This deviates a bit from the usual Dinosaur Cowboy fare, but I had a few topics I wanted to cover.
First of all I’ve been vaguely designing two games. I like to say “vaguely” because I haven’t put a ton of time into either, and both are fairly experimental, and they’re more an exercise for my brain than something I’d put the same amount of time/effort into as Dinosaur Cowboys (I think?).
On general tabletop combat resolution
The first topic is one I have been ruminating over for a while. Quite a brain teaser and design conundrum: combat resolution. While commuting home I thought that once combat resolution starts in every tabletop game (I can think of at least) the player doesn’t matter at all. What I mean is whether it’s Warhammer 40,000 or my much beloved Dinosaur Cowboys, once you start rolling dice ANYONE could be rolling those dice to the same effect. So that means combat resolution generally removes the player from the equation, and gives them no meaningful decisions or influence.
So what does that leave tabletop games as? Chess with dice to resolve attacks? What I mean is if combat resolution WASN’T dice based, and was simply automatic, then the only differentiation between players is how they move/maneuver troops, and what troops they decide in the first place (ie: army building). And then does the game become solvable, like Chess?
This becomes a problem if the combat resolution system is particularly onerous. Again Warhammer 40,000 comes to mind here. The system basically removes the player for 3 rolls in a row (roll to hit, roll to wound, roll to save). But if you revert to a “simple” combat resolution system (such as a roll-off), then why even have dice involved at all?
What this boils down to is what if there was a tabletop game where combat resolution was as involved, interesting, and full of meaningful and unique decisions as the movement phase? Before we talk more, realize that I don’t have an example of a system where this IS the case…if I did there wouldn’t be as much to discuss.
2016 EDIT: Thankfully I did eventually crack this problem, and created a game called Fickle RPG as a result. The core resolution mechanic has plenty of decision points that differs between players and situation, while still being fast playing and fun.
Part of the problem is if the options provided to the player can easily be broken down into odds, the player will inevitably gravitate to the best odds. So that goes back to the “meaningful decision” aspect.
Part of this also comes down to melee vs ranged, because melee normally ends up as some kind of roll off. Sure both players might roll differently, such as a 1 Attack 4 Damage melee weapon in Dinosaur Cowboys vs 6 Attack 2 Damage, but in the end they’re both taking turns rolling dice (no control) against each other, without moving, positioning, or making any decisions in between. To a certain extent ranged attacks result in the same…in a “shootout” both players are just rolling dice against each other, one might just roll a more favorable set of dice if they’ve moved into cover or are shooting at a better range bracket.
So movement then plays a deceivingly BIG part of a tabletop game. Deceivingly because if a random player was asked “What’s important in a game?” I doubt many would say movement. But at the same time it’s often ignored by systems, or left to tiny, obvious moves when you only have 3″ or 4″ to choose from. Similarly army building/drafting is important, but if you have a system where you can win by building a superior army alone, what exactly is the point of playing out the game itself?
Let’s look at alternatives. Computer games do a good, but untranslatable job, by having muscle skill and reflex play a factor. For example in something like Starcraft 2 two players can have the exact same army, and the combat resolution could even be non-random, but based on player skill one person will win. Where player skill is that untranslatable element of position, reflex, “micro”, etc.
Now if we look at systems where combat resolution DOES have meaningful choices, does movement matter at all? In most cases, no. For example Magic the Gathering could be viewed as one big combat resolution mechanic (of mage vs mage), but movement/positioning doesn’t play a factor at all…thus why it’s a card game not a tabletop game.
So does that mean that tabletop games will always have movement as an important factor? Probably. But is there a way to have combat resolution have as MUCH meaning and player input? And if so, would that system work? Or would it become too complex and lengthy if “both phases” had a lot of involvement instead of a brainless section of dice rolling? What about if combat resolution was stressed over movement, then do you even need movement?
Going back to the two games below, the Hackers game unexpectedly gets closest to covering this. This is because the combat mechanism is diceless, so it’s completely plannable (for lack of a better word). It’s also very fast because the outcome is decided immediately and repeatably. Similarly there is no army building because all “troops” (Nodes) are the same. Choosing “Programs” fulfills a similar niche though.
The result in my playtests was actually a surprise. Turns would be 90% planning and 10% execution. Whereas I feel like in Dinosaur Cowboys (or other games with traditional resolution mechanics) you get closer to a 50%/50% split. So in Hackers you plan and puzzle a whole bunch, and try to “solve” the best approach for that turn (very thematic for a computer-y themed game), then the actual resolution is basically “bing bang boom” because there are no dice to roll.
