Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #60:

Thinking Mechanically, Part 16: Combat as Conflict

by Travis S. Casey
June 6, 2003

Last time, we focused on combat — specifically on why combat is such a major part of many online RPGs, and on the issue of thinking about what you want out of combat in your game before getting down into the nitty-gritty of designing a combat system.

Once you know what you want, it's time to start thinking about how — how to build a system that gives you what you want. Combat, though, is really only one example of a more general type of system — conflict resolution.

When you get right down to it, all competitive games are conflict resolution systems — the conflict being, "who will win this game"? So, a combat system is a sub-game of sorts — and it can be designed like any other game. Some RPGs take great advantage of this; for example, the paper RPG Lace & Steel uses a card game to handle combat, with each player having a hand of cards which represent possible actions to take. Interestingly, it also uses the exact same card game to handle social conflict in the form of repartee. (Which harkens back to my separation of "action resolution" into Reduction, Resolution, and Representation — the Resolution phase for both is the same, but Reduction and Representation are different.)

So, the question of designing a combat system becomes one of designing a sub-game... which brings us into the general issue of strategic game design. As it happens, Shannon Appelcline has written a series of articles on just that topic, and wrote one relating strategic games to RPGs.

I suppose I could just sign off here and leave you to dig through Shannon's articles... but I'm not going to. For one thing, my editor would hurt me, but for another, I do have some general things to say on conflict resolution.

Shannon goes into a couple of detailed breakdowns of different kinds of games — I'm not going to try to match him. Instead, I'm going to break down strategic elements into two basic types:

  1. rock-paper-scissors
  2. resource allocation

Let's look at each of these in turn.

Rock-paper-scissors relies on two things: first, a set of choices, no one of which is a "best" choice; and second, hidden information, in the form of not knowing what choice your opponent is going to make.

This same element comes up in any combat system which requires the player to make choices about what to do before knowing what an opponent is doing. Examples include the choice of whether to attack or defend in this turn in The Riddle of Steel, melee combat in TSR's original Top Secret, and the dueling system of Skotos' own Castle Marrach game.

RPGs generally add one or more types of state to rock-paper-scissors — e.g., in Top Secret, attacks do damage, and some attacks can stun or result in a knockout. In Castle Marrach, fatigue plays a role, and there's a concept of state with the distance between the two characters dueling, which affects how useful the manuevers are. There's also often elements of skill and random elements added.

(Shannon refers to the Castle Marrach as an "n-dimensional ro-sham-bo" — ro-sham-bo being another term for rock-paper-scissors, and the "n-dimensional" part being that in addition to having the two dimensions of the attacker's and defender's choices, there's also elements of skill with the maneuver chosen, fatigue state, distance, random elements, and quite possibly other elements that I'm not privy to, not being experienced with that system and not knowing the underpinnings.)

It should be noted that some fighting games seem to use a rock-paper-scissors basis, but with reaction time added as a factor. That is, instead of having to blindly choose a defense, there's a delay between beginning an attack and when it takes effect, during which there's animation of the attack being done. If a player can recognize the attack early enough and react quickly enough, they can choose a defense based on the attack that's coming instead of blindly.

This sort of playing with the "hiddenness" of information can be done in other ways — e.g., some card games have special cards which can be played to see all or part of an opponent's hand. An RPG can have a skill which lets a player see what choice an opponent is making before having to make his/her own choice in a conflict.

Resource allocation is the questions of "how much do I have of X to use?", "how can I get more X to use?" and "when and where do I want to use X?" Unfortunately, I can't think of a single, simple game which exemplifies resource allocation the way that rock-paper-scissors exemplifies what might otherwise be called "matrix strategy". Monopoly is about the best one I can think of, with the primary resource being money, and a secondary resource being the available spaces on the board.

In paper RPGs, several of the more recent diceless RPGs use resource allocation as their main conflict resolution mechanism — the just-released Marvel Universe RPG, Nobilis, Active Exploits (which is a free download!), and System DL (which has a freeware version).

Some dice-using games also use resource allocation — The Riddle of Steel has players split their combat dice pools between attack and defense, and further complicates things by having the same pool be used across two "exchanges" before it refreshes, which adds the choice of how much to save for the next exchange.

In all of these, the player has one or more pools of points which can be expended to do things. Uncertainty comes from not knowing how many points it will take to do something; resource management can come from needing to split pools, from slow refresh rates of pools, or from other factors.

Additional state can be added to resource allocation in the form of things which affect how effective resources allocated are, or which limit how resources can be allocated. And, just as in rock-paper-scissors, the "hiddenness" of information can be played with (e.g., the Marvel Universe RPG model Spiderman's spider-sense in part by allowing someone playing Spidey to change resource allocation after an enemy reveals his/her attacks).

Resource allocation can be — and often is — combined with rock-paper-scissors. The Riddle of Steel provides an example, with the combat pool being divided up among actions one wants to take, and those actions having a rock-paper-scissors element to them. A non-RPG example is Avalon Hill's old Gladiator game, in which players allocated points among attack and defense, and sub-allocated them to different parts of the body — so you might put 4 points into attacking your opponent's head, and 2 into attacking his sword arm. That would then be compared with how many he/she put into defending each of those areas to determine if a hit was made and how severe it was.

Note that rock-paper-scissors and resource allocation can also be practiced on a higher level. So far, I've been talking about choosing maneuvers and the like — but in a multiplayer game, they can also be practiced at the level of "who attacks whom", "where do we attack", etc.

One thing which can add greatly in adding a strategic/tactical dimension to combat is a map. Consider classical D&D — the only real choices characters generally have in combat in D&D is "who do I attack", and "what do I attack with". This can make for combat which is mostly an endless series of die rolls, with few real choices involved.

Add a map, though, and new elements come into play. If I move my character up to attack an orc with my sword, will I block someone else's missile or spell attack? Where can I throw a spell to get the most opponents in it, without getting any of my allies in it? If we charge forward, can we block our opponents up in a tight space? Can we make a tight space for them to move through with spells? With this sort of thing thrown in, player communication becomes important, so that a fighter doesn't charge into the spot where a mage was going to throw his fireball spell. A group of characters can try to form a line that foes can't get past. In short, a lot of possibilities are opened up that don't exist or are much more difficult to manage without a map.

Either rock-paper-scissors or resource allocation, or a combination of them, can add a strategic element to combat to make it more interesting, lifting it beyond "kill X" or "click opponent repeatedly" systems. But there's more to a combat system than just choosing the right option or managing your resources well... players want something with a combat "feel" to it. Come back in two weeks for thoughts on that!

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