Sunday, October 10, 2010

Player Skill: Battle of Wits Combat Systems

Man in Black: All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right... and who is dead.

Vizzini: But it's so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy's? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Man in Black: You've made your decision then?

Vizzini: Not remotely. Because iocaine comes from Australia, as everyone knows, and Australia is entirely peopled with criminals, and criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

Man in Black: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

Vizzini: Wait 'til I get going! Now, where was I?

Man in Black: Australia.

Vizzini: Yes, Australia. And you must have suspected I would have known the powder's origin, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Man in Black: You're just stalling now.

Vizzini: You'd like to think that, wouldn't you! You've beaten my giant, which means you're exceptionally strong, so you could've put the poison in your own goblet, trusting on your strength to save you, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But, you've also bested my Spaniard, which means you must have studied, and in studying you must have learned that man is mortal, so you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Man in Black: You're trying to trick me into giving away something. It won't work.

Vizzini: IT HAS WORKED! YOU'VE GIVEN EVERYTHING AWAY! I KNOW WHERE THE POISON IS!


How I would love to have a Dungeons and Dragons combat system that emulated the battle of wits scene in The Princess Bride.

One of the touted features of original D&D is its' encouragement of player skill. But many people find the old-school combat system lacking in that area. The main criticism of old-school combat is that deteriorates into an endless exchange of blows. While the criticism is somewhat misplaced, (after all, players should be using their player skills to either avoid combat or ensure that the battlefield is of their choosing) once combat is joined, players are at the mercy of the dice, and the vagaries of the DM, who may be permissive or not when it comes to the players' improvised combat tactics.

Some 'modern gamers' point to the 4E combat system as a solution, as it provides myriad tactical combat choices, providing some measure of player control in finding synergistic combinations of combat abilities to defeat the monsters arrayed against them. But the 4E solution feels completely artificial to me: the combat abilities rarely reflect real combat tactics, and so their selection and employment, in my mind, are examples of system mastery, not player skill. After all, if you look at the example of the battle of wits between Vezzini and the Man In Black, Vezzini is using real-life knowledge (basic psychology, geography, recent events) to try to deduce the mind of his opponent.

One of the great strengths of Avalon Hill's Magic Realm combat system is its' focus on player skill. The system itself is rather straight-forward, and uses the following 'real-life' combat principles:
  • Weapon length: longer weapons hit before shorter weapons.
  • Weapon speed: faster weapons hit before slower weapons.
  • Character speed: faster characters act before slower characters.
  • Armor: armor absorbs blows, but can be damaged as a result.
  • Weapon harm: heavier weapons do more damage than light weapons.
  • Attack Direction: there are three attack directions that correspond to the three dimensions: smash down, swing to the side, and thrust ahead.
  • Manuever Direction: there are three manuever directions that correspond to the three attack directions: duck down, dodge to the side, and charge ahead.
  • Fatigue: characters are able to perform certain exceptional actions, but doing so causes fatigue, which constrains future activities.
Using the above principles, Magic Realm employs a deterministic (diceless) combat system. Therefore, the results of a combat round are not subject to chance: each player's skill (in making the best selections of weapons, armor, attacks and manuevers, based upon what they know about the capabilities and strategies of their opponents) is the principal factor in determining his or her success or failure.

For example, in Magic Realm, the Dwarf is very slow. His only fast movement, that does not cause him to become fatigued, is his ability to duck down (which makes intuitive sense, since he is short). Another player, knowing this about the Dwarf, would select a smash down attack against the Dwarf, knowing that the Dwarf is most likely to use the duck manuever. Of course, in true Vezzini fashion, the Dwarf knows that other players are aware of his reliance on ducking, and so may employ one of his other manuevers, thus avoiding the smash down attack of his opponent (even if it meant accumulating some fatigue as a result).

I would be interested to learn if others have devised a way to insert player skill into their old-school combat systems, so as to transform them into a battle of wits between the players and the DM.

24 comments:

shlominus said...

i think this system would degenerate into simple guesswork pretty quickly. i can't really see the "battle of wits"

something i tried ages ago was a system that used cards and different hit locations.

in a nutshell:

both combatants receive a number of cards at the start of battle (the system was only supposed to be used for duels).

the number of cards you get depends mainly on class (they represent both fighting skill and hps), but can also be altered by additional effects (e.g., if you are drunk you get less).

every card represents both defensive and an offensive actions.

on your turn, you could either attack (play 1 or more (all of the same type)) to try and hit a certain hit location.

or you could stall and draw more cards, the number again depending on class.

to defend against an attack you have to play cards corresponding to the same hit location to defend yourself. if you can't play any, not as many as the attacker played, or simply don't want to play any, you are hit.

being hit means you lose cards (usually 1, but possibly more, depending on the number of cards not defended, the location hit, and skills).

once you are out of cards you are defeated.

euqipment and skills are also a factor. can't remember how they worked exactly though, but they usually gave extra cards or made some cards "blanks", to be used for any hit-location desired.

the "wit-factor" lies mostly in remembering the cards already played to find weakspots in your opponents hand and saving up cards for multi-card attacks.

if i remember correctly, most fights using this system worked quite well and were very exciting affairs.

