RPG Combat: A Newer, Easier Method

The best combat system I ever played with (even better than Lace and Steel) was also one of the simplest. It was a homebrew system for a fantasy game, and followed this basic mechanic.

You had two combat stats. One was your “combat skill”, which was a general ability at fighting. The other was your “weapon skill”, which was your specific technique at attacking and parrying with a given weapon.

It worked like this: when two opponents engaged, they rolled Combat Skill. The winner had “control” of combat. They could choose to directly attack the other side, or hold off and “set” their attack for the next round. The loser could only defend, and hope they survived long enough to win control next round.

The act of “setting” meant that the follow-up attack would be much more powerful than a no-set attack. However, to make it work you had to win combat for the new round. If you didn’t and the opponent got control of combat, you lose your advantage.

It was incredibly simple, and yet made for superb tension and gratifying victory. If characters were evenly matched it meant they took a lot of sniping attacks to wear each other down, not wanting to risk their window of opportunity. If there was a gross mismatch one side would tend to “set” once and deliver a rapid kill.

In the mismatched case, that lead to a couple of other consequences. There were no (or very few) one-round victories, meaning such combats took at least two “beats”. The first beat foreshadowed the second–the victory to come.

For fights where the PCs were clearly superior, this was blatant player gratification. They saw the victory, anticipated it and savoured it. That sounds a bit lurid, but it’s what happened.

When the shoe was on the other foot and a PC was in danger, it telegraphed the impending doom. This happened to my first character. He was a monk with a stick, and he squared off against a knight to protect a weaker PC.

GM: Xiao’s fencing with the knight.

Another Player: We’ve not seen him fight before. How’s he doing?

GM: He has good technique but he’s hopelessly outclassed. He’s going to die next round.

The system allowed that exchange to happen–another character (with way more combat experience) watched the fight, stepped in and saved Xiao. From my perspective it was transparent that Xiao was going to die–it really was hopeless. When the other PC stepped in it was gratifying for me (being rescued) and them (being the rescuer), and made for interesting roleplaying later.

(The system worked so that bad hits were really bad. The GM was keen on anatomy, and took some pleasure in telling me in a later fight that Xiao had been shot through the spleen. Xiao probably didn’t even know what a spleen was, but he died anyway.)

Had we been playing Runequest it may have been different. Xiao squares off against the knight and before anyone can even react, he takes a fatal blow. That still has merit for a game, but it sets a totally different tone. Using this system, Xiao’s life hangs in the balance for a moment, and in that moment another character can act.

Combat Skill functions a bit like Initiative, but it’s not the same. Most Initiative systems just give the order of action, and do not preclude one side from attacking the other (unless the systems are so deadly that instant kills are common). The only system I’ve played that plays like the one above is Lace and Steel, where the initiative is passed between the two fencers.

Relation to Martial Theory

“Combat Skill” is not a micro-scale activity; it encompasses a whole range of assumed activities the Martial Artist is doing. Hope would term this the half-pursuit; a series of testing actions designed to both get the measure of the enemy’s fight, and herd them into a predictable pattern of activity against which the artist can employ a strategy.

There is no need to make Combat Skill any more granular than a single, opposed roll. The artist either has control of the fight, or she does not. Combat Skill represents the four grounds of fight presented by Silver:

through judgment, you keep your distance, through distance you take your time, through time you safely win or gain the place of your adversary, the place being won or gained you have time safely either to strike, thrust, ward, close, grip, slip or go back

(from Brief Instructions)

The whole point of winning control of combat is to gain “the place”, which is the correct distance where you can launch your desired attack. If you don’t have “the place” and you attempt to launch an attack it will fail–you may be too far away, or “disordered” and at risk of a counter, etc.

Combat skill happens in the minds of the combatants. It includes decisions, actions, strategies, the will to press forward, the ability to anticipate an opponent’s action and counter. It is everything that happens before the attack roll is made.

What does Weapon Skill represent? It represents technique, strength, accuracy, muscle memory, attack and parry. It’s everything that happens once one side gains the place. It is attack and parry. It is possible to gain the place and miss; it is possible to defend against an attack launched from the place.

