Over the past few months, I've been working on shoring up my design weaknesses. I'm bad at combat engines, for example, so I made a tabletop game specifically to test some combat engine theories.
My primary working goal was simple. The reason I don't like combat in tabletop RPGs is because I grew up with combat in video games. Tabletop RPG combats move at about one round per five minutes. Sometimes, you get an easy round. But most of the time? Five minutes. And that's for a middle-of-the-line system like D&D or Whitewolf.
That's much too slow. It's not a little too slow. It's on the wrong order of magnitude.
So my goal with 2077 (that's the name of the game) was to get it down to 30 seconds or less per round.
Without making it boring or straightforward.
I did a lot of experimenting. Here is what I've learned about fast systems:
Round Robin: Players will want to go round robin. You can make them go simultaneously, but this actually slows the team as a whole down to 1/6 or 1/7 as they think out their options. So, unless you have big freaking teams, round robin is fastest.
Maps: Maps offer instant depth and variability. Even a simple, worthless map adds elements of positioning, speed, and cover which add complexity to any combat without increasing turn delays.
No Dice!: Counting, rolling, and measuring dice takes forever, especially when players are just learning a system. It is much, much faster to use some kind of action point thing and have a zero or extremely low randomness combat system. If you want randomness, use playing cards as chits and flip them over: red is win, black is fail.
Investment Actions: Allow the players to distribute their combat resources either in small pockets or huge lumps. IE, you can REALLY shoot that guy dead, or you can kind of wing him and the other two guys. This increases the complexity of the situation and lets players decide on a much more complex set of tactics besides "move three hexes and attack".
Defense Good: Allow players to invest in their own defense, but have rules for mobbing, area effect, or multifire so that even if a player all-out defends they are not invulnerable.
No Complex Effects!: Complex or multi-pronged effects should be extremely limited. In 2077, the only "complex effects" you could do were aimed shots. In a tabletop, you can allow for some amount of off-the-cuff complex effects (such as cutting a catwalk), but by and large, they should be very uncommon.
No Combat Buffs!: Buffs should not be available in combat. Healing, power boosts, changing armor - these things should be only available outside combat, if at all. Exceptions can be made for really critical moments like boss fights, but minimize the buffing. It makes the action dreadfully complex and leaves people hemming about how many action points they have or how much armor.
Player-Calculated Damage: Let players calculate the damage. If you hit them, tell them how much damage they take and let them calculate out how much their armor or immunities reduces it. This allows you to move on to the next target. You can do the same thing with enemies, if you can bear telling the players how much armor the enemies have. Obviously, this doesn't work if you're trying to surprise them with the resilience of your beasties.
Weak Characters Okay: Combat-weak characters are okay. The combats move fast and are complex enough that scouting, cover-firing, and staying out of trouble should keep them entertained enough. If you give combat-weak characters a small stash of "get out of jail free cards" (such as grenades), this will make their role as important as the front-rankers.
Effect Variations Critical: Players all need to have different capabilities. For example: short range, sniper, flame thrower, grenadier. Each character having one "shtick" and maybe a weaker backup shtick is usually enough. Their combat is mostly about maneuvering for maximum effect without getting slaughtered, and that doesn't ever appear to get old.
Waves: Combats of 5-10 rounds are painfully short. The way to fix this is not to make highly durable enemies, but to use waves of enemies. Highly durable enemies limit the GM's options and don't give the players a sense of accomplishment. You probably want enemies that can take 2-3 hits from a standard weapon - or enemies which are knocked around by player attacks. Obviously, waves of enemies don't all have to come from the same direction.
Turnaround is Fair Play: Movement is critical, and your players will undoubtedly use it to get in prime spots. For example: snipers like long range. You will undoubtedly have a "fast as hell" character if you allow for faster and slower characters, and this guy will be a pain. Fortunately, you can use snipers and fast-as-hell characters, too. In addition, you can make parts of the map collapse, bring in new waves of enemies, and turn out the lights. Use the terrain, but don't thwart the players' every move, 'cause that gets old real fast.
Go Out with a Bang!: You don't have to fight until the last man. Let enemies run, and try to end the combat with some kind of big change. An explosion, a wave of reinforcements, the floor giving out, people getting sucked into space. Grinding to a win is not quite as much fun as grinding to a win and then having something big happen.
Objectives: This is hard. Fights with objectives are simply more fun than fights to fight. Objectives can vary: defend this person, press that button, blow up that thing. Objectives can be map-based, time-based, or skill-roll-based. Whatever the objective is, it adds more spice than simply fighting.
Building From Scratch: Starting players with very simple rules and allowing them to improve to more complex ones is infinitely preferable to starting with complex rules and confused players. This kind of clashes with:
Front Load: Front loading is what got me started. It's a bit complex.
Front loading is essentially letting the players make their characters up ahead of time, spending a lot of time working on the abilities, skills, and stats. This boils down to a simple set of rules which the player remembers.
However, the joy comes in when you start offering radically different kinds of abilities, skills, and stats to different players. For example, some of my players have dermal armor (reduces damage) while some have bone lacing (caps damage). This high level of variation allows for unique characters that, while based on complex rules, simplify to allow for <5 second combat turns.
Front loading should not only be about combat, but also noncombat. A combat example might be what gun they take. What range is it best at? Can it be fired full-auto? What does that do, exactly? How many shots does it have? What kind of ammo? All of this stuff allows for a player to choose to be a certain kind of character, but even if they all choose the same kind of character, they'll end up with very different feels.
To keep things simple, you can insist players only take one or two "special rules", and let them get more special rules later, once they're used to the system.
I think that's it. :)