Saturday, 2 April 2016

Making Deathwatch combat overly complicated

So it's been a while, but I've spent a lot of time wittering about the skill system in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, in particular with particular reference to its effect on Knowing Things, including the effects of modifier distributions.

I've been thinking more about this and have some ideas I wanted to play with.

The two major points are de-compartmentalising non-combat skill and compartmentalising combat skill

The basic mechanical issue is this: knowledge skills in games are typically a much chancier investment than combat. Your 100 points can be amazingly useful if you picked the ones that come up a lot in a particular campaign; they can be crucial to continuing with a badly-written scenario, or let you trivially sidestep a problem. Or they can be utterly utterly useless because there are no opportunities to apply your knowledge of botany in the adventure. Meanwhile, the same 100 points invested in Fighting Stuff are almost guaranteed to be useful providing you fight something at some point.

By "trivially" obviously I mean "by virtue of having invested massively in being good at this relatively niche ability".

Extrapolation's what you need

As I've mentioned previously, games tend to assume that skills are discrete. You use Crystal Woobling to wooble crystals, and Crawbeast Wrangling to wrangle crawbeasts, and your knowledge of crystals will not help you to wrangle crawbeasts nor vice versa. If you have no knowledge of woobling, you simply cannot interact with woobling-related problems.

Individuals GMs are typically a lot more flexible about skill use in context, which is just one example of why GMs are useful.

There's the purely game-mechanical issue I mentioned above. There's also a common-sense issue: often being good at Crystal Woobling would actually help you with Crawbeast Wrangling problems, because learning isn't as discrete as all that.

I think here there's probably a three-way-ish distinction between facts, techniques and approaches that applies to knowledge skills.

Actually it applies to combat skill as well, thinking about it.

Facts are specific pieces of information you recall, like the vibration frequency of Shnoon Crystals or the meaning of different crawbeast whistles. These are, for practical purposes, of no use when you are not dealing with those particular topics. You might be able to use them to befriend another academic, or impress someone at a party, or occasionally maybe you manage to somehow apply that vibration frequency while building a teleporter, but the vast majority of the time they're simply not applicable. In cooking, the correct temperature and time to bake a Victoria sponge would be a fact. In archaeology, recognising the origin of a glass bead might be a fact. In Forbidden Lore: Xenos, the homeworld of the Slarg is a fact.

Techniques are ways of doing things in a particular field. Methodologies, manufacturing techniques, that sort of thing. In cooking, these include preparation of foods, preservation, flavouring (what works and what doesn't), serving in an aesthetically pleasing way, and so on. You may not know the favoured time and temperature to bake a Victoria sponge, but if you know about baking in general, you can probably either make an educated guess, or experiment efficiently. In archaeology, there's more preservation techniques, and methods for removing contaminants, and carbon dating. In Forbidden Lore: Xenos, the standard procedures for dissecting, categorising and interpreting the social structures of vile aliens are techniques.

Approaches are ways of, well, approaching a problem. It's basically identifying what the problem is, thinking about the features of that problem, and working out how in general you could tackle it. This is not about the specifics. In cooking, that might be: how many people do we need to feed, how well, what resources do we have, and how much can it cost? In archaeology it might be: what can we learn about this site with four graduate students, £2000, and six days before bulldozers roll in? In Forbidden Lore: Xenos, it might be: are there aliens here, what kind, how many, what do they want, and how can we slaughter them all in the name of the Emperor?

Approaches include things like research skills, logic, deductive skills appropriate to the subject matter, a broader understanding of underlying mechanics that will let you make shortcuts or bodge things, and the experience to make educated guesses.

