Alternative Combat Systems in Cortex Prime Part I: The Rationale

Combat can be the most exciting—or the most excruciating—part of a gaming session. It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae: checking particular rules (and exceptions), contemplating the potential results of every available action like you’re Deep Blue, clarifying who’s where, what conditions are in effect and what happened on previous actions.

We’ve all been there. The active player is taking minutes to determine his turn while everyone else is playing on their phone. The combat itself is necessarily a matter of slow attrition punctuated only rarely by decisive blows. Rinse and repeat, potentially for hours. I don’t want to say that the conventional style of RPG combat, with its sequential individual turns and actions for each character involved doesn’t work; it can result in exciting and enjoyable combats. But if we take the example of D&D in particular, as the originator and exemplar of this system, the smorgasbord of titles both amateur and professional available on DriveThruRPG.com to “make combat more exciting” indicates that there are many cases where the system doesn’t work as well as we’d like.

And this figures, given that D&D (and therefore RPGs in general) developed out of wargaming. The turn-by-turn system is an artifact of, and beholden to, the miniatures wargame.

Some Alternatives

There are a number of ways that games or homebrews have tried to address this, with varying degrees of success. Making a game deadlier necessarily condenses combat and makes clever tactics (and/or use of rules) even more important.

The Riddle of Steel is one of my favorite examples of this. Its visceral combat system attempts to closely model the actual mechanics demonstrated in the fight manuals of the medieval and Renaissance periods. It does so quite successfully. When I ran games in this system I was simultaneously a study group leader for the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA); I’d spend hours as a “Session -1” with wooden weapons showing those players who weren’t in ARMA with me what the techniques in TROS actually looked like. But the system is not without its faults, either: it had no significant guidance for an overall initiative system, leaving players to judgment calls for a number of situations commonly addressed in other games. To me, it’s a prime example that no RPG combat system can do everything, even if it does some things exceptionally well.

Knowing that, why do we expect a single system to effectively cover all combat situations equally well? The result, as with D&D, is that we have a combat system on top of which we add the occasional non-combat goal for flavor and variety. But shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t we have systems, plural, each focused on different types of situation. Some combats are about injuring or killing the enemy, yes, but many resort to violence in service of a goal that is, ultimately separate from the injuries inflicted on the opposition. This is true even of military operations. As commonly as they are deployed simply to destroy the enemy, they are directed to capture and hold valuable locations, to destroy enemy resources, to drive the enemy from a particular area, to infiltrate an area to perform reconnaissance and surveillance—or to provide forward observation for targeting airborne or artillery-based weapons. In many of these cases, the enemy will be engaged only to the extent necessary to accomplish the mission, because simple attrition is not a great way to win a war (as the American Civil War and, especially, World War I demonstrated).

The Torchbearer RPG keeps this in mind, at least on an abstract level, where the various “intents” (such as Capture, Drive Off, Kill) in a conflict determine the character traits used for rolls.

“Powered by the Apocalypse” systems ultimately treat combat no differently from the rest of the rules, except that consequences and GM “moves” may more frequently cause Harm to the characters. There is no set initiative system, and each “combat test” remains more about the development of the narrative than a tactical mini-game. It leaves much flexibility for how the GM interprets player cleverness, creativity and innovation without needing rules to explicitly do this. On the other hand, for those who are more Gamer-oriented (if you subscribe to Ron Edwards GNS Theory) may find this less than satisfactory.

This Series

This series will present a set of systems for Cortex Prime for particular types of combats, not as an obviation of or replacement for the standard “man-to-man” general RPG combat approach, which has its appropriate uses, but to work together with that system based on the narrative needs of a particular game and the desires for depth of tactics for players.

Elsewhere on the blog, I’ve provided some rules for streamlined military/modern combat engagements. Those will not be repeated in this series, but could be added to the list of options provided here if so desired.

Some of these systems will be taken from the ideas and creations of other writers (and credit will be given where due) and adapted to Cortex Prime, but most of them will be my own creations.

But let us begin with some theory about the role and nature of combat in RPGs.

What is War For? What is it Made of?

Combat is an essential feature of most (but certainly not all) RPGs, whether or not they fall into the “traditional” camp. There are, I think, a few reasons that this is the case. Let’s look:

First, there is the simple fact that many people play roleplaying games because they are a way to experience adventure and danger in a safe way. Most people do not want to be punched in the face, much less risk their lives without extreme need. But they do want the thrill of such stakes, which is why video games, combat sports (whether martial arts, paintball and airsoft or competition shooting), action movies and combat in RPGs are popular.

