Friday, 28 February 2014

It's the Skill of the Fight, part one

I'm supposed to be working on Monitors, but my next logical step seems to be playing with NPCs to work out a very rough way to gauge effectiveness at opposing PCs, and I don't have the energy for that. Also, particularly after some analyses of other games, I'm having second thoughts about whether the list of skills will actually promote the kind of game I'm after. So, procrastination!

For quite a while - following the post I always quote, Dan's one about Parkour Murder Simulator, and Shannon's follow-on - I've been knocking around the idea of a game where the outcome of entire combats is determined by rolling a Fight check, in just the same way that games typically resolve being sneaky, influencing NPCs or translating multi-volume works from ancient Arabic.

At the moment I'm fairly worn out and irritable, not hugely inspired by the Monitors stuff I need to do, and not feeling intellectual enough for the complicated diatribe on skills I started writing last week (pending). This feels like something a bit more logical that I should be able to work through.

What does a game with a Fight skill look like?

This is kind of the core of the design, so the idea is to try and logically work through this until a skeleton game is produced. To be clear, that's a rudimentary game, not necessarily one with skeletons in it.

By a Fight skill, I do not mean a game where all combat skills are handled by one skill that is used for in-combat actions. I mean, specifically, a game where when a combat occurs, the outcome of the combat is determined by a single roll that establishes how well the character did overall at Fighting.

For a parallel, consider Spot-type skills, where a single roll is used to establish what you see rather than rolling round-by-round for each specific bit of looking you do. Or a Disable Traps roll, something that I've been complaining about for quite a while.

What's the effect of having a situation determined entirely by one non-interactive die roll? Broadly speaking I think you can argue that it makes the situation not gameplay.

If you are playing a game that is all about stealth kills, it'd be better to make it a bit more exciting and dramatic than bringing it down to a single roll that either succeeds totally or not at all. -- Shannon

...stealth and infiltration are extremely poorly supported in most RPGs. The basic reason for this is that most games include stealth as an afterthought, and fold it into their basic task resolution system. In the average skills-based RPG, stealth is no more a core gameplay element than basket weaving or speaking French ...The core elements of gameplay are always either modeled in great detail (D&D devotes pages to combat, every White Wolf game devotes pages to supernatural powers) or entirely absent (the Warhammer 40,000 RPGs don't have any rules for being devoted to the Emperor, but the Imperial Creed permeates the setting anyway) ...Stealth skills make stealth a purely abstract concept... the traditional RPG Stealth roll puts the emphasis on the consequences of the player's action (hiding from the enemy) rather than process by which they achieve it (ducking into a wardrobe, jumping into the rafters, hiding behind a curtain). It's the equivalent of D&D combat being resolved by a single "kill all the monsters" roll ...gameplay is all about choices and interactions. -- Dan

Jump is a fairly sensible skill because you just want to find out whether you make it over the chasm or up to the branch, and that uncertainty can make for some thrilling moments, but jumping per se is not a fascinating part of gaming for most people. Finding a way past a murderous deathtrap ought to be a little richer. The Disable Device skill, as applied to traps, is actually one of the main obstacles to this. We want traps to be gameplay. -- me (how very pretentious, to quote myself)

You should only roll dice when you ("you" is deliberately ambiguous here, I could be talking about the players, the GM, or the group as a whole) are genuinely indifferent about the outcome. This indifference might - storygame style - be because you know whatever the outcome there's going to be a super special narrative event that's going to Put Your Characters In A Spot and require you to make Decisions which are Thematic and Interesting. Or it might mean that - trad RPG style - you're attempting something because you want to see what happens if you attempt it, and the outcome of that attempt will be another data point in your exploration of the scenario. Or because you're shooting somebody in a fight and you're making a calculated tactical decision. -- Dan again

Those quotes are working from one-roll skill applications towards more complex resolution systems. I think it's reasonable to propose that simplifying fights down to a single roll will do precisely the opposite. That compressing combat will a) reduce any sense that the game is All About combat; b) put the emphasis on the consequences of engaging in combat rather the combat itself; c) work best in situations where the outcome of the combat is a matter of ambivalence or indifference.


