Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Hive mind: stealing from Necromunda for fun and profit

So an idea I've had vaguely floating around for a while is to use Necromunda - or rather, its mechanics - as the basis of an RPG.

For those of you not in the know, Necromunda is a tabletop skirmish campaign wargame of bloody battles between rival gangs in the Underhive, a festering hellhole chemical wasteland miles beneath the unthinkably vast future-gothic city-spires of the Hives where the mass of humanity eke out their miserable existence. Let me clarify that working 20-hour days welding shut ration packs in a factory powered by unshielded reactors and filled with toxic fumes that will kill you before your fourth decade, then splitting your miserable wage between religious tithes, flavourless algal slop, a variety of even more lethal drugs to get you through the day, and gambling in mob-run hells in the faint hope of a fractional and temporary improvement in your circumstances or at least an entertaining brawl, monitored all the while by a fascist regime that crushes the faintest hint of worker uprisings with appalling ferocity, and under the perpetual threat of irresistable annihilation by either an incursion of horrific Chaos demons or any of the myriad alien races whose xenophobia is exceeded only by your own, is the cushy life of law-abiding mid-Hive citizens. Your distant, implausible dream is to one day retire there.

Necromunda inherited a combat system from the tabletop battle game Warhammer 40,000, although the latter has undergone so many system changes that they now have very little in common other than a statline format.

Necromunda actually has three main systems that I think would be interesting and useful as components of an RPG. These are a summing combat resolution mechanic, a serious injury roll (which I've mentioned before), and a spheres model of skills.

Skill spheres

Necromunda has what I think is a rather neat system for skills that allows niche protection while also supporting a range of character concepts with a minimal number of skills. This means each gang has a distinctly different feel and playstyle. I'm wondering whether this can be carried over to an RPG - indeed I had the exact same thought when faced with D&D 4th edition's endless power lists.

The rulebook offers a mere 7 skill pools, and with these articulates 6 distinct core gangs; there are also four more complex and specialised gangs which have special rules on top of their skills. Each gang is distinguished by having a different combination of skills available to each tier of ganger, from novices to hardened leaders. For example, the Van Saar gangs have links to a manufacturing-focused house, so all their gangers tend towards technical skills and ranged weaponry; the Orlocks and Delaques also focus on ranged weaponry, but the former pair it with ferocious brutality, while the latter pair it with stealth. As they rise up the ranks, experiences gangers gain access to a wider range of skills, but at least one skill pool is always off-limits.

How do they work?

Let me clarify first that "skills" in Necromunda are nothing like most RPG skills. They're not something you put points in, or can be better or worse at than someone else. They are in fact special abilities that you either have or don't.

The way it works is that there are these seven pools. When you gain experience, you can Advance; you do this by rolling 2d6 on a table to determine what kind of advance you gain. This might be characteristic points (the most common, in the 5-7 range), a House skill (3-4 and 10-11), or if you're very lucky, a skill from any table of your choice (2 or 12). There's further randomisation; for example, a roll of 5 gets you a characteristic advance on a melee stat, but this might be Strength or Attacks based on a straight d6 roll.

Because there's no finessing in the characteristics, this can get weird. The absolute most common result is a 7, which gets you Initiative (used for spotting enemies, recovering from pinning, and winning tied combats) or Leadership (used for morale and command). One slightly odd outcome is that a lot of people tend to get better at leading, and initiates gain advances faster than experienced gangers, so you can easily end up with your teenage wannabes being better leaders than your actual leader.

Similarly, stat rolls have no interest whatsoever in your role. You may well be a psychotic musclebound thug who disdains any firearm larger than a pistol and never bothers to draw that either, but your brutalising exploits are just as likely to gain you improved marksmanship as superior hand-to-hand skill. Even worse, it's fairly common for snipers and artillery specialists to stack up unwanted strength and melee points. They're not useless - anyone can end up in a fight - but it doesn't make much sense and creates a sense of frustration because you're basically completely powerless to determine how your gangers develop.

Now, because it's a skirmish game, the skills are unsurprisingly focused on violence and a very few support abilities. The skill pools are Agility, Combat, Ferocity, Muscle, Shooting, Stealth and Techno. Each contains six special abilities and a character rolls a d6 to determine what they get (you can't have the same skill twice).

Skills are quite variable in their usefulness. For example, Dodge grants you a flat 1/6 chance of evading any attack, in addition to any armour you may have, whereas Quick Draw grants you a bonus if you have a gunfight (a specific type of scenario with special rules) - it's fairly obvious that the first is useful more often, and it's probably more beneficial as well.

