Sunday, May 07, 2006

Front-Loaded Combat

As I plug away on the language description, here's an unrelated bit of "fun".

Presumably, most of you have played an RPG - preferably a tabletop, but CRPGs suffer from the same basic problems. When it comes time to fight, fighting isn't fun unless you are the most tweaked-out character.

For example, in Shadowrun, everyone else rolls some dice, then sits around waiting for the street sam to finish his remaining eighty turns. It's not just Shadowrun, of course: nearly all RPGs have a similar problem. Even if there is no one member of the party who slows things to a grinding halt, you have to wait for everyone else to take their turn. It hardly seems ideal.

This summer, I am planning on running a game called 2077. I'm running a subset of it - the vast lists of mods and equipment are being fudged rather than painstakingly written out. I'm testing some theories I have, and one of them is front-loaded combat.

What I want is: everyone decides what they do and rolls it. There's no such thing as turns, no such thing as waiting, and nobody gets more or less rolls. However, the combat still needs to be complex. To that end, I am running this game on a map, for the first time in about eight years.

In order to make a system complex without making it take very long to interact with, you need to make the complexity intuitive and... isolated. By "isolated", I mean that you have to have each player have a relatively simple set of numbers, but the group as a whole interacts complexly.

To do this, I've come up with a technique of "front-loading" the combat. I've isolated the kinds of intuitive or isolated complexities I want to include, and then I let the players choose which things they want to be good at and which things they want to be bad at. In that same system, I include a number of "neutral" complexities which are neither good nor bad, so that I can tweak them to balance anyone who manages to break the system. For example, if someone manages an awesome laser sniper character, I can simply cut back on the availability of energy cell ammo. Or, if I'm a real bastard, have enemies aim for the gun until it breaks.

Anyway, for intuitive complexities I've chosen damage, armor, numbers (of enemies), range, and position (cover, foot distance). I have created a variety of weapons which specialize in one or two of these, and suck at one or two of these. Also, ones which are good at a certain one are often very poor at the reverse: a rocket launcher isn't so great at taking out a single enemy, and a sniper rifle isn't so great in melee combat.

For unique complexities I've chosen ammo type and quantity as well as some interesting limitations (cyberware and equipment break, but genemods work worse as you get injured). In addition, I've created a variety of skills (such as construction and zero-g maneuvering) which will augment battle strategy if not tactics.

In short, when the players see a combat scenario, they see a number of chips, each representing an enemy. They instantly know number of enemies, range, and position. A quick wave of my hand can explain that these enemies look heavily armored, or are giant monsters who probably have a hell of a lot of damage capacity.

However, this front-loaded combat is not a substitute for careful combat use: it simply allows me to get what I need out of the combat (I hope): speed and intensity.

The reason I need the combat to be fast and intense is because I'm trying a short term intensity theory I have, to both fill out and offer an alternative to my normal long term intensity approach.

I've been trying to figure out how to bypass the need for long-term intensity my games seem to suffer from. Livewire was an attempt to do that, and while it was very informative, the most important thing it told me was that you have to have some level of intensity to draw players in. Since seeing Ico and Shadows of the Colossus, I realized what I might be missing is short term intensity.

This is my attempt: I'm going to run a combat-heavy game and see if I can raise my "that was cool" content through the roof without raising my long-term complexity. I'm going to try to do this through unique and interesting combats and terrains with meaningful goals. I'm coming up with the coolest ideas I can for a tabletop RPG, and I think I've got some good ones.

Does any of this resonate with any of you?


GregT said...

It sounds cool; but I'm not sure how it speeds up combat. (I may be missing something.) Even if you have a system that engages everyone equally at all times (which would be awesome) you're still in danger of a complex system that eats a disproportionate amount of your narrative time. What is it about this system that makes it faster or better than, say, the 7th Sea/L5R roll and keep system?

Craig Perko said...

Well, I'm not familiar with 7th sea, but it's better than the systems I've seen because all the statistical complexity is handled outside of combat. Inside combat, the calculations are extremely simple. I've done my best to get rid of all the math and complex judgement calls without making it so simple it doesn't hold interest.

The in-combat complexity is all intuitive: how many soldiers are where, what kind of terrain is around.

If you mean "eats a disproportionate amount of narrative time" as in, "combat leaves less time for story", then you're right: we could just arbitrarily declare an outcome. However, I have chosen to make this a combat-heavy game, with goals which are about (or through) combat. The player's success in the narrative depends on their success in combat.