Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Inspirations: the Sands of Time, part four

A while ago I started looking at whether you could take anything interesting from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for use in RPGs. I've had a quick overview of general ideas and issues, and then considered how you might handle things in Pathfinder or BRP. Last time I started looking at the combat system in detail, and now I'm going to think about how they could be converted to tabletop.

Here's a quick checklist of key points about POPSOT combat:

  1. Player-driven, not character-driven
  2. Combat success is a kill; damage isn't permanent
  3. Matching special moves to weaknesses for efficient combat
  4. PC acts faster than enemies, so can fight several at once
  5. Can combine attacks with movement or defence
  6. Enemies stay with PC during combat
  7. Enemies are static and unavoidable
  8. Ability to retry failed actions or avoid damage taken
  9. Interaction with companion
  10. Multiple waves of enemies to prolong combat

How does each feature relate to tabletop RPGs? And what do we want to keep?

Converting to Tabletop

Player versus Character

First up, player-driven actions. RPGs typically determine success based primarily on character skill. While player input is always crucial, it typically consists of choosing courses of action, sometimes including quite granular tactical decisions (e.g. which attack type to use). The actual resolution of the action still depends on character attributes, with or without a random factor: you roll attack dice, play spell cards, or use the magic ring of bouncing.

There are a few exceptions around - Magicians is on its way there, and I believe The Riddle of Steel used player minigames to model combat. The former is designed specifically for language-learning, and that's really not what I'm after here. I know basically nothing about the latter.

To be honest, I'm inclined to ignore this aspect. Player skill makes perfect sense for a first-person action platformer, but character skill is a well-established aspect of RPGs and I'd be very reluctant to mess with that without a good reason. Also, it would automatically prevent me from using any familiar RPG to run the game.

Kill-Based Combat

In a typical RPG, it usually doesn't matter much how you inflict damage. You can crush an enemy quickly with a few powerful attacks, perhaps taking a risk in the process. You can fight cautiously, staying defensive and only striking back when an opening presents itself, constantly whittling down their stamina. You can use evasive tactics, launching occasional devastating sneak attacks before disappearing into the shadows. For most enemies, the end result is the same: death.

POPSOT enemies don't work the same way, because unless you coup de grace them, they regenerate entirely. On the other hand, there are specific moves that take an enemy down in one hit ready for a coup de grace.

You could quite easily model this by doing pretty much the same thing: unless the PC spends an action/round to coup de grace the enemy, they simply resurrect at full health. You could soften this by having them recover enough to stand up, but a single hit will fell them again. You could even give them constant regeneration, though if all enemies had this it would get very fiddly to track.

One of the frustrations in POPSOT was that the Prince could easily end up overwhelmed, unable to actually coup de grace any enemies because the others obstructed him, and fights would go on for a long time. In a party RPG, some version of resurrection would probably work okay. At any time, there'll probably be someone free enough to finish off the fallen. Depending on the system, this could end up being the least combat-oriented character, your resident wizard or whatever. However, combined with the dagger-recharge mechanism, you'd then end up with that character gaining all the charge but being perhaps least likely to use it. That could make for an interesting trade-off decision, or you could simply allow transfer of charge between characters.


Different RPGs have different approaches to 'special moves' like knockdowns, trips, disarms and backstabs. Tactically granular ones like D&D have these as slightly separate mechanisms from standard attacks, sometimes derived from different stats and modified with skills, feats or class abilities. Looser systems like Call of Cthulhu don't offer these at all by RAW, though a mechanism using opposed stat rolls could be added easily if the situation came up.

In either case, adding enemy-appropriate special moves would be fairly simple. Resolution of these almost always depends on some attribute of the enemy, such as a Dexterity score, though these may end up affecting too many vulnerabilities in certain systems. Specific enemies could also simply be given vulnerabilities or resistances to particular attack types: heavily-armoured foes might be vulnerable to tripping due to balance problems, double-handed wielders resistant to disarming. The combinations would depend on what special attacks are available and what enemy types exist, because I would very much like them to make sense in context rather than being arbitrary mechanical features.

