Super-Simple Combat Maneuvers

I’m a fan of players being able to do more things in combat than just tick off damage against opponents.  Things like disarming, tripping, forcing the opponent to yield ground, binding their weapon and so forth add a lot to the feel of combat and the tactical options.  I’m not a big fan of most of the rules that I’ve seen to do things like this, including various rules I’ve come up with over the years, because they either add too much complexity or accomplish too much or too little, or both.   Sometimes certain maneuvers become surreally effective, particularly if you’ve optimized your character; other times there’s no point in trying: you’re strictly better off just hacking away, and the heck with flavor.  It’s hard to strike a balance, particularly if you’re concerned with not just whether the combat mini-game has no clear dominant strategy but whether the results seem plausible and entertaining for the kind of genre you’re playing.

I think, though, I’ve come up with a solution that finesses most of these problems nicely, and can be bolted on to a wide variety of systems and genres.  I give you Super-Simple Combat Maneuvers:

  • The attacker declares that he wants to attempt a combat maneuver, such as disarming an opponent, forcing him back, knocking him down, etc.
  • He makes an ordinary, unmodified to-hit roll.  A miss means it failed.
  • On a critical the maneuver is a complete success, and the declared result occurs.
  • If the to-hit is a success, but not a critical, the defender chooses whether to accept the results of the declared maneuver or just take damage as if it were an ordinary hit.

That’s all there is to it.

So why would a defender choose to take the effect, rather than the damage?  Well, because it seems like a better option at the time.  It’s going to be hard to push somebody back into a bubbling pool of lava, or make them drop their only weapon, but it’s not impossible (thanks to the crit=success rule) and a lot of the time it may beat taking damage.  In systems, like D&D at higher levels, where a character can take dozens of hits before being in trouble you may have to wear them down a while before this sort of maneuvering for advantage starts to have bite…but that’s a feature of being able to take oodles of hits.  If you allowed maneuvers to be a cheap way around that, then you would lead straight into the kind of balance problems this is designed to avoid.  To the extent that you’re satisfied with characters being able to shrug off hits, you should probably be satisfied with them shrugging off other combat effects–at least until they start to be worried about taking the sword-blow to the arm instead of dropping their weapon.

In more lethal games, it should be a big temptation to go with the maneuver instead of toughing it out, particularly if doing so doesn’t obviously equal defeat.  That puts a premium on maneuvering when you have a cunning plan, such as setting somebody up for a flank attack or clearing a path for a comrade, instead of a cheap way to bypass the normal combat procedure.

On the attacker’s part, there’s no real penalty for trying something interesting.  The opportunity cost is just losing the chance at whatever the normal critical effect is, plus giving the foe the chance to avoid damage.  But presumably you’re attempting the maneuver in the first place because you think that under the circumstances you gain a greater advantage from whatever you’re trying instead of damage from a normal blow.  If they agree, then at least you still get your damage…if they don’t, well that’s what makes for tactically interesting decisions.

One nice feature is that there’s very little chance that some clever rules-monkey (hi Doug!) can use this to break your game, at least any worse than it’s already broken, since whereever it might be abusive the defender has the option of defaulting to the regular system.  The weak point that I can see is that if “criticals” are too easy to get in the default system then you might have too many battles ending with the defenders pushed off a cliff…but that should be easy enough to tweak (e.g. by require a crit and a “confirmed” crit, with the confirmation roll tailored to exactly how often you think the attacker should be able to force the issue…which depending on your style of play could be never).  In the worst-case, you end up using the default combat all the time, but at least it’s cost you no effort or extra complexity.

So what counts as a maneuver?  I’m inclined to say that players should feel free to make stuff up as they go, perhaps with GM veto.  If players keep trying to shoot guns out of their foes’ hands, a la an old TV Western, that should be taken as a hint that they’re happy with that as a style instead of making it a tug-of-war with the GM over which genre conventions the game adheres to.  If they want to try to knock a guard out with one blow as a maneuver, why not?  On the other hand, if that’s just too loosey-goosey for your play style, perhaps because you worry that in pursuit of momentary tactical advantage or even humor, you all might try too many things that undermine the feel you’re going for, it would be simple enough to make a list of the “standard” maneuvers such as

  • Disarm
  • Knock Down
  • Force back a pace
  • Grab and pull forward
  • Bind weapon/grab weapon arm
  • Pin arms
  • Prevent attack on comrade
  • Switch places
  • Slip past opponent
  • Unhorse

I’m going to add this to our game tonight.  I’ll report back on how it goes.

Handedness Quick Hit

Advanced Gaming & Theory: Handedness?

Sometimes it can be helpful to a dungeon master for a character to have a favored hand written on his character sheet. This can quickly solve some arguments which might pop up over throwing stuff while still armed, as well as some odds and ends.
Now, we both know that if we just let characters specify what hand they favor, then they will always claim to be ambidextrous, which we just can’t have. That and I love charts that allow us to use our poor and often neglected 12-sider.

1-9—Right Handed
10-11—Left Handed

Personally, I like rules that are easy enough to remember that you don’t even need a chart, so in my work-in-progress system you roll 2d6. On doubles you’re left-handed, on a 12 you’re ambidextrous. That gives results that are quite reasonable, and I can remember it off the top of my head.

I use the same method for determining sexual orientation for NPCs (or PCs that want to roll).  That probably overstates the prevalence, but re-using a rule is even easier than remembering a new one!

