February 15, 2013

Combat Resolution

Note:  This is a re-visiting of the Conflict Resolution post from January.  This is more detailed, and has no spoilers for anything :-)

Combat is so common in RPGs because for many of us, it's a fun escape, a way to add or resolve dramatic tension, a tactical challenge, an exciting adventure fantasy, or a cathartic power trip.  The reasons players and GMs enjoy combat in RPGs are as vast as the reasons characters and villains get into combat.

The sad thing about most RPG combats is that the way combat ends is almost always the same:

The heroes win by killing their enemies.

The US homicide rate for 2011 is 4.7 per 100,000.  The aggravated assault rate is 241.1 per 100,000.  For every murder there are about 50 assaults.  Even assuming 2 people are charged for each incident, that's 25 times as many non-lethal fights as lethal ones.

Most RPG systems have very simulationist rules for combat, simulating attacking, defending, accuracy, damage, health, wounds, unconsciousness, and death.  The rules for alternate resolution tend to be scant if they exist at all.

Historical Alternate Resolution Mechanic: Original D&D

The first foray into alternate resolution rules came form D&D's morale system.  Sadly, I believe the rules for Morale in Original D&D were more complete and gave the DM more combat resolution options than the rules for Morale in 3rd or 4th edition D&D.  In fact, the Master Set rules for Original D&D had rules for...

  • One side fleeing the other in an Evasion before combat starts or after a retreat or fighting withdrawal
  • Retreat from combat (similar to the Withdraw option in 3rd edition, only more punitive)
  • Fighting Withdrawal
  • Monsters deciding to break off a chase during an Evasion
  • Monsters being scared off from the first time they take damage
  • Monsters being scared off when one of them dies
  • Monsters being scared off when half of their side has been taken out by any means (fled, unconscious, dead, magically controlled, etc.)
  • Fighters with Weapon Mastery scaring off monsters
  • Various spells and magic items scaring off monsters
Morale rules are not an example of Golden Rule Chicken even though it's an instant "takedown" that only works against NPCs.  They're usually designed to be effective for the PCs only when the PCs have an overwhelming advantage, to keep battles from dragging on pointlessly.  The Original D&D rules for morale were designed that way (with the exception of the "first time the monster takes damage" morale check).

Sadly, alternatives to killing all your opponents have gotten worse, not better.  In 3rd and 4th edition D&D, you can kill or knock out your foes, and there are rules for binding unwilling enemies in 3rd edition and Pathfinder that work only for characters decently optimized for it.  The rules for scaring off your enemies exist, but are very hard to do.  And the challenge rating / xp budget systems for the latest D&D editions serve to discourage players from scaring off enemies:  They tend to retreat back to their friends, making the next combat harder.  Two average fights is less taxing than one hard fight in the latest editions of D&D.

Other popular modern games have bad rules for alternate resolution as well.  The new World of Darkness system has a whole combat chapter and two whole hardback supplements dedicated to combat.  They still make you fight it out all the way.  At least the old World of Darkness had a morale system:  Most mortal foes would pass out or panic and flee after taking 4 damage.  But then, most of the time you were battling [other] monsters, so even then it didn't matter.

More Than Just Morale

Here are some ideas for alternate combat resolutions for your game:

