11 May, 2016
I’m still feeling a bit under the weather, so let’s do something a bit different. A weekend design challenge in the middle of the week.
So, here’s the challenge: design a combat system that isn’t the current standard “beat on a target until their bag of hit points is depleted.” I’ll post a few ideas, but get ready to share yours!
I had an idea a while ago of measuring the flow of combat. Actual combat tends to be less about beating an opponent into a pulp and more about wearing them down until you can go for an incapacitating blow. And, such a blow wasn’t always immediately lethal; sometimes people fatally wounded in battle would linger on for long afterwards. As medical technology got better, previously fatal wounds could be recovered from. In a world with magical healing, this would likely also be possible.
In the description of hit points in early D&D books, they were described as an overall measurement of combat ability. A “hit” didn’t necessarily mean that you were wounded, but that your combat effectiveness dropped by some amount. Perhaps you were put off balance, or had to strain yourself to get out of the way of a blow and were slower to dodge a potentially fatal blow. This is why fighters had more hit points, as they had more training to get the hell out of the way, not because they could take a sword perforating their spleen better than the wizard. But, people tend to think of hit points as overall health anyway, despite any more nuanced abstraction.
So, my idea was to measure two thing about a combat: the stamina/fatigue for each character, and the advantage one had. The idea was that a combatant would wait for the right time to strike, spending stamina to try to get an advantage in combat. Once you had enough advantage, you could go for that incapacitating blow. The idea was that each pair of combatants would have their own advantage measure between them, meaning that one person fighting three targets had to deal with 3 different advantage. Fighting 3 opponents became a lot harder unless they were pushovers!
I did a little mockup of the combat system. In practice, it wasn’t quite as fun as I was hoping. With evenly match opponents, advantage would go back and forth too easily, leading to a stalemate. Realistic, perhaps, but not terribly fun. It also lead to a feedback loop, where the loser would tend to keep losing when they were disadvantaged. The last problem was displaying the advantage measurement between pairs of combatants, which got really confusing if you had, say, a 3v3 fight where there would be 9 different measurements between all the combatants. The big advantage of hit points is all that information in a simple bar. Although, recalling the system I’m tempted to go back and revisit the system.
Another system, kinda related, would be to have statuses instead of hit points. The goal of a fight would be to inflict statuses on people which would need to be countered. So, for example, you might try to inflict a strain on an opponent (perhaps on a specific body part) which would give a negative to specific actions. The defender would have to counter it properly; for example, perhaps massive attacks cause strains when they connect with shields, so the right answer is to dodge a massive attack rather than block it.
This would be interesting as statuses could limit the player’s options. A strain might mean you can’t do heavy attacks, meaning that you couldn’t strain your opponent back very easily. The disadvantage for a status system, again, is that this becomes a lot harder to display the current state of combat in a simple way. And, if statuses have negatives, you have the feedback problem where the first person to score a status might have a mighty advantage over an opponent.
So, what do you think? Could you come up with a system that replaces hit points? Preferably one that isn’t too hard to display and doesn’t give an advantage to someone already winning.
Special note: I’ve disabled the plugin that let you preview your comment. Something seems to be playing poorly with comments, and I’m trying to narrow it down. It seems longer comments are more likely to get rejected, so I guess you should keep your comments short. If your comment does get discarded, email me the text and I’ll add it manually. Thanks for your patience!