Podcast

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

Torchbearer

A Song of Ice and Fire RPG

Riddle of Steel

Anima Prime

Mage: The Ascension

Legend of the Five Rings

Far Beyond the Stars

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Transcript

Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Mike Hernandez, and Chris Winkle.

Today’s episode is brought to you by our sponsor Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek.

Oren: Welcome everyone to another episode of Mythcreant’s podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is…

Chris: Chris.

Oren: And joining us is a new special guest, our good friend David.

David: Hellooo.

Oren: And you guys all know David from the blog where he has written a number of articles on dark, scary things, and we invited him on today to have a good action scene in our podcast which is actually a roleplaying game, and we’re going to roll dice to see what happens.

David: That’s the idea. Rocks fall and everyone dies.

Oren: Oh that’s good, that’s good, we’ll use that.

Chris: Haha! Taking notes.

Oren: So today we are specifically talking about what makes a good action RPG and, ‘action’ doesn’t doesn’t necessarily have to be combat, but it usually is. In most games the action or whatever is going to be fighting, not always, but usually.

Chris: Yeah there’s not that many systems that have, like, conversational combat. I know A Song of Ice and Fire’s one of them. Doesn’t Burning Wheel have conversational combat?

[Oren and David agree]

Oren: Yeah, Song of Ice and Fire, Burning Wheel, there are others like, technically speaking Mouse Guard uses the same conflict system for everything. And, you know, games like Spycraft have specific combat systems for chases.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah chase scenes have plenty of action even if it’s not fighting.

Oren: Yeah, and there is definitely some overlap between social conflict and physical conflict, but in general I am thinking more of physical action sequences. Be they actual fights or, you know, racing down a mountain ahead of an avalanche.

Chris: Right, basically what you would see in an action movie.

David: Volcanoes are also good for action movies.

Oren: It’s true, definitely you need volcanoes. David since this is the first time you’re on this podcast, why don’t you give us a little bit of your RPG background, what kind of games do you play?

David: So a lot of my experience has actually been with the crunchier systems. The first system I ever hopped in on was DND 3.0, which, if you’ve ever played, is rough.

[Groans of agreement.]

David: It’s real rough.

Oren: In 3.0, you had the limit on your height, which would determine how far you could throw. It was great. It was so beautiful.

David: It was a hot mess. Then we played 3.5, which is basically just, ‘well, let’s not fix the rules, but let’s add on more things and add splat to the wall.

Oren: Hey they did fix one thing! They fixed where, in 3.0, you could throw three shurikens with one attack and just get three times the sneak attack damage for some reason. They changed that, you can’t do that in 3.0.

David: Yeah but there’s still bullshit.

Oren: Yes.

David: I don’t think there’s yet been a system to kind of fix that. In recent times I played a lot of Pathfinder. That’s kind of one of our current systems, but recently I’ve been branching out a lot with some Torchbearer, there’s Mouse Guard, and — while it’s not perfect, it does fix a lot of the crunch problems — with the 5th edition of DND.

Oren: Mmm.

David: It’s better. I really hated the fourth, because while they did simplify the system they removed all of the taste, basically.

Oren: I mean, in the fourth edition, in order to fix the existing problems, they took extreme measures that then created other problems.

David: That is completely accurate.

Oren: I would say fourth edition is kind of a step sideways.

David: Yes.

Oren: It’s not really better or worse than 3 or 3.5, but is certainly very different.

Chris: Yeah I think it would have done better if it had been released as a different game, as opposed to releasing it to a very devoted fan base.

David: Yeah. And it’s also like a completely different flavour for me. Having grown up on these crunchy systems where it’s like, it’s lots of rules: Do you want to do something super special and weird that no one else can do, but which might not be effective? Well, there’s a choice for that, but you’ll probably die. That was the system I was used to.

Oren: Okay, so that brings up an important point on action RPGs. I would say that in order for an action RPG to be good, one of its major prerequisites is that the majority of the choices you make have to happen at the table, they cannot happen during character creation

Chris: [Laughs] There’s a lot of anger to your voice there, Oren! A lot of frustration.

Oren: I’m a little mad, okay? Because like, okay, and full disclosure, I sometimes have spent hours and hours optimising characters for various systems, including Dungeons and Dragons. Because I am a terrible power gamer, okay? I don’t pretend otherwise.

David: Yeah, been there, do that.