  • Arrest:  The goal of the fight is to capture one person and not cause any collateral damage.
    • Challenge 1: Talk him into coming peacefully or scare off his allies.
    • Challenge 2: Capture him so he can't escape.
    • Challenge 3:  If there is a fight, he will try to flee, and his allies will try to impede the protagonists.  
  • Protect:  The goal of the fight is not to have one.
    • Challenge 1: Avoid enemies, using stealth or speed.
    • Challenge 2: If enemies are encountered, bluff or talk them down.
    • Challenge 3: If a fight breaks out, some of you impede the enemies while the rest get the person/item to safety.  
  • Guard:  The goal of the fight is to keep an area from being penetrated by enemies.
    • Challenge 1:  Notice intruders.  The enemies will try to slip past without a fight (see Infiltrate, below!)
    • Challenge 2:  Avoid distractions.  The enemy might try to trick you into diverting your attention.
    • Challenge 3:  Dissuade intruders.  Scare them off, while gathering information about them to help you watch out for them if they return.  If they flee, the challenge is to decide if you want to chase them or not.  It could be a distraction.
    • Challenge 4:  Defeat intruders.
  • Infiltrate:  Get past defenses and guards.  This is a common RPG combat scenario!
    • Challenge 1:  Evade notice.  Get past the guards without being seen.  Use a distraction if necessary.
    • Challenge 2:  Keep them from raising an alarm.  If you meet guards or civilian noncombatants in the area, they may raise an alarm.  They must be dispatched quickly.  This means using up powerful resources on relatively wimpy enemies.
    • Challenge 3: Egress.  Get out without raising an alarm.
  • Self-Defense:  You've been attacked, and your goal is self-preservation.
    • Challenge 1:  Reduce the enemies' offensive strength.  The typical RPG method for this is to focus fire on the most dangerous foes first.  Alternate ways to resolve this is to scare off the less dangerous foes; flee to favorable terrain; or have tougher friends circle around weaker ones.
    • Challenge 2: Escape!  This definitely means retreating to safer ground, trying to hide, or flat-out running.  See below!
  • Escape!  You want to get away from somewhere or someone, not necessarily kill them.  
    • Challenge 1:  Break out.  The GM should be lenient on players trying to get out of combat.  If the PCs are in prison or tied up or held at gunpoint, they have to come up with a creative way to get away.  This probably involves trickery (Stealth, Larceny/Thievery, Bluff/Subterfuge).
    • Challenge 2:  Move fast, and move smart.  Not only do you need to run fast, you need to run somewhere.  Just running randomly leads to Scooby Doo scenarios, which can also be fun if the GM is good at splitting the party (note: post about splitting the party).
    • Challenge 3: Avoid combat.  Use stealth or terrain or smarts to avoid getting caught again.
  • Pursuit:  This tends to start with an NPC trying to escape arrest (above) or a failed skill scene like shadowing or spying.  Or it could be an assassin or other kind of villain attacking the PCs, failing, and fleeing, and they don't want her to get away.  Or the PCs could have been in a straight up fight to the death, but one of the other side got scared and ran off to warn his allies, and they can't let that happen.
    • Challenge 1:  Keep up.  Obviously.  Most systems have foot/car chase rules.
    • Challenge 2:  Hard choices:  Do you shoot the guy in the leg and risk killing him?  That could be way outside your moral code.  Do you shoot a fleeing man in the back?
    • Challenge 3:  Interception.  Once the PCs catch up, they have to intimidate, knock out, restrain, or kill him.
  • Smash and Grab:  A blitz attack on your enemies gains you the objective (stealing an item, rescuing a prisoner, or getting past a barrier)
    • Challenge 1:  Hit hard and fast.  This isn't too far from Drive Off, below.  You're taking the enemy by surprise with the goal of having them be too shaken, wounded, disabled, or scared to follow when you leave.  
    • Challenge 2:  Disable their means of pursuit.  If they have horses, cut the stirrups or scare them away.  If they have a car, slash the tires.  
    • Challenge 3:  Get what you came for.  Do it fast.  If you waste time, the enemy will regroup, realize you're not a big threat, and capture you.
    • Challenge 4:  Get away before they know what hit 'em.  
  • Tough Front:  This challenge is avoiding a combat with a hostile force.  Say the 'runners are in a bad neighborhood and the razorgangs and juicers start to hassle them.  Or the coterie is negotiating with a mafia don who knows they're vampires and has a strega watching for any signs of bloodsucker trickery.  Or the heroes have run into a pack of gnolls who demand, "why shouldn't we just kill you?" in their barking speech.
    • Challenge 1:  Walk tall and show them the stick.  This is almost purely roleplay.  If the players make the unfriendly force think they're too dangerous, a fight will break out.  If the players make the unfriendly force think they're being tricked, a fight will break out.  If the players make the unfriendly force think they're weak, a fight will break out.  
    • Challenge 2:  Deception.  Typically the PCs also have to conceal their real motive, too.
  • Mugging:  The PCs want to steal something or get a character to do something, and they decide to go about it by forcing an NPC to hand it over or do it at sword/gunpoint.  This covers the typical liquor store robbery "empty the till!" all the way through forcing a madman to give you the shutdown code for the doomsday device.  In each situation, the tension comes form a different part of the process.  The liquor store robbery might be more tense because of the danger someone will come along and call 911 or the clerk will go for the sawn-off under the counter.  The doomsday device scenario's challenge is overcoming the madman's psychotic resistance and craven duplicity.
    • Challenge 1:  Isolating the victim.  If there are others around to raise an alarm, the ploy won't work.
    • Challenge 2:  Standing lookout.  If others stumble on the scene, the ploy won't work.
    • Challenge 3:  Overcome resistance.  The victim might put up some resistance.  You have to convince him you're serious (skills like Intimidate come in handy here).  
    • Challenge 4: Watch for duplicity.  Captives tend to try to hit silent alarms, pull concealed weapons, etc.
  • Being Robbed or Captured:  The reverse of mugging has different challenges for PCs.
    • Challenge 1:  Avoid isolation.  The GM should give the players strategic risks that offer rewards in other challenges (say, investigating the possibility of vampires in the neighborhood) for taking risks that isolate them in dangerous areas.  
    • Challenge 2:  Don't get caught off guard.  This could be the simple "spot an ambush" system of stealth and perception in most games, but the fact is those systems are biased against the sneak.  In some systems, you can use a drama metasystem for this.  7th Sea and FATE, for instance, both offer systems for giving the players meta-game currency in exchange for accepting a setback.
    • Challenge 3:  Duplicity.  They want the datachip?  Give them a fake chip.  Distract them while your pal sends a text or gets a weapon.  Delay until help arrives.
    • Challenge 4:  Turn the tables.  The duplicity is just a means to get enough advantage that attacking your captors isn't suicide.  Reinforcements, repositioning, distracting them, lulling them into complacency -- all good ways to get things back to a fair fight before you roll initiative.
  • Drive Off:  Every D&D-style dungeon challenge should be this sort!  You're not looking for monsters to kill, just running into them as you explore.  When unintelligent monsters attack, your goal is to drive them off so you can keep exploring.  Even Goblins and other cowardly or small intelligent foes can be driven off.
    • Challenge 1:  Scare them without making them feel cornered or driving them into a fearless frenzy.  This could involve killing one of them quickly, or using an overwhelmingly powerful attack, making a loud noise, or making showy attacks (perhaps using Intimidate and Bluff/Subterfuge depending on the system).
    • Challenge 2:  Make sure they don't come back.  Either scare them off really well, wound them so they have a good reason to stay away, chase them far enough away that they'll have a hard time coming back, or set a lookout.

