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.

18 thoughts on “Super-Simple Combat Maneuvers

  1. PatrickWR says:

    We’ve actually been struggling with this same situation with our OSRIC campaign, as it pertains to grappling. How can we simplify grappling, but still keep size factors and “ganging up” an important part of the combat?

    Another thing—do you allow your NPCs to use this ruleset as well? Do these super-simple maneuvers cut both ways in the campaign? That’s been our concern…don’t simplify it too much or all the monsters and villains will use it on you.
    .-= PatrickWR´s last blog ..Gaming and music: Firing on all cylinders =-.

  2. Joshua says:

    Absolutely it cuts both ways. One of the things I really like about this approach is that it gives the players the opportunity if an NPC tries to disarm them to say “Hell no! I’m not letting go my sword!” and take the hit instead, which leaves them no worse off than if the NPC had just tried to smack them in the first place. Even if the NPC rolls a crit, given the lethality of criticals in my homebrew players are almost certainly better off for the NPC having attempted a fancy maneuver instead.

  3. Suddry says:

    I’m really interested to see how this plays out for you. As a 4E DM I can see this type of thing really adding to longer fights where your down to simple basic attacks. Keep us posted.

  4. Doug says:

    Clever-Rule-Monkey checking in…

    I think this is actually a very nice system, with 2 reservations.
    1) I think you’ll find the PCs using it less than you’d think. This system seems awesome for melee battles between similar sized groups. (In effect, it makes for a neat way of doing cinematic dueling). However, when the PCs are outnumbered, unless you can do something like “I throw this guy into his 3 friends over there”, it’s disadvantageous to you to even allow the mook to take a status effect instead of just getting hacked. On the flip side, if you’re fighting the “One-Big-Bad,” -tbc

  5. Joshua says:

    @Doug – I think that’s true, but I’m not sure whether it’s a problem. That is, when you’re outnumbered and fighting for your life, you probably don’t want to get fancy. Also, if you’re outnumbered then as long as the system is symmetrical, you probably don’t want to let one maneuver take out multiple people, lest they use their numerical advantage against you to do damage and try for a multi-effect that drops most of the party. You’d have to introduce a rule that distinguishes between named characters and mooks if you wanted that kind of cinematic effect.

  6. Russell says:

    How frequent are criticals in the system under discussion? In a d20 type system where criticals are only 5% likely, I don’t think this rule would have much effect, especially if critical damage is enough to disable most opponents anyway. Where I see it being useful is non-zero-sum situations: the villain has taken a hostage as a human shield, and the hero wants to free the hostage. Of course, not taking damage was the whole point of having a hostage, so the villain will allow the maneuver to succeed. If on the other hand, criticals are as frequent as a raise in SW, then I can see this being used pretty routinely.
    .-= Russell´s last blog ..“Old school”: Character design vs. character generation =-.

  7. Joshua says:

    Sure, the more frequent criticals are, the more valuable the option, but honestly I anticipate that most of the time this takes effect it would be because the defender opts to yield ground or even give up a weapon rather than take damage. If it were just that you could opt to make the critical do something other than extra damage, criticals would have to be quite frequent (and probably weak) to make it at all worthwhile. I suppose in a system like D&D you could get some use out of it if you allowed them to wait and see what the critical turned up for damage before deciding (which would alleviate the “woohoo! crit! aw….rolled a 2” problem slightly).

  8. Gabriel says:

    @Patrick: “How can we simplify grappling, but still keep size factors and “ganging up” an important part of the combat?”

    How about adding +1 to the chance of critical for every additional attacker that joins the grapple? If there are 2 attackers it’s a critical on 19-20, if there are 3 it’s on a 18-20, an so on up to a maximun depending on the size. Just a thought…

    Saludos!
    .-= Gabriel´s last blog ..Design A Dungeon Room Contest 2010 =-.

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