Gamebook store

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Mortal Combat

Mortal Combat was a cheap, simple RPG published in 1979 by Waynflete House (my own company, with schoolmate Nick Henfrey). The core design was by Steve Foster. I remember when he unveiled it to our group. We were used to Empire of the Petal Throne (a D&D variant) and Traveller, and what Steve had was something new to us. It had a gritty sense of realistic danger. A trained fighter could despatch one novice easily, for example, but against two or three opponents of even moderate skill he’d be in trouble.

The combat mechanic was simple: attacker rolls 1d20 and adds his Attack score, and must beat his opponent’s Defence score +11. Yes, it could have been tidied up. But it was neat and quick and it worked. Magic was a little more involved, with ingredients and spellpoints, but nothing a bit of playtesting couldn’t fix. Crucially, sorcerers were powerful but not the artillery units they were in other games. They needed a bunch of grogs to protect them.

Over the years, I’ve decided that my three requirements in a set of RPG rules are that they need to be:

Everyone around the table should get the basics. They need to be able to work out their own character sheet, not require Excel and a mathematical expert to help them.

Getting sucked into simulation-game details kills the flow of the story. Rather than a system that models every possible combat manoeuvre, I’d rather it did the job on a semi-abstract level and left it to the player to interpret what happened.

The rules need to be able to cover everything, however vaguely. Anything left undefined is subject to the whim of the umpire (or referee – don’t call them “game master”) and that’s too much power. Though the ideal game is a contract between umpire and players and shouldn’t need constant dice-rolling, players must always have the option of letting the rules decide an outcome.
Mortal Combat succeeded pretty well on the first two counts. It failed totally on the last, because it didn’t make any attempt to cover anything except combat and magic. But it must have had something going for it, because it got some very good reviews and it brought us to the attention of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson at Games Workshop. They were looking to do a rival to Dungeons & Dragons, which GW had been printing and distributing under license from TSR. They could see it was only a matter of time before TSR set up their own UK operation, and their magazine White Dwarf gave them the perfect platform to establish their own role-playing game. “Do us something like this,” said Livingstone, waving a copy of Mortal Combat. That's what they were after, that Barton Fink feeling.

They wanted to call it Adventure so that the ads in White Dwarf could read: "Are you ready for... Adventure?" Like a pun, you see? Yeah, well. I got cracking on faith and a handshake. No wait, I never did get even the handshake, come to think of it. But that was a good thing – my naivety saved me from contractual mire. You see, Games Workshop did lose the D&D license, as they’d anticipated, but before I had finished designing the new game (I could never bring myself to call it Adventure) they acquired the RuneQuest license. Adventure was never mentioned again.

I remember saying to Ian Livingstone: “It’s interesting working on a project like this. Just about the time you’re finishing, you see how you should have done it.” That turned out to be prophetic. A few years later, as the gamebook craze took light (largely thanks to Messrs Livingstone and Jackson) publishers were willing to commission anything with “fantasy” and “role-playing” in the description. I dusted off Adventure, reworked it, and Oliver Johnson and I pitched it to Transworld Publishing, nowadays a division of Random House. And that was how Dragon Warriors came to be.


  1. Very, very, very cool.

    I think I'm going to quote your three requirements, I think, in conversation more. They align almost totally with my own values.

  2. Is there a possibility of a conflict between quick and simple rules and comprehensive rules?

  3. I think there often is a conflict, but there doesn't have to be. GURPS is comprehensive but you need a spreadsheet to work out your character, so some players just turn up without a character sheet - which rather defeats the purpose!

    However, one neat idea in GURPS is the default skill system. If you don't have a specific skill (a weapon technique like disarm) it would default back up the tree to weaponskill at -4, say, and if you don't have that skill it defaults to the core attributes.

    Where GURPS goes wrong is having far too many skills with all different defaults. That means it's never entirely clear which skill should be used, or at what default.

    But say you have just a few skill categories (or root classes) and then subskills all come off those. And each default up the tree is at -1. So now, if it isn't written on my character sheet then I default up by -1 each step. (If you don't have any levels of the root class skill, you default up to the governing attribute for that skill category.)

    This could be pretty simple, with just a few root class skill categories like Athletics, Academic, Manipulation, Social, etc. The skills below that don't even need to be pre-defined, although you'd probably go one more level (Fighting under Athletics, for instance) before leaving it to ad hoc definitions.

    So now, let's say the referee asks me for a Disarm roll. I say, "I never put any points into something called Disarm." And so I roll Sword at -1 instead to achieve the same thing. If I'm using a weapon I don't have any skill for, I'd default up from the specific weaponskill to Fighting at another -1 to pull off the disarm, and so on.

    It *could* be really simple - but look at GURPS first for an example of how not to do it!

    Btw thanks or your nice words about Tyrant's Tomb and Screaming Spectre! (

  4. These three requirements are nice indeed, although I think the second one is just down to personal preferences. Some people like it detailed, and some of them can do GURPS characters in their heads.

    Overall, I find the third requirement needs the most emphasis, because way too many systems simply ignore it, or even argue it is unnecessary!

  5. Thanks for the thanks, Dave! Can I ask where you found the link?

    I discovered as I grew older that a lot of my favourite books were written by you (Knightmare, Down Among Dead Men, Dragon Warriors).

    I never looked at the author when I was a boy.

  6. I hope you picked up Heart of Ice too? (Link there at the right if you haven't got the interactive PDF copy.)

  7. Hi:

    I came across this blog posting as I was looking for information on Mortal Combat, your game. I am working to improve the data available at the user supported RPG website, Mortal Combat has an entry there:

    But the data is really very sparse.

    I was wondering if you would be willing to work with me to improve the data for this game in RPGGeek? Please let me know, my email is



    1. Hi Hans, I finally saw your comment the other day, and have emailed you. I'd be happy to help out.