In this series’ first entry, I looked at how RPG combat can serve the story. Next, I talked about why the vast majority of RPG combat doesn’t. In this final entry, we’ll consider how RPG combat can do better. For our purposes, “combat” refers to any extended conflict system, be it about sword fighting or academic debate. While there’s no “best” way to design combat rules, there are a few qualities that will benefit any system.
Those qualities are simplicity, intuitiveness, balance, and choices. I talked about them in more detail last week. Today, we’ll look at the two games I’ve encountered that have good combat systems. That’s right, there are only two of them out of countless games played over twenty years. Good combat systems are just that rare.
Neither of these systems are perfect, but they both score reasonably well in each of the four critical areas. That makes them fun, even for players who aren’t normally die-hard combat fans. Let’s look at them and see what makes each system tick.
Spycraft’s Chase System
Remember how I mentioned that a combat system doesn’t have to be about fighting? Welcome to Spycraft 1st Edition, a game with excellent rules for chasing down your enemy, whether you’re screeching down the highway in an Aston Martin or running through back alleys on foot.
Here’s how it works: Distance in a chase is measured in abstract “lengths.”* The predator is trying to close the distance to zero lengths while the prey is trying to increase it past 30 lengths and escape. Each round, predator and prey secretly choose from a list of actions and then roll to see who succeeds. Predator actions typically shorten the distance, whereas prey actions typically increase it. So how does this system score on our four metrics?
Simplicity is Spycraft’s weakest area because it’s a D20 system, which means rules, lots of rules. Miscellaneous bonuses can come from anywhere, and each PC has a host of feats and class abilities to keep track of. Once you add in vehicle stats and the rules for different types of terrain, it can be quite a chore.
However, the chase system at least isn’t any more complicated than Spycraft in general, and it is significantly simpler than the main combat system. Each player has to learn 10 maneuvers, but they’re presented in accessible tables should somebody forget one. Keeping the distance measured in abstract lengths rather than precise units also helps a lot.
Spycraft scores high on intuition. The system is abstract, not allowing players to dictate exactly what turns and maneuvers their vehicle takes, but that’s okay. In a chase, players instinctively know what really matters is the distance between predator and prey, not the specifics of which on-ramp the cars use.
Most of the actions have intuitive names as well, which makes them easy to learn and use. Redline makes your car go super fast, but risks damaging it. Vanish lets you escape the chase, leaving the other car behind with no clue where you went. It’s a little less clear what Zig Zag does, but no system is perfect.
I can’t swear that there aren’t any balance issues in Spycraft’s chase system, but I haven’t yet been able to find them. It helps that the main mechanical factor is a character’s Driver skill, which isn’t really open to power-gaming. All participants have access to the same actions, and each action plays an important role in winning the chase.
The main balance issue is that one of the game’s classes, Wheelman, is specifically designed for the chase system. A Wheelman will always have an advantage over any other class, even if the Wheelman is several levels lower. However, the chase is also clearly designed as the Wheelman’s place to shine, so it’s less of an issue. Players who pick another class won’t expect their characters to be masters behind the wheel like a Wheelman is.
Spycraft’s chase system shines brightest in the choices it offers. To start, each action provides a unique benefit, and players will choose different actions based on their objective for the chase. If the predator simply wants to catch up with the prey, they’ll use an action like Gun It, which is a straightforward way of closing the distance. If they want the prey destroyed, they’ll use Herd, which forces the prey into dangerous terrain where they might crash.
But it goes deeper. Each action has bonuses and penalties against other actions, which is where trying to predict your opponent’s moves comes in. Maybe you’re in the perfect position to use Cut Off and end the chase. But your opponent knows that, so they might choose Bootleg Reverse, which has a hefty bonus against Cut Off. So, knowing that, should you use an action that’s good against Bootleg Reverse, or should you go with your original plan and hope your opponent overthinks things?
The rules can go even deeper for experienced players. If your opponent is in a better car but has a lower Driver skill, you can choose actions that will put them in danger of crashing, since avoiding crashes has little to do with vehicle statistics. Alternatively, you can use actions that will give your party members good chances to shoot at the enemy vehicle and try to end the chase with a round through the engine block. Even more options open up as players get to know the rules.
