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"Better" Combat Systems in RPGs - Feedback Welcome!

JohnSnow

Adventurer
So, this is not one more thread about making combat in RPGs more tedious. It's my personal thoughts about how to strike the right balance between "realism" (or verisimilitude) and playability.

Obviously, this varies greatly from group to group, depending on both your tastes and how well versed your group is with real combat. Some groups prefer to just have narrative combats governed by "rule of cool," and there's nothing wrong with that. Other groups go the entirely opposite direction to "highly simulative" and try to play out every feint, dodge, parry, and strike, and bring in hit tables and wound charts and the like. And that's fine too. But for me, neither approach strikes the right balance, and most RPG combat systems either get too bogged down on details, or they're designed by and for people who don't really have any understanding of real combat. So I typically find them either too abstract or not abstract enough. Or, in the worst, worst case scenario: a highly tactical skirmish war-game that doesn't make real world sense. Those hurt.

So, what do I feel an ideal combat system should have? First, I'll lay it out based on principles:

1) Combat should be FUN to play.
2) Characters should have meaningful choices to make in combat.
3) Real combat is incredibly complex, and no simulative system will ever fully capture that. Don't even try. BUT the system should make real world sense.
4) The combat resolution mechanic should be tied directly to the game's skill resolution mechanic. Progression can either be tied to class and level or to any number of weapons skills, but it should ultimately feel pretty similar to any other skill.
5) Skill matters, but actual combat is highly variable, and the most skilled combatant usually, but doesn't always, win. So there should be a random element (dice rolls are great). Randomness also helps to account for some of the complexity that is both flatly impossible to capture and very difficult to even attempt to capture without driving yourself nuts.
6) Damage matters, as weapons are DANGEROUS. In the real world, a single blow from a dagger can kill you. Attrition based health mechanics (cough*Hit Points*cough) are useful from a gaming sense, but they're problematic for believability. And they can tend to lead to sloggy combats.


Whew! It sounds like I'm attempting to say it can't be done! But fear not, I think it can, and I think some systems do it reasonably well, if imperfectly. Verisimilitude should be about providing the simplest possible mechanical framework for a narrative structure. In further posts, I'll talk about some of my favorite systems, what they get right, and where I think they could use some work.

Full disclosure, my gaming experience includes every edition of D&D to date, d20 Modern, Iron Heroes, Castles & Crusades, Top Secret, S.I., both d6 and d20 Star Wars, Palladium's Palladium Fantasy RPG, Heroes Unlimited, Robotech, and Ninjas & Superspies; Shadowrun, Champions, and I'm now working on a pending game of Savage Worlds. I'm also familiar with Green Ronin's AGE System and WotC's Alternity, but I've never played them. Aside - wow, that's a long (albeit incomplete) list.

Outside of gaming, my hobbies include performing at various Renaissance Faires and studying and performing historical European martial arts - which might be related. So I'm approaching this as someone who has studied narrative combat for fun and (occasionally) profit. So I've had the benefit of getting to talk about some of this with expert sword nerds - some of whom also like roleplaying games.

However, as I go through this, I'd be interested in other people's thoughts as well. I hope people think it's a fun thread.
 
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JohnSnow

Adventurer
So, with that perspective, and since I started with some of the things that don't work so well, let me first talk about some of the systems I've played, and the things that, IMO, they get right.

Simple mechanics. Whether it's all the d20-based games' "die roll + bonuses vs. difficulty number," the d6 System's "dice pool vs. difficulty number," Savage Worlds's system of "Success plus Raises," or the Vampire/Hero/Shadowrun "Count successes" method, a simple, intuitive die mechanic beats tables and charts every single time. Do I think some work better than others? Sure, but that's mostly a matter of implementation.

I also think it's better if combat defaults to requiring a single action check roll each round, because multiple actions per character turn can quickly get tedious. As such, it is my contention that each character be limited to one, but granted a maximum of 3 actions that require a resolution roll. Why 3? Because it's enough to feel like a lot, but not so many that the system bogs down. d6 System and Savage Worlds both do this well, giving a character the chance to take a second or third action by accepting a cumulative penalty to all actions.

