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

Reminiscent of Infantry fight system, and to show dramatic combat with guns, is the final fight scene to the movie Equilirium (2002) by Kurt Wimmer (major spoilers for those who haven’t seen it yet).

At least 20 shots fired and not a scratch on either guy. Notice how it was harder for John Preston to point and pull a trigger than it was for him to wrist-lock the gun from his opponent? That’s because it’s more dramatic that way. Guns are more tricky to pull this off without the dissolution of viewer disbelief (like Mike’s Commando note in the last comments). Wimmer, or whoever choreographed the fights, did a good job throughout the movie.

The two weren’t exchanging blows and deducting hit points. Instead, they were deducting each others’, as I put it in the last post, easily-replenish-able statuses.

On the silver screen, these mainly amount to stamina, balance and awareness. To deliver the killing blow, movie heroes often wear their opponents down in some way, confuse their sense of balance, distract them or catch them off guard. The Equilibrium fight was a matter of the hero wearing down the bad guy’s concentration enough to grapple the gun away from him. Or take a Jackie Chan 40-vs-1 scenario where he’s got a ton of thugs trying to take him down. They could never just come up and axe him in the head, instead they’re trying to wear his heroic levels of stamina, balance and awareness down enough to get him somehow.

Anyway, the shocker is, as far as a cinematic tabletop RPG system, I don’t completely have one. Honestly, I don’t deem it worthy of my time to thoroughly flesh it all out at the moment. Had I gotten further with it, I might have posted all this a year ago. What I have is a rough outline of concepts and then a set of rules on how they might be employed.

Let’s get back to easily-replenish-able statuses. Let’s call them “statuses” because it’s shorter and I don’t know what else to call them. Characters in such a system are likely to have a bunch of regular stats (strength, dexterity, etc.) and then those statuses, which are tied to their regular stats but, as their name implies, they can change over the course of a fight.

So, let’s say characters all have the above stamina, balance and awareness as statuses. These things act like the shields in Infantry, but in multi-dimensional ways. If you try to perform a certain action, depending on the action, it could tax one, two or all of those things. Likewise, if you’re trying to react or counter an opposing action, it might first require a success check based on those actions, and then, depending on the results, one or more of those statuses will be drained. On the other hand, like the Star Wars system mentioned in the last comments, you could take it easy in order to replenish a stat.

Two guys, a thug, who is heavy and strong, and a martial artist, who is light and quick, are duking it out. All of them start out with the same (or similar) stamina, balance and awareness, as they’re both fresh. The thug might try to swing heavily with his fists. As he does that, he’ll make checks and occasionally lose stamina, balance and awareness, perhaps one more than another. I would say heavy swings merit a harsh decay on balance and even a harsher decay on stamina. The martial artist might try to dodge, and if it comes down to that, block these blows. Dodging requires balance. If he fails a balance check, he may be hit. Or, maybe a failed balance check allows of an awareness check, which if that passes, he isn’t hit but gets to block. All of these things require and take away the statuses. Worse yet, if the martial artist receives the full on force of the thug’s fist, that will probably make a huge dent on all of his statuses.

The martial artist, during this fight, will be dodging and striking, not with heavy swings, but with targeted blows. Perhaps he strikes the legs, in an effort to get the thug off balance. Perhaps he targets the eyes, as to decrease the thug’s awareness. The martial artist’s strategy should be to wear something down on his larger opponent that will give an opening to do some real damage.

The Whip

The whip has been touted as one of the most versatile and interesting weapons. I remember hearing about so many possibilities with what a character could do with one, from blinding the eyes to pulling a weapon from an opponent’s grip. The problem is that AD&D’s system simply does not allow for this kind of depth. Instead, all that matters is damage (and, as the above link shows, there are some rules for whips that do more damage than a longsword…great depth there). The problem is that it’s simply easier, at all times, to attack with something that does damage. If you want to grab someone’s leg with a whip, even if that person is 1 hit point away from unconsciousness, it requires a difficult called shot to the leg. Your character points are simply much better spent learning how to wield a kopesh.

Dick’s (non-existent) Cinematic Tabletop RPG Combat system, on the other hand, allows for inventive use of whips and other situational items. This is in the aim to make combat dramatic.