So again, what if the resolution was the opposite, where 10% of the turn was planning and 90% was execution? And that execution didn’t just take time (aka Warhammer 40,000) but actually had meaningful player decisions the whole time? I guess I should have defined this earlier, but with “meaningful” I mean there are choices that different players will choose differently (so no automatic “best path”, best odds, or obvious choice that all players would do), and those choices have a noticeable effect on the outcome (so not just “roll 4D6, the same 4D6 any other player would roll, and it doesn’t matter how you as a player are”). So for example Mech Attack might give the illusion of player choice during combat (because you choose which weapon to shoot first), but the options are so obvious that it’s meaningless (shoot the narrow, long damage before the wide, shallow damage with the hopes of collapsing armor).
Anyway I’m getting rambling and (perhaps?) incoherent at this point, so I’ll stop. But the fundamental idea highlighted above really got me thinking: what if there was a tabletop game where combat resolution was as involved, interesting, and full of meaningful and unique decisions as the movement phase?
Hackers – Diceless Skirmish: Download early rules Hackers-v0.1.pdf
Having said that, the first game is more interesting to me, and is temporarily called “Hackers”. Before you get too excited it’s sadly not based on the awesome 1995 movie with the same name. Think more based on Tron, the book Snowcrash, and bits of the movie Johnny Mnemonic. The main gimmick of the design is it’s totally diceless, so no “output randomness”.
Players are hackers and battle over “The Grid”, a virtual overlay on the real world with device nodes (like a cellphone or computer server) represented by avatars (aka use any miniature you want). What’s cool is the “Nodes” are completely interchangeable and faceless; they don’t have different stats or attacks to begin with. Instead the hacker chooses a series of Commands and Tasks programs (think “spells” in a fantasy setting) that can be executed on Nodes. So in other words if you have the program “Break Firewall” it can be used from any Node, instead of being a specific ability tied to a specific Node. Actually the game started themed as duelling spellcasters so Nodes were Vessels, programs were spells, etc. but after playtesting the theme didn’t fit as well as it could, so I went with the Hacker/computery thing instead.
Lots of other neat ideas, like Tasks (buffs/de-buffs) that affect a Node until they are Shutdown (dispelled). That’s a nice departure from having to track durations of effects (like +1 Attack). The game is played on a square grid, with random terrain. Deployment is cool because you can deploy anywhere (as long as it’s not within 3 squares of an enemy Node), so the action starts right away (instead of the traditional “table edge” deploy).
So all in all some neat ideas, and something I definitely want to pursue.
Barons – Mech Attack Rework: Download early rules Barons-v0.1.pdf
The next game is basically an afternoon of effort to rework Armor Grid: Mech Attack that I (again temporarily) call “Barons”. This is a little light game that captures the spirit of Battletech but plays a lot faster. What’s funny is their main selling point (the “Armor Grid” idea) is actually pulled from FASA (the original owners of Battletech), since it was used in their Renegade spaceship series and eventually Crimson Skies. The idea is almost as good as Silent Death and their Damage Track, and perhaps the original implementation IS better (I’ve only played Mech Attack, I’ve just read the other two games).
But to be blunt, Mech Attack is not that well written, and besides the Armor Grid system it’s rather bland and has some glaring flaws. First of all I challenge any owners of the PDF to find the section that actually outlines HOW to destroy a Mech, haha. Similarly they reward NOT moving (it’s easier to hit if you “Stand Fast”), which combined with a base movement of 3″ (in a 3’x3′ area) for Heavy Mechs means games end up as a roll off with very little movement. This was especially noticable in the last game I played, where me and my opponent ended up more or less sitting in the corner and rolling off with our two surviving Heavy Mechs (literally just sitting on opposite sides of a hill and shooting, since whoever moved would have lost cover and the Stand Fast bonus).
So yeah, me and my friends mentioned a couple of these flaws and I thought I’d take a crack at a slight rework. What I ended up with so far is Barons, which is medieval based (not sure if I want to go the full fantasy route). The system moves from D10 to D6, and a simple roll-off for combat resolution instead of D10 + many mods > target profile. So it still keeps the core Damage Template system but tries to be a better game outside of that. For example “activation” is simply issue a Command to one character, then alternate to the opponent. But what’s neat is you can Command the same character multiple turns in a row, instead of having to mark activated like Dinosaur Cowboys. And also that Commands are simple, as in Move is a Command, as is Attack. So it does away with the usual “move and attack each turn, oh and you can run as a double move and stuff”. Weapons use the Damage Template system, so a Dagger pierces 1 square wide and 2 squares down, while a Mace does a big 2×2 chunk, and a slashing weapon like a Long Sword does a 3 wide and shallow 1 square down template.
We’ll see where this game ends up…in the end if the gimmick of a game (in this case the Damage Templates) could be removed and the remaining game is boring maybe means the game isn’t that great.