Cable

So, I awoke to another game-related dream.  I woke up as I was reviewing the character sheet for a Champions game character for a new Champions campaign (probably a campaign).

Some trivia:  The player was a friend from growing up that I hadn’t seen in over 20 years.  The character’s artwork was female though we referred to the character as him.  The premise was some gadgeteer who had some sort of high-tech cables that did stuff – main attack was a huge Entangle.  I actually comment in the dream that as I got further down the list of powers I realized that the character’s powers really didn’t have any sort of theme and it was just a “I want to be able to do this and this and this” character.  I got into a discussion on the character’s +3 SPD with a -3.5 disad of [Publish], which I naturally interpreted as meaning the character had +3 SPD only while publishing (journalist job or something) as a single 3.5 disad is absurd and would need to be so narrow as to make the ability essentially useless, but my friend couldn’t remember what the disad was supposed to mean and was trying to convince me that it would increase his SPD in combat.

The other players were sitting around a table waiting for me to finish reviewing, and I was quite concerned with time and whether everyone else was ready.

Oh, by the way, for those who don’t follow such things, Cable is a Marvel mutant, Scott and Jean’s son from the future who creates X-Force.  I finally found out (this was like 15 years ago) that the name Cable was some not terribly cool reference to how he was a cable between the past and the future or two sets of mutants or something.  Still find the name okay for some reason, must roll off the tongue.

Anyway, how am I going to make use of this dream?

Champions in particular, but Hero System in general, has incredibly involved combats.  The noncombat system is actually far too simple for me, with basically it just being roll 3d6.  I also rather hate 3d6 resolution since it generates lots of average results and extreme results, like a 14, don’t feel terribly extreme.  But, I want to focus on combat.  I could focus on character building with its incredible precision and heavy accounting-like math, a system that has historically been my favorite for character creation; I once, as far as I know, owned every Champions product up through around Demons Rule.  But, I want to focus on combat.

I don’t dislike all combat.  I just dislike far more combat than a lot of people I’ve played with.  Mostly, it is because of boredom.  Often, it’s because the party is destined to win and there’s no real reason to be involved and there’s nothing terribly interesting to achieve as a personal goal in the combat.  Combats where the party looks like it’s going to lose I’m all in favor of and get enthusiastic about, at least as long as they don’t have anticlimactic endings where the party gets bailed out by something dumb.

Ultimately, I suppose, it comes down to the fact that I don’t like rolling dice for the sake of rolling dice.  I’d much rather do something creative in combat that doesn’t involve rolling dice than just roll attack/roll damage in round 1 of a 6 round fight.

So, combat length.  There’s always minimizing realtime waste.  Some systems leave people with more time to sit around and wait for others to act.  Then, there’s making quicker decisions, not looking up rules in books, etc.  Then, there’s in-combat length, reducing the number of rounds that combat lasts, which is more in my mind.  However, I’m going to address these things individually since they do connect to my greater theme [which is?].

1.  Turn Length

There are a variety of reasons why PCs might have to wait longer or shorter for their turns to come up.  Rather than try to get into every possibility, I’m going to focus on bad guys’ turns and overly involved mechanics.

I’m a big fan of all bad guys going on the same initiative, at least when GMing.  I know it’s unrealistic and takes away from some battles where the bad guys have names and are a serious threat, but as a GM, I find that I can’t focus on things like I can as a player, so it’s far easier to process as many things at once as possible and helps with enemy tactics.

