So I’m listening to Loading Ready Run’s new Temple of the Lava Bears campaign and it has me thinking about combat design, weapon design, and how combat is abstracted in D&D.

To start my line of reasoning, let’s go over the way D&D, and most RPGs, abstract combat and damage in the particular slice I’m mulling over. Combat systems and styles are fully abstracted into a simple combat value (the To-Hit roll is how it’s normally referred to) and damage is dependent on the strength or dexterity of attacker and the damage “code” for the weapon. For instance, a character’s Strength could give them a +2 bonus and they could be using a broad sword (what D&D likes to call a longsword – not a longsword) which does 1d8 (one eight sided die) in damage. When rolled, they get 4, +2 from their Strength, for a total of six points of damage. This is a fine enough abstraction from a gamification perspective, especially given the history of roleplaying games. Namely, Chainmail and tabletop war gaming.

However, it doesn’t really reflect martial arts very well. The biggest example of this, I think, is the Roman centurion. In D&D terms, the Roman centurion uses a large shield (the scutum) and a short sword (the gladius).

A Roman centurion with scutum raised and stabbing with a gladius

Roman centurion with scutum and gladius

The Roman centurion was not known to do very little damage, even against unarmored opponents. The traditional D&D abstraction also fails to account for the fact that the scutum, as a shield, is not armor. The shield is a defensive weapon. This is not unlike the use of an offhand dagger in Florentine fencing. It’s certainly heavier and more difficult to use than an offhand defensive weapon of a more traditional make but the point is the same – move the shield to intercept blows, press advantage using the shield as a means of keeping the body defended, and create openings for the striking weapon. The warrior does not simply stand and hack with their weapon and waiting for a useful opening. They instead use their weapons tactically, exploiting the strengths of their weapons to create openings. This is true with every weapon, and with every martial system that is associated with that weapon. Whether it is a pike from Renaissance Europe, a viking’s sword and round shield, the Chinese jian, or the Japanese katana. Martial arts are not merely the home of modern-day training and rediscovery, the province of Asia, or tournament systems designed for health and entertainment. Every system of martial combat, from the earliest uses of Pankration to modern military defense systems, are martial arts.

That, I think, is where abstraction is far more useful. Not just as a supplement to the system of abstraction of physical attributes and ‘weapon damage’, but as a replacement to it. Instead of having a weapon that does a certain amount of damage when someone is struck with it, characters instead have maneuvers and training in a martial system that requires a certain kind of weapon. So characters in this system would never have weapons that have a particular damage coding to them and, while stats have to be abstracted for other purposes, stats would be a requirement but have no impact directly on the damage delivered by martial arts maneuvers. I think that this would more accurately represent how weapons are wielded and preserve the lethality of what are traditionally seen as “weaker” weapons in RPG design. Weapons like the dagger, the short sword, and percussion weapons. These martial arts would be a network of maneuvers abstracted through bonuses and descriptive elements that tie maneuvers together. This would also include ranged systems, since English archers were commonly experienced not just with their bow but with a broadsword or single-handed sword and buckler as well.

The trick in design is writing these martial systems up, and how much mass they take up in game design, but I think it’s worth it to provide a richer and more varied play experience than “I roll to hit”. It also provides some design space for more fanciful, fantastical systems that are rooted in historical combat.

 

Advertisements

This once appeared on The Limitless, an online magazine, that has (it appears) since gone defunct. So I’m putting it here again so everyone can read it.

This is Us. 


He’s never who you think he would be.

He was young, well youngish. Maybe late twenties. Perhaps early thirties. Not tall, not fat, not thin, not short, he was quite average overall. A bit of a paunch hanging over layered muscles, quiet business clothes poorly kept.

He had grown up apart from most. Good at math, good with words, did well in the Arts, the Humanities, the Sciences. Enjoyed English, studied history. Never had any friends though; when he would try to interact with others, whether peers or adults, he was always too visceral. Too intense. Too loud, too insistent, too focused. Many saw him and distrusted him; they all thought he was like a robot wearing a skin suit.

