff, Gorbag's gear, was a better fit and better made', said Sam; 'but it wouldn't do, I guess, to go carrying his tokens into Mordor, not after this business here.'

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