Adding Crunch to Super Simple Combat Maneuvers

Based on some of the comments on my post on Super-Simple Combat Maneuvers, some people are looking for more crunch to the system, or at least a more reliable way of forcing the issue.  Here are some possible added fillips, bearing in mind that to the extent that you make maneuvers a more attractive option than just doing damage you tilt the combat towards being resolved by the use of applicable maneuvers instead.  The original rules were designed so that you probably couldn’t use them to win a combat you would otherwise lose, at least not without a big dollop of luck.  The result, though, was that you probably wouldn’t bother to employ them unless circumstances gave you a specific reason to (we don’t need to defeat all these enemies if we can just get the MacGuffin to the Altar of Doom); it gave you a nice way of adjudicating attempts to do things outside the scope of the normal roll to hit/roll for damage/rinse and repeat cycle of combat, but it deliberately didn’t give you a lot of incentive to do so or choices to make in how to go about it.

If that’s not adequate, then here are some optional rules to try:

  • Advanced Maneuvers: accepting some penalty in return for increasing the chance of a critical that forces the issue.  E.g. for every -1 you take to your defense, or -1 to the damage done if they refuse the maneuver on a normal hit, you increase the critical range by 1.
  • Special Training: in return for spending resources on special training in using maneuvers (e.g. Feats in D&D 3, or Edges in Savage Worlds) you get either an increase in the critical range, or an increase in the damage done if the defender refuses the maneuver.
  • Upping the Stakes: for every -1 you take to your To Hit roll, you increase the damage done by 1 if they refuse the maneuver.
  • Reducing the Cost: if you think that forgoing a critical is too high a price to pay, so nobody would try the option, you could make it do regular damage plus the maneuver on a critical, or you could defer the decision to apply the critical damage or the maneuver until after the damage is rolled.

The exact numbers would vary depending on the system being used (a +/-1 is a lot bigger deal in Savage Worlds than in a d20 system) and the feel you’re going for.  You probably wouldn’t use all of these unless you wanted a very maneuver-centric game, and you should be prepared to tweak the exact numbers or even which ones you’re employing depending on how they work out in actual play.

Of these, I think I like Upping the Stakes the best.  There’s something conceptually kind of nice about the idea that you can press for extra damage, but you have to leave a way for the defender to weasel out of it if they value their hide more than whatever the tactical disadvantage might be.

As far as my actual play goes, it’s too early to tell.  Friday we only had one combat, and it was pretty much a straight-up hackfest, as the party fought off a group of Neanderthals.  Nobody tried anything fancy except for one wimpy mage who tried playing dead.  There was one PC death to a nasty crit, but nobody expected Expendable 1401 (yes, that was his name) to last more than a session or two in the first place.

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.