The chase system’s biggest flaw is its lack of flexibility. While it can be used for multiple types of chases, from on-foot sprints to week-long zeppelin pursuits, it’s clearly designed for one-on-one situations. It doesn’t handle more than one predator or prey very well, and while passengers in a vehicle chase can shoot at the enemy, that’s about it.
It’s also a little disappointing that Spycraft only has this level of awesome for one type of conflict. It makes the other classes wish they had their own combat system too. Spycraft 2.0 tried to deliver on this idea, adapting the chase rules for everything from hacking to infiltrating, but the results were underwhelming.
Anima Prime’s combat system is for actual fighting. Specifically, the kind of high-action wuxia fighting you see in shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and novels like Mistborn. It can theoretically be used for other things, but magical martial arts are where it performs best.
Here’s how it works: combatants start out with a large pool of Action Dice. They perform maneuvers that let them move dice from the Action Pool into their Strike and Charge Pools. From there, Strike Dice are used to attack the enemy and complete objectives, and Charge Dice are used to activate special abilities. Let’s see how it stacks up.
Anime Prime scores really high on simplicity. Combatants move dice around the different pools until they have the number of dice they want, then they take a different action. There are no complex formulas or obscure rules to remember, and it’s really easy to tell how many dice you have in each pool because they’re sitting right in front of you.
Meanwhile, each character usually has only three to five special abilities, so no player has to remember too much. This means combat is rarely slowed down by someone needing to look over their long list of feats in case one of them somehow applies. The objective is also very simple: get enough Strike Dice to knock out your opponent, though there are some deeper strategies for how to get there.
This is Anima Prime’s weakest area, as it is highly abstract and those abstractions aren’t always immediately clear. It can be a challenge to explain why a combatant can’t simply attack on the first round, why they instead have to perform a maneuver to move dice from their Action Pool to their Strike Pool.
The explanations are easier if everyone uses the same fictional framework. In shows like Avatar, a lot of the fight is spent with the characters circling each other, looking for an opening, charging up, or some other kind of setup. Even exploratory punches can be lumped into this framework, with only the really serious hits being worthy of Strike Dice. Still, this layer of abstraction is a disconnect some players have trouble getting past.
As with Spycraft, I can’t swear to you that there’s nothing unbalanced in Anima Prime. I haven’t math-ed out every possible combination, but in over two dozen combats, nothing broken has shown up. I’ve run both PCs and NPCs with a wide assortment of abilities, and they’ve all been viable. After this long with any other system, I’d expect at least half a dozen balance issues, and so far I haven’t found any.
This kind of balance is liberating. It leaves players free to experiment with all sorts of unusual builds when they’d otherwise feel like they had to plan against the system’s flaws. That’s one of the best things about Anima Prime: you never know what kind of character you might make or encounter.
Anima Prime’s choices don’t offer the kind of intense strategy we see in Spycraft, but they’re satisfying nonetheless. A big part of that satisfaction is the tactile feeling of moving large handfuls of dice around your character sheet. It just feels good to be dealing in something other than abstract numbers!
Beyond dice shuffling, Anima Prime does offer players a chance to test their tactical muscles. Combatants must decide whether it’s better to press the attack immediately or wait for a bigger pile of Strike Dice and the certainty that comes with it. Both choices are valid, and each comes with its own risk. More complex strategies start to evolve as multiple PCs combine their abilities. One character may use their damage shield to protect the sniper, while another uses their debuff powers to weaken the enemy for a big push.
Fortunately, Anima Prime’s combat system handles multiple combatants just fine. Unfortunately, the designers were so focused on combat that they forgot to include rules for anything else. That’s not an exaggeration: Anima Prime has no rules to resolve anything without starting a full combat. That’s a headache, but it gets worse. In theory, you can use the combat rules for any sort of conflict, but the vast majority of special abilities are only useful in a physical fight, so other conflicts are left pretty empty. This is bad news for anyone who wants to solve their problems by talking.
How Can You Use This?