Movement and free actions. Simple movement should be assumed in combat. Most people don't spend a fight standing still and slugging it out. You tend to circle, move, attack, spin, turn, duck, bob, weave, and dodge. This is true whether you're fighting hand-to-hand or shooting. By default, there should be penalties for moving fast, shooting on the run, and specialized movement should merit checks to accomplish. So you should always be able to move and attack. This is also why facing is, IMO, a stupid rule in hand to hand combat. Simple actions are things you can do that take no check, like talking, easy movements, and the like. You only need to use a significant action to open a door if it's locked or hard to move in some way. The GM gets final say on whether something counts as "significant."

No Parry or Dodge rolls, and for the love of god, don't use both. Palladium did this: Attacker rolls d20, Player 2 rolls to dodge, and if that fails, he rolls a second time to parry. You only get to defend once. And yes, there's variability in how good your defense is, and in how good the other guy's attack is, but all that variability is summed up by one die roll. It does not need two, so cut the other one. Later editions of D&D sorta do this right with having defenders effectively "take 10" on what it calls "Armor Class," but could be more honestly called (and is, in many d20-based games) "Defense." In Savage Worlds, hand-to-hand combat uses something called "Parry" which represents fighting skill and bonuses. Ranged weapons target a different thing, which actually creates a meaningful distinction between hand-to-hand and throwing/shooting (we'll come back to that).

Dynamic initiative: Yes, I'm aware that an initiative check is another die roll (or card draw) and I just said we should be trying to minimize those, but I think this is a complexity worth keeping. It keeps combat flexible and constantly shifting, and that helps to keep it "unpredictable" and reduce "slog time" - i.e. "more fun."

That's all for this post, as I'm trying to keep from having to spend hours writing them without a break. In my next post, I'll switch to talking about damage, hit points, weapon types, and the fundamental difference between "believable" and "realistic."
 

JohnSnow

Adventurer
Okay, time to talk about the elephant in the room of all RPGs that is also the crux of the combat system - how do you handle DAMAGE?

Reading about the early days of either Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson's game, it started pretty simply - one hit, one shot, one kill. All war-games really modeled, or were intended to, was "are they combat effective or NOT?" So the old war gamers, before they ever started doing much in the way of "roleplaying," had characters who were "commanders/heroes" who could take more than a single hit and survive. I've never played Chainmail or the like, so I don't the exact mechanics, but I know the principle behind it. It works, it's cool, and it's vitally important to enable the cinematic skirmishes that form the basis of combat in most RPGs. At first, they just let a character take more than one hit (2, 3, and so forth) before they went down. But that wasn't sufficiently granular for simulation-minded war-gamers. Because common sense says a sword, or an axe, can inflict more damage in combat than a dagger, right? And there were all those cool tables of weapons...

One solution to this, and it worked, was hit points. It's not the only way to handle damage, and it's wonky abstraction has occasioned more than one argument on this forum and others, because they subsume the game world concepts of "not-fatigued," "lucky," "blessed" and "skilled," but somehow still also represent physical damage. D&D made a further mistake here, by having hit points scale with "level." So you can be hit (lose hit points), but not really be hit. This creates a (potentially giant and lengthy) attrition-based mechanic that has no direct meaning when it comes to narrating a fight.

Early systems also tried to differentiate between different types of armor, different types of weapons, and damage types. You can obviously take this too far, drawing a distinction between two different .45 caliber semi-automatic handguns or two basically similar one-handed swords. But some of that is a good thing, making a player feel better about their choice of this or that weapon or armor vs. another.

A few RPGs have embraced systems to solve some of these. Savage Worlds, 4th Edition, and Star Wars Saga Edition all allowed for characters that are minions who go down easily. A one shot drop may not be good for players, but it's great for mowing down a crowd of mooks in a lot of heroic action stories. D&D does this with escalating damage as you level up, and it works.

In fact, most people agree that D&D hits its sweet spot somewhere in the middle-levels, where players both have cool things to do, as well as enough choices to matter that combat feels "fun," but are by no means invulnerable. So, the trick is: how does one maintain that feeling over the whole level range? That's a very good question, and I have some thoughts.

Finally, what level of "risk"makes the game fun? That's a good question. Personally, I think it's important to have a situation where choices and consequences matter, and characters can be genuinely at risk. I like randomness, because it's part of what makes the game fun, but I also want to give some narrative control to players. For example, if a character starts to be less combat effective, or in danger of dying, it seems like they should have the ability to withdraw from combat, or even run away. Or they can know that they're pushing their luck, but if there's something to fight for, then they can choose to take that risk. A little bit of control over fate is a good thing here that encourages people to be creative.

