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Author Topic: Fear & confusion - do all RPG combat systems miss the po  (Read 9983 times)
Sydney Freedberg
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« on: April 27, 2004, 03:16:26 PM »

[Pull pin; count one, two, throw; and...]

Proposition:
Pretty much every RPG fails to capture the true essence of combat, which is terror, confusion, and chaos. This goes double for those highly detailed, "realistic" combat systems that lovingly linger over the difference between light pistols and heavy pistols, between a parry-and-riposte and a parry-and-trap, between being hit in the arm vs. the leg vs. the left butt check, but which never bother to consider the impact on your character's performance of the fact that PEOPLE ARE FRICKIN' TRYING TO KILL HIM and HE'S NOT SURE WHERE THEY ARE. Can the Forge help fix this?

Discussion:
Combat systems are central to most role-playing games, frequently out of tradition and inertia more than anything else (viz Mike's Standard Rant # 3 at http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=2024), since the ur-RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, evolved from miniature wargaming. But what bothers me, though, isn't that so many games emphasize combat I'm an avid reader of military history who has covered the Pentagon for six years. What bothers me is that every game I know of gets combat mostly wrong.

Napoleon famously said that in war, the moral (i.e. psychological) is to physical as three to one. The S.L.A. Marshall studies from World War II showed that the vast majority of US infantrymen were too disoriented and frightened to do more than cower or fire wildly. The work of the late Air Force Col. John Boyd showed that the mental ability to Observe the situation, re-Orient oneself, Decide quickly, and then Act (the "OODA loop" theory see www.d-n-i.net) matter far more than the physical qualities of the combatants and their equipment.

But most games fixate on the physical side of combat, especially weapons and armor but also the physical strength and agility of the combatants, and gloss over the importance of "situational awareness" (to use the air combat term) and morale:

1) Being ambushed or otherwise surprised is usually taken as a special case, and "normal" combat is assumed to have both sides fully aware of each other. Character attributes like "Agility" or "Marksmanship" usually matter more than those like "Perception" or "Nose for Ambushes. In fact most combat occurs either because somebody has gotten the drop on somebody else, or both sides have blundered into each other.

2) Initiative systems sort out who goes first and last, but they still generally assume everyone gets to do the same AMOUNT of fighting each turn. In fact, the winner is usually the combatant who can get inside the enemy's cycle and do several things swiftly while the opponent is still struggling to react to the first thing. (There's a fair number of systems that give faster combatants multiple actions, but the one I've seen are fairly awkward).

3) The psychological aspect of combat is better treated, largely because of games that focus on mental states. Ron Edwards's Sorceror has cool rules for overcoming injury through sheer Will. John Tynes's and Greg Stolze's Unknown Armies has rules for a character's fight, flight, or freeze reflex kicking in. Matt Widener's interesting but unwieldly optional rules for Godlike on "Killing Disposition" and "Battle Fatigue" (at http://www.arcdream.com/pdf/optionalrules.pdf) make most thorough attempt I've seen to address the fear/horror side of the equation, but leave out the situational awareness/OODA loop side. In short, all these games take a piece of the puzzle but hardly the whole thing.

In GNS terms, this is obviously a core Simulationist concern, but it's not only Sim. Fear and chaos are great fodder for Narrativist storytelling. The whole movie Unforgiven is built around the Clint Eastwood character's wavering psychological disposition to combat, which the film emphasizes is far more important than the Western cliche of being "quick on the draw"; Full Metal Jacket climaxes with a battle against an unseen sniper. And warriors like fighter pilots are all about situational awareness and cool nerves surely as interesting a Gamist challenge as one based on who has the bigger bullets.

So my question to interested Forge folk (Forgeites? Forgers? I know there's a whole thread on this somewhere) is twofold:

1) Anyone know of an RPG combat system that actually handles both the situational awareness and psychological toughness aspects of combat well?

2) Anyone have an idea how to design one would capture the mental dimension of battle in a way that served either a Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist agenda?

{edited because when I put titles of things in brackets, they disappear for some reason}
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Valamir
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« Reply #1 on: April 27, 2004, 03:35:31 PM »

The old Palladium Revised Recon had an interesting approach to combat (vietnam era).  Weapons and even "skill" were deemphasised relative to the combat situation.  Rare was the combat situation that was a stand up fight.  Mostly they were Turkey Shoots, either as the giver or as the receiver.  You never wanted to be on the receiving end of a Turkey Shoot.

While it didn't model (that I recall) psychological effects directly, it did incorporate them in the end result.

Basically, IIRC, you had your normal weapons skill.  If you had the advantage in the Turkey Shoot you were modified up to the point were even low skill guys were capping opponents.  If you were at the disadvantage you were modified to the point where even high skill guys couldn't hit jack.  

