This is the final piece of my three part series on Combat As Skill. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 here.
The goal of this piece is to take the concepts presented in the first two posts and ground them into reality with concrete examples.
Two important things to note at the start:
- The assumptions of this post are a goal of using diceless combat. If you want to use dice, there is probably something helpful here, but I will not be spending time talking about how to make dice work in a skill-based combat system.
- I’ll be using my own games as a framework for this. You don’t need to be super familiar with the LUMEN system, but I’ll be referencing it a lot.
My thesis from the start of this series has been that combat in RPGs can be treated as a skill. This, on its own is not a unique idea. Plenty of OSR games work under the focus of player skill rather than a complex series of mechanics. To take the idea further though, I also propose that dice are inherently a counter to treating combat as skill, and so I would like to remove them from combat entirely.
Part 1 of the series explains in greater detail of why I dislike dice.
As a skill, combat then should be something that you get better at. Through practice and expertise, your ability to take on the task of combat should improve with time. Again, randomness runs counter to this. But if we remove dice from combat, am I saying we just ignore combat entirely?
No. We treat it like a puzzle. Part 2 of the series explains how cognitive psychology defines puzzles and problem solving, as well as the main strategies we use.
So, with that preamble out of the way, let’s dive in.
One major assumption of all the stuff that follows is that the characters in your game are capable fighters. As mentioned before, we see assumptions like this in games such as Into the Odd, where rolling to hit doesn’t exist, assuming the characters can hit a target and instead only rolling to see how much damage is dealt. This assumption is being made because in removing randomness, we are essentially saying “Listen, these people can swing a sword. The question is how are they going to swing it in this fight?”
So let’s talk about that “how”. Roll to hit is a mechanic we see in games where players typically only have access to a basic attack, and then maybe a couple of abilities that are super limited in their use (e.g. once per fight/day/session).
As a result, the players are going to look at the buttons in front of them and keep hitting the “basic attack” button again and again. We’re hesitant to spend those limited abilities, because what if you need it later? It’s the same phenomenon we see in video games where players horde their materials and potions thinking they might need them later, only to reach the end of the game and have never used it out of fear of running out.
This also creates situations where oftentimes, no matter how the player describes their attack (“I swing in a wild arc in front of me” “I stab down with all my might”) they are just going to do the exact. same. roll.
This means the first obstacle is in a limited set of options for our players. Enter the LUMEN system. LUMEN is designed with a simple premise: give players a bunch of “do cool shit” buttons, and watch them push them all over and over again.
For those unfamiliar, in LUMEN games, characters have a suite of powers, usually 3-4 of them. During combat, players can announce which power they want to use, and it happens. Read that again. It just happens. There is no roll.
What does this do for our players? Immediately it uncouples them from that hoarding mentality. You mean every time it’s my turn, I can choose from one of these cool options and my character does it? Yes! They are capable fighters, and have learned a number of interesting techniques.
Combat then becomes focused on something else. The question of each fight isn’t whether or not you’re going to hit the enemies in the first place. Instead, it’s “how are you going to use the combination of your powers to overcome these particular enemies?”
Now, this whole post isn’t going to be one big LUMEN advertisement (I think), but I genuinely think the system is the standard for what I’m pushing for in combat.
Ok, so one path forward for us is to remove rolling to hit with a suite of powers that players can use. This helps add variety in the choices players will make on their turn, and start to just make combat feel more interesting. Feel is good! But is this really “skill”?
Let’s bring back the problem solving stuff from Part 2.
I think a good system uses a combination of well and ill defined problems to allow players to gain and demonstrate combat skill.
Well defined combats have clear goals, clear parameters. It’s usually just “kill all these monsters”. No tricks, no oddities the players need to uncover. These are opportunities for players to practice the basics of what their characters can do, as well as showcases of expertise. Figured out a really cool combination of things you can do when you work with a teammate? Show it off in a clearly defined combat and what those enemies crumble.
Ill defined combat is for when you want players to expand their skill knowledge, or test it in new scenarios. These are the boss fights where some unknown force is making it impossible to deal damage to them. The players need to add definition to the problem space, so that they can overcome that obstacle, and take on the next one.
Kinda sounds like the means-end strategy from Part 2, eh?
Let’s talk strategies!
If every single fight is resolved with “kill all the baddies”, then we’re in that whole hammer-nail situation. If the only tool you have is hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. If every single combat is solved through brute force, then it’s going to feel samey. In fact, that’s why people like dice, to throw a wrench into the system and gum up the works. But we don’t need dice to do that, we just need puzzles.
Most commonly our players are using the hill climbing strategy in combat. The goal is to bring the enemies to 0 HP, and so go as fast as you can to the goal in the most direct way possible (e.g. murder). If your combats are just increasing sized bags of HP, you’re just making the hill taller. We don’t want tall hills, we want winding hills.
Which means we need more objectives either baked into the combat from the start, or introduced throughout.
By introducing mini objectives the players are seeking to accomplish in order to take on the enemies, they now can start to employ the means-end strategy. What was once a simple path now branches in multiple directions, each possibly moving you closer to the goal. Players attempt things, trial and error, to see if it is the trick that will help them win the fight.
Planning all that at the start of every fight is work though, and you can’t predict everything the players are going to do. Which is why I encourage you to mess with the combat in the middle of the fight.
In LUMEN, this is seen in the GM Turn. After all the players have had a turn, the GM activates a bunch of enemies, and then introduces a new twist to the fight. In the upcoming NOVA update, each enemy faction will come with a list of complications to call on.
These are your puzzle making toolkit. Just as the players start to think they have the upper hand in combat, you change the puzzle. They thought they were solving a crossword, but now it’s a Sudoku. This isn’t unfair! In fact, it’s fun.
See, if combat is a skill, players want to show off their talents. And each time the GM laughs triumphantly as they place a new hurdle on the battlefield, the players get to show off what they’ve learned and overcome. In addition, this is the perfect counter to a player just using their “best” power over and over. If you notice a player is going back into hammer mode, remove the nails from combat, they need a saw now. And in reacting in the middle of combat, you don’t have to preplan on to incorporate every power players use, you just respond to their actions.
All of this can be done with any game! But, we return to dice ruining that. See, the players might see the new hurdle you’ve placed in front of them, they know what to do. But those damn dice aren’t coming up the way they should be. The players start losing the fight not because they don’t know how to solve the puzzle, but because chance has dictated they fail.
And, I don’t know about you, but that fucking sucks IMO.
So how do we make combat a skill that players can learn, gain expertise on, and show off?
- We give them more options for things to do in the first place. Get rid of so many of those limiting restrictions that don’t allow players to do cool shit. They need a toolkit to solve puzzles, and relying on a really simple roll-to-hit combat is just a hammer in a world of nails.
- Speaking of toolkits, GMs, start thinking in terms of puzzles. Not only that, but use your puzzle building toolkit in the middle of fights, not just what you’ve preplanned. Players are smart, they will know how to break your first puzzle. Which is why every fight isn’t just one puzzle, it’s one after another, nested and woven into each other. Use the concepts of well and ill defined problems to shake up the battlefield.
This might sound like a lot of work. If you’re a designer, maybe it will help you think about why your combat system is designed the way it is. If you’re a GM, this stuff might mean changing systems entirely, or doing some massive hacking of what you’ve got. But I think it’s worth it, if you’ve found combat to be the part of your sessions that people are starting to dread.
Our time is limited, so do you really want to waste it rolling-to-hit? I know I don’t.