RPG Design - A Study in Conflict

After I have redesigned the core mechanics, it is now time to tackle the two biggest offenders from my playtest: combat and hazards. I've briefly covered some of the intended changes the last time, but now I had to flesh it out a bit more.

As always, you can find the current version of the rules with a press of the button below.

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3-2-1 Let's Fight

A tangent in combat design

Let's recapitulate first what is currently wrong with the conflict (or combat) system. There is just a bunch of the same rolls (in this case a Skirmish action) without much consequence. You just roll over and over again until one side is defeated. Yes, you can create advantage to improve the dice odds and with that create more of a story, but it isn't encouraged by the system. In my oppinion that is also something that is a bit of an issue with the underlying FATE Core framework. There is an excellent article about this in the Book of Hanz. But why isn't this encouraged by the system in the first place?

As players we have a bias on how combat should look like I think: There are damage numbers flying left and right and the higher the better. This has been trained into us by videogames and the popular TTRPG kids on the block (D&D 5e). It sets some expectations on how combat should go. You have an attack action and use it to do some sort of damage to your opponent. Little by little you bring it down. There is a bit of a suspension of disbelief we have in those moments. A muscular barbarian chucks a big-ass axe into the enemy and it's still alive? What are health-points anyway?

In some regards, this makes sense in those games. For Dungeons and Dragons especially when you look at where it came from. It initially was a Tabletop Wargame with some extra "survival" rules attached to it. And there were many iterations over the years to streamline (for good or for worse is a debate in itself) to get rid of more and more of these wargaming rules.

The other interesting fact that comes from this is the overarching issue of throwing more and more powerful enemies (with more health-points) against player characters to make up for their increased health-pool. It's like in TV shows, where from season to season there is an even more powerful big bad suddenly appearing. In Dragonball Z for example, there is this famous exclamation of "over 9000" and by the end of the series all fighters had a powerrating in the millions. Speaking of power creep. Additionally all those "low-level" enemies are of no concern anymore to the players. But if you ever played a Soulsborne game, then you know, that those pesky dogs are always lethal - always. And this is something I want to keep, that you can even fail at simple enemies (they got a lucky punch in).

Hollywood does it right (kind of)

When you look at action movies, combat takes a more interesting turn. After all they try to tell you a story - and since I want to create a story-driven game this is a good source to be inspired from. The people from Corridor Crew are regularly reviewing fight scenes (actually stunts, but whatever) from big (and independent) movies. What is fascinating and inspiring for me is when they talk about good fight scenes. They talk about how the scene is telling a story.

Instead of punching each other repeatedely in the face, the fighters try to leverage the opponents weakness and the environment to their advantage. They jump on tables, grab things or rely on dirty tricks like throwing sand. The fight is then often ended with one big final punch, as a result of some sort of "setup" beforehand. Maybe the big bad tripped over a previously knocked down chair. Maybe he got taunted and then made a reckless move that left a wide opening for the hero.

This is where I want my conflict resolution to get to and this is something that FATE Core to some extend also suggest to do (because it leads to more story) but does not encourage.

The new combat/conflict system

Skirmish action is out.

Sounds simple but changes a lot. Conflicts in general, and combat specifically, are just an opposition that needs to be overcome. And there is already an action that does that.

But opposition, especially when it is other characters, has a tendency to actively push back, resist, that action. In other game systems this is often represented by a difficulty level or an opposed roll. I don't have that kind of "luxury", or I explicitely decided against such a system. All the rolls are player-centric, there should be only one roll per action and the result should be easy to interpret. That is what the new core mechanics are about and so it has to be for this as well.

The design space I opened myself up with the new core mechanics is to alter the dice pool before the roll. And as such I can use that as some sort of baked in difficulty and hindrance of the oppostion against the action.

First up there is the notion of Resistance. As the name suggest it describes on how the opposition is trying to resist our overcome action. This could manifest in many different ways. It could literally be some sort of armor or shield. It also could be perception or intelligence, if we try to persuade or deceive someone. Or the enemy is dodging away, taking some cover. You can already see that this is not limited to combat options but rather any conflict, be it mental or physical, forceful or with wits and charm. Overcoming an obstacle can happen in many different ways. The Resistance is a value (normally ranging from 0 to 4 like traits and skills) and is the amount of dice removed from the dice pool of the Overcome action. So if you want to defeat a very powerful enemy you will need to invest in some create and exploit advantage actions first, encouraging you use these actions (of course you could go ahead and just try your luck).

