Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #62:

Combat, Part 4: Kinds of Fighting

by Travis S. Casey
July 4, 2003

There's more than one kind of fight. I'm not talking about 'swordfights' and 'fistfights' and so on — in point of fact, many experienced fighters will tell you that it's counterproductive to think in terms of weapons. Thinking of a fight as a "swordfight" can make you forget that you can still punch, kick, grapple, and so on.

Even leaving out weapons, though, there are still important distinctions between kinds of fights. The first of these is of the numbers of people involved. Broadly, we can divide things up into three categories:

  • one-on-one
  • many-on-one
  • many-on-many

A second major distinction is the objective of the fight. Most RPG combats center around trying to kill the opponents — but fights are often fought with much more limited objectives. A professional boxing match is one sort of example, with a goal of knocking out the opponent, or of scoring a win through various other means, depending on the rules of the boxing association in question (e.g., three knockdowns in a single round, knocked out of the ring and unable to re-enter quickly enough, etc.). A more RPG-relevant example is a fleeing thief who encounters a guard. The thief's real goal is to get away; killing the guard might be one way to accomplish that, but it's not the true goal. Indeed, it might be considered a poor option — killing one guard may give other guards a desire to exact revenge on the thief, making them likely to continue pursuit when they might otherwise give up.

The most common forms of unchoreographed combat that people see today are boxing, olympic-style wrestling, fencing, and other forms of sport fighting — thus, these heavily influence people's ideas about what combat is like. Under the above categories, these are almost universally one-on-one fights, and are fought for limited objectives rather than with the intent to kill.

Something that's common to see in boxing and wrestling is opponents circling each other, looking for an opening. The one-on-one nature of sport fighting encourages this — you can devote your full attention to one opponent. Characters in RPGs, in contrast, are often involved in many-on-one or many-on- many fights. In a many-on-one fight, the person on the "one" side obviously can't do this... and those on the "many" side have to be aware of each other at least enough not to trip each other up. In a many-on-many fight, it's dangerous as well; you need to know what's going on around you, to keep from running into others and in case another opponent becomes able to attack you.

Spending time circling and looking for an opening is also encouraged by the fact that there is little time pressure — there may be a time limit, but at the least, it's the same for both sides. Characters in RPGs, however, are often under a time pressure which their opponents may not be under. The fleeing thief mentioned above, for example, needs to win the fight quickly, before other guards can be called and come.

Most RPGs don't tend to include rules for circling, waiting for opening, and such things. For the reasons described above, this usually makes sense — but it may or may not make sense for a particular RPG. If one-on-one duels are going to be a major part of the setting — e.g., in Skotos' own Castle Marrach - - then having the combat system support such things makes good sense.

Related to circling is the idea that it's better to let an opponent make the first move. I won't get into a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of making the first move — people have been debating those for centuries — but I'll point out that many systems miss the idea of waiting for an attack and then taking advantage of an opponent's mistake in the attack entirely. Some "twitch games" make use of it, with a setup where if you can spot when an opponent is just starting an attack and react fast enough, the opponent can't defend against your attack (e.g., the old game Prince of Persia). In a text-based RPG, it seems natural to me to add a command to make the character guard and be ready to counterattack, but I haven't seen many games do this.

Such a system tends to naturally lead to circling in duels... if both characters choose to guard-counterattack, then the natural result is that both spend a bit of time circling or standing and watching each other. For many-on-one or many- on-many combats, one could easily make that tactic less desirable by requiring the player to specify whom he/she's guarding against... and thereby taking a risk that someone else attacks him/her first.

Limited objectives lead to another observation — namely that many games make it difficult or impossible to try to knock out or inflict a temporarily crippling wound on an opponent. Allowing this sort of thing makes for a more nuanced system, allowing greater leeway in roleplaying — it can be hard to roleplay the classic "good-guy thief", for example, if you can't knock out guards you come across instead of killing them. Many paper RPGs support this either by separating out kinds of damage (so that, for example, blunt weapons tend to knock people out before killing them) or by allowing special maneuvers which can knock out an opponent. Crippling wounds can be made possible with hit location systems with appropriate effects for wounding specific locations, and these can also help with knockouts, by allowing blows to the head and the like.

Sometimes, the goal (or at least, a goal) of a combat may be to impress an opponent or someone else who's present, and moves can be allowed to support that. Consider Zorro's signature Z-slash, for example, or Robin Hood deliberately shooting an arrow that barely misses. Some paper systems offer mechanics for using that sort of thing to impress NPCs — e.g., the Hero System's "presence attacks". That's getting into the cinematic realm, and we can find lots of possibilities for interesting maneuvers there — using an arrow, knife, or sword to "pin" an opponent's clothing to a wall, for example. A good one for many-on-one or many-on-many fights is the ability to push, trip, or throw one opponent so that he/she runs into another opponent.

Continuing in the cinematic vein, movement as a part of combat often gets ignored. Even in paper RPGs, movement is often what one does to reach an opponent, and once engaged, combatants simply stand there and trade blows. What swashbuckling adventure is complete without someone swinging from a chandelier, jumping up on a table to fight, or jumping off a balcony or stairs onto an opponent? The "wire-fu" used so much in modern action movies is another example — jumping over opponents, jumping up onto something to fight, etc. Improvised weapons are often ignored too — but what bar fight is complete without someone picking up a chair and using it as a weapon? How about kicking over a table to use as a barrier? And how about Jackie Chan, using all sorts of common objects as weapons?

Something else which tends to get ignored is grappling. Systems which have it tend to segregate it from the rest of combat, with grappling being described as something that characters do when they don't have weapons — but in both the real world and in cinematic combat, grappling is a vital part of combat. I'm not talking about just out-and-out wrestling, though that can be important, but about things such as grabbing an opponent's arm to try to pull him/her off- balance, or even, with proper protection such as an armored gauntlet, grabbing an opponent's weapon.

Well, this article has wandered a bit more than I intended, which makes it difficult to sum up. The main point is that combat in the real world — and in fiction, for that matter — shows a great deal of variety. Tactics and maneuvers that work well in open battle can be much less effective in a duel, and vice-versa. The secondary point is that combat doesn't always have to be "to the death", and offering ways for characters to win a fight without necessarily killing opponents is good.

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