Happy the blest ages that knew not the dread fury of those devilish engines of artillery, whose inventor I am persuaded is in hell receiving the reward of his diabolical invention, by which he made it easy for a base and cowardly arm to take the life of a gallant gentleman; and that, when he knows not how or whence, in the height of the ardour and enthusiasm that fire and animate brave hearts, there should come some random bullet, discharged perhaps by one who fled in terror at the flash when he fired off his accursed machine, which in an instant puts an end to the projects and cuts off the life of one who deserved to live for ages to come.Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Continuing my posts on building a d100 game system for an upcoming fantasy Renaissance campaign. The focus here is combat, and mundane weapons and armour (I will get to magic in a future post). Starting with a bit of combat philosophy, I will look at damage and how it is mitigated by active and passive defences, initiative, and actions in combat. I will end with my design choices so far.
What is Combat in Roleplaying Games Anyway?
There have been conflict resolution procedures in most roleplaying games, starting from the first edition of D&D. Because combat involves chance and opposing wills, its outcomes are uncertain, so combat can take the game in unexpected directions. Which is part of playing to find out what happens.
One framing for combat in roleplaying games is Combat as Sport versus Combat as War, where combat as sport might be a “fair fight”, and combat as war has a much more adversarial relationship between players and GM, where all sides seek asymmetric advantages to win at minimal cost (just as you would in the real world). I will add another axis to this, labeling one end of this axis “Combat as Fail State”, and the other end “Combat as Speed Bump”. Speed Bump combat is a combat that you power through in as few dice rolls as possible – maybe only one roll, in order to get back to whatever the game is focused on. Combat as fail state means that gameplay seeks to avoid combat at all costs, as the risk of character mortality is so high.
Different groups of players will have different preferences for what they want in combat. Different games or campaigns can also have different expectations set in session zero. For a Night’s Black Agent’s campaign, I promised my players boss fights, but I did not promise that they would survive them.
For a d100 renaissance game with gunpowder weapons, I think a key design consideration is how lethal firearms will be in the setting and rule system. On the whole I think that combat is an expected element in most d100 games, and they fall more at the realistic Combat as War side of the graph. This may be due to the early Runequest (RQ) combat rules being derived in part from the authors experience of medieval reenactment combat in the Society of Creative Anachronism. It is a lot harder to think of hit points (HP) as plot armour when the rules say your character took a critical hit to the head. So you get a more visceral feeling as you play, unlike in D&D where you can feel immune from consequences due to HP bloat.
Damage, Special Damage, and Wounds
I will compare and contrast a few different d100 games, splitting them up into chunks. These are of necessity, brief descriptions of rules that often detailed at length in game books, so many of the quirks and subtleties of each system will be glossed over:
- Runequest 2 (1978): A hit means you roll weapon damage, and hit location, then subtract a fixed number for armour worn in the location from the damage roll. A PC has both general hit points and location hit points. Wounds affect both general and location HP. When general HP drop to zero, the PC is dead. When a specific location reaches 0 HP a character falls (legs), loses use of limb (arm), or has two turns until they die (abdomen, chest, or head). A limb hit for six more points of damage in a single blow is amputated. While this is a bronze age fantasy game, it includes the comment “A modern, high velocity, bullet, hitting a limb hard enough to put it out of action, will probably kill the owner of the limb by hydrostatic shock.” (RQ2 p.20) A critical hit (a roll equal or less than 1/20 of skill) ignores armour, while an impaling hit (a roll equal or less than 1/5 of skill) increases damage (eg a weapon doing d6+1 damage would do 2d6+2 damage).
- Mythras (2016): Retains location HP, but drops general HP. Location HP are a bit higher than in RQ. When you drop below 0 HP in a location, Endurance checks are needed to avoid being disabled (limb) or incapacitated (head, chest, abdomen). The special effect menu has 40+ options you can choose from, but in my experience Choose Location, Bypass Armour, and Maximise Damage are selected 95% of the time by my players. Choose Location is a dominant strategy in special effect selection, as you can choose an already wounded location. This makes Mythras PCs more vulnerable to being quickly knocked out of combat than RQ PCs (an average PC has 4 HP in their arm, so four points of damage there is enough to trigger a karmic death spiral), unless the GM deliberately avoids hard moves against the PCs and has foes attacking in Combat as Sport mode.