Oren: The only part of making those characters that’s fun is for me at least, is making them. If I do my job right, when I get to the table, I have no choices to make. I have just made an optimized self running machine that will just chew through the opposition. And it’s like, ‘why do I have to make choices?’ — if I have to make a choice, something has gone wrong, right?

[Chris and David laughs]

And that’s actually bad. That creates a very bad dynamic of play. It’s fun to theory craft in the background when you’re like, ‘I could take THIS combination of feats and then I could hold up a BAG of RATS and get whirlwind attack on it, and then get great cleave to make a million attacks’.

But once you actually get to the table it’s like, well, I do that and I roll a lot of dice and it’s kind of boring, right? It’s kind of interesting the first time, when everyone’s like you just did WHAT with a bag of rats, but yeah. So that’s one very important criteria for a good action RPG: That there need to be good choices to be made at the table.

Chris: Yeah.

David: Absolutely. It shouldn’t be entirely character creation.

Chris: I think for me the kind of choices that I want to be able to have during an action sequence are ones that allow me to be creative depending on the context and the abilities that I have. I know there are some other choices that, you know, other games that have a kind of combat system built in where you have strategic choices about what you’re supposed to do, but  those choices are very based in the mechanics in the game and not based on the situation I’m roleplaying. And, generally, whilel they can add to it, I generally find that the choices that I look for the most during an action sequence are choices very rooted in that situation that I am roleplaying.

Oren: Yeah, I mean that’s a problem with a game like Mouse Guard, right, where – I was a very devoted fan of the Mouse Guard conflict system for a while and I still think it’s okay, but it does have that problem of okay, I’m going to script, uh, attack, defend, attack, because that’s the most mechanically viable thing for me to do, like I’m playing a board game. But what does that mean in character, right?

Chris: Mhm.

Oren: Like, what am I doing when I do that? And you can struggle to craft fiction that fits around those game choices that you’ve made. It can cause a lot of disconnect.

Chris: Yeah.

David: It can, but it can also depend a lot on the group. I see exactly what you’re talking about now because the choices we made – it was crazy, but it was really funny describing a ranger that’s charging at some archers, gets stabbed in the back, falls over, gets up a minute later, and then charges some archers again. But that requires players, you know, being invested in describing a situation to fit what happens. That’s, I don’t know, I feel like that’s a skill and not necessarily an easy one.

Oren: Right and that can get a little weird, because I’ve seen some people who, the way they like to play those systems is that they describe what their character does and then they pick the maneuver or the action that best fits that. Instead of saying ‘I script an attack action, a feint action and a defend action’, you would say something along the lines of ‘I am going to try to sneak up on the goblins, real, real careful, and then I’m going to jump’em, and then I’m going to hide behind some rocks for when they shoot at me.’

And then you would say, oh, well then that means you script a feint, an attack, and a defend. But that runs into its own problems because very often doing that leads you to unoptimal outcomes where it’s, like – I would have won this fight if I had played the game like it was a game, but I lost because I was trying to roleplay and that feels bad. Nobody likes that.

[Chris and David agree]

Chris: Yeah I’m sure it’s better for people who are used to the sort of mini game that comes with the combat in Mouse Guard, but I’ve definitely seen people, you know players trying to play, try it for the first time like ‘I want my character to do this’. And it’s like, ‘no, you need to pick one of these maneuvers, one of these actions in this combat chart’, and it’s very disorienting.

Oren: People who like those systems are going to be tempted to say, ‘oh well you just have to unlearn your DND habits’, and I used to be one of those people, but I’ve also done this with people who have never played roleplaying games before, and they have the same problem. So it’s not just a matter of that DND has brainwashed you.

There is something inherently dissonant in trying to, especially when you’re playing the — like, the Torchbearer and Mouse Guard conflicts system works best when it’s like a one-on-one sword fight. Because then you can imagine pretty specifically, okay, an attack is an actual attack like I stab him. And defend is a block. And feint is like throwing sand in his eyes or something, right. That becomes much easier. But trying to use them for things like making a journey, getting from one place to another place — okay, so I ‘defend’, and I think in this context that means ‘I build a house’? Uh how does that work? You know, it’s far more abstract, which is tough to visualize without having played these types of games a lot.

