An Example Fudge Implementation of “Combat Profiles”
What started as some rough ideas and thoughts on the combat experience in roleplaying games, developed in a kind of simplistic theory I called “Combat Profiles”. After some discussion, I put together this system as an example of using these concepts. In fact, putting together this system has helped me scope and define the ideas into something more tangible, but that’s for another day. This system priorities player-experience over strategy or realism but doesn’t try to exclude anything either. I don’t know if it delivers, as I haven’t tested it yet.
It uses Fudge and Story Elements, as I believe they are uniquely suited to “Combat Profiles” compared to the other systems I’ve played (of course I haven’t played every system out there). It is task-based (i.e. not “conflict resolution”), another of my biases I guess. However I believe the general principals can be applied to other systems. It’s geared as a system that can be applied to all settings and all combat situations. The system attempts to define what combat is to understand how to apply it.
This system is in part inspired by the Shadow of Yesterday RPG, Riddle of Steel RPG, Spirit of the Century RPG, Fate System, several Fudge Factor articles and the FudgeList. If you are familiar with these sources, their influence should be obvious.
- What are Combat Profiles?
- Initial Notes
- The Rest of Your Fudge Build
- The Basic Components
- Framing Combat
- Personal Combat
- Mixed Combat (default)
- Fun Mode (optional)
- Abstracting and Scaling
- Scaling Down: From the Macro-story to the Micro-story, a story yet to be told
- Combat Archetypes
- Some Notes on Contexts for Combats
- Final Notes
At the end of 2007, I had a lengthy discussion on the Fudge List last year about a concept I came up with that I originally called “Combat Profiles”. The intention was to describe the different types of “combats” in roleplaying games. Combat though, in this case was just as much about physical violence as other scenarios like social events, large-scale battles, wars, etc. Combat is an essential element of any roleplaying system even if you don’t have physical fighting. Drama is conflict and big conflict is combat. Therefore a generic-oriented combat system is applicable across many types (if not all) roleplaying games. If a story or game doesn’t have some form of drama, why then are you playing it?
As it turns out, calling them “Combat Profiles” was a too ambitious. I had come up with only two “profiles” and these can be stretched and bent to cover practically any other combat. They are more “modes” of combat and I ended up also identify a number of combat archetypes, which would fit the idea of profiles much better. This combat system attempts to take advantage of two main profiles/modes and how they can be applied to combat archetypes. I’m pretty sure there are systems out there that probably do this a lot better but I don’t know them and anyway, I like to tinker.
This is a conceptual system, which is in other words a system that hasn’t been play-tested. If it gains some traction, I may actually do something serious with it (I was thinking of using it for my LH project) but right now this is very much a thought exercise. By me writing up the system, I’m also designing it. But if anyone is inclined to try it, please inform me of your results!
What this system does not try to cover:
- Character Creation
- Character Advancement
- Mechanisms designed to explicitly support roleplaying or setting specific stuff
- Fudge Points
- Gifts and Faults (though I may suggest some build-specific gifts/faults)
I’m assuming you are familiar with Fudge. If not, but your familiar with RPG systems in general, then most of this will still be familiar to you. We are going to be using Attributes and Skills. Fudge at its most flexible allows players to choose their own Attributes and Skills, even to drop the use of Attributes altogether (Fate and Spirit of the Century replace Attributes with “Aspects”). However for TDO Combat Fudge to work, not only do we need Attributes, everyone needs to have the same set of Attributes (be patient, all will be explained). Attributes describe the raw abilities or potentials of your character. Your set of Attributes needs to cover all the bases, specifically all the types of combats (in the abstract) that you intend to have in your game. (Or rather the damage they can suffer). If you’re going to have physical combat, you probably need something like Strength, Stamina and/or Agility. If you’re going to have social combat you’ll probably need Charisma, Wits and/or Appearance, etc. You don’t have to have four or five Attributes per type of combat, just one can be enough. Your choice of Attributes will probably flavour your combats a lot. For example, you might have something like this:
(Based off Five-Point Fudge)
As for Skills, we need to make sure the granularity of the Skill choice is fine-tuned for TDO Fudge Combat. When we get down to Combat you should be using just one Skill to attack and defend in any one combat. I don’t mean that you can’t have several combat Skills (such as different martial arts) but that your Skills aren’t broken down beyond having a max of two Skills for the one type of combat: one for defending and one for attacking.
We’ll also be using Story Elements. If you use Story Elements normally, you don’t have to change anything outside of combat, however once the fists, insults or bullets start flying, we’ll have to place some constraints on Story Elements, which we’ll explore later.
You must have also some way to determine Initiative (determining order of characters’ actions). It can’t be some random mechanism but it should be noted that Initiative is not used all the time in combat. You could use a Skill (even one specifically for this), a Gift or Fault, an Attribute, some calculation based on a combination of some or all of the previous options or use the most applicable Skill to the Combat.
Just a reminder, Skills and Attributes are generally rated like this in Fudge:
|Numeric Shorthand||Trait Ranking/Level|
|-4||Abysmal or Non-Existent|
Combat is defined by the fact you have more than one party in direct conflict with each other. Combat containing more than one party breaks down into at least two sides but can be more.
There are two types of attacks to consider. An Opposed Attack is one where the party being attacked can resist. For example, someone swinging a fist at another person would be an opposed attack because the person being attacked can block and/or even attack back. An opposed attack does not mean that the defender can or must attack back, but potentially they may. An opposed attacks work in a very similar way to how opposed actions do.
An Unopposed Attack is one where the party being attacked cannot resist or fight back. For example, shooting at someone is an unopposed attack: in a semi-realistic game, a human (unless enhanced by supernatural or technological means) cannot defend them-selves from a bullet.
Both Unopposed and Opposed Attacks will have set difficulties and use modifiers as per making normal actions in Fudge.
Parties involved in combat can also increase their attack and defence by using Armaments and Protection. In physical combat these roughly break down as armour and weapons, but that’s a weak description because they can be used to cover a much wider range of possibilities. For example, an Unopposed Attack can be made more difficult by creating Protection in advance such as wearing armour.
Only one Armament or Protection can be taken into account for any one attack or defence resolution. The player must choose which one applies for that roll if more than one option available. The benefits of multiple Protections or Armaments are not cumulative and by default the highest one counts. It is also permissible to use the same “thing” for both Armament and Protection, for example, many weapons give values for Armament and Protection. Also, some Protections only work against some Armaments or attacks, so choosing them can be critical.
In general, Protection and Armaments should be interrupted broadly. If a player thinks that something should give her some advantage in combat, it should. These rules are here to model the vast array of possibilities that players can take advantage of: from weapons and environment conditions to knowledge and beauty. In the right context, even a character’s Faults can be used for Armaments and/or Protection.
There are two types of Armaments and Protections. The first type, Improvers, simply improves a characters existing Skill to attack or defend. A Protection Improver can often work without the use of any Skill (such as armour, cover, protective action from another party, etc.). But many Armament Improvers require some degree of Skill to first make use of. The second type, Enablers, enables the character to attack or gives some sort of defence. Without it they may not be able to attack or defend at all. Many enablers are also improvers. There may also be other restrictions too: Physical weapons are often bound by range for example. If you have a Knight using a sword attempting to attack an Assassin armed with a knife, the Knight is making an Unopposed Attack because the sword enables him to do so. However, the sword’s advantage is range. If the Assassin gets the initiative (or uses a Combat Manoeuvre) she could close the range and make the sword useless but enable her to have an Unopposed Attack but the Knight’s armour will provide protection against the attack (improver) but not actually enable a defence.
As per the use of weapons in normal Fudge, Armaments and Protection are rated from 0 to +3 and higher. A rating of 0 may mean it provides no numeric advantage but there are other advantages to using Armaments and Protection as above. The value of Armaments and Protections can also fluctuate in combat. In general you have static ratings and you have decreasing ratings. Static rated Armaments and Protections maintain their rating as long as they are being used. This is the standard for melee-based weapons. However this can often mean the Armament or Protection can be dropped or lost in whole, like dropping a sword. Armaments with decreasing ratings will decrease in some value each time they do a certain amount of hit-points of damage. Likewise, Protection with decreasing ratings will decrease in value for some value of hit-points of damage they stop, like a shield or a blocking weapon.
Other parties in a combat can provide Protection to a character. For example, one party could do continuous cover-fire so that another party can reach better cover (better Protection) from a hidden sniper. The rating of the Protection is, generally, equal to the Degree of Success. The same is not true for Armaments. If an ally attempts to “aid” in an attack by providing an Armament, they are essentially a second attacker.
