The World is Savage Part 2: Further Meditations on Combat

Welcome to Part two of the second installment of my Meditations on Worldbuilding series highlighting one of my favorite campaign worlds published by the world’s most popular role-playing game. That campaign world is Dark Sun. As I have stated previously on this blog as well as on my podcast on numerous occasions, I believe worldbuilding requires a mechanical component or “real world game” correlate in order to bring that world to life for the players. In order for that world to “feel” real, there needs to be more than just narrative. There should be a game mechanic, derived from the world itself, that forces players to make real world choices about their character. Dark Sun is an excellent example of this philosophy put into action. Thus, the focus of my meditation.

By meditation, I do want to add that I am stream of conscious writing in the style of Kerouac here. I have thought about the current topic prior to writing, but I prefer to let my thoughts flow onto the page. Once my thoughts are complete, I plan to run a campaign based on my thoughts here. From the playtest, tweaks and corrections are likely to occur…So…for the time being I thank you for your patience as I ramble on about “stuff and things.”

I started this meditation about a month ago (World is a Desert). Then I started talking about “The World is Savage,” which was a post that began talking about combat. Combat is a big topic and I know I’ve probably gotten a few things wrong already. But! That is what playtesting is for, right!? I’ll get to that eventually. For right now, I just want to meditate on the subject to see where this takes us.

In part one, I got rid of initiative to portray the desperation of combat. I also went into a simple way of adding tactics to a game without bogging it down via the tyranny of the grid. I refer you to that prior post for what I am proposing. In retrospect, I’m already seeing where I am going to have to change some things here, but we can get to that in a wrap up.

Today, I am going to talk about surprise. Surprise is a classic first step in almost any combat system I’ve played in. In contemporary games, it is usually resolved with a stealth versus perception type skill check. In older games it was simply a die roll where if you rolled within a certain range (5-6 on a d6 for instance) you were surprised. I have never been happy with either of these methods. The later method is too simple and does not take into consideration either side’s skill, composition, or environmental factors that could play a role in surprise. The former method seems to rely on the one sneaky character surprising the monsters; or, if making a group check, creating some absurd results, such as everyone being surprised but the one very perceptive character who, apparently, isn’t saying anything until combat starts…and, in most cases, if combat started, the sneaky character can’t do anything anyway as everyone else has lost a turn being surprised.

I like the idea of surprise being a group check for simplicity’s sake. But I also like the idea of modifying the roll to some degree based on the circumstances. I am going to start with an admittedly arbitrary number. I think a group of adventurers (or monsters) should be surprised 33% of the time. The players are adventurers and are likely to know full well that they have to be vigilant, but will, on occasion, suffer from lapses in judgment.

I am going to assume this is true for an adventuring party of 4-5. I am going to increase the difficulty in “being silent” via larger groups. For every two additional members of the party, the ease by which a party can be surprised is increased by 1 pip on a die. I’m think of using a d10. Thus, to be surprised, the party would have to roll 1-3. If there are 6-7 members in the party, the chance for surprise would increase to 1-4. For every two less in a party, the chance decreases by 1 pip to a minimum of 1. Thus, if the party sends the rogue up ahead all by himself, he would only be surprised on a 1 out of 10. I think this makes sense as I would expect a single person to be at a heightened sense of awareness if he knew his friends may be a round away should something jump out of the dark to eat him or her.

What about a group of knights versus a group of lightly armored thieves? Party composition is going to be important, but I also think analyzing the near infinite number potentials here is opening a can of worms I just don’t want to deal with. Thus, a simple bonus or penalty of 1 is going to be used for party composition. If the PCs are actively being stealthy by foregoing heavy armors in exchange for stealth, that reduction in protection should be rewarded. Conversely, if the players opt for protection and don plate mail to trudge through an echoing cavern, then there should be an added penalty of 1 pip to the die roll for surprise. If there is a fair mix of both, no modifier.

What about the environment? Similar to the issue of composition, we could easily go down a rabbit hole of modifiers that would make a ruleset that I want to be simple to become burdened by needless complexity. If the environment is favorable (howling winds to mask the party’s approach) grant a bonus of 1 pip to the surprise. If the environment is not favorable, (splashing through a sewer system) then penalize the party with 1 pip on the die roll.

