Combat System Notes

These blog notes offer suggestions to add storytelling and tactical opportunities to combat in RPGs.  Too often, combat is simply a war of attrition with little of the drama seen in sword-and-sorcery fiction.

I want to achieve four goals:

  1. Make combat a more compelling storytelling experience.
  2. Have combat better reflect player choice in action and equipment selection so that it doesn’t feel disconnected and random.
  3. Make combat gameplay more engaging by expanding tactical outcomes and choices.
  4. Don’t add undue complexity or slow down the game.

“I attack the monster.”  “Roll to hit.”  “I rolled a 15.”  “You miss.”  There is monotony in generating random numbers with modifiers to see if something happened or didn’t.  The first blog post contextualizes combat actions; it helps players realize the implications of their choices, offers storytelling guidance for GMs, and provides tactical mechanisms to make combat more exciting.

“The monster claws you for 17 damage.”  “I still have 58.”  “Next round.  Roll for initiative.”  Compelling RPG combat is more than just whittling the opposition’s hit points down to zero.  The second blog post gives ideas for how to conceptualize damage that balances epic heroism with believability. It offers increased agency in the consequences of combat.

The proposals here are intended to work with any combat system that relies on deterministic or random number generation that use modifiers to determine combat outcomes.  Some of it could be adapted to more storytelling-focused RPGs, such as Amber Diceless Roleplaying.  Each idea can work on its own and does not have internal dependencies.  They can be adapted for paper-and-pencil RPGs, computer RPGs, or tactics wargames.  I’ll generally use AD&D for my examples.  Old AD&D.

None of these ideas are earth-shattering and have likely been put into rulebooks eons ago.  I’m writing them down for myself to help structure future game systems.

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