Second, satisfying narrative requires conflict. Armed (or otherwise) violent confrontation is conflict in its barest sense; it necessarily poses questions to drive a story: Will the characters prevail? Will they survive?

Third, as Louis XIV had cast on his canons (albeit in Latin) and as Joe Abercrombie used as the title of one of his novels, violence is “the last argument of kings.” Or, if we’d rather resort to Heinlein, who has his Mr. Dubois the teacher of “moral” philosophy in Starship Troopers remark to a student who tells him the “violence doesn’t solve anything,”

“I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that….Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.”

When two sides refuse to compromise, and a situation must be resolved, violence may sometimes be the only available course of action. I don’t think I enjoy that fact as much as Heinlein did, but I agree that it is sometimes an existential truth we must face. In the adventures of our heroes in particular, violence may be the logical (narrative) result when all other means fail.

Fourth, some gamers really enjoy the challenge of combat, of making tactical decisions and outmaneuvering the enemy. And that’s as good a reason as any.

By way of transition from what combat is for into what it should do, the astute GM should bear in mind that that means that combat should be actually challenging—otherwise you’re depriving your players of the satisfaction of victory. The good GM should be a student of war in all its forms (this does not require one to be a practitioner of war, which is perhaps another matter altogether, discussed on other portions of the blog). So, number one—combat is another type of puzzle, problem and challenge for the players to address, and one with stakes higher than many others they’ll face.

As Apocalypse games make plain, combat should drive the story forward. This does not mean that every combat need be decisive; a battle in which the two sides fight to a standstill and must withdraw heightens the conflict and must necessarily make the players question whether they are powerful enough to prevail by force and whether another approach might be preferred.

Combat, when done well and used well, at least, provides options for high drama. What will the character’s fight for? What won’t they fight for? What is significant enough to a character that she is willing to kill (or die) for it? The cliché that you truly learn who a person is by seeing them in a fight is true when it comes to crafted (even when collaborative) narrative—combat need not be just a matter of mechanics; it can become an opportunity for deep roleplaying.

As much, combat is a useful tool for pacing a Roleplaying Game. There is, of course, the old gaming adage that if things slow down too much, have the bad guys suddenly show up to kick things back into gear. But it goes far beyond that. There’s not room to go into the full details of this subject (which can easily be a blog series—or book—in its own right), but good narrative swings back and forth between high-intensity scenes and low intensity scenes. This gives the audience both excitement and pauses to reflect on what the occurrences of the “high points” mean for the narrative moving forward. Think about the Fellowship in Khazad-Dȗm—they flee from goblins and Gandalf confronts the Balrog in a high-intensity scene. The scene that follows the rest of the Fellowship’s escape slows down so that the characters can reflect on the loss of their erstwhile leader and what it means for their quest.

Here’s the issue, though: when combat slows to a crawl as you play out each second by second, it fails to provide the high-intensity sort of scene that it should. When a low-intensity scene follows, as it naturally should, the energy at the table remains low and everyone loses immersion and attention. This is fine if the players enjoy intricate combat for its own sake, but it’s been my experience that I only have one or two of the players in my group for whom the gaming or simulationist approaches to combat are a particular draw.

Conclusion

I think all of this gives us a rubric by which to judge the utility and value of some alternative combat systems. Any system that replaces turn-by-turn combat must: (1) make at least enough logical sense to be acceptable to gamers and simulationists, given the caveat that they must necessarily be more abstract than turn-by-turn systems, (2) following the first point, be at least somewhat satisfying to use, (3) move the story forward in a meaningful way, regardless of specific outcome, (4) allow for meaningful choices, which in turn allows for drama and character development, (5) have stakes high enough to match a “standard” combat system, sometimes softened to account for less control on the part of the players as to outcome, (6) must provide a useful tool for maintaining pacing.

The flexibility of the Cortex Prime system allows us to create a number of different approaches to combat, as you’ll see.

What’s Next?

In the first substantive post in the series, we’ll look at two general systems I’m adapting from other games: Luke Crane’s “Bloody Versus” from The Burning Wheel RPG and Peter Rudin-Burgess’ “One Roll Combat,” a brilliant article written for the Zweihander roleplaying game and appearing in Lowborn: an Independent Grim & Perilous Fanzine for Zweihander RPG’s first issue.

After that, we’ll look at some systems for particular types of engagements created by yours truly.

For the next post in this series, click here.

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