Murder by any other name

This post lacks some context, but it's been weighing on my mind for a while now. I'm writing a fantasy game and against my better judgement, I've been trying to come up with a "realistic" combat and weapon mechanics for it. This is, generally speaking, a fool's errand, and a silly goal. If someone else were to say they were doing it for their game, I'd roll my eyes. To begin with, there are just too many factors in a fight to simulate them with any degree with accuracy, even if you inflate the complexity to baroque degrees. There are endless variations of weapons out there, each with its little differences and idiosyncrasies, even before you get to things like armour, speed, size, weight, etc.

So let's start with why I'm even attempting it. Why am I being an idiot about this? If we treat roleplaying as a game of imagined situations, where players have to think from the perspective of being-in-the-situation, then the game benefits from real-world judgement and griffbereit. The more the brain can translate directly, the more effortless the experience is. We don't really need stats and mechanics for shoes, because we all intuitively grasp what shoes do. Imagine having to come up with a comprehensive set of mechanics for shoes: +2 defense vs lego bricks, +1 foot warmth, +25% footing on slippery slopes...the list would be endless, with different numbers for all kinds of shoes.

Yeah, just let me stat all these bad boys up, won't be a minute.

Of course, you could argue the real reason we don't have stats for shoes is because it's boring and doesn't add anything to the game, but a) Die Hard and b) my point is that something that would require pages and pages of rules and modifiers to simulate mechanically can demonstrably be handled by the players' intuitive understanding of things in the world. We already know what shoes do. If players can intuitively grasp how things in the world are supposed to work (ie. having shoes will help me walk on the broken glass), then they will have an easier time understanding what makes for good or bad decisions and the possible consequences of their actions, without recurring to modifiers and mechanics. An important guiding light here has always been a post by Vincent Baker, titled Can your brains just do it?

And just because I have to get this out of the way: The game has things to say about the (fictional) world as well. When rules exist, they need to teach something back in a comprehensive, unobtrusive way. This is important for actions and objects that have no real-world analogue (like magic systems) and situations for which the players have little to no real-world knowledge or experience to draw on (it's also a way for the designer to have Opinions about a variety of things).

John McClane demonstrating the dramatic utility of shoes.

Now, when it comes to combat in a lot of mainstream RPGs, I find that they often lack clarity in either direction. Things that make intuitive, real-world sense, don't always translate well to the rules (and vice versa). Emmy Allen has a pretty good overview of some issues here (this post was in part prompted by her post). In many games, players need to learn to think within the parameters of the game's rules and not within the parameters of the fictional situation. And if that's what you want out of a game, that's fine. But it's not something I want out of this game.

I need to stress here that what I'm actually looking for here is not some mechanical simulation of "reality" or god-forbid, "physics". I'm seeking intuitive flow. A real world car driver isn't calculating vectors of force or the traction of a wet road when they turn a curve. There's an immediacy to the situation, where their muscle memory, gut instinct, senses and experience cooperate seamlessly, with little to no rationalisation. The same could be said for a fencer. Rolling tons of dice and doing numerous calculations to simulate the physics of a swordfight is antithetical to the intuitive back-and-forth flow of actual combat.

Some form of protection is generally a good idea.

So, to restate, my goal isn't really to simulate the procedure and physical mechanics of combat. I'm seeking an intuitive, being-in-the-world realism, not a simulating-the-world-through-abstract-means realism. Like with the shoes on broken glass, resolution can be (almost) entirely positional, because our brains can "just do it", making judgements about what what's good for what and what isn't. The objective is to put the players in a mindset where the fictional reality of the situation creates an intuitive understanding of what's a good course of action and what isn't, based on real-world experience and Opinions of the author. However, it's still a game. A game where combat is enmeshed with the genre and burdened with the expectations of its ancestors. So it still requires some depth and aleatory excitement. Dice are involved, but my goal requires me to do this with as little math and mechanical steps as possible. The more rational procedures there are, the larger the gap between intuitive situational awareness and abstract mechanics.

When you play the game, you should understand (or quickly learn) with minimum fuss and mechanical burden that going with a dagger up against a spear is bad. Unless you're already in their face and they have no room to get the spear between you. Or perhaps that an axe is shorter and thus disadvantaged against a sword. Unless you also have a shield and the other person doesn't. The game must acknowledge the fictional positioning of the characters with regards to their weapons, skill etc. and seamlessly teach the players to consider the same factors and quickly understand the situation "from the inside". The flipside of this is to make the game produce outcomes that make sense. Once you understand the fictional positioning and resolve a clash or conflict, the resolution must similarly produce a new situation that reflects an intuitive understanding of combat.

Whether any of those goals will survive intact the development of the game remains to be seen.


  1. I fully agree that simulating combat is a dead end.

    The best combat systems I have seen so far are those that discard everything except the dramatic bits, be it Amber Diceless ("what can I do to beat them?"), Unknown Armies ("oh, shit, oh, shit, I'm in a fight"), Fate ("together, united, we cannot be defeated!"), or Forged in the Dark ("how far am I willing to go to beat them?").

    In my recent ruleset, I borrowed from a bit of each, and combat is resolved in a single roll (well, a single draw) per player involved. The players are then free to narrate their actions, and how their successes and failures mesh together to either beat the adversary or fall short. In my playtests, it worked quite well.

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