Using these special moves sensibly should make combat significantly easier. A single appropriate special attack would effectively remove an enemy from the fight; the precise mechanism would depend on the system. Some systems have quite granular modelling of being disarmed, tripped or taken off-guard, others would need systems creating or a "counts-as" rule put in place.

This is a feature I do think we want to keep, and some level of tactical awareness is a standard part of RPGs. It doesn't necessarily exist at such a high level as in POPSOT, but I think it could be reasonable turned up a bit without completely wrecking existing combat systems.


In POPSOT, the Prince acts notably faster than enemies, both in terms of actual movement speed and actions-per-round. He can attack several times in the time it takes an enemy to strike once, and mix action types. This means he can make hit-and-run attacks, overwhelm a single opponent with rapid attacks, or fight several opponents simultaneously by parrying at suitable moments. The Prince isn't really more powerful than his opponents, he's just able to do more in a round, which tips the balance in his favour.

Most games don't immediately allow for this possibility, because they have a fixed quantity of action for each participants, be it Major Minor Move or "do something". In most cases, you can move and attack in the same round; defence tends to be an alternative to attacking, though. In many games "an attack" is an abstract thing covering several seconds of combat, so one attack roll doesn't necessarily correspond directly to one strike in POPSOT, especially as it always takes several strikes to down an enemy.

Call of Cthulhu combat does more or less allow this, since many Keepers don't use the Dodge or Parry rules with NPCs and monsters; this effectively means PCs can take a defensive action as well as whatever else they do, while enemies only get their main action. Let's see what other possibilities there are.

The first is simply to increase the number of actions a PC can take in a round, allowing them to make extra attacks, or to use aggressive and defensive actions. The GM might need to limit what can be done with this time. In Call of Cthulhu your turn consists of "doing something", which is a pretty broad category to double. In Pathfinder or D&D 4E, the GM would pick a type of action for you to gain and therefore restrict your options somewhat. However, doubling standard actions (for example) doesn't just speed up attacking; it also lets you drink two potions, or cast two spells, which might not fit the intention.

Conversely, enemies could have their actions restricted. This holds true to the source material, where the enemies are quite slow. D&D in some cases limits the actions of slow creatures like zombies already, although this mostly just prevents them moving and attacking - they can still attack once per round, just like you. In general it's harder to slow enemies down than to speed PCs up.

You could also take a slightly bigger hack at things, and grant subsidiary actions. Maybe attacking gives you two attacks, not one. Maybe your first attack doesn't count as an action, so you can always do something else, like dodging or parrying. Maybe PCs can always attempt a parry. Exactly what's useful is going to depend on system.

In Pathfinder and related games, attacks actually increase with level anyway. As I mentioned in part two, I'd almost certainly be modelling this sort of play with a significant level disparity between PCs and NPCs, so PCs would probably have multiple attacks per round by default while enemies wouldn't. This would handle the matter in a straightforward RAW way: you can either spend a whole round to use all your attacks, or take some other action (like moving) and make a single attack. I would, however, still have to create a system for active parrying as Pathfinder doesn't use it.

Persistent Enemies

The fights in POPSOT are basically compulsory. It's a completely linear game, with no path but the one they designate that runs right through the enemies. This really shouldn't be the case with a tabletop RPG, though. One to ditch, deffo.

A more slippery point is enemy movement. In POPSOT enemies do nothing but stand around waiting for you to turn up, and will return to their position if you leave the room, rather than follow you. This is a perfectly sound strategy, because of the aforesaid railroad. Sometimes they don't even bother to wait, but just appear out of thin air as you approach. There are a few quite specific situations where static enemies work in tabletop (guarding key points, for example) but generally it's both nice and logical for enemies to move around a bit. They won't necessarily be deathless sand-creatures like in POPSOT, for one thing. But also, things like patrols to avoid, ambushes to set and generally outthinking the enemy are some of the joys of roleplaying. On a more meta level, enemies that stay put in one place are ineffective in tabletop, because you're not forcing the players to follow a single designated route as outlined last paragraph, so they can just avoid the enemies. So while this would be very easy to replicate, I wouldn't want to. That doesn't mean there can't be any enemies that stay in one place, just that it's not the default. Similarly, it should be possible for PCs to draw enemies into tactical locations, send them off afted red herrings, and otherwise overcome them by cunning.

