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