Holiday Report part 2: Fight Club

Over the holiday I gathered some friends together to look at commercial rpg combat systems. The main one I wanted to cover was Burning Wheel which I blogged about earlier. We also covered Exalted, talked a bit about Feng Shui, I gave a demo of Lace and Steel. I also played in my first Dogs In The Vineyard game.

Burning Wheel


Summary: A weird and complicated 3-round Scissors/Paper/Stone that requires a lot of cross-referencing skills.

How it works: player and GM writes down their character’s intentions for each of 3 volleys, out of sight of the other. Each volley is then played out by revealing actions, the chosen actions are cross-referenced, skill rolls made and damage applied.


I really just don’t get what the combat is trying to achieve. Simulation? The three-volley meta-game is cute but it’s not realistic or easy to visualise for players. It’s also hard to learn or play through, because of the excessive back-and-forth to find different tables to cross-reference actions to find out if it’s a “standard”, “opposed” or no roll at all.

We concluded that because of the abstraction it feels less like a sword fight that a lot of much simpler games. I expect if we were all hardcore BW gamers we could commit the interaction tables to memory. But frankly I have better things to do with my time. This is a system that needs to be printed on index cards. Actually it looks like the Mouse Guard RPG does exactly this – maybe that’s the fix this clunky system needs.

There are a couple of things which are strange, and a couple which are plain wrong. Like the fact that a light wound deducts successes, but a more severe wound takes away a whole dice which is less of a penalty. I’m surprised that the author didn’t spot that one when revising BW:Gold.

Then there are some specific combat moves that confuse me. Why is a Beat a special action? It’s a fundamental move in any sword fight. Why is it harder to Beat against an opponent compared to a Push? Why does Push use Power, but Beat uses Weapon Skill? Why is there no Avoid and Strike? To be fair these technical decisions on the simulation that I don’t agree with; if they work as a game, then no problem.

As for the claim of Brutal and Gut-Wrenching combat, it was certainly that for the play testers, though not for the two knights we had duking it out. They simply cut and scratched each other to pieces in a slow death spiral. My conclusion is that this is no different from any other combat system – slow attrition of resources. No matter which tactics we used we couldn’t seem to end the combat quickly or decisively. To be fair we did miss a Steel test which might have resulted in sudden death – although Steel is about character reaction to pain, not tactics (i.e. if you get injured you may flinch and hesitate, meaning the opponent can hit you again).


Clearly Burning Wheel’s combat isn’t for me. It may be good for other people. Unfortunately there isn’t enough other good stuff in BWG to make me want to run it. The game has one really great element in the BIT system and its effect on Artha. That’s 17 pages out of 600. Lifepaths would be interesting if WFRP hadn’t done them first and much better. My advice would be to rip off the BIT system and jury-rig WFRP’s fate points system to work more like Artha, and play that instead.


Exalted Second Edition Core Book

Summary: Fairly straightforward to follow but tiresome grind and health/essence attrition. Streamlined combat in Exalted hasn’t improved much on Storyteller’s awful hunt-and-peck for successes.

How It Works: A segment-based round system. Attack dice are rolled and success compared against the opponents Defensive Value. Attacks and defences may be boosted by use of Charms (i.e. magic). Damage dice are figured using formula of incoming attack plus weapon minus armour, and damage applied to a wound track.


Some of the testers didn’t like the use of DV instead of rolling to parry an attack. DV does make defences into a dynamic version of Armour Class, but it makes rolling much faster.

All the dice pools are derived from skills (and equipment) rather than being transparent on the character sheet – meaning there’s some maths to do before you can roll dice. This is probably only a one-off calculation though.

The flow of combat was easy to follow, but actual fighting was quite a grind because of the slow attrition of health levels. Of course, if the characters had not been armoured the soak levels would have been lower and incremental damage higher. We were using fairly low-level weapons and armour which (combined with Stamina) roughly cancelled each other out. With higher level kit Armour and Weapon balance will overtake natural stamina, meaning no “naked dwarf” syndrome. At that level the armour penetrating charms become interesting.

We played an exchange using no charms, then switched to some basic charms for dice adding (1 die per point of essence, and up to 8 motes at once). Here it became obvious that (a) the combat becomes based on Essence attrition and (b) investing a lot of essence in the first blow is futile, since the opponent gets to invest exactly the same in their defence. However because of the way charms refresh, when the second mover gets to attack they then get to spend essence, while the first mover doesn’t (since their action hasn’t refreshed, they can’t cast another charm). The second mover makes a massive attack against a weakened defence. If this kills their opponent then they have won; if it doesn’t they get exactly the same in return.

We also discussed Stunts as a nebulous bonus. While there’s a guideline on how many bonus dice can be conferred based on a stunt’s description, the single die bonus is almost automatic (as long as the player describes their action). Dom likened it to WFRP’s Strike Mighty Blow which only gave a bonus if the player said “strike mighty blow!” when rolling the dice. In other words it’s entirely about the players gaming the system and remembering to speak up. Once the players start describing more complex moves just to get higher bonuses, the combat could descend into anarchy.


