“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.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.
“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.’ ”
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 Lulu.com; 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.