So, below is an outline of how the system might be employed. It’s rough and rather incomplete. I have simply put a lot of thought into the process of thinking this up, so I thought I should make it known here on Protozoic. A major problem that I can think of: it’s probably too complicated. On the other hand, it should be intuitive, unlike Shadowrun’s combat system. In Shadowrun, you’re never quite sure if a particular bullet is absorbed by armor or its target completely. Shadowrun’s system is better than AD&D’s in some ways, but it is hence abstract on top of being more complicated. So, given my system’s complexity, it is better suited for a video game, where the player can intuit everything but only the computer has to deal with calculations.

Character stats:
These mainly break down into: Attributes, Statuses and Skills.


In my draft, making things as simple as I can, I plotted out Primary Attributes Strength, Mass, and Focus. These attributes are exactly what you think they are. They come in ranges 1 to 10, with 3 being human average and 6 being the normal human maximum (allowing for fantasy/sci-fi elements).

Secondary Attributes are then derived from the 3 above attributes. The Secondary Attributes are Stasis, Quickness and Dexterity. Stasis is how well one finds one’s balance, but also how hard it is to topple one’s balance. Quickness is how long it takes to get any part or parts of one’s body from point A to point B, but not including reaction time. Dexterity is really general hand-eye (foot-eye or anything else-eye) coordination.

These are like the regular attributes in range, but there are fomulas to find each one. Quickness is complicated, but the rest are easy.


Strength+((10-Mass)/2)-Mass = Quickness (note, round all decimals down)

So, Mass and Strength are working against each other. For example, a ham-fisted thug, with 4 Strength and 5 Mass might look like:

4+((10-5)/2)-5 = 1 Quickness

A martial artist, with 4 Strength and 3 Mass, might look like:

4+((10-3)/2)-3 = 4 Quickness

A pretty big disparity, I know, but realize that Mass is going to mean tons when you’re knuckling up.


(Quickness+Focus)/2 = Dexterity

Dexterity is somewhat physical, somewhat mental.


(Dexterity+Mass)/2 = Stasis

While a small but quick guy is going to be easy to knock over, he also will be able to easily get back on his feet. A large guy is going to be tougher to knock over, but he isn’t going to have such an easy time getting back up.


Statuses, which are Stamina, Balance, Awareness and Initiative, can change from round to round, but the first three start at 6 at the start of combat. That is unless the corresponding attribute is higher than 6, in which. The corresponding attributes are:

Stamina: Strength
Balance: Stasis
Awareness: Focus


A d6 roll + Awareness = Initiative

Initiative is re-calculated at the beginning of each combat round.


I haven’t fleshed this part out yet. I don’t think it’s important for the example, so we’ll just leave them out.


I haven’t completely thought this part through either. What I do have in mind are weapons that rely on certain stats to be used. A big, heavy axe is going to require more power than a a rapier, which would require more speed and aim.

How this all adds up

A big, dumb thug might look like this:
Primary Attributes
Strength: 4
Mass: 5
Focus: 3
Secondary Attributes
Quickness: 1
Dexterity: 2
Stasis: 3
Stamina: 6
Balance: 6
Awareness: 6
Weapon: Battle Axe

And the above martial artist could look like this:
Primary Attributes
Strength: 4
Mass: 3
Focus: 5
Secondary Attributes
Quickness: 4
Dexterity: 4
Stasis: 3
Stamina: 6
Balance: 6
Awareness: 6
Weapon: Katana

Notice how the both have the same Stasis. That’s because, while the thug isn’t quick on his feet, his Mass makes him hard to knock over. The martial artist, who isn’t nearly as Mass-ive as the thug, is quick on his feet and will usually land like cat if dumped head-first towards the ground.

