Combat as Skill – Part 1, NO MORE DICE

Ok, so as I started drafting this up, I realized that it was a lot longer than I had planned! So this is going to be split into three posts. After all that, I’m planning on recording a video that goes over all of this stuff in case you prefer to listen instead!

And with that, let’s dive into part 1.

It isn’t some big surprise that video games are one of my biggest design influences for my TTRPGs. Obviously I love me some Destiny, and spent like 2 years slowly building up a one page fever dream love letter to the game (LIGHT is cool and you should try it).

You know what’s another big influence? Board games, and card games. I love these games so much. Before I designed RPGs, I tried my hand at designing board games.

I play a lot more board games, card games, and video games than I do RPGs. I really don’t get to play RPGs that often. One thing that I think generally sets board and video games (BVGs as I’ll call them) apart from RPGs is their relationship with player skill. Success or failure in BVGs can have some elements of randomness, of course, but there is a certain flavor of player agency that’s added there that we don’t think about as much in RPGs.

You want to win a BVG. And you can get better at doing so.

A lot of people oftentimes say that in RPGs, the goal isn’t to win. And that’s largely true I think! But, there’s a pretty substantial side to RPGs where you very much want to win: combat. Of course you want to win combat, you don’t want your character to die. Yet, most RPGs have combat rules that mimic the rules of noncombat stuff.

Which of course creates problems. You either have noncombat stuff that doesn’t feel good because it’s inundated with crunchier combat influence. Or you have combat that doesn’t have enough “chew” to it because it’s left loose by its associations with a stronger narrative focus. You don’t want to “win” the noncombat stuff, you want to tell a fun story! But you do want to win combat. And those two sharing rules creates dissonance.

Side note, this is why I made Slayers the way that it is. You should feel like your class in combat, and that meant every class in combat needed its own rules. It’s also why NOVA doesn’t have dice in combat. Speaking of which…

Dice. I did a whole post on how dice are increasingly becoming an enemy for me in games. You should read it.

But focusing on dice on combat specifically. I really really really don’t like dice being used in combat. There are some great games out there that are already doing cool stuff about this. Into the Odd, for example, eschews rolling to hit, and instead you just roll for damage. I love that! Assume these characters are capable fighters and let them get hacking and slashing.

Why don’t I like dice in combat? A few reasons.

First, it’s that point I just made: capable fighters. Most games that have a focus on combat assume that your characters are actually decent fighters. I’m not saying all games do, but there’s sort of a baseline assumption that if you’re going to go crawling into dungeons or blasting around the solar system, you can handle yourself.

Which is IMMEDIATELY canceled out the second you implement roll-to-hit in combat. RTH is really tricky to untangle because it’s also tied into what you consider Hit Points to represent, and Armor to represent. If HP and AC represent your ability to endure hits and deflect damage, then RTH makes sense I suppose, but it also makes things really fucking boring. How many people playing fighters out there have been in combat, wait minutes for it to be their turn, roll a die, be told they miss, and that’s ALL THEY GET TO DO. Now you wait, and hope your die behaves itself next time.

It’s tedious, and complete rips apart the concept that your character is a capable fighter who knows how to swing a sword. Maybe not every swing will kill, but you know how to swing it to wear an enemy down (and isn’t that what HP is?), so why are you missing?

Ok, so that point is for games with a binary RTH system. What about games with a range of successes? Your classic fail, succeed with a complication, total success approach. Well there are two issues with rolling in this system.

First, for most games that use this system, your character has a pretty high likelihood of getting in one of those success range bands. Like, really good odds. Players are clever. They will use the stats/approaches/attributes/modifiers that are going to give them the best chance at reaching success. So they’ll pull that lever again and again in combat.

Which means you’re going to hit most of the time! Sure, some of those might have complications (more on that in a bit), but you’re acting in a pretty capable manner. That’s good right? Well, if that’s the case, why are we rolling at all? The probabilities are so in the player’s favor, that we should just accept them as able to “do the thing.” Does this mean I want combat hand waved away? Absolutely not! More on how I think combat can be interesting without dice later.

Ok, second point. Interpretation of those successes with a “complication” can slow things down quite a bit. This might just be a me thing, but I generally think, specifically for combat, a success with complication is my least favorite thing to see happen as a GM. For most narrative focused games (where you’re likely to see this kind of mechanic), there is some loose advice on how to deal with these things. Sure, you can just have the monster hit back. Sometimes, that’s the only time the monster gets to hit back. That’s particularly exciting for the player, and especially not fun for the GM if they are just waiting for you to roll that 7-9.

In general, those moments where we have to weave a complication as a result of a combat action just slow down a part of the game that is already notorious for being a little slow. Unless enemies have specific mechanical reactions to these situations, we’re just introducing situations where we need to create a new problem in an already fictionally loose situation. It’s not my favorite, personally.

Ok, how is this dice stuff related to skill? Well let’s look back at the BVGs I was talking about earlier. Especially with video games (again, one of my big influences from a design perspective), combat in those games is often times entirely focused on player skill. There’s a billion memes out there about “getting gud” in soulslike games. When I clear a shrine in Breath of the Wild, or kill a boss in Elden Ring, or win that round of crucible in Destiny (lol yeah right), it’s because I was able to do it. Not because the dice told me I could.

That’s what I want combat in RPGs to feel like. I want them to feel like the players know that if they do the right things, choose their actions correctly, they can win this thing. And they won because of their choices. They had agency over their victory, not a little cube.

And so, how do you make that happen? How do you remove dice rolling from combat entirely, while also keeping it fast, interesting, and challenging?

We treat it like a puzzle.

But that’s for the next post. Next time, I’m going to talk about Problem Solving, and the psychology behind it. It’s important to understand that stuff because it will all lead to part 3, where we bring this tangibly to the tabletop.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this so far, keep an eye out for part 2 soon!

3 thoughts on “Combat as Skill – Part 1, NO MORE DICE

  1. Wonderful post, I really enjoy reading other people’s design thoughts that I’m getting quite close to wanting to start my own blog.

    Treating combat like a puzzle is an excellent concept, and something I’ve been chasing with my own work. Personally I’ve never quite understood people’s hate of RNG, but that’s likely because my own experiences at the table have colored my opinion quite a bit, and I run homebrew systems designed to work around some of the common boring bits, as well as the fact that my table loves it when the rare failure occurs.

    Going back to the puzzle solving, I think one reason why I really enjoy straight failures is because of the fact it encourages my table to “go back to the drawing board” and quickly improvise a new solution to their predicament. One of the last playtests for my current WIP, my players devised a plan to poison a vampire and then sneak attack him. They did not succeed on their attack even when they had an 80% chance to do so, and what ensued was an incredibly funny (for the whole table) battle as they fought a poisoned Vampire, trying to shove him into the fireplace.

    I hope you’ll forgive this absolute wall of text.


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