Lots of bad guys equals lots of time for players to blithely ignore how they should be thinking of optimal tactics to win the fight.  Really, I hardly ever see players think about what the party should be doing once combat begins.  I am accumulating infamy for my wolf battles – I’ve run two fights at the beginning of sessions against wolves merely to setup what happens next only to find that the combats last hours longer than I wanted.  Is this entirely due to numbers of bad guys?  Of course not.  It has a lot of something to do with making the wolves too resilient.  If I ever run a game where werewolves are the bad guys, prepare for a TPK.  I’m drifting off topic.  Number of bad guys.  I’m not thrilled with having only one bad guy since it makes too many fights too easy for PCs, but I’d probably say that two tough bad dudes is good times.  Hordes are painful unless they can be abstracted – I personally hate rolling half a dozen or more attacks by dorks but don’t play with folks who seem enthusiastic about rolling for the bad guys for me; on the other hand, I don’t mind it as much as a player where there’s some suspense as to whether I get hit or not.

Then, we get to systems where individual turns take way too long.  I’m not talking about decision time which I’ll get to in a moment.  I’m talking about purely mechanically being overly involved.  Multiple attacks can greatly extend turns.  Hit location tables or, really, any sort of special tables often add virtually nothing yet draw out actions.  Now, long turns isn’t as bad as highly variable turns.  I find that a lot of the time someone will be done in under a minute and someone else will take considerably longer.  For instance, a fighter may just swing sword and hit or miss (miss really sucks when you aren’t doing much) where a spellcaster does something far more complicated.

In terms of turn length, while people play much faster the better they know the system, I’m pro L5R.  I’m going to bring up L5R often because its streamlined combat system is more what I’m looking for.  With Solomon Kane, I find that there’s a great disparity in turns, though that has something to do with having party minions and with my countering with baddie minions.  With Conan, I don’t feel like PC turns take the wrong amount of time, maybe because the massive damage save rule speeds things up, except when people are indecisive and/or don’t know what the rules are.  At least, with Conan, when someone is doing something more complicated, it’s probably more interesting to those who are observing.

2.  Decision/Rules Time

Some people just aren’t sufficiently engaged in what is going on.  That isn’t a system issue.  What is a system issue is when a system offers too many options or when the options are too complicated and require either adjudication or, more likely, looking up rules.

Feng Shui is supposed to be fast-paced Hong Kong Movie style adventuring.  I’m a big fan of it but not its combat.  Combat, rather than being quick and exciting, is often incredibly mechanical and slow.  Part of the slowness can come from players trying to get into the spirit and do heavily descriptive things, which is fine.  It’s more how tedious it is to either gun down a bunch of mooks or how hard it is to put something named down.  Then, the shot system, much like the Speed system in Hero, is extremely mechanical.  I find shot management even more accountingish than Speed management as, usually, in Hero, you do stuff on your phase where shots are often used for things like aiming or get pushed down with active dodge.  Is FS a good example for this section?  Probably not.  Reason it came to mind was that players I play with often don’t grok the shot system and how long their abilities take, which causes indecision and greatly slows down play.  For me, once I got it and understand what my character does (which was harder, of course, in one-shots than when I ran a gambler in a campaign), my shots were pretty much aim or attack with deciding whether to active dodge coming down to what shot number I was on.

Conan is a case where things work okay only because the players don’t know what they are doing.  I built an alt character (who promptly died because he was heroic and the party wasn’t) who took advantage of my experience-gained knowledge of what was effective in Conan.  I was constantly paralyzed by indecision as he had simply too many combat options:  how much to Power Attack for; whether to Improved Feint to do Sneak Attack damage; which playmat square to occupy to maximize effectiveness of attacks; whether to fight defensively; how much Combat Expertise to use; etc.  While that was an extreme case, our players simply don’t think of all of the options available to them or plan ahead for when there are decisions like Power Attack.  And, I’m just talking about basic combat.  Add in maneuvers and our players are inept tactically.  I constantly forgot to use the Aid Another option to help our barbarian kill everything since my attacks were ineffectual, and that’s one of the most basic maneuvers.  We don’t even remember maneuvers in the main book, let alone maneuvers in anything else.  Is that bad?  No!!  If we used everything available to us, while it might make combat more interesting, it would be insane in terms of figuring out what goodies or baddies should do.  I came to the conclusion at one point that a PC can pretty much only recall using one special maneuver.  If that maneuver is too effective, then the GM counters and the PC moves on to the next maneuver.  Whichever maneuver the PC is on is the PC’s schtick.

