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Thursday, 2 November 2017

Butt me no butts

My gaming group recently got a rules mailout from our current referee:
“If you have Brawling, it includes punching, kicking and headbutt, but as with kick, there is a minus for this last. As with grappling rules, we apply half the penalty on specific hit location, the skull, -7. So rounding down -3 and you need to be in the same hex. Both skulls get DR2 as in the rules. Headbutt damage is like Punch Thrust -2 crushing. Critical Head Blow Table applies (p 556).”
This is the kind of special case rule that makes me want to rip off my clothes and run gibbering into the sea. But I’m not about to launch into another of my Gripes About GURPS TM. It’s just that it highlights the two approaches to handling combat in roleplaying games.

In highly simulationist games, you decide precisely what manoeuvre you’re trying to implement. In the case of GURPS, you then refer to the two core books (a total of 570 pages), the ridiculous Martial Arts supplement (another 250 pages), and possibly the Power-Ups books too (a mere 72 pages there). You’ll spend a few minutes adding up a stack of modifiers that you’ll find scattered in multiple different sections (be sure to get PDFs of all the books so you can search them) so that finally you can make what purports to be an accurate assessment of the chance to hit and do damage. That's for one round.

And as we know with systems like that, ten minutes after the fight somebody will say, “We forgot to allow for rough terrain modifiers,” with the result that the whole outcome of the fight should really be retconned, but as nobody wants to do that you just let it go.

The other approach, which you may very well sense I am slightly biased towards, is to abstractify the brawling rules, make the roll, and then let the player interpret the result. Something along the lines of:

Referee: “You made your Brawling skill. Roll hit location.”

Player: “The head, and I do 4 damage.”

Referee: “He fails his knockdown roll. He’s stunned.”

Player: "What happened there is I nutted him."

That’s the approach I advocate in the Tirikelu RPG. It’s also how all the best games of GURPS I’ve played in have actually run it. I’m not convinced that it’s good game design to have 900 pages of rules that you mostly disregard in play – that’s almost as arbitrary as having no rules whatsoever. But I said I wasn’t going to turn this into a GURPS gripe, and in any case I’ve lately been more interested in Powered by the Apocalypse. More on that in tomorrow’s post.


  1. Interesting post. Increasingly, I think that even using different dice for weapon damage looks outdated. Is a two-handed sword deadlier than a dagger? It all depends on the situation: the greatsword wins in an open space; the dagger would be more deadly in a tunnel or a trench (bayonets were *shortened* for hand-to-hand trench fighting in WW1).

    In that respect, Powered by the Apocalypse, at least in its Dungeon World manifestation, is probably wise to have damage determined by character class: a trained warrior will be more deadly than a scholar whether he uses a mace, a knife or a spear.

    I think most game systems downplay the near-impregnability of heavy armour too: all things being equal, the deadliest foe in a medieval-ish fight (in the open, with space to swing) should be a plate-armoured knight with a poleaxe. Powered by the Apocalypse allows you to do things like leap at his legs so that your friends can try to get a poignard through his visor; more mechanical systems tend to make armour a relatively minor advantage (a plate-armoured warrior is much better protected than a fellow in a hauberk; the former has no need for a shield - all the better to poleaxe you).

    From memory, Runequest might get closest to doing this kind of thing right (and its strike ranks were a nod to problems of reach and distance). But its combats were probably too deadly for the type of story that most gamers want to tell. Too much realism can constrain heroism, after all. No one wants to spend the rest of their career lamenting their missing limbs after that brush with the Dark Trolls ...

    1. To be fair to GURPS, you put a dagger in the right place (eg the vitals) and it will be plenty deadly. I don't think it takes account of the difficulty of swinging a long weapon in a confined space (hence the direction of the spiral on castle staircases, the reason the Romans used stabbing swords, etc) but somebody may tell me there's a 72-page Room To Swing A Cat supplement and I wouldn't be surprised.

      I didn't realize PbtA got down to the nitty-gritty of a fight to the extent you're describing. Most of the variants I've seen treat combat through moves like Go Aggro On Somebody - which might seem a little abstract and meta for my group. Good stories emerge from atomic actions and choices, and there's only so far you can short-circuit that process to go straight to the "paragraph/chapter" level before you lose your connection. But maybe Dungeon World is different?

