Dick’s Cinematic Tabletop RPG Combat System, 2 of 3

So, I have been drumming up ideas for a tabletop RPG combat system, mainly as mental-masturbation, but I think I might have found something I can use for Emporium (the combat system is the largest design hole that I currently have for Emporium). The real goal is for a combat system that is intuitive, not too complicated, yet still interesting and dynamic from round to combat round.

One way to do this is to account for proximity (think Warhammer 40k or Battletech). While that can make combat interesting, it also can turn your RPG into more of a strategic simulation.

Then, two combat systems converged in my mind as the two most interesting combat systems I have witnessed. Unfortunately, both of them are action systems, not turn-based.

First is the melee combat you often see in movies or TV.

Take this clip from Joss Whedon’s Angel as an example.

Note how it is somehow tons easier for the boy, Connor, to back flip and simultaneously kick two people than it is for him to just punch someone with the fist that has a big blade attached to it. Notice how blades never touch flesh, rather blades seem to attract each other with an audible “clang.” This is until Connor is bludgeoned enough with benign blows that he allows a knife to be held up to his throat.

This is not how real combat works. Martial artists who think combat resembles this in the slightest make me chuckle. However, to the viewer, it is interesting, dynamic and dramatic.

My next featured combat system is the one from the “Eol Crater” zone of Infantry, a sci-if, massively-multiplayer, action, strategy (and sometimes RPG) hybrid online game with an isometric view. I personally hold Infantry as the most fun video game I have ever played, but that isn’t the point. The point is the flow of combat.

For those of you who are not aware of the details of Infantry’s combat system shown here (this will probably be everyone who reads this), I will explain. Each combat suit is equipped with a personal field that dampens the force of incoming projectiles, but every time the field dampens those projectiles it drains some of the suit’s energy. The combat suit has a power supply that recharges the personal field, as well as powering other items; it maintains a maximum energy, usually around 600kj. The percentage of the suit’s total energy determines how much force a projectile has when it makes contact with the suit.

For example, if a suit has 300kj out of 600kj energy left when a projectile finishes entering the personal field, then half of the force or, really, half of the damage transfers to the suit. Final damage is calculated after physical armor is also factored in. A slug from assault rifle, rated at 20 damage, enters a personal field with the above 300kj out of 600kj energy, thus reducing the damage to 10. Body armor on the trooper can further dampen the damage. One common armor does this by 8 to mean that, in this example, the target receives a whole 2 hit points worth of damage. In this particular Infantry setting, such a trooper would have about 100 hit points, meaning that 2 damage is, in fact, just a nick.

The shield system creates some interesting game play. A single slug from a rifle is not going to cause much, if any, damage to a soldier whose suit energy is not low enough. Assuming an assault rifle 40kj on a direct hit, and that a suit recharges at a rate of 30kj per second, then a trooper starting fresh could take 1 slug every 2 seconds without ever even feeling it hit his armor. Therefore, it is only until a suit is drained to around 30%-60% of its total, depending on the armor, that one can start to expect to do damage.

This creates the opportunity for close combat with firearms, since a few long shots won’t even be felt. Troopers close in, using “drainer” weapons which are lower impact but fire faster. An auto pistol, which does not have the damage or shield drain of a rifle, fires fast and is easy to handle. With an opposite nature of an assault rifle, this pistol can take down a combat suit’s energy quickly, but at, 8 damage, it will never significantly bypass the armor of a soldier wearing the above type of body armor. Shotguns work well as drainers too, as they rapidly propel a lot of mass, but not with much power to get through armor.

Therefore, the smart Infantry player will often first drain his opponent, then move to heavier, “finisher” weapons, like an assault rifle or a melee weapon.

In illustration of this, here is a poor quality video that shows a duel between SpearMint., a JumpTrooper, and Andromedea, a Combat Medic.

Both are lightly armored and quick on their feet. Both start firing with their pistols, which are what you see as those initial dots flying around. Watch as their suit energies, shown in purple next to their names, go down (FYI – they can’t see each others energy, only their own, me being able to view both is part of being a spectator). Andomedea, being a lighter class of soldier, has to play keep-away to win, and when his energy is drained to about 150kj, he retreats to give his suit time to recharge. Those white bars you see traveling from SpearMint. are the assault rifle slugs.