Skills can provide Combat Manoeuvres. These are special actions or effects that your character can perform because they have learned or practiced them as part of learning/using that Skill. They can improve attacks, gain initiative, provide protection, etc. and can even break the rules (a bit).
Manoeuvres can be used to distinguish one Skill from another Skill used in the same type of Combat. For example two Martial Art skills could provide different Manoeuvres. Boxing may give powerful combos for Manoeuvres while Judo may give Manoeuvres to grapple and throw an opponent. Non-physical combat also makes use of Manoeuvres from making sophisticated play on words for social combat to debate techniques in arguments. Manoeuvres can also help to highlight the specialised benefits of any particular Skill. For example, an Assassin Martial Art might have “Surprise Stun” or “Surprise Kill”. These two manoeuvres both require the assassin to have the element of surprise but if successful do twice or more damage and ignore many types of Protection, the fun is getting close enough to use them! No other Skill will have such an “instant kill” kind of manoeuvre. Manoeuvres, of course, can be used at any time but they are most useful during Personal Combat.
Basic attacks and defensive moves can be considered implicit manoeuvres for a Skill; once you have a particular Skill at any level you can do (or attempt) the basic attack and defence for that Skill though you have to decide what it means to attack or defend with that Skill.
The number of Manoeuvres a character knows for any particular Skill depends on the rating of the Skill. A character must have at least Fair in the Skill before they can learn or train a Manoeuvre.
|Trait Ranking/Level||Number of Combat Manoeuvre Slots|
|Abysmal or Non-Existent||0|
These are not the same as Gifts or “Stunts” from Spirit of the Century (Spirit of the Century also has a concept of manoeuvres). They may break combat rules but they are intended not to give additionally abilities but to model the practiced and learned techniques that come with a Skill. In combat and particularly Personal Combat, a fight can be intense and so it is often hard for parties in-game and players out-of-game to see objectively and often get carried up in the action. Manoeuvres then represent trained reflexes that characters have picked up along the way of using and learning a particular Skill.
Of course, none of us want to be writing up pages and pages of potential manoeuvres for each Skill. So instead, characters have Combat Manoeuvre Slots for each Skill depending on the rank of that Skill (see the table above). For example, a Good Skill would give two slots and Great would give three. Combat Manoeuvres must be learned so it’s up to you as the games-master if you wish to charge some Experience Points to fill a Combat Manoeuvre Slot (though I suggest a very small amount, maybe only 1 or 2 Experience Points).
A player can have his character attempt a Custom Manoeuvre if the appropriate Skill is at least Fair. This can be a brand new technique or be a currently unselected Combat Manoeuvre for this Skill. This should cost some Experience Points to do as they player is drawing on the experience of the character to use their Skill. The Custom Manoeuvre will also be at a -1 penalty (or -2 if it’s a rather extreme Manoeuvre). Players should not be forbidden from trying Manoeuvres as long as the games-master and the other players think it is within keeping of the Skill and game. If a Custom Manoeuvre is successfully pulled off and the player has some Combat Manoeuvre Slots free, the player has the option right then to buy it (minus the Experience Points she has already spent) and put it in the slot. If they can’t buy it then or they chose to do so later, they can but must pay the full Experience Point cost. You may allow a player using a Skill less than Fair to spend a Fudge Point to attempt a Custom Manoeuvre.
A nice way to use Manoeuvres, if you have the time, is to create a physical set of cards for each Manoeuvre a player has. The players (and games-master) then have something to quickly flick through during combat (and fiddle with when nervously waiting for their character’s action in combat) and can “throw them down” when they use them. Using cards can make “Feints” and “Setups” all the more fun when they get thrown down after both parties have rolled their dice.
Some ideas for Gift and Faults based on Combat Manoeuvres:
Skill Potential Gift: A character with this gift can learn Combat Manoeuvres for a Skill when their Skill is only Mediocre. (This could be applied to a group of Skills that fit some theme or concept)
Muscle Memory Gift: A character with this gift can attempt to use or attempt any Manoeuvre your character has seen for any physical Skill.
Skill Plateau Fault: A character must fill each Combat Manoeuvre Slot before buying the next level of that Skill. If your system does not have a cost for learning Combat Manoeuvres then with this Flaw they cost at least one Experience Point for that Skill.
Here are some examples of Combat Manoeuvres to give you a flavour of what can be done with them. They are not canon but are provided for inspiration. I’ve done nine generic ones and I could do several more in the same vein. Designing Combat Manoeuvres for specific Skills can give you a very strong feel for what that Skill can be used for in Combat and also give you a feel for the different types of Combat that the Skill can be used in.
Block: Blocking is one of the most basic defences. You meet an attacking force by putting something in the way and pushing back. If you block with some Protection that can’t take the incoming force, it’s not going to be much good; using your arm to block a sword-attack is not a good idea, but using a decent shield to block a sword is. A block can also be used to give Protection to someone else. If a block is much more powerful than the incoming attack, it can have some backlash on the attacker (breaking their weapon, sending them flying back, etc.)
In Social Combat, this is equivalent to bluntly standing up to someone or throwing a direct counter-point/strategy against another strategy. It’s obvious and though it may stop the attack, it may only increase the ferocity of following attacks as it serves to anger the attacker, however it is the most instinctive reaction.
Parry: Parry is similar to block but instead of stopping the incoming attack, you deflect it. Unlike a block it is much more subtle but lends itself to follow-up attacks. In Social Combat, deflecting incoming attacks is much more efficient than blocking them: deflecting insults with laughter or breaking logical arguments by confusion for example.
Dodge: Unless you are using a dodging Skill, the ability to dodge may not be a natural part of your Skill though it could be the default defence too. Dodge is the ability to not be where an attack lands. It requires the ability to foresee or guess where a type of attack is coming from (or instead just luck). A Martial Artist might train their body to instinctively react to an incoming punch or kick. However, dodging is all or nothing affair. If the character fails to dodge they take the full blow (a Block would reduce the damage). Dodging is normally harder to do than blocking however succeeding on a Dodge can give an advantage on a following attack.
Dodging in Social Combat can come in many forms: avoiding people at a party, avoiding answering questions or being tied down to one point or strategy. Being able to dodge social attacks is the skill of Diplomats, Celebrities and Politicians, as they use to avoid answering tough questions.
Dodging is the basic defence for thieves, assassins and others who live by stealth. For example guards make perception or investigation “attacks” to find hidden characters and so if you wish to remain hidden you must completely avoid those attacks or be found. You must, simply, not be there. This is the same for being hunted.
Evade: Evade is a very powerful extension of the Dodge manoeuvre. Not only do you avoid the attack, your attacker must now do something (such as move in) to attack you again. This sort of manoeuvre is again more difficult than dodging but is also limited by circumstance. If your character is pinned, they can’t evade (though they may be able to dodge). But it is the manoeuvre required for fighting multiple opponents because it allows you to handle one opponent at a time (otherwise you’ve got to split your dice among all of your attackers).
Feint: A Feint or Fake attack is a powerful technique. Your character appears to attack, hoping that the defender commits to the defending it. If the defender does commit, he leaves himself open to your real attack. To use it, a player would declare it after both parties have already rolled. However the player can only use it once, every repeat attempt, against the same party increases the difficulty by one (or more).
Combo: A Combo is a combination of attacks and other manoeuvres. This could allow several attacks from the one roll or the usage of several manoeuvres (like Feint followed by a Power-Attack). Though each attack/manoeuvre would probably require ranks or points to use and each combo is probably configured with a static cost for each. Using a Combo as a Custom Manoeuvre should also be at a +2 to difficulty (but if you pull it off…).
Power-Attack: A character could have a special attack that does more damage or power. This is often at the sacrifice of something else, like speed, range, subtlety, style, etc. But can be devastating.
Setup/Trapping: This manoeuvre would allow a character to setup their attacker for some purpose. For example, in a fight a Martial Artist may let her guard down or throw her leg out to try and lure her attacker into making an attack for it. If successful, the Martial Artist would have some technique to take advantage of the attacker’s attack. This manoeuvre may simply win initiative or be part of a combo.
A hunter might use this manoeuvre to lure his prey or to prevent the use of Evade. In a race, a pilot might appear to give space, only to close it off if a competitor tries to pass and thereby force the competitor to lose time.