Broadly speaking, I'd say that (game-mechanically) facts are not useful outside their sphere, methodologies are of quite limited use, but approaches are often useful. What this means is that the applicability of non-combat skills should vary with the type of activity you're doing. The Emeritus Professor of Crawbeast Wrangling cannot deduce from the fact that only the shnoon crystals in the study are broken that Guildmaster Rant was killed with a sonic weapon with a frequency of 142kHz. She won't know the usual techniques for analysing crystals, or how to stress-test crystals for possible engineering applications. However, she probably can use her research skills to dig up the basics in the Guild library, if she realises those things are important. And she can probably use her experience of academia to read up on crystals for a few hours, then impersonate a Professor of Crystal Woobling in an interview with the Jovian Daily Record.

In game terms, this means that Lore skills will tend to be of relatively limited use, but that Lore-using characters should have an advantage in interacting with other scholars, and in understanding material related to other Lore (based on similarity), simply because they know how to do that sort of thing. Similarly, I'd tend to say that experience in Survival in an appropriate environment should make it easier to Track even if you don't have the Tracking skill, because you know the sort of things that tend to happen. For example, these types of bushes lose leaves easily, so checking for leaf-stripping is a good idea; and this kind of soil holds water well, which means it'll take footprints and passers-by might leave muddy marks on rocks. Knowledge of Medicae should give you at least some idea what chemicals are for and how to handle them safely, while Chem-Use should give you some idea of how substances affect the body and how to mitigate those effects.

On the whole though, this is a GMing thing rather than something I think there can easily be rules for. The main exception I think I'd make would be to say that providing a character has trained in one Lore from the Scholastic or Forbidden category they should count as having Basic proficiency if they try to research another Lore from that category. For example, Scholastic Lore: Astromancy should mean you understand libraries well enough to also research Bureaucracy, while Forbidden Lore: Xenos should mean you have the contacts, and the understanding of secret goings-on, to make finding out about Psykers easier.

In terms of social skills, similar things apply. I think the 40K breakdown is about as good as any.

I've got to admit a slight preference for the traditional Call of Cthulhu split between Fast Talk (quickly hustling people into getting your way even though they may regret it) and Persuasion (slowly convincing them of your view), extended through the use of a generic Diplomacy-type skill of using courtesy, compliance and exchange of favours to smooth your path.

Sadly Call of Cthulhu has abandoned this in favour of the D&D-style Bluff Fast Talk, Charm, Intimidate, Persuade. I feel this is a retrograde move, and not quite as appropriate for a 1920s game. Bluffing has always felt a bit weird to me because it should be for working out whether you can tell a specific lie convincingly, whereas the other two are about how you try to approach the person - you can lie while being nice and while being threatening. Also, fast talk actually means something to me, and it very definitely includes charm - it's the kind of bullying, sales pattering, smooth-talking approach that steamrollers resistance by working through any chinks in the target's armour. Flat-out Charm might make people like you, but there's lots of things I wouldn't do for someone just because I like them, whereas a convincing story or urgent waving of paperwork might fluster me enough to agree. And I'm not remotely clear on why you need all four; Fast Talk and Persuade are distinguished by how long the person believes you, Charm and Intimidate are about approaches, and those are not four discrete skills... Ahem! Never mind.

Intimidation I'd tend to use sparingly, not least because a lot of the time actions are what's important. Most NPCs are going to pay attention to your Arbites uniform, your position as Lord Smuggly-Chin, your obvious ability to report their crimes to the authorities, or your massive boltgun - it doesn't really matter whether you come across as a sinister killer or a tremulous fawn when you can clearly do them actual harm. It's only really things like staring someone down, or trying to pull authority you don't obviously have, where I'd apply that.

Fighting Styles

So, on to combat!

It's always been... I don't want to say a pet peeve, it's not a peeve, but a little point of curiosity for me that games seem to treat all combat as fungible, with the sole exception of ranged versus melee. That is, your Weapon Skill (or Base Attack Bonus, or Melee ability, dictates your competence at duelling with Lady Needlepoint using rapiers, and at fending off mobs with a chairleg, and at facing down a charging boar with a spear, and at riding down footsoldiers with your lance, and at hitting bears with a spear, and at hitting bears with a dagger, and at hitting rats with an axe, and at wrestling anacondas.