Roger the GS said...

Well, first, an outguessing-based combat system would be cool but hard to fit into D&D. As an add-on, giving bonuses or penalties to hit and damage, it might turn out to be too much work, except perhaps as a "dueling" system for important fights between two members of character classes. Probably best if it has its own game, especially because you need cards or similar to run the simultaneous choice aspect.

> i think this system would degenerate into simple guesswork pretty quickly. i can't really see the "battle of wits"

@shlominus: Your system sounds cool, though again, might be too much work in D&D when bashing rats in the dungeon.

The real key thing from game theory which a lot of guessing-game systems miss is the idea of an optimum move for a player, but which can then be countered by a non-optimum move for the other player. Otherwise it is just, rock paper scissors.

In the Magic Realm example, the dwarf has an optimum defense in theory, to duck, but an opponent who knows that can overcome it. Therefore the optimum defense in practice - against an opponent who is intelligent and knows your strengths and weaknesses - might be to give up a smaller advantage of not ducking for the greater advantage of not being hit.

Of course, you have to figure out how intelligent your opponent is ... whether he knows your second-level reasoning so will choose some other attack that is non-optimal for him ...

All the same, one reason card-based systems seem more fun is the role of imperfect information. if the dwarf's fatigue and hit points were secret from the attacker, there would be some uncertainty and shrewd guesswork required about which resource the dwarf values more, and how to play around his expected defensive moves that protect that resource.

anarchist said...

Systems like this usually turn out to have a best strategy which is a weighted average. For example the dwarf might be best off ducking 2/3 of the time, and performing each of the other two possible manuevers 1/6 of the time.

Kent said...

Interesting. A system like this could be applied when on paper it looks like a 50/50 fight; it might be tricky to sustain any combat advantages from the D&D combat rules. Or it could be applied on a random round, 6 on a d6. It might be best in an effort to distinguish wit from familiarity to keep the mechanics hidden from the players, have them describe their actions and interpret these as a best fit in the new system.

Trey said...

Like Roger says, i think this sort of thing is interesting for one on one duels, but not mass combat with mooks or the equivalent.

steelcaress said...

I used to have a combat system that I liked, but it was difficult in actual implementation.

The attacker had a set of attack options (e.g., High, Middle, Low, Swing, Thrust, Chop).

The defender had a set of defense options (Block hi/mid/low, sidestep, lean away, duck, jump)

A new stat, Foresight, was determined. It was based on class and level. This would allow you a chance to predict what the Attacker or Defender was going to do, and choose your action based on that.

A failed roll also had a table, telling you what you thought the other person would do based on how badly you flubbed it.

Step 1: Attacker and Defender roll their Foresight.
Step 2: Attacker writes down his attack
Step 3: Defender writes down his defense
Step 4: Reveal simultaneously and consult chart for results.

The chart was constructed with the defenses along the top row, and the attacks along the first column. Cross-indexing the attack with the defense gave you a result, most often a hit location, sometimes special instructions (like x2 damage).

The hit location had a further chart to look at, where you figured out where you hit and what effect it had. I can't remember now how I handled things exactly, but I remember effects like "Organ pulped/pierced/slashed" and so on.

The problem, of course, is that it's divorced from any sort of system. If you're expecting to play D&D, or GURPS, or RQ, it can be kind of jarring to have this system thrust upon you, rather than the random to hit roll.

Oddly enough, I didn't own a copy of Magic Realm til many years later when I found a copy at my local Half-Price Books. I was struck by the similarity in systems.

Word verification: briess. A female head of cheese. :)

A Paladin In Citadel said...

shlominus said...
i think this system would degenerate into simple guesswork pretty quickly. i can't really see the "battle of wits"

I often wonder, what is the difference between the average poker player and the world class one?

I should explain that in Magic Realm, each player has 12 different possible attacks and manuevers, and a host of other options besides.

Your card system sounds like a lot of fun, and captures the 'player skill' ethos quite well.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Roger the GS said...
Well, first, an outguessing-based combat system would be cool but hard to fit into D&D, except perhaps as a "dueling" system for important fights between two members of character classes.

