Battle and Story

Say you’re designing a combat system for a role-playing game. Let me ask you this: is it something that causes complication, fallout, consequences, or anything else that needs to be addressed after the battle?

If not, why not?

One of the reasons people criticize[1] D&D, either earlier editions or 4/e, for being a combat & minis skirmish game is because it feels, to them, like the fighting and the story are independent. When you have a combat, there is nothing independent of success/failure that feed regularly back into the story (by design, not an oversight). Now, you can bind the two by using the GM as the glue, and that’s the general argument against the criticism.

But that’s about a game already designed (and designed well). If that interconnection between lengthy, exchange-based combat scenes and the story afterward are desired by you, the designer, then you can do that. And that means you need to look beyond just success/failure as the outcomes of your fights.

And I’m not talking about the “I need healing” sort of consequence, unless you somehow make that really interesting.[2]

The first example I saw of this was in Truth & Justice (using PDQ). The first time you took a ht in a fight, whatever Quality you took it to would generate a Story Hook for the GM to work in after the fight. And since you got to define your own Qualities (which also act as your hit points or armor), you were declaring what was interesting as a story. The iconic T&J example is to say that Spider-Man has a Good Quality “Mary Jane.” When fighting with the Green Goblin, he takes a hit, and applies that hit to Mary Jane so that his “High-Flying Acrobatics” Quality isn’t hindered. The GM will complicate Spidey’s life soon involving Mary Jane.

Dogs in the Vineyard is the go-to example here, where, when you see to See someone else’s Raise, and you need more than two dice to do it, you take Fallout at the end of that fight/verbal exchange/whatever. Because of dice tactics and because Fallout is also the mechanic for advancement, you’re encouraged at times to take Fallout. At the end of the exchange, you roll the Fallout and apply the changes to your character.

Fate uses a two-step process. Combat often drains Fate points when players invoke aspects to get better rolls. Then Fate points are regained through compelling aspects. So what is created in combat aren’t the consequences themselves, but the need to accept future consequences for currency.

There are other games that do, though there’s also been a trend of doing away with exchange-based conflicts over the last few years. You have things inspired by Otherkind dice that promote consequences independent of success/failure.

I’ve been thinking about this since having coffee with Sean Nitter of Narrative Control[3]. We talked very briefly about Mythender, and he said why that sort of game wouldn’t interest him. He would rather spend his time playing games not doing a combat encounter, whereas I find the story in a fight worth exploring.

I later thought about why I do, and I realized that it’s because of two things: One, I like action movies, so heroes showing they’re bad ass are awesome. Two, I like seeing the fallout or consequences of those action scenes.

Point two should happen more often. Here are some questions to ask yourself when designing a combat system:

  • Is there something you can point to that says “this creates a consequence”?
  • How would interesting consequences (beyond “I need a medic”) manifest on a character?
  • …on the world?
  • Can you incentivize consequences?
  • Can you create positive changes or assets as a result of a fight?

Are there other questions we could be asking?

– Ryan

[1] Since I have had fun with it as a stand-alone skirmish game and as a game with a story weaved through it, I’ll happily say: I don’t care about the argument.

[2] Which is the intent in Mythender. “Healing” is what you do if you try to get a mortal to sympathize with you, since the game is about mythic natures and not flesh wounds.

[3] And This Just In…From NeonCon. And congrats to him on making the Golden Geek shortlist!


3 Responses to Battle and Story

  1. Codrus says:

    My current 4e game I’m running has some mass combat, mostly modeled as a revamped skill challenge. Because things are a bit more abstract, one of the things I’m trying to do is include ‘events’ that interrupt the main flow. Maybe the left flank is falling. Maybe a friendly NPC is in danger. Maybe the players have an opportunity to take the fight to the rear ranks.

    At a high level, the outcome of the battle is influenced by player actions, but some things may happen out of their control. At a detail level, the goal is to have enough events that the player’s choices decide many of the smaller consequences of the battle.

    Putting it another way: The rules aren’t set up for win/lose, although player actions influence the results. They are much more about player choices: Who do the players choose to save? Given more options than they can solve in a single battle, which stand out because the players got involved in those fights.

    I know I’ve made some posts about making combat more than life or death, but the posts are ancient enough that I can’t find them.

  2. Sean Nittner says:


    That wasn’t very specific. I’ll try and give some background. I had been talking a lot to Scott White just before our conversation about combat in our Apocalypse World games (we both ran AW at the 10/16 mini-con and we were both in each others games).

    What we noticed in combat less interesting stuff happened and it took more time to do. Which is nut considering that AW a) makes interesting stuff happen all the time and b) uses the same system for “combat” moves as it does for any other kind of move. So often I feel like combat (in many games) is filled with meaningless rolls and consequences that have no impact on the story (like your “i need healing” example above).

    So, I’m an action nut as well. I love fights whether they be with martial arts, machine guns or mecha, and I want those fights in games to be as interesting as they are in good fiction, i.e. where each move is meaningful and the consequences carry forward in cool ways that affect the story and the character. Example: John McClane (my go to example for what I want in gaming) having to run over all the broken glass in the first Die Hard. Not having shoes for John was a BIG DEAL. We get this whole gnarly scene with him in the bathroom picking the glass out of his foot and telling us about himself.

    From the bits you said about Mythender though, a) it sounds like even the base system for removing consequences is REALLY cool and b) it sounds like there are plenty of non-standard (and possibly non-fixable) consequences that come from the fight as well (like maybe say… creating a field that would forever more be farmed for SORROW!) That stuff is awesome, and if I am going to play a game where combat takes a major roll, that is what I want to see!