Next post: Luck points, stunts, tricks, zones and meaningful combats.
 

Wightbred

Explorer
For example, if a character starts to be less combat effective, or in danger of dying, it seems like they should have the ability to withdraw from combat, or even run away. Or they can know that they're pushing their luck, but if there's something to fight for, then they can choose to take that risk.
Very much agree with this. Individual views on risk and death vary, so the individual players choose if they take the risk of death in this situation. Getting excellent results running rules for this at my table.

Not sure I will agree with your outcome, but really enjoying the thread, and keen to read more.
 

I wonder if it would be better for D&D-style action RPGs to just have everyone always have 30 to 50 hit points, and not have that scale by level, nor have the damage PCs or monsters deal more damage at higher level. But wounds are separate from hit points.

You always have enough hit points to survive a few rounds of a fight. But higher level characters could deal with more foes, or ignore the consequences of more wounds. Maybe you can move faster, or throw enemies far distances, or maybe use bigger weapons. But if someone actually lands a hit on you with a weapon, the wound is real.
 

JohnSnow

Adventurer
I wonder if it would be better for D&D-style action RPGs to just have everyone always have 30 to 50 hit points, and not have that scale by level, nor have the damage PCs or monsters deal more damage at higher level. But wounds are separate from hit points.

You always have enough hit points to survive a few rounds of a fight. But higher level characters could deal with more foes, or ignore the consequences of more wounds. Maybe you can move faster, or throw enemies far distances, or maybe use bigger weapons. But if someone actually lands a hit on you with a weapon, the wound is real.
I think this is the way to go, and I'm not sure that it's not better to have a Savage Worlds, d6 Star Wars, or Mutants & Masterminds style Wound/Condition Track. It's been a while since I read the latter, so forgive me if I'm misremembering. But in Savage Worlds, PCs can endure up to 3 wounds (or a few more with the right edges/bonuses) before the 4th renders them "incapacitated." Up to a point, they can also "soak" wounds, by spending a Benny to "absorb" the damage. And yes, a single attack can cause more than one wound. But your Soak roll can absorb some or all of them. Extras (the mooks) are incapacitated by 1 wound unless they're resilient (2 wounds), or very resilient (3 wounds). The only other thing that increases Wounds for creatures is Size.

Savage Worlds also has another cool nod to complexity that's still highly playable. If, and only if, a character is incapacitated by a strike, they roll to see how serious it was. They could die, have a permanent injury and be bleeding out, or end up with a wound that impairs them for 24 hours or until all their wounds are healed. There's also a cool mechanic called "the Golden Hour" which basically says that wounds that aren't treated immediately can only be healed by high-level magic. It's a cool mechanic that allows for characters to be actually injured. I remember one of the things Monte Cook did in Ptolus that I really liked was that magical healing left scars. Because, IMO, as long as it's not overdone, a good combat system should absolutely support getting scarred, having one eye, developing a limp, or even losing a hand.

And yes, I agree that high level characters should be able to have more options, shrug off their wounds to an extent, affect more enemies, or be better at shrugging off a hit. But it should still be possible to hurt them. And then one can draw a solid line about where heroes pass from being heroic, to legendary, to supernatural. And then decide what degree of magic should be available based on that dial.
 

Thirteenspades

Great Wyrm
So, this is not one more thread about making combat in RPGs more tedious. It's my personal thoughts about how to strike the right balance between "realism" (or verisimilitude) and playability.

Obviously, this varies greatly from group to group, depending on both your tastes and how well versed your group is with real combat. Some groups prefer to just have narrative combats governed by "rule of cool," and there's nothing wrong with that. Other groups go the entirely opposite direction to "highly simulative" and try to play out every feint, dodge, parry, and strike, and bring in hit tables and wound charts and the like. And that's fine too. But for me, neither approach strikes the right balance, and most RPG combat systems either get too bogged down on details, or they're designed by and for people who don't really have any understanding of real combat. So I typically find them either too abstract or not abstract enough. Or, in the worst, worst case scenario: a highly tactical skirmish war-game that doesn't make real world sense. Those hurt.

