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Game Design: Step by Step

Subterranean Ass-Kicking, 101

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

November 9, 1999


    What ho, cats and kittens!  Before diving headfirst into the meat of this week's column (namely the glories of combat), allow me to first take the time to thank all of the readers who have participated in the forums.  The feedback that I've been receiving, and the questions that you have asked, have been invaluable tools for the design process.  It is always advisable, when involved in a design, to have someone else's perspective on what you're doing.  They will often point out things that you haven't considered, sure--but even better, they will ask questions of you that will force you to think in ways that you might not have, if you had designed in a vacuum.  So, keep up the good work.  You're making me think, and that's a good thing.

    Now--last week, I gave you an overview of the "Head Count" mechanic--the basic coin-flipping method that underlies all actions in UnderWorld. This week, we move on to what I'm sure many of you have been waiting for--"Yeah, all this underground fantasy stuff is cool," I can hear you say, "But, hell--when is he gonna tell us how to kick ass and take names?  This guy designed Hong Kong Action Theatre, fer crissakes!"

    Well, here we go.

    First of all, I decided that UnderWorld needed two combat systems.

    That's right, two.

    Why two?  Simple--back to the idea of this being run as both a table-top RPG and a LARP, remember? Combat in LARPS is a touchy subject.  There can be absolutely no actual contact involved.  Simply using the standard RPG rules, adapted for the LARP situation, seems boring.  So, I wanted to come up with a system that was quicker and easier, especially for the LARPers.  Then it occurred to me that some table-top players (myself included, in fact) might like the option of switching back and forth between a streamlined, abstract combat system and a more detailed one, depending on the importance of the combat in question.  Two combat systems were needed.  One that is fast, and necessarily abstract, for the LARPers, and one that is more detailed.  Table-top RPGers can use either, depending upon their own playing style and tastes.

    The more detailed of the two is really not that detailed at all--not when you compare it to systems such as RoleMaster, for example.  It is simply an adaptation of the Head Count mechanic that you're already familiar with--except in this case, instead of going for a number of successes based upon difficulty, the coin tosses are opposed.  The attacker tallies up his or her coins, tosses them, and totals the Heads results.  The defender tallies up their coins, tosses, and totals.  Results are compared, success to success.  If the attacker has more, the attack succeeds.  Extra successes go through to deliver extra damage.

    Damage is simplistic--really, there are only 4 stages that matter: Unharmed, Lightly Wounded, Seriously Wounded, and Dead.  The attacker will take a number of coins, based on the weapon being used, plus one for every extra success scored during the attack, and throw them, opposed by a throw based on any armor or defensive abilities possessed by the defender.  For each success, one level of wounds is delivered. (yes, that means that 3 successes will kill someone.  Combat is supposed to be dangerous).  There will, of course, be two separate damage scales, one for lethal damage, and one for non-lethal damage (which will result in unconsciousness, rather than death).  Which scale is being used will depend on what weapon is being used, if any.  There will also be a scale of cumulative damage (where X Light Wounds will equal a Serious Wound, and X Serious Wounds can kill you--the exact numbers are still being worked out in playtest).

    That's it.

    (...and that's the detailed one.  Scary, isn't it?)

    Well, that's not entirely it.  Initiative, for example, will be determined by a Head Count, modified by appropriate traits, abilities, skills, etc., and modified by situation as well.  Highest number of successes goes first, and you count down from there.

    The abstract system is just that--an abstraction of the entire process. Instead of going round-by-round, attacking, defending, etc., the abstract system distills the entire combat process into a single opposed throw.  This is handled a little differently than the process listed above.  In the abstract system, each combatant (or group of combatants--this can be used as a fight between groups, as well) determines their goal for the combat--this can be to simply kill the opposition, or to knock them unconscious, or to capture them, or otherwise subdue them, etc.  Before the throw is made, each side tallies up their "advantages":  things, like greater numbers, combat skills, etc., that give them an advantage over the opponent.  (There will be very specific guidelines regarding exactly what constitutes an advantage) Then, each side throws three different types of Tokens as a single throw.  Each token represents a different aspect of the combat.  One represents attack, one represents defense, and the third represents the goal (as defined above).  To achieve your goal, you must have a "heads" result on all three. This is naturally only going to occur 1 out of 8 times (12.5%)--that's when your advantages come in.  For each advantage you have, you can flip a coin to its opposing side.  This can be one of your coins, to aid you in achieving the three heads result, or it can be one of your opponent's coins, to keep them from achieving three heads--but they (and you) can also use advantages to re-flip the coin back to a positive result.  So, basically the abstract system is a single toss of three coins, followed by a "bidding war" of sorts to re-direct the results to your advantage.

