Forthright Sneak Peek: Big Fights

By | October 24, 2015

Hello again!

In the run-up to Metatopia 2015, we’ve been running a series of Forthright Open Roleplay sneak peeks of Beta 3, with a general goal of laying out nearly the entire system in blog posts before November.  Here’s the series so far:

Big Fights have always been difficult to gauge in traditional roleplaying games.  Huge books filled with monsters, “Challenge Ratings,” identification of enemies as being tough for a whole team vs. easy for one character to defeat, “XP budgets,” all these extra rulesets are in place to help GMs identify enemies that can ratchet up the tension while still, ultimately, being beatable.  In turn, because the stats of these enemies are available to players who want to buy the monster books, players are pushing their own abilities to greater and greater heights in order to fight monsters with increasingly complex powers.

And in the end, it doesn’t matter.  “Boss Monsters” last 3-5 rounds, might take out one of the PCs, and fights with them might as well turn their terrifying blows into pats on the back for the players.  This is what much of the “traditional play” that I’ve encountered ultimately falls down to:  enemies are balanced around what the math says the player characters can handle, and since the system itself dictates that players can handle these encounters (combined with the “art” of fudging that has been taught to GMs since the dawn of roleplay), the ultimate result is the evolution of players into people who know that the encounters they face are beatable,and so just charge into the fray and let the power of the higher numbers on their character sheets win the day.

I do not like this design.  It bores me.

It bores me largely because the challenge of it is not in the moment.  When I am facing against a two-story fire-breathing dragon, that is the moment I should be tense.  But with traditional design, I cannot be; I know the encounter is defeatable, because that is the point of the game.  I know the stats on my sheet, barring the dice gods turning their back on me, are enough to bring the monster down.  And I have no tension.

Because that game is not played at the table. That game is played through feat selection, attribute juggling (goodbye Charisma), and owning enough splat books to never have to worry about getting hurt again.  There’s nothing wrong with that game if that’s the game you like to play.  But the number of people complaining about “min-maxers”/”charops,” talking about “roleplay vs. roll-play,” asking how to properly challenge their players with tough fights, and eventually giving up and just putting enemies on the board and letting the players deal with it for good or ill over the past forty years tells me that that game is not the game that a lot of players (or at least, a lot of GMs) want to play.

Psychologically, I don’t think it’s wrong for players to min/max/charop: it is a natural human instinct to want to try and excel at any task.  Likewise, I think it falls within the purview of the gaming system to limit the damage any such behavior causes.  Doing so will automatically remove the opportunity for any characters to ever be able to face off against a massive army of low-level enemies and defeat them; limiting the damage also means limiting the potential power that can be gained through character optimization.  This alone will make combat – any combat – feel more dangerous again.  It will put retreat back on the table as a viable option.

The entire combat system of Forthright Open Roleplay is designed around this principle.  Characters gain their full “hit points” (Resolve) at character creation.  Characters enter fights with their full resources at their disposal; those resources are exhausted over the course of the fight.  At the end of a fight (and given a few minutes of “breathing room”), those resources (including Resolve) regenerate.  There is precious little healing in the system, to help encourage fast and dangerous combat.  Running out of resources in combat isn’t a death sentence – you’ll lose the fight, yes, but you’ll get either a temporary Wound or a permanent Injury as a result.  Characters can only die when the Player is willing to let them die.

On one hand, that will make combat (for some) feel less dangerous.  “I can’t die?  KILL EVERYTHING!”  But for others, the fact that their character will literally just keep getting weaker the more they fall in combat will not appeal.  Wounds and Injuries will set a character back just as surely (and perhaps worse) than having to shell out cash for a handy nearby resurrection spell.

Now, what does that have to do with big fights?

Well, in Forthright, literally any fight can be a big fight.  Thanks to Basketball Initiative, the tables can turn very quickly when multiple people gang up on one target – a cornered minion will fight tooth and nail to preserve himself, a principle Sun Tzu himself called out in The Art of War.  Lieutenants and Masters will do the same thing – but they’ll do a heck of a lot more damage before they go down.  Basketball Initiative allows enemies to self-scale without needing to give them extra attacks or “legendary moves” or “lair actions” or anything else – they respond when poked if not poked skillfully enough.

Truly dangerous creatures might be so large or have so much Resolve (or have so many abilities) that the Protagonists have no hope of taking them down alone – they will drop before they finish wearing down the enemy.  Dragons, titans, giant mechs. . .all of these fall into this category of “Big Fight.”  In these situations, the Protagonists must solve the enemy like a puzzle – all such enemies have weaknesses.  Perhaps there is a Macguffin somewhere in the world that can help.  Perhaps the Protagonists will need to rally their allies into a great army to take on the threat.  Perhaps the Protagonists will need to talk to the threat, learn its motivations and find some kind of equitable compromise.  Perhaps, when fighting, they need to use alternative tactics, stunts or other such trickery.

The idea is that the fight, the tension, and the danger is in the moment of the action, rather than solved long before.  This will mean players are fully engaged and thinking about the game, rather than bored and waiting for their turn to come up again.  Fights aren’t just about beating an enemy down, they’re about figuring an enemy out.  That’s what makes a fight Big in Forthright.

And that also provides a corollary benefit:  any adventure, and any enemy, can be faced by characters out of the gate.  They are the Protagonists, this is their story – why should their story have to wait until they’ve powered up to Super Saiyan before they can face the cool stuff?  Turning enemies into puzzles makes enemies a more integral part of the story.  Instead of just a monster in a room, it’s a monster you have to learn about first in order to succeed. . .its presence infuses the story long before it’s ever encountered.  This allows for players to engage in interesting stories with interesting villains no matter their level.

They’re not stuck fighting rats in a basement until they can fight kobolds in a cave until they can fight orcs in another cave until…until…until.

So, thoughts?  Don’t be shy, we’re not – pop something in the comments!

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