So, I've been thinking about combat, and how to make it more swashy. I want to encourage some of the standard tropes, such as witty repartee, engaging terrain, and the sudden reversal of fortunes. Standard d20 combat is not really conducive to these tropes. The hit point system is kind of a grind. The movement rules tend to encourage standing your ground, rather than ranging all over. Engaging in simultaneous physical and social combat really puts a stress on the timing system. And, of course, the emphasis on squares and positioning can turn combat into a board game, making it harder to inject flavorful role-playing.
I had an idea. I think it's a good idea. But, it's a total overhaul of the combat system, which rejiggers a huge chunk of the overall system.
Is it cool enough? Let me sketch it out, and see what you think. Comments are greatly appreciated.
First, keep in mind that this is the brainstorming stage, and not even a first draft. There are big incomplete patches, major questions that need to be answered, and probably severe balance and workability issues. Some of those I can fix, but I'm concerned that some of them I can't.
One of the subsystems I really want to include in the system is the dramatic conflict system from Spycraft 2.0. In broad terms, this system allows two opposing sides to work against one another through a series of skill checks, instead of just a single opposed roll. If you are familiar with 4e, it's kind of like an opposed skill challenge, in which you are racing to accumulate enough successes before your opponent does. Each round, you can choose a specific maneuver, which has specific side effects. You and your opponent reveal your maneuvers, compare them on a matrix, and one or the other gets a bonus to the skill check. Whoever wins the skill check gets closer to winning the overall conflict.
Now, let's talk specifics for a fencing match. First, I'm thinking we would want an actual Fencing skill instead of using BAB. Let's set the range of the fight from 0 to 10, starting with a lead of 5. Each maneuver will end up moving that lead one way or the other. If the lead is reduced to 0 or less, the PC can perform a finishing maneuver to win the fight. If the lead is greater than 10, the NPC gets to perform a finishing maneuver.
Now, let's look at a quick sample of maneuvers:
- Thrust - This is the basic attack. There are no special effects.
- Parry - This is the basic defensive maneuver. You are likely to prevent your opponent from pressing an advantage, but do so by sacrificing any opportunity to press an advantage of your own. Any change in lead is reduced by 1.
- Lunge - This is an aggressive attack, that leaves you open to a counter attack. Any change in lead is increased by 1.
- Beat - You deliberately attack your opponent's weapon, in order to create an opening for a follow-up attack. You may subtract up to your Fencing ranks from your check, and add the same amount to your check next round. Minimum Fencing 1.
- Riposte - You allow an attack through your defenses, in order to reverse your fortunes. After skill checks are revealed, the loser suffers 1 wound, but becomes the winner by the same margin. Minimum Fencing 5.
- Bonetti's Defense - You ignore the penalties from rocky terrain. Requires Bonetti's Defense feat.
- Prepare to Die - Finishing maneuver. If you succeed, the loser suffers wounds based on the difference between the checks, instead of a change in lead.
Now, we'd also have a matrix that said that if you choose Thrust and I choose Parry, I get a +2 to my roll. Or, if you choose Beat and I choose Parry, you get a +4. Something like that. There is a mini-game here of trying to anticipate what your opponent will choose, and choosing the proper counter-move.
Once that is determined, both sides make Fencing checks. The lead is changed based on the difference between the checks, in the winner's favor. I'm thinking currently that the lead changes by 1 for every 5 points of difference. I may rescale the size of the lead to change that, but it seems okay for now. Note that if the checks are within 2 of each other, the round is effectively a push, with no change in lead. In addition to this change in lead, the special effects of both maneuvers are applied.
Once the lead reaches one end of the range or the other, a successful finishing maneuver ends the duel. Prepare to Die, above, would be a typical end to a duel to the death. But, there would be other potential maneuvers, which might force the opponent to surrender, or allow the victor to break off without pursuit.