The negative modifiers for being on the receiving end encapsuled surprise, fear, panic, poor positioning etc.

The system worked on the players too.  The players were about as cautious with their platoon as you would expect a real platoon to be choosing to pull back and avoid contact until a more advantageous contact could be arranged.
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #2 on: April 27, 2004, 04:08:30 PM »

Cool. Whoodathunk that the author of as radical and influential a game as Universalis would've been versed in old-school Sim combat rules.

(Crap, I've never actually read Universalis. [Goes and buys Universalis]. Okay. Now...)

The "Turkey Shoot" / not-Turkey Shoot mechanic is interesting, but kinda... binary. Was there any opportunity for Gamist funkiness in setting up an ambush situation? Or any provision for particularly skilled ambushees to reorient (Boyd's OODA loop again) and regain control of the tactical situation?
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lumpley
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« Reply #3 on: April 27, 2004, 04:12:45 PM »

Welcome to the Forge, Sydney!

I have a non-answer.  It's here.  But, um, if you're the kind of person who doesn't like to read swears, maybe don't click the link.

-Vincent
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Bob McNamee
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« Reply #4 on: April 27, 2004, 04:22:59 PM »

The old Twilight 2000 PRG had a stat "Coolness Under Fire" that went  a fair way toward simulating the hesitancy and confusion... and the deadly nature of those who keep their cool in such situations.

It was by no means a perfect game however...
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Bob McNamee
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TonyLB
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« Reply #5 on: April 27, 2004, 04:48:51 PM »

I crafted a poorly designed, but fun, custom combat system for a cyberpunk game that aimed to replicate a lot of this.

I started off of the Feng Shui initiative rolls, which are a fun (if wildly unrealistic) system that lets players spend "time" as a resource in a combat round.  Then I explicitly added in actions like "Figure out where that shooting is coming from" and "Creep away from the last place you shot from" and gave them a time cost.  Not as much as a full attack, but enough to make a difference.

Then I said that until your character spent actions to perceive things, they weren't described in the game world.  So our first combat went something like this:

Quote from: Spirit of the City
GM: Your glass of vodka explodes as a bullet narrowly misses you.
PC:  #%^%!!!  Who's shooting at me?
GM: Are you spending an action to...
PC: NO!  NO!  Hit the deck!
GM:  You're under the table.  Quite a few more shots blow apart the chair you were just sitting in.
PC:  "Quite a few?"  How many... no, NO I don't spend time to assess.  I flip my gun up over the back of the chair, cut loose with a wild burst of autofire and then run in a crouch toward the kitchen and its back way out.  Damn I'm glad I cased the exits before this started!

I was pretty pleased with that aspect of the system, particularly when the PCs turned it around on the bad guys and spent a lot of time casing them from cover, then blasted them mercilessly while laughing hysterically at the thought of how many perception checks their opponents would have to make before they had the faintest idea what was going on.

Oh, and we came very close to two PCs killing each other by accident, because they didn't want to waste time verifying who their "enemy" was.  Which was cool.
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Valamir
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« Reply #6 on: April 27, 2004, 05:00:57 PM »

Quote from: Sydney Freedberg
Cool. Whoodathunk that the author of as radical and influential a game as Universalis would've been versed in old-school Sim combat rules.


Heh, there was a time when I thought the Wilderness and Dungeoneers Survival Guides were the cat's meow...heck they're still kinda cool to read.

Quote
The "Turkey Shoot" / not-Turkey Shoot mechanic is interesting, but kinda... binary. Was there any opportunity for Gamist funkiness in setting up an ambush situation? Or any provision for particularly skilled ambushees to reorient (Boyd's OODA loop again) and regain control of the tactical situation?


As I recall, Revised Recon was one of those early rules light games.  The book wasn't that thick to start and at least 3/4 of it was filled with weapon description, army organization, and orders of battle, vehicles and the like.

There was a minimum of instruction, the rules assumed you knew how to roleplay (in fact, as I recall, the description of the Radio Operator compared the function to being the party's "wizard" and artillery strikes to casting fireballs.

So there wasn't any real built in "system" per se.  But there were ambush skills and Alertness Skills and Pointmen who were particularly adept at alertness.  There was also land navigation skills and intelligence gathering skills and the like.

The GM was basically left to determine the status of the fight by the interaction of a bunch of freely called for rolls.  The Intelligence guy might interrogate a villager and make a roll to be informed there were VC in the area.  That would trigger the players to go through the whole "10 foot pole, 'I search for traps'" routine ala old school D&D.  Based on exactly where on the map you went and how intelligent the GM judged your tactical deployment, and how successful your alertness rolls are etc. you'd wind up in an encounter and the GM would adjucate what type it was.

