Despite appearances, this isn't really a rant. It's my solution.
Have you ever played a role-playing game? Did you notice that combat sucked?
It doesn't matter what kind of RPG it is. Tabletop, computer, LARP. The combat sucked.
In some cases, they've tricked you into believing the combat doesn't suck by strictly limiting their combat. But it still sucks.
For example, you have a party of characters. They fight a group of monsters. By some magic, everyone strikes and then backs off, allowing others to strike, or heal, or whatever. If you've ever seen a fight by anyone really trying to win, that's not how it happens. One of the fighters will simply pound the snot out of the other. There's barely time for the other fighter to respond, let alone back up and drink a soda. (Evidently, one of the warrior's primary assets in a fantasy RPG is the ability to down potions between swings like a frat boy and beer.)
Not only is the idea fundamentally screwy, it also produces some limits that cripple the dramatic capability of the engine. There's no way to fight a hundred zombies in a turn-based game, even though it would be easy if you were actually the power level you're supposed to be. Assuming you could even fit all the zombies into the combat engine, they would each get to go in turn, and the "lucky twenty" system that is in every RPG known to man would let them annihilate you.
Some games tackle this situation. For example, you'll get games like FF Tactics, which have a strict combat map. However, even then, there's a very tiny unit cap, and it doesn't feel very "dramatic" - getting hit by a warrior? You magically have time to turn, run, drink a healing potion, and turn towards him again inbetween his sword swings. Drama is all about being trapped and beleaguered, and that certainly doesn't count. The only drama in a game like that is when you're trapped in a corner.
Other games use swamping rules, or limit the rules to prevent swamping, or any of a hundred other ideas that end up not working very well.
I've been mulling this over for quite a while, thinking of various solutions.
I'm running a little game now, just to get back into fighting trim, which uses some interesting rules. I decided to make a combat engine unlike anything I had ever seen, one which would solve these problems and produce dramatic combat.
So I decided, right up front, that there was never ever ever ever going to be a one-on-one fight. The rules would technically allow it, but it would simply never happen. I would balance the game for party-against-zounds!-enemies combat and party-vs-huge-ugly-boss combat.
To do this, I treat large numbers of enemies as if they were a single boss creature. Units come in several sizes (up to unit size five, which is somewhere around two tons of enemies), and increasing the unit sizes changes the statistics of the monster. More HP, easier to hit, does more damage, etc.
Moreover, the game uses a hit-and-damage engine which totally rocks. You see, you have a flat damage number. Like, say, six. You roll to hit the enemy. Lets say he has a minimum hit roll of ten.
If you roll from 10 to 19, you hit but do no damage. If you roll from 20-29, you do your damage minus their applicable armor. If you roll 30-39, you do twice that. 40-49, three times that. Etcetera.
That's not exactly nonstandard, but here's the key: when someone gets hit, they get discombobulated. That first zero damage tier is not actually a hit: it's the creatures flinching as bullets go by them, or as you brandish the weapon. For every tier of hit you do, the enemy's minimum hit roll decreases by one. (This rule does change a bit, depending on the enemy.)
This works really well. The party fought a huge dog-monster with a hit difficulty of 20 - which is extremely high. The sniper hit him first, dealing damage and dropping the hit minimum to 17. The next people all grazed him, dealing no damage but dropping the hit minimum to 11. The next round, they managed to get it all the way down to three and someone ended up giving it the final shot with his wee little pistol. During this time, however, it had pounced into the group and was busily chewing on a giant robot. The natural reaction was for several people to jump it with melee weapons - which have subtly different rules, although I doubt the players have figured that out yet.
Of course, not all monsters have the exact same response to getting shot at. Statistically, it depends on their reactions as to what their result is. The dog-boss fight was intended to be easy - just to give the players a taste of things to come. After all, he wasn't backed up by any other monster packs.
Thing is, the combat system feels different from other systems. You're not fighting six feral dogs, or twelve zombies. You're fighting a pack of dogs, or two lurches of zombies. The dynamics feel much different. It also makes grenade use work easily.
Instead of saying, "dog A jumps you, you take 3 damage, dog B jumps you and misses, dog C jumps you, you take 2 damage, blah blah blah", you say, "A pack of dogs jumps you and takes you down. They do 12 damage." Then, instead of aiming at a particular dog, the person on the ground says, "Kill them! With my sword!" and swings wildly at all of them.
The idea that you would strike at just one of the enemies threatening you always seemed pretty stupid to me, and I think this is going to work great. So far, so good. Next session on Monday.