100 – Action RPGs

The Mythcreant Podcast

Roll for initiative: it’s time to talk about action systems in roleplaying games. This week we are joined by special guest David, a veteran of many a dragon fight. We discuss the difference between realistic systems and abstract systems, how tactical combat should be, and how much of the responsibility is on players and GMs to make the action feel interesting. Plus we complain about grappling. A lot.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Roleplaying Public Radio

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Edition 

Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition 

Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition

Mouse Guard


A Song of Ice and Fire RPG

Riddle of Steel

Anima Prime

Mage: The Ascension

Legend of the Five Rings

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.



  1. Hunter-Wolf

    Hi all, i’m a complete newbie when it comes to tabletop RPGs and most of my experiance is either with their video-game counterparts or is from listening to your podcasts and reading your articles about tabletop RPGs (because i’m interested in the subject).

    That said i also have some limited experiance with board games like Risk, Monopoly which i used to play with a group of friends (i know they are a totally diff thing), but nowadays it’s even harder to gather that group of my friends for a board game session let alone a tabletop RPG one (which they have zero knowledge about) since we all have jobs and clashing schedules now.

    Basically what i was thinking about is that if i manage to gather them i want to have something that’s both intutive and engaging which also has some depth, something that feels more like video-game RPGs and board games combined with tabletop RPGs (since all of them play video-games), i read a lot about all the tabletop RPGs you talked about here but i have yet to find something like that, something that feels like a combination of the best elements from boardgames, video-game RPGs and tabletop RPGs, think a tabletop version of Final Fantasy Tactics where you can create your own player characters, recruit NPC soldiers then battle and roleplay your way through a custom made campaign, i looked around but didn’t find anything like that here or elsewhere.

    So recently i decided to try and design that game (which has proven to be quite difficult), i made several ideas with different combat systems, rules and settings (fantasy, sci-fi, zombie apocalypse, … etc) with the scale ranging from controling a single PC per player to controling a hero character plus squads of faceless soldiers per player (and managing a kingdom while you are at it), still it’s very hard to balance accessibility of the game with its depth, also hard is to balance the element of luck (involving dice pools) with fully player managed and controlled actions that are limited by energy points or a resource (like mana, stamina or prestige) and also limited by the skill design itself (like a magic spell that hits only non-physical entities like spirits and ghosts), i even thought about adding a card-game element to the mix but without figuring out and nailing the basics that only complicated things further and further with no real gain in depth.

    In general i went in that direction because i don’t want dice or the pre-game character build to pretty much pre-decide the outcome of every story related encounter or battle, i want player choices to matter at every encounter, what items they have, which NPCs they bring along, which spells or skills they use and how they use them, the environment should matter too (since the game has a board game element with simplified representations of the game environments) firing a bow from high ground should be more effective than doing it from ground level, hiding behind cover should lower enemy chance to hit you with ranged weapons (that’s for example a situation where i think dice is invaluble), water bodies like rivers, lakes or pools of water should spread lightining damage to all characters in that water body .. etc, i even considered desiging an A.I system for this boardgame tabletop RPG hybrid to test it before getting any friend to play it with me, but that’s a story for another time.

    So i’m wondering if there is already some obsecure tabletop game like that or not, and if yes why you never mentioned it, is it boring, too complex or tedious, it would help me a lot in making my game to see and learn from previous attempts by others more versed in the field of game design.

    And a final question, why do i feel that tabletop RPGs depend way too heavily on dice to simulate actions and combat and decide the outcome of every encounter which in a way takes a lot of agency and control out of player hands!?

    Well, that’s all for now, thanks for reading.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey Hunter-Wolf, so the short answer to your question is that the RPG combat system you’re looking for does not exist.

      The reason it doesn’t exist is that trying to include the level of detail your talking about invariably makes the game far too cumbersome to play. There’s no feasible way for GM and players to keep track of so many variables by hand. Video games can do a lot better because they have powerful software handling all of that in the background.

      Probably the closest to what you’re describing is an old game called Phoenix Command, which notorious for being so complex it’s near impossible to play.

      Of course, some RPGs are more tactical than others. A few that might give you some of what you’re looking for…

      4th Edition D&D: This plays very much like a boardgame, and has been compared to an MMO, both favorably and unfavorably. If nothing else, the classes are fairly well balanced, at least in the core books, though the combat is probably more abstract than what you’re looking for.

      Iron Kingdoms RPG: This game has a lot of problems, but it’s essentially the Warmachine talbletop game in RPG form, so if that’s what you want it will deliver. Just beware the terrible balance issues.

      Anima Prime: This game is SUPER abstract, but it has the best combat system of any RPG I’ve ever played, at least for creating epic anime style fights.

      As to your question about dice, how much of a role random number generation (RNG) should play in a game has been hotly debated for as long as there have been games, and is probably best for someone with more design experience than I to answer.

    • Chris Winkle

      You could try a hybrid approach. Pick a miniatures game to use for combat; they are much crunchier than RPGS and meant to be landscape dependent. Then pick an RPG to handle the narrative. Just make sure everyone in your campaign likes spending hours hovering over miniatures thinking through strategy, there’s really no way to get that level of depth in a tabletop game and still making learning it easy.

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