- Call of Cthulhu 7E (2014): Retains general hit points, but drops location hit points. A single wound that does less than half HP just reduces your HP score. A wound that does more than max HP in one blow causes death. Anything in between is a major wound, the character falls, must make a CON check to remain conscious, and if reduced to 0 HP is dying. A dying character needs first aid to avoid death. CoC PCs rarely wear substantial armour. An extreme success on an attack causes increased damage. Pulp Cthulhu (2016) doubles HPs and does not have major wounds, but does check to see if they are knocked out if they lose half their HP in one blow.
- Clockwork and Chivalry 2E (2013): Similar to Coc7E, but you can keep fighting below 0 HP if you make a Resistance roll, until you reach negative HP equal to your starting HP score. This potentially doubles your HP, but with more uncertainty than Pulp Cthulhu. Major wounds are more specific than CoC7E, and are determined by rolling on a table, and range from cosmetic scars to temporary incapacity. Major wounds when below 0 HP roll on the Grievous Wound table, which can include instant death outcomes. Armour only provides half protection against guns up to their normal range, but full protection beyond that. Critical hits do maximum damage and ignore armour.
- Delta Green (2016): Damage bonus from STR is a fixed modifier (from -2 to +2) rather than a die. Has general HP and no location HP, and at 1 or 2 HP you are unconscious, at 0 HP you are dead. Any time you are reduced to 2 or fewer HP, you must make a CONx5 test to avoid losing 1d10 from a character stat. A distinctive feature of this game, is the lethality rating for automatic and heavy weapons, where weapons have a 10-30% chance of being instantly fatal if they hit, regardless of HP. If the lethality roll fails, add the dice together to determine HP damage. For example, a heavy sniper rifle has a 20% lethality rating, and where a Rifle does 1d12+2 damage (3-14), the sniper rifle will do 3-20 damage if it does not land a lethal blow.
- Mothership (2022): This game is not an evolution descended from RQ, and is a streamlined game focused on sci-fi horror (and a hefty does of “invisible rules” or assumed GM knowledge on how to run games). A character will have two wounds (three wounds if a combat specialist). Each wound has 10-20 health points. When you lose all of the HP for a wound, you roll on a wound table (different types of weapons have different tables). Armour is ablative, in that any penetrating blow destroys the armour. Armour ranges in value from 1 to 10. Weapons, however, can do anything from 1d10 damage for a Pistol, through to 1d100 damage for a Laser Cutter (which to be fair, is a one shot weapon with a one hour recharge), and some weapons inflict automatic wounds as well (such as 1d5 wounds for a frag grenade, which will kill most characters).
- Basic Roleplaying (2008): A toolkit system like Mythras, by default BRP uses general HP, a major wound system, and PCs stop fighting at 0 HP and take a fatal wound. BRP treats armour differently, by default armour is rolled randomly (the equipment tables retain an option for fixed armour values). This acknowledges that all armour has weak spots (typically at the arm pit, groin, or eye slot on a human), and creates a wider range of damage outcomes.
How many hits can an adventurer take and keep fighting? My own preference is that a PC should be able to survive at least two normal blows, so that they have time to change what they are doing.
Active Defence – Dodge, Parry, Block
One of the dynamic features of d100 games is that they include active defence options, as well as passive defence from armour (and in Mythras, shields). A PC usually has the option to parry with a weapon, to dodge a blow by movement, or to block with a shield. Parrying risks damage to the weapon, which can cause it to break. Dodge only works if the blow can be reasonably avoided – if you are stuck in place, or next to a cliff, or trying to dodge a house sized object, then dodge is unlikely to work. In Mythras, the equivalent to Dodge, Evasion, leaves you prone on the ground, which is only delaying the inevitable.
In CoC7E, you can fight back when attacked. If your roll is better than your foes, they take damage. You do not get bonus damage from extreme success when fighting back.
You have to go to a completely different game, Usagi Yojimbo, to find the classic defence mechanism of taking a few paces back out of range of the enemy.
