Crunch & Such
There are three ways the word “crunch” can be used when describing a role-playing game:
- How quickly a character dies after first meeting a dragon (or other appropriately large monster.)
- The level of detail built in to the combat system to simulate reality.
- How much effort the designer puts in to minimize #2.
This article will address all three. I’m not saying there aren’t other uses of this word, but it’s what I’m going with today. If you don’t like it, go blah blah blah.
So, let’s get on with it…
Fast Death versus Slow Death
How quickly a boss-monster kills a party of adventurers is one side of a coin. The other side is how quickly do the adventurers kill a group of weak monsters. Not only is it a question of balance, but of timing. Furthermore, for timing, there are two aspects to consider: how long does it take in “game” time, and how long does it take in “real” time?
The balancing issue is addressed in the design and implementation of the task-resolution grid. As a designer, I need to test how the chart works at each of the various levels. Here’s the design question: Do I want combat to be over in one round in the extreme situations? In other words, can a monster one-shot-kill an entire party? If that answer is Yes, what is the relative power difference required?
As a follow up, I also need to be sure the powerful monster can’t “accidently” one-shot kill a character (or party) that is relatively equal in power.
We know that more realism built into the simulation leads to more real-life game time. Before we look at real time, let’s look at in-game time. Most RPG combat simulators break down combat into rounds or turns that last a few seconds. It seems six seconds is common, but some go as few as one second and there’s one that abstracts the round to two minutes.
Six seconds makes for easy math: ten rounds per minute. Effect durations are easy to calculate. Movement rates are scalable on a tactical map. One second is way too granular, and two minutes is too abstract.
Let’s think about it a moment: If a party of moderately-low level adventurers meets a band of orcs, in an encounter that is deemed “moderate,” how long should the battle take? It depends upon the game system, obviously. If this hypothetical combat were to play out with actors in a live-action role-play scenario, where no turns are taken, how long should the battle last? The adventurers should be able to defeat them with minimal use of limited resources. Since it’s not a boss fight, I don’t want REAL LIFE play time to last more than 30-45 minutes. Preferably less. In game terms, the battle should take a couple minutes.
I used to watch SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) fights, and an average fight between two equally-skilled men would last at least a couple minutes. Rarely did the fight end in less than thirty seconds. If a fight lasted longer than five minutes, one fighter would lose because he is worn out. This is not an uncommon tactic: wear down the opponent and try to outlast them. Would tactic this work against orcs? No reason it shouldn’t, so it should be a viable option.
Now let’s think about cinematic fights. When there’s a fight scene in a movie, it is rarely less than one or two minutes of screen time. Plot, story, and the pacing of the movie dictate how much time the director will put into a fight. If it’s a fight against the big-bad-evil-guy, the fight is likely going to take more screen time. They’ll take time to parley, show close-ups of maneuvers, and, inevitably, we’ll see a candle get sliced by a wild sword swing and one of the combatants will fall after getting hit, only to get up again and try to hit the victor from behind.
Arguably, cinematic battles are more entertaining – not just in the movies, but for players in an RPG. As unrealistic as they are, I want to build my system so that screen time, or play time, is scaled appropriately to the type of encounter.
Conversely, when the party squares off against the evil arch-villain in the epic last battle, I don’t want the encounter to be over in ten minutes. I keep this in mind when I set up encounters for D&D 5e, even though the system doesn’t always cooperate. Either way, the in-game is about the same.
What are the things that bog down the pacing of the game? This is where we segue into the next topic:
Too Detail or Not Too Detail
Player Agency is considered by some to be the most critical component of role-playing games. In a given situation, what options are available, and what are the consequences of the choices? To me, a boring encounter is when I do the same thing over and over and eventually, the bad guys are all dead, or my character is dead. It’s a question of attrition dependent upon the outcome of a series of die rolls. While I’m doing the same thing each round, where the only choice I’m making is which opponent to swing at (and sometimes, there’s not even a choice about that), another player is agonizing over which of seven different spells to cast, trying to determine which one will yield the greatest amount of damage against the most opponents, with the least backlash or collateral. So as the Conductor calls out names around the table in initiative order, the pacing is decent until the unprepared caster’s turn.
Sure, the Conductor can be a jerk and say, “If you can’t decide what to do in ten seconds, you forfeit your turn.”