    2. Dungeon World tries to capture the adventuring essence of D&D without the need to spend several hundred dollars on sourcebooks and rules. JC's example would work in Dungeon World as perhaps a "Defy Danger" roll using Dexterity which if successful would give other people attacking the plate armor guy a "+1 Forward" which means their attack rolls would get a +1 for that attack. If the Defy Danger roll was really successful, the leaper would get away with his action without trouble. If it was partly successful, he might be open to attack by the knight. If he failed, he'd suffer the attack but get to mark experience which will be useful - if he survives.

    3. OK, that answers one question but I'm still not getting it. If Defy Danger is the move to knock the guy in plate down, what move would be used to push a poignard through his visor? Also, what would be the difference between tackling an armoured guy using Defy Danger as opposed to tackling just a big guy in no armour? Would Defy Danger still be the move to use if for any reason I'm not actually in much danger from the guy? Eg to tackle an inept but heavily armoured fighter. I'm wondering all this because JC's original comment implies that Dungeon World differentiates between different armours and different weapon types more precisely than either GURPS or Runequest.

    4. It really doesn't. One of the main points of Dungeon World is that you don't have stuff like "Consult Chart D for Weapon type X and applies the adjusted modifiers if and only if the moon is full and Pisces is ascendant."

      Weapons have qualities about them that help define their functions and limits, but that's about it. Like a Dagger would have qualities of Hand, meaning it can hit something within arm's reach. A Duelling Rapier has the qualities of Close, +1 Piercing and Precise. It has a greater striking range than a dagger, because it's Precise a Thief can Backstab with it (and Backstab is usually limited to Hand weapons) finally +1 Piercing means it reduces the Protection Armor gives by 1 point. A person wearing Plate Armor would only have 2 points of armor (instead 3) against the Dueling Rapier due to the +1 Piercing. Meanwhile, the person wearing Plate Armor would take a -1 ongoing (-1 to all rolls) because Plate Armor has the quality Clumsy (this can be negate by certain special Moves that certain classes, like Fighters, get.

      Meanwhile some basic equipment is handled in terms of Uses. Instead of buying specific items, you might just buy Adventuring Gear, 5 uses. So, if you need a torch to see, a pole to probe at something, some rope to climb up or over something and then another torch, that's 4 uses. Like that.

    5. Meanwhile, for those people who want more complexity in their games (and also want to feel shame and sadness), there's always F.A.T.A.L.

    6. I'm dubious about any game that gives a duelling rapier a bonus against full plate. In GURPS you have Piercing attacks, of course, and the duellist could make a strike for the visor (-9) or Chinks in Armour (-8). That might actually be simpler than the way Dungeon World handles it...?

      I'd never heard of F.A.T.A.L. before. It's hard to tell, given the look-at-me style of a lot of RPG reviews, whether it's actually bad or whether the reviewers are latching onto aspects the designer never intended. It did remind me of an old discussion about game design, to wit: if the game allows for rape and murder, does that make it wrong? Because the universe allows for rape and murder, and if you believe in a Designer... Yet another reason I'm an agnostic.

    7. Defy Danger is exactly what I was thinking of. The broader point is that Dungeon World prevents combat from getting bogged down in repetitive rounds. My memories of GURPs are fragmented and hazy, but I think this is a big weakness of D20 systems: combat ends up being like a rugby scrum, in that you're caught up in it until the referee blows the whistle, and you can't get out safely otherwise.

      Dungeon World allows players the opportunity to do something different - to distract or confuse an enemy, to lead them into a difficult situation, to trip them up - whatever the player can think of. Now, you can of course try this in other RPGs, but few are so explicitly set up for it. So, simply by not locking PCs into combat rounds, Dungeon World's rules widen the possibilities considerably.

    8. I had the opportunity this weekend to ask Ralph Lovegrove (of Fictoplasm fame) what I needed to unlearn to run a PbtA game, but as we were in a very noisy restaurant and I was drinking quite a lot of Thai beer I may need a refresher.

      One of the questions I had is how does Defy Danger distinguish between taking a swing at a huge guy, walking a tightrope, eating badly prepared blowfish, running across a busy freeway, etc? Does the character use the same stat regardless? And if I pick that fight, not with a brawny warrior in armour, but with somebody of my own size, does that still count as Defy Danger, even though it's less dangerous?

      I have found a couple of podcasts of PbtA games being played. It interests me because there seems to be much more latitude between the variants than I thought at first - a good thing, if so, as it suggests I could tailor the system to fit Tekumel or Legend.

  2. "I'm wondering all this because JC's original comment implies that Dungeon World differentiates between different armours and different weapon types more precisely than either GURPS or Runequest."

