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Friday, 29 September 2017

Arms and the man

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Always a toughie, that, but in the case of the combat system in my Tirikelu RPG, I can pin it down exactly to an article in the May 1986 issue of Inside Kung Fu Presents that Charles Daniel wrote about George Silver’s 16th century duelling treatise Paradoxes of Defence. This is the bit that grabbed my imagination:
“The key to [Silver’s] system is the concept of ‘safe fighting’. This is a subtle concept because it is not so much interested in striking down an opponent as it is in not being struck down by him. A direct result of this idea is that if two men who have perfected ‘safe fight’ were to face one another, neither one would be wounded. Because both men would have a perfect understanding of fighting, neither would present an opening through which his opponent could attack. Any attempt by an attacker to force such an opening would more often than not create an opening in the attacker's posture. This, of course, would lead to the attacker being cut down. A confrontation between two such skilled men would result in a standoff. Such standoffs were in fact reported in both England and Japan.

“To fight safe, Silver states several principles and general rules which should be applied to all weapons. Some of these principles are very general, such as: ‘When your enemy attacks you, he will open in one place or other, both at single and double weapons, at the least he will have to weaken his ward by such attacking. Strike or thrust at such open or weakest point that you find nearest to you.’ Others are very specific: ‘Know when your enemy can reach you and when he cannot.’ ”
At first I thought of giving Tirikelu characters a pool of points each combat round, and they’d allocate attack and defence out of that pool. But for once, thank goodness, I managed to remember my oft-quoted and rarely observed dictum of Keep It Simple, Stupid. Instead of the pool of points, I allowed each character either one full action or two half-actions every round. These are things like attack, parry, dodge, etc. If you do a full-action attack, for example, you get to use your full combat value, but then you have nothing left for defence.

Here’s an example. Suppose I’m fighting your character and we both have combat value 16. In Tirikelu you roll and add Dexterity to decide initiative, and then count down each round. So let’s say in the first round I’ve got initiative. It gets to my turn and I say, “I’m making a half-attack at you.” I could have deferred my action till later in the round, by the way, but in this case I’m hoping I can put you out of the fight quickly.

You declare your response, if any – “I’m making a half-parry,” say – and then we both roll 1d20, aiming to score equal to or under the combat value we’re putting into this. We’re both making half-actions, so that means we need 8 or less.

I roll first and I miss. But you still get to roll because if you make a successful parry against an unsuccessful attack there’s a chance to riposte. Let’s say you roll a 4. Okay, so you made your parry, and the riposte rule is that if you get to make an immediate free attack against me using the number you rolled as your skill – in other words, you need to roll 4 or less. The riposte doesn’t use up your regular action allowance for the round, and I don’t get to attempt a parry.

Let’s assume that riposte misses. Well, it was a pretty hard roll. So now we resume counting down initiative till we get to your turn. You used up a half-action already on the parry, and you know I have a half-action left. You could make a half-attack at me, in which case my options are either to ignore it and hope you miss, in which case I can use my remaining half-action to attack you at the end of the round, or to attempt a half-parry, in which case we’ve both used up all our action allowance and a new round begins.

This may sound simple, and it is nicely quick and dramatic, but there are subtle tactical tricks to be exploited by an experienced player. If you’re facing an opponent who is strong but not as skilled as you are, you’ll want to concentrate on the sort of safe fighting George Silver recommended, parrying while waiting for your foe to make a mistake that you can exploit in a riposte.

On the other hand, defensive fighting may not help you against a much more skilful opponent. The reason is that attacks made with a combat value above 20 are harder to parry. If an opponent strikes at me with a combat value of 25 and I parry with a combat value of 16, I actually need to roll 11 or less (16 minus 5) to make the parry. So in that fight my best chance would be to flail around with half-attacks, hoping to get him to split his combat value. The odds are still against me, but if I score a hit and his parry misses, maybe I can wound him enough to even up the fight.

Which brings us on to damage. This uses a d10 roll cross-referenced with skill. So at beginner level it’s just 1, 2, 3, 4… and so on up to 10. But at very high skill it translates to 6, 6, 7, 7, 8, 8, 9, 9, 10, 10 – meaning that you can never score less than 6 damage on a successful hit. The weapon you’re using is a modifier to the d10 roll, not to the damage itself, making an extremely practiced guy with a dagger much more deadly than a novice with a two-handed axe. Armour subtracts from damage in the traditional GURPS/Runequest manner.

