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Fantasy Heartbreaker Retrospective Part 2 – Combat

It’s time to tackle Combat in my breakdown of an old Fantasy Heartbreaker I was working on. This is part 2, find part 1 here. I have posted a discussion thread on this topic in the same place as the last post, on the r/RPGDesign subreddit. Anyway, let’s get into it.

Combat

As I alluded to in the previous post, this was an area I put a lot of work into, and had a large focus on during the design. I knew I wanted a combat system that felt “crunchier” than regular D&D style combat of roll attack, roll damage, passive defence.

This was one of the few areas of the game where I had clear design goals in mind before I began work.

What I set out to achieve was to provide players a set of mechanics they could exploit to give themselves advantages in combat that lead to flavourful decisions and more tactical choice without having to resort to a grid.

The key dichotomy I kept focusing on was the idea of a single, high damage attack, versus several low damage attacks. This would be a trade off between a single target high potential damage attack and more consistent, multi-target attacks, with a lower average damage.

This leaves plenty of room for rudimentary tactics, some that are regularly employed in videogames. With a single enemy with high hit points, a higher potential damage attack may be more desirable, but with several low hit point enemies lots of weak attacks is probably more effective.

I imagined certain characters would be better at different kinds of attacks, thus complicating the decision further. In that space I saw the potential for some mechanical depth, something I think is lacking in most TTRPGs.

I however don’t think what I produced in Myth & Malice gave the desired effect, so let’s discuss the design as it’s presented.

Design Goals

I decided early on to do away with the traditional roll for attack, and roll for damage separation we see in D&D-a-likes. I wanted a single roll for determining both. Considering my core mechanic is roll under a stat, this does not immediately cause problems.

If a Character has a high stat in something, they are more likely to hit, which I want. This also means a higher stat allows for a higher roll to be successful. If the number directly corresponds to damage, then a higher roll, deals more damage. With a low stat, Characters are less likely to hit, and even if they do, they will inherently be doing less damage.

There is nothing wrong with this design, but it is a kind of positive feedback loop. The more likely a character is to hit, the more potential damage they can do.

What I also wanted was to use dice of various sizes, based on player choice. This presents a player with options in terms of how a character “feels” when in combat. Rolling a dice with fewer sides is more likely to succeed, but has lower potential damage.

That is, rolling on a d4 or a d6, you have a lower range of potential numbers rolled. But a higher (sometimes guaranteed) chance of success. On bigger dice like a d10 or a d12, you have a higher chance of failure, but with the potential to roll a bigger number.

In the case of fighting, this was meant to be a trade off between a quick jab or a heavy slow swing.

The System

Lets quickly summarise how the combat system works as it is presented in the rules.

I never wrote rules for initiative or starting combat. I intended to outline in a GMs section how to deal with situations involving two opposed agendas using the Opposed Check rules outlined in the Mechanics section, but i never finished writing those rules. Thus, rules as writ, there is no defined way to enter combat. During playtesting, if who goes first was not fictionally obvious, i would use an opposed Move Check (both sides roll move dice under the most relevant Ability Score) highest success wins and goes first.

In Combat, time is dealt with at at an Encounter level (we will cover time, and the action economy in more detail in an upcoming part), meaning second to second action is important. It is up to the GM to determine what is possible each turn, which lasts around 3-10 seconds.

The rules define three types of distinct actions that are most likely to come up; Attack, Defence, and Maneuvers.

Maneuvers allow a character to forgo an Attack or Defence action in favour of an additional in fiction benefit. These are fairly standard in most D&D-alikes.

Attack and Defence are both sides of the opposed roll mechanic outlined in the Mechanics section, in the context of combat specifically.

So, each side rolls a dice, and succeeds if they roll under their most relevant Ability Score. Whoever rolls highest, and succeeded, wins. Combat takes this mechanic, and adds some complexity.

To start with, the dice rolled depends on what the Character is using to perform the action. In the case of an attack, this will almost always be a Weapon Dice. In Defence, this could be a Move Dice, Weapon Dice, or other equipment dice (namely a Shield Dice). All these dice will be anything from a d4 to a d12.

The complexity here is added when it comes to determining what Score the player must roll under to succeed. That is, they roll under all of them.

Depending on what a Character is doing, rolling under different Scores provides different benefits. For an Melee Attack for example, if a roll is under Might, the character can do damage equal to the roll. If the roll is under Dexterity, the character can make another attack, immediately after this one is resolved. Finally, if the roll is under Focus, they deal Damage equal to their focus, instead of the result rolled.

The intent here, is that each of these conditions are not mutually exclusive, Its perfectly possible for a character to roll under all, some, or none of these scores, thus each character, depending on their makeup of Scores in combination with the dice they roll, will feel slightly different to play.