All-out Attack/Defence: A character, with this manoeuvre, forsakes either their defence or attack to gain bonuses on their attack or defence, perhaps +2 or even +3. This is not always available for every Skill, however it can be the desperate edge needed in a combat situation.
In a combat system that can be used for any type of combat, damage no longer tracks how many physical (or mental) hit points you have left. Instead it tracks the effects of winning and losing on your ability to continue the combat. This is crucial. You can only fight as long as you have ability to fight.
So in Personal Combat, the damage is done to your ability to stay in that Combat; this is called Task Damage (can also be called Skill Damage but that can be misleading). When a character is unable to continue a fight, they are taken-out and their Task Damage shakes out and becomes Splash Damage to their Attributes (which can also be called Attribute Damage). The advantage of using Tasks and Attributes to track damage gives even the most abstract “damage” a psychological hook for the player to hang it on.
Damage is very much contextual and how long it lasts, its effects, etc. are determined by how you have framed the combat (see relevant section). Like Armaments and Protections, the games-master must be ready to use common sense about how Damage is used. In most cases it’s obvious but when it’s not, the games-master will have to make a call. Player’s input should always be considered.
To track Task Damage, we use the standard Fudge Wounds. Penalties from Task Damage apply to all actions taken within that “Task”.
|||Very Hurt||5, 6||-2 or can take a Mild Consequence|
|||Incapacitated||7, 8||Take a Consequence|
|||Near Death||9+||Take an Extreme Consequence|
“Incapacitated” means the character can no longer fight and must take a Consequence. “Near Death” means the character suffers an Extreme Consequence. A character can opt to take a Mild Consequence for their first “Very Hurt” wound instead of losing a hit point.
Consequences are bound by the context of the combat. They cannot extend beyond that scope. For example a physical combat consequence could be serious bleeding wounds however a social combat consequence could not be. A Mild Consequence is the same as rolling a Critical Fail, something bad happens to the character; they lose their weapon, run out of bullets, trip, make a very revealing slip of a tongue, etc. A normal Consequence means the character can no longer continue to fight and often means they no longer have any form of defence. An Extreme Consequence means the character is taken out of the fight but is also at risk of some permanent damage or loses of ability and without help something pretty bad will happen.
If a Personal Combat is disengaged or broken out of, the Task Damage is then shaken out to Splash Damage. Also, suffering any sort of consequence will break out of Personal Combat, as often the net result of a consequence is that a character can no longer defend them selves.
Splash Damage is the basic default damage: When a character suffers damage from an attack (outside of Personal Combat), the games-master must decide to what Attribute it belongs to. Physical damage would go to some physical Attribute like Health while social-based damage might go to Charisma. Similar to Task Damage, Splash Damage has a wound track but for each Attribute. Any penalties from Splash Damage apply to any task that comes within the scope of that Attribute. So if you have Splash Damage on Health, any physical action would be affected by Health and therefore suffer the penalty.
There is another difference between Task and Splash Damage. Higher rating Attributes give more hit point boxes. (Note to self: Should lower rated Attributes give less hit point boxes? This would mean that Task Damage must be limited by the Attribute…). Characters also suffer consequences as per Task Damage. Splash Damage consequences also have larger scope than Task Damage and can be more general.
|Attribute Ranking||Extra Splash Hit Points|
|Abysmal or Non-Existent||None|
|Superb||-1, -1, -2, -2|
|Legendary||-1, -1, -1, -2, -2|
When Task Damage is shaken out to Splash Damage, the damage changes (but consequences remain!). The hit points roll up. If you have an empty hit point between two wounds, then the wound moves up to fill that empty hit point. Say you have Task Damage like this:
The Hurt wound would become a Scratch wound and the Very Hurt wound would roll all the way up to a Hurt.
If your Splash Damage for that Attribute already has a few wounds, then the empty hit points between used hit points will be filled first. When shaking out damage to Splash Damage a character should not suffer a double consequence for the same task. But if the Splash Damage track already has damage and shaking out the damage can push the damage into Incapacitated or Near Death, then the character will suffer a new consequence or the existing one gets worse (which ever makes most sense in the context). Basically, if a character suffers a mild consequence, she can’t suffer another mild consequence for the same wound because of shaking out the damage. The same is true for normal and extreme consequences. (But it could get worse). (Note to self: Should consequences roll-up too?).
If a character has applicable Splash Damage going into some Personal Combat, they start with the hit points filled up to the current Splash Damage penalty. The penalty is not cumulative. The character suffers the higher penalty of Splash or Task Damage.
Because Splash Damage is used in an abstract way, damage is healed “dramatically”. Scratch wounds can be forgotten about as soon as combat is over. Hurt wounds last till the end of the scene while Very Hurt until the end of the Session (or when your games-master feels it appropriate). Incapacitated and Near Death wounds are pretty serious. Generally they should be healed up by the next adventure or story. However, depending on the type of game your running, such wounds may impact over several story-adventures. In more gritty settings, such damage may never be properly healed.
|Wound Type||Healing Time|
|Scratch||End of Combat|
|Hurt||End of Scene|
|Very Hurt||End of Session|
|Incapacitated||End of Story or until next Downtime|
|Near Death||End of Story or until next Downtime|
So now we’ve got all the basic mechanics in place, we can briefly look at how it’s all resolved. I really haven’t modified anything here from the standard Fudge so I’m not going to repeat how you work out the result of a roll. I just want to show you here how it applies to the original rules.
An Unopposed Attack is treated like an Unopposed Action and an Opposed Attack is treated like an Opposed Action. Penalties from Task or Splash Damage are modifiers to the roll. The attacker must succeed in his attack and the Degree of Success goes towards the Offensive Damage Factor. If the attacker fails or cannot beat the defender, there is no damage done.
To calculate the damage inflicted on the losing defender work out the Offensive Damage Factor (ODF) for the attacker and the Defensive Damage Factor (DDF) for the defender.
Offensive Damage Factor = Degree of Success + [Armament] + [Scale]
Defensive Damage Factor = [Protection] + [Scale]
Armament, Scale and Protection are only used if they are applicable to the combat. (Scale mentioned here is not the same “Scaling Up” described later). Remember a player must choose only one thing to use as their Armament for any one attack (and likewise the defender chooses only one thing to us as their Protection). Scale should only be included if it makes senses. (Note to self: What does “Scale” mean in non-physical combat like social combat? Could be status in certain cultures, King versus a peasant?)
Wound Type = Offensive Damage Factor – Defensive Damage Factor
If the Wound Type is a negative or zero value then no damage is done.
|No Wound||<= 0|
|Very Hurt||5, 6|
- Opposed and Unopposed Attack
- A mechanic is required to calculate Initiative based on character’s traits.
- Protection and Armaments
- Types: Improvers and Enablers
- Ratings go from 0 to +3 (and higher). Can have Static and Decreasing Rating.
- Only the benefits from one Protection or Armament can be considered for any one roll, Player’s choice.
- Combat Manoeuvres represented trained and learned techniques of a Skill that can be used in combat
- One Combat Manoeuvre Slot per rank above Mediocre.
- Custom Manoeuvre can be performed at a +1 (or +2) difficulty modifier and some Experience Points. A successfully pulled off Combat Manoeuvre counts as having learned it and can be bought immediately if Slots free.
- Damage “tracks the effects of winning and losing on your ability to continue the combat“.
- Splash Damage is applied to Attributes.
- Task Damage shakes out to Splash Damage. Hit Points are rolled up.
- ”Incapacitated” and “Near Death” Wound Types cause the character so suffer a Consequence and Extreme Consequence. Players can chose to take a Mild Consequence for a “Very Hurt” wound instead of losing a hit point.
- Healing is done “dramatically” as opposed to mechanically.
- Wound Type = ODF – DDF = (DegreeOfSuccess + Armament + Scale) – (Protection + Scale)
I’m guessing right now, you think you have everything to run combat. You don’t, there is something more we need to talk about before we go into running combat. There is a concept floating around called “Framing Scenes”, which is something people do naturally – there is no system for framing a scene, you just do it when you start a scene. But, just like you frame a scene you must also frame a combat (even if it is within a bigger scene or combat). Framing a combat has serious rules-implications for running the combat.