From there there were a number of steps: flat footed, moving towards cover, in cover that were more or less programmed in, with the ambushers starting at in-cover and the ambushees starting flat. From there you'd have to extracate yourself from the ambush or turn the tables into a stand up fight.  There weren't specific rules for this, again it was all player declaring actions, making skill checks and GM judgment.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #7 on: April 27, 2004, 05:40:14 PM »

Hi Ralph,

I don't quite get games like that (recon). An analogy might be that its like getting a box of toy soldiers, little rifles, guns, radio, tree's cover etc yet zero instructions and yet the box says 'this is a game'. Like other palladium designs, it seems to hinge on the idea that if you model a bunch of things (and not even model them particularly deeply or in relation to each other), its a game.

I'm drifting, but I dunno if such a system is much to recommend to the original poster. Better to recommend your GM from back then, as he's the one that brought all the models together into a game.



Hi Sydney Freedberg,

Velcome to ze lair of ze forge!

Anyway, what are you aiming for? Lack of knowledge in the player, or in the PC during combat? Personally I think players already percieve the SIS through something of a tube, with limmited peripherals. Further reduction of it could be damaging, as there isn't much more to reduce (to compensate you might need to have rules that increase information known outside of combat...rather than the GM just allowing himself a handwave description of the environment).
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #8 on: April 27, 2004, 05:44:00 PM »

Quote from: Bob McNamee
The old Twilight 2000 PRG had a stat "Coolness Under Fire" that went  a fair way toward simulating the hesitancy and confusion... and the deadly nature of those who keep their cool in such situations.


When playing WFRP, we used Leadership as a courage under fire sort of stat. I imagine it worked the same as "Coolness" That is, pretty piss poor. It basically boils down to stuff like this:

GM: The greater demon stands before you and bellows
Player: I swing at him with my double damage against demons sword!
GM: OK, but a greater demon is pretty scary. Make a leadership roll.
*dice clatter*
GM: OK, you blew the roll, so you can't act for this round.

It basically boiled down to rolling to see if you miss a turn or not, which IMO does not really capture what Sydney describes. It's more like taking the wargame he also describes and trying to force it to do something it's really not mean to do.
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #9 on: April 27, 2004, 06:32:55 PM »

Noon has writ:

[Anyway, what are you aiming for? Lack of knowledge in the player, or in the PC during combat? Personally I think players already percieve the SIS through something of a tube, with limmited peripherals. Further reduction of it could be damaging, as there isn't much more to reduce (to compensate you might need to have rules that increase information known outside of combat...rather than the GM just allowing himself a handwave description of the environment).]

Point well taken. I've got a few stray ideas of my own, for My Eventual Game (not ready for prime time or Indie Game Design), which mostly work around rolling over Success/Failure from the Situational Awareness check into bonuses/penalties on subsequent rolls to hit etc. (kinda like Ron Edward's currency principle in Sorceror, albeit more formalized).

That said, I think TonyLB's system, as described in the example of play, produces the kind of effect you'd want -- flailing and scrambling on the part of the players as well as the characters.[/quote]
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Valamir
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« Reply #10 on: April 27, 2004, 06:47:56 PM »

Quote from: Noon

I don't quite get games like that (recon). An analogy might be that its like getting a box of toy soldiers, little rifles, guns, radio, tree's cover etc yet zero instructions and yet the box says 'this is a game'. Like other palladium designs, it seems to hinge on the idea that if you model a bunch of things (and not even model them particularly deeply or in relation to each other), its a game.


Well, most games back then were like that.  They evolved from a culture of dedicated kit bashers.  There is a system there its just not spelled out.  For instance being caught in an ambush nets you a nice big -70%, -80%  penalty represending all of the complex situational and psychological factors of being unprepared.  But the penalty is only to to-hit rolls, not anything else, so when you're in an ambush your shooting effectiveness goes to near nothing, but everything else is at full.  So doing other things like tactics rolls or leadership tests or alertness rolls is your best way out of the situation.   The game doesn't say that...it just leaves you to figure it out by looking at the rules and saying "oh".  This is pretty normal for period war game rules.  Tons and tons of rules which all interrelate, but they leave you to achieve your own epiphany moment in play when you witness how they interrelate.  They don't explain it typically.

I mentioned it primarily because it offered one simple model of complex psychological factors (abstracting them out into a single big...-70%, -80%...penalty for being caught unprepared and all of the chaos and fear that causes) without getting bogged down in tons of details.  The net effect is the same, even if the details of the cause is skipped over.
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Jason Lee
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« Reply #11 on: April 27, 2004, 09:07:32 PM »

At the risk of oversimplifying what you want, you can just use a regular old stat + skill style system and make those elements that you want to be of primary importance the stats.

