To the pain!

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Combat in RPGs tends to have a serious problem: it ends in death.

Sure. Some RPGs have morale rules and such. Usually, these are limited to NPCs and they tend to be more applicable in mass combat than skirmishes or duels.

It is duels that I’m concerned with here, duels and practice bouts. Non-lethal combats have a place in many genres. People test themselves against their rivals all the time. They train through practice. They participate in exhibitions. Usually, no one dies.

The thing is, despite no one dying, it is usually clear who the victor is. In D&D, you tell who the victor is by who runs out of hit points. That’s not really satisfactory for a boxing match or a practice bout… or even a duel that could end with one side yielding. 4e is a bit better in that it can depend on the bloodied condition, but it is still a bit unsatisfying in the sense that there’s no hard line that provides a necessarily compelling reason to yield – hit points lost after being bloodied aren’t any different than those lost before.

This is one of the things that I really appreciate about FATE. Damage in FATE is tracked in terms of stress (a lot of the abstract stuff that generally gets lumped into hit points) and consequences (more lasting effects). Combat ends when one side is taken out – the victor gets to determine the condition of the one taken out. It is usually death, but it can just as easily be unconsciousness. Combat can end before that, too. It would be simple to fight until the first consequence. There’s actually a concession mechanic built-in to handle this.

Are there any other systems that handle such things elegantly? If so, let me know.



17 Responses

  1. In the real world duels and practice bouts end before the death of one of the combatants because they've agreed on some conditions for deciding the winner that stop short of that. First blood, three hits, to unconsciousness using non-lethal weapons, until somebody yields, or is unable to fight as judged by the referee, until forced from the ring or they touch the ground with anything but their feet. Most of those could be done with straight D&D even back to "BECMI", and I'm not sure I've ever seen a system that couldn't handle at least the first four with no house-rules whatsoever.

  2. They could be done, yes… but not in a way that I'd find particularly satisfying.

    For example, in D&D:

    First blood – this would be over too quickly, assuming any hit point loss equals blood. Given abstract interpretations of hit points, this is arguably impossible to determine by the book.

    Three hits – Again, abstractness is a problem. Also, depending on level, this could be lethal.

    To unconsciousness – Assuming the game has usable rules for non-lethal weapons (a problem in some versions of D&D, at least).

    Until someone yields – Yeah. You can always do this, but most games give you no guidance on when a good time to yield would be…

  3. well, 4E does allow you to choose death or unconsciousness now. On the final blow that is.

    My BBEG’s aren’t ALL stupid. They always try to get away if things are looking grim.

  4. Houses of the Blooded: rather than rules for combat, it has rules for Dueling. Everything other than two people fighting according to the proper forms is covered by insanely dangerous and unpredictable Violence rules. I haven't run them, but I assume form follows intent better than in D&D.

    Just got the Solar System (aka Shadow of Yesterday) and In A Wicked Age in the mail. Both of those fit the bill, I think.

    In the former, everything’s decided by one roll, unless an involved player wants to telescope it into an extended conflict, with attacks and defense and damage and opportunities to change your goal or yield. Just say your goal is to “defeat my opponent” or “impress all onlookers” rather than “murder dat guy.”

    In the latter, every conflict is decided in, at most, three rounds, with consequences being negotiable at each stage. “How about I sneak past you, but my sneaking is damaged?” “How about you capture me and put me in your dungeon?” “How about I agree to support your bid for the throne?”

    I think I’ve seen lots of games with support for combat with consequences other than death/physical injury, ever since Sorceror and especially since Dogs in the Vineyard. I’m sure I could list a dozen, given the chance.

  5. Donny,

    Yeah. Judgment goes a long way here, but this isn’t all about BBEGs, either.

    One of my prime concerns here is the provision of guidelines for PCs involved in such things. What cues do they get that tell them its time to concede. A linear resource like hit points doesn’t provide really useful cues.

