Friday, January 11, 2013

SA 2.0 Dev Blog #1: Combat System

  For those not aware, I'm on the Rules Team of a local Dark Ages World of Darkness LARP called Shadow Accord (SA). We are in the process of developing a new edition of rules for the game and I wanted to start sharing some of the process here. Partially these posts will help explain what it takes to do create a rules system, but the series is also designed to give people in the game some idea about what is coming up. I'd also like to note that this is my version of the decisions and why they came to be. There were several of us involved in each decision and others may have come to the same conclusion for different reasons or may have just given in to popular demand.


  One of the first things we looked at was the combat system in SA. One of the major complaints that we were continually encountering was claims of unclear combat rules, machine gunning, and the fact that under the current system pummeling you opponent with short brawl boffers faster than they could hit you with a sword seemed the most effective method to defeat an opponent. This isn't entirely a safety issue, otherwise we would have passed it off to the Deco and Safety team to deal with. It was also just a fact about how we wanted our game to feel.
  Currently much combat involved running up to someone very close and trying to hit them repeatedly. Some systems have rules that prevent coming to close to an opponent for safety reasons. However, what we realized was that we really wanted to see was slower, more calculated combat. Less of a giant mesh of weapons flailing with people falling down because they didn't know how many times they have been hit and not wanting to cheat or people who just keep going because it is impossible to count.
  At one of our first meetings we came up with a couple of combat rules we wanted to try out. They were the following:
1.  The attacker must wait 1 second after landing a successful strike to make another against the same target.
2. The defender would only take damage from 1 attack per second per attacker.
3. Each strike must be in a different location.
4. Current SA rules fight.

1.  When we gathered the testing team and divided them up the results were pretty astounding as was the feedback. After explaining the first rules set we set out basic human on human fight. It was drastically different to watch. One thing that was great to see was how each team set up in a line which persisted through a significant portion of the fight. Also our mix of different ability level fighters was minimized as one of the better fighters squared off against an average level fighter. While the expected party still lost, they scored in a few good hits and weren't overwhelmed. It was a good clean fight.
2.  Working under the defender only takes 1 damage was similar but less comfortable. It encouraged people to continue pressing their opponents harshly and led less balanced results. It favored people who swung continuously and quickly.
3.  Forcing each strike to fall in a different location worked pretty well. This actually received the best response among participants. People felt that the rule was easy to work with and remember. However, the fight was fairly quick and continuous swinging was heavily encouraged. The differential between highly skilled fighters and moderately skilled fighters was much greater than in the first situation.
4. One thing was that watching the current SA rules fight was embarrassing after watching the other rules sets. The fight was messy and not much fun. At least we knew we would be making improvement regardless of what decision we went with.


  At the end of that trial we decided to go with rule 1 for the remainder of the play test even though our testers felt that the time restriction was somewhat awkward. We did this for a couple of reasons. First off we had a pretty good idea of what rule 3 would look like. It would be similar to the way things are now but slightly more controlled. It wouldn't be difficult to imagine the results. Secondly, we really like how people lined up and fought cooperatively under rule 1. It forced cooperation and the limited advantage that positioning got you meant it wasn't worth over extending yourself because it wouldn't instantly drop an opponent. You had to position yourself to get a few good hits but you couldn't gun an opponent down. Finally, it led to good fights that rewarded good fighters but only moderately. No longer would a lower level good fighter be able to blow through a weaker fighter with considerable XP in their character. This system would substantially nerf me. I think that for the game overall that is a good thing. In the end we hoped that people could retrain their combat to match the system. Learning a new fighting system is difficult, but it can become natural fairly quickly. I remember the difficulties I had making the switch from Amtgard to a system where I had to call damage.

  As we progressed through the day we saw some of the added advantages. A very powerful character played by a player with moderate fighting skill put up against a group of new characters with considerable fighting skill could hold their own. It was a good fight, but without some additional threat an elder vampire shouldn't fear a couple of neonates. Also, it made killing people harder, which was what we wanted to do since we were looking at a more lethal system in a number of other ways. By decreasing lethality of combat by slowing it down, we could increase the lethality of the follow up to kill someone once you've won combat.


  1. Really interesting stuff and some awesome insight into the development of the fighting system. Looking forward to reading more.

