Friday, September 25, 2015

Tunnels & Trolls Might Have the Most Perfect Combat System Ever

In my last post, I ranted about the uselessness of tactical combat systems. What I'm referring to are systems in which special moves, feats, and detailed movement rules feature prominently. My main gripes, in a nutshell:

  • Tactics slow down combat, making combat encounters disproportionately long.
  • Games with complicated combat rules encourage a video game mentality: Progression from one hostile encounter to another, succeeding through combat prowess, as opposed assessing situations for risk and avoiding hostility when possible.
  • The more advantages, disadvantages, and special actions in play during combat, the more the overall results resemble those you would see in a system with minimal advantages, disadvantages, and special actions. In other words, fighting skill could be represented by a single number or one hundred numbers; but one hundred numbers could theoretically be reduced to a single number anyway. In fact, the more stats, the less variation in their statistical average; the more customization of a character's combat skills, the less each individual skill matters.

D&D introduced a reasonably simple, effective combat system, and it became the template for most games that followed. In systems like this, you have an armor score representing how resistant you are to damage, a number indicating how much damage you can take before incapacitation, and a number representing bonuses to your to-hit rolls. Combat is resolved by determining an order of initiative, then having each combatant roll versus their opponent's armor score, and calculating damage if a hit is successful.

This system has worked pretty well for decades. It's logical, and allows for the player to take advantage of ways to enhance both the attack and defense ratings of their characters. Systems other than D&D have attempted to introduce novel ways of handling initiative, damage, and other aspects of combat, but usually haven't made any significant improvements on the original model. At worst, they introduce needless complexity.

Although some are just fine with it.

Enter Tunnels & Trolls. I recently picked up a copy of the deluxe edition rules, and I think this might be the best combat system I have ever seen. It is truly innovative, because it doesn't just try to hack the D&D model; it is a complete reimagining of how combat should flow in an RPG.

A Very Brief Introduction to T&T

Tunnels & Trolls is the second published RPG, released just one year after Dungeons & Dragons. Being second to the market and bearing a similarly alliterative name, you might suspect it to be a clone of D&D; but it is truly original. Some of the features of Tunnels & Trolls that differentiate it from D&D the most include the following:
  • Ability scores can be improved by spending Adventure Points, this game's version of experience points.
  • Levels are not gained through AP, but are determined by a character's highest ability score.
  • Magic is based on a point system, making low-level casters more useful.
  • There are only three character classes (and cleric is not one of them).
  • No bestiary -- GM's are encouraged to design monsters to fit each encounter.
  • "Save" rolls are similar to skill checks in Castles & Crusades, making ability scores more relevant.
  • The combat system is unlike any initiative-based combat system I have seen, and it's very elegant.
Let's take a closer look at T&T's combat system...

Combat in T&T

T&T  is very good at making ability scores (or "Prime Attributes") more central to the game. Four of the eight attributes -- Strength, Dexterity, Speed, and Luck -- contribute to a character's "adds," which are bonuses they receive in melee combat. Notice that Speed is one of the factors. This is because initiative does not exists in T&T. Both sides act simultaneously during a round (which is approximately ten seconds), so the impact of a character's speed and dexterity manifests as damage points. Remember what I said about how the more rules there are, the less they matter? In games that use initiative, a character's dexterity (which usually implies speed) will ultimately grant that character more damage done during an average round. So why not save time and forego initiative rolls altogether?

At the beginning of each round, both sides announce their intentions. Those casting magic or firing projectiles get to act first, though the results of their actions are not calculated until the end of the round. Missile attacks are not based on a "to hit" roll; they require a Dexterity check based on the target's size and distance. In some cases, no check is required. I think it's pretty clever -- and realistic -- to handle missile attacks differently than melee attacks. When firing at long-range, you usually aren't distracted by having to maneuver defensively. This makes missile weapons much more advantageous in T&T, but the advantage is balanced out with high DEX requirements for projectile weapons.

Melee actions on both sides take place simultaneously. Combatants choose their weapons, and roll to determine potential hit points of damage. A character's weapon determines how many dice (everything is d6) to roll, and the character's personal adds are added. Any natural sixes are tallied. Each side totals their members' rolls. The side with the highest deals damage to the other side, to be divided as the losing side wishes. Hits of damage are absorbed by armor; it is possible to be on the losing side and receive no damage if the hit total is less than the losing side's armor rating. For each natural six rolled on the losing side, one point of "spite damage" is dealt to their opposition, bypassing armor. This is a reflection of the fact that even a loser in a fight will land a few blows here and there.

Any damage done to a character is deducted from their Constitution score. There are no "hit points." If you want more hit points, spend AP to raise your Constitution. 

Monsters are handled a bit differently from statted PC's and NPC's. Their relative strength is measured with a single number, called their Monster Rating.  MR serves as both hit points and attack bonuses. When a monster attacks, they roll as many dice as their MR divided by ten, rounded down. Their attack bonus is half their MR. When they take damage, points are deducted from their MR. Special attacks or weapons can override this method. You can't get simpler than this.

In this system, it can be pretty easy for players to quickly determined if their party is outmatched. The differential between hits of damage done by each side can often be proportional to the stronger side's advantage. This is similar to real life; you can tell just by sizing up an opponent whether they are going to present a challenge. 

The Beauty of Abstraction

When designing rules for combat, one attempts to strike a balance between realism and abstraction

I have previously spoken of the Realism Gap. Let me describe it with an example: Say I am inventing an RPG, and I want combat to feel hyper-realistic. I introduce mechanics for weapon speeds based on their weight and bulkiness, injury locations and types, each with their specific effects on the body, critical hits and fumbles, fatigue, errant missiles and friendly fire, weapon and armor hit points, and so on. By introducing elements of realism, I have invited the addition of more elements. A highly critical player might review my system and ask, "If you're tracking weapon damage, then wouldn't it make sense to calculate penalties for dullness? What about the possibility of breakage?" If realistic is good, then more realistic is better, right?

Let's instead decide that even RPG's, though character-driven and freeform, are not meant to map exactly onto reality. They are games. All games are abstractions of reality, some more than others. Chess, for example, is highly abstract. There is a plot; you command armies at war. There are even characters -- bishop, knight, etc. But the details of their actions are left undetermined. Perhaps, when a bishop captures a pawn, he does so through sly political trickery, whereas a knight might capture another knight in a siege, or a duel. It's all irrelevant to how the game works. Monopoly is a bit less abstract. You are a real estate investor, and so are your opponents. You spend time inhabiting each others' property, and rack up debt in the process. When you cannot pay your debts, you are out of the game. That isn't hypothetical; it's exactly what happens in the game. But traveling in circles around the "city" in the guise of a wheelbarrow -- that's an abstraction.

Role-playing games exist on the realistic end of the scale of abstraction. For this reason, it might be easy to assume that the closer you can slide a RPG towards the hypothetical infinite realism (as in calculus, approaching zero but never reaching it), the better. But, just as traveling at speeds nearer the speed of light require increasingly ridiculous amounts of energy, the practicality of a role-playing game greatly diminishes as it moves from its "happy zone" of abstraction towards the realism singularity.

Thus, abstraction to at least some degree is necessary. Let go of the impulse to treat role-playing as a model of reality, and focus on what makes RPG's great -- storytelling, character development, heroism, adventure.

I believe Tunnels & Trolls gets it right. Its creators understand that combat should rely on characters' personal strengths, but should also be resolved in a manner that is painless for the players, quickly and smoothly, not bringing the pace of an adventure to a screeching halt, but rather adding high points of action that pass quickly in real life as in the game world.

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