Wednesday, January 5, 2011

On Dramatic Fightings and Odd House Rules

In my (decreasingly) spare time I traditionally ruminate on obscure rules and systems. A topic that occasionally comes up in those musings are combat systems. And I don’t mean here rules for grim-‘n’-gritty, realistic or cinematic combats, but systems that take in account dramatic or narrative lines.

For example, in literature its common to see the main hero facing minor foes here and then, in lesser skirmishes that serve purposes other than the protagonist’ survival. They’re usually created to show the hero’s combat prowess or to introduce a new complication (or character) into the plot. On the other side we have the titanic clashes and mortal duels where any strike can be the last and the hero’s life hangs by a thread. I’m always impressed by the facts that most RPGs doesn’t support that structure (especially combat-heavy systems). Without some ‘Googling’ I can only remember of three RPGs that tries to follow those narrative lines: Burning Wheel (poorly, just a contested check followed with ad hoc damage), Conan d20 (check the narrative combat rules for facing thugs at The Warrior’s Companion) and Heroquest (the better example, where such distinctions in combat can be said to be obligatory).

Of course, you can argue that in many RPGs the notion of casual/dramatic battle is inapplicable – like ‘Old School’ games (where things like random encounters are an integral part of the adventure). While I agree, that doesn’t stop me from desiring an alternative option for my d20 campaigns – usually for character-driven scenarios. Actually, after the OGL, is extremely easy to adapt a d20 game to almost any literature genre, using  subsystems like the Hero Points from Arcana Unearthed or the Death Flag rule of the great E6,‘game inside the world's must popular rpg’.

Well, all the rambling above started with an old suggestion of a house rule for D&D 3rd Edition. I remember reading about it in Monte Cook’s blog some years ago (can’t find the link anymore). Basically, the author wanted to add variety to combat encounters – a way to remove that classic situation where the player’s declared actions are limited to “I hit him, I hit him, I hit…”. Monte’s argument was based on combats taken from action movies and heroic novels, where the main characters rarely stand face-to-face just exchanging blows. They retreat to better access the scene, or to catch their breaths, or just to exchange insults and taunts.

Based on these assumptions, the author suggested that after a certain number of rounds – I guess 3 rounds – all characters involved in combat were forced to take a non-violent action. They could move, fetch an item, make a skill check or just do nothing but catch their breath. But they couldn’t attack. Yes, it is an odd house rule. Specially in D&D. But sometimes I wonder what changes it would cause over the encounter’s dynamics.  Maybe it would force the PCs to think a little out of the box. I know it also can provoke lots of argument: what constitutes an attack?; does a summoner ordering its minions to strike constitutes an attack action?; and what about attacks of opportunity? Lots of DM’s call here I guess, especially if you don’t have the full collaboration and understanding of your players.

Sometime later Monte released a very interesting codex of his house rules in the Books of Experimental Might series. In the second volume, he introduces a new combat action – Taking a Breather. Once per encounter, a PC could take a standard action to gain an specific benefit: hit points (Monte also introduced a more abstract approach to hit point system in the same book), a bonus to the next attack or damage etc. Monte explains in a box his reasons for the ‘Taking a Breather’:

Watch any action movie, read any book with action scenes, or participate in any kind of combat recreation (like paintball), and you’ll see people stopping for a moment to take stock of what’s going on. I wanted to encourage that in games now and again, rather than the constant “go-go-go” mentality driven by the six-second round. And the best way to get characters to pause and take stock is to give them a good reason to do it.

I really like the philosophy behind this rule. I know that other d20 games like Star Wars Saga Edition (and D&D 4th Edition) have similar rules, but I enjoy the extra options of Taking a Breather. And is worth remembering that this rules seeks to add tactical options to an abstract and narrative combat system, without any concerns for realism (after all is not realistic forcing combatant to stand still for no reason). Albeit different, the excellent add-on Trailblazer seeks the same thing with its combat reactions rule (simplifying attacks of opportunity and greatly expanding and improving the Aid Another action).

Maybe such rule could be merged with the original one above, suggested by Monte (a non-combat action every 3 rounds). This would increase the chances of survival of the PCs and main villains – with the remain NPCs being limited just to a non-combat action – also adding more tension to the encounter. Let’s call it “Breather Rounds” (my English skills are rather poor and I really don’t know how that sounds). In these special rounds, a PC could attempt any non-combat action or: gain a +2 bonus to one action in the following round (like the Aid Another rule); gain a number of temporary hit points* equal to their character level; +1 bonus to the DC of one spell, power or ability used in the next round; +1 to all saving throws next round (or +2 to just one type of saving throw).

I still have many doubts about how to implement these Breather Rounds. Make them simultaneous to all combatants involved seems to be better, simpler. But that can ruin some complex actions of the PCs, specially certain moves and charges. But then again, forbidding each character, separately, from taking more than 3 consecutive rounds of combat actions will result in too much bookkeeping for me. I’ll try to playtest all this insanity and see how it fares at the table.

*These hit points last until the next Breather Round and are not cumulative, reflecting – in an abstract way – the character’s recovering from fatigue and lesser bruises, or maybe just recomposing himself.