It would seem less weird except for how the same games want to make you take hundreds of individual knowledge skills.

I'm pretty sure that actually, training in classical fencing is of no more benefit in anaconda-wrestling and bear-spearing than knowledge of history is in understanding the Imperial Administration or secrets of the Adeptus Astartes. Which is to say: some, but they are not interchangeable.

One solution that occurred to me, in the Deathwatch context, was to actually introduce combat skills that sit on top of Weapon Skill, in the same way that knowledge and technical skills sit on Intelligence and social skills sit mostly on Fellowship. So I'm going to play with that a bit.

Some basic provisions

First off, a mechanical point. If combat skills are introduced, then by default nobody will be able to fight at all unless they possess the skill - which is clearly nonsensical. My instinct is to say, first off, that the majority of combat skills are Basic. That is to say, ruleswise, you can always roll on half your Weapon Skill even if you have no particular training in a particular type of fighting.

Expanding on that, I'll also say that player characters and other combat-trained people typically begin with Combat: Skirmish and/or Combat: Firefight as a Trained skill, allowing them to roll on their full Weapon Skill or Ballistic Skill as appropriate. This represents the fact that military training (and gang fighting, and being raised in a brutal warrior clan) will generally give you experience of fighting at relatively close range with a relatively small group of enemies of similar size and physiology. Most Imperial citizens trained for war are trained to fight in roughly equal numbers against humanoids of similar size.

Characters can instead opt to be trained in Combat: Duelling, which is used in single combat against humanoid enemies of the same size. Nobles, gladiators and professional gunfighters may well be experienced in taking on one enemy, rather than small unit tactics. Or they could take Combat: Hunting if they think their experience is mostly in killing wild beasts. Yes, that includes rats, technically. I'm not creating a specific skill just to stop ratcatchers being particularly good at killing mastodons.

A third point is that as a consequence of all this, pretty much all the options to increase Weapon Skill or Ballistic Skill during character advancement should be removed (replaced with the ability to train or boost these new skills) or dramatically repriced. Why? Firstly, because the new skills now exist. Secondly, because now that the skills exist, being able to buy up Ballistic Skill and appropriate fighting styles could be a cheap and quick way to become massively OP. Thirdly, because part of the point of this exercise is to make combat competence more specific, and so having easy access to boosts to those abilities is kind of inappropriate.

Honestly I'm kind of tempted to say BS and WS should just be stripped out and replaced with combat skills based on appropriate stats - they are very explicitly skills, and not stats, it's weird that they exist - but that's probably pushing things too far for most people to accept.

Modifiers, modified

Another thing I'm going to do is remove a lot of the existing combat modifiers. Why? Because those modifiers are now incorporated into the skills.

The reaasoning here is relatively simple: a lot of the advantages apply if you're trained to deal with the appropriate situations, but not otherwise. It sounds convincing that firing a weapon at someone within 2m should be a lot easier (+30); but I think you can make a reasonable argument that it's also deeply unnerving trying to bring your weapon to bear on that ork, hormagaunt or space marine without panicking from the certain knowledge they are about to disembowel you. Similarly, there's a (less good, but possible) argument that firing into a horde of packed enemies may be much easier, or may lead to you getting distracted, firing ineffectually because you can't focus on a target, or just freaking out because so many aliens!!!. Fighting that same horde in melee is almost certainly more difficult, not easier, because they can steamroller you unless you are very specifically trained in fighting large groups of enemies.

  • The bonuses for Point Blank Range are removed entirely; this is now covered by the Point Blank Fire skill.
  • The bonuses for target size are halved. This reflects the fact that simply hitting a target is not necessarily enough to be useful; you need to know where and how to hit, particularly since larger targets may well be better able to absorb ineffective attacks.
  • The bonuses for attacking Hordes are also halved.

