Thursday, July 23, 2015

Combat Paradigms in rpg – Individual, Group, Spotlight and Scene combat

 During my many years reading all kinds of different rpg systems, I've encountered a lot of ways of handling combat scenes. So, today I will be talking about the 4 great paradigms of combat in rpg: individual, group, panel and scene combat.

Individual combat: The most common kind of combat that exists in rpgs, not only tabletop rpgs, but also electronic ones (Final Fantasy, Pokemon, Breath of Fire, Chrono Trigger). It has its roots on war-games, borrowed by D&D which spread to all other kinds of games. Individual combat is the classic 'initiative order' combat. Combat is divided in rounds, where every individual creature has its own turn to act following a strict patter of action. When all combatants finish their actions (and reactions), the combat round ends and a new one starts.

Overall, it is a great model of resolution, specially for tactical games or for games that focus on challenges. Like in D&D, where part of the fun is seeing if your group of adventurers can defeat the challenge of delving into a dungeon filled with traps and monsters to gather that treasure at the end. Or in electronic games, where there is the challenge of being able to get to the final boos and beat it.

However, when looking for a more cinematic approach, individual combat is cumbersome and buggy. First, it does not work well with many combatants (rolling for every one of them is pretty annoying). Second, it normally has many problems with scaling and comparing different tiers of powers. Even so, this is still a very solid and fun model of combat.
  • Rpgs that use it: Innumerable, almost all of them. D&D, Gurps, Stortyller/ing, d20, FATE, D6 system, FUZION, Savage Worlds, Eclipse Phase, Anima beyond Fantasy, Risus, Atomic Highway, Zetai Reido, The Ladder, 3d&t, Daemon, Kult, BRP, and many, many, many more.

Group combat: Although this kind of combat is but a variation of Individual Combat, this is the rarest model of rpg combat that exists. In fact, in all my more than 20 years dealing with rpg and the more than 200 systems I've read, I can recall just a single system that does 'Group Combat': the Tunnels and Trolls (T&T) system, the second big tabletop rpg ever created. While D&D followed close to wargaming rules, T&T preferred to emulate what was written in the classic sword and sorcery literature. That end up creating a system much simpler than D&D and whose combat system followed a much different form of resolution.

In a very quick summary, in T&T all combat statistics of a group are added together and compared with the enemy's side total. So, the warrior, the mage and the thief all make their 'hit roll' and compare it with all the monsters' hit roll. The difference is the damage that the losing side takes. There are more rules to that – specially regarding saving rolls and prowess in combat – but, talking briefly, those are the rules.

What that entitles is a much concise and direct approach to combat, and one completely different than all other combat systems encountered in almost all other rpgs. Not only that, but it makes mass combat much easier. It doesn't matter if you are tagging a party of adventurers against an ogre, or two armies against each other. You will do all the same: add up the hit total for each side and compare.

It's sad that this type of combat is so unknown and underused, probably because Tunnels and Trolls went under the radar, eclipsed by the overarching radiance of D&D. Nevertheless, it is an amazing system and an amazing combat paradigm, and the most unusual I've ever seen.
  • Rpg that uses it: TUNNELS AND TROLLS (hell yeah!)

Spotlight combat: This is a new paradigm of combat presented by the new wave of indie rpgs. In this model, every roll is a different stage of combat, a different panel that, when added up, will compose the entire combat scene. Basically, in each panel, the Spotlight of the scene is given to a single characters or an entire group, and everyone inside a same panel is apt to act and roll. For example, in Dungeon World (and also all other Apocalypse World rpgs), every panel depicts a player character. That player character is entitled to a move – what action it will do during its turn. However, other players may help, interfere and. After everything is rolled and results are rolleplayed, the focus shifts to another player character, initializing another panel. In other games, like Wu Shu, all actions are narrated freely and, after everyone has narrated, there is a moment to roll. After all rolls are interpreted, a new panel begins.

This is a very cinematic combat model. It enables a more narrativistic flow, with less weight on precise combat measures. It is very good for dealing with fast, acrobatic and furious combat, although at the cost of not being very tactical.

  • Rpgs that use it: Apocalypse World, Trollbabe, Wu Shu, Dogs in the Vineyard.

Scene combat: It is some sort of variation from Pannel that, instead of dividing combat in panels, it basically resolves all combat in a single roll. Everyone participating in the combat says what they intend to do, everyone rolls and, based on the roll, the ending result is narrated. In other words, it is a model to make combat not much different than skill rolls in many other systems: you say what you do, you roll and, if you succeed, you've won, if not, you loose. Simple and practical, it makes combat faster at the expense of giving up all tactical resource.

  • Rpgs that use it: The pool, Dust Devils, OctaNe, The Mountain Witch.

So, these are the four main combat paradigms that I've stumbled into. Hope you folks enjoyed it.

Until next time,


Edit: Before, Spotlight combat was named 'Panel Combat' and I thank bms42 for giving the name 'Spotlight Combat'.

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