Monday, August 3, 2009

Matching Combat Mechanics to Expectations

There are probably some of you out there who remember the Playstation video game Bushido Blade 2. I first heard of this game, interestingly enough, when John Wick published an article in Pyramid magazine about the game's "one-hit kill" combat mechanic. For those of you unfamiliar with this game (which could be all of you), Bushido Blade 2 is a fighting console game. There's a "story" mode where you take on one bad guy after another in a series of skirmishes until you finally win. However, where the game really shines, in my mind, is the versus mode where you can take on other players.

The key to why I really like Bushido Blade 2 is that, essentially, it's a one-hit kill game. One good blow to the head or the body, and your opponent is dead. Glancing shots to the arms (and I think, the legs) can incapacitate those limbs, but any hit to a vital spot, and your character pitches over in an arterial spray of blood. No health bar, no power-ups, no wobbly-stunned status - one second you're fighting, one second you're dead. I've killed opponents in one blow within the first two or three seconds of a bout in this game.

Bushido Blade 2 has other aspects that I really like. There are a bunch of weapons you can choose from, and many characters have a secondary weapon (such as a knife or iron fan) that you can throw at an oppoenen. You have several different stances with each weapon, and some characters have unique moves with certain weapons. Another nice feature is that there are no "super duper awesome cool combat moves" - the game is all about timing, tactics, and planting that one good blow that drops your enemy like a ripped sack of grain.

Apparently there was some dispute amongst the game companies that made it, and Bushido Blade 2 was the last in the series. However, the game engine went on to power the Kengo series, which was not as well recieved. Kengo: Master of Bushido is called the "spiritual successor" to Bushido Blade 2, and its combat, while still having a "health bar", does take into account a bleeding mechanic, and with a couple of good solid blows you can drop your opponent very quickly. While there are a few somewhat cheesy "power moves" and there is a "Ki Meter" that powers them, the game is still relatively realistic in that it is not a game about super duper combos, but rather a game about timing, patience, and skill.

While playing these again for the first time in years, I began thinking about combat mechanics for RPGs. I've got no problem with games where the characters have a hundred or more hit points and need to get stabbed twenty times in order to be killed off. I also have no problem with RPGs where one good solid blow can drop an opponent, either. To me, it's a matter of A) what is the stated goal of the RPG's combat mechanics, and B) do the mechanics succeed at achieving that goal? I think there are a lot of games out there that strive for one thing in their combat mechanics, but either don't achieve it, or only meet it half-ways.

D&D, in most of it's flavors and pseudo-clones, I think actually does a pretty good job of giving the players what its trying to achieve; an abstract but pretty playable not-very-realistic adventure game where combat is relatively simple, the good guys can wade through lots of bad guys with some danger but not certain death, and yet a "boss" can still offer a difficult and dangerous challenge. Combat is scalable depending on the levels of the characters and there's a devisable opponent for every PC power level. In fact, I think where D&D breaks down is when there's too much of an attempt to add "more realistic rules" to the game (parrying, disarming, stances, etc.).

So I'd like to hear from you, gentle readers, and get your thoughts on the subject. Which systems do you think do a really good job of matching mechanics to expectations, and which do you think fail in that regard? I can think of some that I was less than impressed with, but I want to get opinions from you guys.


Wyatt said...

Going into White Wolf's Exalted, it makes you sound like an invincible superman that can stand for a whole day in a Dragonball Z-style infini-punching match, but the damage mechanic can end up meaning a few solid hits can drop you.

The game book even tells you to take lots of a charm that increases your health at character creation so you can avoid this...but really, they should've just come with higher health.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Kengo was a pretty good game, but I thought the sequel was superior when I played it in Japan (either 2 or 3). I was always on the lookout for it here in England, but it never turned up, which makes me think it might have been Kengo 3, though I just might have not noticed the name change with Kengo 2.

In any case, by all accounts the hit point system was developed because players were sick of being "one shotted". :D

Badelaire said...

