RPG Combat (and Zero Breakers)

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how RPGs handle combat. It’s one of those things that people are weird about. People who enjoy entertainment without fighting on a regular basis and whose RPG campaigns include all sorts of other things nonetheless often seem to have trouble understanding how an RPG without combat would even be possible.

The traditional approach essentially makes combat into a highly detailed mini-game, often the single most complex portion of the game’s rules. As usual I’ll say that the traditional approach isn’t bad, just something that we need to examine critically, as it’s one valid approach among many. There’s a lot of variations of this general theme, but broadly speaking the major drawbacks of the traditional approach are:

  • It leans towards fights to the death being the default. Killing or incapacitating foes is often the most efficient way to do things in RPG combat systems. Some go as far as to penalize attempts to deal with foes in combat without killing them, and a whole lot of games find ways to gloss over all that killing as well. Character tend to cut off more story possibilities than they create. I won’t advocate for every character to be an immortal (though I think that’s a valid approach for some games), but fights to the death shouldn’t be the default quite so often.
  • It tends to make fights highly time-consuming. Some games do better than others, but by and large RPGs make fights just take a lot of time at the table. More than once I’ve had to cut a game session short because although we had some more time to hang out, we didn’t have an hour and a half to play out a battle.
  • It can detract from other parts of the game. There are a lot of things I like about D&D4e, and a lot of things I think RPG designers in general could stand to learn from. But there’s still the fact that it made it really easy to get sucked into the combat mini-game and not really role-play unless you went way out of your way to put effort into it. 4e has one of the more sophisticated and fun combat mini-games in an RPG, but it’s nowhere near alone in the tendency to take away from other parts of the game.
  • Rules and character options tend to be excessively concentrated around it. These two things dovetail into one another, because if combat is the most involved thing in the game, it’s also the thing that game designers can hang the most character traits off of. Since combat is so often life-and-death for the PCs, players naturally tend to make it a high priority since they want their characters to not die.

All of these are tendencies rather than ironclad consequences of course, and things that RPGs can do better at even without taking a radically different approach. D&D4e for example made the simple change of letting you incapacitate an enemy simply by declaring that you’re doing so when landing a final blow on an enemy, which makes it vastly easier to, say, spare a foe’s life to interrogate them later. Strike! removes so much of the busywork from combat that it takes 4e-style tactical combat and cuts them down to 20 or 30 minutes.

I’ve been playing JRPGs pretty intently of late (notably Final Fantasy X and Tales of Hearts R). The combat systems in those kinds of games are descended from D&D (with games like Wizardry! and Dragon Quest as intermediary steps), where you’re mainly using your attacks to wear down the enemy’s HP before they can do the same to you. However, the way the games use battles as part of the overall story can vary enormously. Usually when you deplete a monster’s HP it’s implied that you kill it, but named characters are a very different matter. Unless you’re close to the end of the game, in a JRPG a battle against a named human character will typically result in them being too beat down to fight, but almost never means they’re dead.

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In general I find it interesting how JRPGs will establish a combat system and then use it in a variety of different ways to tell a story. Final Fantasy games and Tales games have some major differences in their styles of combat systems (Tales is real-time and makes considerable use of positioning), but they’re similar for how the game designers will determine the narrative purpose of a fight, using the design parameters of the enemy and the story elements before and after (and sometimes during) the battle to make it fit into the flow of the game’s story to a certain effect. They sometimes do this badly, slotting a contrived hoop to jump through where there at first seems to be a gameplay challenge. For the first few hours of Final Fantasy X there are almost no battles that work as normal battles for example; the game is constantly interrupting them to toss story stuff at you.

For a while I’ve been thinking about how to make an RPG in the style of JRPGs, and those games’ relationship with combat is one of the things that potentially makes it a tricky proposition. In the 90s there was a fan-made Final Fantasy RPG project that tried to duplicate the mechanics of the video games, and the result was something that I suspect only would’ve felt like a Final Fantasy game story-wise with a lot of extra work on the GM’s part. Tabletop RPGs don’t have or need “cutscenes,” and JRPG mechanics don’t have any way to address how to handle those kinds of events, because they come down to what the writers can write and the programmers can portray.

