Monday, August 31, 2015

Making Battle Not Boring

One of the big turn-offs to me about fantasy roleplaying, D&D in particular, is combat. It's supposed to be one of the pillars upon which the genre (if not the entire hobby) is built on.

The problem is simple: I take my RPG cues from storytelling. Motivation, drama, tension, and action are the pillars of my games. D&D and its entire sub-genre more often than not take their cues from gaming, particularly wargaming/minis gaming. 

The simple solution to this is "play something else." There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other RPGs out there that handle combat more like I want it to be handled (two of the hottest games in the hobby that aren't D&D right now spring immediately to mind: Dungeon World and Fate Core). However, my problem has a particular wrinkle: my own, private Prime Directive, to bring as many new people into the hobby as possible. I can do that with those other games, but the path of least resistance is D&D. It can be hard to be a coffee drinker if you don't like Starbucks.

So I've started to wonder: how do I make myself like Starbucks? How do I reconcile my narrative, story-driven mind with the more tactical play of D&D? Following is what I've come up with. Please, Dear Reader, look over this wild combat concoction and tell me what you think. Specifically, I'm looking for red flags that jump right off the screen, stuff you know may be a problem right off the bat. I realize playtesting is where the rubber meets the road, but maybe a few of you can help me with the initial stuff before we even get to that point.

The point of this system is to create a combat system that is fast, fun, and interesting, where narrative doesn't have to take a backseat to dice rolling, and a system that is tactically rich but can take place entirely within "the theater of the mind" without need for maps or minis. Whatever else this system does or does not do, if it does those things, I'll consider it successful.

And so, I give you Dungeons & Dragons Narrative Combat.

  1. Initiative....there is none. When monsters show up, the DM sets up a situation (e.g. "Zombies pour out of the barricaded building! One of them lunges for you; what do you do?") the player responds (e.g. "I pull out my sword and chop it's head off!") that action resolves, and the DM repeats with another narratively acrobatic segue (e.g. "Critical hit! You lop off the zombie's head, it flips through the air, rolls along the ground and lands at Thormar's feet. Thormar, would do you want to do?") The DM may have to work with the circumstances, but typically the DM should let all the players go first, then all the monsters (this produces the least amount of complaining about the lack of initiative!)
  2. Monsters of the same type always get combined into one mega-monster who, on its turn, gets a number of actions equal to the actual amount of monsters in play. The hit points of each individual monster gets added together. So if five zombies descend on a group of adventurers, and each zombie has 20 hit points, then the PCs are squaring off against one 100hp zombie that can perform five actions on its turn.
    1. As enough damage is done to kill a particular monster, the DM describes that monster dying and now the mega-monster has one less action. So following the previous example, that 100hp zombie, for every 20 points of damage it takes, one of the zombies dies and the mega-zombie monster gets one less attack.
    2. It's important to note here that there isn't literally a zombie made of other zombies in the fiction. In the fiction, it's still five zombies, all acting independently. We consider these five zombies one mega-zombie for statistical purposes only. 
    3. Damage, status effects, or targeted special abilities always apply to the same monster. For example, Zombie A is engaged with Thormar. Thormar hits it for 10 damage. Evelyn fires an arrow at Zombie B and hits it for 10 damage. The DM says Evelyn's arrow goes straight into the zombie's eye socket and it keels over, dead. On Thormar's next turn, Thormar inflicts another 10 damage to Zombie A. The DM describes how Thormar buries his axe deep into the zombie's chest, but the zombie keeps attacking! So even though Thormar did 20 damage to Zombie A over the course of two attacks, the first 10 he did combined with the 10 that Evelyn did to kill one zombie. In the narrative, it just looks like Evelyn got a lucky hit with her bow and Thormar is fighting a particularly nasty zombie.
  3. On a character's turn, instead of attacking, they can perform a tactic. A tactic is some stunt taken to support the fight, such as trying to flank a monster, disarming a bandit, tripping an ogre, etc. 
    1. When a player wants to make a manuever, that player describes the manuever he/she wants to make, e.g. "I try to flank the orcs."
    2. The player then makes a DC 10 ability score check. The ability score used is determined by the action taken. In our example above, the DM says that since the character in question is trying to sneak around to the orc's flank, he calls for a Dexterity check. The DC should always stay at 10, but if the player's manuever is particularly difficult for some reason, the DM can assign disadvantage. Manuevers easy enough to justify advantage or a DC lower than 10 should be automatic, without a roll (but still requiring an action).
    3. If the player succeeds, he gets to place his tactic on his target. The DM takes out an index card and writes "flanked" and places the card on his orcs. If the player fails, he was noticed or otherwise rendered unable to pull off the tactic.
  4. The exact mechanical effects of a successful manuever can vary from tactic to tactic based on the tactic used, the environment surrounding the character, etc. However most tactics can typically just boil down to advantage on taking paricular actions against the target, or disadvantage when the target wants to take a particular action.
    1. To suit the particular needs of an adventure or campaign, a DM may need to pre-establish a few of the more commonly-employed tactics. For example, if a particular group of adventurers are constantly getting over their head and find themselves fleeing combats, the DM may want to decide ahead of time how that works as a manuever (for the record, I'd simply state that a character applies the "fleeing" condition on themselves, and as long as that condition exists, the character is considered out of the fight. If all characters in the party put a "fleeing" condition on themselves, then combat ends).
  5. Instead of creating a tactic, on a character's turn they can try to counter a tactic currently in play. For example, on the orc's turn, the DM uses one of the orcs' actions to counter the "flanked" tactic. 
    1. This works the exact same way as creating a tactic, but in reverse. The character describes how they're countering the tactic, the DM determines what ability score needs to be checked, the character rolls against DC 10, and if they succeed, the tactic is countered and removed from play. If it fails, the tactic remains on, and the DM explains what happened.
  6. At the DM's discretion, if a tactic could be justified thorugh use of a trained skill, the DM may allow the character to use his/her proficiency bonus during the tactoc check, as well.
Again, please let me know what you think, if you see any issues with it right away, or if there are any ways I could improve it. Thanks for reading!