How do we fix the two extremes, which seem to exist in almost every game? There are tactical simulation games that try to address this dilemma in a variety of ways. Which solutions work better than others? Which ones translate well into an RPG environment? Which ones maintain player engagement and, most important, an equal amount of agency for all participants?
I don’t know the answers. I only have ideas. Let’s start with the core mechanic I’ve already proposed: The Unified Resolution Chart (TURC?), powered by opposed skill levels and opposed d8 rolls.
My goal is to maintain pacing while giving players adequate choices where the consequences are somewhat predictable. To do that, I need to have combat options: more than simply “whack at opponent” or “cast a spell;” more than just deciding which opponent to target. In real life, combat has a lot of options: do I swing my sword high, middle, or low? Do I stab with the point? Do I try to draw my opponent off balance or create an opening I can exploit? The better trained and more experienced you are, the more options you have. How about the defender? Most games defense is only a matter of announcing your armor value or target to-hit value. The attacker rolls a die and you say “hit” or “miss.” In this system, I want the defender to make a choice: do I hold the shield low or high? Do I step back? Do I parry with my sword? What are the consequences of each of these maneuvers? How do they flow to my next action?
Furthermore, while a caster might have several spells to choose from, I don’t want analysis-paralysis to hamper the decision process. With a unified chart, most spells are going to do roughly the same amount of damage. But here, we get a new set of choices: aim to the head or body? Is it an area-effect or targeted effect? Can I force the defender into a posture that will give my melee fighter an opening?
Finally, can I create a system where all players remain engaged, flows naturally, and resolves in a reasonable amount of time, both in-game and in real-time, without losing the backdrop of the challenge level of encounter?
I think I can; I think I can; I think I can.
What I’m proposing is an Impulse-Based combat system. What in the world? The closest correlation is the board game, Star Fleet Battles. If you’re not familiar, it is a game that simulates simultaneous movement and combat for space ships in the Star Trek universe. How it works is that each player, at the start of a round, fills out an Energy Allocation worksheet for each ship, which specifies how much power is available from various sources like engines, reactors, and batteries. For each ship, the player decides how much power is allocated to various systems like weapons, shields, and movement. When everyone is done filling this out, each player announces how fast their ship is moving. A big chart that lists numbers from 1 to 32 down the left and across the top (counting down across the top) is used with a straight-edge. The rows represent impulses where one or more ships (or objects like plasma torpedoes and missile drones) moves. Each column indicates which ships or objects move on that impulse. For example, on the first impulse, only the fastest object on the board, a plasma torpedo, can move. It is moved one hex toward its target. At the end of the impulse, each player has the option to fire their direct fire weapons or launch drones or torpedoes, assuming they’ve allocated the power to do so. At the end of the impulse, the straight-edge is moved down one row. On impulse 2, all ships that move faster than 16 get to move, as well as the object going 32. And so on. Here’s what the chart looks like:
Yeah. It’s a mess, but it works.
However, this concept won’t quite work for what I want to do. But I’m stealing the idea of impulses, and I think I can run RPG combat using it.
At the beginning of combat, each player around the table indicates what they are going to do. These are Actions. They can be anything from “Move toward the opponents,” to “Cast a spell,” to “Notch an arrow and take aim,” and so on. Each action has a specified number of impulses, an associated defensive skill, and, if necessary, an offensive skill. Once determined, the Conductor calls out “First Impulse.” If any player has an Action that is resolved in 1 Impulse, that player resolves the action. If it’s movement, their mini is moved on the board. If it’s an attack, the attack is resolved against the chosen target. Upon completion of the Action, the player determines their next Action. All other players count down their Action by 1.
When this is done, the Conductor says, “Next Impulse.” If any Action is completed at this point, it is resolved. Play continues in this manner until the fight is over.
Each Impulse is approximately one second of in-game time. There are very few Actions that are one Impulse, if any. Some Actions will chain to other actions, giving modifiers or bonuses. The first challenge with this concept is trying to figure out how long the different actions take as well as how they are affected by skills: some actions are quicker if an associated skill is higher. If you’re good at running, you should be able to run a greater distance than someone who isn’t.
Also, if your attack action is Parry, you don’t get to attack, but if you are attacked, you might be able to use Riposte, have it resolve faster than a normal stab attack.
The second challenge is figuring out how the Conductor will track this for multiple combatants on the battlefield. While each player is running one character, the Conductor is running multiple enemies. It’s not like every orc is going to do the same thing, like a choreographed chorus line. Their options will be more limited, but each orc should still be able to act independently based upon the circumstances of battle, which means different orcs will be acting on different impulses.