The problem of shields
Compared to D&D, shields are amazing in d100 games. In RQ2, you could roll to block an attack with your shield, absorbing 8-16 points of damage depending on the size of the shield. One of the effects of increased protection from shields, is to increase the number of rolls between opponents in combat before a decision is reached, which increases the time required to play out a combat scene.
In Mythras for example, a heater shield blocks all damage on a location the shield is blocking, giving the shield. The difference between maille armour (six armour) and articulated plate (eight armour) is only two points. While this reinforces the dominance of the Choose Location effect (to avoid locations covered by the shield), it can make the Sunder effect useful to batter the shield down over several blows. A d10+2 Glaive with average damage of 7.5 a blow would break a six armour/12 HP heater shield in eight blows. In RQG, shields take 1 HP of damage each time a blow penetrates them, so it will take 12 blows to render a medium shield (12 HP) completely ineffective, but that first blow needs to do at least 13 damage.
The problem for a renaissance game, is that in history shields were abandoned as the quality of steel for armour and weapons improved in Europe, and combatants equipped themselves with two-handed weapons.
One solution is to just say that gunpowder weapons ignore all shields. I also like the “Shields shall l be splintered” house rule (you sacrifice a shield to negate all damage from one attack), but that does not make sense for the renaissance buckler shield, which is entirely made of metal, and is more of an aggressive deflecting device than a passive blocker. A roleplaying solution is to just say that people have stopped using shields, so its not an option for PCs.
Passive Defence – Armour
Armour is generally treated as passive damage reduction in most of the d100 games I have examined. The renaissance was a period of incredible change in armour, with older styles being superseded by improved plate armour that was both thicker and made of softer metal in order to be proof against pistol and musket fire. As muskets improved, heavier muskets with larger powder charges could penetrate almost any armour, so even proof armour was mostly abandoned by the mid-17th century in Europe (the Polish Hussars being a notable exception).
I am going to look at how three game systems represent the armour worn in the renaissance: Basic Roleplaying (BRP), Mythras, and Clockwork and Chivalry (C&C).
- BRP: Full Plate grants 1d10 Armour Points (AP) or 8 AP in a fixed AP game. Half Plate grants 1d8 AP, or 7 AP. A heavy helmet would add +2 AP. While its not exactly on the list, I think a leather buff coat with lobstertail helmet and a metal breastplate, could be treated could be treated as Hard Leather with a Heavy Helmet for 1d6+2 AP or 4 AP.
- Mythras: Articulated Plate provides 8 AP. Half Plate is 5 AP. A combination of buff coat and plate armour is 3 AP in areas only protected by the buff coat (arms) or leather boots, 8 AP in the head and torso.
- C&C: Full plate grants 5 AP. Half Plate grants 4 AP, and Medium armour (buff coat, breastplate, and lobstertail) grants 3 AP.
The Renaissance is also a time of change in weapons – if there was ever an era for a Gygaxian polearm list on the equipment chart, its the Renaissance! Its a feature of the game, rather than a medieval stasis bug, and of course, in a fantasy Renaissance you can make some decisions to mix anachronisms together. There were, however, compelling reasons to adopt gunpowder firearms over traditional longbows and crossbows:
- Muskets were cheaper than military crossbows, which were complex machines
- Deadly wounds could be inflicted at long range against opponents in the best armour
- Logistics was easier – shot can be quickly made in the field and is lighter to carry than arrows
- In siege or urban warfare, a firearm user does not need to expose themselves to return fire
- Less strength or fitness was needed to use a musket
- Materials for muskets and shot were not in short supply (unlike Yew trees in England)
- People preferred shooting them.
One feature of older d100 games, is that the difficulty to learn a weapon was in part handled by requiring a minimum STR and DEX score, eg in BRP a longbow requires STR 11 and DEX 9 to use effectively – in history it was noted that longbows required years of training, constant practice to maintain skill, and good physical condition to loose volleys of arrows in battle (and after a long campaign archer strength might be debilitated by disease). This could be reflected in base skills of varying levels for different weapons. Overall I prefer the Mythras approach of calculating base skill levels (adding two ability scores together) as it generally results in higher minimum skills for PCs.