So what does this mean for the hardworking game designer? What can we learn that will actually be useful in the trenches of making the next RPG generation? The first lesson is not to rest on our laurels. We cannot be satisfied with maintaining the status quo of RPG combat because the status is not quo. RPG combat is a mess, and we need to fix it. That’s pretty abstract, but I have good news: we can draw some lessons that are a bit more practical as well.
Design Choices First
I’ve reversed my usual order here because I believe interesting choices are the core of any RPG combat system. Without them, the rest falls apart, so they should usually be designed first. Consider what choices will form the meat of your game play, the decisions your players will have fun making.
You have nearly infinite options to choose from. Perhaps your game will take a rock-paper-scissors approach like Spycraft does, with players choosing from actions with better or worse matchups against each other. Alternatively, your players might have a limited amount of energy to spend on their special abilities, and they must choose which ability to activate each round. You could even use a betting system, where players try to commit enough resources to beat their opponent without using more than is needed.
No matter what option you choose, taking this step first will let you build the rest of the system around it, so all roads point back to player choices. This will keep your players engaged and justify the time spent on an extended conflict resolution.
In any design process, there is a temptation to add all the things. This is almost always a bad idea, as it turns your project into a bloated mess, but it’s especially tempting in RPG design because the cost of additions is so cheap. You don’t have to pay programmers or artists; you can just add whatever pops into your mind.
You shouldn’t though. Every mechanic and rule must be absolutely necessary to support your core experience. If your core choices are about armored knights battering each other’s helmets in, you probably don’t need rules for how a whip works. When you encounter a problem, it’ll be tempting to slap a new rule on as a patch, but that’s something else players have to remember. See if there’s a way to modify your core choices instead.
Even with all this, a certain level of complexity is unavoidable. Depending on what you’re trying to simulate, the minimum amount of complexity could be quite high. Be aware that this will limit your player base, even if you do everything else right, and be sure that tradeoff is worth it to you.
Conform to Narrative Expectations
Remember that your combat system is part of a narrative, and thus it must meet expectations for that narration. If you don’t care about the story, then a board game is probably a better use of your design energy. Board games give you a lot more freedom from the constraints of telling a coherent story.
Assuming you do care about narrative expectations, make sure you know what they are. The surest way to do this is to consume media from the genre you want to emulate, but remember the limitations on complexity. Firefight mechanics in an espionage game should have rules to differentiate larger and smaller guns, but they don’t need rules for every pistol model out there. Social conflict rules in games of noble intrigue will need rules for how a character’s reputation is affected by each argument, but they probably don’t need to simulate the labyrinthian rules of Elizabethan court fashion.
An easy way to make things more manageable is to ditch D&D-style sprawling simulationism. It’s really hard to manage expectations when you’re trying to design rules for how far a character can jump from a standing start based on their height. With a more abstract system, you can better create satisfying rules, because you won’t have to deal with the impossibility of properly simulating reality without a super computer. As a side benefit, ditching simulationist rules will seriously cut down on your system’s complexity.
Playtest, Playtest, and Playtest
The only way to make sure that your system is balanced, or that it works at all, is through playtesting. You can do some preliminary work by calculating obvious combinations and actions, but the only way to be sure is to get eyes other than yours on the project. Find the most power-gaming players you can, and let them loose. Tell them that this time they shouldn’t try to rein in their instincts. If there are imbalances to be exploited, these gamers will find them.
This is hard. Playtesting takes time and a lot of mental energy to sort through everyone’s feedback. They may tell you things you don’t want to hear, and if they’re right, you have to act on their bad news. Playtesting may be the most difficult part of the entire design process.
Nevertheless, playtesting is critical. When I worked in the RPG industry, playtesting was perfunctory at best, and it shows. This is one big reason the major players keep churning out poorly balanced, static combat systems. The good news is that if you do better, your game will stand out from the crowd, and that’s the sweetest reward of all.
There’s no single way to design a combat system. If there were, I’d just publish it and congratulate myself on a job well done. At the same time, it’s clear to me that the medium is badly in need of an upgrade. Combat has a lot of potential as a storytelling tool, but it will only achieve that potential if we designers change our approach. I hope that day arrives soon, when we can look back at the era of Bad Combat and wonder how we ever put up with it.