I’ve been thinking a lot about combat systems for roleplaying games, enough that I’ve decided to start a series of blog posts about it. I think everybody who has run a table-top RPG as game master is secretly working on designing their own game, and I’m no exception. I’ve been working on mine off and on for years. Some of my very early blog readers might remember some of the ideas I posted way back when.

My thoughts on RPG design have changed quite a bit since then. My primary influence in the beginning was MERP (Middle-Earth Roleplaying), also called Rolemaster Lite by some, which is now out of print. MERP and especially Rolemaster have a lot of things I like, namely the detailed critical wound charts and the unique damage possibilities for each weapon and armor combination, but I’ve since run across a number of other games that have drastically changed my opinion of how my ideal game would work.

The Riddle of Steel (TROS) revolutionized my view of how RPG combat can work, with the idea of defenders being able to choose their own defensive maneuvers and actually roll for them at the same time as their attacker. There’s a lot more, though:

  • the idea of having a whole pool of dice that you have to ration between attack and defense
  • historically-based combat maneuvers each with unique effects
  • the idea that initiative simply means you’re currently attacking, and two people could easily attack and kill each other simultaneously if they’re not careful
  • no abstract hit points; instead, concrete wounds and pain levels are used
  • getting bonuses to your attacks when you’re fighting for something your character believes in
  • the idea that if you want your character to be good at combat, you actually can be—you aren’t forced to start out as a level 1 weakling

Unfortunately, The Riddle of Steel is out of print. Fortunately, there are another couple of games based on TROS that use many of the same mechanics. One is Blade of the Iron Throne, which seeks to provide games in the sword and sorcery genre. It’s available as a free PDF download. Another is Song of Steel, a game of historical military drama, which is still in development.

Codex Martialis approaches combat in a very similar manner to The Riddle of Steel, but with significant differences due in part to its reliance on the d20 system framework. Codex Martialis has an increased emphasis on differentiating weapons and their fighting styles, so weapons get bonuses when used at the range they were designed for. Other things I like:

  • historically-based “feats” allow you to customize your fighting style based on your chosen weapon
  • certain defense rolls grant you automatic counterattacks, making combat much more dynamic
  • some rolls results in a “bind,” the meeting of weapon-on-weapon that can trigger special offensive and defensive maneuvers
  • armor acts as damage reduction
  • hit points are capped
  • critical hits don’t require an additional roll to see if they actually happen
  • crits can deal even more extra damage when using an attack that your weapon was designed for.

I’ve also run across a few games that I definitely don’t want to emulate, and I’m grateful for those, too. Burning Wheel is an awesome game in many respects. I love its brilliant lifepath character generation, and it relies on dice pools and character motivations much like TROS. But I absolutely loathe the core mechanic of its combat system—you have to choose your actions in groups of three, and once chosen they’re locked in, making it impossible to react to changing circumstances. It adds an interesting level of uncertainty and danger to combat, but it breaks my suspension of disbelief beyond recovery.

I really enjoy the feat system of Pathfinder and the d20 system, because it’s fun to watch your character improve and gain new abilities throughout the game. But some feats are pretty silly (Deafening Criticals, anyone?). I also dislike its turn-based combat resolution. Pathfinder and D&D 3.5 aren’t the only games to feature turn-based combat, but they are the primary ones to have invented a bunch of nonsensical mechanics around it (attacks of opportunity, frozen statue syndrome when it’s not your turn, etc.).  There’s more that frustrates me about the d20 system: ridiculously high hit point levels and the strange rationalization that being getting hit by an attack doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve actually been hurt or even struck until the one that reduces you to 0 hit points, the silly idea of having to rememorize spells every day, the outrageous inflation of gold currency . . . the list goes on.

And I have yet to come across a game that makes archery actually interesting, not to mention even remotely realistic.

Of course, my gaming experience isn’t really that extensive. There are games I feel I should probably play. For example, I’ve never played GURPS, but the little I’ve heard about it makes me think I would like some of its mechanics. But I’ve read dozens of game manuals, scouring their combat rules for something that excites or intrigues me, only to be disappointed time and time again with a mundane reliance on hit points, initiative rolls, turn taking, frozen statue syndrome, generic weapons, and so forth.