The second part is Fortitude. It is a way to describe on how enduring a opposition is. The first punch might have knocked the enemy to the ground but they quickly get up for a second round, but this time angrier then before. Think about phase 2 in a boss fight. So in short, Fortitude describes on how many times you have to create a successfull Overcome action. One could argue now, that this is some sort of health-point system. But it is a bit more abstract than that. It doesn't need to scale with the "health" of the player characters, but instead is a fixed amount. And you could go ahead and probably remove it altogether and just play with Resistance (and just make that incredibly high).

The beauty of the system is, that it works for generic aspects as well as for Non-Player Characters.


Another big chunk of the rules were the investigation rules. I think I want to concentrate a bit more effort into this, since this is the major driver of the story. The core remained a bit the same: you still have the four big questions (Type, Effect, Ownership and Downside) to answer. And the mechanics with clues and using them stayed in.

What changed is a bit the overall structure of the investigation. Whereas before there were these hazards that had to be put into the scene, they are now gone. First they didn't work that well anymore with the new rule and second of all they felt a bit too complicated and limited the player in actually playing the game. The introduction of hazards and opposition should be moved to the imagination of the player and encouraged by the system - most notable from the consequences table I guess. Also there was a bit too much overhead of creating and maintaining all these hazards over the game.

I really like the system from Ironsworn: Delve. There are Themes and Domains that give you a changing oracle table. This was already partially added to my game as well with Sites and Singularities. The idea was (and is) that you choose on of each and it will then help you come up with a unique artefact that matcheswith the story. So for example is the Temporal Singularity. The artefact has something to do with time and its manipulation. So you should see such effects during the investigation. Similarly the Site should give you places of interest that are relevant on where the agents are (no sense to see a skyscraper in a small town).

So I expanded a bit on this idea, that these Sites and Singularity will give you ideas on how some of the big questions could be answered. My first idea was to create some sort of 4x4 matrix. You can see those sometimes in the internet: Choose one of the columns in each row. And there would be like pictures of superheroes and villains and such. Or creating a meal order from predefined options.

I'm not yet fully happy on how it is implemented. Basically two out of the four questions are divided on both the Site and the Singularity. And you roll on those tables to try to come up with a answer. However the answer seems to be a bit to restrictive now. They are very concrete and I'd rather have some more vague options so the player can fill in the blanks to make sense in the story. Or I might skip it altogether.

The other thing that Sites and Singularities do, is to provide a table to roll for hazards and features (similar to the Ironsworn tables). As mentioned this should give the story "color" and are driven by the parameters choosen. I might keep these and elaborate them a bit more.


Another big thing was to overwork the end of the investigation. As I want to put a bit more focus into the investigations it is bad that, when you answer all the questions, the game just ends. There needs to be some sort of climatic scene at the end: The Showdown.

For that I had to come up with the concept of Challenges. Every system at some point should consider how it handles an arbitrary situation that is timed and the success hinges on the actions the people in it do. The best example is a chase of some sort. Of course some systems are lacking explicit rules (I'm looking at you D&D) and some homebrew exist to handle that sort of thing.

With the new core mechanics this is pretty simple. The dice pool you get to resolve a challenge is the difference between successes and failures you had during that challenge. Slap on a timer - that tells you how many actions you are allowed to do in the challenge - and done.

The difference in my system is maybe, that the challenge always takes a set amount of actions. Other systems handle this a bit differently. Often the challenge ends when you accrued a set amount of failures or successes (depending on the difficulty of the challenge). In my opinion time should be the driving factor of a challenge. A car chase could take a long time when you are not rolling any failures (who hasn't seen these endlessly long streets in their life). Challenge should be introduced by the amount of time you have. The less time you have to react, the harder it is to succeed. You could argue that in the other systems, time is a bit fluent. Things could happen in a blink of an eye, even though you had 5 successful actions. Or it could happen in parallel. But this is hand-waved after the fact. My system puts the pressure in front: Here is a set amount of time, how do you use it?

Random Thougths

One more thing I want to address before I go and playtest some more, is the resting system. It somehow feels to convulated and wrong to me. There are 4 different tables and slightly different actions with outcomes. I need to condens this a bit more, but still somehow keep the intention the same.

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