(That's probably not even a complete list.)

I'm not going to post rules for all these ideas for every game system.  As a GM, though, your goal is to make these means of resolving combat just as interesting as combat.  If a simple Intimidate check resolves it, it's pretty boring.  You need to ratchet up the risk and offer tactical options with varying risk/reward ratios (such as using limited resources for lower risk and higher reward; taking a higher risk for a greater reward; etc.).

Each situation has multiple challenges to it.  Consider offering players an alternative solution that makes one challenge easier and another harder.  Or consider playing with flaws.

Alternate Solutions Example:  Imagine the PCs are police detectives investigating a murder connected to a bad part of town.  A gang of street toughs accosts them.  They have to put up a Tough Front.  If they flash their badges, they can resolve the challenge easily, but it may get back to the people they came to investigate that the cops are sniffing around the area.  If they flash their guns, they can make it easier to resolve the situation, but there's a chance the toughs will make them for cops; or that the toughs will not mistake them for cops and instead for a rival gang that they feel then need to attack.  If the GM makes these options clear to the players, they will feel more tension, because the GM just explained the consequences of their decision and risk is making a consequential decision with incomplete information.  The GM might also hint that these street toughs may or may not be connected to the crime they're investigating, thus making the players aware just how incomplete their information really is!

Flaws Example:  Imagine a team of vampire hunter PCs attempt an Arrest to capture a suspected vampire pawn.  One player's character has a short fuse, or perhaps he's slipped a bit down the slope of Morality (the World of Darkness stat), and the GM suggests he might want to try something more akin to a "smash and grab":  Disable the pawn hard and fast (with a kneecap shot, pistol-whip to the teeth, or blood-gushing smash in the nose) and then scare off his allies with the sheer brutality of the initial attack.  The GM suggests it would trigger his flaw (and give him XP or Willpower or some other system reward); and of course it gives him some angsty drama and spotlight time, to boot.


When making your game, make sure alternate combat resolutions are just as fun as fighting it out!