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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Monday, March 8, 2010

Of Goals and Fights

Well, long story short, I've had a few things tossed around in my brain. So I'm gonna share a few RPG ideas that I found to be particularly cool. Thursday comes round, I'm talking about how Firefly's pilot episode gave root to me thinking about initial RPG sessions. Today, though, I'm going to talk about a little something called Mouse Guard. I've not completely finished the rulebook yet, but at the moment I'm enthralled by the system. So I'll pass along an interesting idea from the RPG that you can apply to your own games...

What's Your Goal?
A major aspect of conflict in Mouse Guard is the idea of goals. In a game like D&D, you have one goal in combat: to beat the enemy. Sure, you may be fighting so as to bring about certain events, but it's typically "beat the enemy". In Mouse Guard, things aren't quite so direct. The rules state that you give a goal for the conflict, which can be many things. You could start an argument for the goal of "Keep the guard's mind distracted so my friend can bluff his way past." Then, if you win the conflict, you get your goal. If you lose, but deal damage to your opponent, they have to compromise: give you some of what you were trying to accomplish.

The one major change, then, you could do is to end fights when all members of one side are bloodied. The other side is then declared the victor. You look at goals. The victor's goals are accomplished. The loser's goals are accomplished according to how damaged the other side is; a good rule of thumb is to first count bloodied characters. You might also want to count how many healing surges have been used, or whatever mechanism. I haven't gotten a hard and fast rule yet. Then, the other side gets some of their goal, too, according to that.

Nothing's Perfect
Of course, D&D wasn't quite envisioned with combats where the stakes are anything less than life or death. And those will probably be frequent goals still. Nothing is impossible in the system, though, because it just takes a little practice and creative thought. This also allows you to introduce encounters that would be problematic to have, if they were encounters to the death. You can have the PCs fight characters who aren't outright wanting to kill them.

Really, too, this is already allowed for in the current rules. The fact that enemies are merely unconscious at 0 HP notes the presence of combat that isn't to the death. Combat that isn't about utterly beating up an opponent isn't far off. So, maybe try and suggest this idea to your GM in the next game, unless you are GM, perhaps. Set your Goals, and see how far they let you go.


  1. Enemies aren't automatically unconscious at 0 hit points in 4e. You can, however, choose to knock them unconscious with that final blow. I find it funny that a wizard can do this with magic missile or fireball, but with a creative player there's always an explanation.

    I'll also say that while 1e D&D was basically "kill the monsters, loot their lairs" (such as what Bilbo and the dwarves do to the trolls -- yes, it's essentially Tolkien-sanctioned so long as there's a good story), later editions have a subtle but important difference. Rather than gaining XP by killing things, you gain it by defeating challenges.

    Now, until 3e, there was no real mechanic for easily doing this without slaying something, so it was up to the DM to manage it. Even after the things introduced with 3e, it took until 4e for the skill challenge to really kick in. I've run entire combats as skill challenges, which really brings home the idea of a goal other than killing monsters and looting lairs.

  2. Good point, and I would guess it varies according to groups how things run. The idea of combats as skill challenges is really cool.

  3. It's particularly useful for two reasons: first, in a situation where you have far-ranging movement (such as, in one case for this campaign, trying to get through enemy lines), it's helpful in getting the players to understand a "fight on the run" without having to have one battlemap per round (and without them getting bogged down with "must destroy Monster X"). Second, it makes for a very fast battle, done right, and so doesn't overtax either the players or the story.

    There's also a third reason, but it's more of an "evil DM" reason: penalizing healing surges to represent quick combats gets really scary when done fast and furious -- especially (as has happened in my game) when someone runs out of surges. When they take "real" damage, equal to a surge's worth, from a "mere skill challenge," players get scared. This isn't just for a DM's sadistic pleasure; that's just a side-benefit. It's very useful to hit home how precarious life in a fantasy world can be, and how one wrong move or unlucky roll can spell doom.

    I haven't run a "real," straight-out battle as a skill challenge . . . yet. I've done a couple running skirmishes that would normally be represented by a combat encounter. However, I plan to eventually run a full-out battle with skill challenge rules, except with a few tweaks to represent actual combat ability. I'd detail it here, but I'm going to try for publishing an article on it in Dungeon Magazine after I test the full system on my players.

    Que maniacal laughter.

  4. I really like that. That's very, very clever. Lemme know how the system goes, because that sounds like an interesting way to manage things. How are you planning to tie powers into it?

  5. I run skill challenges in a rather free-form manner. Half the time I don't even list available skills and just let the players come up with reasons for why their choices ought to work. Sometimes I let them "waste" a turn (and on occasion don't let them know it one way or another), but usually I reward creativity.

    So powers would get tied in as a player would suggest it. Attack powers probably wouldn't work, except for a few; the main advantage would be in utility powers, such as a character using a boosting power as if it were a normal skill challenge.

    "Combat challenges" are meant to reflect that visually pleasing yet plot-inconsequential fight that the heroes in a movie need to face before getting to the real BBEGs. Take the Disney Three Musketeers climax where the full corps of musketeers take on the Cardinal's guards. You wouldn't want to script that sort of thing in a game, but it makes a great visual (albeit imaginary in a game) to get from point A to point B. It also explains where the BBEG's guards are, of course, as well as your own allies. Minion-only battles are fun, but they serve to make players feel they're powerful and confident rather than present an actual barrier (though I can be creative with my minions). Additionally, when facing the evil uber-lieutenant solo monster and his cadre of elite guards protecting the lich's inner sanctum, the players wonder where their allies from the Kingdom of Happy Dreams are. A "combat challenge," where the object is to gain entry through enemy lines while your allies take on the low-level evil lackeys, serves a multi-fold purpose.

    I have to write my article and send it off, though. I'll show you my work privately.

  6. That's good, it sounds like probably the best way to run skill challenges. Strictness there is pretty much a recipe for artificiality.

    That sounds very, very interesting. (I think I'll also have to show you Mouse Guard when I'm over there...)

  7. The kids will be interested in Mouse Guard, I think. They have one of the graphic novels.

    And if you're at my game on Sunday you may witness a combat challenge in progress. It depends on how far the story progresses.

  8. Yeah, I heard about that! The system works quite well, I think. As a friend puts it, it's all about "simple but compelling" stories.

    Combat challenge also sounds cool.


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