    Thanks for posting!

  2. Interesting - and well documented. This was a solidly preformed experiment, and I have to say pretty darn good for folk without extensive usability experience.

    In all honesty, I don't particularly like the feel (face validity) of System 1. However, your predition of what it'll do to the future of the game is spot-on for what you wanted to do (criterion validity). Because of that, my concerns are reduced. Not eliminated - but reduced - I have additional reasons for those concerns.

    Incidently, you are welcome to tell me to take off my Usability hat and Bugger Off. I'll just say that now, before I go into evaluation mode. Please understand this isn't criticism - it's: "Here are additional things to look at before drawing final conclusions" - which is exactly how I do things at my job, even when I really like something.
    It's not so much nit-picking as much as is for having ammo to shoot down other nit-pickers who will inevitably come.

    So - we cool? Good. Here I go!

    #1 Experiment Bias:
    It's cool how people lined up... but they also could have due to the unnatural way the fights have been set up. At SA during the tournament - folk also lined up to fight due to being on the same team and being in a stand-off fight.
    That has only happened a handful of other times.
    Most of the time, it's being abushed from the dark and flailing to grab your packets and draw weapons, or just flatly running to give time to do this. This is hard to test for without field-study - trials of the system in their natural enviroment. But hearing about open 'dude attatcks you while you are seated and doing something else in the tavern' or 'you get corned in your room' tests would be a helpful way of showing what happens and how this system reacts differently than the current one.
    Pusedo-Field studies more than just stat-block fights. You gota balance more than Skill and Powers, you also have to balance with enviroment as a factor.

    #2 Hidden Effects of Current System.
    Whenever something is replaced with something new, you loose things about the old system that you didn't know you had.
    I would argue that the current system adds a lot to the atmosphere of the game - which is argubly the most definable and definetely the most mentioned quality of SA.

    I don't particularly like it or think it is fair - indeed - it's really not fair.
    But that is a contributing factor to the atmosphere of the game.
    I *do* love the atmosphere of the game, and consider it unique. I tolerate the rules because I love the game.
    Consider, though, that the rules generate much of the dangerous atmosphere.
    While it would be glib to say 'If I wanted a game with good rules I'd go elsewhere' - and also a bit of a strawman... It might be more accurate to say 'I play SA because of the atmosphere, and I will forego improvements to the combat in order to keep the atmosphere. I feel this expecially because combat is a small part of the game but the anticipation of combat is, however, a much larger part of the game.
    Does that make sense?
    SA is currently Scary but Not Usually Fatal.
    People seem to like that. I suggest considering the effects to atmposphere and any other hidden variables that you can consider.
    (More to come)
    - Conor

  3. #3 Making combat less instantly fatal to make other aspects of the game more fatal isn't a balance... it just makes the game more fatal because the winner of combat is still the winner of combat.
    That is... um... the entire point, really.

    Ok - last one - I promise:
    #4 Permenant injury has consequences beyond rules; consider how players will react - plan for reasonable 'bad' scenarios (different from 'the mythical flurb').
    I have a few reasons for thinking this is bad - but - let's just consider one for now.
    Consider just the NPC / PC conflict reasons.

    NPCs do not face the consequences of their actions due to being out of town and therefore magically untouchable... as it is - and this is widely seen as a very annoying seperation between PCs and NPCs.While players are susposed to treat PCs and NPCs the same, it is already difficult to do so.
    Now add the fact that NPCs can injure you, and it's irrevelent if you injure (or argubly even kill) them, because there is always more NPCs.
    This creates tension between ST and players.

    Worse is when the first accusation of a player targeting someone while playing an NPC. After all - KILL someone as an NPC, and that's easy enough to prove targeting.
    But injure someone so others see blood in the water? That's something anyone could get away with. But even with the assumption that all NPCs are perfectly angelic... only takes the accusation of a player for all hell to break loose.

    Aight- I hope my thoughts prove useful to you, and I wish you the best of luck with this very difficult process which can't by it's nature make everyone happy.
    Remember to have fun with it :) !

    ~ Conor

  4. Also, you don't have to approve those comments Marc - they are for your use, because I know you are thoughtful enough to consider them.

