Saturday, 5 January 2013

Inspirations: the Sands of Time, part two

So I've been wondering about how to replicate some elements of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in a tabletop RPG context that I'm arbitrarily calling Time Faffers. Let's see what we can manage in the systems I'm most familiar with. As a reminder, here's some of what we're looking for:

  • Acrobatic gameplay
  • A heroic feel
  • A high initial skill with limited levelling
  • Terrain-puzzling and platforming
  • Stylish combat against hordes of enemies
  • Manipulation of time

Let's look at the combat first, simply because it's such a major part of the original game. We need individual PCs to successfully fight off multiple enemies, repeatedly and consistently, with limited injury. Because PCs will be doing a lot of fighting, consistency is important. A KO should only happen with bad judgement and bad luck.

I will use the annoying abbreviations DPR (Damage Per Round) and PCR (Person Combat Round, you know, like "man-hour": one round of combat with one person).


Off the top of my head, I'm going to guess you could manage this with, say, 4th-level characters and 1st-level enemies. A whole swarm of mooks should still be able to bring down a PC, but one isn't really a threat.

Pathfinder vs. Zombies

Our first PC is a 4th-level Rogue, with rapier (+7, 1d6) and no armour (AC 14, 9hp). This seems to fit well with the "acrobatics and traps" theme. Our second is a 4th-level Ranger, with longswords (+7, 1d8+3) and no armour (AC 13, 22hp)

Let's put our sand-monster down as zombies (+4 to hit, 1d6+4, AC 12, 12hp). Let's ignore their damage resistance, since this would be annoying, but also ignore their usual slowness.

The rogue needs a 5 or more to hit, so she'll hit 80% of the time for 3.5hp, meaning it takes five rounds to kill a zombie, on average. Sneak attack would up that to 10hp, or two rounds to kill a zombie.

The ranger also needs a 5 or more to hit, and hits 80% of the time for 8hp (two-handed), giving average damage of 6.4hp/round. That makes it two rounds for a single kill, or eight kills every fifteen rounds. With dual-wielding, we have two attacks at 7 or more to hit, giving a 70% hit rate for an average of 7hp, or 9.8hp/round, giving twelve kills in fifteen rounds.

The zombie hits 55% of the time, for 7.5hp. That gives a DPR of 4.125hp, so on average a rogue will die in four rounds of zombie-fighting and the ranger in six. Ouch, and not suitable for the heroic feel. This is clearly not the right combination!

So, I'm wrong. At least, this particular combination isn't going to work. I'd either have to use much weaker mooks, or boost PCs' defences somehow. In practice, PCs are likely to have slightly higher AC than I've allowed, but they'll also be fighting mobs rather than single enemies. How about a kobold?

Pathfinder vs. Kobolds

We have a 4th-level Rogue, with rapier (+7, 1d6) and no armour (AC 14, 9hp), and a 4th-level Ranger, with longswords (+7, 1d8+3) and no armour (AC 13, 22hp)

This time, the enemies are modelled as kobolds (+1 to hit, 1d4-1, AC 13, 5hp).

The rogue needs a 6 or more to hit, so she'll hit 75% of the time for 3.5hp, meaning it takes two rounds to kill a kobold, on average. Sneak attack would up that to 10hp, giving a one-hit kill.

The ranger also needs a 6 or more to hit, and hits 75% of the time for 8hp (two-handed), killing the kobold instantly. With dual-wielding, we have two attacks at 8 or more to hit, giving a 65% hit rate for an average of 7hp, typically giving two kills per round.

The kobold hits 45% of the time, for 2hp. That gives a DPR of 0.9hp, so on average a rogue will survive ten PCRs of kobold-fighting and the ranger twenty-four. A lot better, but good enough? Especially when facing several opponents at once? Three kobolds could down a rogue in five rounds or so, but also in one lucky round; and Pathfinder doesn't allow beleagured PCs to switch to pure defence mid-round, only at the start of their own turn.

I think the main problem here is actually the PCs' power level: in POPSOT you can attack much faster than monsters, and parry or evade very effectively while still attacking. You've also got special one-hit takedowns. To replicate this, I'd basically have to change some core mechanics of the game. I could compensate by ramping up the PCs' level even higher, but then you're starting to get the weirder abilities creeping in, which could alter the tone of the game substantially.

On that basis, you could either leave things as they are (expecting characters to flank for each other to provide sneak attacks), or introduce a simple bonus rule, like "a successful hit allows sneak damage if you attack them again next round", or "a successful Acrobatics roll allows sneak attack". The former would be tricky as I'd expect PCs to be outnumbered quite often, and less able to provide flanking. The latter is class-dependent.

However, there's still other issues. For one, Pathfinder characters quickly end up with magical abilities, so you'd have to either allow for that or radically restrict class choices. The full casters (wizards, druids and so on) quickly gain access to invisibility, shapeshifting, powerful ranged attacks and spells that render barriers and terrain irrelevant. Given that I'm not planning to give them spellcasting enemies to offset this, it'd change the game considerably. Half-casters have more indirect spells that could end up largely useless, which would leave them effectively weaker.

In general, the system itself is quite fiddly, with various saving throws, multiple types of armour class, and class abilities as well as the basic stats. On the other hand, feats would potentially be a nice way of allowing PCs unique and distinctive abilities in a fairly restrictive setting. Also, combat feats and manoeuvres would help make the combat more interesting, and repetitiveness was one of the things I complained about in POPSOT. On the downside again, Pathfinder combat is attacker-based, which means defending yourself from enemies consists of hoping they roll low, rather than performing stylish parries.