He went to a local college, didn’t follow his dream. People like him could never be successful dreamers, only forgotten dreamers. Instead he became an accountant, a numbers man, and was good at it. Enjoyed it. He would offer to do anyone’s numbers, to help them and to secure that desperately wanted social interaction. Such desperation lead him to the wrong groups, the wrong people. He fell in with tough “friends”, friends who taught him how to fight, how to argue, how to lead.

Now he worked with these friends. They ran a halfway successful boxing clinic to hide the thuggery of their day to day operations. He did their numbers. Some liked him. Some feared him. All respected him, and that is all he could want. He always arrives in the same way he leaves; black leather messenger bag, loosely resting in the small of his back, containing small laptop, power cable , cell phone, cell phone cable, two black pens, a blue pen, a red pen, a yellow college-ruled legal pad, small bottle of unsorted medications, all hidden under his business jacket. He didn’t need to hide it under his jacket but he did.

He had taken the bus home that day, as he always did. Two buses, one west three blocks, the other north four and a half. From there he had to walk another half-block north, as the bus turned. While this bothered him, it was of no consequence. That day was particularly jarring for him, with them sounds around him haunting him, following him. They hit hit him in waves of cacophony, unsettling him as the ocean throws a swimmer from his wave. When he walked off the bus he reached down to his belt, a small leather case with a metal clasp, and felt the edges of a balisong, a butterfly knife, through the casing. It was one of his small comforts.

The balisong was a gift from his boss. It reminded him of a yoyo he had owned as a child. A way of metering the world, a metronome for his thoughts. There was the click of it rolling off of his fingers, the swish of it falling, and the snap as it returned to his hand. Click, swish, snap. Just the tiniest bit of pain to solidify it for him, to make the object real. The balisong was like that. The click of the hinge opening, the swish of the knife sweeping open, the snap of it coming together just after his fingers glide out of the way. Click, swish, snap.

The knife was how he came to be feared, even respected, among his compatriots. While he was an accountant, whenever other boxing clubs had tried to rough him up, they had found that he was deadly with the small knife. Two men were hospitalized for one of these encounters.

He walked down the road toward his home, buildings looming above him, seeming to judge him. Everything seemed to warp toward him, as if being pulled toward him. A road became a cave, every wall pouring over him like falling glasses full of the darkest ink. Set apart was one electrical box, brazenly displaying itself like a man puffing his chest. Proudly labeled with a sticker, right across the front, the box inquired, “Do we really know what we think we know?” The balisong was in his hand, he knew not how it got there. Only that the click, swish, snap was keeping him level.

He was opening the door to his apartment, left handed, but this was awkward. He was normally right handed but, currently, his right hand was occupied. The knife danced over it, entrancing but, ultimately, ignored. It was his metronome for now, whispering the soft “click, swish, snap.”

His TV was on. He was inside. He was unsure as to how or why this happened. He was cooking dinner. In the background was the knife. Opening. Closing. Click…swish…snap.

Half eaten, his dinner has cooled near him. The knife is fevered now. Clickswishsnap, as if one word, and the man on the TV is leering to him, leaning over. He says, “You can do it. We can help.”

The phone is clicking onto the base, an old phone. Rotary. The knife blazes around his hand like steel turned to light. The sound is indefinable now, almost an emotion rather than a physical thing. He had heard their voice, the phone number from the sticker (was there a phone number?) they can help him (did they say that?). They knew everything (they did say that). He told them he saw it, the reasons behind everything (he’s always known the reasons, why the music hates him, why the building crush him). He told them that he was being followed (they follow him every day). He told them he has the answer (the only answer). They did not listen.

But he knew. He knew now. He could stop the evil inside of him, he just had to remove it. Excise it. Like his numbers. Slowly he lay down, and he cleared his mind. Readying himself.

Click.

Swish.

Snap.