For example, if ambushed roll Awareness + Combat, if ambushing roll Brutality + Combat, roll Courage + Combat for blah, Decisiveness + Tactics for blah, Cool + Radio for blah, and so on.

You'd also want to make damage hella lethal to transfer some of the terror of the character to caution from the player - basically fail a roll and die.  If this results in something unplayable, then mitigate it with a player control mechanic - something like 'When your character should die you may instead re-write the scene such that another member of the character's squad dies for or because of him - describe how'.  Probably start with NPCs, then take it to group vote when you run out of those.  If you really wanted to shoot for the whole trauma of war thing, you could make each use of this mechanic cause some sort of sanity loss to the character, such that the character will likely either end up dead or crazy (because everyone around him died for/because of him).

Also, if you use simultaneous resolution (resolve each round in a serious of opposed Combat rolls - winner wins, allow for ties where both win and both lose) you can abstract initiative, speed, and getting the enemy on the defensive out into simple description.

If you really wanted, you could probably translate the pain systems of various games directly into fear systems.

Or to be slightly more complicated and chaotic...

You could do the same idea except have the value of the 'stat' rolled for at the beginning of a combat.  Say you start with a regular Storyteller system style dice pool mechanic.  You could have the important psychological factors rated 1 - 10 (ala Willpower), while having the skills run 1 - 5.  At the beginning of the combat roll the appropriate virtue rating rating with situational modifiers, and then use the number of successes generated as the 'stat' for that scene.

Anyway, just some brainstorming from a low crunch perspective.
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- Cruciel
Andrew Martin
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« Reply #12 on: April 27, 2004, 09:26:36 PM »

Quote from: Sydney Freedberg
1) Anyone know of an RPG combat system that actually handles both the situational awareness and psychological toughness aspects of combat well?

2) Anyone have an idea how to design one would capture the mental dimension of battle in a way that served either a Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist agenda?


My RPG combat system "S" is a simulationist game, which tries to simulate movie combat and eastern martial arts (the Boyd loop is present in these situations as well as in WW2 air combat).

In "S", ambush situations cause mental confusion in the ambushed characters by forcing the ambushee player into declaring and trying to execute actions without knowledge of the opponent player's actions (whose ambusher characters are allowed to interupt the ambushed characters), so leading to illogical and stupid actions from the ambushed characters.

In my research for "S", I found that training and experience (and training based on that experience) was the cure to psychological problems in combat, which equated to high skills being able to do more and faster, which simulated the "Boyd Loop"; being able to do more and faster in embedded inside the skill rules and multiple action rules.
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Andrew Martin
neelk
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« Reply #13 on: April 28, 2004, 07:09:17 AM »

Quote from: Sydney Freedberg

The S.L.A. Marshall studies from World War II showed that the vast majority of US infantrymen were too disoriented and frightened to do more than cower or fire wildly.


I thought the current consensus among historians was that Marshall had forged much of the data in Men Against Fire.

=============

Personally, I wouldn't find any game system that mandated panic in crisis situations very realistic. (I'd have no problem with it as a genre-creation mechanic, though.) In general, people behave extremely calmly and rationally during crisis situations -- for example, most black box recordings of pilots in crashing planes show them systematically trying one thing after another to fix the problem, right until the moment the plane hits the ground and they die. Most mistakes simply arise from the fact that in crises people have to make decisions quickly, without time to reflect or analyze their perceptions, rather than because they panic, gibber or otherwise lose the ability to act rationally. It's only after the fight, when it's safe to do so, that people go to pieces (if they do at all).

You can get this effect by taking an ordinary rpg combat system, and adding a time limit (say, five seconds) to how long a player has to make a decision. If they don't, then you skip the PC that turn. Then errors should arise from the fact that the players don't have time to fully analyze what's going on. It would also make combats play out much more quickly, which is good. :-)
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Neel Krishnaswami
Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #14 on: April 28, 2004, 07:29:48 AM »

I've heard some of the criticism of the Marshall studies too, but frankly never gone into it in depth -- your recommendation as to what to read on that would be welcome.

And I agree, I don't like RPG systems that address psychological issues by forcing player characters to act one way or t'other (Edwards has a stern injunction against the GM saying "you feel [emotion]" in the rules for Sorceror). So maybe the best bet is to try to encourage the same kind of often-erroneous snap judgments on the part of the PLAYERS as would be realistically on the part of the CHARACTERS. Some combination of real-world time pressure and limited information? Hmmmm.....
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