The most important thing to ask yourself, should you really be entering Combat? Carl Craven’s excellent article in F10 and the advice in Spirit of the Century point out that you should only roll the dice when something interesting will happen if they succeed or fail. This implies you shouldn’t roll dice if it nothing interesting will happen (otherwise a high ranking Trait can fail on something stupid which pisses of the player who invested into it). Combat is pretty intense and can have pretty powerful repercussions, so you should really be sure you want to go into Combat. You should only go into full Combat if the conflict is high stakes for the player characters. Another way of putting it is that you should not enter combat unless you intend the outcome to have a radical impact on the direction of the story. In the worse case it could actually stop the game in its tracks (regardless of who wins or loses). If you don’t go into Combat, you can just resolve the conflict using Story Elements (by treating the conflict as one or a few dramatic events) and the normal Opposed/Unopposed Action resolution. (There is one special exception: Fun Mode, see later).
The next important question to answer is there actually a combat here to run? Sounds pretty obvious, but it may not be. Part of the reason I wrote this was because I wondered why none of the big social events within our own games seem to warrant a system to handle conflicts. The reason was obvious – you need to have two or more sides in conflict with each other. In our games, our player characters roleplayed and interacted with the non-player characters, sure there was some tense moments but there wasn’t any conflict. The games-master did not set up any non-player character that was in direct conflict with the player characters.
A better example is a race. If your player character is racing a non-player character, you might like thinking of this race as a combat. You want it to be exciting and dramatic and it automatically has two (or more) parties against each other. If the two parties are on separate tracks and do not interact with each other during the race, then it is not combat Take two engineers working on similar devices in their independent labs. They are racing against the clock and the stakes may be high if the characters fail, but it’s still not combat – it simply a matter of who gets the best time. To turn either of these races into combat and make it even more exciting the player character and non-player character must be able to interact with each other during the race. You’d have to run the combat as a Mixed Combat (see later) but when the non-player character and player character are close, they may battle it out using Personal Combat trying to get the edge. They may throw Combat Manoeuvres like “Blocks” or “Dodges” to get that little ahead and put the other out of action. It would involve espionage and under-handed technique, but hey that’s drama. This could be modelled as Personal Combat; the winner then gets the lead with Splash Damage affecting their speed (i.e. their ability to continue in the race).
Conflict is drama – remember this. If you want to spice up something, add conflict. If you want it to affect the story, make it combat-worthy. Have a non-player character party (or a non-player character controlled side) with goals that conflict or are blocked by your player characters. Essentially you must figure out who are the involved parties and what are the sides of the combat. If you can’t do that, there is no combat to run. There must be direct conflict between at least one player character and someone else (be it another player character or non-player character).
During Combat Framing you may also have to make some decisions about how to applying the combat rules to the current situation. We’ll discuss this in detail in the section on “Abstracting and Scaling” after we’ve talked about the different types of Combat.
So you’ve decided there is a combat to be had here and perhaps some character has already made the first attack. Make sure you have some idea how this combat can end. Must one side annihilate the other or are there other exit conditions such as external events (example: the Queen calling out that “enough blood has been split this day!”)? If you are applying the combat rules to a new situation, you must decide what “annihilate” might actually mean. Certainly other combat situations then physical fighting like social combat would provide softer exit conditions. Another way to phrase this would be “can the characters (player characters or non-player characters) somehow walk away from this combat before being completely defeated?” This might mean they escape with no damage but that doesn’t mean the greater stakes are stopped either (example: the scientist in the lab doesn’t bother to finish the device that could save the world. He gets away with no Splash Damage, but the world won’t be saved.) You may want to let the players know about the exit conditions depending on the context of the situation.
The last thing to do, and arguable the most important, is defining how the Environment affects the combat. You must declare how the contextual environment affects the combat. In fact you must declare at least one Environment Condition for any combat. If you ever to be caught in a fight out doors, you will not always happen to be fighting in a large flat area (where you can see all your enemies) and with perfect light (clear midday sky). You will be fighting at different times of the days (which affect the lighting and therefore what and how well you can see), different types of weather (wind, rain, cold, etc.), with various different layouts (narrow streets, haphazardly arranged boxes in a warehouse, etc.). These things all give modifiers for and against certain actions. Fighting at night will make it very difficult to see incoming attacks and defend against them. Rain may make it hard to keep your balance doing tricky martial art kicks. The slope of the combat area and where various parties are can give advantages and disadvantages. A deadline or a “ticking clock” can be a powerful Environment Condition and add real tension to the Combat.
Environment Conditions work in several ways. Task Modifiers will apply modifiers to specific actions that are attempted (example: heavy rain will slow everyone’s actions so it’ll apply a +1 penalty modifier to all physical actions). Blockers and Enablers prevent or enable actions (example: a narrow alley way will block actions that require space such as an Evade Combat Manoeuvre). Damagers will cause a set damage to any party that is affected by it each round or rounds of actions (example: horizontal sleet will sting the eyes if uncovered). A character can have Protection against this damage (it’s essentially a static attack each few rounds).
While some Environment Conditions are not known at the start of combat, any the player characters would be aware of (and any affecting the non-player characters) should be declared straight up. New Environment Conditions that crop up during the course of Combat will surprise the players as much as their player characters, remember this. You don’t want to frustrate your players because of the way you used the system or what you forgot to tell them. For example, in one frustrating combat I played in, the player characters were being attacked. No matter what the player characters attempted, the games-master made the difficulties huge. The players felt it unfair and got frustrated with the games-master. However, the games-master had forgotten to mention that we were fighting in near-darkness and our characters could barely see anything hence the high difficulties.
Conditions and quality of each type may vary during the combat. The rain may lighten for a moment, the moon peeks out from between the clouds, a flash of lightening illuminates the scene, fashions change, etc. These do have system effects and you should make the player characters aware that these conditions may vary during the combat. However, Environment Conditions are not independent parties in combat. They may do damage, they may stop certain actions and it may be possible for parties to overcome or stop them, but they are not characters. If you want to treat some Environment Condition as a character, you certainly can but it should be done rarely and carefully. For example you could do it, if the player characters have been battling the sea for days in-game and the players have started to anthropomorphise the sea as a “harsh mistress”, if a player character has been planned to scale an infamous mountain that other non-player character climbers call “death mountain”, or an artist player character laments the “fickle nature of fashion” for his failed shows. I’d nearly go as far as to say, that this is an “advanced” technique but I’d hate to do so as that discourages people from using it when the opportunity arises.
- (Stakes) Is it worth going into Combat?
- Who are the involved parties and what are the sides?
- (Abstraction) What is an Attack in this context?
- (Scaling) What is the minimum size of a Story Element within the Combat?
- What are the exit conditions for the parties?
- Declare Environment Conditions. You must declare at least one Environment Condition that impacts the Combat.
- Task Modifiers
- Blockers and Enablers
Sometimes you may need to frame a combat within a large-scale combat, such as a Personal Combat within a Mixed Combat. Occasionally this might be because you move from one scale to another. You must still answer the questions above though most of the time this combats within will inherit the greater combat’s answers.
Personal Combat makes use of Task Damage, Initiative and Combat Manoeuvres. Personal Combat is mostly adapted from Riddle of Steel’s combat system, however “Blood Loss” and “Shock and Pain” have not been ported over.
Personal Combat occurs when at least one player character is being directly attacked by another party (or is attacking) and the player character has the ability to fight back and has some chance of winning (no matter how slight). If the player character is being attacked with an Unopposed Attack, then it is not Personal Combat. You can have multiple player characters and parties involved and we will look at that in a moment.
The sequence of actions in Personal Combat goes like this:
- Declare Stance
- Initiative and Allocate Ranks
- 1st Exchange
- 2nd Exchange
- Repeat steps 2 to 4 until an Exit Condition is met or the flow of Combat is broken
A Story Element is well defined in Personal Combat. Personal Combat is comprised of two “exchanges” between the parties involved. An exchange is normally one “attack” and optionally, defence. A single Story Element then encompasses steps 1-5, made up of essentially two attacks.
If a Personal Combat is stopped, the Task Damage is shaken out to Splash Damage as per the rules described in the Damage section. Personal Combat can stop for a number reasons:
- The player character takes an Incapacitated or worse Wound
- Any of the parties suffers a Consequence (though the parties can re-engage combat afterwards but start from step 1)
- Any of the parties involved is attacked by an external party (such as during a Mixed Combat)
- An Exit Condition occurred
- The effect of a Combat Manoeuvre (like Evade)
- An external event
No other actions besides Attack, Defensive Actions or a Combat Manoeuvre are allowed during Personal Combat (though calling for help or asking for mercy can be considered a defensive action but giving someone strategic advice would not be allowed). Combat Manoeuvres can be used at any point if they make sense to be used at that point. For example a Feint Manoeuvre should really only be played after an attack is rolled while a Dodge Manoeuvre should be played before an incoming attack is made.
