Structuring Combat Skills

Octopus Prime

Retired User
In my experience, when combat ability is tied to skill points, you'll usually end up with a list that looks like this:
-Unarmed
-Knives
-Swords
-Axes
-Polearms
-Pistols
-Rifles
-submachine guns
And so on, with each skill representing a different class of weapons. Examples that come to mind are Qin, Legend of Five Rings, and various editions of Shadowrun.
I never liked this system. For one, there's definitely a breakdown of verisimilitude; how is it that my character is a crackshot with a rifle, but a clutz with a shotgun? For two, your skills have obvious redundancy: a character with high sword-skill and low axe-skill is typically going to carry a sword instead of an axe, so they are both functionally a "melee weapon skill" with different dressing on it.

The obvious solution is to group your combat skills into the broadest possible categories (a la Feng Shui), usually down to a Shoot skill, a Melee skill, and maybe an Unarmed Melee skill. And that works, unless you have a system like Qin or L5R, where you're trying to balance a roster of martial skills against a roster of social or magical skills, which do warrant high levels of differentiation.

So I'm trying to think of ways to differentiate combat skills besides weapon categories, and I see why weapon categories keep defaulting to popularity. My best thought is to differentiate skills by function - an Attack Skill, a Parry skill, a Grappling skill, and so on. My ideal system is one wherein allocating your skill points genuinely feels like building your character's fighting style, and can organically account for archetypes like "big bruiser who's slow and hits hard" "little quick guy" and so on.
 

John Out West

Registered User
Validated User
Well I usually design skills to be BIG and IMPRESSIVE and allow each player only one or two, rather than having lots of skills that are small and mundane.

In this vein, may i suggest having skills that allow players to do certain things with certain weapons. Someone with the Parry skill can use any weapon to parry, but when using a weapon designed for Parrying he can perform a Maneuver whenever he parries. Any character can grapple, but a grapple skill allows them to restrain their target as well, or grapple multiple people at once, or to grapple as part of an attack when using a Grappling/Hooked weapon. I would, similarly, bunch up weapons that are similar into a single skill; Ranged, Melee, Magic, Tech, etc.
 

FrivYeti

Yeti On The Lam!
RPGnet Member
Validated User
I guess the question is, how big a part of your game is combat?

If combat is a very small part of the game, you can get by with 1-2 skills; having "Attack" and "Defend" as seperate skills makes sense.

If combat is a big part of the game, though, having Combat Skills as a seperate set of skills does seem like a lot of fun. I am leery of "Attack" and "Defend", though. The big problem that a lot of combat maneuvers in games have is that just hitting someone is usually the better option, and if each type of manuever needs its own attack you'll have that problem in spades.

So my short thought is that you should have each attack manuever do damage and also have a second effect if successful. Each defense avoids damage and also has a second effect if successful. That way, there are encouragements to buy multiple attack skills. Probably you need caps on how high you can go at different overall skill levels - you need three skills at Level 1 before you can buy anything to Level 2, you need four skills at Level 2 before you can buy anything to Level 3, etc.
 

Tadatsune

Registered Magic-User
Validated User
So I'm trying to think of ways to differentiate combat skills besides weapon categories, and I see why weapon categories keep defaulting to popularity. My best thought is to differentiate skills by function - an Attack Skill, a Parry skill, a Grappling skill, and so on. My ideal system is one wherein allocating your skill points genuinely feels like building your character's fighting style, and can organically account for archetypes like "big bruiser who's slow and hits hard" "little quick guy" and so on.
My recommendation would be to go with combat styles, with investment in a particular style potentially resulting in access to new abilities, or bonuses to specific weapons or tactical manuevers. This could be something as generic and simple as "grappler" or "swordsman" or "marksman," but has the potential to become really flavorful if you are willing to pin your system down to a defined setting. You could, for example, have different schools of martial arts tied to animal themes: the school of the snake emphasizing rapid thrusts and hidden strikes might give bonuses to spear and dagger maneuvers, the school of the monkey might emphasize agility and combo attacks and specialize in unarmed and staff combat, the school of the tiger might be characterized by aggressive, close in dual-weapon tactics, the school of the bear might emphasizes grappling, endurance, and strength based weapons, like bludgeons, &etc. Or you could go with an elemental theme: the Fire is offensive and seeks to overwhelm an opponent with a torrent of rapid stirkes, the Art of Earth is defensive, and seeks deflect incoming attacks only to strike with maximum force when the time is right, the art of water is balanced and flexible, focusing on counterstikes and using the opponent's own force against him, while the art of air is all about evasion and rapid targeted hits. A character could pour all his or her skill points into mastering one style or potentially dip into another style to grab access to a specific maneuver or mechanical advantage.
 