When it comes to multiple actors resolving on the same impulse, the same rules apply as in Star Fleet Battles: for movement, whoever is moving faster goes first. For attacks, all are handled simultaneously. If two fighters are attacking each other, resolve both. If both happen to kill the other, both are dead.
I know there are a lot of details I need to work out to make a system like this functional. I’m no expert when it comes to combat, though Google is an awesome resource for research. Even with this level of detail, we still require some abstraction. I mentioned before that I’d like the ability to specify targeting, but I don’t know yet how much impact it will make.
The Final Crunch
We’re now into the last section of this conversation: Crunching the detail described in the previous section into manageable concepts, which means crunching words and concepts into the Aspects and Facets I’ll use in the game. These are the words that represent the skills, abilities, talents, and attributes.
Last week I turned to my good friend, Google, and asked for a comprehensive list of skills, abilities, talents, and attributes, that are used in role-playing games. I scraped lists from a multitude of sources and started with over 1,100 “unique” words and phrases. I made several passes through the list to eliminate obvious duplications: “Pick Locks” and “Lockpicking” are the same thing, right? A database engine doesn’t know the difference, but I do. I also removed anything that was obviously non-fantasy. Neuith is a fantasy setting, so skills like “computer programming” and “beam weapons” don’t make sense. This got the list down to around 500.
In the next pass, I assigned a code indicating whether it was a Social (s) or Physical (p) Aspect. Remember from my prior blog entries that Social Aspects are destined for role-play, and therefore will never have numbers assigned. Physical Aspects, however, are mostly combat-oriented and require numeric values.
The third pass assigned an additional code. For the Social Aspects, I decided whether it was Knowledge-based (k), an Aptitude (a), Interactive (i), or Business-related (b). I had a fifth category for Leadership, but I was able to roll it into the other four categories after reassessment. For Physical Aspects, I categorized them as Strength-related (s), Agility or Dexterity-related (d), Stamina, Constitution, or Endurance-related (c), or Mental related (m).
In the fourth run-through, I grouped words and phrases together that were easily related. While they may still end up as independent entries, most of these are such that the distinction between them is minimal or irrelevant.
The list presently sits at 140 rows, of which, 28 are Physical and 112 are Social. Let’s tackle the shorter list first. I’m fully aware that there may be disagreement with definitions and distinctions. That’s fine with me.
Starting with the Constitution-based entries, we have:
- Body Control/Adroitness/Physical Maneuvers/Sneak/Stealth
- Resisting Elements/Resisting Stuff
- Hand-to-hand fighting (melee)/Martial Arts/Close Combat
I don’t like these groupings, but I do like where they are going. Let’s re-interpret them into three singular concepts:
Adroitness: Literally means cleverness or skill. As a Physical Aspect, it represents how well the character controls their own body.
Vitality: This represents the capacity for survival. The score here represents how much punishment a character can take, how long they’ll last before collapsing from fatigue, and how well they can resist physical contaminations like poison, disease, or magic.
Melee Defense: How good are you in a fight? This doesn’t cover your skill with a weapon, but, rather, it’s your ability to maneuver in and out of combat, and your ability to roll with the punches.
I’m leaving Looks out. Your character’s appearance normally has no bearing on how well he’ll do in a fight. I have it covered better as a Social Aspect.
Next are the dexterity-based groups:
- Accuracy/Archery/Bows/Marksman/Ranged Fighting/Sharpshooter/Shooting/Targeting/Sniper
- Back stab/Garrote
- Balance/tightrope walking
- Defense/Dodge/escape/Move Silent
- Disarm Opponent
- Sling Weapons
Here we cover the ranged weapons and the ability to dodge out of the way of incoming fire. We also throw in a couple concepts that I think deserve to be in this group, even though they may arguably cross over into a Constitution or Strength group.
Accuracy: This is the generic descriptor for all ranged weapon attacks. How good are you at hitting a target? This Facet must be subdivided into specific-weapon skills, but even if you’re untrained in using a crossbow, if you can hit a target at long range with your longbow, you should still do reasonably well with the crossbow.
Coordination: How good are you with your hands? How good is your hand-eye coordination? That’s what this Facet governs.
Reaction: On the physical level, how fast can you react to new stimuli? Part training, part mental discipline, and part native talent, this facet dictates your ability to dodge.