@Wyatt: Yeah, I noticed White Wolf was kinda guilty of that in a lot of its games. I'm not sure if it's just a general lack of understanding how their mechanics really worked (there's the whole "the better your skill, the more of a chance for a catastrophic failure you have" debacle), or if it was just marketing. What was originally a game meant to be edgy and move away from more traditional "hack 'n slash" gaming started producing some of the most ridiculous "splat books" I've ever seen. I remember the "World of Darkness: Combat" book, and was glad I never bought it.

@Matthew: I know there were three sequels to Master of Bushido, but apparently two out of the three stayed in Japan and the third only found its way to Europe. The hit point mechanic is a little silly though - there's already a hundred fight games out there that are all alike - why can't we have just one that keeps it semi-realistic? Ghost Recon / Rainbow Six got away with it, one would think fighting games could pull it off as well.

Matthew James Stanham said...

The hit point mechanic is a little silly though - there's already a hundred fight games out there that are all alike - why can't we have just one that keeps it semi-realistic?

Sorry, I meant the D&D hit point system [i.e. the genesis]. I too prefer the lethality of Kengo to the silliness of a game like SoulCalibur.

Robert Fisher said...

Bushido Blade is still one of my favorite games. I’m not a big “fighting game” fan, but this is one of the few PS1 games I still have and play. I never got the sequel, though.

I completely agree that most attempts to make D&D combat more realistic fail. Either because they try to preserve the results or they don’t consider the system as a whole. The latter usually being due to not sufficiently appreciating its level of abstraction.

I seem to recall playing a few systems in which the group said: Let’s stay out of combat because combat is deadly. Which seemed to be the intent. No particular titles are coming to mind, though. (Guess we didn’t care much for that. ^_^)

Badelaire said...

Yeah, got no problems with combat systems where combat is deadly, or systems where the mechanics are pretty complex to give a lot of "realism" (I put that in quotes on purpose) and options.

The problem is more when a system claims "fast & furious" gameplay but the mechanics don't support it, or "two-fisted pulp adventure", but your tough guy, mechanically, has a bit of a glass jaw. Likewise, if your "realistic combat rules system" doesn't allow for even an averagely-skilled bad guy to kill a similarly skilled PC with one good solid blow from a good solid weapon, you're also not hitting the mark.

Robert Fisher said...

Having thought about it some more, I have some examples.

I thought GURPS’s combination of passive defense and damage resistance gave a good feel of your armor having separate deflect and absorb effects. Although PD was axed in the latest edition, so I may have been alone in that. ^_^

I was very impressed by how Rolemaster’s Arms Law gave each weapon a distinctive feel. I also liked the way that your chance to hit directly affected damage. If an opponent had a slim chance of hitting you, they also had a very slim chance of doing a significant amount of damage. Combined with the ability to shift your offensive bonus to defense, I think it did the best job of any game in supporting the “lightly armored agile fighter” thing. (If you want that.)

I really liked Hârnmaster’s hit location and damage systems. I really liked that at the end of an adventure we had specific lists of specific wounds of specific types and specific seriousness. (e.g. “I’ve got a light scratch on my torso and a grievous bruise on my right thigh.”) And without being too complicated. (Except for the number of hit locations.) I liked the way injuries healed in parallel too. That was really the kind of things I wanted at the time, and I thought they fit what Hârnmaster was trying to do well.

I think our Marvel Superheroes combats have felt a lot like those from the comics.

On the other hand, I haven’t ever played it, but the combat system in the edition of Ars Magica I have seems awfully complex for the stated intentions of the system.

Timeshadows said...

Bushido Blade 2 was super cool.

I'm not certain where you feel the Urutsk combat system fits on your continuum, but I think it is in the deadly-verisimilitude end of things.
--Folks can bleed to death either slowly or quickly, or die in one blow, or all points in between.

If you ask my players, they may very well say that it is too quickly deadly.
--If so, I would feel that I have accomplished what I set out to do.

Robert Fisher said...

Ooo. Another game—that I’ve never played—comes to mind. There’s a wargame called Crossfire (I think) that seemed like it did a great job of simulating “fire and maneuver” tactics in an abstract way. As I recall somebody out there adapted the idea to a Risus campaign, but it struck me as something that wouldn’t work all that well in a role-playing game.

Badelaire said...