And abstract systems are very different. And you can go the other way, right? You can go the Riddle of Steel way. Riddle of Steel is a system that is extremely detailed, and gets really into the nuts and bolts and the mechanics of sword fighting. And honestly it’s too intense for most people, but it’s in that it succeeds it does so by really focusing on one thing. This is a game about sword fighting. You play with steel, you sword fight, that’s what you do in this game.

And so like, Riddle of Steel actually has differences between a rapier and a sabre, whereas in most games those would be the same sword because who is really interested in the minute differences? Well Riddle of Steel is. And technically there are ranged weapons in Riddle of Steel but they’re pretty ancillary; you know, the rules for them are very underdeveloped. So RiS works when you’re exchanging sword blows, but it’s super easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of games like that.

Chris: Yeah, that’s how I kinda felt like combat of any kind is in A Song of Ice and Fire. It could be very interesting and I particularly liked the way that it dealt with injuries. That felt more like instead of having this abstract thing — hit points — where it’s like if you’re trying to imagine your action sequence, what does somebody losing five hit points mean?

David: Yeah it’s a different kind of scale because these systems are like, well, you’re just as fine anywhere between your maximum and one above death. It’s completely the same. And that’s kind of weird. It doesn’t work.

Chris: Yeah. And then of course, also in DND it’s like, at some point in time they get bloodied, right? When they lose like half their hit points. And so you just imagine if you just punch them everywhere for long enough,eventually their nose will start bleeding or something?

Oren: Yeah exactly! That’s definitely what it means.

Chris: But in Song of Ice and Fire, instead you just get exhaustion and then once you have too much exhaustion to deal with you have to offload it into an injury. The idea is that you get worn down over the course of a fight, and then when you are too exhausted you get injured because you are no longer capable of staying on top of it. So it does take care of that problem, and it’s interesting, but it also has an equally in-depth social mechanics. The social hit points are frustration.

You get really frustrated until finally you just give in, because you just don’t want to keep arguing anymore. But it is really involved and I mean maybe it’s really smooth for people who know these systems well? People that have them all memorized? But I feel like the thing about action is it’s supposed to be fast paced, right, and supposed to be riveting? When you have something that’s too mechanical it’s hard to imagine that you’re keeping up with that fast paced action sequence because you have to kind of sit down and have a planning session.

Oren: And I think that’s perfectly fair, especially with these crunchier systems, you know. I’m comfortable with something like Pathfinder but that’s because I’ve played it for years. When it comes to introducing new players, everything slows down, and you’re right that’s not great for action. That’s kind of the problem: The more complicated the system, the more familiarity it requires, which means only people who are already familiar with it enjoy playing it. And the cycle continues. And there is an equal weakness when you get people who know these systems really well because very often when you get people trying a game for the first time, they believe the rules when [you] tell them that these different choices you have are all viable, so they take like a mixture of them.

But as you play more and more you very often start to realize that that’s not actually true. That there is in fact one thing you should always be doing, and I felt that was the case when I read the Song of Ice and Fire book, but I’m not an expert enough in it to say for sure. It is definitely the case in Mouse Guard and Torchbearer. Like, once you’ve played those conflicts out a few times you realize you should only ever be attacking. Attack is just the best action and there is no counter to it. Your opponent can try out all the fancy stuff they want, none of it will matter if you just mash the attack button over and over again.

And that’s not only a problem. Mouse Guard has, kinda like how DND has all of these actions, it’s like well you can trip them, or, you know, try to push them a few feet. And no one ever uses those. You can just always attack them with your weapon, unless you’re a very specific build, like if you’re a grapple monster is one of the few exceptions.

David: That’s a good word for some of the builds I’ve seen, yes.

Oren: Oh and here’s another thing about, and now I’m talking about grapples, and this is not just DND but I’m going to pick on DND because it’s really easy to notice: You should not have an option in your game where suddenly all the rules change, because that’s what happens in 3.5, when you go into a grapple.

I call it going to the grapple dimension, because nothing works the same way. Everything is different. None of your abilities function the way that they did before. And suddenly you are completely at the mercy of this other character who is built for grapple while you’re not. And it’s really counterintuitive and hard to understand; you just learned the combat rules and now you have to grapple rules which function very differently.

David: It is funny to see a wizard get grappled though, they never expect that. [Chris laughs]

David: Wizard deserve that.

Chris: Aren’t wizards easy to just kill outright? Is there a good reason to grapple them instead of stab them?

