Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fighting Dirty

Movies, books, and even real life are full of tales of people, people who shouldn't be able to win the fights that they're in, getting a major advantage through fighting dirty. Sometimes it isn't even trumped as fighting dirty but just ingenuity. The clever rogue uses a handful of dirt to buy time to scamper t safety, or the battlefield fighter kicks mud in order to break the stalemate with his solely dojo trained rival. Yet, the RPGs we have to simulate these stories has no real rules for dirty fighting. In most cases the kind of advantages dirty fighting gives are far less worthy than the damage you pass up for it. Today, I want to talk about that.

The Fundamental Problem
The fundamental problem here is how many actions RPGs allow per round. Now, this problem isn't with how many actions you have, but the fact that it is heavily codified. The standard is you get one move action and one standard action. The move action can only be used to move, but the standard action can be used to interact. In theory, this is the action that you could use in order to fight dirty. You could use your standard action to throw mud, kick sand, strike to the groin or whatever else you need. However, therein lies the problem.

For one thing, in order for your dirty trick to work you have to be able to hit the opponent, and if you could do that why would you be fighting dirty in the first place? Secondly, if you hit, most often the damage your attack could/would inflict would be better than the brief status defect that you get in return. After all, would you rather the person have a -5 to attack rolls because he is blinded for a round or two with sand, or be 12-15 damage closer to being dead? Most groups are going to go for dead. Why? Because most systems are geared towards favoring that outcome. Even systems with wound penalties favor this, after all the wounds will give you some of the defect while bringing them closer to defeated.

This Affects Tactical Fighting Too
This is a problem for more than just fighting dirty. How often do you see a Knock Down attempt or a Disarm in your games? Sure, sometimes you do. Particularly with characters built specifically towards those maneuvers, but not very often. The reason is the same. A knock down maybe buys you a round and then the bad guy is back on their feet and killing everyone. Twelve damage has him killed a round earlier. So, when do you want your round? In the middle of an ongoing fight or at the end? Most groups will go for the end, unless they are using that round to set something special up. Even that is rare, considering the groups actions are often better spent on damage.

Solutions are hard to come by unless there is some way in place to have the player pay something for the benefit. Giving greater affect to the fighting dirty actions is one way, true. As is making them less of an action so they can be used. Even then though it is hard to see a benefit that out ways the simple act of defeating the enemy faster.

In L5R - which is of particular interest to me since I run a game - I could see allowing a character to trade points of honor for the benefit of the act, but that could penalize characters with already low honor who shouldn't lose honor for their actions.

One way I am considering doing it is with reputation. this requires more work on the GM's part, yes, but it can also work well too - especially in a system like L5R with an honor and a fame mechanic. If a character chooses to fight dirty, they can make it part of an action and get the benefit from it seamlessly. However, if their honor is above a certain point - depending on circumstances of where they are - they will be docked honor. More to the point though, they will - potentially - gain a reputation as someone who fights dirty. That, in effect, could have consequences for them as they move through life. Their word will not be as trusted. People will be less likely to put them in honorable/fair conditions for fights, and basically the world will react to the reputation that they build for themselves.

Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't. Do you have any thoughts on it?


  1. Interesting. Give them something for free that's not free. Yeah, I think that might just work.

  2. I often leave this open for my players. If they want to do something other than attack, they describe what they want to happen and how the're going to make it happen. I then assign a level of difficulty - usually based on some combat maneuvers that already exist and extrapolating from there - and let take a shot.

    As an example, they want to knock the guy down, but understand it's just a delaying tactic, so add in that in the process of taking him down, they're going to rake their boot down the front of his leg, doing damage to the knee, shin, and ankle, making it less likely he can get up straight away.

    The take down is a pretty basic attack roll, but I throw in the called shot modifier to do damage to the leg too, and let them roll. It's a bit harder, but of they succeed, the bad guy drops and after a damage roll, spends his turn on the ground, clutching his leg in agony before he gets the option to regain his footing the next round.

    1. to do damage to the leg too, and let them roll. It's a bit harder, but of they succeed, the bad guy drops and after a damage roll, spends his turn on the ground, clutching his leg

      I think that what you're talking about here is a poor use of the hit point mechanics -- that is, I don't think the damage referred to is significant enough to warrant hit point loss. I started my discussion on the topic here, but haven't gotten around to continuing the thought. The problematic result of your mechanic is that, depending on damage die, STR modifier, and the opponent in question, it's possible to kill someone with such a take down maneuver.

    2. Not to hound you on all fronts, as I think you have some good points, but the flaw here seems more with the Hit Point mechanic than it does with his use.

      From how I've seen it described (I may be wrong post 3rd ed in D&D and in other games) Hit Points represents your ability to get out of the way of a lethal blow and turn it into a non-lethal blow. It represents training, ability level, and stamina in that regard for doing so. An injury to the leg, which hinders his maneuverability, would definitely make it harder for him to avoid those lethal blows, and could possibly take the victim out of the fight if, say, it brought them to 0 HP.