When running or designing combats, you should try to engage player characters in Personal Combat and specifically around their specialities. This is where the thrill of combat can really be felt. If a player character is specialised in Unopposed Attacks (like a sniper with long range shots), find a way to make them Opposed Attacks. You can scale combat or change its context, for example, have an enemy sniper fighting back but scale the combat so it involves not shooting but locating each other (once you find the other sniper, you take them out). A good opponent for a player character then is one that is equal or, one or two ranks better than the player character. If you want to throw weaker opponents at a player character then try sending multiple weaker opponents at them. The important thing is to give your players a thrilling combat where they are really fighting but feel like they have a chance.
Before entering Personal Combat, all parties must declare their stance: Neutral, Defensive, Aggressive and Surprised. Characters unaware they are being attacked are automatically considered Surprised. Stances give some bonuses (and penalties) to the first exchange but after that, stance is forgotten.
Aggressive: An Aggressive Stance gives a +1 to any attacks but -1 to any defence.
Defensive: A Defensive Stance gives +1 to any defence but -1 to any attack.
Neutral: A Neutral Stance gives no bonuses or penalties to attack or defence.
Surprised: A Surprised Stance means the character is unaware of an incoming attack. They may be able to make some sort of roll to react but they will be on a -2 penalty.
Parties involved in the Personal Combat now must determine Initiative. Depending on the trait you used, you can either get the involved characters to roll it or use the trait as is. Once the order of Initiative is determined, parties must allocate their ranks.
From the lowest Initiative to the highest, parties must:
- Choose Skill
- Allocate Ranks
- Declare Action: Attack or Defend
Choose Skill: Parties must declare the Skill they are using (if they have a choice). You can use more than one Skill for example, one for defence and one for attack. In raw numeric value there is little advantage to using more than one Skill, as only the lower ranking of the two Skills will be considered. However you can use the Combat Manoeuvres from one Skill for attacks and the other for defence. You can also state what you are using as Protection or Armament.
Allocate Ranks: Parties must also allocate ranks from their chosen Skill (or lowest of their Chosen Skill), declaring how many ranks they are putting into the 1st Exchange and into the 2nd Exchange. They start with twice the number of ranks in the lowest of their chosen Skill (this is to keep difficulties consistent between Exchanges and outside of Personal Combat). If your Fudge build uses some form of Dice Pool, the parties involved must split their dice pool between the 1st Exchange and the 2nd.
The best way to do this is to use counters. For each rank, above Non-Existent, a party gets two counters. For example Fair would give 8 (2 each for Terrible, Poor, Mediocre and Fair) and Great would give 12 (8 for Fair and 2 each for Good and Great). The party must then decide how many counters to put into the 1st Exchange or the 2nd Exchange. For example a player with a Great Skill could decide to put 5 counters into the 1st Exchange and 7 counters into the 2nd Exchange. This gives her Good for the first Exchange and Superb for the second.
To use most Manoeuvres during Personal Combat, the party must allocate ranks to it. You may wish to place a limit on the number of ranks that they can only allocate, limiting it to 7 (i.e. Superb). However it should be noted that Combat Manoeuvres require ranks to be allocated as well though a Combat Manoeuvre can take the place of an attack or defence.
Declare Actions: Parties must now declare their action. Parties with the higher initiative go first so generally the parties with lower initiative will defend. However both parties could attack each other. In this case the party with higher initiative attacks first (the second party has no defence). Damage occurs and then the second party can attack (the first party now has no defence). Depending on the context, parties may have access to a Combat Manoeuvre that allows them to “buy” initiative. Such a Combat Manoeuvre may take Fudge Points, ranks or even Experience points, which ever is most applicable. This may be used to try and strike first if both parties are attacking, a very risky technique.
Swords clash, fists hit and insults fly, the attacker attacks and the defender defends. This is an Opposed Attack using the allocated ranks from Step 2. The winner of this roll can then take or keep initiative for the 2nd Exchange. If there is a tie, the attacker maintains initiative. Damage is resolved and Task Damage is applied instantly taking from any allocated ranks for the 2nd Exchange. Repeat for 2nd Exchange.
Personal Combat can only work if there is “one versus many”, for example two or more player characters against one non-player character (or vice versa). If you have more than one party against more than one party, it is Mixed Combat and Personal Combat rules do not apply.
To handle multiple parties in Personal Combat, a defending party must allocate ranks to each attacking party. Manoeuvres like Evade are critical to surviving multiple attackers. External parties can give Protection to an involved party but cannot give Armaments. If they are giving one party Armaments, they are essentially an attacker.
A technique you can use with Personal Combat is having a “time-shifted” combat where one participant is battling the work of another rather than fighting them directly. For example, an investigator is trying to deduce how a man was shot dead behind a locked door. This technique really only works if it involves a specialty of the player’s character, and is facing an equally skilled or master enemy. The best reason to do this is to turn a boring single-roll check into a full-blown Personal Combat. Using time-shifted combat can allow even dead characters to fight back. Some examples: breaking into a (dead) expert hacker’s secret files or server, figuring out how a crime was committed at the scene, defusing a deadly trap or navigating a maze designed by the player’s nemesis.
If the combat is not Personal Combat, then it’s Mixed Combat. This handles the “many to many” type of Combat (originally I was calling this Team Combat) but it also handles combat consisting of only Unopposed Attacks. This is the default mode.
People experience the passing of time as the passing of events (not fixed slots of time). Therefore, in Mixed Combat, Story Elements break down to the smallest Event that can be experienced in combat. An attack (be it opposed or unopposed) is generally made up of an exchange or multiple actual attacks. People don’t experience combat as each individual strike or punch, but as a flurry of strikes and blocks. Real combat is fast and instinctive. A social contest of insults breaks down into a series of exchanges too (rants, stories, setups, witty exchanges etc.). To actually control your attack so that only one occurs and one only is either a manoeuvre or at a +1 difficulty. Personal Combat is an exchange of attacks and so one round of Personal Combat matches one Story Element.
However, don’t fall into the mistake of treating a Goal as a single Event. Say one player character is attempting to diffuse a bomb. The goal is diffusing the bomb, not the event. Diffusing a bomb requires finding out how to diffuse it and making small changes without blowing up. Each of these subtle actions is an individual event that would be experienced by the character. (You could run this as a Time-Shifted Personal Combat, where the bomb diffuser is fighting against the bomb maker in absentia).
A round in Mixed Combat is a round of Story Elements. Each player in the Combat has one Story Element. To put it another way: each player makes a roll each round. There is also no initiative in Mixed Combat instead order is determined randomly. I’d recommend going around the table, left to right and then the next combat (or even each round) change to right to left. The games-master, after dealing with each player’s action, will then report what the non-player characters (who are not directly involved with a player character) are doing.
To demonstrate the impact of initiative, you could allow characters to have a Gift called Bullet Time (or it could be a Stunt a character can invoke). When invoked all characters within sight or effect of the character with this Gift (i.e. not all characters involved in the combat), must use initiative, like in Personal Combat. The characters declare their actions from lowest initiative (losing) to the highest but act on them from highest to lowest. The action slows down and the character with this Gift can withhold his place in the order and take a later place (or use manoeuvre to move up the order).
While all this lack of initiative and abstract timing might seem a little unrealistic, don’t worry about it. Run with it. The point is not realism but the players’ experience of the combat (which makes it feel more realistic). If someone’s action seems like it might be longer than another players – don’t worry about it, gloss over it and keep the pace up.
However, despite your best attempts it might still occur that one player’s actions do take a considerable longer time then everyone else’s, like a player character sniper patiently aiming her shots. You should try to have every player involved in a Story Element each round. You can try these approaches to resolve “long” events:
Can you break it down into smaller events or actions or even run it as a Personal Combat? Try to take the event and see how it can be run as a Personal Combat. Taking the sniper example, it could become a game of “cat and mouse” rather than pot shots where enemy non-player characters try to avoid getting shot.
Are there other events occurring that would impact this action? For example, if something blows up this can be quite distracting and difficult to maintain focus. The target of the action could be shifted by the events going on elsewhere and would require compensation by the player character. Even running across a field of combat can be broken down into multiple events (unopposed attacks against the runner, the runner maintaining composure against surprise situational events, etc.)