Oren: Okay, so, yes. The reason that you grapple wizards particularly is that you can try to hit them with your sword, but you probably don’t do enough damage to kill them in one round. And if they can cast any spells at you, then you’re just dead – because high level, if you’re beyond level 2 or 3, right? – a low level wizard is just lunch meat, but once you get into the mid and high levels, even one spell from a wizard can completely destroy you, or they might just decide to start flying. And it’s like, WELL, I didn’t bring a crossbow, so *shrug*. Or they might mind control you, or do anything.

Chris: But if you grapple them they can’t concentrate well enough?

David: Oh yeah they become completely useless, it’s funny.

Oren: And the key with grappling is that you don’t have to deal with their hitpoints. Grappling gives you a way to remove an enemy from the combat without having to get through all their hit points. Which is normally how the combat economy of DND works. So grappling screws it all up and makes it all weird.

Chris: Yeah, that’s an interesting thing that definitely highlights the difference between interactive storytelling, right, that’s something that would be interesting to an audience who was watching something happen to other people. It’s like, yeah, they switched out the fight! Like in any movie, suddenly now the combattants are under water! And then they go over a waterfall! [Laughs] But in a game that would be frustrating.

David: It’s funny you mention water which brings up another problem with some of these types of systems. Water combat is also stupidly complicated, and a lot of these systems have a different condition for every little thing. What I think a lot of the bigger systems — the best thing DND 5.0 did was it tried to roll back some of the conditions. And instead of being like, here’s a dozen pages of the various bad things that can happen to you or your enemies, they cut it down by like, I don’t know, at least two thirds.

Oren: Yeah, 5th edition did try to simplify some of those rules. But like with RPG combat, introducing new elements and twists is cool. But having a new combat mode that is effectively a different system is where the problem pops up, right?

And grapple segues into another problem that a lot of action RPGs have, that if you follow the rules, it creates bad fiction. For example, in DND if you build a character to grapple somebody, if grappling is your thing, while they have a sword, you can just run towards them and tank their one round of sword attack, and then grapple them. Because they can never get out of the grapple, they’re just dead now. It might take you a few rounds, but you will kill them.

Imagine what that would look like in a movie, right? Some guy just runs at the knight and the knight hits him three or four times with this huge greatsword, and the guy’s like ‘Yeah, whatever’, and then just proceeds to hug the knight to death. [Chris laughs]

Oren: It’s just absurd if you try to describe it.

David: When you put it like that it’s pretty hilarious. And kind of insane.

Oren: So if you want to have a completely gonzo story then OK, sure, go for it, but in general that’s not the dynamic you’re going for in your story, so if the mechanics create that dynamic then it’s a problem.

Chris: The part I like about that is that you know, in any situation like that, that character is going to keep doing that in every combat. [Laughs]

David: Yep. There’s no reason for them NOT to.

Chris: So every single fight is going to have that same thing. One thing that I think is kind of important for a lot of this combat stuff is just, not being repetitive. And that means not doing the same move over and over again. When it comes to, you know, if you have a HP mountain and trying to, like, punch after punch after punch, slowly knocking down their hitpoints.

But there was also another situation, with Anima Prime where, uh, Anima Prime was a great and a fun game when it was played as a one shot. And it has a really interesting combat mechanic which lets you sort of mostly stay in the story, at the same time gives you other, like, mechanics to futz with? You know it has these points that you move from one pool to the next, and then spend them to do cool things as a character. It kind of has that combination of abstract strategic moves and character moves.

But the thing that I realized when we got to a campaign is that it starts to feel very repetitive. Partly because it has only like three skills that are involved in combat. That’s one of the problems, that you have, as opposed to having a whole character sheet with all these skills, you have three skills that are relevant to combat and they all, you know, the difference between them is basically flavour, and one of them is stronger than the others. And so, you always tap one of those skills in order to fight with it, but then like, if you only have three things and the flavour is the difference then you’re using the same three flavours for every move that you make in every fight.

Oren: Anima Prime is really fun the first time you play it, because it is easy to learn and it has this really cool thing of like, you build your resources and move your dies from the action pool into the strike pool and you use your charged dice to build up your special power and, like, bring it all together for your giant sword swing, and it really recreates the feeling of fight scenes from animes or from Avatar The Last Airbender. The problem is that it does that so well that it basically does the same thing every time.

