Kick Combat Back Into Shape! -part 2-

6 08 2008

Physical combat has been a part of roleplaying games for as long as I can remember. While this focus on combat might not be true for every roleplaying system out there, most rpg products have at least a section devoted to it and some might have as little as a section devoted to anything else.

This time, we’ll be putting conflict resolution on turbo wheels and hope it doesn’t crash. We’ll have a deeper look at some other ways we can treat combat resolution that are geared towards more efficiently creating a narrative that stands of top of meaningful choice, instead of tactical detail.


In my last post I went over 4 questions that I felt conflict resolution mechanics should address. Just as a reminder, these were the 4 questions:

Am I winning? (and by how much)
Am I losing? (and by how much)
Are we tied?
What is the new situation?

These four questions are useful, but they also show a great deal of redundancy. In order to create a more efficient requirement, let us say that the question that needs to be answered is just this one: “What is the new situation?” The answer provided (or part of that answer) must be able to be translated into one of the states that are suggested by the the first three questions, and it must be able to be done both in a meta game level and from the point of view of the leads (and the rest of the cast) that are involved.

The new requirement looks something like this:

What is the situation?
Am I winning? (and by how much)
Am I losing? (and by how much)
Are we tied?
What else is relevant?

I still have some problems with that list as it is: the winning/losing/tie questions could very easily be rephrased into one instance since in it’s current form it can lead to some things that I dislike about conflict resolution as we now use it (this we is actually a “my friends and I… and probably a lot of people too” kind of thing.) In order to take it in the direction that I want I believe that it should look a little bit more like this:

What is the situation?
What is the Win/tie/lose situation?
What changed?

Let us have a look at what the use of these questions might be in shaping our conflict resolution mechanics and by doing so, affecting actual play.


The first issue that needs to be explained is the one of situation: the assumption behind the question “what is the situation?” is that there is a series of situations in the conflict (combat in this case) and that the system addresses the conflict by jumping from situation to situation. This is not new or radical in any way, most (if not all) roleplaying systems that I’ve heard of do this in one way or another. In D&D your character might hit a monster and deduct some hitpoints from the monster’s total, in Vampire you might use a discipline or flee from a berserker werewolf, in Ars Magica you might cast a spell of try to persuade the mad princess you were not a fiendish spy while the royal guard dangerously approaches. Some games might have rounds and some might not, some might have more rules and some might have less, but they all pretty much go from one situation (or “state of affairs”) to the next.

A definition of what is to be considered ‘situation’ can be effectively used to shape the conflict resolution mechanics. Even when this definition is provided by the roleplaying system (pretty much every one does provide it, although not explicitly) it is desirable to know what the group’s definition would be in order to make the necessary changes to the system. A definition that would work for me would be something like this:

Whatever new state of affairs that does one or both of the following things at the narrative level:
a) Defines that at least someone is now winning, losing or that there is a tie.
b) Changes the situation in a way that modifies the nature of the conflict or the meaning of the events taking place.

Let’s dissect that for a minute here. Point a) deals with the evolution of the conflict from a ‘victory’ point of view. Conflict usually results from 3 different scenarios: perpendicular goals (that is, goals that conflict with one another) trying to be achieved at the same time, a singular goal that meets resistance (which is non goal oriented), or two parallel goals (that is, not directly conflicting) that are trying to be achieved but that are related as far as the definition of ‘victory’ goes (e.g. a race, a competition for the best chef, and so on…) Bear in mind that point a) does not describe a spectrum: either you are winning or you are losing or there is not enough information to tell yet (there is a tie.)

Point b) deals with pretty much everything else that could happen and that would be relevant for the conflict at hand. If you are fighting against a fiendish villain to save the princess who is hanging for dear life to the side of a cliff… it is relevant to know that the princess has been able to climb up or that she indeed fell. In the same situation it is also relevant to know that help is coming, or that the villain has a bad leg, or that you’re getting tired, or that it is going to rain soon, or that said villain (every one grin now) is actually “your father”. All these things change the nature of the conflict or the meaning of the actions carried out by the participants.

That being said, one of the most important things to bear in mind is that a situation describes a new state of affairs (it does not simply update the last situation), and that it does so from the narrative level (from lack of a better word to call it, as opossed to the meta game level.) This means that a “you’re still winning” is not a situation as far as our definition goes. Also if the princess was hanging for dear life, a situation might be that she is now slipping, that she fell or that she climbed up. Notice that “she slips a bit more” is not a suitable situation: if she was slipping already then nothing changed, and for that matter she is “still losing.” Also to bear in mind is that this new state of affairs must be expressed at the narrative level. I say this to address the issue that might present itself on the more tactical games (by the way if you want to play a tactical game as a tactical game, please disregard what I’m saying… it will probably break your game to no end) when there is a change that is very relevant but it is only expressed on the mechanics of said game. Thus, it might be very important to lose 1/5th of your health potential (or whatever you call it), but it’s not a situation unless it means something on the narrative level.

That is it for part 2, stay tuned for more posts on how to make your combat, or any other conflict, fly to roleplaying heaven. Take good care.





2 responses

9 08 2008

Hmmm, for some reason, I’m finding it difficult to formulate a response to this post that doesn’t result in the brutal murder of several semi-colons.

Let me first check that I understand you correctly:

You see a distinct difference between what’s tactically/meta-game important and what’s narratively important in combat? Sometimes the two concur, but on other occassions the changes from one turn to the other has little impact on one or the other.

For example, losing 2 hit points out of a 1000 is of very little tactical significance, but having your face cut by an arrogant swordsman is a great insult to your character.

9 08 2008

If the brutal murder of several semi-colons results on editing my post please do! My usual editor is out and I’m bound to make some style mistakes since this is my second language. You can send the suggestions to dropthedice(at)

I don’t see a distinct difference between what’s tactically important and what is narratively important in game. If I force my opponent to a lower ground while I’m at a higher ground or I face him with a longer reaching weapon, those things give me tactical advantage and are perfectly within the grounds of a ‘situation’ as it is defined in this article.

I do think that there is a distinct difference if the tactical element is solely present on a meta-game level and doesn’t have a firm presence in the narrative.

“but on other occasions the changes from one turn to the other has little impact on one or the other”

That is precisely what I am intending to avoid. If that happens then it’s not a situation and we only jump from situation to situation. Then again I also said…

“by the way, if you want to play a tactical game as a tactical game, please disregard what I’m saying… it will probably break your game to no end”

Let’s have a look at your example.

“For example, losing 2 hit points out of a 1000 is of very little tactical significance, but having your face cut by an arrogant swordsman is a great insult to your character.”

That is a very interesting situation and dare I say it a tactically important one. If you are enraged and ashamed the efficiency with which you will fight will drop and you won’t have a clear head to make good decisions. A tactical advantage for your opponent I think!

So what I’m saying is that I don’t have a problem with the “lose 2 hitponts” thing per se. As I said with my first article, the problem is that a lot of times this is hard to translate into a situation (as defined here). And in fact if you keep losing 2 hit points per round (of a 1000) it is meaningless to even deal with those rounds as rounds. I say jump to a situation instead.

Thanks for the comment!


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