There have been some tabletop RPGs that take an unconventional approach to combat. Here are a few:

  • Combat in Apocalypse World has dramatically less of a distinction from other parts of gameplay. Certain aspects of the game are much more likely to come into play during a fight, but the game never stops being fundamentally about “the conversation.”
  • Taking it even further, games like Fiasco have very few rules at all, including where combat is concerned. Apart from the epilogue, the game doesn’t impose any consequences per se, and this can be very freeing. A player can have their own character die in the first scene, and then appear only in flashbacks for the rest of the game, something that would be next to impossible to arrange in a typical RPG.
  • Many games make no particular distinction between combat and other types of conflict. Polaris for example follows the same conflict resolution process regardless of the nature of the conflict. Dogs in the Vineyard has different levels of escalation that distinguish an argument from a gunfight, but the fundamental rules of conflicts stay the same.
  • In Golden Sky Stories, the subject matter and overall approach are non-violent. There might be an occasional scuffle (though I’ve never seen one when running the game), but GSS shows us that an RPG just plain doesn’t have to involve violence.
  • In Magical Fury, I cut combat down to a few quick die rolls and an evaluation that tells you what the consequences of the battle are. Although battles are a regular feature of gameplay, they take up very little time, and primarily serve as a means to determine what consequences arise from a fight.
  • World Wide Wrestling is based on professional wrestling, and that led it to a pretty unique take on how fights work out. The GM “books” each match, and decides on its outcome ahead of time. It’s possible for wrestlers to swerve a match to an unplanned outcome, but the real purpose of the matches is their place in the story and determining whether they make the crowd go wild or just fall flat.

Although I like all of these, I think for me the most interesting at the moment are the games that prioritize the consequences of a conflict. An awful lot of the various narrative forms of entertainment we experience deal with combat in those terms, I think because otherwise there’s usually not much point in including it. Even an impressively choreographed fight can be boring if it doesn’t lead much of anywhere, as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace demonstrated several times over, whereas a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road can get away with being one long, violent chase scene because the movie skillfully gives you reasons to care about how things turn out.

Anyway, all of this leads me to yet another RPG project. I started on a mini-RPG, called Zero Breakers: Battle School Chronicle. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make an RPG in the style of shounen fighting manga (stuff like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, etc.) for ages, and I was thinking about taking a stab at it as a Patreon mini-RPG. That in turn met with an idea for a game about students at a school for people with special powers, where school life is bent around epic battles that keep the students busy, inspired by Mikagura Gakuen Kumikyoku. Zero Breakers takes place at Narukami Gakuen, a school for Breakers. “Breakers” are people with a limited ability to bend reality around them, fueled by their passions and interests, and the school is one of several institutions that basically exist to keep them busy so they don’t destroy the world. Lots of fighting, in a setting where characters can have zany powers and fight with paintbrushes or staplers or whatever, and not the kind of thing where characters die. Even if you beat someone, chances are you’ll still see them in class the next day.

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Pictured: Superpowered, super-genki girl-crazy lesbian and long-suffering talking animal mascot critter

Although the outward trappings vary greatly, shounen fighting manga has a very distinct style, and one that I think runs against the grain of how tabletop RPGs typically work. My original “Zero Breakers” game (I decided to reuse the title) was going to be diceless, and battles would’ve essentially involved jockeying to bring your Power Level up higher than that of your opponent. It wound up being one of those drafts with some stuff that sounded neat on paper, but never gelled into a game. A friend of mine meanwhile literally went through about 40 different iterations of his own attempt at the genre without really getting anywhere. To me shounen manga battles have an air of inevitability about them. That was why I initially went for a diceless approach. A shounen RPG could have some kind of randomness, but I feel that the typical RPG approach with to-hit rolls is just flat-out wrong for the genre. There’s just no element of dumb luck in them, except maybe when “luck” is a very deliberate plot element.

But making a competitive, non-random combat system that’s still fun to engage and produces interesting stories may be a bit beyond me. Like a lot of the design problems I’ve run into, the solution seems to be to approach it from a totally different angle, creating rules that are situated orthogonally to the usual things RPG mechanics concern themselves with.

I’m still trying to work out how exactly I’m going to put Zero Breakers together, but my initial thinking is that it will be centered around playing cards to narrate stuff rather than playing with mechanics to see if you win. I’m debating taking an approach similar to World Wide Wrestling, where the default outcome is pre-determined, and you’re playing out the fight more to see its broader effects. (But I’m not sure how exactly that decision should be made if I do go that route.) In any case I’m thinking players will accumulate cards over the course of the setup by doing things that fit their character, and then do different things with the cards to trigger “moves” that let them narrate different kinds of things that show the overall thrust of the battle. Players on the sidelines have the option to do “side narration” (the Speedwagon role, to anyone who knows JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure), playing a card now and then to enhance one side’s plays while narrating details about the fight in-character.