So, what do I feel an ideal combat system should have? First, I'll lay it out based on principles:

1) Combat should be FUN to play.
2) Characters should have meaningful choices to make in combat.
3) Real combat is incredibly complex, and no simulative system will ever fully capture that. Don't even try. BUT the system should make real world sense.
4) The combat resolution mechanic should be tied directly to the game's skill resolution mechanic. Progression can either be tied to class and level or to any number of weapons skills, but it should ultimately feel pretty similar to any other skill.
5) Skill matters, but actual combat is highly variable, and the most skilled combatant usually, but doesn't always, win. So there should be a random element (dice rolls are great). Randomness also helps to account for some of the complexity that is both flatly impossible to capture and very difficult to even attempt to capture without driving yourself nuts.
6) Damage matters, as weapons are DANGEROUS. In the real world, a single blow from a dagger can kill you. Attrition based health mechanics (cough*Hit Points*cough) are useful from a gaming sense, but they're problematic for believability. And they can tend to lead to sloggy combats.


Whew! It sounds like I'm attempting to say it can't be done! But fear not, I think it can, and I think some systems do it reasonably well, if imperfectly. Verisimilitude should be about providing the simplest possible mechanical framework for a narrative structure. In further posts, I'll talk about some of my favorite systems, what they get right, and where I think they could use some work.

Full disclosure, my gaming experience includes every edition of D&D to date, d20 Modern, Iron Heroes, Castles & Crusades, Top Secret, S.I., both d6 and d20 Star Wars, Palladium's Palladium Fantasy RPG, Heroes Unlimited, Robotech, and Ninjas & Superspies; Shadowrun, Champions, and I'm now working on a pending game of Savage Worlds. I'm also familiar with Green Ronin's AGE System and WotC's Alternity, but I've never played them. Aside - wow, that's a long (albeit incomplete) list.

Outside of gaming, my hobbies include performing at various Renaissance Faires and studying and performing historical European martial arts - which might be related. So I'm approaching this as someone who has studied narrative combat for fun and (occasionally) profit. So I've had the benefit of getting to talk about some of this with expert sword nerds - some of whom also like roleplaying games.

However, as I go through this, I'd be interested in other people's thoughts as well. I hope people think it's a fun thread.
You should watch Shadiversity's "Why character levels in RPGs are stupid" on YouTube, he touches on a lot of these points.
 


Thirteenspades

Great Wyrm
Nice video. I generally find Shad a bit annoying, but he is on point here.

Couldn’t find a working link to the Cogent system he talks about. Anyone know where to get it?
This might have links to Cogent pdfs. Might also be on the trove (dot) net but keep that on the down low :)
 

dave2008

Legend
Okay, time to talk about the elephant in the room of all RPGs that is also the crux of the combat system - how do you handle DAMAGE?

Reading about the early days of either Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson's game, it started pretty simply - one hit, one shot, one kill. All war-games really modeled, or were intended to, was "are they combat effective or NOT?" So the old war gamers, before they ever started doing much in the way of "roleplaying," had characters who were "commanders/heroes" who could take more than a single hit and survive. I've never played Chainmail or the like, so I don't the exact mechanics, but I know the principle behind it. It works, it's cool, and it's vitally important to enable the cinematic skirmishes that form the basis of combat in most RPGs. At first, they just let a character take more than one hit (2, 3, and so forth) before they went down. But that wasn't sufficiently granular for simulation-minded war-gamers. Because common sense says a sword, or an axe, can inflict more damage in combat than a dagger, right? And there were all those cool tables of weapons...

One solution to this, and it worked, was hit points. It's not the only way to handle damage, and it's wonky abstraction has occasioned more than one argument on this forum and others, because they subsume the game world concepts of "not-fatigued," "lucky," "blessed" and "skilled," but somehow still also represent physical damage. D&D made a further mistake here, by having hit points scale with "level." So you can be hit (lose hit points), but not really be hit. This creates a (potentially giant and lengthy) attrition-based mechanic that has no direct meaning when it comes to narrating a fight.

Early systems also tried to differentiate between different types of armor, different types of weapons, and damage types. You can obviously take this too far, drawing a distinction between two different .45 caliber semi-automatic handguns or two basically similar one-handed swords. But some of that is a good thing, making a player feel better about their choice of this or that weapon or armor vs. another.

A few RPGs have embraced systems to solve some of these. Savage Worlds, 4th Edition, and Star Wars Saga Edition all allowed for characters that are minions who go down easily. A one shot drop may not be good for players, but it's great for mowing down a crowd of mooks in a lot of heroic action stories. D&D does this with escalating damage as you level up, and it works.