If you scale the action, can it be broken down? We’ll look at scaling combat later, however it can help to scale the action or even used mixed scale.
Damage is, by default, Splash Damage unless a player enters Personal Combat. Characters are not limited to just Attacks or Defensive actions and are free to pursue other goals within the combat (unlike Personal Combat).
I’m sure this sounds completely chaotic, but it’s not. It only appears chaotic and that’s important. Combat is wild and dangerous. You may also restrict the players from the drawing of maps unless it’s to clear up some ambiguity in the games-master’s description. Encourage the players to think from their character’s positions rather than give them a strategic overlay, otherwise you might as well pull out those miniatures.
The only real guideline for running Mixed Combat is Always Think Pacing: Boom-boom-boom jumping from event to event for each player character. Put pressure on the player characters; set a timer, throw in an extra attacker, force player characters into Personal Combat, etc. If a player character does gets caught in a Personal Combat, it can be very intense for the player as events around them unfold and all they can do is defend against their attackers. If the action slows (i.e. the pacing loses its momentum) then perhaps combat is ending or is already over and it might be better to just resolve the rest of the action using normal Story Elements and get back into a story.
A neat little trick is to Pause the combat to describe vividly some event the player characters witness or see or some neat or dramatic actions (be it success or failure) taken by a player character or by some important games-master controlled character. If the pacing has been intense up to the pause, players will be itching to get right back into it even more.
Notice in this section, I haven’t talked about ranges or movement – mostly because I’m not sure I need to. Break actions down into events. If a character is trying to move, just decide the number of events it takes to travel that distance. Will they make it in single sprint or does it involve more than that and so several events (that might require compensation by the player character such as dodging or redirection). If they have enough time to change their mind or direction, then it’s more than one event.
“Fun Mode” is an optional form of combat. Sometimes players want a combat, but don’t want the consequences of it. For example a player character may spar against their old master, a player character may enter a passionate but familiar debate with an old friend, etc. Seeing part of roleplaying is also gaming, players may just want to play instead of role.
Fun Mode states simply that there are no consequences suffered by the participants. The first to suffer what would be a consequence loses the combat. That doesn’t mean that the character to lose (or win) won’t suffer after the combat though. For example, a player character enters a rigged boxing contest and cheats a little to make sure they win. This could be run in Fun Mode. Nobody gets hurt or at least not permanently (as long as everything else is above board). However the player character winning might irk the wrath of those that rigged the contest in the first place, leading to all sort of in-story consequences.
Fun Mode can be used for ritualised duels or contests where there are strict rules about what is allowed and not but you don’t want to introduce a new system to handle it. Instead you can use the existing combat system but flag it as being in Fun Mode. A favourite of mine are “magical” duels. In a full-blown Mixed Combat, magical warriors might let fly with terrible magics that waste their precious magic resources and could create rifts in reality. In a Fun Mode magical duel all the participants will uses less magical resources with no dangerous side-effects yet it is ran like a normal combat.
Of course, any participant can decide to break the rules and do a full-out attack. This only becomes obvious after the first full-out attack is resolved, which means that a player may not be aware that an in-coming attack is actually a full-out attack. Regardless if that full-out attack succeeds or fails, it is obvious that Fun Mode is over and normal Combat takes over. Of course if that first full-out attack lands well, the combat could already be over. A player should indicate before their attack they are going full on. If it’s a games-master controlled character, the games-master should make a note somewhere before the attack and then reveal after the attack what that meant (this technique can also be used to “psyche” players by making notes that are meaningless, though the games-master should reveal them as meaningless afterwards).
We’ve put all the bones in place now but we need to put some meat on our skeleton and that means knowing how to apply the system to any context. Physical combat seems pretty obvious, but what about social, political, stealth or magical combat? What about running an invasion compared to a skirmish, a conference of thousands compared to a board meeting of ten?
There are two questions that you must answer when framing a combat:
- (Abstracting) What is an Attack in this context?
- (Scaling) What is the minimum size of a Story Element within this Combat?
The first question (“What is an Attack in this context?”) deals with Abstracting the Combat. You must decide what is an Attack for this particular situation. In many cases it is obvious; in a martial-art duel, a physical strike is an Attack and a block or dodge is a Defence. But what is an Attack in a social situation such as in a nightclub? It could be an insult, rejection or overt hostility. This can be very different to an Attack in a political debate where politicians subtly undermine opposing positions while trying to strengthen their own and their allies, all through speeches, propaganda and alliances.
You must not only determine what an Attack is, you must also determine what a Defence is, what Protection and Armaments are (be liberal in your interpretation of theses), if the combat is Personal, Mixed or Fun Mode (Personal Combat is the best) and what constitutes a Story Element (an exchange of Attack(s) and Defence(s)). If you can’t determine what an Attack is, then you must really ask yourself if there is actually a combat here at all. If you can define an Attack but not Defence, then the attacks are simply Unopposed Attacks rather than Opposed Attacks (which means no Personal Combat). When attempting to apply combat to a new situation/context, players’ opinions should be considered and if at all possible taken on board.
Don’t forget to roleplay though! While allowing the underlying combat system to determine success and failure and track progress you also need to allow players to roleplay social situations and describe physical success. While it is a game, it’s also about roleplaying characters. You can use the results to determine responses or allow the dice to determine everything – it really depends on the players and the games-master and how it suits them. But you always want to give the players some sense of immersion, right? Consider pausing social-based combat to allow the players to actually roleplay out their successes and failures against the other characters, if they so wish (they may not want to if they are caught up in the combat).
Also, with a new context, you should be careful to identify if there is more than one type of combat going on and if there is differing scales (we’ll talk about scale next). You may need to split a combat down into several distinct combats and scenes instead of running it as one big combat, particularly if the pacing isn’t going to be pumping all the way through. For example say the player characters are gate crashing a political opponents’ big private party. It’s going to be a hostile environment for the player characters and will certainly contain combat. However there are multiple types of combats going on here. For example you may have sneaking in and avoiding being recognised (stealth and security attacks), information gathering (charm/wits against perception), weakening the opponent’s position (charm/marketing against perception/wits) and even physical fights against the bouncers/guards or drunken brawls. You shouldn’t run this as one big combat but a series of combat and scenes. The pacing is broken up and will bounce around. There is also a bigger picture here. The players are attacking a political opponent by gate crashing the party. Is this part of a bigger combat?
Which neatly brings us onto the second question: “What is the minimum size of a Story Element within this Combat?” In normal combat a Story Element equals the smallest event a player character can experience. In Personal Combat, this is one round of exchanges. However, sometimes in framing the combat, you define an attack as something much larger than one personal event. Going back to the previous example of gate-crashing a political opponent’s party, the act of gate-crashing the party could be considered an attack (or a Story Element) of a bigger combat, where the player characters are engaged in political-city combat against nefarious politicians trying to control the city. This is called Scaling (or more exactly Scaling Up) the combat. It is important to be explicit that you are scaling the combat, that you are making a break from the standard/default smallest event definition of a Story Element. Combats should be run on the small subjective Scale unless you are explicit about the differing Scales you are using. If you are not explicit or aware of Scaling, then you are creating an inconsistent and uneven experience. As a guide, any individual combat should occur on the same Scale.
So when you Scale Up a Combat to cover a much bigger event, you are actually stretching the Story Element round to cover a larger perceived event. So when you scale up, what constitutes an event at this scale? Take this example of a scenario: a large army is invading the character’s homeland. The characters are the leaders and generals of the homeland’s armies and must do battle with the invaders. The actual invasion can be run as combat (or just a series of adventures too!), where a single event could be one battle, an assignation attempt, bringing out the siege weapons, summoning the magic of the ancient ancestors, etc. It can be treated as a Mixed Combat (say one character spends her time trying to save the people while others plan and execute the defending strategies) or even a Personal Combat (say one player locks horns with one invading general as they attempt to take control of important strategic location). Of course, you can scale back down too; take one battle in this invasion and play it out to the hilt.
Larger Scale combats also introduce the element of time and this should be factored in as an Environmental Condition. For example, a huge battlefield combat has to consider factors like fatigue, morale and alertness. Characters, over time in these intense events will probably need to take Splash Damage to stamina and morale. Splash Damage also changes and often not only affects the player’s character but other characters and events. Remember that Damage defines a character’s loss of ability to continue fighting and if that ability to fight is the morale of the men in their army (or their lives!) then that is what is lost when characters suffers Scaled Up Splash Damage.