Implementation

To successfully implement this idea, you have to win the hearts and minds of the players. They have to both enjoy the system and get the theory behind it. So I’m going to anticipate a few stumbling blocks.

Problem One

Players won’t initially get how Combat Skill and Weapon Skill relate to each other–or the fact they don’t relate to each other. That’s not what we’re used to, and a source of frustration for character generation.

That’s really down to the GM and designer. Traditional games like RuneQuest accept a strong competency in one weapon and zero ability in another that should be quite similar (say an axe and a mace). There’s no argument, it’s just the way things are in that system.

Combat Skill is a leveller. It means that even when outclassed by superior weapons, a more experienced fighter can still control the combat. They may not be able to do anything useful (see the next problem) but they can at least keep themselves relatively safe, for now.

However, some players will just want Weapon Skill to have an effect on Combat Skill. While I sort of resist this, here’s how you might do it:

CS WS

I don’t like this way because it makes things more complicated–you have to add and subtract–but if that’s what you and your players want, you can do this. You can then “tune” the system to be closer to D&D (i.e. your fighter is capable, regarless of weapon) or RQ (competency is strongly biased per-weapon).

I prefer to tackle this problem in a completely diffrent way–be completely up front with the players, run them through a few combats, manage expectations in character creation, and don’t touch the Combat Skill.

Problem Two

It also won’t make sense that, no matter how badly mismatched weapons are, the winner of the Combat Skill roll will always get to do something and the loser only gets to defend.

To borrow some of Apocalypse World’s parlance, winning the Combat Skill contest gives the artist the chance to “make a move”1. That move is usually just a straight attack, but could be a subduing action, taunt, wrestling, or even fleeing.

It’s easy to deal with the mismatched weapons. Consider a heirarchy of weapons; if you intend to press in against a greater threat (say, a weapon with better reach, or unarmed vs armed) and you fail, you are instantly vulnerable to a counter. If the opponent manages to defend they automatically get control of combat next round. Of course if they’re relatively green they might not keep control, but it gives them an attack of opportunity.

For a more complex approach, consider a matrix of attacker vs defender weapons. Moves are available depending on the mismatch. For example:

  Sword Dagger Fist Spear
Sword Slash/stab, Grip Slash/stab, Grip* Slash/stab Slash/stab*, Grip*
Dagger Stab*, Grip* Stab, Grip* Stab, Grip Stab*, Grip*
Fist Punch*, Grip* Punch*, Grip* Punch, Grip Punch*, Grip*
Spear Impale, Blunt Impale, Blunt Impale, Blunt Impale, Blunt 

Attacker is in the first column; cross reference with the top row (the defender).

Already we’ve descended into very specific terms. But the broad ideas are:

  1. Give the players funky “moves” they can attempt, once they get control of combat
  2. Anything with an asterisk is vulnerable to a counter if that move is attempted

Some of the terms are based on my specific experience, and I’m not going to itemise them here; suffice to say if I did create a big table, it would need a lot of care to explain to GM and players what was actually going on. There are a couple of other comments, though:

  • Fleeing is a special case. Regardless of who has control over the combat, people should be able to flee if they want to.
  • I haven’t even started to think about changing weapon distances, e.g. what happens if the dagger-man gets inside the point of the spear-man. I think the way to do it is a new table for the new distance (the above assumes “open fight”) and some of the “moves” you can apply are designed to change the engagement distance. But I’m already talking about crunch, when I wanted to address principles. Let’s park this for now.

Problem Three

How does the system adapt to changing environment? An armed skirmish is not a formal duel, which is not a brawl in a cellar.

You have a few levers you can pull. One, you change the character’s Combat Skill. Maybe they’re in unfamiliar territory. Maybe they’re surprised. Somehow their Judgement is compromised.

Two, you can change their Weapon Skill. This is appropriate when, say, the weapon is just too big for the environment.

Three, you restrict the Moves they can do from The Place. That’s not a lot different from just restricting their Weapon Skill, so mostly down to taste; however there may be a couple of cases where you want to shut down what moves your players can do, e.g. if they’re somehow backed into a corner or otherwise restricted.

Problem Four

How do you deal with multiple opponents?