Reducing Dice Rolls for Random Encounters

The Dice Bag complains about the number of rolls needed to generate random encounters:

I have always enjoyed the fact that both as a player and a GM I’ve never had to suffer the “oh it’s been 10 minutes of game time I must roll some dice to work out what’s going to happen next” moments. Don’t get me wrong the occasional secret skill check by the DM works great but the structured approach to random encounters that most systems encourage is beyond me.

Taking them out completely isn’t an option for me either. I actually like the supposed randomness the idea can give to gaming sessions if you’ll believe that or not. It’s the ‘regular’ rolling of dice I despise as it turns the game into a series of turns. That’s fine when it comes to combat but for general play it’s to much of a hindrance for me at times.

So how did I every get around this part of the mechanics? For a couple of years I had a small computer program that produced a page full of random numbers from whatever dice you chose to roll. I coupled this with maps that had specific points where an encounter ‘roll’ would take place rather than at set times during the game. It did mean that if a group stayed at one point they shouldn’t come across any enemy until they moved off if they had already encountered something whilst there but these were flaws I was willing to live with.

The obvious solution is don’t roll each turn (or whatever the unit) for a random encounter–roll to see how many turns until the next random encounter.  This means that, unlike the system he was using for pre-rolling encounters at certain places, it’s possible that the party will have encounters even when sitting still.  For added verisimilitude, they might even have an encounter that shows up during the middle of another encounter if it goes on long enough.  While it would be easy enough to devise a formula or spreadsheet that would give you the same frequency and distribution of encounters as most published systems, that’s probably overkill.  Just pick a die size that gives you an average time between encounters that seems reasonable, and roll it open-ended (if you roll the highest possible on the die, reroll and add).  The open-ended roll means the players can’t use metagame reasoning that since it’s been five turns since an encounter they’re due one on the next turn, but it changes the average roll very little.

This is the reverse of my tip to reduce bookkeeping for things such as supply rules.  In general, you can trade off die rolls versus bookkeeping.  If you feel you’re rolling too often, substitute bookkeeping by rolling to see when the next “event” is and just track time until then; if tracking too many things is getting you down, abstract it as a periodic die-roll to see if a condition has changed by now.  I think “time until” works particularly well for events that would otherwise be rare enough that there’s no point in rolling for them, and when you’re using something you’re probably already tracking (such as time).  I think “don’t count, roll” works better for things where you’re only tracking for one purpose, and you don’t actually care what the value is until a lot of steps towards a critical threshold have been passed (e.g. individual ammo).

The Ghoul’s Shrine

The Ghoul’s Shrine is my entry in the One-Page Dungeon contest.  It didn’t win anything, a fact which I can ascribe only to blatant favoritism on the part of the judges.

Not really, but anybody who expects me to pass on an opportunity to use a perfectly apropos quote from Tom Lehrer obviously doesn’t know me very well.

It has a couple of amusing features, and I’m glad I took the trouble to enter since it forced me to figure out how to use Chgowiz’s One Page Dungeon templates and the various tools I have to make a semi-decent looking free-hand dungeon map.  But compared to some of the other entries I’ve seen (such as Michael Wolf’s astonishing Horror of Leatherbury House) it’s pretty weaksauce.

Randomized Initiative

Randomized initiative is a hold-over from wargaming that I’ve never particularly cottoned to.  Originally D&D didn’t even have it.  Turn order wasn’t even specified, leaving it up to the referee to figure out.  I’m sure Chainmail had rules, but the d20 vs. AC “alternate” system that was in the books which everybody actually used made no mention of it.  Basic D&D officially had turn order alternating between the two sides, players and NPCs.  In that context it made perfect sense to roll at the beginning of combat to see who went first.  For some reason, though (at least by the time of the Mentzer Basic D&D) the rules called for rolling each round, which had the bizarre property that a side might go twice in a row.  Unfortunately, strict alternation by sides is a) very “gamey” feeling, b) can convey a huge advantage to the side that goes first, or the side that goes twice in a row, leading to a lot of combats where one side or the other doesn’t even get a chance to react before being defeated, and c) doesn’t leave much room for having one character being noticeably faster than another (though Zombies did always lose initiative, no roll needed).  Individual initiative feels more natural, and gives a much more fluid feel to combat resolution, allowing characters to react to changing battlefield conditions–perhaps unrealistically so, but a much better fit for adventure fiction.  Oddly, to my mind, many systems with individual initiative rules nevertheless include a large, even overwhelming, random component.  That puzzles me because it still feels very much like a game, and it inevitably leads to layers of extra complication to try to shoehorn character ability back in…plus slowing play down with extra die rolls and modifiers to arrive at a result that is arguably much less true to either reality or genre fiction.  I grudgingly use Savage Worlds’ random initiative system when I run that, in part because the Edges that represent one character being quicker are fairly substantial, but in all my own games turn order goes strictly by the character’s speed.  Usually that’s Dex or the equivalent.  I’ve toyed with using Int (to represent “quick thinking”) and even incorporated it into a game once…but nobody who’s spent much time around my friend Russell–who is quite literally one of the smartest people on the planet–can take the notion of a strong correlation between brains and fast reaction time seriously.  It’s probably better to represent quick thinking as taking some specific advantage (along the lines of and Edge or Feat) regardless of attributes.