Monday, July 20, 2015

The Grappling Post

Okay, this one has been a longtime coming. It's mostly about grappling, but also about other things as well. In particular, this post is about RPGs incorrectly "balancing" certain actions characters take in-game so as to make them un-usable.

Case-in-point: grappling.

Grappling has been maligned as a supermove by game designers for years. Why? Well, I just have no idea, because in all the incarnations of D&D that I've played, grappling sucks major balls. You get nowhere, fast, with grappling. Anything even remotely useful that can be attempted by/while grappling is a result of a half-dozen feats or very specific class features.

Let's take 5e D&D as an example. Grappling your opponent does two things in 5e: it reduces their speed to 0, and lets you move them around how you like. So, until the target escapes from you, which they probably will on their turn, they cannot move of their own volition.

Now, in a combat system with opportunity attacks, which already penalize combatants for trying to move around, not allowing someone to move is kinda lame.

Even more lame, is how difficult it is to do. You have to make a strength ability check, opposed by your targets strength check, in order to grapple them. No proficiency bonus, no advantage for True Strike, nada. Really, it's a 50/50 chance given that you and your opponent will likely have very similar strength bonuses. You may have a +7 to attack rolls, but you're shit outta luck when it comes to grabbing a guy.

You wanna pin a guy? Well, that requires a feat...

And the worst part is that this is by far the EASIEST (not including 4e) grappling system to date! In previous editions, you had to do a rain dance, then make seven athletics checks opposed by knowledge religion checks, followed by a sacrifice of your first born, after which you could see if you make contact with up to 1d4 fingers, then you rolled an attack roll per finger that touched, and if your total number of attached fingers after that was equal to or greater than the square root of your target's Hit Dice, you grappled.

And they still escaped next turn anyway....

Game designers need to calm down and just treat grappling like what it is: an attack. Maybe it isn't your best attack, since grabbing a guy's arm and snapping his elbow is much harder than swinging an axe at his head, but it is still an attack. Sure, picking a guy up and body-slamming him takes a little longer than shooting an arrow. Fine, make body-slams a two turn process. Grapple attack, then slam attack. The point is, you pay for attempting an attack by needing to roll a random number that determines your success. Grappling isn't any more or less effective as a means of beating your enemies than an attack, so why does it need special prerequisites to perform?

I use this Super-Simple Combat Maneuvers System in my game. And if you are saying, "Hey, isn't that broken because there is no reason to ever NOT try a combat maneuver on your turn, except maybe if you really want that critical hit damage?"

To which I say, no, and yes. No, it isn't broken, but yes, players are better off trying a maneuver than not, 19 times out of 20. And let me say, THAT'S GREAT!

Let me point your attention to this video of Aragorn again, where he grapples guys all the time, as well as disarms, trips, stuns, etc., as often as he has the opportunity to. The combat is cinematic, interesting, and non-repetitive because of that. You can only swing a sword so many ways...

And the even BETTER thing about this simple system is that it works for NPCs too. If your bugbear goes to grab your fighter, but rolls a measly 3 damage, the fighter will probably take the hit, no problem. But if the bugbear is about to deal 13 damage, the fighter may be inclined to let the bugbear get a grip. Now things get interesting. There is a micro give-and-take sort of gambling involved in combat now, because many damage numbers come with an "...OR you can suffer (insert maneuver here)."

10 damage, or drop your sword?

14 damage, or be stunned for 1 round?

8 damage, or fall prone?

You can even do it with spells, if your system uses magic attacks. Have the wizard attempt to knock enemies over with her fireball spell. "They can either take 12 fire damage, or be knocked prone by the concussive blast."

As far as I'm concerned, if your characters aren't rolling around on the ground, flailing for dropped weapons, and toppling over like Humpty Dumpty all the time, you aren't doing combat right.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

How to Ruin Your Indie RPG: Part 3 - Questions

When you are designing your RPG, you need to ask some hard hitting question. No, not "should rogues have a d6 Hit die, or a d8?" And no, not "Improved grapple, should it still exist?"

I'm talking about the real philosophical questions. You need to doubt to the very core, the meat and potatoes. There is no spoon. Catch my drift?

Like this one: why do we roll to hit in combat?

Seriously, why do tabletop RPGs assume you miss, when literally every other medium of fantasy (video games, movies, novels, etc.) assumes people hit?

Think about it this way: how many attacks does Aragorn miss in the LOTR movies? Well, as it just so happens you can watch pretty much every sword swing he makes in this nifty little montage here.

Pretty sure I counted four misses? One whiff, and three that were blocked. Two of those blocks came from Lurtz, the movie-ending mega-uruk-hai boss.

The only example of media I can think of that allows for as many misses in their combat as a tabletop RPG is Star Wars. And for that, YouTube comes to the rescue again. Here is an hour long montage of every lightsaber fight scene from the first six movies....

To calculate the misses, count every swing, then subtract the number of people that lost/died. The remainder is the number of misses.

Obviously, your typical pen and paper RPG is somewhere in the middle of these two. Misses account for a little less than half of the attacks in a session, generally.

To which some might remark: "CODSWALLOP! Half the time you are in a fight you miss your target? That's terrible! You aren't some blind farmer from Bumnuts, you're an adventurer for god's sake!"

I'm a firm believer in the idea that the mechanics of a game system, e.g. the dice rules, the probability distributions, etc., have a huge impact on the flavor of game you get out of them. Yeah, different playstyles account for something, but no playstyle can account for a 50% miss chance on every swing.

The fact is, that when a player misses on an attack roll, just regular misses, the cameras turn off. That player's character is off screen doing something no one cares about, because it is almost always inconsequential. Yeah, if he fumbled and tripped, or lost his weapon, that would be worth taking a turn to play out and describe, but a blade moving harmlessly through the air is hardly ever shown in the movies, or described in books, because it's BORING.

What is crazy is that we chose this. We the tabletop gaming community chose to play games where our characters fail to make a tactical difference during half of our turns. We chose to make half of our arrows soar through the air only to stick into a log, or wall, or dirt.

Now, I love when characters fail bad enough to really get themselves in danger. Like how Aragorn nearly gets his noggin lobbed off when Lurtz pins him to a tree with his shield. Or when he gets stepped on by a battle troll and his little elvish dagger barely does anything to help the situation. Those were interesting, dramatic, and unique to the fights. Rolling below 6 on your d20 for the third time in a row is not any of those good things. All it does is take the wind out of your sails.

We could fix this by having the attack action automatically hit. You just roll damage, but you roll with a d10, or maybe two d10s, or a d10 and a die determined by your class. Either way, if you roll 0, or double 0, or something like that, you fumble, dealing no damage (e.g. missing) and then something bad happens to you like falling prone or losing your weapon, etc.

You can make this more nuanced with things like damage reduction for super tough guys or evil fighters that are highly skilled and parry your weaker blows. You could also finally remove the movement speed stuff from your games and just make a rule that says you can take a few steps on your turn, but if you want to cover any serious ground you spend your whole action just moving.

Really, it's the fact that everyone can attack once a round and move or do whatever that calls for that 50% miss chance. Otherwise the combats would end before they even started. When you have to choose between attacking, moving, actively defending, etc., things get a lot more interesting.

That's enough for today. Really dig into those deep questions. Doubt every single rule you just take for granted. That's how we invent the games of the future.

UPDATE: I found this post on B/X BLACKRAZOR from way back in 2010 a while after writing this. Gotta give him props for doing it first, and also worth a read. (The whole blog is worth a read, if you have the time).