Good observation. Normally, players face 3 or fewer monstrous opponents in Magic Realm. Anyone who comes face to face with any of the three sets of six goblins usually finds themselves dead in short order.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

anarchist said...
Systems like this usually turn out to have a best strategy which is a weighted average. For example the dwarf might be best off ducking 2/3 of the time, and performing each of the other two possible manuevers 1/6 of the time.

Yes, although the system is a little more complicated that I was able to describe in this post. Plus, part of the player skill is in divining when the Dwarf will choose one of those sub-optimal moves. Magic Realm would be a good study in game theory, ala the movie A Beautiful Mind.

Sean Robson said...

This reminds me of the unarmed combat system used in Top Secret. Different styles such as street fighting, Judo, Karate, Boing, etc. had a selection of maneuvers to choose from. Both sides would select a combat maneuver and write it down, then reveal them and cross-reference the two maneuvers on a chart to determine the outcome. No dice involved.

I really enjoyed that diceless resolution mechanic, and it worked fine for one-on-one fights, but I could never figure out how to employ it in battles with multiple combatants.

I think the best way of rewarding player skill in combat is not to codify it with a set of rules, which, as you say, favours players who have mastered the rules, but to reward innovative combat tactics with ad hoc benefits. Perhaps the Vizzini vs. Man in Black battle of wits is better reserved for non-combat encounters.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Kent said...
Interesting. It might be best in an effort to distinguish wit from familiarity...

Actually, familiarity is exactly what i'm trying to get at. Does the DM almost always play a fast maneuver, at the expense of an effective attack, the following round after I hit his monster? Then I know I can use the next round as a "rest", since the monster's attack in that round will be weak.

As Vezzini says, about a battle of wits: "But it's so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you..."

Sean Robson said...

I meant, of course, to type 'Boxing,' not 'Boing.' :) I wish Blogger would let us edit our comments - it would save a lot of embarrassment.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Sean Robson said...
This reminds me of the unarmed combat system used in Top Secret. Different styles such as street fighting, Judo, Karate, Boxing, etc. had a selection of maneuvers to choose from. Both sides would select a combat maneuver and write it down, then reveal them and cross-reference the two maneuvers on a chart to determine the outcome. No dice involved.

Gygax and Perren also provided a diceless Jousting system in Chainmail.

I really enjoyed that diceless resolution mechanic, and it worked fine for one-on-one fights, but I could never figure out how to employ it in battles with multiple combatants.

Even the Magic Realm system bogs down when you start getting multiple combatants on each side. A simple dice-roll is much faster than a diceless sytem, where you have to assess your opponent's demeanor, past tactics, available resources, and guess what his current combat actions are likely to be.

I think the best way of rewarding player skill in combat is not to codify it with a set of rules, which, as you say, favours players who have mastered the rules, but to reward innovative combat tactics with ad hoc benefits. Perhaps the Vizzini vs. Man in Black battle of wits is better reserved for non-combat encounters.

Well, we already allow for the battle of wits approach ("player skill") outside of combat. Combat is one of the few areas where character skill is most heavily enforced. I like some of the suggestions about using cards, which is effectively what Magic Realm does (in that game each player has 12 attack and maneuver options to choose from).

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Trey said...
Like Roger says, i think this sort of thing is interesting for one on one duels, but not mass combat with mooks or the equivalent.

I agree. For mooks, I would be tempted to use Chainmail's mass combat system.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

steelcaress said...
I used to have a combat system that I liked, but it was difficult in actual implementation. ..

Oddly enough, I didn't own a copy of Magic Realm til many years later when I found a copy at my local Half-Price Books. I was struck by the similarity in systems.


It's amazing how many people are looking for a combat system that rewards clever or tactical thinking, rather than stat-maximization.

trollsmyth said...

It's amazing how many people are looking for a combat system that rewards clever or tactical thinking, rather than stat-maximization.

But not too terribly surprising. If you spend even 25% of your play-time in combat, you'll want to maximize the fun from it, and just rolling dice can get old pretty quickly. Plus, it can really feel like you have no control over what happens in some games.

I didn't go quite that far, instead making the choice of weapons a bit more interesting by basing initiative on what you're wielding. (This also meant one less die roll, which in real-time text-chat, really speeds things up.) Coupled with Shields Shall Be Splintered gives players some interesting choices as to what to bring to battle.

But all of that is before the fight starts. I do try to encourage interesting tactics in a fight, but it's all positioning and tossed vials of oil and stuff like that, not feints and ripostes and lunges. I don't really want to get to that level of detail in my combat. I'm quite happy to invite and encourage tactical innovation, and leave it at that, for the sake of avoiding complexity.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

trollsmyth said...
I didn't go quite that far, instead making the choice of weapons a bit more interesting by basing initiative on what you're wielding. (This also meant one less die roll, which in real-time text-chat, really speeds things up.) Coupled with Shields Shall Be Splintered gives players some interesting choices as to what to bring to battle.