So I’ve been working on my own combat system that combines all of my favorite mechanics without making it too complicated. I’ll be sharing some of my ideas on the blog in the future.

What are your pet peeves about RPG combat, and what are your must-have mechanics?

RPG Combat Ideas

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Aaron
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I’ll admit I have thought about making my own role playing adventure, but I haven’t put much thought into making my own system! I will have to look into it more to come up with concrete opinions of what must stay and what has to go. Here are a few off the top of my head. 1) From riddle of steel I LOVED that you could pick where you were trying to hit your enemy. In accordance with that, and drawing from merp here, the specific crits! I hate hitting someone with a hammer and chopping something off or causing… Read more »

Ing
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Yep, I’ve thought quite a bit about making my own roleplaying system. Most of my attempts have been along the lines of adapting things I already know (Merp/Rolemaster, John Wick’s “advantage” system) to things like Old West gunplay, the Richard Sharpe novels, or Harry Potter. For the purposes of medieval-style fantasy games, my criteria would be a lot like Aaron’s, so I’ll follow his points. 1. Detailed critical wounding and the possibility of instant kills are a must. I’ve only played The Riddle of Steel once, but its combat looks awesome. Results that follow logically from the weapon used are… Read more »

Aaron
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I really do like the idea of making your gender a bigger decision than what picture you like best off of google for your class. I agree with Ing that maybe women can be more talented in casting. I also agree with Ben that if someone wants a huge buff woman, their attractiveness and attached traits would suffer. Maybe you could introduce certain classes that are only available to women, or only available to men. I remember in the game crystalis for NES there was a village entirely of women. Maybe something like Zena warrior princess, with unique class benefits.… Read more »

Ian Plumb
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Ian Plumb

Hi Ben, Disclaimer: I ran the trosfans forum, I am involved in the production of Blade, I was involved in the production of Codex. Feel free to take that into account should I mention those games. Apologies for coming to this so late — I periodically search for references to Blade and for some reason this one didn’t hit the radar until now. It is an interesting discussion! When you design your game my advice is to list your design goals for the game. Don’t cherry-pick other systems mechanics and try to massage them into a smooth whole. Instead —… Read more »

Ian Plumb
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Ian Plumb

Heh Ben, In the original game both the template and the gunslinger illustrations were quite large — a full page illustration and a half page template. Each ring would have been a little less than half a centimeter in size. The quadrants were also quite small. In the game I’m working on (aren’t we all??), all targeting (magical, missile, thrown) is handled like the above. However, instead of an illustration and a transparent template we will have an app that allows you to pose and rotate the target in 3d space, and then overlay the template. This allows for a… Read more »

Alex
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Alex

I’ve grown up around these roleplaying RPGs and I agree that although they hold promising stories, creatures and imaginative adaptations of greek, norse, asian myth they do lack playable systems. The Adv’ D&D system bores me to tears and takes forever for anything to be done, the charts and factors the DM has to take into cosideration are 9 times out of 10 pointless and time consuming. Over the years (Around 20 for me and 30 for my father and uncles) we’ve developed a system for all manner of tasks which have made our RPG experiences enjoyable without all the… Read more »

Ewan
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Ewan

Dear Ben I am writing a fan rpg for the web show RWBY. reading the article you wrote about TROS and the part about having a pool of dice. Well, it reminded me of a game called Faster Than Light (FTL)and how it’s power system is where you devote points to certain systems on your ship. well i got the idea of gaining more points to put in either offense or defense by either leveling up or killing bosses.

Bevillia
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Bevillia

Well, to say this is a little after the event would be a bit of an understatement, but someone on the Pathfinder forums linked me to your blog for Crossbow Rates of Fire, and I have enjoyed the look around. For me, the ‘ideal’ level of combat would be mid-way between ‘true’ combat, and fantasy fights. No-one would really like to enter combat, and have their character immediately taken out by an arrow to the throat. Conversely, it wouldn’t be much of a combat if it lasted ten minutes without a casualty. In the game idea I have bouncing around,… Read more »