When I’m Looking at a Combat System

My group has been improvising a FATE adaptation recently, and when we went to test it today, one of the first things we looked into was how its fight turned out. I learned a few things—some about our work in progress, but more about the kinds of things one looks at in a fighting system.

There’s the question of what the fighting is for. Why are there fight scenes? As such, what does the fight need to do, to look like, in order not to lose its fighters?

Myself, I think my first priority is that it not be too easy to one-shot an opponent. Or at least, not a PC. My characters always seem to fall first; I’d like to at least last a couple rounds before being put out of the action. ….or (I say, looking at my current D&D group) a chance to get a lick in before the opponents just plain get taken out.

But too long doesn’t work either. My Friday game’s been in the same fight for three sessions. The context makes it bad enough, but once a fight gets into two whatever interest I may have had in it fades pretty quickly. You want a fight you can finish before people run out of basic powers and return to an irritated, “Primary weapon, typical attack, I hit something yes?”

Then you’ve got the issue of defenses. I’m one of those people who likes to feel like I can do something when on the defense, aside from respond to “17 hit?” with a yes or a no as appropriate. Rolling is nice. Stunting and/or throwing Aspects at it is cool. Even just getting to choose a mode of defense is better than nothing.

And then there’s how important the dice are, and here we get into one of the reasons why I will avoid a system simply because it’s d20-based. I’ve seen far too many fights that turned into epic slogs because nobody could roll above a 7 on d20 to save their lives, and I haven’t really seen much to turn it around. (And yes, I know, you can get impressively screwed over with a bad roll in FATE, too, I’ve done that, but it doesn’t feel quite the same.) Speaking of which, how lasting an effect does that one bad roll have?

What about numbers? I know there are some people for whom the whole thing is one big number puzzle, but I’m not one of them; I’d much rather have it as simple as possible. X dice. Y modifiers. Z thing-you-can-do-to-work-around-bad-luck. Half mind on mechanics, half mind on cool descriptions and lampshading the socks off of the mechanics and the resulting events.

Then there’s the big one: how easy is it to accidentally kill someone? As far as I’m concerned, a little flexibility in what one side losing the fight means is an improvement; you have a safety net no matter how ruthless you play (good for the tenderhearted GM), and the players know they needn’t be afraid to take chances and stay awesome.

I know there’s a lot more to a fight than that, but those are a lot of the elements I find myself looking at. How about you; what do you take into account when checking out a new combat system?

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