    Sorry, missed this - that wasn't what I meant. Instead, my point was that a more abstract, open approach can actually lead to more interesting and realistic results than a "combat round" system.

    To some extent, I think going after realism can be a bit of a fool's errand; Runequest does do it well, but I think there's a case that it's better as a miniature skirmish game with a very few characters a side than an RPG - because fights can be *too* realistic: inexperience fighters die quickly or are horribly injured. Of course, you can use that to steer a campaign away from violence and towards more interesting things, because violence is so risk: even that trollkin with a spear will role an "impale" every so often.

    In a way, I think this is a bit like the debate you often see in martial-arts circles. MMA enthusiasts argue that MMA "works" and other martial arts don't. Traditional martial-arts proponents say that what works in the octagon doesn't necessarily work on the street (or wherever), given the presence of multiple enemies, chairs, tables, broken glass, etc.. Regardless of whoever's right, there's a sense in which most RPG combat systems are like MMA - they're good for a duel with rules (or rather, they *are* rules for a duel!). But the looser Dungeon World/Powered by the Apocalypse rules are more like traditional martial arts (setting aside whether those actually "work" or not), in that they allow for an open scenario in which chairs can be flung, hostages taken, confusion created, and so on.

    Another way to look at it might be this: you can go all detailed with Runequest or Gurps, and accept the slowdown in the action (RQ battles can take a *very* long time, especially with multiple antagonists). Or you can go for a simpler approach. But if you do, there's a big advantage in going all the way over to a more "narrativist" approach like DW/PBTA.

    In both cases, you get lots of detail: limbs flying off or being skewered in RQ; off-the-wall actions in DW. Most D20 systems, though, seem to be stuck in the middle somewhat, with lots of mechanics and little actual detail unless the players and GM work very hard to provide it.

    So I suppose what I'm arguing is that there are actually three broad ways to run a combat: simulationist, with detail coming through the mechanics; conventional, with detail an optional extra amid the whittling of hit points; and narrativist, in which you're not locked into a scrum-like combat system, but can make full use of your creativity and the imaginary environment.

    1. Certainly I always let a clever tactical idea or a great speech trump the actual rules mechanics. But that is, as you say, easier in a light interpretive system like PbtA or even Tirikelu than in a formulaic system like GURPS.

      This is, of course, how most early RPGs were run for almost everything but combat. Prof Barker, in order to recover that freedom after the mind-numbing complexity of games like Swords & Glory, eventually just reduced everything in his games to just one roll and a free interpretation. That might be taking it just a shade too far -- I'd like to know if a character is more likely to succeed at a fight roll or an etiquette roll, for instance -- it's not far off where PbtA seems to have ended up.

  3. I once owned a copy of the FATAL rules. It's at least as over-complicated and horrifying as the SA "non-review" review shows it to be. It doesn't so much allow for rape and murder as kind of encourage it by having (over-complicated) mechanics for it. The designer pretty explicitly wanted it to be that way. I think the chart from the game allowS one to determine the exact number of fingers that can potentially be inserted into an infant's anus (which can vary if said infant is a nymphomaniac and/or accustomed to anal sex) pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this F.A.T.A.L.

    Granted that in the real world a rapier, especially a "dueling" rapier would be basically useless against someone in full plate armor. However, Dungeon World isn't the real world. It's very much "style and feel" over "substance."

    1. Oh-Kay... Well, I guess I'll get through my life very happily without needing to play F.A.T.A.L. then!

    2. The slight "whooshing" sound you may have heard as you typed that was your sanity and soul breathing sighs of relief.

    3. A feeling I know well, having played Arkham Horror yesterday :-)

    4. This was touched on in the non-review review at SA but let me give you a bit more context. Back in the 80s there was a "spinoff" of the "Rock and roll is devil worship/evil" bit with role-playing games. Tipper Gore, wife of then Senator Al Gore, led the charge to ban or restrict Dungeons and Dragon and other RPGs. There was even TV-movie starring Tom Hanks called "Mazes and Monsters" about a "teenager" who went mental due to the evil influence of playing role-playing games.

      F.A.T.A.L. what you might get if you made a game that somehow took all those evil lies about RPGs in general and D&D in particular (they'll turn your kids into mentally ill sex perverts) and tried to make them come true.