Monday, August 10, 2015

Something Real

Role-playing games are this meeting point, this nexus of creativity and camaraderie and drama and art. It's not just a story: if you want a good story, there are thousands of them at your local library. It's not just a game, either: if you want one of those, there are thousands of them on your preferred video game console. And it's not just hanging out with your friends, either; if you want that, there are bars! And it's not just creating art, either; you don't need rules or even friends to tell a good story or draw a beautiful picture.

To really understand the magic and grace of a tabletop roleplaying game, you have to understand how all of those elements interact with each other in concert. They are exponentially greater than the sum of their parts. Good RPGing is always, always a three-way dance between the players, the story, and the game. A deficiency in one area...say, a game doesn't have good enough rules...can be compensated in another area...the group house-rules it, or the story dictates how it should be handled. The unfortunate side of this, though, is that the various elements are always trying to undercut the roles of each other. Game designers are trying to make games where story doesn't matter; groups are trying to downplay the significance of story to make the system cooler; and the dramatic needs of a story often run against what the players want, or what the game allows.

But the correct answer always has been and always will be a balance. A deliberate, delicate, symbiotic relationship between all three.

Understanding this is important. Why? Because a tabletop RPG, done correctly with all those elements in the right balance, is it. THE EXPERIENCE. There is nothing else like it in the world. Take the human, electric energy of a live concert. Then imagine yourself as part of the band. Then imagine that you're playing alongside your friends. And the crowd is packed, elbow-to-elbow, with the shit of life; the crabby coworkers, the boring professors, the abtuse family members. You are impressing the hell out of them with your performance, but like any good art, it's not about them. Fuck them. It's about you, you and your friends, doing something that cannot be recorded, cannot be DVR'd, cannot be bottled up and done again and again and again. It's special, it's magic, it's unique, and it's you. Every session ever only happens once and never happens again. 

That's what at stake here when we think about what an RPG is.