    I ain't trying to make a statement here ;P

  5. "SA is currently Scary but Not Usually Fatal."

    This is a statement that I'd significantly agree with in the current system. However, I feel that I've surpassed the point where the game is still scary with my primary character. I can pretty much handle anything except for a large group of people simultaneously intent on killing me. If that happens, I'm probably going to die. At most the game is edgy because I need to make sure that people don't all hate me at once.

    I believe that this system will make the game slightly less terrifying for a brand new character, and significantly more terrifying for a character of any age. Personally I'd love to see the game move to "Scary and sometimes fatal." I believe this change will help that.

    One element that I didn't discuss here was the underlying theme of superhero that currently exists in SA. This is the theme that I feel is bad and hopes goes away with this change. There is a current level in the game where people become nearly impossible to kill (taking hours) even once you have defeated them in combat. Currently winning the combat is generally fairly easy, disposing of the body is ridiculous. I believe this change will push the balance back towards the side of winning the combat. I also want to push towards the scary atmosphere. But if I can't be killed, I can't be scared.

  6. Personally, I would love to see a system where being mobbed and splatted by brawl boffers is less likely. I HATE combat, mostly because I feel there is no point in my participating in it, because I WILL lose as I am not a skilled boffer fighter. I don't have the time or inclination to be good at boffer fighting, but I don't want to be excluded from that type of gameplay entirely.

    I would have to say that the feeling of lethality has been reduced the more we have played, but that is partially a natural evolution of not wanting the game to turn into an all-out Us Vs Them faction bloodbath. That is not what SA is about. Once you're down, I feel like there should be a high potential (but not guaranteed) degree of lethality, and I like the idea of improving the chances of escaping from that by escaping or surviving combat, DESPITE character level or martial skill. Yes, there should be a difference in ability as represented by consequences of combat and character sheet, but not so stark as it is now.

    The feeling of helplessness that comes with knowing all it takes is someone effectively hugging you with brawl boffers to drop you is, frankly, aggravating and not fun. When playing a Garou, it was disheartening to feel like tissue paper to something as mundane as a zombified farmer. More than once, the blur that is current battle has my reactions freezing up as I try to count damage and process what I can do as a character to counter. More often than not, I just fall over and give up knowing that I can't think or act fast enough, and I may as well get my character's death over with. It's very encouraging to see that this is a factor considered in how to update the combat system.

  7. I wish I could have been there for the combat tests. Seems like it was quite interesting and productive. Did you go as far to evaluate each fighting style against one another? (IE: single weapon, florentine, sword & shield, brawl boffers, etc.) There's a natural hierarchy to weapons matching I would hope translates well. For example, I would expect someone with two swords to be able to swing with each sword each second, making it potentially twice as dangerous as wielding a single sword.

    For clarification, does this 1 second per attack rule apply for gifts/powers as well? As in, if I can only physically attack once per second, can I also only throw one packet per second, and then have to wait a second to then use a mental, and etc?

    While I like the approach in #1, there are two small concerns I have with it. First, sometimes its difficult to determine if one of your attacks landed. In that case do you swing again and let the victim apply rule number 2?

    The second issue is that mobility is going to become much more powerful. Faster people will be able to run away from anything, even if surrounded and ambushed. Maybe that's okay, but it's going to mean status attacks that affect movement will become much more powerful and it will make trying to kill certain players much more annoying/impossible.

  8. Florentine deals with the same rules as the rest. You may not strike twice as fast if you have two weapons. You are limited to one successful strike per second. This is the 1200s people aren't using fencing sabres, the weapons people are fighting with are more like sharp baseball bats. One successful strike per second works with this. This does significantly decrease the power of dual weapon in the game, but I'm ok with that.
    The 1 per second applies to all attacks. Boffer, packet, mental etc. It can be difficult to tell if an attack landed, our tests showed that this change caused more intentional strikes making it easier to tell when a good hit lands. Much like any combat rules, it is up to the combatants to figure out how to properly apply the rules. I probably wouldn't take a double tap but the real issue here is that it is the attacker cheating.
    Mobility is going to be more powerful, this change gives people the power to escape. In exchange for this most every escaping power is going to receive a decrease in power to balance things out. But that will come later.