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Ars Arcana Blog: Combat and Conversation

Combat and Conversation 1: The Basics
Many who play RPGs love the combat experience, especially when it’s rife with opportunities for cool combat maneuvers and support options. Yet every wrinkle added to the mechanics of combat threatens to add more time and more complexity. Every addition to complexity and time should probably be regarded, at least prima facie, as undesirable in the system. Many who play RPGs also enjoy the conversational component of the RPG, even when the mechanics there are only lightly involved or wholly uninvolved. In this blog post, I begin a (hopefully brief) series of posts thinking through simple, conversational combat that affords options and flavor to players without adding so much to the machinery that it becomes a detriment to player enjoyment.

A Simple Model
Suppose two evenly matched foes face off. A simple d20 could model a range of combat outcomes, like the following:

D20 Roll               Outcome
1                              massive success for combatant 1
2-3                          great success for combatant 1
3-5                          moderate success for combatant 1
7-14                       even exchange
15-17                     moderate success for combatant 2
18-19                     great success for combatant 2
20                           massive success for combatant 2

The next logical step would be to convert this to your game’s wounds/damage system; I’ll represent that stage in this way, where a ● is a degree of success and an x represents a failure:

D20 Roll               Combatant 1      Combatant 2
1                              ●●●                       x
2-3                          ●●                          x
4-6                                                       x
15-17                     x                             
18-19                     x                              ●●
20                           x                              ●●●

In an RPG, each ● could represent a multiplier of damage, so if a long sword does 1d8 damage typically, combatant 1 would deal 3d8 damage on a roll of 1. An x would represent perhaps no damage dealt. Note that the 7-14 range, the largest of the bunch, could instead be represented as x/x, meaning that neither side succeeds. I represent these exchanges as ●/● because I’m now thinking about the exertion of a combat exchange, even if neither side “win” the exchange. This can happy because both sides miss, both sides exchange ineffectual blows, or because both sides score a solid blow but neither gains the advantage. The dot represents that both sides have lost something – if only energy – in the combat.

There are now two obvious wrinkles for such a system, although I think it works well enough for a turn-based combat game exchange between even opponents. The first is that combat does not obviously take place between equals, especially in an RPG. Someone has advantages of one kind, and the other side might have advantages of another kind. Thus, in a future blog post, I’ll add in thoughts on affording advantages to one side rather than the other. In another future blog post, I’ll tackle a second problem, the problem of group combat, which offers its own challenges. On one hand, the combat could be modeled with a single die roll, regardless of size of the combatant groups. On the other hand, players tend to like to see their own specific contributions to the combat. The task becomes to balance these while maximizing player enjoyment.

Note that I have not yet addressed the question of how to make this exchange something conversational. “You score a massive success” doesn’t exactly satisfy the conversation piece, but it is a start in that direction. In a third later blog post, I’ll spell out some ways for converting the numbers into conversations.


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