Saturday, January 28, 2006

Combat Sucks.

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.


Mory said...

Hope it works. You're right that computer RPGs have nearly always failed to give their battles emotional resonance, but that is not the same as saying it must "suck". In the Mario & Luigi games, I enjoyed the combat so much that I actively sought out battles, for the twitch gameplay and in order to master the more complex controls.

I think the thing that is most harmful to a battle's potential for drama is the reliance on numbers. Numbers cheapen the experience. In a CRPG, the ideal leveling-up system would be one where the character perceptibly learns new moves from battle, either from watching his opponent or having to dodge his opponent's attack. That would make watching the fight less like an arithmetic problem and more like a sporting match. For real drama, the battles would need to be closely integrated with the character's developing relationships. Not an easy feat, but it'll be pulled off sooner or later.

Patrick Dugan said...

Actually this is exactly what I'm trying to do with Swords to Satanists, and episodic storyworld using the Storytron engine. All the combats are either brief footnotes of dispatching random foes or serious, full-blown conflicts between major characters. The fighting largely has to do with figuring out an approach/technique combo that will work. Finding this solution (there will be more than one for many fights) involves feigning and trying to figure out the enemy's techniques without getting irrevocably caught up in them. Watch Naruto and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

The storyworld will allow different characters to be played, but the main character has a special ability, "magic eyes", which allow him to memerize a page of spell book or see the quintessence pattern to an enemies technique, and then copy it. All other "level ups" will occur within a dramatic context. The only relevant numbers to the combat are a few floats between 0 and 1, health, strength and agility. "Losing" a fight won't end the game, just change the flow of the story. Character's techniques will also be reflective of their personalities, so the domineering paladin uses quintessence infused metal chords that automatically wrap around surfaces, enabling him to set constricting traps. The vampire wizard (master of the wave theory) can conjur a violin and use its sound to bend rainbows. A paladin that can be turned into a vampire (depending on player actions) can use a "blood of christ" technique that freezes or boils the blood of the target, causing paralysis or death.

Darius Kazemi said...

What you're doing here is basically just introducing cinematic combat rules, which is how I always run tabletop games. "Make one roll to see what percentage of the people in the room you manage to kill this turn. You're a superspy, for cryin' out loud!"

I thought the combat in FF:Tactics was very dramatic, but it was the drama of "First I went for the Boss Monster but then the side guys poisoned me and I had to bring my white mage nearby to heal but then he died but not before buffing my warrior who killed the two side guys and now the playing field is even so PICK ON SOMEONE YOUR OWN SIZE, BOSS MONSTER!" It was the drama of the gameplay itself that captivated me; I didn't care that I was moving back and forth and taking advantage of AI glitches to heal.

Craig Perko said...

Mory: Yes, I meant "suck" from a certain, dramatic, mostly-realistic viewpoint, not from a gameplay viewpoint. Your comments are quite right: combats should be tied to character arcs, but it hasn't really happened much yet.

Darius: Exactly. Except I'm encapsulating them and making them THE rules rather than GM-moderated special circumstances. :)

Patrick: "Win vs Lose" being fuzzy has almost always been true: it's the "resets" that slam the win-loss to binary. "Level ends", healing, etc.: they make how well you won or lost irrelevant, because the next combat will be you fully recharged.

A game's "plot", whether computer generated or carefully scripted, has "resets" in the form of "plot troughs": Sephiroth will kill the girl at this point, you will always escape the exploding building, etc. Taking away these resets requires advanced plot generation algorithms.

Patrick Dugan said...

The way I understand plot in general is as a causal path, "the king died and the queen died of grief", in games its "the boss fight started and I won because of (insert Darius' apt recounting of FF tactics)". If your system includes elements of character relationships and personality then there you go, the gameplay is the plot.

Thats the whole idea of a storyworld, you try something, it affects causation in an interesting way, the player feels agency and pleasure et al. The mode of challenge is different, so while traditional ludic games provide a sequence of challenges dolled up by cut-scenes and straw-man artifices like dialogue trees, a storyworld has the making of many meaningful plot permutations built in at the atomic level.

That said, Storytron content, while player mitigated, is at core non-adaptive. Crawford's algorithms do solve enough problems as to support the sort of agency I described above, but they still aren't on par with a good GM in terms of improvisation. In sculpting my storyworlds I'll have to take great pains in focusing on the dynamics where real agency exists, and minimizing the plot troughs, which are really metaplot troughs.

For instance, there might be a fight where engaging will lead to a check-mate against the PC one way or another. What this results in isn't nessecarily a binary loss, because it ends up opening opportunities which wouldn't have been possible otherwise. Kinda like how losing the machine city scripting code got you started on an even more innovative project ;)

Philippe said...

I like the fact that you are trying to change the combat system you have observed. But it sounds like you only know of D20?
You mention tabletop RPGs, so I suppose you have looked at them, too, before writing your article?
D20 is a very, very tightly designed game system, that works because every element is balanced against every other elements, and this balancing is the result of 30 years of feedback on the damn thing.
I personally find it sucks, much like you do, but I hope you appreciate that it's one way to do it, not THE way.
Sadly, the computer game industry seem to be populated by people who only know of the D20 way :(
(OK, except the Fallout guys, but you know what I mean)

Interestingly, your system reminds me of the last iteration of the Epic 40K tabletop miniature game.
The old edition used a terribly heavy system that involved tons of micromanagement.
The last version had a morale system that essentially showed how a unit under fire would slowly but surely be reduced to cowering behind cover and essentially being suppressed.
What you described reminded me of that. I wonder if you were thinking about that?

Anyway, if you want more _dramatic_ fights, I would recommend you start looking at systems that are more "lethal" as we call them. Systems like Legend of the Five Rings, or the Silhouette system (used in Tribe 8, Heavy Gear, etc.
I personally like the World of Darkness system, too, although I wouldn't put it in the "lethal" category.

Anyway, just thought I would mention this.

Craig Perko said...

Philippe: I'm well aware of all the systems you've mentioned. I would hazard a guess that I've seen the rules on virtually every publically-distributed RPG system in the nineties, including some rather unusual ones.

The problem with most games involving cinematic combat is that they are brutally unrealistic. I wanted to try for realistic-feeling dramatic combat. Against... uh, giant squid monsters. And hordes of exploding zombies.

Most games which try for dramatic combat essentially waive away anything that isn't a boss, and any team with three or more combat-related characters will generally find it easy to swamp the enemy boss.

Systems of morale and disarray are pretty common in wargames, but are usually just tacked on in RPGs, because RPGs are intended for mostly few-on-few fights.

BTW, if you haven't, I suggest looking into the game "Feng Shui". You might find it very interesting. I was irritated by pieces of it, but the concentration on cinematic play was very refreshing.