What about injury? I wanted it to have an effect on your fighting skill – a serious injury reducing your ability to fight back more than a light scratch – but at the same time I wanted to avoid lots of book-keeping that destroys the dramatic pace of a fight. So I split wounds into categories. A light wound is at least 20% of the character’s hit points in one blow, a heavy wound is 35% or more of full hits, and a grievous wound is over half your normal hit point score in a single blow. Each of those has a progressively higher penalty to combat value and requires a harder Stamina check to stay conscious.

You don’t have to stop and work out those break points in the middle of a game, obviously. They’re calculated for each value of HP and you write them on your sheet at the start, like this:
15 [3/6/8]
-- meaning that with 15 hit points, you take a light wound if hit for 3-5 points, and so on.

One big difference in Tirikelu from, say, GURPS fights is that in GURPS and other heavily simulationist systems you tend to work out the minutiae of each round’s attack before you do it:

“I’m doing to step and lunge across the table to seize his arm before he can shoot.”

“OK, well he’s more than a yard away and the table slows you up so you can’t just step and attack, it’ll have to be an all-out.”

“Fine, I’ll do it with a +4 to attack.”

“That’s going to be -2 to grab his arm.”

“No, it’s a close combat grapple, so hit location penalties are halved. -1 to target the arm, +4 for all-out attack, so that’s +3 overall…”

Lawks, I could have gone and got a beer while all that was going on. And drunk it. Now, I appreciate that once you’ve memorized all 570 pages of GURPS 4e (assuming you disregard all the supplementary rules) then you can get a bit quicker at doing all that mental arithmetic on the fly. Or you can do what an experienced GURPS referee like Tim Harford does, and judiciously chuck out 90% of the rules in the interest of keeping the pace going. In our last Legend special, one of the player-characters pulled out a garrotte. My heart sank. Using GURPS garrotte rules as written, just his part of the battle could have eaten up half the afternoon. Luckily Tim just got him to roll Stealth and Garrotte skill, rolled for the sentries’ Perception, and ruled that he’d strangled them all before they had time to act.

Which is fine, but in that case why use GURPS? The solution I’d prefer: why isn’t there a cut-down version of GURPS with far fewer highly-specific skills and none of the special casing that delights only the most obsessive rules lawyers? When I have a spare couple of weeks I might write that myself.

Tirikelu, though simulationist in spirit, is nothing like that. Before rolling, all you have to declare is whether your action is full-value or half-value. The dice and the options they throw up tells you what happens next, and how that’s interpreted in the game is entirely up to the player. “His blade whirs over my head as I duck, spot an opening, drive my sword into his neck and turn in time to make a desperate parry as the other guy runs in…”

Maybe I could even seduce a narrativist player to the dark side with a system like that. Who knows?

If you want to try Tirikelu for yourself, you can get a free PDF that also has source material and scenarios. Or set it up to print yourself a physical copy on; instructions for that here. There's a partial list of Tekumel creatures defined in Tirikelu rules terms here. And if you should play a game, let us know how it goes in the comments. Jamie is the absolute master of squeezing every tactical advantage out of the Tirikelu combat system, so I’m hoping he’ll join in the discussion.


  1. It seems like a system that would be great for a 1-3 player game - especially one that thrived on dramatic one-on-one duels. My problem would be in running it with 4-6 players in a situation where they're up against a similar number of opponents. It feels like something where you'll end up spending 3 hours figuring out what happened in 3 one-second rounds of combat.

    I'm going to pimp the Star Wars RPG for a moment. An example I gave a while back was "Yannick Fel, Smuggler, will run across a room firing a couple of shots at the stormtroopers and dive for cover behind the crates."

    Star Wars uses a d6-based skill/attribute system. Yannick is slightly higher than beginner so he has 5d6+1 in Blaster and callit 4d6+2 in Dodge. The STs have 3d6 in Blaster and 2d6+2 in Dodge. The Range is Short for everyone, meaning the difficulty to hit for everyone is a 10, so everyone must roll at least a 10 to hit another target. Everyone has three basics options for Dodging. They can skip it, relying on the base difficulty to hit. They can do a Full Dodge, in which Dodging is their only action, but they roll their Dodge skill and add it to the base Difficulty. Or they can do a Combat Dodge, where they take dice penalties for multiple actions and roll Dodge so it replaces the base difficulty. The troopers will each fire once at Yannick and will not Dodge since the best Combat Dodge they could generate is an 8 which is worse than a 10.

