Tactical Goal Strategy
March 17, 2017
This isn’t a new anime, I promise. It’s our design philosophy for combat mechanics. We’ve got one more important concept to talk about, and it’s the goal of well designed combat mechanics; Flow. Flow is the pace of combat and how fast a turn can be completed so the next person in line can go. When it takes a long time to make the decisions that go into a turn, the whole combat gets bogged down. This is also true for anything that requires hard steps (like 3.x’s Move then Act priority system). When you have people waiting to go, it’s best to have a system that’s flexible, easy to work with, and keeps everyone engaged.
Flow, by far, is the thing that suffers the most from having an unbalanced combat system, as well. It’s always a tragedy when one player just sits around not engaged during part of the game. This goes double for a segment so important to the design, like combat in D&D’s many incarnations and variants.
Each player’s turn should be relatively simple, especially with low level characters. They have 3 major choices on their turn; where will they Move, how will they Act, and what might they Scramble for. The last two we’ll call a “Regular Action” and a “Fast Action”. A Regular Action is anything that takes focus, like casting a spell or trying to hit someone with a sword. A Fast Action is using anything that can be done “automatically” – drinking a prepared potion, reloading a weapon, stowing a weapon (putting a sword in a scabbard or hanging a shield on a strap), kneeling or standing up…basically anything that doesn’t require concentration but also isn’t instant (like shouting a few words).
When the game turns to any particular player, it should be easy for them to choose their actions. It should be clear how far they can move, when they can move, and what they can do at any time. Part of that means their abilities need to intuitively make sense and be fast to adjudicate when the player uses them. Part of that is movement should be intuitive and simple. Part of that, also, is limiting the options that a player has – the more options they have, the longer it takes to take a turn which slows the game down for everyone.
To accomplish the action limiting, the classes have sub-themes for how their actions work;
Fighters are paying attention to the battlefield and have actions that start with When An Enemy or Ally Does This, then Act. This is for players who like playing reactively and want their turns to be as simple as possible – move, hit.
Rogues are exploitative fighters, they also have triggered abilities but theirs are based on something they do; When Your Critically Strike, When You Miss, When You Move, abilities that they can plan their turn around, which is perfect for players who want to design their entire turn while waiting for their friends to take their own. Brawlers don’t have triggers, but they have a kind of store of abilities.
Brawlers can hold actions in reserve in case they need to act defensively (with text like When An Attack Is Made Against An Ally Or You and a note about how many “action units” it takes to use) or they can use them all at once to dump many, many attacks at the same time.
Arcanists have actions that might stretch over several turns but their actions are always impactful – spells that can sweep the battlefield or render them invisible. Arcanists are perfect for someone who wants to play strategically but doesn’t want a lot of small things to manipulate – if this were a fighting game it’d be like saving your Ultra Combo or something similar for just the right time. Letting that spell go off could take out all the goblins once you’ve got them all in the right place.
Acolytes are perfect for supporting the party – their magic all gets cast as Fast Actions as they repeat their memorized prayers and ask for assistance. This also means they can move around the battlefield and attack meaningfully like any of the warriors.
Factotums, meanwhile, can do a little bit of each of these if they want to. The flexibility is perfect for pure power gamers who just want a ton of options to play with to make the perfect execution of their vision.
By sticking to these hard and fast categories it’s easy to keep the Flow working. Each player knows exactly what their character is supposed to do when they’re creating the character and when it comes to combat they’ll know what kind of action their class is designed to take. Everything else is numbers as far as keeping balance – how long a spell takes to cast, how many attacks a Brawler gets at each level, how strong a Rogue’s crit chance gets. These can be adjusted over the course of the design but having a strong foundation is important.
These are the six guiding ideas that we need to keep in mind during our design of the classes inside of combat, and the feel that each class branch should have. We can think of them in simple terms as Reaction, Enhancement, Planning, Timing, Support, and Flexible. Every Fighter should feel Reactive, and any Fighter variation should keep that theme in mind. Even if we make a spellsword/gish style Fighter class, their magic abilities will still feel Reactive. Classes are mechanical ideas and we should embrace that – it’s not about what the Fighter does at level 1, it’s about how the Fighter-style feels at level 10, level 15, level 40. It’s about maintaining that feel so players don’t get lost in options.
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