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Ars Arcana Blog: Combat and Conversation (First Strike)


Combat and Conversation 2: Advantages (First Strike)
Travis Joseph Rodgers

In the last blog, I presented a general system for quickly resolving combat. There, I assumed that the combatants were equal in all regards. Because combatants are not often equal in all regards, in this section I introduce some new wrinkles – advantages. If someone has an advantage in a combat, the advantage can likely be categorized in one of the following ways: one opponent has greater effective strike range (RANGE), one has greater speed (SPEED), one has greater accuracy (ACCURACY), one has greater capacity for devastation (DAMAGE), one has different capacity to deal damage of a certain type (TYPE), one has greater ability to dodge (DODGE), or one has greater ability to “shrug” (ARMOR) damage or “deal with”/"soak" damage despite being struck (HEALTH). There may be further types of advantage, like situational and positional advantages, but for the time being let’s suppose that we can reclassify other types of advantage to these types. And if we cannot, then we’ll tweak when needed.

First Strike
Range and Speed are centrally tied to which combatant will have the first opportunity to land a blow. There is good reason to suppose that landing the first strike affords an advantage. Consider how "first strike" plays out in sports. Note: The claim is not that sports are like combats (though they are in some ways). It is, however, easier to find data on scoring first in sports than it is to find such data on combats. So, note the correlation between scoring first in sports and winning the game/match:
~57% chance in NFL football that team landing first score wins
~59% to ~67% chance in MLB baseball
~67% in hockey
~61%-71% chance in Premiership soccer

It's an interesting question whether the better team is more likely to score first because of its superiority or whether a team is more likely to win because it scores first. It's probably not worth digging too deeply into this question for our purposes. My a priori hunch is that the causation can work both ways. We can, for the time, treat them as separate attributes: being better generally vs. being more likely to land the first blow.

Systems that employ initiative (determining combat order) do so on the bases of the speed and range considerations, for the most part. The role of initiative is both to structure combat and to model the first strike influence. The first strike influences combat outcomes in a variety of ways. Landing the first blow often means that the opposition is now at a deficit in some other way with respect to the attacker. For instance, an attack may inflict damage, may rend armor, may decrease the speed and accuracy of the defender, etc. Because of these reasons, the initiative roll/calculation makes good sense. Consider a somewhat concrete application of the initiative roll.

A group of infantry approaches on foot against a group of infantry and archery. The archers have a range advantage, so they gain the first strike unless the infantry somehow surprises them or neutralizes their range advantage. But note that the archers could choose to hold off on their attack in order to gain some other tactical advantage. For instance, if the archers could shoot a maximum distance shot of, say, 300 meters, they might trade those inaccurate long distance shots for more accurate, medium distance shots. They might even trade for increasingly deadly shots that might hit their own infantry once the two sides are very close.

Once those infantry groups close, one group may have a speed advantage. If one group is attacking with heavy clubs and the other is attacking with light spears, the spear side may gain advantage because of longer reach and also because of the faster motion of stabbing as opposed to hacking. A jab might gain a speed advantage over a haymaker or roundhouse kick. What some of these attacks trade in terms of lower speed is a greater expected payoff in terms of accuracy or, more likely, damage.

In brief, the group that wins initiative has first strike capability, but they have the option of delaying that attack. This feature is reflected in some systems as an "attack of opportunity." Thinking about what an attack of opportunity entails will be the topic for a further blog post. In this case, the goal has simply been to discuss the range advantage and the speed advantage and to note how to model that in a game without excessive complexity. To be even briefer: initiative is a good idea.

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