  6. Wound penalties in the various White-Wolf games; few health levels down and you're only inconvenienced a little, but when you're near your breaking point and taking off four dice per action, you know you've got a problem. (I also approve of the larger importance of nonlethal damage; it works more cleanly than in D&D, and it's easier to pull your punches.)

    You could approximate this by having increasing penalties at different fractions of a D&D character's HP, I suppose…

  7. "Until someone yields – Yeah. You can always do this, but most games give you no guidance on when a good time to yield would be…"

    That defends on how far the player feels like pushing their luck. More reckless players are more likely to have dead characters. More cautious players are more likely to yield or run away. I don't see a lack of nonlethal combats as a feature of D&D, rather it's a feature of the way lots of people play D&D.

  8. As I see it, it's not a matter of people not running away, it's a matter of mechanical enforcement of goals besides killing and surviving. Victory is forced to be identical with those goals.

    Many other games have systems where the players state explicitly what "winning" would constitute, whether at the start (DitV), or at the end (SotC) or even repeatedly in the middle (TSoY). In D&D, "winning" is always the same thing. The mechanics don't support a change of win conditions: you either die, or run, or make the other guys die or run. It's not just that the players can either run or die when they can't win, it's that the player’s can’t win unless the antagonists either die or run.

    This seriously constrains the range of fictional conflicts the game can easily support. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

  9. @nick novitski – I don't know about how kids nowadays play what they call D&D when they're not mucking about on my lawn (shakes fist), but back in my day every NPC came with a Morale Rating, rules for what would cause them to make a Morale Check, and the possible results of a failed check for intelligent creatures included surrender (and surrender included the possibility that the NPC would offer a bribe to the PCs).

  10. I was going to argue adding one more possible outcome wouldn’t solve the whole problem (as I see it), BUT:

    If you took morale as a general stubborness rating, maybe you could use the morale rules in place of every every goal that isn’t murder. That is, a duel is usually fought to get the other guy to admit he’s wrong (or die, which amounts to the same), and you could use morale to find the point where he gives up and the player gets to narrate teaching him a lesson.

    Morale might (and I wouldn’t know because I don’t know the rules) be made into a default measure of how much the npc can resist the will of the player. Personally, I’d want to make sure that it’s the very rare being that fights until the very end, and that the default assumption is that they surrender and ask for terms….but that’s just the spin I’d put on it.

  11. @nick novitski- the old D&D mechanic was a pretty simple one: every NPC has a Morale Rating from 2 (never fights) to 12 (will fight to the death always, e.g. a zombie). To make a Morale Check, NPC have to beat the rating on 2d6. In single combat, such as a duel, they have to check morale when they take their first point of damage, and again when they've been reduced to 1/4 their starting HP. In group combat they have to check when the first death on either side occurs (so in old-school D&D monsters could actually be shocked into stopping a fight by a violent death), or when 1/2 their side has been incapacitated somehow (including sleep, mind control, or whatever).
    There were also some optional modifiers that could be applied.

    As to altering the Morale rules to apply to all kinds of conflict, it probably wouldn't be too hard, but we used to address that through roleplaying.

  12. As to altering the Morale rules to apply to all kinds of conflict, it probably wouldn’t be too hard, but we used to address that through roleplaying.

    Thus discouraging non-combat resolution of goals, or at the very least, marking them as weird and non-standard and on the borders of what constitutes the game.

  13. Mutants and masterminds is a superhero RPG by Green Ronin that has a pretty neat system for this sort of thing. It does away with hit points altogether, in favour of something like the condition track from star wars saga. Basically, every time you hit, you do an opposed roll (damage vs toughness) to determine is the attackee is hurt, and damage is determined by how much the toughness save is exceeded.

    The beauty of this is that, by default, all damage is non-lethal, and a series of good hits, or even one really good one, will simply cause a character to fall unconscious. If you want a particularly deadly encounter, or to up the stakes, the characters or the villain can use lethal damage. I think the point of this was to mimic the silver age comics where the heroes beat up on the villains, then throw them in jail or subject them to a trial or something (so they can escape for the next issue).

    Anyway, neat idea.

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