In fact, most people agree that D&D hits its sweet spot somewhere in the middle-levels, where players both have cool things to do, as well as enough choices to matter that combat feels "fun," but are by no means invulnerable. So, the trick is: how does one maintain that feeling over the whole level range? That's a very good question, and I have some thoughts.

Finally, what level of "risk"makes the game fun? That's a good question. Personally, I think it's important to have a situation where choices and consequences matter, and characters can be genuinely at risk. I like randomness, because it's part of what makes the game fun, but I also want to give some narrative control to players. For example, if a character starts to be less combat effective, or in danger of dying, it seems like they should have the ability to withdraw from combat, or even run away. Or they can know that they're pushing their luck, but if there's something to fight for, then they can choose to take that risk. A little bit of control over fate is a good thing here that encourages people to be creative.

Next post: Luck points, stunts, tricks, zones and meaningful combats.
We've pretty much solved this issue for our group. It started with D&D 4e and the idea of bloodied hit points. We've advanced this concept in 5e as follows:

Hit Points (HP): fatigue, skill, luck, and minor physical damage (shallow cuts, bruises, etc. - things easily recovered from). These are determined normally (though for my next campaign I am soft capping HP at level 10 with minimal advancement after that). These are also recovered normally (we play 5e).

Bloodied Hit Points (BHP): This real damage, meat points if you will. BHP = [STR mod + CON mod] x Size (Medium = 1), so the biggest, toughest PC only has 10 BHP max, ever. When BHP hit 0, your dead. You regain BHP at the rate of 1 BHP per extended rest (which is a week in our game) and the use of a healer's kit (for each point of recovery). With a successful medicine check (DC = 20-remaining BHP) you can gain an extra point of BHP or reduce the rest length to a typical long rest.

When you are hit by an attack you take damage from your HP. When your HP is 0*, you take damage from your BHP; however, the damage is reduced by your armor's DR (armor DR = AC-10). Armor DR is only used when your BHP is / would be damaged.

*We had a rule that crits do max damage to HP and rolled damage to BHP. However, my players didn't like it because it became too deadly. We are not trying it again, but the crit has to be "confirmed" to take damage from your BHP.

Anyway, it works great for us. It feels more "real" and is fast and puts real tension when your getting close to 0 HP and on crits. No one wants those to happen. It makes the Champion fighter better because getting a crit is a bigger deal. It also makes heavy armor more valuable which feels better to us. Plate can be a real life saver with this system.
 

Thirteenspades

Great Wyrm
We've pretty much solved this issue for our group. It started with D&D 4e and the idea of bloodied hit points. We've advanced this concept in 5e as follows:

Hit Points (HP): fatigue, skill, luck, and minor physical damage (shallow cuts, bruises, etc. - things easily recovered from). These are determined normally (though for my next campaign I am soft capping HP at level 10 with minimal advancement after that). These are also recovered normally (we play 5e).

Bloodied Hit Points (BHP): This real damage, meat points if you will. BHP = [STR mod + CON mod] x Size (Medium = 1), so the biggest, toughest PC only has 10 BHP max, ever. When BHP hit 0, your dead. You regain BHP at the rate of 1 BHP per extended rest (which is a week in our game) and the use of a healer's kit (for each point of recovery). With a successful medicine check (DC = 20-remaining BHP) you can gain an extra point of BHP or reduce the rest length to a typical long rest.

When you are hit by an attack you take damage from your HP. When your HP is 0*, you take damage from your BHP; however, the damage is reduced by your armor's DR (armor DR = AC-10). Armor DR is only used when your BHP is / would be damaged.

*We had a rule that crits do max damage to HP and rolled damage to BHP. However, my players didn't like it because it became too deadly. We are not trying it again, but the crit has to be "confirmed" to take damage from your BHP.

Anyway, it works great for us. It feels more "real" and is fast and puts real tension when your getting close to 0 HP and on crits. No one wants those to happen. It makes the Champion fighter better because getting a crit is a bigger deal. It also makes heavy armor more valuable which feels better to us. Plate can be a real life saver with this system.
Sounds like Pathfinder, but instead of going unconscious you fight to the bloody death.
 

Every group needs to decide what type of game they want to play, and the combat system should follow that principle.
I don't agree with your principles, as you are falling into the trap of "more realistic combat with DANGEROUS weapons" = more fun.