    Multiple actions in a round take the total number of dice actions beyond the first and subtract 1d6 each from the first skill used and an addition d6 from the next skills used. So, if Yannick wanted to Shoot the first trooper, shoot the second trooper and Combat Dodge, in that order, his first shot would be at 3d6+1, his second at 2d6+1 and his Combat Dodge would be a worse than useless 2. So, instead, Yannick will forgo the Dodge and Shoot twice will with 4d6+1 for the first shot and 3d6+1 for second all the while hoping the adage about the notoriously bad aim of stormtroopers holds true.

    1. No, I used to run Tirikelu with 9 players around the table. Even in a big pitched battle it's a fast, exciting system. A lot less complicated than that Star Wars thing sounds, anyway.

  2. I think the West End Games Star Wars is the RPG I know better than any other. One summer holiday, I would write a Star Wars scenario every afternoon, and then GM it every evening. Every day, the whole holiday.

    And it's a fun game, though not without its flaws. One character I GMed was a bounty hunter who raised his Blaster skill to 10 Dice (really high). Combats just became, "I dodge, and then shoot everybody in the room."

    2nd Edition Star Wars added a lot of detail to the game, but brought its own set of problems. Notably, pretty much every alien race suddenly had a set of inherent skill advantages, and nobody wanted to play dull, average-skilled humans anymore...

  3. Nobody who reads this blog regularly will be surprised to hear that I am not interested in roleplaying games that try to replicate movie or TV stories. They're too superficial for me. If I were to run a campaign based on a series I actually like (so not, ugh, Star Wars, but maybe Stsr Trek) my goal wouldn't be to replicate the experience of the TV show. Instead I'd try to drill down to the ur-text -- what's the "real" 23rd century like, of which the show is just a simplified entertainment version? This question often comes up in the distinction between "real" and "game" Tekumel -- the actual subject of the post, coincidentally.

  4. The West End Games Star Wars RPG was more about replicating the feel of being in that universe. Granted that the default set-up was the PCs as Rebels doing missions to help the Rebellion and harm the Empire. However, the system was overall designed to be "simulationist" in terms of the movies. So, the PCs had the ability to do the general kinds of things they saw characters do in the movies. For my part, the Star Wars games I ran took place in areas pretty far removed from the Rebellion/Empire stuff and involved a good bit of exploration, alien contact and the like. However, they were also high-action space opera and the system worked really well for my needs.

    Contrast that with, say AD&D 3.5 and the Lord of the Rings movies. Even high-level characters would be hard-pressed to pull off the kinds of things we see Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas do in those movies due to the plodding, chess-like, wargame system of AD&D. And eventually TSR/Wizards of the Coast got their paws on the Star Wars gaming license. They produced beautiful, in-depth hardcover supplements and adventures using a system that was almost diametrically opposed to free-wheeling spirit of Star Wars.

  5. Replies
    1. The way I see it, the problem with the latest seasons of Doctor Who is that -

      What? You wanted to talk about Tekumel?

    2. Don't mind me. I'll start up another blog about Tekumel, roleplaying and comics elsewhere, and rename this one "Star Wars and Gamebooks" :-)

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Dropping the Star Wars stuff, I guess my thought was that these rules are based on a treatise by somebody best described as perhaps a professional duelist. Somebody practicing something akin to a more lethal version of boxing that has rules and etiquette. I suppose my skepticism of that system can best be described by a bit from the novel The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I'll paraphrase.

      In this bit a young person is coming to train with a master swordsman due to various favors traded on his behalf. The young person is poor, with shabby clothes and enters as a group of wealthy courtier departing their latest lesson. The following paraphrased exchange then occurs:

      Master Swordsman: "Right, next time come later. I don't want them to see you arrive."

      Young person (ashamed): "Yes, sir, I understand. I won't embarrass you again."

      MS(snorts in contempt): "Embarrass me, hah! It's them who'd be embarrassed."

      YP (confused) "Sir?"