This isn’t hard to do, but requires a conceptual leap. Most systems assume that your opponents will pack in on all sides and will all take swings. Some deal with multiple opponents by forcing you to divide attack or parry percentages. The assumption is that all opponents attack at the same time, in the same space.

That isn’t how a many-on-one fight works, usually. One opponent will always be closer than the other, and you can assume the lone fighter is trying to keep it that way by moving so one of their opponents is between them and the other one. If they can keep that up, one of their opponents will never be in a position to land a blow. They then only have one opponent to deal with. Job done, eh?

Well, not quite. If our lone fighter wants to hit one of their opponents, they have to commit to stepping into distance for their attack. As they do that, the other soldier–the one they’re trying to keep away–also steps.

2 opponents

Mechanically this works like mismatched weapons, i.e. if you attack one opponent and screw it up, you’re immediately asking for a counterattack in the next round, and may need to go on the defensive.

As long as you have control of combat, you can keep the two (or three, or four) bad guys at bay. How you measure “control” needs to be defined, of course. Do you treat the attacking force as a single entity (i.e. one opposed roll), or does each participant roll separately? If they roll separately and your hero has a higher score than some but lower than other opponents, how do you handle that–do they get a free attack anyway? Do they have to beat everyone before they can pick a target?

Other considerations might be the fatiguing effect of fighting more than one person–does fatigue exist in this system? Does it affect Judgement/Combat Skill?

Dice

To further separate the Combat Skill roll phase (“initiative”) from Weapon Skill (attack/parry) you could make them use different dice. A friend’s system (which is a couple of decades old) uses a d6 dice pool for attack, looking for matches, but the parries are made using a percentile roll. It feels a bit funky, but it works (variable success result for attack, binary result for parry).

If you want to make the Combat Skill roll more meaningful than a simple yes/no threshold, adding a dice pool mechanic might make for some interesting mechanics. (I have some ideas, but I’ll save those for later). This could make it nicely distinct compared to your (percentile? opposed single die roll?) attack/parry roll that follows afterwards.

Layering and Retrofit

A game like Runequest could be perfect for adding a “Combat Skill” layer on top of normal fighting proficiency. It would need some effort to incorporate other aspects–spell casting, missile combat, and so forth, but it could be done. RQ is surprisingly easy to tinker with, and combining an extra “Combat Skill” as part of the Basic Skills package isn’t hard.

Does This Matter?

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p>Well, clearly it matters to me since I wrote this. Does making the system more “real” fill a niche in the gaming market? Only insofar as it gives you a marketing lever.

D&D, RuneQuest and others have been satisfying gamers with their mechanics for decades. If you can’t explain why your system follows martial principles then it has no value over established systems (which fill the primary need of being a game). Besides, realism is an illusion. If players are getting the immersion and the thrill they want, the system already works.

I don’t feel this system is an answer to anything, other than scratching a personal itch. However I do think it’s possible to develop a system that’s true to martial principles I agree with, but simple enough that anyone can enjoy it. Maybe more later.


  1. Yes, I know AW explicitly avoids double moves.
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  • It occurs to me that this is actually two distinct systems which are – if necessary – separable.

    The pacing/one-shot-kill-avoiding benefits of the “setting” system doesn’t intrinsically require a separate Combat/Weapon skill separation. You’d get the same effect by simply rolling Combat Skill (or whatever skill you like) and giving the winner the choice to hit or set, without necessarily requiring another roll.

    • You’d get the same effect, but you’d lump a perception and experience-based Combat Awareness in with a coordination-based Weapon Skill, and I have other reasons for keeping them separate (e.g. environmental effects on one skill rather than the other).

      Still, it’s worth thinking how this system breaks when either skill is maxed out.

  • Are you familiar with Texas Hold’em? “The Place” you’re talking about is called “position” in that style of poker. Usually, the player with position has the potential to either win more or lose less money in a hand.

    VS

    • Thanks for your comment. No, I’m not familiar with Poker much (just flicked through my copy of David Partlett’s book and can’t find that variant).

      “The Place” is a specific terminology for English martial arts. It’s effectively a position where you’ve already won (though there is Place and True Place–I won’t get into that). However your analogy does illustrate that all games, sports and other competitions have positions of vantage–some absolute, some not–and strategies for moving towards those positions. Is that what you mean?