  4. Ok, so let's start by pointing out that the rule example you start with, the headbutt, was pulled from thin air by the GM in this case, not taken from GURPS rules. But let's consider it in play:

    Player: I want to headbutt the enemy
    GM: Roll skill -3 (same as if you tried to grapple him)
    Player: (Rolls 3 dice) I hit. How much damage do I do?
    GM: Same as your punch.
    Player: Ok, I've got that on my sheet already, of course. How simple. (Rolls 1 dice) I do 4 points damage. (lucky roll!)
    GM: (Rolls 3 dice) That guy is down and stunned. OR (less likely) He reels, badly hurt, but isn't down yet. He swings wildly at you, at a big penalty to hit from the pain and disorientation...(the fight continues)

    That's how it plays out. Quick, simple, clear. You might consider the language used to be jargonistic, fair enough. But don't let's pretend that isn't a clear and very playable implementation of a rule. It has a 'real world, dramatized' feel to it. It is also in line with other rules you'd already be familiar with. Grappling attacks. Punch damage. Risk of injury to your own, or his head.

    1. It's certainly clear and does work in play. I'm not sure that I'd call it simple or quick, though. By structuring the rules that way, the designers discourage the roll-and-interpret approach, which has actually powered all the best games of GURPS I've played in. As I've said in a few of these posts, if the most satisfying way to play the game is to skip most of the rules then it may not make much sense to have such crunchy rules in the first place. But each group must find the system that suits them best, and I accept that some people like highly simulationist skirmish games.

    2. A short while back ( I used the example of the GURPS garrotte rules. First you may have to make Stealth rolls. Then you roll your Garrotte skill but you have to target the neck and you need to remember that, while Grappling rolls halve the hit location modifier, you're still at the full -5 with the garrotte because it's a special case.

      But wait, we're not nearly out of the woods yet. The victim can try to parry but at -3 (another special case) and don't forget to check for surprise. Then refer to a whole other section for grappling rules (which begs the question why you used a garrotte in the first place, especially as it's harder to target the neck) and refer to yet another section for supplementary suffocation rules. Oh, and the victim can try to break free but don't make the mistake of using the ordinary rules for that, despite having just been referred to the Grappling rules, because the modifier to break free of a garrotte is another special case...

      Does anybody ever use those rules? The game would grind to a halt. Our referee just told the player to make a couple of Garrotte skill rolls, then announced that he'd successfully strangled the Selentine sentries. And that's how Powered by the Apocalypse would likely have handled it, only without the detour into a few thousand words of never-to-be-used special case rules first.

    3. Most of that example is baffling to me. Are you going to use a Garotte on any part of the body aside from the neck? No (Though an episode of Elementary did point out that you can "choke" almost any part of the body). Assuming you surprise your target, why would you apply modifers for targeting the neck? Speaking of which, if you've made your Stealth roll, why do you also need to check for Surprise? Isn't the whole point of the Stealth roll to achieve surprise? Finally, the guy is surprised and thus unaware of the coming attack, so why does he get a chance to parry in that moment? Figure you sneak up on the guy

      For my money it seems like GURPS attempt at a detailed simulation falls way short of how this would actually work in reality.

      Figure you sneak up on or otherwise surprise the target (Stealth) then you make an unmodified Garotte check and apply damage and the first round of suffocation rules. At that point it goes to grappling combat where the target can try to break free while suffering fairly harsh negative modifiers.

      I could see targeting and parry modifiers apply if the people where already fighting and one guy pulled out a garrotte and tried to initiate strangling then or if somehow a duel involving garrottes was being fought (This actually happened in the Dresden Files book, "Cold Days" and it was, well, cool). Otherwise the whole point of a garrotte is to surprises and quickly (and quietly) kill a target.

    4. Full surprise in GURPS isn't just a case of being taken unawares. It's an IQ roll (I think) that if failed means you freeze and can take no action for several rounds. I can't remember if that includes not being unable to defend yourself because the GURPS rules tend to be kind of rambling and spread across different locations in the books, so it's not easy to remember the rules that don't get used very often.

      Under GURPS I'm pretty sure it shouldn't have been possible to garrotte Luca Brasi. He'd have Combat Reflexes, for one thing, which is another bunch of exemptions, one of which is never being surprised.

      A garrotte duel... That does sound cool. I can't quite picture it, but I'd like to see it in a movie.

    5. Oops... I meant to put "if that includes not being able to defend yourself". Fingers too big for this device I'm typing on!

  5. For the garrotte duel, Dresden was in a place where the shedding of blood was prohibited on pain of highly creative fates way worse than death. So Dresden challenged a guy to a duel there, took off his very strong silk tie and tossed it onto the floor so they could kill each other by wouldn't shed actual blood.