Next up are the strength-based facets:
- Double-Handed Combat (Two-hand fighting)
- Fight/boxing/brawling/Unarmed Combat/wrestling
- Flexible Weapons
- Melee Fighting/Melee Weapon/Knives/fencing/Swords
- Polearms/heavy weapons/jousting
- Throwing/Thrown weapons/Boomerangs
Most of these are strength-based weapon groups. With that in mind, I’ll roll them into these:
Melee Fighting: All melee weapons fall into this grouping. Like Accuracy, though, it must be subcategorized by weapon type. Great skill with a sword doesn’t mean great skill with a flail (flexible weapon), but you wouldn’t be useless with it.
Force: This represents raw strength. How much can you lift?
Throw: How hard and how far can you throw something?
Though I may adjust it a bit, if you have proficiency with a specific weapon, like Long Sword or Short Bow, you get your full Facet rating. If you don’t, you only get half the value (rounded up.) I think some weapons may be less, but I’ll deal with those details another time.
Finally, we have mental groupings, for which I only have two:
- Blind Fighting
I think I can bundle these into one Facet:
Wits: Represents your mental awareness of the battle and how well you react to things that happen around you. More than anything else, it affects your ability to make decisions under pressure.
It can be argued that Wits is a Social Aspect. However, we need something in the Physical side to represent the mental influence in combat. For example, if an attacker uses some sort of feint maneuver to try to trick you into dropping your guard, your defense isn’t how you hold your shield, but how well you recognize their ploy, giving you a better choice on how to react to it.
This isn’t set in stone yet. I still want to think about these ten facets and how they’ll relate to combat. As I work through the details of the combat system, I may find that I need more Facets. Conversely, I may decide that there’s too much overlap between them to justify having the split, and thereby reduce the count.
Let’s look at the Social Aspects now.
Like I did above, I’ll present all the entries I in my list, then consolidate it down to a reasonable few. However, since these are role-play prompts, they won’t have traditional numbers assigned. Rather, we’ll use words, which I have yet to figure out how to do. (I have something in mind, but it’s going to take an entire article to present it!)
Let’s start with the Aptitude Facets:
- Animal training/Herding/Animal riding
- Diplomacy/spurious logic
- Empathy/Intuition/Rapport/Engaging/Fortune Telling/Healer
- Enchanting/Casting (Spell)/Use Magic Item/Chirurgery
- Fitness/Lifting/Weapons Master
- Gambling/gaming (type)
- Hearing/Listening/Read Lips/Body Language/Mimicry
- Intelligence/Acuity/Mental Reflex/Memory/mindblock
- Judgment /Mediation/music appreciation/art
- Predict Weather/Weather Reading
- Prestidigitation/Palming/Sleight of Hand/Pick pocket
- Sport/Skiing/Skating/Water ski/Wave Surfing/Wind Surfing
- Survival/Worldliness/Traveling/Overland Trekking/Hunting/Foraging/Caving
- Tracking/Prospecting/Searching/observation/Detect Traps
- ventriloquism/Throw Voice
Yikes! There’s 32 of them! How can I narrow this down? Right off the bat I see there are numerous overlaps with some of the physical stats. Let’s see what I can do:
Creativity: This represents how creative you are. Do you come up with fresh ideas, inventions, designs, or plans? Are you a writer or a poet? Do you compose music?
Diplomacy: How well do you relate to others? Are you adroit and competent when dealing with others, or are you a bumbling fool?
Sports: Part of being good at sports is physical. Part of being good at sports is understanding the game. With some games, you can excel without being the fastest or quickest, but by being the smartest.
Empathy: This governs your ability to see from another’s perspective. Do you feel their pain and share their joy, or are you immune to the emotions of others?
Magic: How in tune are you to the supernatural? Can you control magic?
Relational: Are you good at seeing patterns? Can you quickly and easily estimate odds in your head and decide where to place your bet?
Performance: Are you good at acting and performing? Do you enjoy being in front of others and emoting, or are you shy and introverted?
Moxie: How courageous are you? Are you willing to step up and take the lead and demand that others follow, or are you the follower?
Wisdom: There are a lot of ways to subdivide this Facet. Common sense, streetwise, survival, and discernment are just a few of the concepts that fall into this Facet.
Sanity: Are you predictable? Do you let your emotions take control or do you control them?