RM does a really good job of setting out what they wanted - a very "realistic" combat system that takes all forms of injuries into account, and does so in a way that helps differentiate between broken bones and torn ligaments and bleeding and concussion etc. etc.. Their weapon and armor rules are also very well done with regards to making sure weapon choice wasn't just a matter of "what weapon does the most damage".

In two of the three RM campaigns I played in under my good friend Darkwing, my character used a scimitar rather than a broadsword in part because although the broadsword was more effective against heavy armors, the scimitar delivered critical hits against lightly armored or unarmored opponents better. I still maintain that, with the right GM, Rolemaster is an excellent role-playing game and can really provide a ton of worthwhile mechanical detail to the experience.

Although I don't know as if I've ever read through the Ars Magica combat rules, it would seem to me that the focus in rules detail that AM needs would be in magic, not mundane, combat. I'd think the mundane combat rules for that system would be fairly rudimentary. Making them overly complicated, when most PCs aren't going to be "combat characters" seems silly.

Darkwing said...

When we simulated the 1986 FBI Miami shootout using RM's Weapon Law, we got results that came pretty close to the historical event. While there were differences, I think RM/Weapon Law did a great job as a simulation in that regard.

rainswept said...

Even after much play, there was never any hope of original edition D&D characters "wad[ing] through lots of bad guys with some danger but not certain death" ... hit points were never high enough, Armor Classes never low enough ;)

One of things that was heavily emphasized in older D&D was resource management... iron rations, potions, scrolls, spells, and hit points. A strategic resource management credo (born of D&D's unit-based 'behind enemy lines' wargame roots?), and long-term or campaign-oriented play that encouraged player attachment to the characters they built, were two factors that differentiated D&D from other types of games, and were two impulses that mandated the hit point mechanic.

In fact, in the service of creating some 'one-shot kill' tension, the model for 3.x adventure design is a stream of weaker encounters designed to consume some of these finite resources before a 'boss fight'. Thus the outcome of the climactic battle would be less certain. And husbanding important resources for the big fight would lead players to hold off their best material in the smaller fights, thereby actually making those fights more dangerous.

Hmmm... it seems like RPGrs were maybe looking for the thrill of the one-shot kill all along :)

Badelaire said...

Original 1974 edition, you're probably right. I'd wonder about this by the mid 80's though, and it also depends on your style of play.

I've been guilty on many occasions of handing out full HPs every time the PCs level, mostly because it gives me the opportunity to throw hordes of minions at them so they can have fun delivering the smackdown. Of course, then they get to take on the "real" bad guy of the adventure, after they've been tired and bloodied (Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves, anyone?).

I've also got no problem just giving my bad guys full hit points, so at least they can offer up a pretty decent fight. Not that big a deal when we're talking about 8 hp Orcs, but it does become more of an issue when the Ogre has 32 hp, or the Minotaur has 56, etc. etc..

Badelaire said...

"I'm not certain where you feel the Urutsk combat system fits on your continuum, but I think it is in the deadly-verisimilitude end of things.
--Folks can bleed to death either slowly or quickly, or die in one blow, or all points in between."

Having read through your combat rules, I'd say they seem to reflect the nature of the world and the rest of the game mechanics pretty well.

Combat is a grim and deadly business on Urutsk, and shouldn't be entered into lightly, because one lucky blow can either take you down, or leave you slowly bleeding out (not a good thing even if you're the last one standing).

I especially like the division between the "Dodge Pool" damage (reflecting a slow deterioration of combat ability) and the Terminal Threshold (i.e., your guts are spilling out of that rent in your belly...). It will definitely give players a "wake up call" when their Dodge Pool either dries up and they just drop, or they suddenly take a TT wound while still having Dodge Pool and they realize their characters can go from healthy to screaming for momma in a single combat round.

Between this, and the implementation of your critical hits having the ability to bypass armor (similar to BRP's "impale" rule), and a number of other rules (such as the disarming fumbles etc.) designed to make combat a very uncertain condition that only the careful, skillful, and (most importantly) lucky survive - sort of like the feel of the world in general, which seems like it offers up danger and (ta da!) mystery at every turn.