The Stealth skillset includes one which halves the distance at which enemy sentries can spot the model, which is a moderate benefit applicable only in the handful of scenarios where the gang is trying to sneak up on opposing sentries, which is only useful in the early stages before any combat has broken out, and which (unless a lot of your gang have the same skill) relies on you being okay with potentially stranding that ganger on their own amidst the enemy. On the other hand, you might gain the Ambush ability to hide and start overwatch in the same turn, instead of expending two turns to do that.

One skill lets you subtract 1 from the Strength of all hand-to-hand attacks, essentially reducing the chance of injury from 50% to 33%. Another lets you reroll failed Pinning tests so you don't lose turns. These are universally useful, to all characters, and are likely to come up regularly. You can fire two pistols, or reroll injuries you inflict. Or you might get the ability to throw opponents around, which is great if you're capable of winning melee fights and happen to be standing on a tall building, but rubbish for ranged fighters - even though your heavy weapon specialists are some of the most likely to get this ability. Also, standing near the edge of tall buildings is just a bad idea in general.

There's some weird ones too, like a Rapid Fire ability. This lets you fire once for each Attack you have. If you've randomly acquired multiple attacks, this might be fantastically good - firing three times in a round is brilliant. But if you just have the default single attack, it does literally nothing.

So if you were planning to implement a similar system in an RPG, I think you'd want to carefully consider what types of spheres you want the skills to cover. They shouldn't just be combat-focused.

I'd also want to make sure that they are of comparable value (unless you're designing a game which has a lot of randomness and inequality, in which case you might retain the random rolling), for two reasons. One, actual balance between options and avoiding newbie traps. Two, if there are some quite powerful options that are "balanced" by niche application... Deathwatch has demonstrated that it doesn't necessarily work that way, and players will find ways to leverage their most powerful abilities as often as possible.

Serious injuries

I, uh, I already ripped this off. People kind of liked it, and I was made up.

Summing combat

So the way melée combat works in Necromunda is like this:

  • each character rolls 1d6 for each Attack they have
  • if you have parries (due to a sword or the Parry skill) you can force the opponent to reroll one dice per parry; parries cancel out
  • they pick their highest roll and add their Weapon Skill, plus modifiers like high ground or charging
  • additional 6s add +1 to your score, additional 1s subtract -1 from it.
  • whoever wins gets to roll one hit on the opponent for each point of difference in the scores
  • highest Initiative wins ties by 1 hit

This means that combat is brutal - actually significantly more brutal than ranged combat most of the time. A typical ranged ganger makes one attack with a lasgun, mostly requiring a 4+ to hit, and if successful rolls one hit with a typical 4+ to wound. You can mostly expect a roughly 25% injury rate. Most of these injuries will leave the target crawling feebly around and no longer a threat (a roll of 2-5 is "down", 1 is a flesh wound, 6 is out of action).

In melée, although gangers begin with the same Weapon Skill (3), the dice add a big swing factor and you can stack odds heavily in your favour with ease: charging your opponent is a +1, you can wield two melée weapons for a bonus attack, and a sword lets you parry the enemy's dice if it's good. So your unlevelled combat ganger can begin with 4 + the better of of 2d6, against an opponent rolling 3 + 1d6 and forced to reroll a good result. On average this means you're getting about a 9, and they're getting about a 5, so you hit them 4 times and wound twice and beat them unconscious. Literally. Because as long as you have no further opponents, you can automatically take any melée opponent out of action if you deal a "down" result.

Although getting into combat is difficult, a moderately prepared melée attacker can wreak absolute havoc on an enemy gang, and attacking en masse lets you gain bonus attacks and WS as well! In fact, sending a mob of kids with switchblades to mow down the experienced enemy gang is a completely legitimate and effective tactic.

I'm not sure about the deadliness, but I do like the way that a round of Necromunda combat results in one or the other party getting the upper hand, rather than the exchange of blows that typifies some other systems. The multiple strikes could reasonably represent either several actual strikes, or the chance to make a particularly effective strike when you have the upper hand.

Having articulated my reasons for being interested, next time okay, when I next get round to thinking about this, I'll try to work out a broader set of skills and how they could be used.

1 comment:

  1. I used to play this a bit - I'm not a GW fan but it's surprisingly enjoyable. What powers down ranged combat even more is that insistence that, because these are untrained troops, they have to fire at the closest/easiest target – I don't remember the details now but it really restricts your options. Clearly this is an attempt to make hand-to-hand fighting important in a game with guns in it, and so is the heavy use of terrain and cover.