A Character with high Dexterity, low Might and high Focus, is not likely to hit on any individual attack, but will be likely to attack multiple times, and if they do hit, will do a large amount of damage (equal to Focus).

In contrast, a Character with high Might, low Dexterity and low Focus, is very likely to hit, and has the potential for high damage, but is unlikely to get off multiple hits.

This should inform a Player how they want to kit out their character as well. A Weapon with a large weapon dice, has higher potential damage, but will roll over their Scores more often if they are lower than the dice’s max value.

This extends to defence, and ranged combat, but the benefits are slightly different, with the intent being no Character can be good at all types of combat, they must specialise.

Why it doesn’t work

There are multiple reason why this system has failed to embody my design goals, and to be honest, their intent. Let’s break them down, point by point.

1. Score Generation 

My decision to use random score generation, means, it is perfectly possible to have a character have high Scores in all Abilities, and be likely to succeed in all areas of combat. It is just as possible to produce a character who is bad at all areas of combat.

In my opinion, this is bad design. Making it possible to create objectively worse or better characters is one thing, but making this not the result of player decision, but just random chance is not fun, and is not satisfying.

2. Score Scale

In a last ditch attempt to make the Warrior class more relevant, I reduced the scale of Ability Scores from 2-12 to 1-6. The idea being Warriors have the ability to add a value of 1-6 dynamically. We will cover this decision in more detail in the Class Breakdown, but what this does to the mechanic is catastrophic.

Players are (in theory) rolling anything from a d4 to a d12, thus they can roll values from 1-12. This means for most Characters, any dice above a d6 is basically irrelevant, they cant use them.

This is sort of intentional. This puts a soft cap on what weapons/shields/etc, a character should be using. A weak character will little Might will not perform well weilding a huge Greatsword.

However this just makes the player’s “choice” an irrelevant one. Nobody in their right mind would use larger dice when all it does is make a Character less likely to hit. There is absolutely no benefit, as opposed to producing an interesting tradeoff.

3. Equipment Dice & the Move Dice Problem

So all equipment has a dice rating which determines the dice rolled when performing actions with it. As mentioned above, this is meant to provide player a choice when it comes to kitting out their character, and how they fight in combat. Equipment with small dice are more likely to roll under Scores, and gain the benefits, but have lower potential damage.

What i found in playtesting however, is that for players, this is a non-choice. They just pick the biggest dice they can, that means they cannot fail rolls. Nobody picks the bigger, higher damage weapon because it simply won’t hit at higher damage values anyway, so there is literally no upside.

This is poorly thought out, and does not invoke my intended play.

And while we are on the subject of dice size, lets discuss the Movement Dice. The intent with this mechanic, is that each player has a Movement Dice rating used to roll any check involving Opposed Movement, like chases, initiative, or dodging in combat. The dice goes down in size as a Character don’s Armour, thus making a trade off between damage reduction and damage avoidance.

Characters with “better” movement, use a bigger movement dice. The logic here being they can roll higher potential values. However, what this means practically, is that Characters with better movement, fail more often, because they are more likely to roll over their Ability Scores. Urg. I have few words for this decision other than it is a terrible design choice, that caused unending problems during playtesting.

The Lesson here, is rules cohesion. My Combat system, my Scores system and my Equipment system, are at odds. They do not produce the desired effect in combination.

Summary

In summary, perhaps this system could be reworked. I got a lot of positive feedback during playtesting about rolling one dice under all scores, and determining the outcome.

It produced varied combat rounds, and sometimes, an interesting choice as to what enemies the party decided to approach with what characters.

However i also got a lot of frustrated players who felt they could not produce the desired fighting style they wanted from their character. I also saw a couple characters who were clearly out classing others when it came to combat. This on its own was not a huge issue, but in combination with the Warrior class not feeling much better in combat than other classes, ment players felt a disconnect with what a character was and what they could do.

I have mentioned this before, but I do feel, this easily the worst part of the game, and who’s surprised really? This is by far the most complex and central part. Looking back, I immediately ask myself; Why? Why do the legwork for your first game, when you could make a hack?

Good question! I started the design process by slowly replacing parts of The Lamentations of the Flame Princess, so technically it evolved from a hack, but I always knew I wanted rid of the mechanics from that game, so I wasn’t kidding anyone.

All in all, if I were to return to this project, I would certainly gut this area of the game, and replace it with a much more familiar system. I’m too inexperienced as a designer to produce something that can stand up to the current zeitgeist that is D&D style combat.

That’s it for Combat. In all likelihood we will return to this subject later when we cover Equipment, Classes and other areas of the game in later posts.

Last week had an informative discussion of Reddit, so do check that out if you haven’t already.

As always, please do tell me what you think, discuss this on Reddit, in the comments below, or just think about it.

Next time, my Favourite part – The Classes!

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