Another comment on Conan – I despise the grapple rules.  We end up looking them up constantly even though we’ve looked them up so many times that one would think we would know them by heart.  Some on the forum thought they were simple to remember.  Um, only if you do basic things.  What happens when you have multiple grapplers?  What happens when a monster can grapple in addition to doing other things?  We couldn’t even remember how to move a grapple or how it worked to give up attacks to break a grapple, which are basic things.  Simply way overcomplicated rules for something that doesn’t interest me at all.  But, since they are a good way to inflict pain on PCs, they are a key element to the GM’s arsenal.

I’ve played a lot of systems where there were far too many choices.  Someone just asked about the Oz RPG, I assumed the Oz: Dark and Terrible RPG.  I remember that combat was incredibly frustrating when I demoed it in 2009 because it was so counterintuitive and had too many phases.  Too hard to think of others off the top of my head as too many systems blur.

Again, I like the number of options in L5R.  Sure, I don’t use knockdown, disarm, feint as often as they should be used, but I don’t find that there’s an endless list of maneuvers like Conan or too few to where a character bad at normal stuff is useless.  Though, I am against the extra stances in 4e, which I don’t think added anything besides making Defense Stancing shugenja way better in combat than they should be.

3.  Kill!  Kill!  Kill!

I seek combat that lasts 3 rounds max (well, see below).  I don’t want 3 rounds of “I punch/slice/shoot”.  But, people should go down … fast.  Those wolf battles were supposed to be of the 3 round type.  I’m often engaged in 3 round L5R fights where, in contrast, I’ve become bored with the attrition wars that I’m finding to be too often the case when running HoR2 mods with 4e rules and minimal bad guy stat changes.

By the way, if you ever consider comic book fights, they are quite interesting when translated into RPGs because they don’t work like how one might expect.  Comic book fights last a long time, but most of the panels are taken up with someone thinking to oneself or with soliloquy or conversation or being out of the line of fire.  When someone gets hit by an attack, it’s often ineffective or takes them out in one-shot.

This can be simulated in Champions by people taking phases to recover or get away rather than just keep attacking, but normally, I find that people only recover or evade when they feel they need to.  What doesn’t work so well in Champions is the idea that one attack will take someone out (or be completely ineffective, as both extremes produce balance problems).

Not every single combat should be quick, but really, a lot of combats are combat for combat’s sake and not terribly important to the story.  While I’m quite fond of how quick 3e L5R combats went in HoR, the combats typically felt tacked on to give bushi a chance to show off, so they shouldn’t have lasted longer than 3 rounds.  An epic battle, however, that decides how the story will go or whether PCs survive, I can see going on longer – wars of attrition are fine when they are the climax to the adventure.

However, the option to make any battle quick should be available.  This is where I’m having a lot of trouble with Solomon Kane.  I made it way more brutal by making raises openended for damage, yet, it still often bogs down for me into round after round of “When are things going to go down?”  I’m not sure how I can make it nastier, but then, I haven’t thought too much about the details yet.

The Theme

The point of this post was to comment on how I want combat to be fast and brutal as, everything else being equal, that makes them more interesting.  L5R 3e was great for this sort of thing, with one exception – characters could die way too easily.

Sure, L5R 3e wasn’t perfect as a fight might be over before your initiative even came up and one’s attack and damage rolls might mean that any attack was an auto-kill, but I found that there were plenty of subtle tactics to make combat more than just “I swing, you die”.  There needed to be an extended way to avoid death to prevent GMs from having to not keep high dice to keep characters alive.

At the rate things are going, I have no idea whether I’ll ever end up running SK again, but if I do, I want to figure out a way to make combat more brutal but also more interesting to the PCs who don’t have armies of minions.