      This is the very reason why some systems use a dual layered wound system for things like Vitality and Wounds, where critical hits bypass the plentiful outer layer and go straight to the serious damage.

    3. Part of the argument I intend to make is that it's not necessarily a flaw with the Hit Point system as it is with the application of the hit point system. There's a lot of unpacking I need to do to get there (which is why I haven't done it yet :p) but I think the key point is that hit points are generally not as granular as people want them to be. (I'm not sure I buy the "ability to avoid injury" argument, but that's more unpacking.)

      To be clear, the leg is injured, but not in a way that hit points can track meaningfully. I would accept that 0hp means "out of the fight" and that a single good kick to the leg could accomplish that, except that the system define 0hp as "dying," so this can't be the (most accurate) interpretation.

      A system like RIFTS HP/SDC combo is a closer fir to what people expect HP to be (I think), but I wouldn't go so far to say it's a better system. It's a matter of expectations. YMMV.

      (BTW, hound away, I'm always good for a bit of lively discussion.)

    4. Yeah, part of the problem with HP is that EVERY system uses it. I agree with you that the toe swipe K.O. (so famous to anyone who has ever played a fighting game) is...silly. D&D I believe uses the "HP as a way to avoid grievous injury/death" example, stating that a knife to the chest kills a fighter as quickly as a mage, but the fighter is better trained to turn that blow to be less lethal.

      L5R on the other hand uses wounds as actual injury, going to far as to apply wound penalties at different injury levels and making it possible that someone who can survive two handed axe blows to the chest dies instantly when tripped to the ground depending on damage rolls. L5R, and its exploding damage dice, is also notorious for the rank 8 super tanky fighter to get killed by a goblin throwing the equivalent of a d4 rock because the damage roll keeps exploding.

    5. Yeah, I don't entirely buy that line from D&D. I know it's what they SAY, but it's also been said that HP is the way it is simply because Gygax wanted combat to work a certain way. This is a lot of what I hope to unpack in my (future) posts on the topic.

      I'll have to look at L5R's rules (I know I have them here somewhere...). It sounds interesting. But I also think that L5R is trying to model something different from D&D, which is different from what RIFTS is modeling, which is different from what World of darkness is modeling. The first step is to recognize that just because two systems use the term "hit points" doesn't mean they're talking about the same thing.

  3. It seems to me that the actual problem is that you want your cake and to eat it, too. Let me explain.

    You say that in movies and books and so on, the canny protagonist pulls off a dirty trick to win a fight he shouldn't be able to. Then you complain that RPGs can't model this well because the benefits of fighting dirty don't out-weight the benefits of just doing damage. he problem I see is that in most cases, our canny protagonist isn't trying to kill his opponent: that's not his direct goal. But many RPGs put violently and bloody conflict at the heart of their system (fitting, for a hobby that grew out of wargaming). So your basic complaint becomes "non-lethal tactics aren't particularly effective in lethal conflicts" or possibly "tactics for out-maneuvering an unassailable foe aren't effective against a foe I can and am willing to kill."

    If the goal of combat is to stop the other guy from breathing then yes, spitting in his face or kicking him in the groin isn't going to be as effective as putting a blade between his ribs. This is obvious. Such tactics, especially when the result is to effectively delay your opponent, are only useful when (1) there is some primary goal other than killing the opponent, and/or (2) you are unable or unwilling to kill the opponent.

    Give your players situations where a bloody end is not the goal (or even better, is impossible or unwanted), and you'll see many more groin kicks and tripping sweeps.

    (The bit about action economy is a red herring, and your free-but-not-free solution addresses a symptom rather than the disease. You might see more maneuvers being used, but only if and when there's little or no effective cost -- ie, a character who doesn't care about Honor.)

  4. Jackstoolbox,

    In a non-lethal confrontation non-lethal tactics are a lot more useful, I agree. However, you are missing quite a lot of points. How many times in books, movies, comics, and other stories have you seen someone lose a fight because they've been blinded and thus unable to see their opponent. In most RPGs being blinded has no impact on how hard you are to hit, and is in and of itself hard to pull off because first you need to hit them (probably hard already), then they get a saving throw, and then they likely get their action where they can do something about being blinded, and THEN you get to go again.

    For another example you listed, a kick in the groin when done in a fight is usually depicted as it stuns the person in some way and not only costs them an action but also buys time and makes them vulnerable. Again, not a lot of systems give you that benefit.

    There are quite a few places where fighting dirty, in some way or another, would be a major contribution to a lethal fight and RPGs can't handle it with how they are made by default.

    I am not trying to complain about this fact. Can you imagine how thick the rule book would have to be to codify all the things we can do in the real world? I don't want to run that game, or play in it. However, as it is on my mind for several games I am in I do want to ponder the problem.

    You do however bring up another point. Why do so many RPGs have absolutely nothing in place for non-lethal take downs? How could we fix that for our personal games? Something to think on.

