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.
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.
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.
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.