Expanding things

So the idea is that most of the time, people are rolling their standard WS/BS. They also gain access to character-appropriate skill advances that can make them better at participating in certain types of combat.

There's a certain question of priority here, or a combination of priority and complexity of wording. To keep things simple, I'm just going to say that Ballistic Skill attacks at Point Blank Range must be made with the Point Blank Fire skill.

  • Combat: Point Blank Fire (BS) covers attacking enemies within 2m.
  • Combat: Skirmish (WS) covers attacking sentients up to 2 size categories larger.
  • Combat: Firefight (BS) covers attacking sentients up to 2 size categories larger.
  • Combat: Duelling (WS, BS) covers single combat against sentients up to 2 size categories larger within Short Range. It includes Parrying.
  • Combat: Hunting (WS) covers attacking unarmed creatures up to 2 size categories larger, including bracing weapons against a charge.
  • Combat: Sniping (BS) covers attacking a designated enemy within a group of five or more enemies or Horde.
  • Combat: Headhunting (WS) covers attacking a designated enemy within a group of five or more enemies or Horde.
  • Combat: Free Fire (BS) covers attacking Hordes.
  • Combat: Onslaught (WS) covers attacking Hordes.
  • Combat: Grappling (WS) covers the Grapple action.
  • Combat: Giant Slaying (WS, BS) covers attacking enemies at least 3 size categories larger.
  • Combat: Tank Killer (WS, BS) covers attacking vehicles and structures.
  • Combat: Cavalry Charge (WS, BS) covers attacking as a mounted unit advancing on infantry.
  • Combat: Outrider (WS, BS) covers attacks between mounted opponents or fast-moving creatures.

Imperial Guard would typically be trained in Skirmish and Firefight combat, and in Free Fire. Certain specialities would have other skills, like Onslaught, Tank Killer, or Sniping.

Astartes would tend to be trained in all of those skills, meaning they never roll with penalties. Assault Marines would get easy access to the Point Blank Fire, Skirmish, Duelling, Hunting, Headhunting, Onslaught, Giant Slaying, Grappling and Tank Killer options. Tactical Marines would get easy access to everything except perhaps Tank Killer, Cavalry Charge, Outrider and Grappling. Devastators would get easy access to Firefight, Duelling, Free Fire, Giant Slaying and Tank Killer.

Specific chapters could get particular skills either as a bonus or cheaply. Space Wolves would naturally get Hunting. Imperial Fists would get Tank Killer. White Claws, Ravenwing and so on would get Cavalry Charge and Outrider. Blood Angels would probably get Onslaught. Ultramarines probably deserve Firefight and Free Fire.

Okay, I'm pretty sure most people's gut reaction to that will be "nope". I'm not sure that's not my gut reaction. But let me dig into it a bit. Here's some (ahem) "realism" rationales that underlie why I came up with these.

Skirmish and Firefight are the go-to skills for most kinds of combat.

The rationale for Point Blank Fire is that the benefits of point blank range only really make sense if you're trained to act professionally in those circumstances. It rewards characters who invest in being good at that, while also meaning that (for example) a heavy weapon user doesn't automatically get a huge bonus when trying to bring a massive gun to bear on an enemy a metre away.

The rationale for Horde styles is, as I've mentioned, that in a lot of ways those should be quite difficult to attack under normal circumstances. However, someone trained to deal with it (and hold their nerve) has a wealth of targets available. It would make sense for actual soldiers, particularly wielders of autofire weapons, to train this skill. Law enforcement might also want to take it for crowd control.

Hunting reflects the fact that fighting animals is wildly different to fighting armed intelligent humanoids; the two will act in very different ways both physically and psychologically. Some characters would have lots of experience in this sphere but very little in facing other humanoids. It would be a logical thing to offer to the Space Wolves, for one, and would be combat-relevant when facing certain kinds of aliens, but not universally useful.