It goes back and forth like this without either opponent ever taking significant damage, until around second 30 (and the fight is practically over by second 45).

SpearMint. probably doesn’t realize this, but he’s making a mistake in using an assault rifle at second 30, because Andromedea is dodging too many shots so his suit isn’t drained enough to allow much damage through. With SpearMint.’s suit energy almost fully drained, Andomedea lets loose his carbine (hard to see, but the sound is that metallic “ping ping ping”) and his revolver (also invisible but is the loud “boom boom boom” sound). Neither of these pack the punch of an assault rifle, but they are the best that a Combat Medic can carry.

SpearMint. gets torn down to about 7 hit points from 80 at that point (I asked him after the fight). Andomedea also starts to take a lot of consecutive slugs at this time, which drains his suit energy to almost nothing. Both back off, seeing that their hit points and suit energies are low. Andomedea actually runs out of ammo at this juncture; SpearMint. is probably even worse off than his opponent, so they both decide to disengage.

If I were the judge, Andomedea won the fight, by doing more with less of a soldier. But, maybe he wouldn’t have lasted half as long were it not for the cover of those pillars. He used his environment to stack the odds, so he is shown as the better player.

Here is another video with clips of random Infantry fire-fights.

The thing to note from this one is that you don’t always have to drain your opponent. An assault rifle is all you need if you manage to drive every bullet home, since it drains too. However, this is tough, sometimes impossible, depending on your skill, the skill of you opponent and various other factors such as a class’s movement speed. It all depends on the situation. Being able to intuit the situation’s needs is half of what makes a good Infantry player.

Infantry’s combat system relates directly to movie combat. Kicks, punches and sword-hilt butts in movies are like Infantry’s drainer weapons, and the sharp ends of weapons in movies are like the finishing weapons in Infantry. Like the above about not actually needing to drain before using your finisher in Infantry, sure, a heavy-handed approach to combat is maybe what would work at points in a movie, but that depends on the situation. Ever notice how a hero in the movies can usually get through a bunch of opponents without ever being wounded, sometimes even fighting multiple opponents at once? This is all up until a final “boss” or even a “miniboss” where the fight takes longer.

Infantry is much the same. A player who is extremely skilled can often take on two newbies at once without ever feeling a scratch. This is because most of the attrition in these combat systems is based on easily-replenish-able statuses, rather than simple hit points.

The point is, there is a lot of dodging, weaving and trying to get your opponent off balance before the final blows, and the tables can turn at any moment, based on choices, rather than just having raw hit points and the odds of doing enough damage to end the fight in your favor.

Next: What the hell are “easily-replenish-able statuses?” And: The unveiling of the combat system.

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

  1. This is a great observation.

    This is not how real combat works. Martial artists who think combat resembles this in the slightest make me chuckle. However, to the viewer, it is interesting, dynamic and dramatic.

    As you say, the purpose behind a lot of movie combat is to be dramatic, not realistic.

    Ever notice how a hero in the movies can usually get through a bunch of opponents without ever being wounded, sometimes even fighting multiple opponents at once?

    I couldn’t but help think of Commando (1985), directed by Mark L. Lester.

    I look forward to the final installment of this article.

  2. You know what? Bringing this up again, I think D&D probably has a more realistic combat system than a dramatic one. In real fights, everyone gets hurt at least a little bit. And, unless he’s got an AC of -10, your D&D character isn’t going to get through many fights without losing a few hit points.

    The problem is, strict realism usually doesn’t make for good game play, on a table or in a computer.

    I know what you’re talking about in Commando, where he storms the villa. I think Arnie might have borrowed one of those personal deflector shields from Infantry. I’ll have a video of a dramatic gun fight in the next post too.

  3. D&D – You know what would make an interesting follow-up post to all this? An analysis of the combat in the D&D movies, the theatrical one, the 2 sci-fi ones, the cartoon show (the box set of which comes with an RPG adventure) and finally Mazes and Monsters.

