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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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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Combat: Fast and Loose

There's a few different models for combat in RPGs floating around, but one of the problems with them is the pacing issue. Many of the leading systems have combat rules that lend themselves best to a detail-oriented climactic fight. But what if you want to hold a quick conflict to advance the story? Getting prepped and rolling initiative can get in the way of a quick-moving story, or an establishing scene. Still, action can drive the story along. What to do?

To the Indie Games, Robin!
There's a system that I'll be borrowing from to demonstrate a way to solve this problem. Wushu Open is a system which begins with the notion of a high-action system that doesn't pull punches. The core concept of this system is "The Principle of Narrative Truth", which I prefer to call "The Principle of Beating Up Bad Guys". It goes like this...

Whatever a player describes (unless it's outrageously beyond the allowable scope, like declaring a lethal blow against a major enemy) happens.

This means that in a turn, a player will literally describe how they "wheel away from the goblin's strike, springing forward and slicing through a weak spot in their armor." What do they roll the dice for? To see how much farther their actions advance the story. If they fail, maybe the goblin manages to survive the attack. Maybe killing the goblin dropped the hero into a disadvantageous position. This is something that Mouse Guard players might recognize, and it's a bit something I've laid over the Wushu framework. Failure doesn't mean you didn't succeed in something you were trying to do. It means that what you were trying to do brought about results in a way you didn't necessarily want.

Applying it to the Game!
When would you use a fight like this in a more traditional RPG? Well, depending on how you're pacing the session, you might want to have a rough-and-tumble scene where you're not trying to beat the players up. You're just trying to have some action. Of course, there's another context, a bit more system-specific, where this can come into play. That, of course, is 4th Edition D&D's "skill challenges".

Skill challenges can take any number of forms, as long as you have the idea of getting successes before failures. This is a bit more freeform than previous images you may have had of skill challenges; really, the skill challenge structure in such a combat exists for one reason--to keep score. It tells you who's winning the fight. From there, just go crazy with the action and descriptions. It counts as an encounter, but it flows a lot faster, because each player is only taking one action, and that's a simple action. Furthermore, there are no bad guys to take actions.

Whether you're trying to liven up combat, shake up the pacing in the game, or simply provide a new spin on things, don't forget to let the fists fly. Well, and swords and spears and fireballs, too. Most importantly, remember the sage advice of Morpheus...

"Stop trying to hit me, and hit me!"


  1. Ah, that's a very interesting approach. I might try to integrate that into my game. Well, I think we can test it out, at least.


  2. Yeah, I've actually participated in a skill challenge combat, and while it didn't go quite as far, in terms of letting players take narrative control, it was really fast, furious, and fun.

    Improvisation was great. I played a halfling chaos sorcerer, because I was guest-playing and the slot was open. It was a fun combat, the moment I enjoyed most was when I made a bluff check. We were defending against a zombie horde, and I said that my character made lightning strikes, and then proclaimed that the Heavens themselves were showing us their favor.

    It worked.


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