The Hard Questions

Ok, the remaining questions:

  1. How many dice should it take to offset a status?
  2. Who gets to say what form the status/result takes in the fiction?
  3. What order do things happen in?
  4. How big an advantage is 1 die?
  5. How does this map over to multiple combatants?

These are some of the hard ones.

How many dice should it take to offset a status?
I touched on this earlier, and one commenter gave some useful breakdown, and the short form is that this is a surprisingly tricky question. If this number is fairly low (say, 1 die per) then it makes dice differences more potent because it makes it easier to smooth out any short term advantage that a smaller die pool might have achieved. Not sure if that’s good or bad, but it’s important to know.

This also plays interestingly into the question of how target numbers are rolled for, because there is some question as to whether and how players can -try- to recover. This is not totally black and white, since I think it might not be unreasonable to say that if you really want to focus on recovering, pick something other than attacking (with a target of 4) and do that.

Lastly, we get some interesting effects if the pricing is inconsistent. Damage could become “stickier” if it becomes more costly to remove (or reduce) a status.

But in that, I think we might have our answer – reduction. If the “cost” is 1 die per 1 step reduction (rather than total removal) then it has two interesting effects. First, it makes it harder to clear the board – totally removing a severe effect – so the more severe the effect, the more implicitly costly it has become. Second, it means that even with mitigation, the accumulation of statuses is dangerous. That is, if you are already inconveniences and harmed (or whatever) then you can’t just bump a taken out result down 1 to save yourself – you need to remove it entirely.

There’s also some asymmetry to deal with. The steps for inflicting a status are big, so leftover dice are going to be more common than statuses, and that’s a problem, since it invites fights that never end except at the very high and very low skill ranges. Some of that will hopefully be mitigated by other things you want to spend overage dice on, but that’s a weak prop.

So with all that in mind, I think the right answer is to make the price consistent, but slightly higher – Allow 2 overage dice to reduce (but not remove) a status.

Who gets to say what form the status/result takes in the fiction?
Touched on this yesterday, and for the moment, I’ll stick with the target defining things (with the possible optional rule of allowing the attacker to define things with a higher roll).

What order do things happen in?
Ah, now there’s a bit of a bear. Initiative.

I cannot think of an initiative system I’ve ever actually liked. Round robin works ok, so it’s all the way up to tolerable. Speedy action based ones (Shadowrun, Deadlands) make me crazily stabby. Shot Clock ones (Feng Shui, Exalted 2nd) always seem promising in theory but always prove more work than they’re worth in practice. I could totally cheat the whole issue and go for scene based resolution or some other abstraction to escape the question entirely, but I don’t actually enjoy things like that (with the exception of how The Shadow of Yesterday handles it, which I’ll probably steal).

The reality is that I’m probably going to be forced to go with some sort of round robin/turn taking model out of brutal necessity, but I don’t have to like it, and I can work to avoid things like “Declare up, resolve down” because part of what I’m trying to avoid is the big pow-wow between each round of combat. If action isn’t fluid then it’s less fun for everyone.

Honestly, initiative is one of those areas where I really prefer GM instinct and dicelessness. That is to say, while numeric initiative totally makes sense when everyone is part of the big picture (as in the case of, say, a tactical minis skirmish) that’s not how fights work in fiction or perception. They are lots of miniature stages within the large picture, and we (as audience) move from one to another according to the cadence of the fight. A good GM can use “initiative” as that audience, moving from place to place according to the logic of the fights, not according to some numeric counter. Doing so covers a multitude of sins, allows for characters with different levels of combat focus to get different levels of attention while still keeping the spotlight from lingering too long in one place.

But that’s not something you can really write a rule for. That’s a problem.

So, honestly, my take on it is to make the official rule very simple – literally just go around the table rather than do any weird rolling or anything – but provide guidelines for initiative as cameraman. Mechanically, we might allow some rules for speed tricks using unused dice or the like, but those are for exceptions – character for whom speed is a schtick. In the absence of that the role of initiative is to keep everyone playing and engaged, not to reward the guy who found the best mechanical abuse of the system.

How big an advantage is 1 die?
Pretty big. In the end, if a 1d advantage means an 80% chance of success, I’ll be happy. Obviously, there’s a sliding scale to this – 3d should beat 2d more reliably than 5d will beat 4d, but that’s my ballpark starting point, with a roughly 10% margin of error. However, I expect abilities (ways to spend dice) will throw this off when I get to them, which is fine.

How does this map over to multiple combatants?
This is the most important question to apply to any combat system. It is not hard to come up with a brilliant, clever, intricate system for handling 1-on-1 fights which utterly fails to account for multiple actors. Some of them try to apply duct tape solutions, like trying to make everything into chained sets of duels or aggregating opposition, but you can see the seams when that happens.

There’s also an important genre consideration to how numbers work. I hate to invoke realism, but I’ll do so in this very broad context – being outnumbered sucks. One man can absolutely fight a larger number of opponents, but doing so is dependent on a lot of factors, most of them involving finding a way to keep them all from coming at him at the same time. This is important, not because of how you model tactics, but because it’s very important to _society_. It’s what makes armies and police and many other things work. It also matters to style. The number of people one guy can fight speaks directly to the genre of things. In a gritty setting, even badass will run from groups of lesser adversaries, but in very cinematic settings, those adversaries are probably mooks, and can be easily dispensed with.

