Combat Systems

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All tabletop RPG systems approach combat in a different way. This article takes a look at several dimensions of RPG combat systems and how bits of each system influenced the creation of Cyber Run. I did notice that, in general, players are happy to see a move away from tactical combat with miniatures on a map. This seems to reinforce my observations over the years that tactical war games have been waning, while narrative games are gaining popularity.

D&D Next, compared to D&D 4th Edition, also illustrates this move. Still, my personal favorite is the D20 System, which has a lot of little modifiers—Skills, Attributes, Feats, and Tactics—that can add up to give a character a better percentage of success. It can be satisfying to search through a pile of books finding the right combination of feats that will give a weak character an edge to take down a more powerful enemy.

What is fun for character creation is often less fun during game play, however, as all these bonuses slow down combat. Players want to insure no bonus goes unaccounted, yet sometimes conveniently forget to factor in their negative modifiers. Bonuses become important when a single roll is the difference between life and death; also, there is no glory in failure and, frankly, including negative modifiers is just not fun.

Part of the problem with the long combats in the D20 System is the hacking away of hit points. Some characters have relatively high hit points and often attacks fail to connect or attacks that hit do little damage because of a variable damage mechanic.

One problem with many gaming systems is how they handle failed attacks or action checks. Often a single failed check can stop the story from progressing, but a series of them can feel like quicksand, destroying all momentum for the game. Apocalypse Worlddoes well with managing action check failures in combat. A failure can simply mean there is trouble and initiate a change in narrative, which allows all rolls—whether passed or failed—to move the story forward.

Many RPG combat systems, both in tabletop and video games, give combat its own rules, including a little narrative during combat, which makes the entire system feel like it is two different games: one tactical and the other role-playing.

The Fate System partially solves this problem, allowing for more narrative in combat, but with it a shift to players managing a meta-game point system—Fate Points. Much like the storytelling games using the Dramasystem, Drama Points keep the pace going, but can be a motivator in themselves, shifting the focus from role-playing to meta-gaming.

The Fate System Approaches—types of actions such as a Quick or a Forceful—can be interpreted subjectively, which can create player debates, especially when a life-and-death determining roll is involved. Additionally, I feel that aspects should have stricter activation rules; allowing narratives to justify a bonus is also subjective and, therefore, can be abused.

Numenera also uses points as a main game mechanic as well, with three Attribute pools that need to be maintained by the player. Resource management is a great game mechanic that can give weight to player choices. I didn’t care for how Numenera’sattribute pools depleted so quickly, especially by less-fun actions like climbing a rope.

Some game systems, like the Storytelling System, have Dodge, defense, or saving throw rolls to defend characters from an attack. This mechanic works well for powerful characters against weaker ones, but two characters with a good Dodge fighting against each other can slow combat considerably with attack rolls and then defense rolls back and forth. Character hit points are limited in the Storytelling System, which would quicken combat resolution, but as wounds increase the characters receive negative modifiers to their actions, and this creates more misses and can make combat less fun for the wounded player character.

Combat for Big Eyes Small Mouth also uses a defense roll mechanic, but allows for faster combat since it has few modifiers and uses only two six-sided dice. The easier combat lacks any strategic depth and, if it wasn’t for the added narrative in combat, would make many of them feel the same. For some players this combat is too simple, while other games’ combat like Burning Wheel or GODLIKE are too complicated.

GODLIKE has just as cumbersome dice-rolling as the Storytelling System, but at least the numbers are multi-dimensional. This is the best reason I can see for why a game would use multiple dice for an action check; that is, unless you really want to adjust probability into a bell curve.

Cyber Run

We set out designing Cyber Run combat rules to be simple, but still allow characters to specialize and for combat to be fast-paced, including narrative, social, and morale elements.


Similar to the 13th Age use of an escalation die, Cyber Run uses Adrenaline to make combat more deadly as it continues, allowing for faster combat resolution. Many card games have a similar mechanic, which at the beginning of the game allow for only low-powered cards to be played, but as the game progresses includes more powerful ones.

Vitality & Morale Points

These are similar to Fate Points because they can be used as modifiers, except that these points are a character quality, not a meta-game mechanic. This would make the point system more like Numenera’s stat points, with the exception that these point pools are not used when doing actions—only when modifying rolls or defending from other’s actions. Vitality points give characters an edge in combat, but need to be maintained above zero. Morale points can give bonuses in combat and are a defense against social or psychological attacks.

Cyber Run allows for narrative in combat through its strategies, handling of failed rolls, and its descriptive health system.


Cyber Run’s action list works similar to Fate’s Approaches, with the exception that Fate actions determine how an action is done, while Cyber Run strategies are about the character’s intent.

A Fate character could steal something using any Approach, like Sneaky, Quick or Forceful. Cyber Run characters decide which strategy they want to use for solving a problem, such as steal, cheat, or attack. The how is described by the player with role-playing. Strategies give players more choices during combat and offer character specialization in a particular strategy.


Cyber Run has a Doctor Who RPG-style initiative system. Originally inspired to mimic the feel of the show, it is a great mechanic for dealing with no-combat actions during a combat round and for allowing characters to run away.

Failed Rolls

The player has a choice after a failed action check to accept the failure or to spend Vitality or Morale points, depending on the situation, to gain a success. If the player accepts the failure, the GM looks at the degree of the failure, comparing the rolled number to the target number, counting every five points to add a degree of narrative change.

The greater the degree of failure, the greater the situation changed. The obstacle is most likely what changed, which requires the character to use a new tactic or different strategy to achieve his or her goal.

Health System

Cyber Run character wounds are a combination of traits and location-based damage. Unlike a simple point-pool mechanic, this system gives characters more detail and variety to their wounds.

  • 09/04/15

About Atticus Evil

Lead Game Designer for Cyber Run a Science Fiction RPG.
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