Chris: Yeah. And it does get old but I mean especially, whenever the difference is flavour, in anything, after a while people are just going to stop bothering with the flavour, because it loses its novelty. And once it loses its novelty, it’s just tedious to bring it in. And then pretty soon that flavour is gone and there was absolutely no difference between the moves whatsoever.

Oren: Thank you! That is a problem a lot of systems have. Mage has that problem, where it’s got like, each order of mages are supposed to have their own magical tradition that’s supposed to, you know, determine how they cast spells. Like the Hermetic mages are supposed to use stabs and ritual circles, and the Etherites are supposed to use crazy steam punk tech. But mechanically it’s all the same and after a while in every Mage game I’ve ever played eventually just stop bothering to describe how they use their magic tradition and just like, say, ‘magic happens now’.

David: That’s really underwhelming.

Oren: Yeah it’s a serious problem, and it’s definitely repeatable. It’ll happen after a while because everyone will realize it’s, I could describe all the cool runes on my staff again. Or I could just say fire appears out of somewhere, because the fire is the important part, right? The fire is the part that the mechanics are concerned with. The mechanics don’t give a crap if I use my staff or not.

Chris: Yeah.

Oren: The point that I was making there is that you can’t just say, you can’t put all the burden of describing things and making them cool on the players and the GM, right? Your rules have to actually support that, and that’s a thing a lot of action RPGs lose out on.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. And if you have a system, not getting repetitive means that there are different mechanics that work in different ways that you can use, because if it just feels different and is not actually mechanically different, it’ll be fun for a one-shot, you know?

David: That’s sometimes a desirable trade I suppose, yeah. You talked about Mage, that’s a system I’ve not played in a long time and now I think about it a lot of it is just, same types of numbers and damages, but some also I remember had a lot of balance issues with the various schools. I remember there were some that were definitely more powerful than others. Like, this isn’t good.

Oren: Oh absolutely. Mage is also riddled with balance problems.

David: Like mind, I’d wanna say.

Oren: Well, depends on which… Okay, it’s complicated, but the short  answer is, it depends largely on how your GM reads the various magic abilities, because a lot of them are extremely open to interpretation. There is a mind ability that, depending on how you read it, allows you to work* with a single success. Just kind of banish your opponent into a special dream castle that you’ve built, that they are now trapped forever in. And it’s like, well, okay, that seems pretty powerful for one success, you know? I feel like maybe I should need more than that.

David: Strong choice.

Oren: So depends entirely on how your GM interpretes a lot of those rules and which edition of the game you’re playing.

Balance is really important. I mean it’s important for all RPGs, I would argue, but for action RPGs in particular, because so much of the time you spend at the table is going to be rolling dice for you know, determining the outcome of a fight or a chase scene or whatever. Feeling like your different options are equally valid is really important.

Chris: So I have a question for both of you. Since one of the problems that DND has and other systems have is that, you know, an action is supposed to feel fast paced and exciting. And it’s so easy for the mechanics to sort of bog things down and slow it down, making it actually boring when it’s supposed to be the opposite of boring. An easy way to resolve that is just to call for a single dice roll to resolve conflicts, but obviously that doesn’t take as much investment, isn’t quite as satisfying. Like, do you have a particular way of judging when a conflict should be resolved with a single roll, or when you would like them to have a full combat system that is a little more elaborate?

Oren: Oh boy, uh David you go first, I’m dodging responsibility.

David: So this is kind of an answer I suppose, but what I’m thinking of is like, it’s not a good action system, Call of Cthulhu. It’s bad. But! There’s a roleplaying podcast called Role Playing Public Radio, and they do a lot of Call of Cthulhu campaigns. And I think one of their GMs handles action pretty well, because he simplifies a lot of things. And instead of like a yes or no on failure roles, he’s like, okay, so you failed your climb check. That just means damage, but you still succeed. And he often will simplify things down instead of being like it’s going to be, you know, one guy with a nightstick beating another guy with a nightstick for several rounds of combat, he’ll simplify down to like three rounds is usually pretty good. Keep it moving, keep the momentum going with short but not instantaneous conflicts. But it’s, it’s a hard one. No easy answer.