    The villa scene in Commando is even more ridiculous than Weird Al’s spoof of Rambo 3 in UHF. I love how the bad guys in Commando are all fat, have mutton chop sideburns and uniforms that are way to big.

  4. I’ve had this idea to rate melee combat in movies/TV for a while now. I was going to analyze and rate them for realism, which, given my above statements, may be flawed. However, the difference I would note is between good stage combat and poor stage combat. On the extreme end of poor are movies like the 1987 live action Masters of the Universe, where every sword swing was either directed at another sword or completely towards air. On the better end are the Angel series (especially good since the main character, being a vampire, can get chopped up without huge consequences) and often newer action flicks like 300.

    Just one of many projects I’ve got on the back burner.

  5. As far as getting hit D&D might be viewed as semi-realistic. But when it comes to the actual damage it gets a bit ridiculous for exactly the reason you mentioned in the previous section of the article. On one RPG forum I heard a guy telling the story of a D&D setting they’d come up with where the character abilities were actually explained in a realistic way:

    “Adventurers” (ie. PCs) had some sort of magic or divine pact going so that they absorbed energy from the creatures they killed (ie. gaining XP). As they grew in power Adventurers became nigh-unstoppable almost god-like psychopaths capable of casually mowing down entire mobs of common folk. Their bodies became physically harder as they increased in power (due to their increasing hit points at every level) so that it could take several fireballs to bring down an adventurer and they could literally be chased off tall cliffs then pick themselves up once they reached the bottom and run for miles in their full plate armor.

    In D&D hit points were these weird quazi-physical things. They were partially supposed to model bodily integrity and partly to model the ability to “take blows” or roll with the punches. IMHO when combined as they were they modeled neither very well.

    But with a system like the combat suit you mention the high hit points are actually explained by a deus ex machina (and a believable one) rather than just some hand-waving (generally in the direction of Gary Gygax deified bust).

    I’ve heard it said that there are two sort of camps when it comes to RPG combat: those who want their RPGs realistically deadly (the “grim-n-gritty” school) and those who want their RPGs dramatically cool (the “cinamatic” school). Generally if you’re in the Cinematic camp you probably want some way to buffer the character a little more against the chance of dying, while still letting them get hit a bit so you know they’re struggling.

    D&D supplies this buffering with hit dice of course, but it’s possible that D&D equates hit dice a little too closely with physical integrity. When d20 Star Wars came out they basically kept D&D hit points but did something a little different. In d20 Star Wars you have a small pool of “Wound” hit points (equal to your Constitution score) representing your actual physical integrity. Wound points take a long time to heal if damaged and you never really increase them much as you increase in levels.

    Then there’s a much larger pool of “Vitality” points. Vitality points increase as you gain levels. They represent how much energy you have left to dodge and lessen blows. Vitality points can be recovered much more quickly just by taking it easy. In these ways they are sort of like the equivalent of the combat suit you mention.

    It sounds to me a little like you’re going for something similar to Wound points vs. Vitality points in your combat system. But it looks like instead of just having damage directly negated by an equal number of Vitality points, you’re actually having characters spend the Vitality points on specific maneuvers (or the mysterious commodity of “easily replenished statuses”) to avoid the damage. Which would certainly be an interesting twist.

    Also (assuming it’s what you’re going for), the idea of having to “buy” defensive maneuvers strikes me as somehow very fitting in a game called “Emporium” which otherwise appears to deal commerce.

    But maybe I’m reading too much into what you’ve written.

    Eagerly awaiting the final installment.

  6. You’ve gotten what I’m trying to say exactly right, Peter. It makes sense that at least someone thought of having a buffer that changes from round to round, as you say the d20 Star Wars game does. The way I see it:

    D&D = no buffer

    Shadowrun = HP buffer that stays more-or-less static from round to round

    d20 Star Wars = dynamic, yet one-dimensional buffer

    Infantry = while the energy shield is one-dimensional, there are plenty of other dimensions to the combat (i.e. distance between combatants, their environment, which weapons have ammo and which are yet to be reloaded, etc.)

    This is what I’m getting at. I hope to finish it in a day or two.

    Also, I love that you made a connection between Emporium’s commerce and combat economics. I never thought of it that way, but I love it. That gives me something to think about.

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