09 June, 2015

Storifying Mage: The Ascension (Part 8) - Combat Preliminaries


Like most tabletop RPGs, combat really slows down in Mage. I’ve touched on that a few times in these posts…strike roll, defence roll, damage roll, soak roll…and that’s every time every participant launches an attack. If each roll takes 30 seconds (with ten seconds of determining what to roll, and which modifiers apply in this circumstance…ten seconds of rolling dice and tallying the results…ten seconds of relative those results back into the narrative), then each round in a two person conflict takes a minute. Rounds in Mage aren’t given a specific timeframe, so let’s assume 10 seconds or so.

Most tabletop RPGs run with 3 to 6 players, and conflicts often see fights with more than one opponent. Even if we’re just looking at three characters facing two opponents, that’s 2 minutes 30 for each round of conflict, not including the extra time it often takes to keep players in the same headspace regarding the conflict situation, extra narrative describing wider effects that change through the course of battle, or characters who split their actions or gain extra actions. If a conflict lasts four rounds, that’s basically a minimum of 10 minutes of play to represent less than a minute of conflict. This means conflicts can really draw out.

I don’t think combat needs to run at “real time” speed, I admit that I used to think that this would be an awesome goal to achieve but I’ve only really encountered it successfully in a boffer style live action game; everything else requires descriptions, and those descriptions take time. As long as the descriptions are compelling and drive the story, that’s fine. If they big down in meaningless die rolls and minutiae, not so much. I think 4 sets of die rolls for every swipe veers toward the “not-so-much” side of the equation. So my aim isn’t to generate a real-time speed conflict resolution system, but to create something that remains action driven and interesting.   

In the Storyteller System, attack manoeuvres and melee weapons have a combination of traits (indicating the dice to use), a standard difficulty, and a modifier to the strength score indicating a number of dice to roll for damage (projectile weapons typically indicate a flat number of dice for this damage score). Damage is allocated into 3 levels, Bashing (which can be easily absorbed and healed), Lethal (which is harder to absorb and longer to heal), and Aggravated (which can’t be absorbed, and even slow to heal for supernatural beings). Armour is a flat value indicating how many dice are added to the stamina attribute when absorbing bashing damage, while flat armour value is used for lethal and aggravated damages. There are plenty of optional and variant rules for combat in the game, especially in the M20 rule set.

The aim is to keep a lot of the fundamental numbers in the game, so that we can still use the numbers defining the various NPCs and equipment scattered through the books rather than completely rewrite everything to match up with a completely unrelated system. The second aim is to speed things up dramatically, and streamline the systems that drive those numbers.

If we use the draw and keep system, we’ve got a hand of cards involved in every task resolution. Each card has a few forms of information on it, and each piece of information is something that may be used to resolve something. Throwing out such information is a waste, especially if more time is about to be spent to produce other forms of information that might be used in exactly the same way.

I showed in an earlier post that we can get a fairly reasonable pseudo-bell curve effect within the range of a single die roll if we roll 3 dice, then discard the highest and lowest die rolls. Using similar logic, if we’re drawing a few cards then keeping the ones most capable of generating a successful action, then we can assume the lowest cards will automatically be eliminated. If we use the lowest card from those in the final hand, then we’ll end up with that same fairly reasonable pseudo-bell curve. The biggest issue comes with the number of cards used to make the hand.

For example, a really unskilled and inept fighter with a single point in their attribute and no ability to back it up draws a single card and this forms their hand. If we say a successful strike in combat needs a 6 to hit, then it might be unlikely that this inept fighter would hit, but any hit from them would have an even distribution of a result from 6 to 10.

Let’s consider a naturally instinctive fighter with a high attribute (let’s say 4), but no formal ability to add to it. For their attacks, four cards are drawn and all four cards are used for the hand to determine success. This means there is a much higher chance that at least one of those cards will prove successful, and may even produce more successes, but the lowest card out of four cards drawn will tend to be much lower than a comparative single card draw. More hits, but less damage on average per hit.

Compare this to a naturally poor (attribute 1), but reasonably skilled (ability 3) fighter. Such a person draws four cards, but they keep the best card for themselves. This still means they’ve got a good chance at getting a single card that will score within the successful range, but since they’ve only got one good card they can’t get multiple successes. On the positive side, the only card they’ll keep is the best out of four and this is more likely to be a higher than the result of a single card draw. More hits, they won’t be spectacular (because they’ll only be single successes), but they’ll do more damage on average per hit.

Between these two fighters we have the combatant with average natural ability (attribute 2) and some training (ability 2). This fighter also has four cards drawn for their strikes, keeping the best 2. They have a decent shot of scoring hits with their best two cards (and might even score the occasional double success). When it comes to doing damage on average, they’re likely to deal more damage than the instinctive unskilled fighter, but less damage than the naturally poor but technically skilled fighter.

That’s how I’d do things if I were drawing a hand for every strike, but what I’m actually thinking of is a bit more streamlined than that…

Since skills are being used to resolve conflicts rather than a tasks, it makes sense to deal with combat situations to same way. Instead of handling each and every strike with a hand of cards, I’m thinking of resolving a full minute of combat with two hands of cards, an offence hand and a defence hand. Every success in an offence hand represents a combat opening perceived by the attacker, and every success in a defence hand represents a combat opening closed by the defender.

Normally, once a strike is declared (and a defence unsuccessful), a damage roll is done, followed by an armour soak roll. Under this new system, we use the cards that were a part of the successful hand to determine the results of the individual strikes and blocks. It may not be as detailed as the Mage combat system, with dozens of different martial arts strikes and special effects those might incur, it also plays out differently…more thoughts still to come. 
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