I disagree.

More realistic combat = potentially less fun, as with more realistic combat more character deaths will result. Realistic combat is nasty, quick, brutal and unforgiving.

I've played in games where the system was set up around relatively realistic combat. Lots of deaths and maimings. Very, very grim and gritty.
 

Thirteenspades

Great Wyrm
Every group needs to decide what type of game they want to play, and the combat system should follow that principle.
I don't agree with your principles, as you are falling into the trap of "more realistic combat with DANGEROUS weapons" = more fun.

I disagree.

More realistic combat = potentially less fun, as with more realistic combat more character deaths will result. Realistic combat is nasty, quick, brutal and unforgiving.

I've played in games where the system was set up around relatively realistic combat. Lots of deaths and maimings. Very, very grim and gritty.
Exactly, and if they don't like this, they can shrug and do something else. DMG has mentioned this a million times.
 

dave2008

Legend
Sounds like Pathfinder, but instead of going unconscious you fight to the bloody death.
How is this like Pathfinder (I never played PF1 or 3e). I have the PF2 books, but I don't see how this is similar to that. Though technically it would have to be similar to our approach as we've been doing this for about 6 years in 5e ;)
 

Thirteenspades

Great Wyrm
How is this like Pathfinder (I never played PF1 or 3e). I have the PF2 books, but I don't see how this is similar to that. Though technically it would have to be similar to our approach as we've been doing this for about 6 years in 5e ;)
When you reach 0 hp you fall unconscious. And if you reach a negative value equal to your constitution score you die. At least that's how I remember it.
 

JohnSnow

Adventurer
You should watch Shadiversity's "Why character levels in RPGs are stupid" on YouTube, he touches on a lot of these points.
I've watched most (okay, a LOT) of Shad's stuff. We share similar sensibilities in terms of the balance between realism and playability. I have a slightly more narrative background to my HEMA than Shad does, because I both train HEMA and perform it for stage combat, so rule of cool is a thing.

My inclination and intention here is NOT to create a system for gritty/lethal combat, but to model one where it's possible enough (while being avoidable by PCs, if they're careful) to make combat a real threat that makes players face the "do we?/don't we?" dilemma based on how confident they feel and how important the combat is.

I hate having to create a kludge to get around "Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by a group of low-level nobodies, because they all got close and had daggers." And if Caesar is only 4th to 6th-level, but the system goes to 10 or 20, then the system has a serious problem modeling anything remotely approaching "the real world."

Which is fine. Some people like superhero fantasy. And because I think that can be cool, I'll try to make the system scaleable enough to support it, because playing as Thor or Hercules is awesome. But that's not its primary intent. If it's not your cup of tea, there's plenty of systems for people who like to be able to swim through lava.
 

JohnSnow

Adventurer
Every group needs to decide what type of game they want to play, and the combat system should follow that principle.
I don't agree with your principles, as you are falling into the trap of "more realistic combat with DANGEROUS weapons" = more fun.

I disagree.

More realistic combat = potentially less fun, as with more realistic combat more character deaths will result. Realistic combat is nasty, quick, brutal and unforgiving.

I've played in games where the system was set up around relatively realistic combat. Lots of deaths and maimings. Very, very grim and gritty.
My intention here is decidedly not to actually go for either` "grim and gritty," or "nasty, quick, brutal and unforgiving." Nor is the intention to create "realistic combat." I do want to eliminate grind-y combats, where you have to hammer at a foe for 10 hit points a round for 15 rounds.

My goal here is "believable" (i.e. more "realistic" than it currently is) and "fun." As someone who regularly creates narrative combats for stage, I know that there's a huge difference between realistic and believable. I want combats in my games to be the latter, not the former.

It's inspired in part by the Shadiversity post about "levels are stupid," in part by my own frustration with hit points and "studded leather armor," and in part by every thread I've ever seen that has argued (quite persuasively) that "Aragorn is 5th-level."

In my opinion, no character (regardless of class) should be able to completely shrug off getting stabbed in the gut or neck with a dagger, no matter who's wielding it (no cheating with "sneak attack"). In D&D, after 1st-level, even a critical hit with a dagger (2d4) threatens...who? A low-Con wizard or sorcerer? Maybe?
 

