Five Maxims for Designing Good Combat in Games

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about as velotha’s flock goes into product line expansion and maintenance and the core game is essentially finished is how to design a good combat system, not the least of which because Hammercalled needs one that works.

One of the things that people forget is that combat essentially ends in one of three ways for each individual (and to a certain extent for each group involved):

Survive victoriously
Flee and lick wounds
Die somewhat unceremoniously

In Hammercalled I kind of want to figure out a way to play on group dynamics, but I’m afraid it might be Too Complex (TM).

Then again, I drafted a quite complex system for Hammercalled that even I wound up not wanting to bother with, so I suppose there’s no harm in trying.

To base my assumption, though, I’m going to be working on the idea that good combat mechanics design is oriented on five maxims.

  1. Get to the Point Quickly

    There is a temptation with any system to have a gamist approach that encourages mechanical optimization. My biggest gripe with combat comes from D&D and its derivatives, where escalating numbers mean that either combat inflates to longer and less dynamic encounters, or you just do math with larger numbers, as characters reach higher levels.

  2. Consequences are Necessary for Rolls

    A lot of people embrace the game design principle that you should only roll dice when you absolutely need to because things are on the line, but automatically assume that every act in combat will be “mission-critical” and needs to be rolled for.

    For my part, I’m trying something with Hammercalled where a certain amount of fighting competence is assumed automatically, and characters don’t typically do things like “taking cover” or the like because their ability to do so is abstracted out.

  3. Fewer Actions, Better Actions

    On the idea of consequences being necessary, I want to streamline things so that the actions that players take will always change the dynamic of the combat. Along with shifting momentum (I have no clue how this mechanic will work yet), the players don’t get any action that simply becomes a “extend combat” button. Likewise, things like reloading and their ilk are either made narrative functions (jam/run out of ammo and need to figure out a solution) or abstracted out.

  4. Make Combat a Professional’s Job

    This may be controversial (though in Hammercalled, all the protagonists are at least minimally proficient with weapons), but I don’t think every combat encounter should even involve every character.

    Aragorn fights off the ring-wraiths without significant help from the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings, but yet the action still seems to focus on the hobbits in the telling. Just because one party member specializes in combat doesn’t mean everyone has to get involved in every fight: and you can even tell better stories as the non-combatants root for their champions.

  5. Combat Should Tell Stories

    Now, this last piece of advice is a little weird, because everyone on earth will probably say “duh” in response to it, but it’s also true.

    Combat needs to be set up in a way where you can tell stories during it. This means that you need to have either minimal complexity, or rules that encourage storytelling.

    I think Hammercalled is half-way there right now. Random crit charts, though unwieldy, are a great way to handle this. Weapons that have special effects also do this, by taking numbers and giving them a known effect; 7 damage is a meaningful wound, presumably, but catching on fire is a known quantity.

One thought on “Five Maxims for Designing Good Combat in Games”

  1. To comment on my own post like some sort of narcissist, I’d like to point out that a video game that does very well at simple(ish) combat with storytelling elements is Divinity: Original Sin.

    The fact that the environment plays a major role, with a good chance of causing fires to break out or be extinguished based on terrain, electricity spreading through water, and other good things doesn’t require a whole ton of logical thought from the player, because we know that those things happen based on the stimuli that we respond to in our ordinary lives.

    The game adds a whole rule-set we already know to its repertoire.

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