What would surprise look like in a combat that doesn’t use initiative? Well, I think by winning the surprise roll, you win the initiative. You get one round to look for favorable ground to prepare defenses and/or an ambush. Again, rather than just a needless level of complexity here, I am simply going to penalize the surprised party with disadvantage to their rolls for that first round. If both parties are surprised, then both parties have disadvantage. I think this makes sense as both groups are fumbling with their weapons as they are caught completely unaware of each other.

Encounter distance is important; but if I am honest with myself, I have no idea how to handle this without making something needlessly complex. If one party is surprised, the encounter distance should allow an attacker to use the charge attack immediately. If both are surprised, then, presumably, the groups are rather close to each other. If neither are surprised, then there is going to be considerable amount of distance between the two.

This could get quite complicated too. Won’t encounter distance change depending on environment? You are damned right it will! Take for example, an encounter that takes place out on the plains versus in a cavern complex. Presumably, the PCs could spot someone heading toward them from a mile away, provided weather conditions were good. Whereas, even if the PCs aren’t surprised, the monsters might be mere feet away on the other side of the door.

AD&D had a rubric where there was a standard die roll (6d4 feet, I believe) then you subtract from the roll depending on the environment, surprise, and other factors. I don’t know if I want to get that detailed. But more importantly, do I even need a roll? Certainly, the randomness makes things “fair” from a player’s perspective and a DM can’t be accused of setting things up against the players. 

But the idea of putting together a chart or some other ruleset for encounter distance doesn’t seem appealing. I want something simple. Finding the balance between enough complexity to make the game interesting but without bogging it down is the goal here. I think I’m going to leave encounter distance alone for now. I’ll just say that encounter distance will be determined by line of sight and Game Master’s discretion. Obviously, I think that will get modified by circumstances such as a loud group of orcs coming down a hall, versus a small group of riders racing across a plain as the sun sets.

So, what about action economy? I’m keeping this simple as well. One move and one obvious action (attack, spell, use a magic item, etc.). I am not going to say opening a door is an action. I think that can be done as part of a move action. But rummaging through your backpack is going to be an action. I disagree with LotFP’s rule. I think rummaging through a pack back takes way too long in that game. It is almost punitive. But I think that if you have a potion of healing in your backpack, that should only take you one round to get. In the following round you can drink the potion.

AttackActionDrawing/sheathing a weaponMovement (there will be a penalty imposed for the attack)
Cast a spellActionPick up an item (from a table, floor, bookshelf, etc.Movement
Use any item (magical or otherwise)ActionPull a lever or a throw a switch, press a buttonMovement
Using a skillActionTurn a key in a lockMovement
Using an innate abilityActionOpen/close a doorMovement
Fighting withdrawalActionHand an item to another characterMovement
  Change a combat stanceMovement
I’m sure this list will change as I dive more into this…

I do not think I need to concern myself with “reactions” or “free actions” or “bonus actions” as 5E does. Those types of action certainly make things more interesting in a tactically focused combat. However, as these action types add interesting complexity in player agency, they also bring the combat to a slow crawl. I want to do away with that and I do not think much of those extra actions will be necessary in a combat that is doing away with initiative. For example, in 5E if you want to leave combat without incurring an attack of opportunity you have to use the action disengage. Otherwise, you can be attacked by an opponent out of turn as a reaction (aka an attack of opportunity). Without using an initiative system, the character that wishes to withdraw from combat can still be attacked by the character that is targeting him that round. In order to give the players an option to leave melee combat and avoid damage, the player can take a fighting withdrawal stance. This will provide a +4 to the character’s armor class, but they will forego all attack actions that round. Alternatively, if the player needs “to act” that turn, they can still do so, but they run the risk of being harmed. For example, the thief character leaves combat in order to turn a crank (use an item) to lower a portcullis in order to block enemy reserves from joining the fray. The goblin attacking him will still get an attack, just as if it was an attack of opportunity from 5E. Alternatively, if the thief wanted to do a fighting withdrawal, he would gain a bonus to his armor class as he leaves, but he won’t be able to turn the crank until his next turn. Decisions, decisions…

Well…here we are at about 1900 words again. Jeez…writing about combat is tough! In the next meditation I will talk about critical hits, how to avoid them, as well as lingering effects from being reduced to 0 hit points. Again…I suspect a lot of this will be changed, modified, and/or altered, once I start play testing all of this! Thanks again for letting me ramble dear reader!!!

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