I’m definitely looking to avoid mook rules, though that’s a whole other discussion of it’s own. They’re easy to add if a specific genre demands it, but I don’t want them as a baseline. I like ganging up to be dangerous because of the aforementioned social element (and, in fact, this sentiment is all over the Fate 2 combat rules) but I think I may have implicitly handled that already. Since status mitigation depends on excess dice, the simple reality is that multiple opponents are going to burn through your dice in no time at all, even if they’re not hugely dangerous individually. That’s just a gut answer for now, but I think it will do.

8 thoughts on “The Hard Questions

  1. Paul Weimer

    Shot Clock ones (Feng Shui, Exalted 2nd) always seem promising in theory but always prove more work than they’re worth in practice.

    From experience, Exalted does bog down in combat for the GM because of the initiative rules.

  2. Cam_Banks

    Initiative is a big thundering issue for me, as well. Just to get a sense of how big, notice how neither Smallville nor Leverage have any kind of initiative beyond “highest roll if we’re all acting in each other’s way gets to go.”

  3. Mark Sherry

    In my calculations, players made their moves simultaneously, and had to decide how many dice to reserve for healing/defense before rolling. Each reserved die ate either one level of success, or healed one level.

    I’ve run some numbers with reserved dice blocking successes 1:1, but healing 2:1, with the exception of when your opponent gets no successes, in which case it only takes one reserve to heal the first step (so that 1d players can still heal if they get lucky). I.e. if your opponent has no successes, it costs 1 point to heal one status level, 3 points to heal two.

    The differences between skill levels is still sharp, but between two characters of the same skill, there seems to be less of a winning strategy. Part of this might be that the ‘cautious’ strategy is based around cheaper healing, but I think it’s still an improvement.

    Let me know if there are any other simulations you’d like me to run.

  4. Jesse Burneko

    Hey Rob,

    Frankly I’ve become spoiled on how initiative works in Burning Wheel, The Riddle of Steel, and Sorcerer. The key feature of all three is that actions in a given exchange are assumed to be happening simultaneously and if both parties remain 100% committed to attacking their defense is screwed that round and they likely end up skewered on each others swords.

    In Burning Wheel that happens when both parties script an Attack action in the same volley. In The Riddle of Steel when both parties throw the red die. In Sorcerer when you get attacked before your action and choose to defend yourself with only 1 die rather than give up your action for a full defense.

    In practice this means that if both parties are fighting intelligently then in any given exchange only about HALF the people involved actually attack. Which half shifts from exchange to exchange. That makes for a very dynamic fight with a lot of back and forth as people jocky for advantage.

    My favorite of the three is, of course, Sorcerer. For two reasons.

    1) Unlike Burning Wheel or The Riddle of Steel whether you stay committed to your action and risk a double skewer is a choice. When the other guy goes first I can decide whether I want to stop and defend myself or risk it all on that 1 die.

    2) It solves a problem I have with FATE Maneuvers. In FATE it is REALLY, REALLY hard to take advantage of your own Maneuver because the other parties involved are always guaranteed an action. It’s impossible to capitalize on throwing sand in someone’s eyes and then immediately strike them while they’re blind.

    In Sorcerer assuming your sand throw is successful you roll those dice right over into your next attack. That means not only is your next attack more effective, it also means it’s more likely to go sooner. Meaning your sand throw-strike ploy might actually occur back-to-back with no opportunity for active response.

    That means it’s theoretically possible to lock an opponent down with intelligent combos that completely deny any opportunity for action AT ALL. In practice the die system is volatile enough that usually what happens is someone has the advantage for a few exchanges followed by a sudden reversal of fortune.

    I’m so fond of this dynamic that I’ve really grown cold on round-robin initiative where everyone has an action no matter what. If everyone MUST have an opportunity then I’d rather go scene-based resolution where everyone states what they’re hoping to get out of the scene and we resolved that.

    An alternative that I also don’t mind is something like Trollbabe where the GM’s characters don’t have actions at all. The assumption there is that if the player fails then then the NPC succeeds. If the PC doesn’t cause harm then the NPC automatically causes harm in response.

    Anyway, more food for thought.


  5. Rob Donoghue

    @Jesse So, the answer to that is largely one of taste. I have a lot of appreciation for the BW/RoS style of simultaneous resolution but it’s definitely not my thing. The ‘game’ element of it is just too visible, and it takes me out of the game. I don’t offer this as criticism of either game, just as an observation for why they’re not for me.

    Sorcerer’s a bit more interesting because there’s an element there which I view as a bug which might seem a feature from another direction. The ability to “fold” in the face of a reveal rather than ride it out is great within it’s context, but to me it’s basically “Aborting to defense”, something I’ve seen in many systems but enjoyed in none of them.

    That said, I’m sympathetic to the flaws of round robin, at least to a point. It can feel fake, and it’s frustrating if other players are slow or hungup, but at the same time, I worry a lot about the players who monopolize any turn system, either through mechanical abuse or social engineering. That balance can be set aside in favor of other priorities, but I feel it’s worth pushing for.

    (Of course, the real rub is that while everyone should have equal opportunity to engage, that does not necessarily mean everyone will act equally, or that the equally needs to be evenly distributed at all times. Just another set of complications.)

  6. Paul Weimer

    There is a tension here between what is “Gamey”, what is “Fair” (to the players) and what is “realistic” that is an underlying tension no matter what method you ultimately choose.

    Its a matter of which priority you want to highlight.

  7. Anonymous

    What if you can “Bank” the extra dice. Say your overage is a 3, 2, 1 over the course of 3 rounds, you bank those dice and spend 6 points on a cool Stunt, Ability, or Finishing Move…something like that.


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