Extra maneuvers would become available to expert fencers through feats, class abilities, and possibly could be selected with skill ranks (the way that languages or craft focuses are chosen). This fulfills the requirement of enabling the banter from The Princess Bride fencing scene, which every swashbuckling combat system must do. (It's a rule, look it up.)
Hopefully you've got the gist of the basic system. There are a few other quirks that might need to be addressed.
How do you incorporate injuries, and the resistance to such (e.g., armor)? I reference wounds above, which I would likely still keep. They mostly come about as the result of maneuvers. I might also incorporate something like the consequence system from FATE, in which you can choose to accept a wound or other ill effect instead of a loss in lead. I'm thinking that armor either adjusts the initial range of the fight (meaning that your opponent must score more successes to win) or adjusts the conversion rate for check difference into lead (meaning that your opponent must win by more to score a success). Probably both adjustments will come into play, to represent different kinds of defenses.
How about critical hits? Well, in this system, skill checks can score critical hits. So, that wouldn't change significantly. A critical hit would likely increase the lead change, but could be activated for other effects (e.g., a slash across the face to temporarily blind your opponent).
How does repartee factor in, since that was one of the original things that needed to considered? First, I may simply introduce a couple banter-related maneuvers, that allow you to use Bluff or Intimidate instead of Fencing for one round. Second, I may allow for two parallel conflicts, in which a person might lose the repartee conflict even while still ahead in the fencing conflict, and be forced to yield. Third, I may try to do something fancy, but I doubt it.
How does it avoid grind? I'm hoping that the very interactive nature of the system and its openness to sudden reversals will avoid any feelings of grind. Also, I'm hoping that the nature of the named maneuvers will add a bit more spice to the interaction, though that doesn't seem to have worked for 4e.
How do you incorporate movement? There will be some maneuvers that involve movement, either forcing your opponent back or leading him around. I might throw in a couple like Higher Ground that grants you +2 to your checks until your opponent can reverse the ground (representing you being higher on the stairs, or standing on a table, or the like). Also, I may either allow for free movement (you can roam around up to your speed each round but, unless you move significantly faster than your opponent, the pairing is unlikely to break) or actually force movement each round (you must move a minimum amount each round, which could make terrain extremely important, and which I kind of like in concept).
How do you handle combat with multiple participants? Honestly, I'm not sure. This was always one of the weaknesses of the dramatic conflict system, even when it was the chase system from Spycraft 1.0. The lead system is linear, and extending it to additional dimensions would get weird. Also, the matrix for comparing maneuvers is two-dimensional, and additional participants would get very complex very fast. If it is simply a case of one PC against multiple minions, it is trivial to treat the minions as a single opponent. The trick really comes when one or more PCs face off against one or more villains (NPCs that are as fleshed out as PCs) in a grand melee. Something like four-on-four should just be broken down into four individual fights happening simultaneously. (Ooh, that sounds like it might be a headache for the GM, though.) Any kind of two-on-one scenario, though, needs to be addressed. Have one combatant be the primary, and the other lends assistance bonuses?
One option that feels both reasonable and terribly complex is to have one lead track for each opposed pair. So, suppose we have a two-on-one fight, where A and B are allies, and C is outnumbered. There is a lead track between A and C, and a lead track between B and C, both of which start at 5. Each round, C chooses a single maneuver, and A and B each choose a maneuver. All three make checks, but C ends up with two different results from the same check, depending on the bonuses from the matrix. The leads are adjusted accordingly. All three maneuvers are applied to C, but A and B are not affected by each others' maneuvers. If A and B can coordinate well, they have a massive advantage over C, which seems to reflect how two-on-one fights normally go. If C is highly skilled, though, he can still beat both A and B. For a two-on-one fight, this seems very viable. For something like a three-on-two fight, it's just crazy. (Of course, it should also be noted that squad fighting of this nature is very uncommon in swashbuckling fiction. It is most common for opponents to pair off.)
Any other issues that you see off-hand? Does this sound like a viable combat system? Evocative? Game-able?