To get into arbitrary definitions for a moment... the kind of things that we resolve through one-off rolls tend to be what you might call obstacles rather than challenges. Yes, I appreciate it's pretty vague. Getting from outside to the central control room of a heavily-guarded military base is a challenge. Getting past a 10' fence or tracking down an NPC is an obstacle. If combat is resolved by a single roll, that tends to suggest that combat is an obstacle rather than a challenge; it's something that stands between you and your objective, rather than interesting in its own right. The Whether, rather than the How, is what we care about. Moreover, as Dan suggests, we care about it because it will determine the next lot of possibilities, rather than because we're particularly invested in one outcome.

Normally we consider combat to be both interesting and important, partly because we as a species kind of think fighting is cool and exciting, and partly because the consequences for our characters are significant. In most games, combat is about the most dangerous thing you can do, because your character might die. Even in games where death isn't likely, you might be hampered in your mission by lingering injuries, or lose social status because of your disgrace, or lose important possessions, or have to give in on an issue you care about.

Logically, for a Fight roll to be a reasonable mechanic for handling combat, it would seem to make sense that the consequences of combat are not particularly meaningful compared to other types of in-game event.

A reasonable comparison might be Search. It doesn't really matter if you fail a Search roll to discover a stash of gold under the floorboards; it's a shame, but no great penalty. You might fail a Search roll to find an important clue, but if that's the only way the GM had for you to progress, the adventure design is simply bad. If your survival hinges exclusively on a Search roll to find the antidote or discover the hidden bomb, rather than that being a last resort in a string of failed attempts, then either you're playing a very brutal game or the GM messed up.


There are a few models I can think of where combat has only minor consequences.

Firstly, when the PCs cannot lose. The Fight roll determines the resource cost in terms of time, noise or injury; or how cool they look while doing so; or what benefit they gain from the fight.

Secondly, when the PCs cannot win. The Fight roll determines what they achieve before their inevitable defeat. This might involve delaying or holding up the enemy; inflicting casualties or injury that will affect the enemy's future actions; impressing someone; or gaining some other benefit from the fight itself.

Thirdly, when the PCs cannot die by combat. The Fight roll determines the result of the combat, as well as any resource costs or benefits.

Each of these could come about for setting or genre reasons.


An always-win game might feature PCs as powerful beings with superhuman fighting prowess who oppose ordinary mortals. They could be anything from angels to experimental combat cyborgs to wizards to champions of cosmic forces. The point is that their victory is guaranteed by in-game lore. Any conflict between similarly-powerful beings is handled by a different mechanic or avoided entirely.

The alternative has victory as a genre trope. I can't actually think of one off the top of my head, so I'm not sure if one exists, but the basic idea would be that PCs can't fail to win a fight (in normal circumstances, anyway), but can still fail at their objective.

The fight roll here does not determine the outcome of the fight per se. Instead, it determines the PC's position in relation to their greater goal: they may move one step closer by progressing past an obstacle, they may spend (or conserve) resources they need, or an antagonist may succeed in something that moves them further from their goals.

Storming the Keep

In a world of immortal sorcerer-autocrats, Ilthar Stormwright wants an enormous jewelled vase as the centrepiece to a new exhibition. However, the vase in question currently belongs to Vodar the Turquoise. Ilthar travels to Vodar's summer palace and finds it guarded by arcane servitors, which she promptly attacks.

On a good success, Ilthar will obliterate the servitors guarding the keep and pass into the palace, where she can begin to search for the vase, or clues to its location.

On a borderline success, Ilthar finds the servitors surprisingly strong, and has to expend considerable mana to disable them. Her resources for further activities are reduced, limiting her options in the immediate future.

On a failure, Ilthar is able to destroy the servitors, but it is both taxing and time-consuming. While the fight ensues, a message is sent to Vodar. Ilthar now risks considerable embarrassment, as being proven to have attacked somebody else's fortress is a social faux pas. She still has some opportunity to avoid that, but will have to take steps to avoid detection, perhaps even withdrawing immediately. If the failure is particularly bad, Vodar may even arrive whilst Ilthar is still mid-fight.

Guarding the Engineer

In a world ruled by technocrats, a group of psychic warriors is tasked with guarding the Chief Engineer of Laarn. During a state parade, a band of winged monkeys descend unexpectedly to attack. Each psychic must roll.

A successful roll will see the psychics fight off the monkeys, and the magnitude of success determines how much psi they are able to absorb from their opponents in the process. This will be a handy resource to use later on.