Another HP attrition system. From a player POV the combat system looks pretty cool, in that the players get to narrate a lot of cool stuff. So great when they’re winning. I’m less keen from the POV of the GM, who has to balance the opponents well enough that they provide enough challenge without killing the PCs.

I don’t mind the buckets of dice, but the additional layers of system that add to dice pools would probably wear me down. In that respect it’s like Wild Talents, and I should probably just avoid it.

Dogs in the Vineyard

Dogs in the Vineyard cover small

I’ve heard of the game before but never played, so I was really happy to get a chance to play at the con.

Summary: dice heavy but maths light, combat is extremely simple and very game-like.

How It Works: each side rolls a dice pool and keeps the dice in front of them; then during the exchange, they bid pairs of dice as challenges which must be answered in kind. If you can answer an attack with two dice you “see”, if you answer with only one you can counter, and if you have to answer with more dice than the attack you take “fallout”, or damage.


My views of the system are from the POV of a player, rather than playtester. But I was frankly blown away by the entire system. Combat escalation, building in relationships to conflicts, and rolling buckets of dice is very appealing, and it’s an example of a game where not only can the GM grant on-the-fly bonuses easily, they can also allow other players to provide help in conflicts. DitV was a bit silly but combined the game aspect of the system very well with the roleplaying.

That covers the Game aspect. It also does some really impressive things with the Narrative. But since this post is about system, I’m not going to gush about that now.

Lace and Steel


Summary: a card based system that is very easy to learn and follow, but has a high game element.

How it Works: players hold hands of cards and play attacks in “lines” (Upper, Middle or Lower) which must be then parried in the same Line. One side continues to attack until it loses the initiative. Cards played/discarded amount to fatigue, and numerical values on cards amount to damage.


Since I was actually running this system in one of my games, I’m going to be generally positive about it. I won’t reiterate my previous comments but there are a couple of observations for the combat system in play.

Firstly it’s fine for playing through 1-on-1 combats. However once I had two players fighting two different combats it became a lot harder to manage, even though the actual game remained fairly robust. In this respect dice have an advantage over cards. (Also at one point I was simultaneously running fencing and magical duels in different locations, and risked mixing the decks up).

The comments from the demo were very positive – it was really easy to pick up and a genuinely fun game to play. But it’s also very specific in flavour. It only works with sword fighting. It doesn’t attempt to cover ranged combat with the cards, though it does note how many melee passes equal one ranged combat round. It wouldn’t mix well in a modern game; it works because loading bows and muskets is slow.

In this wound system the hit points are nearly always single digits – something I vastly prefer. It means that a single point of damage is significant, if not great. I liked this approach in WFRP also. If you must have hit points it’s the way to go.


Now that I’ve both played and run Lace and Steel I continue to love it, but the card system is just one feature. With its take on magic, Repartee and Self-Image rules, and its setting the game is a complete package and I’m not sure how well elements would work in isolation. But I would say that for any game that features a fantasy court structure it’s very difficult to beat, at least for running the game.

There is one bit I don’t like, which is standard dice rolling. I nicked Summerland’s difficulty = # of dice mechanic. The probabilities worked out fine.

Feng Shui 

Feng Shui

Summary: a simple idea based on martial arts stunts, with a fairly easy to follow round structure, hampered by far too many rules and details in the rulebook. Still, very cool.

How It Works: Combat actions take a number of “shots” to complete; a combat round is a number of shots long and counts down to zero. Combat skills and powers follow a hierarchy based on the chosen martial art. Famously “mooks” with no name have a set number of hit points.


Sadly we ran out of time to playtest the combat system, although we talked a bit about it.

Mostly we agreed the book is far too complicated for what should be a fairly simple mechanic. For the types of gamers we are, we want to run quickfire wacky martial arts combat, and (like Exalted) the Feng Shui system appears to need more investment of time.

In fact the more I look at Feng Shui the more I am reminded of Exalted 2nd Edition’s tiny print and dense text. From what I’ve read of the system it may be a lot better than Exalted to pick up and play, but it still puts me off. That’s my preference of course.

Maybe the next time we playtest I’ll give it a fair appraisal. 

Final Words


p>Most progressive HP-attrition systems are designed to make the player feel scared for their character, but actually the layer of abstraction and the slow decrease of HP without penalty takes away from realism. If you have to have hit points, keep them in single digits to make each point significant.

If this exercise has taught me anything it’s that I really don’t have the patience for a complex system, and should stick to Summerland and Everway. The problem with that approach is when it comes to running fights, a simple system may not provide the right level of granularity – may not be game enough.

 Clearly the way to go is make combat and other conflict into mini games. It works in Lace and Steel. While I think Burning Wheel does it very badly, I’m very intrigued by Mouse Guard – which looks like Burning Wheel with the crusts cut off.


Lovely. Must restrain credit card.