When you’re playing with larger scales like this, Combat takes on another flavour. When you scale back down, the players are entering the Combat with “intent”. They have something to achieve within the greater scaled up combat, i.e. this makes it more like “Conflict Resolution” than Task resolution. (Scaling down a combat is not unlike “Bringing Down the Pain” from Shadow of Yesterday). Running Scaled Up Combat and also choosing when to scale back down should be a consensus of the games-master and the players, not just the games-master’s choice. The players may not want to play out each individual battle within the invasion, but they may want to focus on specific important ones (like the last climatic one or the one centred on their home town).
It is also important to note, you do not have to Scale Up a combat. Often the games-master can run a larger scale combat as a series of adventures or even a whole saga. Deciding to Scale Up combat is like allowing the entire fate of the game (and possible the game-world) to be decided by roll of a few dice.
Finally, when playing within a Scale, you can break the main guideline and have Mixed Scale in a single combat. I’m not sure how effective this is as I’ve said before, this system is untested, but in principal it is quite simple. If one player is playing at a higher scale then the others, she rolls only once per every two (or more) rounds for the other players. This means that one player has to wait it out however the best reason to do this is to allow this player to enter Personal Combat. Significant events during a combat can still force the player to scale back down to the same level as the other players. Going back to our sniper example, if you are running a Mixed Combat and the other players are milling around fighting hand to hand, but one player is the patient sniper you may find that one player is constantly doing Unopposed Attacks. To make it more interesting you could Scale Up the sniper combat and have the sniper enter Personal Combat with an enemy sniper. However if there is an explosion near the sniper character or another one of the player characters is in serious trouble, then the combat will have to scale back down to the same level as the other player characters.
The best way to think of Scaling is to imagine it as separate but interwoven threads of a story. The storyteller/camera focuses on the important Events of that story, not on every action that occurs. (Isn’t that the purpose of a Story Element any way?)
I talked about Scaling Up a combat in the last section. But I never talked about Scaling Down (different to just scaling back down). That is because the lowest scale covered by Story Elements is atomic; our definition of a Story Element in Combat prohibits it, there cannot be a smaller perceived event. To conceptually Scale Down Combat you must move from the Macro-story (i.e. the macrocosm of the game-world) to the Micro-story (i.e. the microcosm of a character’s psyche). The Macro-story is the game-world or setting; it’s the story that involves all the characters i.e. the “outer-character” world. The Micro-story is the inner world of the player character, their mind, their emotions and passions, their hopes and fears.
Combat rolls out the same at all the upper scales: it’s just the context and size of it. A Micro-story of a character is their inner story. Most of the time this is unimportant, it only matters when there is a Marco-story effect caused by an inner conflict of elements. I have not really explored this end of the scale enough and more thought is required. Who controls what side? Does the player control the positive elements of his character while the games-master controls the negative elements (“demons”)? How do Micro-story Splash Damage and Consequences affect the Macro-story?
Perhaps the Micro-story is just too abstract, it could be the hard-limit of combat/drama and beyond the Macro-story another system must take place. There are certainly precedents though. The player characters could be entering the dreams of another character to help her resolve some personal issue she cannot resolve herself in the waking world. (Perhaps her mind is under attack by beings that exist only in this inner world). What about “Spirit Quests” where a character must undergo a spiritual inner journey to discover something about themselves? These examples actually sidestep the Micro-story and pretend the Micro-story is like the Macro-story, the inner world appears like the outer world but the elements in this world are metaphors for Micro-story elements. Guilt of a past crime might appear as an unstoppable cop or hunter that forever chases the character for example. This makes it easy to treat it as normal Combat. Another approach is to simulate the Macro-story effect rather than explore the inner Micro-story conflict like in White Wolf’s Vampire; the battle between human and beast is simulated in the in-game effects of uncontrolled frenzy and unattainable humanity.
Combat can occur in many different ways. This section describes how to approach some common instances of combat in a roleplaying game. Any actual instant of combat can include multiple different archetypes, switching between them at drop of a dice roll, so don’t concentrate on what type of combat you’re running. These are provided to give you a handle on them and make them easier to run.
Overt Combat is the easy to recognize and also the easiest to run. It’s the default for combat. Attacks are obvious and non-abstract: an insult, a gunshot, a punch, a scathing criticism, etc. Likewise the effects of the attack are obvious too. Most physical battles fall within this archetype. This also includes any sort of contest, be it sport or a duel. The opponents are obvious. The attacks are recognizable as attacks. Most of the examples and suggestions through this system describe combats of the Overt Combat Archetype.
Example: A small enemy force surprise-ambush the player’s characters. This starts as a Mixed Combat where the player characters are pinned down by fire after they survive the surprise Unopposed Attacks. As the enemy closes in, the player characters engage in hand to hand, some entering Personal Combat.
In this archetype, there is a goal for each side to achieve. The most practical example of this is a race (race against time or a race to the finish, whatever). Damage done is to reduce the ability of a participant to win or finish the race. The important thing to remember about Goal-Oriented Combat is that there must be interaction between the participants. If both sides have a goal and they are able to achieve it completely independently, then it’s just a matter of seeing who’s the quickest i.e. there is no combat. If participants interact and can and do hinder or obstruct each other, you’ve got a combat. An actual race may involve vehicles at high speed with manoeuvres to block or overtaking each other. Information about weak-posts or the route itself and/or modifications to the vehicles engines can be used as Armaments or Protection. Scaling Up such combats can create great story-arcs, players race against their enemies around to globe to find vital elements of some device while “attacks” obstruct the other side, etc.
Example: One of the player characters is a professional racecar driver. A lot hangs on the next race and one of the other drivers is working for the enemy. During the race, the enemy driver tries his best to take the player character (and other drivers) out of this no-holds-barred race. The combat enters and leaves Personal Combat a lot but that only adds to the tension.
The Assassin prepares her kill, no one will know it was even murder. The Thief doesn’t make a sound as he lands from the hole he made in the roof. The Scout moves from cover to cover but edges closer to the enemy camp unseen. The Snitch stuffs the confidential documents under her skirt. Stealth relies on not being detected (obvious huh?)
The concept of attack and defence in Detection Based Combat is very different to Overt or Goal-Oriented combat. An “attack” is an attempt to either discover something or to hide something. A “defence” is an attempt to hide from discovery (“dodge”) or prevent detection methods from being compromised. To run a Detection Based Combat requires not just someone acting stealthy but also that someone actively searching for something (anything) stealthy. Remember you need at least two sides to have a combat; if you have an assassin sneaking into a low-security residence – there is little combat going – no-one (or no-thing) is fighting back against the assassin’s stealth attacks.
Time-Shifted Combat can work brilliantly here. For example a thief steals something and attempts to cover his tracks. Yet a master-thief catcher tries to figure out who stole it and so a Time-Shifted Personal Combat could ensue.
Example: The player character is a detective. She manages an exceedingly good roll while observing a crime scene of a murder, now she must piece together what, how and who happened. The games-master decides to run this a Time-Shifted Combat where the player character is trying to uncover the truth while the culprit is trying to maintain the deception. At the end of the combat, if the player wins they may know how and who did it but might not have the evidence to charge them.
Combats involving Chases are different to Detection Based or Goal-Oriented combats. There are only two sides and they have defined roles: one side is running (prey) and another side is chasing (hunters). The whole goal of a chase is to either outrun the other side. If the hunters have no trail to follow, the combat ends so damage tracks the ability of the hunters to follow (and possible but not necessarily gain on) the runners and for the runners it tracks their ability to put enough distance between them and their hunters. Depending on circumstances it can be quite difficult to truly shake your hunters; it can’t be done with just speed. It must also involve manoeuvres (like fake trails, dodging or traps) while the hunters just have to maintain a trail on their prey. Of course taking out the hunter works just as well, if not better, but that might not be an option. External events and other actions within bigger combats that contain chases can disrupt and even destroy hunters handle on their prey. Scaled Up Chases can form the basis of entire campaigns as players try to avoid their hunters as they journey across the land or the players must scour every corner of the world to find the enemy spies. Chases also work well within other combats, pilots ducking and diving from the enemy while trying to nail that one shot.
Example: After a devastating guerrilla strike against an enemy base, the player characters have to get out before the enemy can catch them. The players must escape the base to the hills. The enemy is distracting by the damage the players have caused but one character, the nemesis of the player character, has been gone mad and is driven to find them. He and his men rip apart the building trying to find them. The players manage to just stay out of his way.
