Thursday, October 16, 2014

Cinematic Combat: Replacing Passion with Intuition

GM: "There's an orc guarding this storeroom. He's armed with a shield and a battleaxe."

Player 1: "I attack him with my sword."

GM: "Roll to hit."

P1: "Ugh, 12."

GM: "That misses. He retaliates, attacking you with his axe., too. Next round?"


People are probably familiar with this type of exchange. It's what combat tends to devolve into after the first few (or even one) round of combat. An exchange of blows, followed by another and another. Like a round of Rock'em Sock'em robots. Except more dull, because even if you're using miniatures, all they do is stand there while you constantly lament how much your dice hate you.

This is something I've dealt with on a continuous basis when running combat games, and it's a drag. Combat becomes a slog, players who aren't up start yawning and checking their phones. The only interesting thing happens when you strike the killing blow, and all of a sudden, "You plunge your sword into the orc's trachea, and he falls to the floor, gurgling and drowning in his own blood."

Now, I'm not objecting to GMs providing flavor text to combat, it's the natural first step to something better, something more interesting than a static boxing match.

I've been playing, for this last year, in a long-running Pendragon game, and being immersed in this system means I've had plenty of time to think about its pros and cons. One of the most highly-touted pros is the combat system. Standard knights deal about 5d6 damage with a regular swing of a sword, and double that if they manage to Crit, which happens a lot more frequently than 5% of the time with the Passion mechanic in play.

Game Mechanic Blurb:
Pendragon is a d20-based system, where skills, attributes, traits, and passions are (generally) rated between 1 and 20. You succeed when you roll below your skill, fail when you roll above it, fumble if you roll a 20, and crit if you roll exactly your skill.

HOWEVER, this is only the base mechanic of Pendragon, because there are ways to increase your skills above 20. The most common (temporary) way to increase a skill above 20 is with a successful Passion roll, which adds 10 to a single skill for the duration you need it for. And for any skill above 20, the critical threat range is increased by however many points it is above 20, and fumbles become impossible.

So, say, your base Sword skill is 15. Under normal circumstances, you would succeed on a roll of a 1-14, fail on a roll of 16-19, fumble on a roll of 20, and crit on a roll of 15. However, if you successfully impassion your character's sword skill, it gains a temporary 10 points and becomes a 25-rating skill. This means that you succeed on a roll of 1-14, never fail, never fumble, and crit on a roll of 15-20. Or perhaps you crit your passion, gaining 20 points in your sword skill, bringing it to a 35. You now succeed on a roll of 1-4, and crit on a roll of 5-20.

Suddenly it becomes quite easy to get double damage, doesn't it?

What does this mean? Basically, it means that combat has the high chance of moving speedily along with Pendragon. It's an unlikely and unusual situation for a player to be squaring off for multiple rounds against the same foe. This past week was the first time in ages that it took us more than one or two rounds to dispatch our foes, due to a series of hefty penalties, and instead of creating a depressing slog, we were more engaged than ever, because it was an unusual situation.

So, looking at a system already has mechanics to move combat along speedily, why do anything more? Well, Pendragon is a system where you're supposed to mow through enemies like a scythe. It's also super deadly in the fact that some enemies may also gain bonuses from their passions, and mow through you.

But where does the cinematic flavor come in? How about just before the GM tells you that you stab an orc in the throat? What if, rather than attempting to gain bonuses from a Passion, there was instead a substituted mechanic called Intuition? Instead of thinking really hard about who your player characters are striking their next blow to protect, or how much this really hate this one asshole and his entire culture, the PC discerns the fighting style of his opponent the orc, or realize that his foe's bulky armor prevents him from defending effectively against overhead attacks, or that certain predatory animals have difficulty sensing danger above them.

Try this:

GM: "There's an orc guarding this storeroom. He's armed with a shield and a battleaxe. Is there an Intuition you can utilize?"

Player 1: "I roll my Tactics: Hand-to-Hand...14, success."

GM: "You gauge that with the bulk of his weapon, it's unlikely the orc will be able to utilize it well in extreme close quarters. His use of a shield indicates that he will fight more defensively, and will likely not make the first move. What's your action?"

Player1: "Alright, I charge forward and slam into his defense, forcing him back against the storeroom door, wrench the shield down, and stab, aiming high. With Intuition, my Sword skill is now a 26, and I roll a 16: a crit! 49 damage!"

GM: "The orc fails his roll outright, so your tactic works, the shield drops enough for you to force the end of your blade into his throat with a satisfying crunch. The orc gurgles and slides to the floor, dropping his axe with a clatter."

Now, this sounds like a lot of work, and to be honest, it likely will be the first few times you try it. However, make sure you include your players in this mechanic. Chances are they'll jump at the chance to do something other than stand toe to toe and wail on something for hours on end.


  1. You're going to hate me for saying this, but GURPS has mechanics in place for precisely what you're talking about here. There are a variety of combat actions, Evaluate being chief among them, that allow combatants to get the measure of their opponents with a successful roll and gain commensurate bonuses. There's even a Tactics skill. I'm pretty sure I've seen similar mechanics in a handful of other games, too. It's definitely a worthwhile addition if one wants to add a bit more crunchy flair to combat.

    Incidentally, one thing we really haven't run into yet with Pendragon combat is when you get two combatants each with skills in the 30s due to a combination of high base numbers and passion rolls. At that point, you get a lot of tied criticals, which is why I implemented the "d3 damage on a crit" rule. It can lead to rather drawn-out combats, but that's (a) perfectly in keeping with the source fiction, which often had famous knights literally fighting all day, and (b) creates it's own tension, as everyone waits expectantly for one side to roll so low they merely get a normal success while the other scores their crit.

    1. Either that or Arthur goes and breaks Excalibur again.

      Also...yeah, not touching GURPS.