Combat Mechanics

Hard Actions vs. Easy Actions vs. Automatic Actions

In the Angel fight scene, it was difficult to hit anyone with a blade, but easier to either hit blades with blades or hit someone with a blunt object. Below are how these actions could be divided:

Heavy Punch (or Heavy Elbow or Heavy Kick, etc.)
Any weapon action (slash, stab, chop, shoot, etc.)
Tackle (or Grapple or Knockdown or Trip)

Jab (or Elbow, or Head-butt etc.)
Butt (using the non-pointy side of a weapon)
Kick (or Knee)
Dodge (or Brace for Impact)

Parry/Dodge/Brace for Impact

The idea is to think of as many different attack maneuvers and to try to make them fit into the system. Optimally a player will be familiar with a long list of possible actions for his character.

Easy Actions are less strenuous on Statuses and are more defensive, while Hard Actions pay out more if they are successful but stress the character more. Automatic actions are defensive ones that are even less strenuous than East Actions, but don’t require declarations of any sort. They, if not superseded by their corresponding Easy Action, happen any time an attack is made.

Combat Mechanics

Here’s where the article basically ends. Sorry. There are just too many details and I’m just not going to invest the time at this moment to put them in so that things are balanced. Here are just some rough guidelines I’ve thought of:

Initiative works by the slowest characters declaring their actions first down to the fastest characters, but the actions happen in the order of quickest to slowest. That way two things can happen: the winners of initiative get to base their actions off of the slower ones and the slower ones might have to work with reduced Statuses, depending on what the quicker character manage to do.

I’m thinking of using the d6 system of successes, much like Shadowrun and others, because I think they have an averaging effect.

Easy Actions get to use two stats, an Attribute and a Status, while Hard Actions use only one, an Attribute and Automatic Actions only use Statuses. So, dodging uses the total number dice from Quickness and Awareness. A swing of a battle axe, on the other hand, would use only Strength to determine the die. A parry as an Automatic Action might only use Awareness.

Carrying out actions costs Statuses, depending on the difficulty of that action. Failing an action, especially a defensive action, costs a lot. This is made by an Attribute and Status check compared to the character’s current Statuses. Each Status that is more than the check is decreased by one. If the action is a fail, then it is again decreased by one. And, if a the character’s Status is still greater than its corresponding Attribute at, then that Status loss is again greater by one.

If a character loses a Status while being attacked, that Status is set back to 1, and the character then receives physical damage.

So, maybe I’ll finish it one day. Maybe I should have extended this to 4 posts and fleshed it all out. Rather, I think, I’ll tailor it for computer usage.

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

  1. Interesting what you say about the whip.

    My only question is will you be doing a Dune knife fighting system any time soon?

  2. Heh, I guess if you figure out how do some knife tricks, fake-outs, wrist-locks, knife-grapples and the like, this could easily be tailored to an interesting knife fighting system.

  3. Interesting ideas. Now that I think about it this design system simulates certain aspects of movies beautifully. For instance with a system like this the character could take on an army of mooks or a big bad guy with relative success, but once worn down by the exertion he could find himself at the mercy of a single low-powered character with a few extra points in some key stat.

    I also like the idea of multi-dimensional stats that can be worn down over the course of combat.

    I’ve been considering some more primitive version of that for the D&D/d20 system. In d20 physical attacks reduce hit points (duh), but most other conflicts are resolved with just a saving throw. My thinking was that for mental conflict (psionic, magic, or maybe even just social interaction) you could have a set of “mental” hit points that get reduced through various means. But this is pretty simplistic compared to the sort of thing you envision.

    This started out as a couple recommendations, but has turned into a bunch of additonal suggestions. And these are more my personal preferences that I (as a fascist game designer) wish to impose on the world, rather than crucial details.

    1) Simplify, simplify, simplify. I’m not sure exactly what you’re trying to simulate with the equation “Strength+((10-Mass)/2)-Mass”, but in my humble opinion it probably isn’t worth it. You did mention that this would probably work better for a videogame or in another format where calculations are done for the player. Fair enough, but if you do want it to be in a tabletop RPG I’d suggest equations that minimize the number of brackets involved (I realize the other equations do this). Preferably they should also keep like-terms together, and minimize the number of multiplications and divisions. For instance the equation above could be restated in a couple different ways.

    Strength+5-(Mass x 1.5)

    I’d also question the need for some of the complications in there as well. I have a feeling there’s some sort of relationship of stats you really wanted to express with this equation. But from my point of view just cutting it down to “Quickness=Strength-Mass” would be close enough to give me the verisimilitude I crave.

