Spotlight Balance in a high-risk combat engine

#1
In my homebrew/passion project RPG, I've opted for a "short, dramatic, and bloody" angle on combat. Fights are generally meant to last between one and three rounds, and single hit KO's are 100% possible. Tonally and pacing wise, I'm quite happy with this.
The basic damage system is: an attack roll is made against a defense roll, to see if the hit lands; if it succeeds, it is compared to a static "Fortitude" number; if it exceeds that number, the target is incapacitated; if it does not, the target takes a Wound that lowers their Fortitude value against future attacks, but also gives them bonuses on their own combat rolls (to give a "the cornered wolf is most dangerous" kind of vibe).
"Incapaciated" here is a broad term that might mean unconscious, dying, or simply too battered to continue. Like many narrative RPG's, there's no player death without player consent.
The one snag I've run into is when one player takes a big hit early on and is knocked out of the fight in the first round. This can lead to a rather frustrating spotlight imbalance, wherein one character lies prone while their player watches but does not participate in the fight. Which is definitely not a good time for them and makes me feel like a bad GM.
To compensate for this, I've experimented with a couple different "Pull yourself Together" systems wherein a KO'd character can either expend some metacurrency, make a roll, etc. to spend a round getting un-KO'd and get back in the fight.
The downside of the Pull Yourself Together is, of course, that it makes the players functionally nigh-invincible in combat, with the only way to get a fail-state being if the whole party is wiped out at once. Which in, the case of life-or-death combat, is a good thing, since the whole party dying is an inglorious way to end a campaign. But, for non-lethal conflicts, I like the idea of their being the potentiality of combat fail states - the heroes are kidnapped, or publicly humiliated, and so on and so forth - and that really doesn't happen when the Pull Yourself Together action is a possibility.
So I'm sort of at this crossroads, where I want their to be the possibility of the heroes losing fights, sometimes, but ideally with it happening to all of them at once.
My best thought right now is to make the "Pull Yourself Together" action a thing that the GM can offer in life-or-death scenarios, but that feels terribly arbitrary.
 
#2
If your system clearly state that you'll risk to get KO'ed so early, that should be part of the player risk strategy.
I'll add an "all in" option,that turn your wounds into bonuses (but Fortitude checks that round both for you and opponents getting damages) or a "guard" option that negate sudden KO but give you less efficiency.
How that should work for ranged combat is out of my reach.
 

John Out West

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Validated User
#3
I like that you accept right off the bat that some combats end in death and others in humiliation/thievery/jail/etc. I think that's important to keep in mind when going forward with this system.

I'll note that I play a system where players can get knocked out in the first round also, and it does suck as a GM to see a player go down so early. Then again its nice to see a boss so powerful it can take a player down immediately, like a dragon. Now i'll remind you that, by your own admission, that combat is short. Therefore, its not the worst thing for a player to be knocked out of a 15 minute fight. It sucks, yes, but its the flip side to a more realistic system that doesn't take 3 hours to fight two goblins.

I would allow players to "Pull Yourself Together" at any time. I would balance this with a permanent -1 (Score not mod) to Fortitude. This puts the stakes in the player's hands to either: Return to fighting and cause permanent damage to themselves, or, allow themselves to lose. If the stakes are "Win or Die" then the players will do this multiple times in a single fight, however if they're just fighting in a tavern over a "cheating poker hand" they'll stay down.

Not to mention, with the system i suggested, you're players will have permanent scars to remind them of their victories over dragons and warlords. When players get low enough Fortitude they may just have to retire. I would probably also add in a "Honor" system, where players gain fame and respect for not killing their foes and instead showing mercy, allowing characters with high honor to not be immediately murdered by other honorable factions.

Hope this helps.
 

johnthedm7000

Social Justice Witch
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#4
I dig that characters are most dangerous when they're in a corner and that you're going with combat that can be quickly decided with a single telling blow. That's my preference as well, and I think that your gut response is correct in that offering a "pull yourself together" option is likely to make fights less dramatic. How to solve this will likely be based on the genre of the game you're designing, but here are a few ideas:

1. If character creation is quick, or if it's a genre where characters are expected to have NPC hangers on/servants (say a game about mages and their familiars, knights and their retainers, a crime boss and their goons) the player can take exclusive ownership of those NPCs or secondary characters.