A feature I have no intention of copying is the POPSOT flawless teleportation. I really don't know what they were thinking with that one, which only serves to annoy you and make the game less interesting. Enemies in Time Faffers will be stuck with ordinary movement under ordinary rules, perhaps spiced up with the odd special ability. This will allow players to unleash their tactical genius, make use of environmental features, and concentrate their strength on specific targets, rather than spending every single fight in combat with every single enemy at once. You could, however, easily replicate this feature: you just allow enemies further than X from a PC to teleport to within reach of one when it's their turn to move.

Similarly, there will not be reinforcements spawning throughout the fight to prolong it artificially. Reinforcements will come from nearby areas. With resurrection mechanics already in the game, having a monster finally die, only to be replaced by an identical monster anyway, is just plain rude.


The transition to multiplayer RPG will provide the good bits, hopefully without the frustrating elements of escort-questing.


The final and most innovative part of POPSOT is time-rewinding, and that's definitely something I'd like to include. Helpfully, RPGs have a long tradition of letting you do things again, in the shape of rerolls. The POPSOT version lets you decide how much time to rewind, up to about 10 seconds (frankly not very long, but hey), which complicates matters; that's potentially several rolls, and even more than one person's turn.

Off the top of my head, I think the model I see as most interesting is to split into minor and major charges. Not because that necessarily makes the most sense narratively, but because it corresponds to mechanical actions

A minor charge would simply be a reroll of a single die that directly affects the PC, which would include attack and skill rolls, as well as attacks aimed at them. This corresponds in story to the PC rewinding from a missed attack, from setting off a trap or misgauging a jump, or from failing to dodge an enemy strike. You could tweak this slightly, on the basis that the PC has actually seen the future, so that they can either reroll a single die, or negate a single die roll directly affecting them. This would mean the PC can try their action again in the light of seeing how it might go wrong (but with no guarantees it won't go wrong in a different way), and can also avoid a single negative consequence (since things will go down in exactly the same way, they can reliably avoid it). I would allow players to see how much damage they'll take before negating an attack, as it's all part of the same attack action. I might also grant a bonus on PC rerolls to make the mechanic more satisfying.

A major charge would be more drastic. You could handle this very mechanically by letting the PC step back a whole round, negating all actions that have taken place, and then starting again with a decent idea of what the enemies will do. This would, however, mean tracking a roundsworth of events separately from the main character sheet - in particular changes in hit points, time charges and other resources. Alternatively, you could treat this in a very narrative way, allowing the player to negotiate for one substantial thing to change over a period of maybe three rounds at most: perhaps they took a different fork in the passageway, or rushed over to rescue an ally rather than engaging an enemy. The consequences of this in terms of regained resources would have to be worked out, either by keeping track of three roundsworth of resources, or simply making a reasonable guess.

I think to make this feel like a flavourful game mechanic, you'd want to keep other potential for rerolls quite limited, and try to emphasise in description that what's happening is actual manipulation of time, not just the strictly mechanical rerolls that so often crop up.

As a side note, in the Call of Cthulhu ruleset I'd be quite inclined to introduce SAN costs for rewinding time. After all, you still remember what happened in the other timeline, most of which is pretty unpleasant (otherwise you wouldn't be rewinding it). You still saw your friend die, or felt the spear pierce your guts - you just travelled back in time to change the timeline. On the downside, this could actually discourage people from using the mechanic, which is what you don't want. Hmm. One rather oddball possibility would be for a rewind mechanism to transfer HP damage to SAN damage, and to then introduce more lenient mechanics for regaining SAN and handling insanity, so it manifests in ways more suited to an action game that features mundane rather than non-Euclidean horrors. Rather than developing fetishes or eating disorders, you'd probably be looking at emotional effects.

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