Thirteenspades

Great Wyrm
My intention here is decidedly not to actually go for either` "grim and gritty," or "nasty, quick, brutal and unforgiving." Nor is the intention to create "realistic combat." I do want to eliminate grind-y combats, where you have to hammer at a foe for 10 hit points a round for 15 rounds.

My goal here is "believable" (i.e. more "realistic" than it currently is) and "fun." As someone who regularly creates narrative combats for stage, I know that there's a huge difference between realistic and believable. I want combats in my games to be the latter, not the former.

It's inspired in part by the Shadiversity post about "levels are stupid," in part by my own frustration with hit points and "studded leather armor," and in part by every thread I've ever seen that has argued (quite persuasively) that "Aragorn is 5th-level."

In my opinion, no character (regardless of class) should be able to completely shrug off getting stabbed in the gut or neck with a dagger, no matter who's wielding it (no cheating with "sneak attack"). In D&D, after 1st-level, even a critical hit with a dagger (2d4) threatens...who? A low-Con wizard or sorcerer? Maybe?
And of course, believability is part of the fun. So realism plays a role to a certain degree.
 

Bilharzia

Fish Priest
I like your list of principles but number (1) is tricky, because for some people combat itself is not fun at all, or they want it resolved as abstractly as possible and that's all that counts, other players will enjoy the detail and the moment to moment action. Anyway, my point being this is going to vary significantly person to person.

I'm surprised you have not come across GURPS or any RuneQuest variant in your list. I've very little experience with GURPS but lots of people swear by it, it's certainly too involved for me. As far as detailed combat systems goes RuneQuest 6 or now Mythras is the one I have most experience with. Going through your list

2) Characters should have meaningful choices to make in combat.
There is quite a lot here. One of the features of Mythras that distinguishes from other BRP games such as earlier RQ editions and BRP games like Call of Cthulhu is Special Effects. These in part tell the 'story' of the combat, so that a fight is generally won by who gains the advantage from the successful use of special effects. Examples of these effects include -
Trip Opponent - which if successful will send your opponent prone, once you are prone your skills are halved so this is serious.
Choose Location - since the system is location based you can decide to target a vulnerable part of the body if it is lightly or un-armoured, or you might target a limb if you are trying to disable a weapon arm.
Bypass Armour - if you are lucky and roll a critical you can use this effect to ignore the armour of wherever you hit. Critical hits can be devastating.
Disarm Opponent - you can attempt to catch and fling the opponent's weapon away.
There are many more. These are the star of the system but one of its bugbears - there are a lot to choose from and it can lead to analysis paralysis for new players. The best way I have found of handling this is with GM guidance - present a choice of 2 effects to a player when it comes up, gradually they will get the idea and make their own choices. Using NPCs' special effects against players will also teach them the value and tactics available with these effects.

Beyond special effects, weapon choices and tactical choices can mean a lot. Shields are the only weapon which can actively parry missile weapons, so although that Dane Axe is lethal and can chop off someone's arm, if you loose an arrow at the Dane Axe wielder, they can't parry it. Their only defence is to attempt to use their evade skill, which will put them prone. Evading is also harder to succeed at than parrying. Shields can also passively block several locations, this means if a location is struck that is protected by a shield it will stop the damage as if the blow was parried.

3) The system should make real world sense.
Fitting armour to a PCs body, weapons that work as you would expect, shields which protect your body, and more so the larger they are, armour which absorbs damage rather than making you harder to hit(!) all come into play. Feedback from HEMA and other martial arts practitioners suggests that the special effects system evokes the sense of finding and exploiting an opening during an exchange, I don't have any real fighting experience but the system does have a realistic feel in that sense.

4) Tied directly to the game's skill resolution mechanic.
Combat styles are treated as a professional skill and work like other skills. All skills are based on a d100 percentile system. A range of skills may come into play during combat - Endurance might be tested if you take a serious or major wound, a fail on Endurance may stun you or knock you out. The Brawn skill may be tested if an opponent attempts to trip you and so on.

5) Skill matters, but actual combat is highly variable, and the most skilled combatant usually, but doesn't always, win.
In Mythras weapon skills are grouped into a collection of weapons that make sense for a learned Combat Style, as an example a Roman legionary might have a "Legionary" style which includes gladius, scutum and pilum. That one Combat Style skill is rolled when those weapons are used. Combat Style covers both attack and parry. A typical exchange is an attack roll from an attacker countered by a parry from the defender.