2. If the game is set up with the assumption that player characters are part of some sort of cohesive group or fellowship, offer a player who's character is incapacitated a way to influence the rolls of the characters that they were closest to. Offering them a re-roll, granting them another use of a limited-use ability, letting them ignore the wounds that they've suffered, that sort of thing. Let them make this choice once per round: they still get a voice in what happens in the battle, and it nicely evokes how hard people fight on for their fallen friends.

3. If the game is fantasy or has some quasi-supernatural element to it (like nanobots or AI that might as well be magical), it's possible that their spirit might fight on in a sense after they fall. Depending on the tone of the game, this could be subtle "You find that your blade, having been thrown into the mud, ready and eager in your hand once more" or more overtly supernatural. Now this option doesn't fit with characters being merely unconscious or humiliated, but that may be self-correcting: a fight with something like humiliation or unconsciousness as it's stakes is normally one that ends quickly once one or two people are knocked unconscious.

4. Likewise, in a game with supernatural powers or factions, let a character pull themselves together if they promise a favor to or make a deal with one of the spirits that will come calling to tempt them in their time of need. The magnitude of the favor can relate to the nature of the character's incapacitated state. It's a simple matter to make a deal with an imp to cut those iron fetters you're in, it's rather more significant if to come back from the edge of the spirit realm that you need to let a being of pure vengeance inhabit your soul.

5. As an addendum to John Out West's suggestion, give every character a limited number of times to "pull themselves together" and each time they're changed in some way. Some of these might be for the better, some will be opportunities for the player to reveal more about their character's past, and some will scar the character. Selecting the final option means that your character will retire at the end of this session: they're too old (or too scarred) for this shit. A good example of this sort of system is the Marks rule in Night Witches, which does an admirable job of showcasing the growth and the loss that those young women lived through.
 

Cifer

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#5
2. If the game is set up with the assumption that player characters are part of some sort of cohesive group or fellowship, offer a player who's character is incapacitated a way to influence the rolls of the characters that they were closest to. Offering them a re-roll, granting them another use of a limited-use ability, letting them ignore the wounds that they've suffered, that sort of thing. Let them make this choice once per round: they still get a voice in what happens in the battle, and it nicely evokes how hard people fight on for their fallen friends.
That's the one I like best.
Consider making an "Impaired" status where you can't fight at full efficiency, but you still have some actions left - supporting allies, using the environment, slowly moving and so on.
 

eeldip

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#6
also in the camp that number 2 above is a great solution. it has a strong narrative feel, its a movie trope to exploit. you just have that "incapacitated" character have one final shot (or a final "look out behind you" to ruin a surprise attack, etc) before they are really actually very incapacitated.

it solves the bored at the table problem, that player is going to listen to the whole combat to measure just WHEN they can use their one final action.

in general, i think you might be overcompensating for a problem that isn't much of a problem. if you want short, dramatic, full of consequence combat, it should be short, dramatic and full of consequence. you put bumpers over the gutter and you ruin it. i've run some sessions where a player getting knocked out early is kinda fun, even when that player bitches about it. that moment when the fighter knocks down the door, jumps into the room brimming with confidence and just dies the first round IS GREAT. long term, that is the moment people remember about a fun session.

but anyway, #2 above is so great, STEALING IT. (but changing it to "once per rest of encounter")
 

kenco

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Validated User
#7
...Fights are generally meant to last between one and three rounds, and single hit KO's are 100% possible. Tonally and pacing wise, I'm quite happy with this.
OK. Seems like a clear design objective.