A failed roll sees the psychics still tangled up in battle while the largest of the monkeys seize the Engineer. This is very embarrassing. If enough of the psychics fail, the Engineer may be kidnapped - they now need to decide how to rescue her.


A more unlikely game would feature characters who can survive a combat, but can't game-mechanically win. This is different from, say, Cthulhu Dark, where characters lose and die any time they fight.

In this setup, the Fight roll determines how well you succeed at another objective, such as conserving resources or causing a distraction. This may mean the amount of magic you expend before you can escape (or whether you escape at all), or how long you can prolong the fight while your allies sneak in by a side door.

The most likely setup here is that PCs and the kind of NPCs they roll Fight for are qualitatively different. Perhaps the PCs are human resistance agents dealing with robot oppressors. Perhaps they're all intellectuals, great at mental pursuits but incapable of fighting. Perhaps the PCs are alien children trying to escape the attention of human authorities. This discrepancy explains why it is that the PCs are literally incapable of winning in a straight-up fight. It doesn't mean they can't defeat their enemies, it just means they can't do so directly by engaging in combat. Nevertheless, combat may be sometimes unavoidable, or provide a means to another end.


Returning at night from a successful recon mission, Ahmed unexpectedly encounters a group of Martians. It's way past curfew, no chance of excuses. The burly Martians attack immediately. The questions are, is Ahmed captured, and how badly injured does he get? These may be independent, and it's possible the GM will have capture non-negotiable, especially if Ahmed failed a roll or two or made some bad decisions to encounter the Martians in the first place.

On a good success, Ahmed will manage to wriggle free of the combat and slip away with minimal injury, without the Martians being able to track him down in the short term. Alternatively, he may be captured but avoid injury or wasting energy, making it easier to escape a little later on.

On a borderline success, Ahmed escapes but suffers some nasty injuries, making him less capable until they've healed, and also leaving him easy to identify as the curfew-breaker if he's picked up later on.

On a failure, Ahmed is captured by the Martians and/or badly beaten.

Quack Quack

Bingo has been arrested for horse-stealing and is being held in the local prison. Squiffy and Spider are keen to rescue him before any reports go in, as their lives are complicated enough already. Several Police-Bots guard the doors. Squiffy goes to distract them by picking a fight, while Spider slips in the back. His Fight roll will determine how well he fights - this determines how long he can prolong the distraction, and potentially even offers a chance to not be arrested himself. Mostly, though, they're relying on Spider to get them all out.

On a good success, Squiffy ducks and weaves masterfully, evading the bots for several minutes while shouting annoying things. Finally, he slips away on seeing the others emerge from an alley.

On a borderline success, Squiffy is able to keep things up for several minutes while Spider breaks in, making Spider's job much easier by luring bots away from the building. However, he's eventually caught and thrown into a cell next to Bingo. Spider will need to free them both.

On a failure, Bingo is quickly subdued and thrown into a cell. Spider isn't able to benefit from the distraction.

On a really bad failure, Bingo's antics may cause additional bots to emerge from the building, actually hampering Spider's activities.


A game where the PCs cannot die by combat could come in a number of flavours.

The most obvious one is that PCs are immortal, or effectively so. They simply cannot be killed, at least not by any game-mechanical effect. In this case, they don't have to fear for their own safety during combat.

Games like this would include those featuring supernatural beings of great power, as well as certain kinds of spellcasters, psychics or time-travellers. It also includes those with cartoonish realities, where being flattened under a hundred-ton weight and thrown into an active volcano are merely humiliating and very annoying.

An alternative version of this may have PCs who can technically be killed or destroyed, but who don't consider this a problem. They might be three-dimensional holographic projections, minds uploaded into clone or robot bodies, demons or extradimensional beings who can re-coalesce after their banishment, or powerful undead creatures. Death is a setback, but not a long-term problem.

The other likely possibility is that this is a genre issue rather than a literal one. PCs are not officially immortal, and perhaps not even superpowered, but PC death is not an intended part of the game, at least not in ordinary play. Various pulp, superhero and other heroic genres follow this pattern, but so do many children's stories and light novels like PG Wodehouse.

In a game like this, characters might still be defeated in combat, they just won't die. Depending on all kinds of genre and situational factors, they might be robbed, beaten up, humiliated, forced to apologise, enslaved, imprisoned or otherwise have their plans thrown into ruin. In a realistic game, they might be knocked unconscious while the enemies get on with their own plans.