 

Some Worldbuilding

October 3, 2014

Thinking of the second major character for the fantasy setting I’m working on, Smoke, got me thinking about the kind of trope design the setting will be built around. Almost all fantasy settings have ‘classes’, or types of heroes that wander around in those worlds. Usually it’s a combination of professional fighters; thieves, rogues, and other cut-throats; clerics, priests, shamans, or other sorts of healers and holy men; and wizards, sorcerers, mages, and other types of magicians. Occasionally there are specific versions of one of these four groups that are particular to whatever setting it is, or unique hybrids among them that provide flavor for the setting.

In this world, all great persons can be summed up into 3 groups: Warriors, those whose martial prowess, extreme technique, and skill with arms give them power and prestige; Sorcerers, whose sage like knowledge, wisdom, and control of the four elements and five directions grant them mystical abilities through their sacred knowledge; and Alchemists, the rare martial artists who practice an internal form that mixes martial prowess, mystical abilities, and the arcane energies of the Dao to manipulate themselves and their opponents.

Savisha, or my Grey Paladin as I think of her, is a Warrior. She is a master of the Eight Arms of Marisha, the martial art that was created by the founder of her holy order. It uses six weapons, outlined in the last bit I wrote about this, as well as an open-handed style and intricate study of the body’s positions and how they reflect the mind’s wisdom to make practitioners skilled diplomats. Other Warriors include samurai from beyond the White Peaks who mastered a flowing and fast style of fencing with their curved but strong swords or the soldiers of Hwaran Shein who patrol the emerald hills around their kingdom on horseback with heavy chopping swords and axe-like polearms. Most militaries and royal clans are made almost completely of Warriors. Their secrets lie in the mastery of External Martial Arts, the methods of striking out from the body aggressively.

Smoke, her companion through the journey she finds herself in within the story, is an enterprising Alchemist. He is a master of a form of combat that centers around deception and manipulating his body to make it light enough to fly short distances, flexible enough to bend around his opponents, yet strong enough to deliver crushing blows when necessary. His style is centered around the control of the qi in his breath, so as to control his breath itself. To exploit this, he carries a large water pipe, using the sweet smell to disorient those trying to overtake him and controlling the smoke to hide his presence in a fight. Other Alchemists would include the ancient orders of doctors in the Xiaolin states or the horse-callers of the open plains of the Khans. Every great martial arts tradition has a mystical arm composed of Alchemists to master the body and the mind through their martial practice. Their secrets lie in the mastery of Internal Martial Arts, the methods of controlling the body’s flow of energy, or qi, to work mystical feats.

The last group is the Sorcerers, who will not go without their own representation in the story, are the most secretive and rare group of the three. Their practices are truly arcane in nature, drawing on an understanding of all of the sacred forces of the world that govern its nature. They are the sage students of the four elements (Water, Fire, Stone, and Wind) as well as the five directions (North, South, East, West, and Center). Both wizards with no allegiance or alliance who lock themselves away in ancient places to study arcane forces and the holy men in the temples of the Merciful God who speak words of healing and curing are Sorcerers. The truly magical feats of the world are all rooted in the 3 Sciences; Elemental Control, The Methods of the Five Directions, and the Sacred Names. Elemental Control allows Sorcerers to direct and control the fundamental force of their world, from drawing poison right out of the blood by commanding its Water essence to shaping steel into a legendary sword by commanding the Earth within the iron and carbon. The Methods of the Five Directions grant Sorcerers incredible powers over distance when studies properly, allowing them to move at quick speeds, take flight, or even stand timeless in a single place and never aging at the highest levels of mastery. The Sacred Names are an incomplete collection of sutras, or sacred writings, that describe the true nature of things and allow the Sorcerers to manipulate the world using inscriptions in these sacred words directly on objects or by using temporary pre-written spells called Talismans. Their secrets lie within this body of knowledge and their creativity in using the 3 Sciences together in powerful ways. Many Sorcerers find themselves performing strange experiments to expand the knowledge of one of the Sciences, working to help those less powerful than themselves due to pacts with themselves (or occasionally powerful spirits), or serving leaders of the great nations of the many lands in the great continent of Surra and the islandsto the south in the Hwaran Archipelago.

Surra is but one part of the largest continent in this world and the most powerful political entities in their world. Though other nations certainly interact with them, and I’ll be exploring those later.

%d bloggers like this: