I've read more than once about Tunnels & Trolls that people think it's a neat game, but that they get tired of rolling buckets of dice and that the abstract combat system don't work well for them. I'm a bit surprised that the dice pool system is much of a problem, considering how popular that kind of game mechanic is, and also how easy it is to manage by some shortcuts. Today, though, I'm going to talk about the combat system, and how you can get it to sing. Note: these ideas work for any game system! If I get a bit rambling, bear with me and see if I might have some cools ideas in here after all.
In his very enjoyable book Play Dirty, author John Wick writes about a lot of cool things to use at the gaming table. Naturally, he also writes about combat. Some of the tricks he writes about, I'll show you here as well and talk about other stuff in the same vein. When I attended the Ad Astra convention in Toronto earlier this year I listened to a panel about how to write combat scenes. When reading Play Dirty I was reminded of that, since in that book John wrote the same thing those panelists said. First off, a real fight is quick. Real quick. I remember making fun of AD&D when I was younger, because the game turn was so ridiculously long but you only got one attack in! In T&T a combat turn by the book is two minutes. Obviously these games are not good aproximations of real combat. They don't need to be, but if you really want to end a combat quick, here's how to do it.
So, if all those game turns is just waiting for a killing blow, and all the circling and shuffling about is just wearing each other down, then let's go for the kill. So, let's feint and kick him in the groin or poke him in the eyes. Then, when he is down, kick him until he wont get up.
Feint – SR on DEX or LK. Why not take the average? Level? Well, I use the level of the dungeon as a general metric, but otherwise use his level, or MR/10 if no level is applicable. You're playing D&D? Roll as many d6 as the difference in level between you, add then and try to get under your DEX.
Groin kick – SR on LK or STR or maybe the average. You don't need to give him 2d6 Spite damage, just say he's out of the fight. In D&D you can call for an attack against a tougher AC and call it a day.
Poking eyes – Make a SR on SPD to see if your opponent manage to deflect your attack. You are going to do something in the middle of his field of vision, so it won't be easy. Say, level based on MR/10 with a bonus of +2? Maybe base it on his SPD/10 if he has one.
One thing to notice here is of course that T&T have a very cool mechanic, the Saving Roll, which can be used for anything. This is important so I'll say it again, it can be used for anything. I wonder if people who claim T&T combat is abstract and unengaging have understood that they can do anything. It's in the rules, pal! Let's get back to John Wick and Play Dirty again.
John notes one thing I find really spot on. He writes “Never let your players say, 'I roll to hit'. You know what they're doing, you want to know how they are doing it.” That's not only amusing, but also very true. Nobody will roll to miss, so why bother “rolling to hit”? So, following John, a DM should ask “where”, “how” and “when”. Good players will catch on, since you'll be giving them a bonus for each of those three. Imagine the three maneuvers mentioned above, but with a hefty bonus because the player said he was crouching down as if hit, kick out just as that other NPC/PC character shoved the target off balance (hey, if it's a minute or two it will happen all the time as people scuffle around). Beautyful and grim. Also, quite fun. All this about bonuses makes me want to bring up Wushu. In that game there are no penalties, only bonuses. I have read many games that talk about cool maneuvers, but they all have penalties. Not so in Wushu. The more cool stuff you say to try, the easier it is to succeed. Now, I fully understand that not everyone wants their fantasy games to be like an over the top wuxia movie, but take a long hard look at the idea that you award stunts if you really want to spice up combat in your game. Penalties are telling the player "don't even try it, boy".
Now, you might not want to go that far, but there are still a few tricks left. One interesting suggestion from the panel at Ad Astra, was that since the fight will be very much waiting and then a few short blows before it's over, you have to make it interesting in some other way. The method that stuck in my brain was the idea that you can always describe the event from the viewpoint of another character. Since you only have one character as a player in a RPG, you'll have to make do with that. Try to describe you're next maneuver in combat by mentioning how you get caught up in the successful attack by the player before you in the initiative (or something like that). That player gets to shine once more and will hopefully reward you with some inspired narrative next turn where your character is in the spotlight. Make combat fun together. Having fun together is why we play roleplaying games, right? I would even suggest that if you treat them nice, you could probably borrow a creature from the Game Master if you promise to return them in decent shape. Go wild.
I'm not always very good at following my own advice in this post, but I'm trying and will see if I can't manage to collect some real life drama from my game table some time. Oh, and buy John's book!