For game designers out there who give a fig what I want:  don’t give characters too many options; don’t have wildly disparate combat builds, such as one dude with one attack and another with five; don’t use a bunch of tables or special cases; don’t make it too hard to take something down; don’t overuse mooks who are a complete bore most of the time to nuke; don’t require that PCs be smart in their decisions to be successful; don’t have combat feel like accounting; make things go down fast so that we can spend more time on role-playing and less on roll-playing.

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2 Responses to Cable

  1. Andrew Haas says:

    “Lots of bad guys equals lots of time for players to blithely ignore how they should be thinking of optimal tactics to win the fight. Really, I hardly ever see players think about what the party should be doing once combat begins.”

    I really need to just write up a little post-it and stick it to the top of my character sheets that says “Remember: Tactics!” Last night was instructional in a lesson I should already have internalized many mods ago.

    We could easily have used my various shugenja powers to neutralize the enemies numerical advantage and turn the whole combat into a quick session of bushi chopping up guys that lay on the ground, but no. In this case, my fault. Now that I think about it, we probably could have avoided that whole debacle in “Writ of Justice” through tactics, I digress…

    The other thing thats always annoying about large group vs. groups fights is how quickly the structure of the fight becomes totally lost and it becomes a total “I stab/you stab” exchange until one side is destroyed. Who you’re fighting and what the optimal strategy against them is gets lost. I often found myself just asking “GM, can I do X?” “Yes/No”
    That kinda slows things down.

    I also remember that our wolf fights dragged on because our party rolled badly, very badly. Which isn’t really the system’s fault. Last nights session featured a competent bushi vs. mook fight that went 3 rounds without either combatant hitting the other, riveting I know, but hardly the systems fault.

    Anyway, that’s my thoughts.

  2. Azel says:

    I do find combat often needlessly complicated, in many systems. However, from experience, a lot of role playing based combat systems just are not received well — often dismissed by players. Remember AD&D deckmaster system? Most Minds Eye rock-paper-scissor madness? There has to be a happy median somewhere…

    My friend and I were talking about the parts of combat that tend to piss us off the most. I am more of a “fudge it, let the story decide” combat player, who can switch to detailed strategic/tactical combat, whereas he is more of a strat/tact combat player, and accepting of role playing based combat in places. Interestingly we came to several conclusions that you have as well.

    Namely two of the most annoying things we’ve narrowed down is: Hit Point Bloat (critical), and Bucket o’ Tables (annoying). He’s more OK with tables, due to familiarity and ease of memorization, but even he has his limits (a la FASA or Games Workshop RPGs). I myself though find tables just clutter and adds to the ‘Great Accounting’ that is combat. i.e. AD&D upsets me in that too many of the rolled stats are essentially detailed ways to find a modifier that could be resolved on 1d6. Even In Nomine, which I love, is having the lead editors trying to de-table the system in subsequent releases (the check digit gives a range of success, but over-detailing each value just slows down the game),

    Hit point bloat however just kills games. With bloat you can ignore so much weapon, positioning, and tactical complexity. Bloat turns most battles into attrition, whose success can be reasonably assessed from the onset. It screws up game difficulty from video games to table top, and is such a lazy way to artificially craft challenge. It’s one of the reasons that he and I absolutely despise level progression in tabletop RPGs, because it introduces HP progression (and inequitable, class-based progression at that), and thus eventual unmanageable HP bloat.

    A good video game example is FF Tactics v Shining Force. FFT keeps the FF tradition of HP inflation, whereas SF makes you freak out from attack damage of 4 when you work w/ under 20 HP. Both games are not terribly hard, but SF is by far more of a challenge — and both still have HP lvl progression which screws up difficulty later in the game. The real balance threat in games is the ‘ever-expanding universe’ of HP bloat. Remove the threat of death and then where’s the challenge?

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