Duelling reflects the way that one-on-one combat allows single-minded focus on one enemy, while also bearing in mind that your opponent can focus on you. Whether you're using daggers or automatic weapons, you need to focus on their actions and their psychology. Some kinds of characters (including antagonists, like assassins) would be particularly good at this; on the flipside they have a natural weakness because they're not prepared for group combat.

Sniping and Headhunting reflect the way that picking a single target out of a mass - even one who looks quite different, has a different weapon, etc. - is much more difficult than simply firing into a mob of enemies. It also helps create a decision for characters as to whether they should fire at the Horde or at the named NPC within it. The use of a different skill means it will be even more difficult to open fire on a Horde and then spend extra hits to mow down their leaders, since you can't march hits onto targets that are more difficult to hit. Assassins, snipers and potentially law enforcement characters might focus on this, using their skills to bring down leaders and sow chaos.

The final four skills are mostly bonus options. You can take those if you expect to fight enemies of a particular type in a particular way. It does mean that some characters will be penalised when fighting armoured vehicles, huge monsters, or if suddenly called on to attack while mounted despite nor being trained to do so. These feel entirely appropriate to me.

Why so complicated?

This is indeed very complicated. There's a couple of counterpoints I'd like to make.

Firstly, there's no immediate reason I can see why combat must be based on a single thing you roll in all situations. Most games use one or perhaps two combat skills (as does the original Deathwatch) but that's a custom, arguably one originating in D&D rather than an inherent necessity.

I'm not going to claim to be any kind of expert. I do know that skills didn't exist at all in early D&D, then were introduced as separate profession-based rules and as non-weapon proficiencies. As far as I can tell, this means skills were always distinct from combat from the outset; they were a different mechanic for handling different kinds of situations.

Call of Cthulhu was completely different because everything was a skill. Otherwise the same stuff applies, though.

The place of skills has expanded greatly in most games, but combat has remained a separate thing. Where skill-type things have been introduced in combat, they work very differently; typically they govern competence with a specific weapon. This in most cases a) has minimal impact because everyone can choose one weapon to be maximally competent with and never use any other weapon; and b) doesn't affect the breadth of things you can do at all. That's a very different case from all other skills.

Secondly, it's very complicated, but no more so than the rules for social or knowledge skills. There are dozens of knowledge skills in the game; I've only proposed a dozen combat skills. I've tried to make it reasonably clear when they're used, but (just like the Knowledge skills) to some extent it's going to be up to the GM to determine exactly what is appropriate.

So there we go, a suggested alternative way to handle combat, in a way that should (in theory!) maintain combat balance by preserving a lot of the available bonuses (while altering how they're obtained); create choices and distinctions in combat skill that allow better customisation of combat-focused characters; and to some extent, shift the uneven dynamic between combat and other skills.

I'm not sure I'd necessarily want to implement it, but I thought it might interest people.

1 comment:

  1. The WS/BS thing comes from original Warhammer (Fantasy Battles), where a mini's parameters were that stat line plus any special powers. There were no academic skills there, any more than there were in D&D, because the game was meant to be only about fighting.

    To throw in another example set, GURPS' influence skills are different ways of getting people to do stuff for you, which are variously modified by charisma and other things:

    Diplomacy: you want this, I want that, we talk back and forth and reach an agreement. This includes general persuasion.
    Fast-Talk: I baffle you briefly with convincing-sounding arguments and flim-flam.
    Intimidation: not just "I am big", but "we know where your kids go to school" (or indeed "we can report you to the Inquisition and be believed").
    Savoir-Faire: this is the way our particular subculture does things.
    Sex Appeal: (flutter eyelashes)
    Streetwise: a bit like Savoir-Faire (Criminal), knowing how to work the system and not look like an undercover cop.

    When I ran a space marines sort of game in GURPS, people needed a selection of skills broken down by weapon, which helped undo the trap a bit. Rifle, sure, but also anti-armour rocket, gunnery for the landing craft's chin turret, machine gun, and so on.