The other system I'm reasonably familiar with is BRP, in its incarnation as Call of Cthulhu. It's a loose, simple system based on skills, with no intrinsic magic, no classes and no special abilities. Perhaps this'll be more suitable for the fairly straightforward game I have in mind?

BRP combat consists basically of a skill roll by the attacker. Unlike Pathfinder, it includes options for dodging and parrying attacks, which is a plus. On the downside, humans are limited to a single attack roll in each round, which makes it hard to fight multiple opponents: however, you could interpret this as focusing your attacks on one main target, while fending off the others. Another downside is that you can generally only do one thing per round, which makes acrobatic combat tricky: really we want people darting in and out of combat and delivering flashy vaulting strikes, not standing still and hacking at monsters. Thirdly, you can only dodge attacks if you don't attack yourself, while you can only parry a single enemy's attacks, which doesn't do much for group combat either.

To try and overcome these issues, I'm going to declare two arbitrary rule changes.

  1. You can attempt a parry against every attack made against you. There may be a penalty for cumulative parries, to be determined later.
  2. You can always combine combat with a tactical manoeuvre, which may or may not require a skill check.

While the Prince basically never misses with an attack, they're occasionally parried or otherwise absorbed, so that a single "round" of attacks isn't necessarily enough to fell an opponent. I'm going to assume that our PC is a skilled professional with a skill of at least 75% in Sword.

BRP vs... something

Call of Cthulhu is a slightly awkward basis because notable features of its monsters do not include weakness or fragility. Those that aren't physically superior to humans tend to be invulnerable, miniscule, or possess overwhelming magical powers. Preposterously, then, I'm going to use a common or garden dog as our enemy. In the rulebook illustration, this is pretty clearly a pug. So our heroic, sword-wielding, stripped-to-the-waist princes will enter into mortal combat with a cute-ugly pug. Fine, fine.

Our average warrior PC has Sword at 75%, Dodge at 50%, 11hp and inflicts 1d6 damage with a sword.

In the blue corner, Pugsy has Bite at 30%, Dodge at 26%, 7hp and inflicts 1d6 damage with a bite. He also has a rhinestone collar with his name on it.

Allowing for dodges, the warrior will hit 55% of the time, inflicting an average of 3.5 damage. This works out as a DPR of 1.9, which means it'll take four rounds to take down a single pug. 5% of the time, though, he'll get an impaling blow and inflict double damage. Strictly speaking, Pugsy can't dodge while attacking; however, armed enemies can parry while attacking, which will work out about the same mathematically.

In contrast, little Pugsy will hit a mere 7.5% of the time, because the PC gets to parry with his Sword skill. With 1d6 damage, this gives us 0.26 damage per round, which means the PC can survive an average of 44 PCRs (Pug Combat Rounds).

The PC survival rate is pretty good, but their damage output seems a bit low. It'll vary somewhat because slightly above-average Strength would give an extra d4 damage, boosting it to DPR 3.3hp and giving a kill time of 2-3 rounds.

One thing the Call of Cthulhu rules don't automatically include is tactical combat - in fact it's pretty much the antithesis of Call of Cthulhu. However, it's also a key element of POPSOT. While it's possible to fell most opponents by simple weight of attacks, most of the time you're going for a manoeuvre that'll overcome their defences and take them down in one. That boils down to either rebounding off a wall for a powerful knockdown, or somersaulting overhead for a backstab, but there's no reason for us to be so limited.

While this isn't implemented in Call of Cthulhu, the rules mean it shouldn't be too difficult. I could simply declare that an appropriate skill roll lets you pull off some advantageous manouevre: tripping, flipping overhead, swinging round a pillar, pulling a tapestry over them, or even lurking hidden for a sneak attack. A failed roll means you're stuck with basic attacks, but have no other penalty; a botch would lead to an appropriate (and preferably cinematic) disadvantage, like pulling the tapestry over yourself, tripping the enemy right on top of you, or losing your grip on the pillar and flying out to land sprawled in the middle of the floor.

On the downside, I'd basically have to create appropriate skills for these manoeuvres, and it could be tricky to do this in a fairly balanced way. Using a single skill would mean everyone really just needs to stick points in that and Sword - particularly if it also covers acrobatic climbing and so on, which would be a natural way to do things. If you use several, and they're not balanced with each other, then people who pick less-effective skills will be disadvantaged. I think this mechanism might work for Call of Cthulhu combat, which isn't that tactical, but it's not really appropriate for a game that's as combat-heavy as I expect Time Faffers to be.

Closing remarks

Both systems have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to modelling stylish combat against large numbers of enemies. Pathfinder has passive defence and relatively vulnerable PCs, though this can be alleviated by using very weak enemies. There's also a real question when it comes to finding suitable classes to incorporate. On the other hand, it's built to handle tactical combat, with plenty of mechanisms for combat movement, manoeuvring and special attack forms to spice up fights. BRP has active defence as well as dodging when all-out defence is called for, can fairly readily handle all kinds of unusual manoeuvres by the universal mechanisms of skill and stat rolls, and it's fairly simple to create enemies of suitable weakness. On the other hand, it's really not designed for tactical combat, and so fights could easily come down to the same three or four skills, all crucial to PCs and all rolled constantly.

Next time, I'll take apart the POPSOT combat system, and think about which bits of it we actually want to keep. I might also (if I'm feeling strong) take a look at that most tactical of tactical combat RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons: Fourth Edition and see if it might make the time-warping grade.

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