Let’s look now at the ones I categorized under “Business”:
- Baker/Chef/Cook/Candy Maker/gourmet
- Brewer/Wine Maker
- Bureaucrat/Tax Collection/customs inspection/Jailer/Warden
- Candle Maker
- Gem Cutting/Jeweler/Etching/glassblower
- Leather Working/Tanner
I think I’m going to roll all these into a single Facet called “Business” and let the player define what it means.
Business: You may have spent some part of your life engaged in business. If you have, you might understand the basics of budgeting, supply and demand, and merchandising. You’ll need to indicate what type of business you were in, because this will parlay into specific business-related trades, like blacksmithing, or tanning, or whatever.
The next set is generically defined as “knowledges”:
- Ancient Language/ancient history/Archaeology/Artifact Lore/Dead Language/Occult/mysticism/Secret Language
- animal anatomy/animal disease/animal health
- animal husbandry/animal behavior/animal lore
- Apothecary/Herbalist/Botany/Alchemy/Poison Making/Poison usage
- Arcane Lore/Astrology/comparative religion/Mythology/Spell Craft/Philosophy
- Area Knowledge/Geography/Region Lore/Faerie Lore
- connoiseur/antiques/fine arts/commodities
- gadgetry/Clockworks/Engineer/trapcraft/Disarm Traps
- General Knowledge/History/Folklore/current events/Culture/Heraldry/Society
- legends/lore/Literature/Knowledge/weapon lore
- Literacy/Language/linguistics/Native Language/Jargon/Calligrapher
- Medicine/surgery/Triage/Mortician/massage/First Aid/Diagnosis/Anatomy/Mid-wife
- Picking Locks/safecracking/Opening Locks
- Piloting/chariot driver/Boating/Driving/caravan driver/Teamster
- Practical Math/Probability/mathematics/Symbols
- Rope Use/Knot tying
- Sacred Writings/Religion/Rites & Rituals
- Seige Weapons/Seige Tactics
- Sledding/Snow ski
- Small Unit Tactics/Skirmish/Formation Tactics/strategy
- speak language/Translator/Signaling
- Specific Kindred Lore/urban legends/trivia/cartography
- Spy-craft/surveillance/espionage/Smuggling/Counterfeiting/Burglary/Breaking into Places/sabotage
- Tactics/military operations/Defensive Tactics/Soldiering
Yeah… There’s a bunch of these, too. Like Business, these represent a character’s time spent studying and applying knowledge. The idea is that a character will know something about a topic. I’ve never been a fan of “Make a History Check” to see of a character knows something useful about whatever. How about this: “Do any of you have knowledge in mechanics?” If someone does, you go on to say, “Your knowledge in mechanics tells you that this lock can be picked if you have the right tools.” If they have the tools (and the time to spend doing it), the lock is picked. Move on. No die rolls.
Knowledge: You have knowledge in a variety of things. Specify those things you have knowledge in, and, likewise, how in-depth that knowledge is. You can’t know everything there is to know about everything, but you may know quite a bit about a few things. Or, you can know a little bit about a lot of things.
While we still refrain from assigning numbers, I think I’ll have some sort of mnemonic scale that might translate to a numeric scale if you looked hard enough.
And, finally, the most important of the Social Aspects: the stuff that governs interaction:
- Animal Call/Animal Interaction/Snake Charming/Riding/Shepherd/Falconry
- Bard/Carousing/Deftness /gesture
- Communication/Etiquette/Charm/conversation/Making Friends/Contacts
- Discernment/Deduction/Detect Lies/Detect Vice
- Presentation/oratory/Critic/public speaking/Preaching
Again, we describe prowess rankings using words. My intention is that each of the Facets below is covered using a word that describes how the character behaves in a situation.
Animal Interaction: Do you relate well with animals? Are you a whisperer, or are you the type that dogs always find threatening?
Presence: How well do you carry yourself? Is cleanliness next to friendliness, or are you the type that takes one bath a year, whether you need it or not?
Carousing: Do you know how to party, or are you a wallflower?
Deception: Can you lie with a straight face?
Discernment: How good are you at reading someone?
Mentoring: How well to you explain and teach things to others?
Leadership: When you say things need to be done, do people follow you, or are you ignored?
Oratory: Are you frightened of public speaking, or does it come naturally?
This is a good start, though I still have a long road ahead. There’s a lot of crunch in this article, but there’s also a lot of room to wiggle, refine, and clarify. No one ever said this would be easy. However, for the type of system I want to develop, I’m glad I’m going through these iterations and discussions. I look forward to your thoughts!