Friday, 11 January 2013

The Mechanics of Combat

Most games out there possess a combat system. Often this combat system is separate from everything else within the game and takes up a huge chunk of what's going on. That's cool. Games are often about conflict, and the life and death nature of combat is very compelling. So it's important that combat the combat system be clear and concise. The problem is that some games let the combat system get a little out of hand.

So, what makes a good combat system, Steve? Hmmm... that's a really tough question. There are some amazing ways to deal with combat resolution, and they take very different approaches. As with many questions in game design, we are thus presented with multiple right answers. A better question is what characteristics do all good combat systems share? That's a little easier to look at. As I have a propensity for lists, here's a list of what a good combat system needs to be:
-Able to provide Genre Appropriate results

I talked about speed of play in my previous post on mechanics. The danger of combat is that it is often more complex and intricate than other parts of game rules. While tension should be high (you're fighting for your lives, dammit!), it can drag as players spend long stretches looking up rules, determining if attacks connect, determining damage, assigning penalties etc. I have been part of small combat encounters that stretched on for hours, and it sucked. A good combat systems moves, and it moves fast.

Every character in a group has strengths and weaknesses, but during combat, they need to feel as though the rules are fair. Combat characters should dominate in combat, and if they don't they will feel cheated, and rightly so. Example: Back in the very first edition of D&D all weapons did 1d6 damage on a successful hit. That meant a warrior with a great sword was just as effective as a thief with a knife. But that's not all. Daggers allowed 2 attacks per turn. So the thief had double the damage potential of the warrior. That is an example of terrible balance and was somewhat fixed in subsequent editions (dart specialists were deadly in 2nd edition. Seriously, darts!) and was sorted by version 3.5.

Combat is messy and unpredictable, and most rules emulate the randomness of it fairly well, but if you really want to get combat right, your system needs a lot of flexibility. If the system can accomodate and reward innovative ideas, and provide quick solutions for unusual circumstances, then the system has the flexibility it needs to work well. A flexible game can easily deal with a player stating "I want to do X" where X is some random action that might not fit within the standard combat actions. Some good examples of X that I have seen over the years include, "I want to jump on the Ogre's back like Legolas did in Fellowship" or "I want to let the monster bite off my arm, that way it'll swallow the grenade I'm holding" or "The zombie lord is nuclear powered? I hit him with this handy bag full of pencil shavings. Graphite is used to inhibit nuclear reactions!"

Genre Appropriate Results
I can't stress this enough. A combat system needs to provide the feel of its setting. A game about gritty gangland conflict between mobsters better have some good rules for spraying bullets, car bombings, bleeding out, and car chases, while a game about swashbuckling duelists needs to have rules for different sword styles, a way for characters to taunt their rivals, and a very flexible system for dealing with using the environment to assist characters in combat. In short, the rules need to feel right for the game. Believe it or not, most games get this right, but when it's wrong, it's really wrong.
          My favourite example of a botched combat system is Palladium's Robotech RPG. Robotech, the anime, is a soaring space opera full of transforming fighter jets, complicated love triangles, and terrible (but very important) music. Palladium's system kind of got the feel of massive robots with its "mega damage" system, but it totally missed the point of Robotech when it created it's incredibly slow and clunky melee system of combat. It utterly fails to capture the elegance, power, and especially the speed of combat within the anime. It frustrated me enough that I have hacked Robotech for multiple other systems. My favourites to date were using the BESM tri-stat system, and the DP9 silhouette system. But even these hacks were incomplete. To really capture Robotech, the game needs to emulate those giant mecha dogfights, but it also needs to have rules for inspiration and emotion. Emotion (and lack there of) is a core concept in Robotech, and inspiration, especially from music and love, deeply affects how well characters perform in their Mecha. If the game fails to incorporate these aspects in some way, then in my mind, it fails to capture the true spirit of Robotech.

I was originally going to only do 2 posts on mechanics, but I got caught up in the details (and Robotech) so I will do one more later. The last post will be about Resolutions. It really gets into the nitty gritty of rules mechanics, and explains why my system (Rapidfire) is the way it is.

That's all for now.

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