Wednesday, April 12, 2017

My Approach to Combat Tactics

When it comes to D20 games, combat strategy has always felt to me a lot like Magic the Gathering in that the majority of strategy comes in the build. In games like 3.5e and Pathfinder your choice of spells, equipment, feats, and skill distribution are 90% of the strategy. Different tactical choices of course matter, but your tool chest so to speak vastly narrows your options. 5e and other games have made a lot of changes to this, simplifying the process, but its seems to me that it's mostly lowered the certainty level. I may be overstating the issue here, but these are the thoughts I had/have going into applying tactics to Northern Realm.

Let me preface this with my aim for Northern Realm is not to build a war game. However, I want players to be faced with intuitive and meaningful choices, especially in combat. I also want to keep things simple. This is a difficult tightrope to walk.

With these thoughts in mind, I broke the build process into 3 layers of complexity, with the idea that the most complex layer only exists deep in the text, so it could be ignored for new players or for people that want a more casual game (that's the general idea anyway). These rules are meant to add more options for players or create more interesting situations. For example, you would only know a quarterstaff is half effective against heavy armor if you actually read its description and didn't just look at the table with its stats.

Arthur Rackham

On the first layer are Time and Order. They aren't much different from the traditional d20 systems, but I tried to make them a bit more simple:


Within combat, time is broken into 5-second rounds. You can execute three types of actions each round on your turn, an Action, Movement, and an Immediate Action. An action includes attacking, grappling, and casting spells, a movement is the time it takes to move a distance no greater than your movement speed, and an immediate action can be performed out of turn, at any time.


When combat begins, it follows a certain order. Combat breaks down into two parts, the surprise round and the combat round.

The turn orders always follow these steps: 1. Surprise round (if applicable),
2. Take turns in order of Initiative. Decide what to do and then perform your action, and then repeat beginning at step 2.

The idea here is that with an immediate action and the short decision time makes the combat feel less turn-based more heat of battle. If you go first you must decide quickly or do nothing, whereas if you go last you have more time to think and react, but even if you do nothing, you can still perform an immediate action.

Initiative: Initiative determines order in combat. Characters with the highest Initiative go first, then next highest goes second, and so on. If you and another character have the same Initiative, go simultaneously. If an effect would lower or increase your Dexterity or Intuition it also lowers or increases your Initiative. You may spend an immediate action to improve your Initiative order by 1d6 until the end of the round. 

Surprise Round: Essentially, a surprise round is the round which not all characters are ready for the attack. This happens when one or more characters initiate an attack against targets that are unknowing or not ready. To initiate the attack, state your intentions and go in order of declaration rather than Initiative. During the surprise round previously unaware targets take their turns after the aware targets in order of Initiative. 
Action Round: Each character takes a turn during the action round in order of Initiative. On your turn, state your intentions. Then attempt it, be it casting a spell, running, tackling someone, attacking, etc. On your turn, you may not deliberatein fact you must act in a timely manner (generally within 10 seconds not inlcuding any questions/descriptions concerning the environment). If you have not decided what to do quickly, your character too, stands there at a loss for what to do.

There is also an advantage to going first. If you harm your target, it gains a wound. Wounds give the target a cumulative -1 penalty to AC and attack.


So here is the second layer of complexity. We have a trade-off, going early means you have less time to think, but a greater likelihood of success (and you can still use an immediate action) and going late means you can better react to what's happening and you have more time to decide what to do.

The biggest tactical aspect of all this, however, is the action economy surrounding immediate actions. Use your immediate action and you can't perform a free attack (basically an attack of opportunity) or counter a spell (a viable and often necessary tactic in this game).

Here is a list of basic immediate actions:

Improve your initiative for 1 round
Free attack
Counter a spell
Quicken a spell
Draw out a weapon or object

And there are many more specific immediate actions special to certain skills and attributes. To put some of this into context (because an attack of opportunity isn't always so important), something like a free attack is the only thing preventing a wizard from touching you to cast a spell or a warrior from starting a grapple to trip/pin/run over/choke you out. That's because there is no such thing as a touch attack. A touch automatically succeeds if you are Flat-Footed or don't have/or choose not to take a free attack. Also, on the spell side, most spells have an unpreventable partial effect. If a devastating spell is not countered, even a successful resistance check could mean bad things for everyone. So basically, if you're paying attention in combat, an action you recognize or suspect as an immediate action means that your target is now vulnerable or open, which leads to my second biggest point, grappling.


To grapple is to wrestle. There are whole builds for this in a lot of games. The difference here is you cannot build an ungrapple-able character and there's no way to avoid a free attack when attempting to initiate a grapple- you have to wait for an opening. Then why do it or at least why do it often? Because not only can you not build an unstoppable grappling machine, you also can't build an unstoppable weapons master. If your target is in full plate there may be no way to successfully attack it. If you're both in full plate the both of you could literally hit each other with swords for a dozen rounds and not hurt each other. This is where grappling comes in. In the typical situation you would wait for an opening- the target is distracted, used its immediate action, is Flat-Footed, or you just risk a Free Attack, then you are no longer required to exceed your target's AC, now you're rolling opposing grapple checks.

To grapple:

1. Touch your target. 2. Make an opposing grapple check (d6 + Strength). 3. On a success, perform a grapple action. If still grappled on the next turn start at step 2. Tied checks result in no action.

A grapple action is unique to other forms of attacks in that it accounts for both charactersturns. In subsequent rounds make one grapple check on the initiating characters turn. Once a grapple has been successfully initiated, a grappled creature cannot take any action besides a grapple action. If the creature succeeds in breaking free from the grapple, it can once again perform an immediate action otherwise it is unable.

Grapple Actions:

1. The target is dealt grapple damage equal to your Strength modifier.

2. Escape the grapple (move out of reach).

3. Draw a weapon or item, draw the target’s weapon, wrestle an item away from the target, disarm the target, cover the target’s mouth, pull out materials...

4. Attack the target with a dagger or similarly sharp object. Roll only the one grapple check (do not roll a separate attack check; the attack cannot score a critical hit). The weapon must be in hand.

5. Run over your target. You can only run over the target if you performed a movement this turn. You move past the target a distance up to your movement speed and the target is knocked prone. You are not considered grappled in the next round.

6. Move, shove, or throw the target as many feet as your Strength modifier or trip the target. In addition, the shoved or tripped target must roll a Dexterity check or be knocked prone (DC is your grapple check). You are not considered grappled in the next round.

7. Cast a spell.

8. Pin the target. This action makes it so the pinned target can only attempt to break the pin and nothing else. You can deal grapple damage as part maintaining but not initiating a pin. You can only pin the target in the turn following your first grapple check.

9. Start a chokehold. The target must first be pinned. Once pinned you may start a chokehold. If you make a successful chokehold check 3 times in a row, your target falls unconscious for 1d20 minutes.

10. Break a pin or chokehold. You and the target are still grappling, but you are no longer pinned.

Injuries: If damage from a critical hit drops you to less than half your Life, you become injured. Roll 3d6 and refer to the Injury Table or if the target is completely immobile, choose an injury (depending on the situation). You may wish to change out some of the injuries in the table, particularly if they are not applicable to the attack, for example, an attack with fire would have a chance to badly burn, but not crush bones. Note, other effects can result in an injury; for example, if you are held down and unable to defend yourself, your enemy may injure you however it wants. In other words, you do not need to drop below half your Life to become injured.

There's more, but those are the biggest points. How does that read?
 Arthur Rackham