Dick’s Cinematic Tabletop RPG Combat System, 1 of 3

I have always disliked how AD&D handles combat, especially the damage system.

Compare a level 4 fighter, who has 40 hit points, and a level 1 mage, who has a whopping 4 hit points. The two are fighting side by side versus some castle guards. During the skirmish, the fighter gets hit with long sword which, for this example, does its maximum damage of 10 hit points and then gets nicked a few times at values of 3, 4 and 5; the mage gets stabbed with a dagger and gets completely knocked out with the max damage of 4 (some systems would have just killed him, but we always played that you get knocked out at 0 hit points and start to bleed to death until stabilized at -1 hit points).

The obvious problem with this is the disparity of damage between both characters, who are, after all, 2 humans. How can a small stab mean death to one character but hardly anything to another?

The answer that we, our circle of friends who used to explore mazes and monsters, were able to figure out (or maybe we read in an issue of Dragon Magazine) is a fighter knows how to roll with attacks, and thus a stab from a dagger only ends up being a nick. The mage, who isn’t as experienced in combat, takes the full force of blows and therefore ends up a lot more damaged.

But, let us continue with the story: the fighter manages to slay the rest of the castle guards and tends to his wounded mage friend. The fighter, now at 18 hit points, pulls out and quaffs a big potion of healing that heals 16 hit points, putting him at 34 hit points, still 6 down from full healed. He gives his friend the smaller potion, which heals 8 damage, but is more than enough to cure the almost-dead mage.

How can a potion of greater strength not even heal half of one person’s damage and a potion of lesser strength contain more healing power than another’s health can even contain? Ask this especially when taking the above into account, how the fighter’s wounds are supposedly mostly just nicks and scrapes.

The answer is: they can because the system is simple and it works. But, my problem now isn’t just that it doesn’t make sense, it’s more that it isn’t interesting.

Shadowrun, which to-date contains my favorite tabletop RPG combat system, does a better job with this. It gives all player characters he same amount of “hit points,” and just has each round of combat a contest of trying to get past a character’s defenses. Not to go into too much detail, but for a small example, Character A shoots Character B with a pistol. Character A’s skills and attributes give him a number of dice to combine with the pistol’s values to, when it is all done, a final damage value. Character B’s job is to add up his skills, attributes and equipment to reduce the pistol’s final damage value. This may mean Character B gets hurt or character B could also reduce the damage down to nothing, so that he is either hit and absorbs all trauma or that he dodges enough of the bullets to warrant no damage.

This is superior in that the AD&D notion of hit points is somewhat represented by “health boxes,” which are equal across all living things, and somewhat by a Body attribute, which is part of what reduces the damage in the last example. This way, when someone is healed for one box of damage, it is equivalent to someone else being healed for the same.

The problem is, much like in AD&D, every round is the same. Sure, with Shadowrun’s “dice pools,” you can focus on attack or defense, but each round of combat is a simple game of attrition, where you try to whittle away at your opponents’ hit points while trying to prevent them doing the same to you. One potentially dynamic aspect is that wounded characters are supposed to receive penalties to actions, depending on the severity of the wounds, but that is such a one-dimensional way of looking at combat attrition. Plus, given the fact that it was annoying to use, we simply ignored this rule. At any rate, the end result is each combat round being mostly the same, just like AD&D.

Next Post: Influences for Dick’s Movie-like Tabletop RPG Combat System

2 thoughts on “Dick’s Cinematic Tabletop RPG Combat System, 1 of 3

  1. I’ve invested heavily in roleplaying material over the years and tried to design a few alternate systems myself. A lot of the challenges you mention are things I’ve noticed and attempted to tackle in my own designs. And the stuff I’ve worked on was inspired by others who apparently were bothered by similar issues, so I’m really interested to see where you’re going with this Movie-like combat system.

  2. Cool, I figured you’d be the one to actually read all this. While I may be a little too verbose in all of the explanation, I think the system I devised isn’t as good as the thought process that went into it. By that, I mean that I hope this will help you or whoever wants to draw from it, but the real meat is going to be in the next post.

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