    In general I’ve not dabbled too much in secondary attributes myself in the last few years. Generally I view them as annoyances that take character customizing decisions out of player hands and hamper them with excessive calculations. However, having said that I will take a step back and say that I find the attributes, secondary attributes, and reasons for the secondary attributes you have chosen to make alot of sense, and are pretty reasonably justified.

    2) You mentioned different skills but didn’t go into detail. There are alot of ways I’ve seen skills done. In some cases skills are treated as things that give bonuses to your Attributes when preforming related tasks (ie. GURPS, d20, and many others). In some cases I’ve seen this taken to the extreme that Attributes only only matter if you don’t have skills and the skills alone give you the ability to do things (ie. Fudge).

    But there are yet other games (none come to mind, though octaNe might use it) where skills are a simple on/off thing. Either you have an ability or you don’t, there is no gradation of skill …or there might be gradation of power level but it’s in the attributes, not the skills themselves.

    Just a suggestion, but this last one might work well for the game you envision. The attributes seem so linked to the outcome of things that skills are essentially secondary. You might want to make the different jabs, hooks, etc. as different minor “skills” which need merely be learned at a basic level, and then are given greater force by the attributes and/or the spendable points

    3) I assume damage and/or exhaustion of different types makes the statuses go down over the course of combat. But what makes them go up? Do points refreshing slightly after victory (or less so after defeat) or after rest? Or are there other aspects of this that I’m not completely understanding? I understand you stressing that this is an incomplete system as of yet, just wasn’t sure if this was something not included yet, or something I didn’t understand correctly.

    4) You state that the attribute scales range from 1-10 with 3 being human norm and 6 being human max. This is just my preference, but I tend to prefer open-ended scales. That is, scales where the human norms are suggested, but there are no upper limits to the scale it’s self. I mean having 10 as an upper limit may be all you need, but what happens when Cthulhu shows up? Or if he faces off against Godzilla? I’d rate them each as something above a 10 on a metric or two.

    Or on the other side of things what if the character has to face a cat (mass 0), and the cat takes on a mouse (mass -2) which is in turn dodging a deadly vampire-wasp (mass -3)?

    Of course I’m being a bit ridiculous here. But I just like the idea that you could scale up or down as much as your game deems necessary.

    5) You say:

    “Initiative works by the slowest characters declaring their actions first down to the fastest characters, but the actions happen in the order of quickest to slowest. That way two things can happen: the winners of initiative get to base their actions off of the slower ones and the slower ones might have to work with reduced Statuses, depending on what the quicker character manage to do.”

    This, or something like it, is a great idea for verisimilitude. I’ve considered something like it before (though with declaration of actions based on mental speed of some sort). However I always thought it was asking alot of players to try and actually implement the thing. I’ve never actually gotten people to play using a system like it, but I imagine that if there are 5 players then the one who declares his action first is almost certainly going to be dealing with an entirely different situation than the one which he expected when he actually executes the action.

    Realistic? Probably, but seems like it’d be frustrating on a regular basis for the guy with the lowest initiative producing stats (even with the inclusion of dice rolls as a partial-randomizing factor). Even more frustrating than just going last all the time, instead you’re often going last and you aren’t getting to react to the events that just unfolded.

  4. One thing I neglected to note, as I noted before, how Shadowrun also has a dimension of mental health, but that only effects spell-casting, not normal combat. Originally, for Emporium, I was thinking of having only a two-dimensional system like Shadowrun, but I’m now thinking of more.

    Yeah, the thing about mooks is exactly what I was thinking. Unfortunately, the post tired me down and it became quite a mess in the end. I will concede that this is the cause of some of your notes.

    1) Quickness=Strength+((10-Mass)/2)-Mass is a mess. I don’t exactly like it, but what I was trying to simulate is making the human average value at 3. I did originally start with Quickness=Strength-Mass, but since that didn’t equal 3, given 3 Strength and 3 Mass (that puts Quickness at 0), I went back and tried a bunch of different things. In the end, my complicated formula was the only thing I could come up with that gave marginal benefits or penalties to having more or less Strength than Mass while still having……

    OK, just had a thought.

