A New Generation in Combat Systems (Series on Crunch – Part IV)

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The heart of combat

As we have introduced in our last blogpost, the close combat system of Knights of the Black Lily works differently from nearly all other existing close combat systems in that attacks do not alternate but the combatant who has Initiative holds the exclusive right to attack – until the defender captures it from him. This is done to faithfully emulate the dynamics of cinematic combat with its sequenced attacks, as demonstrated in the aforementioned blogpost (and compounded by the videos linked further below), with all its twists and sudden reversals. This time around, we’ll have a closer look at how it works.

At the center of the combat system is the Melee Attack Resolution Table, which not only gets referenced constantly in actual play but is also short, intuitive and very easy to memorize – it’s in fact so simple that you and your players will naturally know it effortlessly from the top of your heads after the first one or two sessions of play. Following the general philosophy of Knights of the Black Lily by adding mild complexity in order to greatly adhere more to genre standards, this table is what makes all the various parts of the combat system come together. Have a brief look at it here and then we’ll explain its usage:

To leverage the Melee Attack Resolution Table, you compare the result of the Attack roll of the attacker (ie, the character who has the Initiative) with the roll of the defender. Rolls that benefit the attacker increase the net result, while rolls that benefit the defender decrease it. Now, to be able to read the above table, all you need to understand is that

  • Hit results represent minor attack results like a punch, an elbow, a scratch, a nick with a blade, etc., while a Crit result potentially represents more severe effects (like a serious wound),
  • the Off-Guard condition represents a potentially dangerous but flighty opening that threatens to bump a Hit result into a Crit next round only; and,
  • that Counterattack results also (and quite obviously so) always give the Initiative to the (former) defender.

The resulting gameplay is one where you often have to set-up attacks, create openings, stun your opponent (which also makes defending more difficult) and get every advantage you can – particularly when facing off against skilled fighters. Given the lethality of the damage system of Knights of the Black Lily detailed below, wounding is meant to be difficult as (unlike in most RPGs) heroes or protagonists rarely get severely wounded. This system also creates, as a side effect, time and again situations in group combat in which you will be aware that a fellow party member is going to be in trouble next round (whether due to an opening a Stun result or whatever) and it poses to you the question how much risk you are willing to take on yourself (if any) to help him out!

Ath this point you may ask yourself if all you can do is to attack and defend in Knights of the Black Lily. The answer is ‘Basically, yes’ for the Quickstart but the Quickstart rules already come with pregenerated characters that have special, cinematic attacks as part of their Traits to shake things up a little. Finally, what about outnumbering situations? Where multiple attackers fight one defender? All we want to say at this point is that we’re again following the guidance of cinematic combat in that not every attacker in the outnumbering force will be able to attack in every round – unlike in most RPGs out there. Instead, attackers tend to close-in in waves. As a small hint, we’re going to point to the following clip in demonstrating how it does resolve at times in cinematic combat:

See how not everyone attacks all the time? There are many more examples in cinema’s history and therefore the standard paradigm of everyone in the outnumbering force attacking normally each round should be off the table in the future of genre simulation RPGs from here on.

The mitigated death spiral

To cap this blogpost off, we’re going to briefly address the damage system in Knights of the Black Lily. As introduced on our System page, heroes rarely get wounded in fiction and when they do, it usually is only to underscore their heroic nature when they prevail in spite of. We have seen before how Fortune can be used to negate wounds, delaying the onset of what is generally called a death spiral effect in RPG design: in some systems, once you get wounded your performance suffers, making it more likely to get wounded again and so forth – until you die. As the below examples will show, this death spiral is highly cinematic and fully in line with established fantasy norms and traditions. The trick is having a safety buffer to keep that from happening except rarely, which is exactly what the above link to our Fortune Points blogpost details.

We posit that in general there are only two type of hits in cinematic combat: those that have a short-lived effect (Stun or Daze or just scratches -sometimes even vicious looking wounds- only degrade performance temporarily!) and those who have much longer term effects (severe wounds). It’s our observation that only the latter type of wounds kill – there is generally no death by a 1000 cuts in cinematic combat. And if there is, it is, by all means, an outlier and not the norm.

With all that being said, hit points systems (with all their completely arbitrary assignment of numbers) are out the window and you arrive at the damage system of Knights of the Black Lily with its mitigated death spiral and where the number of severe wounds a character can sustain is directly derived from observation of the general level of damage capacity of cinematic heroes and villains. As piece of evidence, we submit the following clips – go ahead, you can count the Damage Capacity of all three villains presented here yourself! (We do allow for especially severe injuries to count for more than wound, however; if a 30 ft. giant steps on you that should be more severe than an average cut or stab after all. It also helps the game stay lethal and challenging enough!)

Here, we count a Damage Capacity of 4 for Rexor. (Note how his performance degrades with each wound. Also note how short-lived the effects of Valeria’s attack are – still enough to save Conan’s skin though.) What’s your count? Let us know in the comments.

Lurtz demonstrates here nicely how non-humans might ignore wounds that humans probably never could, at least not without magic. He has a Damage Capacity of at least 4 (and possibly as high as 6 if you consider some wounds heavier than others).

We rate Gregor “The Mountain That Rides” Clegane’s Damage Capacity again at least as 4. (He survived 3 severe wounds and was still capable enough to kill his opponent before succumbing to poison.) Again, you can see how his performance degrades with each hit – a pattern you can see running through the entire show.

And with that we close shop for this week’s entry in our Series on Crunch. In our next installment, we’ll have a look at Traits and Magic and the principle of narrative cost applied to both of them. If you want to know why Gandalf didn’t overshadow the Lord of the Rings trilogy, tune in – you’ll find a way to have that in your fantasy games as well!

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