The transition away from “proof” armour that could stop musket balls, was driven by the physics making it easier to increase the power of muskets, but armour ran into weight limits of what could be worn even by fit, trained, professional soldiers.The problem is that if you just boost the raw damage of firearms, to ensure they penetrate armour, then in any situation where the PCs are not wearing armour, a hit from a firearm will kill them in one shot.
Keeping things simple, I am going to consider only three weapons across three game systems: Basic Roleplaying (BRP), Mythras Firearms Supplement (Mythras), and Clockwork and Chivalry (C&C). The weapons of comparison are the rapier, the flintlock pistol, and the flintlock musket. Remember that weapon damage interacts with character HP, and armour, so while C&C weapons have more damage dice, C&C characters can fight at negative HP. This is very much an apples to oranges comparison.
- BRP: 1d6+1+damage bonus damage, base skill 15%, 15 HP for parrying, STR 7 DEX 13 minimum to use.
- Mythras: 1d8 + damage bonus damage, base skill STR+DEX, 5 AP and 8 HP for parrying.
- C&C: 1d8 + damage bonus damage, STR 7 DEX 13 minimum to use.
Flint Lock Pistol
- BRP: 1d6+1 damage, base skill of 20%, one attack every 4 rounds, range of 10, STR 7 DEX 5 minimum to use, and malfunctions on 95-00. The value of primitive/ancient armour is halved against firearms (round up).
- Mythras: 1d8 damage, base skill STR+DEX, four actions to reload (less one with Rapid Reload combat effect, but with a typical PC having three actions you get a faster rate of fire per five second combat round than the other two game systems), range 10/20/50, ignores four points of armour.
- C&C: 1d6+2 damage, Range 5m, 3 rounds to load, STR 9 DEX 7 minimum to use
Flintlock Dueling Pistol (bonus weapon because C&C has a lot of firearms)
- C&C: 2d4+1 damage, range 10m, 2 rounds to load, STR 9 DEX 9 minimum to use.
- BRP: 1d10+4 damage (1d8 as a club), base skill of 25%, one attack every 4 rounds, range of 60, STR 9 DEX 5 minimum to use, and malfunctions on 95-00. The value of primitive/ancient armour is halved against firearms (round up).
- Mythras: 1d10 damage (2d6 as a club), base skill STR+DEX, four actions to reload (less one with Rapid Reload combat effect, but with a typical PC having three actions you get a faster rate of fire per five second combat round than the other systems here), range 15/100/200, ignores five points of armour.
- C&C: 2d8+1 damage (d6 as a club), range 30m, 4 rounds to load, STR 11 DEX 9 minimum to use.
The Apples to Oranges Comparison
So let us compare weapons to armour, against typical HP for a normal (average damage) and a special success (maximum damage), in each system. Assumptions include average HP based on CON 11 and SIZ 13, no melee damage modifier. There are no buffs to attack or defence from magic, nor any use of luck mechanics.
Interpreting the box colours: Green (no damage), Yellow (damaged, but no chance of being knocked out of the fight), Orange (some chance of being knocked out of the fight), Red (almost certainly knocked out of the fight).
Now after the gunpowder weapons have been fired, I will look at what the second blow does, with the following assumptions: (1) Pistol switches to Rapier, (2) Musket switches to two-handed club, and (3) the first hit was an ordinary success doing median damage.
- BRP is the most lethal system for the first blow, as its special success results for double damage occur 20% of the time.
- C&C is the least lethal system for the second blow, in part because the Musket does such low damage as a club (d6 compared to 2d6 in Mythras).
- Mythras is the most lethal system for the second strike due to the cumulative impact of injury to a specific location. While it looks like full plate armour can entirely prevent a lethal first strike, if you chose not to go with Choose Location as your first critical success effect, and went with Bypass Armour and Maximize damage, then a pistol hit against an arm knocks a foe out, as does a musket hit against an arm, leg or head location.
