Sometime in the past month I remember reading a blog post where "combat as an obstacle" was mentioned. Can't recall where it was, though, and searches didn't really pan out. Anyway, there the idea was to treat simple encounters with mooks and fodder as a DC obstacle rather than actual combat, to cut the time it takes to go through combat in a session and leave more room for roleplay and exploration.
Between the two, I'm now openly considering building a system around this mechanic, since its consistency and fun-factor might prove to be integral to making combat work. As combat remains a sometimes-major part of RPGs, I think it makes for a logical base to start at.
Conservation of Resources
As I understand it, combat isn't so much about surpassing a hostile force as it is doing so while conserving resources. To me, this should lead the design concepts - even when combat isn't fully run, it should consume resources and there should be a consistent and clear way to adjudicate this. The blog post I had read did say that resources should be consumed, but it was a guideline.
Assuming a game that isn't centered almost singularly around combat (modern D&D, though 5e less, as well as its derivatives, comes to mind), there are 3 resources that may run out in combat: HP, Magic and Consumables.
- HP is loading bar until the character dies. It doesn't really matter if you use it to illustrate injury or combat fatigue, since it all means that the closer you are to 0, the likelier it is for the next attack to kill you. Since in combat HP loss tends to be inevitable, this resource most likely will be lost at every fight, barring a good obstacle-passing roll.
- Magic is however the system handles spellcasting. Vancian obviously gives a tangible resource, while another tangible resource is something like MP. In general, unless clearly intended, magic is a resource that may be conserved reliably. Some games even provide free magic, in the form of at-will spells to any degree, which provides spellcasters with consistent conservation (that is to say that you can rely on the spellcaster to consistently produce damage without spending resources, much in the same way a fighter can).
- Consumables are everyone's magic. Anyone can use them and they act as standins for magic when that isn't available. In a similar way, they can be reliably conserved.
For instance, were we to play D&D this way, a fireball is a major advantage. If the fight was a borderline affair, the wizard might opt to use it up and give that as a bonus to the roll. If it were after the roll, the more lenient option, the wizard might take a look at his spells and decide to improve the roll or mitigate negative results. This works similarly for potions as mitigators and scrolls or wands.
The construction of the DC
Now comes the hard part - how hard is a fight? Opponents contain all sorts of variables and indicators of difficulty, so it's hard to say. In essence, these DCs are nearly always rulings based on good judgment. Luckily, not all is truly lost - some games provide clearer indicators or even guidelines for fight difficulty based on opponent choice. If there are guidelines, it's easiest to draw a line from them to obstacle tables. If there aren't, assumptions must be made and there isn't an obvious way to find out the perfect difficulty.
But now we get to the most important question: PC contribution - how much and what does it affect? PCs could lower the DC as much as they could gain bonuses to the roll. Depending on what you use to roll, one or the other makes more sense. In a d20 game, sticking to a pure roll against a variable DC seems wiser, since it gives an intuitively clear result.
There is, what I feel to be, a critical part that needs to be included: how the party approaches the fight. Clearly, neither side wants to be wiped out, barring special circumstances, so how the party wants to fight could and should affect the DC and even the results of both success and failure. Way I see it, there are several ways to approach combat:
- Extermination - the party wants to wipe out the other side. This means chasing fleeing opponents and being brutal. DC remains averaged since the party is not holding back from making all their free hits and spells count but is also chasing the enemy. An abundance of ranged attacks could lower the DC/give bonuses for obvious reasons.
- Dispersal - the party wishes to make the enemy go away by means of violence. Fleeing opponents are disregarded and the party hits anyone else hard. This is the easiest to do, since it's short and not at all subtle.
- Blitzkrieg - the party intends to end the enemy as quickly and as ruthlessly as possible. This might mean expenditure of magic and consumables as sometimes numbers are an issue. It should be difficult, made more possible by using resources. It assumes the enemies don't reach the point where they try to escape.
- Capture - the party wants to capture any number of opponents alive. This is probably the hardest option, since it means that they need to avoid killing their opponents and also avoid being an easy target while doing so.
- Assassination - the party does not want the following deaths to be immediately known. Normally reserved for small numbers of weak opponents when sneaking around. Some games innately support this option, but the idea is that it might not work and escalate into an issue. It's harder than the other options, except Capture, primarily due to the limited approaches possible.
When fighting, as I stated before, HP loss is nearly always inevitable. Something or someone will pull off an attack, maybe more than once, and there go the HP. It's important to state that this roll should never automatically cause a TPK - it's meant when fighting otherwise easy fights. Such fights might go extraordinarily wrong, the byproduct being a TPK, but it should never be automatic.
So how much HP is lost is an important question. The easiest approach is to squeeze attacks and health indicators together. In D&D, this could be based on HD. An example in D&D, assuming a pure d20 roll: a critical success means no HP loss; a success means the party needs to split a total loss equal to the combined opponent HD; a failure means each opponent has dealt an amount of hits equal to his HD, split among the party; a critical failure would mean max damage per HD. That last outcome is a fight going extraordinarily wrong, which might mean a TPK.
Since HP is your main resource, any other resources consumed should do something about that. Most resources are capable of doing either of two effects: make the roll easier or make the outcome less harsh. For instance, a fireball might be "go in magic blazing, hitting the entire other side hard" for an easier roll or "if the tide of battle doesn't go well (a failure or critical failure), this is a last resort" for a less harsh outcome. A spell might also negate combat completely (sleep, anyone?). One way or another, that resource has been expended. In this regard, too, it might be smarter to say that there are 3 ways to expend resources: intention, declaration and hindsight. The first would be to simply say it would be used, never mind how the fight actually goes. The second is circumstantial, meant to mitigate failure. The third is to do either post-fight, changing the outcome to taste.
The single most important thing to remember here is that fights are memorable. In this context, a fight is combat that the party actually ran through, rather than rolled as an obstacle. This also means that fights are as befitting the party. Those 3 slingshot-using kobolds are an obstacle, while the chief, his shaman and the 4 leather-armored spear-bearing kobolds are a fight. But it can also go the other way: a pair of level 1 characters running into 2 orcs could also be a fight, despite being a random encounter that isn't too dangerous, by virtue of being dangerous and interesting enough.
But a memorable fight has another meaning: critically failing or succeeding at a combat obstacle should be a narrative thing - let the players concoct some tasty fiction to go with their great success or horrible defeat.
One thing I feel stands out the most here, as a final observation, is player agency. This system presents the players with many choices and options, under the assumption that they are entering combat. They choose how to deal with it and what the fight is worth to them. In certain cases, the roll itself might end up being memorable.
What I have not explicitly touched is ad hoc agency: players figuring out the environment or non-obvious resources for valuable resources. I have not touched it because that's a table thing - the GM already awards you for these, if he does, and would readily treat them as resources since they are simply affecting a roll as they would normally would.
This system is still raw and untested, and isn't at all concrete, but it offers a framework that would deal with the small, least interesting, combat with a single, clear roll. To me, this can save entire sessions by removing the clutter that fights might pose. I'm about to try it in as many games as I can.
(A note: this entire thing assumes the party is not being surprised. An ambush is always a fight, since it's not the party choosing to approach. If the party ambushes, they got a bonus.)