Friday, September 24, 2010

Dynamic Combat

Probably a short post today. As I said yesterday, this week is kind of nuts crazy for me right now. Anyhow, as anyone who has spoken to me about gaming IRL can tell you, I'm kind of obsessed with the idea of dynamic combat in an RPG. Some systems come close, but a lot don't, and I think part of the problem is I have unrealistic expectations about just how much 'flow' can actually be felt in a system that has to be turn based if you want it to make any kind of sense. Several systems have tried taking stabs at it in their own way, the tick system in Exalted (which I still need to play someday) where a faster character can, I believe, get 2-3 turns in the time it takes a slower character to get one. Then there are things like the earlier versions of L5R where Initiative could be dynamic, and moved around as you held actions, got hurt, or went rounds without being touched. Thing is, there has to be more to it than just a spiffy initiative system, right?

What I Want
What I want is completely unreasonable, but I am still striving for it. I want a game, or combat system, that can make combat feel like it does in the movies. I want back and forth, I want people diving for cover, I want characters to be beaten but still able to get back up and continue the fight. Take a moment and envision some of your favorite action sequences. There is an energy to them, a charge that sucks you in and won't let you go. Part of this is the emotion in the scene (and there should be some emotion, otherwise what is the point?), but a lot of it is also in how the fight is actually conveyed to the audience.

Why I Can't Have It
Now, the problem with this should be fairly immediately apparent to most people. For starters, as I said above, for sanity's sake we need to keep things on a turn based structure for our RPGs. Can you imagine trying to do a 'Real Time' combat system at a table top? It'd be madness, everyone just screaming what they are trying to do. Eventually, the GM would have to go around the table in order just to hear what everyone was trying to do, at which point you've effectively gone to a turn based system anyhow since people will be able to hear the desired actions of others.

The other big problem with getting fight scenes like that though, is the game versus story dynamic that has to be accounted for. See, in the movie, you have a story with a script. However good the fight looks, its outcome has been determined before the fight starts, hell, before we even meet the protagonist and their opponent the fight has been decided. In a game though you don't have that. A bad turn of the dice, a lucky roll, and the fight is over. Because of this, players are encouraged to use every trick they can come up with to win, and win as quickly as possible. Spending a round ducked behind cover not doing anything is just prolonging the fight and exposing your friends. A round running away just means they get to shoot you in the back, and so on. It is the nature of the game to encourage this, while the nature of a story allows for more..structured portrayals.

Story Focus or Tactical Simulation
In the Reddit interview with John Wick (link at the bottom to the first part, not sure where in it it mentions it) John claims that a lot of games claim to be all about the story, but then when you get into combat you get bogged down in all these other mechanics and the game becomes a tactical simulator. He then asks about making a system where this isn't the case, where the story could actually have control over what is going on. This is something he tried to address in the LARP rules for Houses of the Blooded, where players will go and discuss how their duel will play out before doing it. One person gets the glory for winning, the other person gets the mechanical benefit, and both players win.

This works great for LARPs where you have mostly PvP action, or smaller situations (in my limited experience), but in a table top game the system doesn't work that way. Also, some people like micromanaging their combats. Like having the decision to act how they want from round to round and see if it has meaning. These people are no less involved in the story than others, but that is a fundamental part of the game that they enjoy.

I'm still not sure where I stand on this personally. M.A|C.C (the system I'm making for those new here) has rules for doing both, or rather, a rule that can do anything quickly, and then a detailed combat system that can also be used. It's worked out very well in testing so far, and I think I like that idea for it.

Still, this is worth mentioning since a tactical simulator, also by its nature, will remove 'flow' in favor of better representing the tactical choices being made.

So, What Can Be Done
So, what can be done to get the dynamics back in combat? Honestly, mechanically, not much. However, and RPG is only 1/2 mechanics. So what do you do? Use description. As the GM let players go a bit nuts with their descriptions, give end round recaps of what has happened. Encourage people to play off of each other's actions and see what happens. The mechanics may slow things down, but you can bring that feel in between the rounds, or as the turns go by with some good description.

Aside from that, what systems do you feel do combat well? What systems don't? Any props for extremely stream lined combat systems? Has anyone tried doing combat like a simple contested skill roll?

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