Decisive Combat

Been a while since we’ve had a Shipwright piece around here…

This is a sequel to the Diceless Violence post. Main takeaways:

  • Dice can cheapen victories and deliver cheaper losses.
  • Diceless combat (no to-hit rolls, no damage rolls) moves the game away from elements of luck to strategy and critical thinking.
  • In order to make combat a problem to be solved by the players, give the enemy the upper hand. The players CANNOT just engage the problem head-on and without thinking. The players are forced to make plans and improvise in order to change the situation to be in their favor.

For a working example, here’s Skorne: there’s a party of PCs that each have 3 hits and deal 2 damage per turn. They’re fighting a large demon with 7 hits that deals 3 damage each turn. By these raw numbers, one of them will be knocked to 0 hits before they can take it out. Suddenly, the players are really interested in their surroundings, items, and ways to make the best of their abilities. Is there something to hide behind to reduce damage? Can we push the demon off a ledge so they won’t be able to get an attack in on us? Should we use (dangerously forbidden) magic to try and deal all 7 hits in one turn? It’s up to them (and not the dice).

If you’re still having trouble seeing it, check out Into the Breach. Actually, go watch Chris McDowall play it and talk about information and choice. All the information about how much damage each of your units will take is on the board. You have to react and adapt to what’s in front of you. But that’s a turn-based example. It plays like chess.

RPGs have a livelier feel to them (no offense, turn-based games). So let’s look at others. Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an example of real-time diceless combat. So is Dark Souls. So is Hollow Knight. And a heck of a lotta other action games. Lemme ‘splain.

In each of these games, you and your opponent have a set amount of health. You and your opponent have attacks that deal a set amount of damage. You are given the option of just running up and walloping anything you choose, but if you’ve played any of these games for more than five seconds, you know this isn’t a valid strategy. You’ll lose at the first boss for sure, but likely before then.

Instead, you have to find other ways to approach the target. Zelda is the best example of this so let’s stick to it. In my last session of Breath of the Wild, I was fighting one of these goons:

A Hinox

Big beasty Hinox. He’s got more health and more damage than me. So, I gotta look at options:

  • Shoot him from a distance/kite him.
  • Set a bomb down.
  • Attack from above.
  • Somehow hit that big obvious weak point that is his eye.
  • Disengage and run away.

All of these are more interesting than running up and making attack rolls, hoping for the best. And many of them are more effective.

But, and here’s my point about how this applies to our tabletop RPGs: the “run-up-and-whack” method of combat is often left as a valid (albeit ineffective) option. You can still win at DnD if you roll enough critical attacks at just the right time. You can also lose this way.

How do we know this?

Because we can test out the d20 combat system very easily. You can run it multiple times in the same way and come out with VASTLY different results. You probably already have without knowing it.

And I apologize in advance because this counterexample is a bit of a sacred cow.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (and its sequel) intrigued me. It uses the d20 system of DnD 3.5. You have your base attack bonuses, attribute bonuses, and a d20 versus a defense rating. On a hit, you roll damage usually in the 1 to 6 or 1 to 8 range. Sound familiar?

During my first playthrough, I was very keen to keep track of how the combat encounters were going and what I was saying of waiting for critical hits (or any exceptional RNG) to solve everything was true here. In one section of the game, I remember my whole party being absolutely slaughtered upon entering a trapped, guard-heavy room. Determined, I tried again. No good. On the third try, I tried the same strategy. No luck. Again. No luck. Finally on the fourth or fifth try, it just worked. And not just a little bit. I had managed to barely lose any health and the rest of the party was just fine. Ho boy. What did I learn from that?

Nothing good or worthwhile. It kinda sucked.

The reverse would happen as well. Get crushed on a fight that should’ve been pretty easy, then I’d reload the game and try it again. Surprisingly much better results, fewer casualties, fewer resources used.

Not a great feeling.

Do you suppose the same thing could happen at the table?

Application of Decisive Combat

Try it out. Have a combat system that is “solved.” In a vacuum, one side would win just by the math. Like one of these:

  • The higher combat stat wins in a straight fight. No roll.
  • Deal a set amount of damage on a turn. The PCs often have less health or damage (or both) than the monsters.
  • PCs must spend resources to win, but there’s no way to bring/buy enough to beat all the monsters in the dungeon.

Have dangerous but dumb enemies. Give them better stats (or equivalent) as their upper hand.

  • Dangerous – stronger, tougher, bigger, taller, fire-breathing
  • Dumb – restricted movement, weak spot, blind, stupid

Have weak but cunning enemies. Give them better gear or positioning as their upper hand (or give them a way to hinder the PCs, thus giving them them the upper hand).

  • Weak – low defense, low offense
  • Cunning – faster, clever, better position, savvy, loyal minions, magic

If possible, have a “forbidden” means of solving problems that is readily available. It might be a favor from an unlikable person or faction, an unwieldy technology, etc. In Skorne, players always have magic as an option, which may very well create new problems after solving them. It’s a pressure release valve with consequences.

Telegraph, telegraph, telegraph. Dangers are obvious. Make them so. Use this helmets rule if you like.

Every so often, give the players an easy, “solved” fight. They start with the upper hand and they win. Just to break up the pacing. You can think of it like the Lord of the Rings films. Is any one orc really going to threaten our heroes? Naw, they’re just fodder for making them look cool. And man does it work.

Think about how to turn a fight into a problem or a puzzle. Play any iteration of Zelda to see how this is done. pay special attention to the boss fights, but don’t get caught up on the “only one way to beat the boss” trap that some games fall into.

Check out examples of how to take other problems normally solved with dice and make them diceless. Same with warfare.

Leverage tactical infinity.

4 thoughts on “Decisive Combat

  1. Interesting ideas here. I do really like KOTOR, it at least has more interesting quests than “go kill 8 of this thing and bring back their horns”. Enemies never respawn except in a few places, and your party members are meaningfully different.
    I would not use diceless combat, because in Rpg’s I run I like a little uncertainty about how things will turn out, If my players knew how much HP a monster had left, and how much dmg they would deal, it takes the uncertainty and risk out of fighting. That said, I run a ITO decisive combat system, and my players are problem solvers. No hour-long fights for me.

    1. That’s totally true of the quest design. There were some interesting elements of how to align yourself with the different factions and making those choices matter.

      The uncertainty comes from “will the players be able to…?” When the monsters have the upper hand (as in, when the math is done, the players will LOSE), that’s tension. There’s a problem to solve. They can certainly lose if they don’t address the problem, run, or what have you.

      ItO is fairly decisive. Waaay more than 90% of games, certainly.

      No hour-long fights is something we can totally unite over, haha!

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