Musing About Pen and Paper RPG Design
October 11, 2014
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).
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.