Oren: So honestly I am more and more getting to the point where, largely just because we — my group has just been playing for so long, and we’ve all kind of seen all the tricks that the combat systems have, and they no longer have a lot of novelty for us, it’s actually very rare for us now that I’ll call for the extended combat mechanics of whatever game I’m playing. For the last couple of games that I’ve run, I’ve either skipped them altogether or only used them because I was running a playtest and like, we needed to test them to see how they work.

More and more it really feels like, extended conflict rolls don’t give a return on the amount of time and energy you have to invest in them. And I don’t want that to be true because I do feel like it matters to have, like, that boss fight you actually go into an extended conflict resolution system and fight them and have a more in depth interaction, will matter more than one where you just roll your sword and win or lose.

But the return for most systems is just not good enough. It’s just like, the combat systems are too bulky or have too many bad dynamics or they’re too easy to break. So as a rule, more or less I’ve just stopped using them.

[Chris and David agree]

Oren: Which is ironic, because I’m doing a podcast to talk about what’s a good action RPG.

Chris: Well here’s the question. How many systems have something that is between the single roll and full out combat? Like do any systems have something where it’s like, okay, I want something that’s a little meatier than a single roll but I don’t actually want to, you know, ever have everyone roll initiative for instance.

David: Yeah there are a few options for something like that. The only one that comes off the top of my head that has actual rules for this is Burning Wheel. Burning Wheel has this thing called a Linked Test where you have a task where it’s like okay, we need to get inside that fortress and steal this gem.

And, you know, we can’t just have one person roll sneak, right. That’s not enough. There’s barriers and guards and stuff in the way. So we’re going to need like, one person’s going to need to roll Search to scout out the perimeter to see all the guards. And then we’ll describe them doing that, it’ll be cool. And then another person will roll to climb over the wall to like, secure, you know, a rope ladder. And then the sneaky person will climb up and roll Sneak to get into the actual chamber where the gem is. And you have everyone roll and like, generally, whatever the final roll is, that difficulty goes up or down based on how many people succeeded or failed; their helping rolls.

And that’s a simple enough system that you can implement it in most games, even if the game doesn’t have strictly spelled out rules for it. I’d say that’s probably your best option if you want something between a single roll and the full-on conflict resolution mechanics.

David: Yeah, I don’t think unfortunately, as far as I know, it’s built into a lot of systems. That’s more of a GM thing that they would have to make that call and balance for that, which, phew, it would be nice if more systems did that, but it’s a fine thing. Like one roll is not enough, but 50 minutes of rolling is too much.

Oren: Another option that I sometimes use, and this is cheating a little bit, but it’s useful for players who, you know, not unreasonably, think they’re going to be using the rules of their game and like, build their characters to make use of the combat system. I will often roll a — I will often have a single round of combat and like, based on whoever is ahead at the end of that I will kind of narrate what happens from the rest.

Chris: Oh okay.

Oren: I’ll do that sometimes. That’s kind of a cheat, right, because that works better if the players are winning because the players might be a little irritated if, like, you know, the bad guy gets lucky in the first round and now they’re losing and I’m like ‘Well! Combat’s over!’, and they’re like, ‘Wait what, no it’s not? We still got hit points! What are you talking about?’’

Chris: Can you just choose to keep combat going then?

Oren: Yeah I’ve done that. But you know I did that during, we played an L5R game, Legend of the 5 Rings —

David: Wait, I think I remember that, yeah.

Oren: Yeah we had a few players who were built specifically for fighting, and I was like, well, I’m not really that interested in the combat system for Legend of the 5 Rings, I find it tedious, but at the same time I’m not just going to never use it because if I do then the players who built characters to be good sword fighters are going to feel cheated. So I had a few of those combats where it was like, yeah, you draw your swords, you roll your hits, you exchange a couple of sword strokes and then I would narrate them winning. That was like, that was my strategy. That was how I dealt with that.

David: I think you did that with me as an archer, and it worked pretty well because there was like an actual fight going on in the background, and you were like – don’t, don’t worry about rolling. You’re killing orcs with your arrows.

Oren: That wasn’t L5R because there are no orcs in L5R but I’m sure I did that at some point.

David: Oh what system was it then? You did something similar.

Oren: Might’ve been… Might’ve been Burning Wheel. But in any case we are past our time and we have gone on for too many rounds and we’ve lost Initiative so thank you David for joining us.

David: Good to be here.

Oren: And for those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest you can email us at [email protected], otherwise we will talk to you next week.

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Comments

  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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