Tadatsune

Registered Magic-User
Validated User
To follow up, lets take the Snake Style vs Monkey Style, example. A martial artist schooled in the Snake Style makes an excellent duelist and assassin, focusing on sudden, rapid strikes that aim to cripple or kill an opponent before he can react. Meanwhile, a disciple of the Monkey Style's ability to chain different attacks together and split those attacks between multiple targets allows him effectively deal with groups of antagonists in a way the Snake disciple can't. Since a spear is ultimately a staff with a pointy bit of metal on one end, increasing its lethality, so it should be unsurprising that the two weapons largely share the same move list. Real-world martial art schools tend to emphasize spear-like thrusts, as these tend to be more practical and better utilize the the weapon's length, while media tends to focus more on dramatic sweeps and rapid spinning strikes due to their more cinematic nature. Given the way we've divided up our combat styles, the spear-wielding Snake Disciple might want to dip into the Monkey-style to pick up some twirly staff moves to help deal with multiple opponents, while the staff-toting Monkey-style practitioner might be interested in picking up some of those powerful long-range thrust attacks.
 

Anton Idegran

Registered User
Validated User
I lend to design with the approach that you have a close combat skill (one for all close combat) and a ranged combat skill.

Still I like that characters could be better at one weapon type. Solution is specializations. A base skill + special training in a type of combat. I would include brawls in the general close combat skill, as you would learn this at the same time as any close combat weapon.
 

kenco

Registered User
Validated User
In my experience, when combat ability is tied to skill points, you'll usually end up with a list that looks like this:
-Unarmed
-Knives
-Swords
-Axes
-Polearms
-Pistols
-Rifles
-submachine guns
And so on, with each skill representing a different class of weapons. Examples that come to mind are Qin, Legend of Five Rings, and various editions of Shadowrun.
I never liked this system. For one, there's definitely a breakdown of verisimilitude; how is it that my character is a crackshot with a rifle, but a clutz with a shotgun? For two, your skills have obvious redundancy: a character with high sword-skill and low axe-skill is typically going to carry a sword instead of an axe, so they are both functionally a "melee weapon skill" with different dressing on it.

The obvious solution is to group your combat skills into the broadest possible categories (a la Feng Shui), usually down to a Shoot skill, a Melee skill, and maybe an Unarmed Melee skill. And that works, unless you have a system like Qin or L5R, where you're trying to balance a roster of martial skills against a roster of social or magical skills, which do warrant high levels of differentiation.

So I'm trying to think of ways to differentiate combat skills besides weapon categories, and I see why weapon categories keep defaulting to popularity. My best thought is to differentiate skills by function - an Attack Skill, a Parry skill, a Grappling skill, and so on. My ideal system is one wherein allocating your skill points genuinely feels like building your character's fighting style, and can organically account for archetypes like "big bruiser who's slow and hits hard" "little quick guy" and so on.
Another broad class of solutions is along the lines of Hero systems combat/martial manoeuvres and combat skill levels.

If you are mainly bothered by the lack of verisimilitude in the standard approach, you can modify it to allow a character to use Skill A as a substitute for Skill B. So if you have Rifle X, maybe you can always default to Shotgun X-1, without buying the Shotgun skill. Again, some versions of Hero system do something like this, as I suspect might GURPS.

An alternative I have not seen much of is to have combat skills that apply depending on the context/ environment/ opponent, rather than the weapon (or include weapon as part of the context) so 'Sniper' is good for slow, aimed shots at distant targets through a sight with an accurate rifle; 'Gunfighter' is for classic six-shooter duels in dusty wooden towns; 'Brawler' is good for chaotic, open melees in crowded conditions where sides are unclear and most weapons are improvised; 'Duellist' is good for formal one-on-one duels according to rules with matched duelling swords; 'Saga' is good for skirmish-type engagements of individuals or small groups using light gear, a mix of hand to hand and missile weapons and a big round shield; 'Slayer' is good for fighting huge monstrous beasts using bare hands and big stabby/ choppy weapons.

A similar, more freeform approach is to name your combat style. You get to use it if your combat situation (weapon x environment x situation x opponent x manouevre) satisfies the style; otherwise not; perhaps you can default to your best combat style - X if you are out of your element.
 

Tadatsune

Registered Magic-User
Validated User
Another angle you want to consider is whether or not you want the individual weapons to come with actual mechanical heft, or not. Is weapon choice purely cosmetic, or does it have genuine consequences on the table top? And if there are tactical advantages to be gained from different weapons and fighting styles, how much of that advantage is ascribed to the weapon itself vs the accompanying style? E.g., does a "superior reach" advantage afforded to a polearm wielding"lancer" character come from the "lancer" fighting style, or from his polearm? If a "close-in" knife-fighter type picks up a spear, does he get the "superior reach" advantage as well, or not?
 

Alban

Registered User
Validated User
I lend to design with the approach that you have a close combat skill (one for all close combat) and a ranged combat skill.

Still I like that characters could be better at one weapon type. Solution is specializations. A base skill + special training in a type of combat. I would include brawls in the general close combat skill, as you would learn this at the same time as any close combat weapon.
That would be my solution too. I use it for every part of the game, where there is one broad skill and free-form specialties.

Another solution would be to use something similar Paranoïa first edition "skill trees", where specialties can be root for sub-specialties, but it's the kind of complexity I prefer to ignore...
 
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