Ultimately, I am not happy with any of these three systems. All three are a bit too dangerous to PCs who are expected to fight, and I think my group wants a long term campaign that is closer to “combat as sport” where they do not have to obsess about ensuring min/max combat and survival skills for their PCs. I think my main solution is to go with a general HP/serious wound approach, dropping hit locations, and to then buff HP to a range where all PCs will have 20-30 HP (which also ties in with the desire to use The One Ring journey and fatigue system). A high CON score still remains useful for mitigating serious wounds. I might use a Mothership approach, where gunpowder weapons inflict an automatic serious wound if any damage penetrates the armour, even just 1 HP. Another armour penetration mechanic not used by any of these systems, is the all-or-nothing approach, i.e. any firearm shot that penetrates armour inflicts full damage, with no reduction.
Initiative and the OODA Loop
For an online age, speed of resolution of actions becomes more important, because everything takes longer to resolve online. This is a reason for dumping the Mythras combat effects, or RQ strike ranks, and going for a set process when special or critical hits are scored.
The players want a swashbuckling game, which means the game system needs to allow creative exploits that are dependent on the situation and the environment. Rather than specifying all of these in detail ahead of time, I assume that as an experienced GM I can make judgements as the game progresses, offering fail forward or success with a complication where needed.
While I do find the Fast/Slow initiative/action system in Shadows of the Demon Lord interesting, my key decision here, is to adopt a Dr Who initiative system:
- Intent – players choose their actions.
- Talking actions are resolved first – even if its just witty repartee, and not a social skill check.
- Running moves – this can include the party agreeing to a campaign loss in order to flee the combat with their wounded comrades.
- Doing moves are resolved – this can include swashbuckling moves, operating machinery, opening or closing doors, or using a utility item such as an alchemical potion.
- Combat – anything involving attacks and damage is resolved last (eg firing an artillery piece is a combat move, not a Doing move).
If it is not clear from the established narrative who should act first, resolve actions in DEX+INT order.
How Many Actions per Round?
Assuming the five second timescale of most d100 games, my preference is one attack action per player turn, per round of turns, unless some special resource is expended, or PC skills are over 100%. I am not planing on including magic that allows “haste” or multiple actions. The Dr Who system has a stacking penalty for multiple actions and I will have to think about how that plays out in d100 (a -20% cumulative penalty feels okay). Because of the way CoC7E opposed skills work, PCs getting to split their skill for multiple attacks will be rare until they get their skill up to 200%.
Other Design Choices
Fire magic and gunpowder do not play well together. Allowing mages with fire spells to trigger explosions in gunpowder weapons or powder magazines is fun and exciting the first time it happens, and dull as ditch water once it becomes an “I Win” button for all future combat encounters. So the first rule of magic in a game with gunpowder is that no one has fire magic.
After that decision, I think the fundamental call for an era of online play, where three hour sessions have become the norm for my group rather than four hour sessions, is how much time do I want to spend on combat? I think that both the micro-management of Mythras, and attack/dodge/parry/block of RQ, are simply going to eat too much game time. So something closer to the opposed check and fight back mechanics of Call of Cthulhu fits better – and the fight back can be described as the ripostes and counter-strikes of rapier play.
For dual wield weapons, borrow from 13th Age and have the secondary weapon hit on rolls of 2, but also fumble on a roll of 22 as well as 99 and 00. (so 12, 27, 92, etc are all hits if under the general skill level required). This includes shield bash. I will figure out how to handle bucklers when I build the equipment list.
Armour will be fixed values (because its faster than making AP rolls), with the best plate armour having a maximum of seven AP (so a d8 damage weapon can hope to do some damage). Armour imposes no penalties to skill use, except through the fatigue system.
Use CoC7E success levels, so an Extreme success (one fifth of base chance) inflicts increased damage, while a Critical success (01% chance) ignores armour. I am still thinking about the increased damage. Just maximum damage on one die will be plenty if its combined with the armour penetration rule below.
Gunpowder lethality will be represented by having any penetration cause a serious wound. For non-gunpowder weapons, I will do a pass for damage consistency, eg one-handed martial weapons should all do d8 damage, and not have a spread between d6 and d10. I will have to sit down for an afternoon with the weapon and armour tables I build, plus expected PC HP levels, and do a few white box combat tests. Part of session zero will be getting the players do some PvP with their character builds to see how it all works.