    1. There're a lot of specifics flying around here, some of them implied, and I think that might be taking us away from the point. I'm going to go ahead and say that some systems can handle non-lethal confrontations better than others, but that's more a question of the tools you have and how you choose to use them. I'm also going to take the stance that I feel it's the GM's place to make rulings on this sort of thing so they are meaningful; if you feel rules for dirty tricks need to be buffed, go right ahead (though I caution doing so too carelessly; a well-designed system will hopefully have taken these things in to account, and you may just not be in the right situation for them).

      It sounds like you're talking in D&D 3.x terms; forgive me if that's made clear somewhere else. I know that Pathfinder has a Dirty Trick maneuver that can be used to do a lot of what you're talking about, and in Pathfinder (and D&D 3.x) being Blind is pretty severe both on offense and defense (you fight as though everyone is invisible, which denies your Dex to AC and sets you up for Sneak Attacks [and may even give everyone Combat Advantage]).

      That's not really here or there. You'd talking about books where the hero wins a fight he shouldn't and applying it (I assume) to D&D fights that are balanced against the PC group. Such an encounter is set up so that swinging your sword is an effective strategy on it's own. If you want a fight where dirty tricks are necessary, you need to give them a fight where dirty tricks are necessary (and make sure they know it, or you're heading for a TPK).

      Long and short, I'm not sure which systems you're referring to when you say that most don't give you non-lethal options (or appropriate benefits for them), but I also think it's valid for the GM to make his own rulings on such when and if necessary. But the main point is such tactics are only going to be used when they're good tactics to use, and any combat where "hit him with my sword" is the better tactic to reach your goal (bloody victory or otherwise) is not a good combat to expect such side-tactics.

      (Regarding "you need to hit him first", one of the innovations that Pathfinder added was their maneuvers system, which includes a maneuvers defense score that can be higher or lower than AC based on the fighter's expertise and the maneuver being attempted. I think it's a wonderful addition and solves the "if I can hit him, why don't I kill him" issue.)

      Finally, shameless plug on your last point: that's exactly why I started my blog, Jack's Tool Box. I noticed a lot of holes in the games that I played and wanted to have a place where I can talk about those holes and collect various tools to address the gaps. I'm sure someone somewhere has thought of a neat way to handle non-lethal combat, and if they haven't I'm sure we can muddle our way through to a solution with some effort. (But seriously, look at Pathfinder maneuvers for a start.)

    2. Ouch, you got me right in my accidental arrogance. :D

      I don't specify systems as I try to approach things here in a more "system-less" fashion. I read a lot of RPGs but some of the big ones (Pathfinder for example) I am tragically short with experience on as no one in my current group seems to "like" D&D. It seems like they did a lot of things to address this particular issue handily, especially with that maneuver track you were talking about.

      I whole heartedly agree that the GM should be modifying rules and such to make the game system work for their game. It is the point of GMing, and one of the reasons I think so many gamer blogs are aimed towards GM.

      For my own group, there is a strong interest in narrative flavored game play, but since we're all older gamers we also tend towards systems where there can be hard consequences for failure and things can be a bit more rigid...which then means you come into problems, and the GM has to make some calls.

      Thanks for the link to the blog. I'll check it out, and likely put it on the blog roll to the side.

    3. Didn't mean to hit you in a weak spot. :P

      I don't know as much about as many systems as I'd like to, but I'm a Born-Again D&Der (hated it when I met it, thanks to crappy Killer DMs, but fell back to it's loving arms after a fling with 4E, and believe that PF is an overall improvement on 3.X) and so I tend to apologize (2) for it without really meaning to. I believe most people don't dislike D&D so much as they dislike what they think D&D is.

      I strongly believe in the DM as referee and arbiter, but I'm always afraid of straying in to the Rule 0 Fallacy.

      I spend years trying to run narrative-heavy games, an have decided that you can either have a strong narrative or meaningful player agency. YMMV. I've decided to err on the side of player agency, and I am enamoured with strongly-simulationist systems that help me arbitrate consequences.

    4. Rule 0 Fallacy should have been a link, so I don't sound too jargony to the uninitiated.

    5. I'd posit that it doesn't have to be broken for it to be wrong for your game. Still, a good discussion, so thank you for that.

      On the subject of Player Agency vs. Narrative Gameplay you can have both, but it requires the narrative you are going for to be a Character Driven plot. It also means your players have to want the narrative focus as well, because they ultimately play into it - or don't - depending on their mood. It is hard to do, but if a group wants it they can do it.

      I also agree with you on the D&D thing. A lot of people I've met, especially those who started with D&D before moving on, feel like they "graduated" out of that into other things. Good experiences can be found in D&D still. It just depends on the GM and the Players. Just like every other game.

    6. "I'd posit that it doesn't have to be broken for it to be wrong for your game."

      I completely agree. There's just a rather fine line between saying, "the DM can and should make the game his own," and "there are no flawed systems because the GM can and should make the game his own." I fear falling on the wrong side of that line.