    Quickness=(Strength+3)-Mass is probably a much better way of doing what I wanted to do. Why didn’t I think of that a year ago? It must have been the stale Shanghai air.

    3) In my haste to get it all done, I completely skipped over how to refresh those Statuses. I was thinking that Statuses get refreshed after battles, except if they are somehow too shortly spaced from each other that it wouldn’t allow much rest. Likewise, if the characters were doing something at the start of the battle, Statuses might be lowered (i.e. someone who has been running for an hour wouldn’t have fresh Stamina and a dozing guard wouldn’t have the Awareness of an alert one).

    What I was thinking is that Statuses could refresh over the round, like in the Star Wars “taking it easy” mention. Hence, the most difficult the action, the less you are taking it easy. I was thinking this would be automatic for each Status, since time is the best medicine, and since characters are most likely going to be doing more to drain than to gain. Though, maybe a character could concentrate on a single Status at the expense of others (concentrating on catching your breath is going to decrease your Awareness, but increase your Stamina).

    4) Right, I’m not in love with my system either. But, first off, I was thinking of 2 actually being the human minimum for attributes, 2 Mass being a child while 1 Mass would be something sub-human, from cat to fairy or whatever. The scale goes exponentially, so 7 Mass would be about the size of a Rhino, 8 Mass would be like a dragon, and 10 is exactly what I was thinking for Cthulu.

    The real problem with all this is that regular characters aren’t much different from each other to make things interesting. I think I was thinking of Shadowrun when I came up with this, but I honestly don’t have that great of a grip on it.

    5) You’re exactly right. In fact, some systems that we’ve tried to play do this and, as simple as I thought it could be, it was always asking too much of players.

    Though, let me handle the issue of always being the slowest guy: If your opponent is always faster than you, then maybe it’s time to do something to decrease the initiative of your opponent. That’s the beauty I was hoping for in the system. Not only is there a random factor to Initiate, but the very components that go into it would vary.

    In the end, my real fear is investing so much time into this just to come up with the wrong things. I’ve have this on the back burner for a long time, with Tim and Mike encouraging me to just put what I have up so it can be picked at, especially by you, Peter. I also wanted to show off my thought process in the first two posts, because I’m rather proud of it, more so than of the system.

    My biggest fear in completing this, now, is with the 4th issue, as I’m not really sure what else I could do with it, other than raising the human average to something like 5 or 6 and just leaving the sky as the limit.

    At either rate, I appreciate the to-date feedback and am open to whatever else you guys might have to say.

  5. In my friend’s tabletop system which I am currently playtesting, he decided to take on another quite unrealistic thing which exists not only in most tabletop systems, but in cinematics and video games: Bleeding.

    While my class hasn’t allowed me to toy with it too much, internal bleeding caused by bludgeoning weapons can be very deadly. You have a certain number of points which are your “blood points” which can deplete very quickly if you’re sufficiently injured. The only downside to relying on this that I’ve seen so far is the fact that his system is built to have extremely fast combat. (When we’re not doing the whole wizard-duel thing, combat tends to last around 5 rounds) I’m not exactly sure how long it would take to bleed someone to death, but I’ll be experimenting as soon as I get the opportunity to teach my character to bludgeon things…. …

    [Not a horrendously relevant comment, but I read through the three portions of your post and it brought this to mind]

  6. Bludgeoning damage vs cut/pierce/burn/freeze damage has always been a big question. You don’t want fists to be as powerful as chainsaws, but you don’t want a sledgehammer to be less deadly than a dart. I was kind of thinking this system would give an extra effect to bludgeoning weapons so that, while they might not do the damage of a blade, they might “shock” the character’s Statuses a little more (getting the wind knocked out of you is going to have severe effects on Stamina, Balance and Awareness).

    Though, I can see the relevance of your post, as Bleeding sets up an extra dimension for combat, as it’s a DOT (death over time) effect. Funny thing is that Infantry has a DOT effect with certain chemical and biological weapons, which again adds dimension to the game.

    Thanks for posting. It certainly gives me something to think about.

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