Political Combat is the “Subtle Combat”. Politics of itself does not indicate Combat. Characters build alliances, generate support and attempt to gain power. It only gets interesting if they make enemies or other parties want conflicting goals. Attacks are attempts to destabilize and steal power from another party, not necessarily use that power. Once a party uses their political power, it becomes Overt Combat. Political Combat can also involve stealth, attacking from unknown sources, i.e. Shadow Politics. Alliances and Information are used as Armaments and Protection. Political Combat works very well as Scaled Up Combats though it works at the normal level too (say taking a political conference or a meeting of governors for example).
Example: The players have been building up contacts and alliances in their city for a couple of play sessions. The games-master decides to shake it up and throw in the “secret” enemy. At a council meeting, some of the unaligned councillors start to throwback the player character’s proposals yet their true reasons are unknown. This is the first Unopposed Attack by the enemy side. The attacks start coming in strong during the meeting, with the players at a disadvantage. The players start to pull in allies and favours to keep their credibility and proposals on the table. Of course without much information about who (or what) is attacking them and they can’t attack back (i.e. they don’t have an Enabler Armament in the form of information). One player drops out of the meeting to try and find out the secret enemy (leading into a Detection Based Combat). The games-master pauses often to roleplay out the tense scenes at the table and the private discussions happening outside the meeting.
There are an infinite number of opportunities in roleplaying games for combat. These different opportunities (or contexts) span social situations and physical confrontations to magical mindscapes and cosmic god-planes. I want to briefly look at a few special cases here to highlight some points.
Part of the inspiration of this system was questioning how to run “social” combat. I came up with Framing Combat to help get a handle on running social-based conflicts. All types of Combat Archetypes can be found in social situations. The word “Combat” can be replaced with “Drama” when you talk about social situations. You don’t necessarily need to use a system to handle Drama, but you need conflict and big conflict is Combat/Drama. Overt Combat in a social situation is trading of insults and harsh words. Goal-Oriented Combat could be attempting to manipulate the “grapevine” with fake (or real) gossip while Detection Based combat could be attempting to hide that manipulation. Even Chases have their place in social situations like trying to avoid answering awkward questions.
In some cases, players may prefer to use the system to play through some social dramas because their characters can do things they can’t. I’m not particularly the most out-going person (or player) myself but I have attempted to play socialites and charmers as player characters. Letting a system play to a character’s strengths as opposed to a player’s weakness, seems like a good reason to use a system to me. Sometimes it is not possible to know how to play-out a social drama and you can use this system just as a guide (i.e. framing the combat). Of course, sometimes players may also feel awkward roleplaying something their character would do easily. For example if your character was the opposite sexual orientation or gender to you and your character was attempting to seduce another character. Some players may feel uncomfortable doing this, so a system can be used to abstract or distance the player from the character but maintain some degree of character immersion (i.e. the character doesn’t act out-of-character at any point). Games-masters and players should figure out between themselves if they want to use a Combat system for social drama and what limits they feel they need to put on it.
How do you roleplay a Riddle Contest when your players don’t know any riddles but your characters do? This has been a sort of riddle (har har!) for me. Sure, you can roll some dice and declare a winner and loser but that’s no fun. You could prepare lists of riddles and let players roll to see if they have an answer, but that requires a lot of prep. The easiest solution is, don’t have a Riddle Contest! But why limit yourself? With this system you can run it as a Personal Combat, allowing you to give players a sense of challenge and fun instead of an arbitrary dice result. (Of course you could use both Personal Combat and lists of riddles to roleplay it too).
Fun Mode is explicitly for in-character contests. It’s called Fun Mode because you want to have some fun with the system without screwing the players up. Sports neatly match either Mixed Combat (team-based games) or Personal Combat (one-on-one games like wrestling or chess). Duels and other sports have strict rules, but in reality rules can be broken and participants can cheat, you don’t want to model the strict rules of the contest, they are handled by roleplaying. The system can handle everything else.
Magic and Supernatural combat in most systems is modelled by its physical effects on the game-world. This has the affect of turning magical combat into a proxy for super-power based combat. But often the mystery and bizarreness is lost when otherworldly powers are reduced to such in-game effects. Magic is often dealt in the abstract (“enlightenment”) in fiction and real-world magical-texts: Wizards may duel each other without any true physical effects, until one wizard falls down dead. Supernatural phenomenon obey their own rules and exist in their own sphere: Fighting the Fair Folk might involve making deals, playing strange games or completely odd quests in strange worlds. Psychics may battle with their minds on astral planes. Such combat is non-physical but still powerful and intense. All this is easily done with TDO Combat Fudge.
I’ve already briefly mentioned the concept of a “mindscapes” (a macro-story representation of a micro-story) but there was a time when I was a White Wolf Fan-boy and Mage was one of my favourite roleplaying games. There was one particular thing I really loved the idea of: a magic user in Mage could suffer a magical backlash that would send them into a magical coma. The only way to recover would be for someone(s) (i.e. the player characters) to enter into this character’s mind and fight off what has locked them in. While I loved the idea, I never figured out how to actually run it. There was no system there to handle it – you were just meant to run it as an adventure. Which left me with too many questions to even bother attempting to run it. But with TDO Fudge Combat you can extrapolate some of basics of this rather odd adventure: When the players enter the mind of the locked-in character, they are immediately entering a combat situation, and they must fight what is locking the character in. This means you must step through Framing the Combat, which involves Abstracting (defining what an attack, defence, armament and protections are) and creating Environment Conditions. Even if you don’t use the combat system, the answers to the Framing Combat questions will give you more than enough to generate a framework for the adventure.
This was mean to be a short example system, but some how my word count has reached over 14 thousand words! And after re-reading it a few times, I’m pretty sure I need to start a second draft. But this is the web? Who ever heard of doing a second draft? I’d like to get some feedback on what I’ve written up first before attempting to repeat the effort I’ve put into this version. If you have any feedback or suggestions, feel free to drop them in the comments. (If you have any thoughts on the differing modes of combat and how they should work, new archetypes, notes on contexts, suggestions for skills/manoeuvres…)
Fudge’s Story Elements, in my humble and small opinion, are the best mechanic I’ve used for running combat, yet they’ve never been developed beyond the basic implementation in the original Fudge, 10 years ago. (At least I’ve never seen any system take it beyond the basics). They do have problems but most free-form game-masters that use them, overlook these flaws. This little system was designed to overcome those little flaws and open up Story Elements to everyone. Story Elements are the prime example of the spirit of Fudge. Fudge is not a generic do-it-all (or DIY) system; it’s a system-toolkit that can be applied to any context, on the fly, in a way that suits the players and game-master, without breaking the game-flow.
The system I’ve presented here is built under the assumption that it’s used for tabletop roleplaying with face-to-face game-master and players. There must be feedback between the players and game-master including the non-verbal kind. When the game-master is pacing combat, she needs to take her cues from the players’ behaviour and interest. That’s why I’ve left a lot of ambiguity in the system so that game-masters and players have wiggle room. However the system is probably not suited to live-action roleplaying and quite probably also not to play-online type roleplaying (though I have little experience with that). One thing that is left vague is who gets to describe what, do players describe results or is it totally the game-master’s domain. This is something that the players and game-master must figure out what they like themselves (every group of players and game-master are different).
And, oddly, the last thing I wanted to say is that this system has made me think about, not just running combat but how to run adventures. All games, at some point, require drama and/or conflict and what combat requires is what drama/conflict requires. It also reminds me that games don’t have to be filled with drama all time. The fun in roleplaying is often in just the act of roleplaying. Systems are just a way of defining scope and resolving conflict fairly (and occasionally excitingly).
When I started writing this, I wanted to pull in lots of other ideas too but it started to turn into some sort of behemoth Fudge build, with no end to anything.
Mike Harvey on the fudgelist posted about capping the Fudge results and it makes sense! People use the adjective trait levels as a mental hook for the numbers, while in fact the numbers are just a short hand for the adjectives. Looking at it this way means that you can’t get a result greater than Superb (Superb +1 doesn’t make sense) and less that Non-existent. When I originally started writing this system up, I wanted to include this idea, but decided it distracted from the scope and purpose of this build.
Paul Taurus on the fudgelist has ported the Pool system to Fudge. The system provides a neat mechanism for splitting a Fudge dice pool, which may be very useful for Personal Combat. The mechanism I describe for Personal Combat was my first stab at it.