Saturday Morning

The Avenging Aardvarks have discovered a plan by Professor Malaprop to take over the city with an army of sentient Hello Kitty accessories. Peering from a rooftop, they see his lackeys One-Armed Bertha and Sponge PhD unloading crates of the accessories behind a retail outlet. The Aardvarks decide attack is the best way to proceed. The stakes in this fight might be "can they drive off the lackeys" or "can they capture the lackeys".

On a success, the Aardvarks flatten Bertha and Sponge, and can recover most of the accessories. Leaving their prisoners tied up, they can now head off to follow up their investigation, or perhaps try to retrieve anything already sold by the shops.

On a failure, the Aardvarks might get the upper hand and the lackeys decide to flee. The scene could now become a chase sequence, or perhaps the Aardvarks prefer to stay behind and investigate the situation in the retail park, destroying whatever accessories have been left behind.

Alternatively, a failure might see the Aardvarks defeated and either driven away or captured. They now need to find a new way to handle a new set of problems. The decision comes down to what the Aardvarks' goal is in the Fight roll.

But I get up again

Vark the Undying and a few mates are questing into the crystal forests when they encounter a Grue. Having failed to detect its approach, they must immediately roll Fight to see how they fare against the vicious beast.

On a success, a character fights well, inflicting injury while receiving none.

On a failure, the character is badly injured and left for dead.

If the party as a whole perform well, they can continue past the now-dead Grue. If they perform badly, the Grue is left alive and the party must withdraw to lick its wounds and think of a new plan (or try again, of course). Individual characters who're injured will have to use some of their power to regenerate their mangled bodies.

Types of Fight skill

It occurs to me that an aspect of this is what kind of skill Fight is. This is something I'm midway through another post about... fundamentally, we probably want Fight to be a group contributive skill. This would have each participating PC roll Fight, and each result influence the fight.

Alternatives would include having the highest Fight roll determine the outcome (the way most games handle Spot skills), but this seems less satisfactory.

Group contribution seems easiest to handle in the two models where the outcome isn't in doubt. You know you win/lose a fight, the question is how much of what you want you get, be that "avoid injury" or "defeat them quietly" or "escape capture". In the uncertain model, the roll needs to determine the outcome of the fight as well as any subsidiary issues like resources used.

This raises the other point, which is that it seems like in a Fight skill, it will be important to establish exactly what the stakes are for a Fight before rolling. As in many things, this may be situational. You aren't actually rolling for "how well do I fight?" any more than a Jump roll is about "how well do I jump?" - rather, you want to find out whether things work out well for the character or not. You might put it as "do I get what I want by Fighting?", maybe.


  1. Interesting thoughts,

    I don't actually think it's *completely* unreasonable for a game with a "Fight" skill to include fights in which the PCs can die, any more than it is unreasonable for D&D to include situations in which a single failed Detect Traps roll can get you killed (of course, the extent to which you consider that to be a good feature in a D&D game is a different issue).

    For example, you could have a situation in which failing a "Fight" roll caused your characters to take damage, and if your characters took too much damage, they died. This would be a variant of "omniwin" above, except that you go from "omniwin" to "omnilose" as your resources depelete. This isn't actually *that* different from the way D&D winds up working in practice - an adventuring party is *expected* to beat a level-appropriate challenge, the only question is how many of their resources they expend in the process.

    1. Fair point, I didn't really look at situations spread over multiple rolls. Strictly speaking (at least as I imagine the system working), you wouldn't actually go to omnilose - you'd go from omniwin to win-or-die depending whether you rolled high enough to avoid damage this time.

      Another way of looking at it might be that immediate death is too serious a stake to resolve with a single Fight roll, whereas a small amount of injury that happens to be fatal on top of existing injuries is not.

      Broadly speaking, I do think it is unreasonable for most games to include situations in which a single die roll can kill you, but I don't think it's unreasonable if that roll was preceded by a series of bad decisions or failed die rolls that created the situation (i.e. it is *not* a single roll). If Fingers Jones goes to the fortress of the Mad Trapsmiths of Zbar, finds an ornate chest marked "private, meddlers will be killed" suspiciously prominent in the High Engineer's quarters, and relies only on her trap-detecting ability rather than taking any precautions, then I'd not be very sympathetic. But if the trap was instead in the bed of the Traveller's Rest inn on the highway during a perfectly normal journey, that would be silly.