Thursday, 25 June 2015

Combat Verisimilitude

Imagine the following scene… 
Flairin crouched behind the fallen tree, listening for the signal. A low whistle from Elanor, perched high in the tree above, marked the start of the ambush. Flairin leapt to his feet and sprang down the slope towards the Orcs, hurling his hand axe as he did so. Drawing his sword, he uttered the words that unleashed fire leaping along the edge of his blade, and crashed into the leading Orc Chieftain even as the Chieftain lifted his blade to parry. An Orc to his left lay still, his lifeblood spilling into the dirt, Elanor's arrow through his throat. Osran and Khazem threw spears, one finding its mark and felling an Orc, and crashed into the Orcs to either side who stood frozen to the spot, whilst overhead a bolt of lightning from Mazak blasted the wagon rider where he sat, still clutching the reins as he fell to the floor.

Flairin stepped sideways to avoid a lunge from the Chieftain, and bloodied his arm in return. Osran and Khazem each found themselves facing a pair of Orcs. Osran swiftly dispatched one, and blocked the other's attack. Khazem wasn't so lucky, he felled one, but took a blow from the other – fortunately his breastplate saved him. Elanor shot at another Orc, and leapt down to join the fray. The Orc's joy at the arrow bouncing off his helm was short lived as he took a lightning bolt to the face. The Chieftain shouted orders to rally the Orcs, but that didn't stop two Orcs running off back down the track, Mazak in pursuit.

The battle didn’t last much longer – Elanor dodged an Orc before felling it, Osran made a feint and then stabbed his, while Khazem’s bad luck continued – he took a serious blow to his shoulder, opening him up to an attack from another Orc who would have finished him were it not for his breastplate. Mazak blasted one of the Orcs running down the track, and continued the pursuit of the other. Flairin with a roar chopped off the Chieftain’s head. With this, the rout was complete, and it didn't take long to pick off the fleeing Orcs. One hiding under a fallen tree gave them some grief, but Mazak's Clear Hearing spell soon located him by the sound of his breathing.
I want that reflected in how the scene plays out at the table. Here's how it looks with my combat system:

DM: Elanor - the first Orc is now passing your vantage point.
Elanor: I whistle and let loose my arrow at the first Orc.
Flairin: I leap to my feet and spring down the slope, throw my hand axe at that Orc, cast Lightning Blade, and rush the Orcs.
Osran: I stand up, throw my spear at that Orc, and rush the Orcs.
Khazem: Me too.
Mazak: I lightning bolt the wagon driver.
DM: OK. Roll attacks. Elanor...
(Elanor rolls)
DM: You kill it - it falls to the ground, an arrow through it's throat. Flairin...
(Flairin rolls)
DM: It is lightly wounded. Osran...
(Osran rolls.)
DM: Miss. Khazem...
(Khazem rolls.)
DM: There's now a dead Orc with a spear sticking out of it. Mazak...
(Mazak rolls.)
DM: The wagon rider falls to the floor dead, still clutching the reins. Now - who's moving where?
Flairin: I take the Chieftain.
Elanor: I shoot that one.
Mazak: I'm going to wait and see who to lightning bolt.
DM: OK. (Moves the figures). Round 2! Right - roll for surprise.
Mazak: (Rolls a 5) Yay!
(DM rolls for every Orc.)
DM: Argh! Everyone but the Chieftain is surprised so they all lose initiative outright. Flairin vs the Chieftain...
(Flairin and DM roll. DM wins.)
DM: The Chieftain attacks and (rolls)
Flairin: Miss! Now my attack (rolls)
DM: Just a minor wound. You've bloodied his arm. Osran: it's surprised so...
(Osran rolls.)
DM: You kill this Orc, but this one attacks (rolls)
Osran: Miss!
DM: Khazem: it's surprised so...
(Khazem rolls.)
DM: You kill that Orc, but the other one attacks (rolls)
Khazem: Whew! You hit my armour.
DM: Elanor?
(Elanor rolls)
DM: It bounces off his helm! The Orc grins from ear to ear. Mazak have you decided who you're blasting?
Mazak: That one! (Rolls)
DM: Well that wiped the grin off his face. OK what are you all doing?
Elanor: I jump down out of the tree and attack that one.
Mazak: I wait for an inviting target.
DM: The rest of you just continuing the attack? (They nod). OK - the Chieftain shouts out "Kill the human pigs you useless scum!" in Orcish and these two move forward and engage you in combat (moves the figures) while these two run off down the track (moves the figures).
Mazak: I'll run after those two and blast at the first opportunity.
DM: Right... Round 3. Elanor roll initiative against this Orc... (Both roll). The Orc wins and (rolls)...
Elanor: Dodged! And I (rolls) kill it.
DM: Osran roll initiative against your Orc (Both roll). The Orc wins and (rolls)...
Osran: Missed! I (rolls) stab it dead.
DM: Khazem roll initiative against your two orcs (three rolls - Khazem lowest). The first (rolls) is a serious blow to your shoulder, and the second (rolls) is a miss - no - with the bonus from the wound it's a hit (rolls) but your armour saves you. Again.
Osran: Yay! I kill it (rolls).
DM: Indeed you do. Mazak?
Mazak: (Rolls). Does that kill it?
DM: Yup. Flairin roll initiative versus the Chieftain. (Both roll).
Flairin: At last my turn! I (rolls snake eyes) chop off his head.
DM: Seems a reasonable interpretation to me! So, the Chieftain dead they're all making a run for it. These two head this way, this one over here. (Moves figures) What do you do?

