I’ve written a couple of posts about RPGs with martial aspects recently. And I was struggling to find the words as to why most, if not all rpgs fail to simulate combat by going into detail. More detail ought to mean a better simulation, right?

I’m assuming most gamers don’t know much about martial arts. They may know how to run a great game and narrate a combat, but that’s not the same.

But even a GM who does know a martial art has a problem. I’ll admit that I have this problem. I’m consciously aware of it, and I can compensate for it, but I have no idea of how to translate it to a game.

The problem is this. For effective fighting, the principle attribute must be mindset, or preparedness to fight. After that comes tactics, then technique, and finally equipment.

However, as both gamers and martial artists we are fixated on technique. Technique is what you train in the gym; it’s what looks cool. And it’s what is easy for an instructor to teach.

Teaching mindset is not cool. Some people find it repellent; it’s basically training yourself to visualise harming someone else. The people who have the right mindset will always have advantage over people who don’t, even if those people are black belts at whatever. A master once said to me “black belts often get beaten up by drunken idiots with no skill”.

Now for games design, some designers fixate on technique. I am always skeptical of a game that goes into detail over techniques, because techniques function in a very narrow field. Sometimes that’s OK. If you’re designing a metagame to simulate a specific style of fighting (e.g. Lace and Steel‘s fencing) then it can work. But otherwise games like TROS or BW that over-analyse the process of fighting risk getting it wrong.

6 thoughts on “Martial Principles

  1. This is similarish to thinking I’ve been doing on and off for a long time. My line of thought was that lack of hesitation, coming from sheer aggression, cold-bloodedness or an exceptionally cool head were the most important thing. I’ll confess that this doesn’t come from any knowledge of martial arts (though from my very limited experience of fighting, real and simulated, it feels right); I read in some article that the winner in a gin fight was the one who kept a cool head and just did it, while everyone else turned to jelly.

    In most games this is reflected in initiative. But in most games initiative has almost no effect. It’s who goes first, but then because play proceeds in initiative order it stops being relevant pretty quick. Games where initiative determines frequency of attacking as well as how early you attack seem to be getting it right, and in those games initiative will have a dirproportionate effect on combat. If inititative is then based on a mental stat rather than the ever-popular dexterity, you’re in the right ballpark.

    Trouble is, even then you won’t win without technique, because in virtually all games you need a technique advantage to actually hit your opponent. Perhaps something more like runequest/BRP where your chance to hit is proportional to your skill, but unaffected by your opponents skill, would actually be more realistic? I’ve aways assumed not; the drilled-in instinct to block an attack seems such a vital aspect of not getting hit. What do you think?

    1. OK, a bit too cryptic.

      Firstly, my opinion should only matter to you if you want to run a simulation of fighting, and you think I know enough about it to help. If you just want a method of determining whether X beats Y then choose what you like and what your players will be able to visualise. Nothing beats that.

      My problem with games that go into the minutae of fighting is I wonder who they’re serving. Not me, if I happen to know better than the designer how a real fight goes. Not someone with no interest in that level of crunch. But if there’s an audience for that kind of meta-game, more power to them.

      You mentioned a few different factors. Things like initiative are fine if everyone agrees what they mean. I wouldn’t equate Initiative with “Mindset” as I described it, but you could interpret it that way. No matter, if it works in the game then it’s useful.

      You mentioned frequency (number of) attacks. People equate being able to attack more frequently as an advantage – well, of course it is – but that concept is a symptom of the problem. Gamers have this obsession with micro-managing every sword blow. It can work at the basic level, but once you start adding in special moves like feints (which are rarely accurately simulated), it falls apart.

      As for the RQ model of rolling a weapon skill independently of the opponent – in BRP, characters can parry or dodge. You’re just rolling two separate events instead of contesting a single event. Doesn’t matter which you do if the end result is the same, but that model is easier for most people to visualise.

      The most “realistic” system I have played was fairly simple. Everyone had weapon skills and a Combat skill. Each round, two combatants would contest their Combat skills; the winner would “have combat” meaning they could attack, and the loser would only be able to defend. (If the attacker could maintain “combat” over several rounds they could get bonuses like choosing hit locations; but each round if they “lost combat” to the opponent that stack of bonuses went away). That mechanism separated the “mindset” and tactics (as Combat skill) from weapon technique (as Weapon skill). It was fast and exciting, yet very simple; above all, it was something the players could visualise.

    2. I guess what I want from a combat system (I’ve written a whole article on this which I can send you a link to if you’re interested) includes a feeling that the system is realistic. That doesn’t need to mean “a highly detailed simulation of reality”, but it does mean that if the most agile character wins in the game, whereas in real life the most aggressive, cold-hearted, purposeful bastard wins, then the system has failed that test. The whole initiative thing is a way of bolting on “aggression factor” to existing, dex-focused systems.

      Recently I’ve been thinking about a totally different approach where you can use any stat you like for combat tests (or indeed, any test) provided you can justify its relevance. This is all well and good, but it does mean that being strong is equally good as being agile, skilled or aggressive. I’d like to think that a system would be a tad more nuanced than that.

    3. Getting into “what is real” vs “what feels real” sounds dangerously like gnosticism.

      The basic problem is, different people have different assumptions about what wins a fight (or any other test). I don’t think you can increase the level of realism by prioritising one attribute over another.

      One thing you can do is raise the awareness of risk. People say that it’s not Poker if you don’t play for real money, and likewise it won’t feel real if the PCs can’t lose something. But all of the hit points systems, combat stances, and special moves actually obfuscate the loss. I’m not sure what I’d put in their place, though.

      By all means send me a link anyway.

  2. PS – you might want to check out Apocalypse World. Although it’s hardly an attempt to simulate combat, it does use much more general stats to measure your aggression and willingness to cause pain (this is the main stat used for combat) and coolness under fire (the other one that can come up in combat). Technique doesn’t come into it at all and there is no Dexterity-equivalent.

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