      MS: "They couldn't handle what you'll be learning. They come here to learn the proper art of courtly duels, and that's what I teach them. You, you're coming here so I can teach you how to kill people with a sword."

      I can see how the above system is workable for combat and even fairly efficient once players/GMs get used to it. I'm just not totally sure how well it reflects the confusing, changeable environment that a no-rules fight-for-your-life would be, especially one involving multiple combatants. Like, while you're fighting some street rogue and deciding how best to "safely fight," he's tipping the wink to his barmaid girlfriend to shiv you in the kidneys with a broken whiskey bottle.

    5. Ah, no, I wasn't clear. The system isn't based on Silver's treatise, which I've never read. Nor is it specifically designed for duels, though the distinction between formal duelling and life-or-death fighting is factored into the Tirikelu rules (Weaponskills as opposed to Warrior and Charage, ie wrestling). It reflects the difference between fighting another individual of roughly equal skill where you are both prepared (in which case Silver's "safe fighting" idea can apply) and fighting several people (very hard, even for an expert) and being taken unawares (usually lethal). So the point of the post was simply to say that sometimes a few paragraphs in an article is enough to set one's mind to thinking up a complete new game system. It would obviously be useless in a roleplaying game if it couldn't model situations like you describe - not that there are bars or barmaids anywhere in the Five Empires of Tekumel.

      If anyone is actually interested in trying out Tirikelu to see what I'm talking about, hit the link in the sidebar. It's free, after all.

    6. I don't really have an objection to the system as such. It's also very interesting to read the genesis of your system, which is a perfectly effective game way of resolving combat.

      Part of my skepticism comes from the statement "A direct result of this idea is that if two men who have perfected ‘safe fight’ were to face one another, neither one would be wounded. Because both men would have a perfect understanding of fighting, neither would present an opening through which his opponent could attack." I'll agree that on a purely technical level, that's true.

      My problem is that life (and fights) don't exist on a purely technical level. If Safe-fighter 2 hates Safe-fighter 1 because SF1 left SF2s pregnant sister for another woman and SF1 is trying to get medicine across town to his gravely ill wife (aka the person he dumped pregnant sis for), the fighting between these is probably not going to be all that safe.

      Basically, what is included here and in the game is perfectly fine. I just miss the stuff that's perhaps been left out a bit. It's understandable for systems to divide combat into the general binary categories of "I prepare and take offensive actions to directly, physically harm my opponent" and "I prepare and take defensive actions to avoid or mitigate the direct, physical harm my opponents is attempting to do to me."

      The article above was the germination for your Tirikelu system. The system that probably cemented my love for RPGs was TORG. One of the things TORG did was allow and greatly encourage players to take actions during combat that weren't strictly offensive or defensive in nature. Taunting an opponent, trying to outmaneuver them, attempting to intimidate them or trick them (sand in the eyes, "Look out behind you!"). It just kind of blew my 21-22 year old AD&D-programmed brain to learn that there things one could do in a fight other than just, well, fight.

    7. As I said, the "dirty tricks" area of fighting is covered in Tirikelu by the Warrior skill. If you are in a formal duel it is bad form to use Warrior (as opposed to weapon skills) and to do so could result in disgrace. I urge anyone who is interested to download the game and try it, guided by the style of narrative play I describe in the post. If Jamie chips in on the comments for once, maybe he'll describe some of his own Tirikelu fights -- such as the time he was jumped in a monastery infirmary by two assassins while half-unconscious, and fought them off -- which will hopefully show you that it's not the kind of binary system you're criticising.

  6. If you ever want to discuss the martial arts of SE Asia, a major source of Tekumel inspiration, please contact me. I have been practicing Indonesian, Filipino, Thai and southern Chinese arts for the last 30+ years.

    1. Thanks, Steve. I should say, for the sake of those unfamiliar with Tekumel, that Professor Barker's field was South-East Asian Studies. I'm not sure that means that much of the culture of Tekumel should be seen as being SE Asian -- he drew on many sources, and it is meant to be 50,000+ years in the future on the far side of the galaxy. And I doubt if any real-world martial arts systems can give us much of a steer about how they fight with chlenshe weapons -- but all sources are useful inspiration.

  7. Sorry if I'm missing something, Dave, but what's the difference between the "Dave Morris" account, with your photo, and "DM"?

    1. Oh, you know... Different devices, different logins.