I notice you're not differentiating between how long a 1:1 fight should take, versus an N:N fight. Generally I'd expect the N:N fight to take longer.
The basic damage system is: an attack roll is made against a defense roll, to see if the hit lands; if it succeeds, it is compared to a static "Fortitude" number; if it exceeds that number, the target is incapacitated; if it does not, the target takes a Wound that lowers their Fortitude value against future attacks, but also gives them bonuses on their own combat rolls (to give a "the cornered wolf is most dangerous" kind of vibe).
"Incapaciated" here is a broad term that might mean unconscious, dying, or simply too battered to continue. Like many narrative RPG's, there's no player death without player consent.
Seems clear and elegant.
The one snag ... is when one player... is knocked out of the fight in the first round. This can lead to ...spotlight imbalance... one ...player watches but does not participate in the fight...definitely not a good time for them and makes me feel like a bad GM.
So the problem is the down-time for the player(s) whose characters are knocked out early? Or their feeling of helplessness?
... I've experimented with a couple different "Pull yourself Together" systems ...
The downside ... is, of course, that it makes the players ... nigh-invincible in combat... [unless] the whole party is wiped out at once.
So you don't let a PC pull itself together if all the PCs are down?
Which in, the case of life-or-death combat, is a good thing, since the whole party dying is an inglorious way to end a campaign.
Everyone dies might or might not be inglorious. It sounds like you're saying that you don't want this to be a possibility. But you also said there's no PC death without player consent. So surely the 'everybody dies' case will only arise if all the players individually want it?:unsure:
But, for non-lethal conflicts, I like the idea of their being the potentiality of combat fail states - the heroes are kidnapped, or publicly humiliated, and so on and so forth - and that really doesn't happen when the Pull Yourself Together action is a possibility.
So I'm sort of at this crossroads, where I want their to be the possibility of the heroes losing fights, sometimes, but ideally with it happening to all of them at once.
My best thought right now is to make the "Pull Yourself Together" action a thing that the GM can offer in life-or-death scenarios, but that feels terribly arbitrary.
Some games do define the stakes of the combat/ scene/ roll in advance. So you'd be in good company if you did that. Still, it's not everyone's cup of tea. And it means having a special rule (and possibly other mechanics) that are only used in a small proportion of combats. What if you limit the GM to one life or death conflict per session?

But I'm wary of PYT-type mechanics because they invalidate the combat procedure. If being taken out of the combat doesn't really take you out, what's the point of following the combat procedure? Or investing in combat abilities?

Your original problem was the downtime/ demoralisation of a player whose PC gets knocked out early in a multi-round fight. This is a potential issue in many, many RPGs. If your combat system is fast enough, it probably doesn't matter much.

If you want alternatives to PYT-type approaches you might try:
- The party fights as a single group entity, with some kind of common resource/ stats. It stands or falls as one.
- Losing a PC gives a tactical/ morale penalty to the remaining PCs, likely accelerating their demise
- As long as all the PCs are up, they are mutually supporting, so it is impossible to 'one hit' any one member
- Every PC that goes down reduces the fortitude of the remainder by X (probably 1)
- If the PCs give up/ concede before they are ALL taken out, they are immune to certain adverse results (death, capture etc.) - similar to FATEs 'concede' mechanic, but it applies at the group level, rather than the individual
- Give the players whose characters are out of the fight some other task/role to perform - playing baddies, prepping next scenes etc.
- Give a player whose PC is knocked out (or concedes?) early some kind of compensation - extra recovery post combat, extra meta resources etc.

Cheers

Kenco
 

eeldip

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Validated User
#8
new thought: since combat is very fast, just 1-3 rounds, why do you need the PYT rules? they seem to run counter to design goal #1: "short, dramatic, bloody". if you are out you are out = short, dramatic, and bloody. PYT = longer, lower stakes.
 

kenco

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#9
new thought: since combat is very fast, just 1-3 rounds, why do you need the PYT rules? they seem to run counter to design goal #1: "short, dramatic, bloody". if you are out you are out = short, dramatic, and bloody. PYT = longer, lower stakes.
I agree. I can only imagine it would be a problem if each round of combat takes a long time to resolve.
 

Xander

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Validated User
#10
That seems pretty clear in the design goals, win or lose quickly.

You could have the PYT, but not as a guarantee - like an option with permanent cost for a superheroic effort. So the PC can jump back into the fray if really necessary, but with great cost like permanent Fort loss.

The players should know the risk of a quick defeat in the game setting - if you draw swords, someone is going to get hurt.
 
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