Over the years I've tried many different ways of resolving combat actions and movement, looking for a system with results that "felt right". Ironically some of the more complex rules I found least satisfactory with regards to realism. I want a system:
  • where complexity doesn't get in the way
  • that feels like you're in the heat of combat, in melee with an opponent, interacting with each other, not a disjointed series of independent actions
  • where people describe what they want to do in normal language, not in some special lingo
  • where what people can and can't do and the interactions of these make sense within the fiction of the world
The following is the system I developed and have used for several different systems over the last couple of years:

Length of a round
Rounds are 6 seconds long.
This makes 10 rounds a minute, and one bow attack per 6 seconds seems reasonable.

When are attacks normally resolved?
All melee atacks (apart from surprise attacks) are considered to be an exchange of parries, feints, and attacks, which take from a couple of seconds to a full round. Most of the time they occupy a whole round.

If you're attacking someone, and on the other side of the chamber your friend is attacking someone else, then in the heat of battle you're not going to notice whether you hit your opponent before or after your friend hits theirs.

Thus it's a reasonable abstraction that most combats span over a single point in every round, and at this point in the round we resolve attacks and spells. Thus:

All attacks and spells are normally resolved once per round, at the start of the round.
Since missile attacks make sense at the start of each round, actions are normally resolved at the start of each round.
The side effect of this is that in the first round you can throw a missile weapon and charge into combat, then at the beginning of the second round you do your melee attacks, as per:
"each man carried a sword and shield and an axe. Now the iron head of this weapon was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides while the wooden handle was very short. And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and thus shatter the shields of the enemy and kill the men"
What order do you declare your actions in?
It is often thought that the DM is at odds with the players - this is why I prefer the term Referee to show the impartial role of the DM.
The DM decides impartially what the monsters / NPCs are doing, and then ask the players what they're doing, then say what the monsters are doing, and allow the players to change their minds.
There shouldn't be a need for the DM to declare first.

Round Order
Who is doing what attack? (Players then DM)
Resolve attacks
Who is doing what now? (Players then DM)
Resolve movement, other actions, delayed attacks.

Attack Resolution Order & Initiative
Combat naturally split into groups of combatants who are targeting each other.
If you have more than one potential target, you generally attack one of the people who's attacking you.
I've never actually needed to make that a rule - it always turns out that way in practice. This means the groups are always small.
If you cast a spell with multiple targets then you go after everyone else (seems reasonable, and keeps things simple).
Everyone in a combat group rolls initiative (d6) and goes in that order. We put the dice next to the figure so it's clear what the order is. A tie means simultaneous attacks.
Since you attacking someone and them attacking you is resolved at the same time, this is much quicker (less context switching) as well as feeling more realistic.

How far can you move?
Usually 20' a round.
You can move up to 40' but can't then shoot a bow.
You can run up to 60' but can only throw something if you're doing that in a straight line.
You can charge up to 80' but only in a straight line.
Figures of some kind are used (miniatures or lego or coins), but purely for position and clarity (no grid based movement).
The DM adjudicates who ends up where, based upon what people say their character is doing.
Movement is in addition to fighting, not instead of. You can move and swing a sword at the same time.
You can retreat backwards at only half speed (10' a round).

How much can I do per round
You can cast one spell per round, and make one attack.
If a spell targets an unwilling creature then it counts as an attack. Otherwise you can cast a spell and attack in the same round. (Why not cast jump as part of your surprise attack? Why make people miss an attack when they cast a boring utility spell? Why make it like homework?)
You can swap weapons, draw a weapon, cast a shield over your shoulder, grab your shield with no fuss.

Engaging in combat
If you move next within melee range of an opponent then you can only advance up to them and engage them in combat for the rest of the round. If you try to continue moving and evade them they get a free melee attack on you.
At the start of a round you can retreat from melee combat, and your opponent can either press the retreat and get an attack in the next round, or let you escape.
If you want to move when engaged in combat, then that's resolved by an opposed attack roll.
You can't make a missile attack against someone you're in melee with, and if you change weapons when engaged in melee, or make a missile attack a spell attack against someone else they'll get a free attack on you.

They're dead - can I change my mind?
If you say your attacking someone, and then they're dead before you get your attack, you still spent some time fighting them, so don't get to attack anyone else. You don't have to waste a spell though - you can save it.

What about surprise attacks?
If your opponent hasn't seen you, then you can move up to half your standard movement (usually 10') and hit your opponent that round.
Any further, and they get a chance to react and engage you in combat, which lasts until the end of the round and then you each get an attack at the start of the next round.
Surprise +3 bonus on to hit.
The next round, roll d6 once for your side to see how effective your surprise attack was. Each opponent must equal that roll else loses initiative automatically.

What about conditional attacks?
You can delay a missile attack or spell until after the resolution phase (i.e. after everyone else's go) and have it some time later in the round.
If you start the round able to make a melee attack against someone, you can similarly delay that attack until later - e.g. I'll kill him unless you drop your bow - though not if you disengage from them.

Other Actions
Can do acrobatic manoeuvres - if climb cannot make missile attacks. If jump can only throw in direction jumping in.
Some actions would restrict your attacks, or possibly take all round (e.g. pick a lock).

It's an exercise for the reader to spot what I forgot to cover!

Certain common features of combat systems are purposefully missing:
1) There is no bonus on initiative rolls - it is very fast without this, and wouldn't be with it.
2) Spells don't have "casting times" and you cannot "interrupt" a spell by hitting the person. Instead you should win initiative and kill the caster first, which is possible with wounds instead of hitpoints.

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