Excellent. And you anticipated my next post, about weapon and armor selection and its effects on combat.

But all of that is before the fight starts. I do try to encourage interesting tactics in a fight, but it's all positioning and tossed vials of oil and stuff like that, not feints and ripostes and lunges. I don't really want to get to that level of detail in my combat. I'm quite happy to invite and encourage tactical innovation, and leave it at that, for the sake of avoiding complexity.

Like you, i'm most keen to have interesting (but fluid and fast-paced) combats.

Andreas Davour said...

I have not yet tested the combat system of Burning Wheel, but it reads a lot like some of the systems described in these comments.

In BW you write down hidden moves and then show them simultaneously, but the kicker is you write three of them in a "volley", and thus try to set your opponent up for maybe the second of third of the manoeuvres you have chosen.

I wrote some posts on the subject myself long time ago. Maybe it's time to revisit them and see if I've learnt something.

BTW Paladin, I sent you a mail asking about "Synnibarrf", if you're still ready to let it go.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Andreas Davour said...
BTW Paladin, I sent you a mail asking about "Synnibarrf", if you're still ready to let it go.

You mean Synnibarf, the Ultimate in Transgressional Gaming, created by Raven c.s. McCracken? (you have to say his last name with a fake Scottish brogue to get the full effect)

It's 2 lbs. 8 oz (not including any packaging. If you're serious about it, i'll get a quote on shipping it to you, and may god have mercy on your soul.

disperse said...

Well, Magic Realm isn't exactly diceless; there are still situations where luck comes into play. What I like about Magic Realm is it doesn't overly prolong the battles that have foregone conclusions. The White Knight obviously has the upper hand on the Tremendous Dragon when attacking from hiding and the Magic Realm combat system lets him win the combat automatically.

There are also times when you pull out a win against all odds. The Dwarf is ambushed by a pack of goblins while spelunking and things look grim but he manages to take them all out through a combination of skill and luck.

The maneuvers you choose gets very interesting when you are facing multiple adversaries and have hired natives and also in PvP. In PvP combat, in particular, you can do a little bit of guess work. (Duck aside.) Would the White Knight charge headlong into battle or would he be more likely to dodge.

Andreas Davour said...

You mean Synnibarf, the Ultimate in Transgressional Gaming, created by Raven c.s. McCracken? (you have to say his last name with a fake Scottish brogue to get the full effect)

It's 2 lbs. 8 oz (not including any packaging. If you're serious about it, i'll get a quote on shipping it to you, and may god have mercy on your soul.


2 lbs. 8 oz of pure madness? Check!

I can handle madness, bring it on. :)

Send me the quote to myname at gmail dot com please.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Andreas Davour said...
2 lbs. 8 oz of pure madness? Check! I can handle madness, bring it on. :) Send me the quote to myname at gmail dot com please.

Will do, probably not today, with it being TGing and all.

Matthew Slepin said...

I don't have any sort of answer, but this...

One of the touted features of original D&D is its' encouragement of player skill. But many people find the old-school combat system lacking in that area.

...is well expressed. I never really congealed that thought in my mind before.

Kevin Heckman said...

In addition to Burning Wheel, two other examples come to mind:

The Riddle of Steel: there's no simulateous choose-and-reveal, but player skill matters a lot. The creator used to demo it at cons by giving a random passerby a knight-in-chainmail-with sword-and-shield character, while he would play boy-with-stick. Almost invariably he would beat the knight despite the knight's many advantages.

Yomi: a card game that's in preorder from Sirlin Games. Not an RPG combat system, but could maybe be the inspiration or basis for one. As designed, it mirrors fighting games like Street Fighter, but with the dexterity element removed, leaving only the strategy. Each player chooses a move card, plays it face down, and reveals simultaneously. Moves are either attacks, blocks, or throws. Where attacks beat throws, throws beat blocks, and blocks beat attacks.

What keeps it from being pure roshambo are two things:
1. Not all cards are created equal; some characters have great throws, other can combo off blocks etc. Some attacks are faster but do less damage. If you're ahead on life, you tend to play less risky moves. The constantly shifting value of the cards prevents easy calculation of the "right" move.
2. Humans are really crappy random number generators. Even if you do figure out that in situation X, you should perform Reaction A 60% of the time and Reaction B 40% of the time, it is very difficult to do this in a truly random way. Most people will be predictable in some way or another, and a good player can read this.