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Anyway, that’s where I am with things right now. I’m a bit into the first draft of Zero Breakers, and generally liking how the whole thing is coming along.

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10 thoughts on “RPG Combat (and Zero Breakers)

  1. Another interesting combat system you might look at is Legend of the Wulin, which is meant to model martial arts movies and the tropes therein. It’s an interesting blending of complex, numbers heavy rules alongside narrative play and much like the genre it’s emulating is designed around death rarely being a consequence of a fight (for both enemies and players, actually).

  2. While I’ll agree as quickly as anyone that RPG games tend to gloss over death alot, going to the opposite extreme can be just as bad. When death can’t happen, it’s hard to get genuine feels of weight or consequence in a story, both things you really need if you want a tense dramatic story. Besides, a combat system without death is still a combat system, and I think the problem of people building their characters around combat abilities will still persist. I must admit, when I first got into roleplaying, it actually took me awhile to “untrain” videogame mentality from my mind.

    I think the large problem here tends to be that the “end goal” of most roleplaying games seems to revolve around beating a “final boss” of sorts. There are some variations of course, sometimes it’s not a final boss, but rather an army or kingdom or cult or whatever… but the end goal is usually combat-oriented in some way. The end goal for a mage usually isn’t “I want to graduate magic school and become a teacher”, it’s “I want to become lich and take over the land with my undead army.”, which is a damn shame because the former makes a much more interesting story for a roleplaying game IMO, although the latter works better in videogames for obvious gameplay reasons.

    Anyway… of the two examples I just listed, I’ve done both in Roleplays before… and both times there was a serious risk of death. In the case of the mage who wanted to become a teacher though, the emotional content level was often alot higher for some reason. I cared alot more about her dying than my necrolord. You may wonder why a teacher would ever have to fight, but a good GM can come up with reasons ranging from investigating something dangerous to increase the prestige of your school, to someone kidnapping your students. I very well could have played that character as a combat engine of destruction who tore through the campaign with ease… but it was more fun to play a normal, sacred and desperate even, person who was forced into a bad situation. The combat was no different than your typical DnD game mechanically, but each one felt like a serious and tense affair and it was… exciting. My goal wasn’t to kill everything, my goal was to stay alive and not let the situation destroy who my character was.

    Anyway, I probably lost focus on my point somewhere along the way… but I think it was that premise and setting matters alot more than a simple factor like lethality level. I’m not knocking your games at all, and Zero Breakers sounds plenty fun… I’m just saying there’s no need to keep it purely PG 13 by design. Sometimes an element of serious consequence in an otherwise “carefree” setting can do wonders, as it did in Madoka Magica, Magi: The Kingdom of Magic, and even some volumes of the Pokemon manga. I guess the real problem here is getting players to care about their characters and give them some depth beyond their combat ability… “safe” settings help with this a little by not making death the end of your character, but I don’t think it’s completely the right direction for a solution.

    1. To me the issue is that to have a dramatic story you need to have something at stake. Having characters’ lives be the thing that’s at stake is one possibility, and potentially a powerful one, but there are many, many others, and RPGs have generally not even tried to provide tools to help create them. Death alone doesn’t make a story compelling. When George R.R. Martin kills off a major character, people take notice not because there are actually unusual numbers of characters dying compared to, say, Robert Jordan, but because he does it with major characters that he’s built up, whose deaths will profoundly affect the other characters who survive.

      So I don’t think character death is anywhere near inherently bad, just that it shouldn’t be a required baseline assumption, much less a constant, pressing threat like in some games. But what I’m really interested in at the moment is the stuff that goes around those conflicts, because I think it has the potential to make them more interesting, regardless of whether or to what degree death is on the table.

      1. One thing about fights in shonen action shows is that the fight is the story. The attacks, manuvers and observations on the sidelines are all a narratively important story beats. I have a loose idea of a mechanic where fights are plotted out almost like skill challenges from D&D4E. Conflicts would involve players narrating and resolving actions that build up to the “AHA!!! I got you now!” moments of a shonen action fight. The resolution of the “Got you now” moment would drive the narrative forward based on the outcome.