6) Damage matters, as weapons are DANGEROUS. In the real world, a single blow from a dagger can kill you.
Mythras is location based for a PC or creature body, each location may have Armour Points if armoured or tough-skinned as a creature, each location also has HP. Hit points are fairly low and never increase. For example a strictly average human has 4HP in their head, a dagger's damage is 1d4+1 without any character damage bonus for strength and size, so a dagger hit of 4 or 5 to the head means a serious wound which could knock you out. A Dane Axe does 2d6+2 damage and with that can take off a limb or head with one hit. Armour protects from damage point-for-point, so the highest plate armour with no enhancement is 8AP, mail is 6AP and so on. Critical hits can bypass armour.

Human damage bonus (from the strength and size of the character) ranges from -1d4 if you are exceptionally weak and small to +1d6 if you have 18 in both STR and SIZ, very rare. A more typical damage bonus is +1d2 or for a strong fighter +1d4, this damage bonus is added to your melee damage roll, so that dagger would do 1d4+1d2 for a slightly above average fighter.

Although as a whole the combat system is fairly complex, there are ways to pare it down a little. I don't use weapon Reach or the Cycle/Round system for example and I use a slightly faster way of determining attack/parry exchanges. For some people it is indeed still going to be too complex but I appreciate the piecemeal armour/hp system, the differentiated weapons and I enjoy how dramatic combats can be, with a story emerging from the choices, mechanics, chance and circumstance of each melee.

There's a free cut-down version "Mythras Imperative" Downloads which gives you character creation and the core rules system including combat.
 

I'm just going to address the premises, so you can get the idea of my views.
  1. FUN is relative, as you already mentioned. You need to find the right market to create the proper type of combat you prefer.
  2. I'll agree that almost every combat system I've seen has very few choice per round, unless you're some kind of spellcaster or special power user. Even supposedly dynamic combat systems, like 4E D&D, still tend to fall back to the same small set of choices.
    1. I think that having some variability in a character's approach makes a difference, and allowing that to change each turn/round/etc. is a good idea. For example, a character could be in a Full Defense stance, Defensive stance, Aggressive stance, or Full Attack stance, allowing for a variety of penalties and benefits.
  3. A level of common sense should be applied, but the question becomes the level of complexity acceptable. IMO, the use of miniatures has actually been detrimental in this regard, as it forces a level of minutia that becomes problematic.
    1. You mentioned constant movement in combat, but the use of miniatures pretty much negates that, as characters will plop themselves in the most advantageous position, refusing to budge unless forced. With Theater of the Mind, the battle is more fluid and realistic, since the specifics of position become irrelevant.
  4. Agreed. One of the aspects of the early 5E D&D playtest had all rolls as ability checks. Saving Throws, Attacks, and Skill rolls were all forms of ability checks, and the differentiation was only for determining what might modify the roll (such as a bonus to attacks).
  5. Rolls are a necessary aspect, and the real question is how much of a factor it should be. In a system using a 1d20 with a modifier, the die roll is going to be more relevant than the modifier most of the time. A system that uses 5d4 is going to have the modifier matter more, since the dice will be much closer to average each time.
    1. This is one of the reasons I like 5E D&D proficiency die, because with two dice rolled, the result will tend closer to the median. A system that used an ability die, skill die, and randomness die would cause a skilled person to win most of the time, but a few lucky rolls can swing things dramatically.
  6. Hit Points, like combat rounds and other combat mechanics, are a poor attempt to simulate the effects of combat while retaining a game aspect. The origin of Hit Dice is the average number of hits a character can take before death, and they didn't get particularly high in the original game, nor in AD&D. Most games have inflated these, probably as a result of player demand carried over from CCRPGs.
    1. A system that I liked, even though it had some issues, was from the Pinnacle version of Deadlands. You had a Wind score, which was the equivalent of HP, and when you ran out you were too winded to act until you recovered (usually in a round or so). In addition, each part of your body had a number of maximum wounds it could take (always 5 IIRC). When you took "damage," you divided it by your "body" score (determined by size). The whole number was the number of wounds the part of your body hit took, with the remainder becoming loss of Wind. You suffered various penalties for using the wounded location depending on the number of wounds, which created the dreaded death spiral, but the concept is sound. A character could have HP that represent their endurance to continue on, but still suffer physical wounds until they take too many (again, based on size) and they die.
 

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