    As a bit of flavor, it will be encouraged that when a coin is flipped by an advantage, the "flipper" should narrate what is happening in the combat to reflect this change of favor (this can be easily imagined, by looking at the particular advantage involved, and which coin (attack, defense, or result) is being flipped--for example, if my side's "Greater Numbers" advantage allows me to change the result of the "goal" coin--I can say that we swarm over the enemy, overwhelming them from all sides). The rules will offer suggestions for this narration, as well as tips for determining the outcome of the combat, if no clear winner emerges (partial victories, etc.), as well as translating the results into the damage scales described above.

    Admittedly, this is a very abstract system, and will best be used by experienced gamers--since it is, in effect, an exercise in cooperative gamemastering.  Less experienced gamers will probably not be comfortable with the blurring of the roles between player and gamemaster.

    But hell, I like it--and I'd use it as the only combat system, if I though that I could get away with it.  Ah well, baby steps--I'll settle for having it available as an option.  In my personal campaign, I'll probably use the abstract for general combats, and save the more detailed method for fights between important characters (for example, the final showdown with the main villain).

    So--there you have it: a preview of the combat system (there is more detail, obviously, but hey--I have to save something for the rulebook, ya know).  Next week, we'll start to take a look at the magic of the UnderWorld.  See ya in 7.

Gareth-Michael Skarka

Underworld, and all related terms and concepts contained herein are copyright 1999 by Gareth-Michael Skarka. All rights reserved.

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What do you think?

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All "Step by Step" design columns

  1. Inspiration to Perspiration October 26, 1999
  2. Comin' wit da Nifties October 27, 1999
  3. Concepts Continued October 28, 1999
  4. Character is what you are in the Dark October 29, 1999
  5. Forces of Occupation October 30, 1999
  6. Forces of Occupation, Part II October 31, 1999
  7. Head Count November 2, 1999
  8. Subterranean Ass-Kicking, 101 November 9, 1999
  9. Next Stop, Rune Station November 17, 1999
  10. It's All 'Bout Da Merlins November 23, 1999
  11. Miscellany December 1, 1999
  12. Lords of the UnderWorld December 8, 1999
  13. Lucky 13 December 15, 1999
  14. Miracle Under 34th Street December 22 1999
  15. Gareth's December 27th 'edition' is a survey, on what you want for future Underworld columns.
  16. Statistics and Junk January 5, 2000
  17. Reality Slap January 12, 2000
  18. Once More Into the Breach... January 20, 2000
  19. The Mechanics of Mechanics January 26, 2000
  20. Junkmen and Soundtracks February 2, 2000
  21. The Iron Forestries of Hell February 16, 2000
  22. And Now, For Something Completely Different... February 24, 2000
  23. Confessions of a Language Geek March 1, 2000
  24. Flood of Ideas March 15, 2000
  25. A New Direction? March 24, 2000
  26. The Envelope, Please... March 29, 2000
  27. Generic Systems, My Ass! April 5, 2000
  28. Big News, and Magic April 12, 2000
  29. Big Guns, Razor-sharp Swords, and a Bit with a Dog... April 19, 2000
  30. What's the Story, Morning Glory? April 26, 2000
  31. And now for something completely different, Survey time! May 3, 2000
  32. The Fever for the Flavor May 10, 2000
  33. Random Acts May 17, 2000
  34. A Run Through Dark Places May 25, 2000
  35. Service Interruption June 1, 2000
  36. Endings and Beginnings June 29, 2000
  37. A Brief Return to the Underworld July 13, 2000

Discussion of UnderWorld

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Earlier Comments (Issues 1-7)

(Editor's note: I'll consolidate these when I get a chance)

Other columns at RPGnet

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