  3. My observation is that the element of randomness is included in the combats because combat’s are random. You don’t REALLY know the outcome of the fight, even if you do everything you can to load the dice in your favor. I think you might need some element of… not randomness per se, but the ability to loose in a fight as a risk, and the possibility that your opponent will overpower you. Decks of cards or a hand of poker might have that kind of effect. You do your best to build the best combo/attack form you can, but your opponent might have a wild card (special move) or just a better hand than you.

  4. Ewen, great observations.
    The combat-heavy rules of RPGs are better understandable looking at its roots in miniature wargames. I recommend Evil Hat’s Designers & Dragons (70s book) for an excellent overview.

  5. An odd idea, but have you looked at Burning Wheel’s tiered combat system of one roll for resolution vs. Fight! rules that are play-by-plays of how combat can go? Mouse Guard even pares down that system to be manageable for kids.

    I’m thinking especially about Gainax anime, which will have fights that should be decided in one roll (Kamina vs. Beastman) and fights that are a really long, epic series of strikes (Everyone vs. Anti-Spiral).

    Basically you could start with Burning Wheel and skim it down to fit shounen combat needs. My thought is that heroes have your standard four moves of Attack, Defend, Feint, Maneuver, but the flavor of those would change depending on the setting.

    Your classes would then be some play on those four. To use typical shounen protags, Naruto can’t Defend but gets bonus Maneuvers, Luffy can’t Feint worth crap, and Ichigo only has Attack, but when his HP hits zero he just comes back with a power-up.

    Against mooks and in the middle of the plot, if a fight is more another small narrative obstacle rather than an epic cinematic scene, you just roll 2d6 or whatever your core dice mechanic is to resolve the combat.

    As for stakes, you could use the Burning Wheel Duel of Wits rules of having to compromise, or you could create a whole new mechanic on your own about NPC deaths.

    I’m only talking about a specific type of anime here, but honestly most shounen characters don’t grow by dying or even coming near death. They grow by having their close friends and allies die.

    One way to have the mechanics enforce this is you literally have a nakama power meter. If you want to make it even more ridiculous and over-the-top, you designate one “main character” with “plot armor”, and then EVERY other player’s job is to build up as much nakama power possible with them, before dying heroically or striding off into the sunset or retiring or whatever. The MC never dies, but instead has to deal with the constant dying/sacrificing/retiring of his friends.

    A less ridiculous version might simply incentivize players to interact with NPCs. Whenever you gain an NPC nakama, mark 1 XP, or get 1 Fate Point, etc. However, those NPCs don’t have plot armor and so die off.

    Just a few weird ideas inspired by reading this post and the comments below it.

  6. I’m new to the hobby and I have to admit combat and stats are the place that is holding me, and other people I’m trying to teach-all pure beginners-, from entering the hobby for real.

    Oh, how I dream of getting together every weekend for hours to save a town from invading orcs and such, but as it is now…we are taking it VERY slowly and board games usually have more time on the table than RPGs.
    And when RPGs do take center stage, we always shy away from battle as much as we can. While that is good and all, another problem soon emerge…all of us are new roleplayers and are a bit awkward at it. Yeah, sadly we get some silence in our games from time to time.
    But maybe that is just because I’m a bad GM XD

    On that note, which one do you think is easier to teach to people/is a simpler system to learn? Sword World 2.0 or DnD 5E? I’m asking because I’m trying to start another group with my colleagues, all of them Japanese.

    Now, this may not be totally related to the topic above but I thought who better to ask about this than you ;)

    1. I would say that the choice of what game to use to introduce someone to RPGs depends a lot on the particular person. One friend of mine took to playing Golden Sky Stories really quickly and easily, but other people can struggle with it.

      I’m not super-familiar with Sword World, but D&D and other similar fantasy games tend to be good in terms of having an accessible premise, but so-so in terms of how well the design facilitates getting into the action and role-playing. In general I think it’s good to try out a variety of games, since even if you end up playing more standard fantasy RPGs, the stuff you’ll pick up from other games can still apply. The http://felis.jp/ blog is mostly news about happenings in American independent RPGs, but the author does sometimes post translations in Japanese as well.

      Also to a certain extent role-playing is just something you have to learn by doing. It can be a bit discouraging to have your game session feel flat like that, but you’ll get better with time.

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