Friday, July 18, 2014

Mook with a crossbow

While roleplaying last night MattInTheHat pointed out one notable flaw in Heroes By Trade. The trouble that he saw was that combat and noncombat encounters were so strongly differentiated. The simplest example was one that came up in a previous campaign: The characters opened a secret door and found a villain hiding in a small room with a crossbow pointed at them. The crossbow fired hitting the lead character for 10 damage and then the villain was quickly captured. The injured character had 30 HP so they were not really injured and rapidly healed back to full since in HBT the only way to take serious damage is to lose all of your HP first. The trouble with all of this is that there is simply no danger whatsoever in a random villain with a crossbow. Everyone can just laugh, take it in the face, and move on. The potential drama of the moment is lost.

 I wish that this wasn't true and that such encounters could be tense but the solution of making the mook with a crossbow potentially dangerous is fraught with issues. If Big Fucking Heroes can be really threatened by a single mook then one must assume that if they end up in a battle with four mooks they are reasonably likely to die. I want a system where Big Fucking Heroes can walk into an ambush set by a handful of bandits with crossbows and survive and these two scenarios cannot reasonably coexist. To be fair, there is a way to get close to it, which is to have very small chances for very extreme outcomes of combat actions. I could for example set it up so there is a .1% chance of an instant kill on each attack which would definitely make a single mook more dangerous and wouldn't change the odds much for a band of mooks but it would mean that the characters would just be outright killed on a semi regular basis and that holds no appeal. If combats are somewhat predictable and characters have a chance to react to bad things that happen then a mook with a crossbow just can't be dangerous.

 Other systems solve this problem by having magical healing. In DnD you likely won't lose to a mook but if he hits somebody you have to expend resources to heal that damage. It isn't a particularly big deal but it means that the characters have *some* reason to be concerned. I really hate the idea of ubiquitous magical healing though and HBT is built around the idea that it doesn't exist, or at least that it is so limited that it doesn't cause the problems normally associated with magical healing. One possible solution is to change the way HP regenerates after a battle. Right now it all comes back without any cost at all but I suppose I could change it so that HP regenerates only if the character spends actual Wound Points to make that happen. For example, if a character takes 10 HP damage during a fight they might have to take 1 Wound Point damage to get their HP back to full. This would add a new layer of complexity to healing but would certainly make people hesitant get shot at with a crossbow because although it won't kill them it could cost them resources. It is a possibility worth considering at any rate.


  1. We could approach things with "most every attack, if successful, kills -- or has a decent chance of same". Then the game becomes about how to avoid being the subject of successful attacks.

    You defeat the ambush not by soaking crossbow bolts, but by noticing the ambush with a fraction of a second to spare, or preparation (maybe via retro-active narration, to avoid forcing players to be as paranoid as the characters).

    Then the single mook with a crossbow bolt aimed **right at you**, a steady aim, and true surprise is a matter of life and death.

    The ambush with bandits gets resolved via the players noticing the ambush, and either dodging before the attack occurs, having armor where the bandits did not expect, or the like.

    This doesn't apply to bandits with crossbows that the players are aware of. The players can rush at said crossbows, dodging/blocking as they approach. The bandits don't have the time to take a steady aim at a "stationary target" (like a secret door), and are being demoralized by the fact that a foe is charging at them with a big bloody sword.

    On the other hand, a HP-like attrition system (with predictable results, as it takes 3-7 attack attempts to defeat you) might be wanted even if we don't use HP to soak damage. If we use a dodge pool, a luck pool, a perception pool, a block pool, or whatever (that is consumed by dodging/blocking/using luck/etc, and refreshed only after the scene) still runs into a similar problem.

    However, if we have attacks that bypass/weaken some of these pools -- if crossbows are armor-piercing, so soaking damage with your armor doesn't work (practically), the door is sound proof (so perception doesn't lick in), the corridor is narrow (so dodging is harder), etc -- then at least we can have narrative excuses why the single mook's attack is much more dangerous than the ambush, even with attrition mechanics. By attaching narrative **meaning** to the ways you "soak attacks", that provides a way to narratively negate the defence.

    On the gripping hand, this runs into "get a pool, like 'magic shield', that cannot be narratively negated". This can be approached by forcing such defensive pools to have narrative weaknesses. There is no "generic magic defence" spell. And if there is some kind of "narrative-proof" ('I am lucky', for example), such "super" pools might be unreliable (for most pools, you roll XdY to soak -- for luck pools, you roll 1dY, then multiply by X: which means if you roll a 1, your luck pool cannot be effectively used, and you better have something else to fall back on).


  2. I have real trouble with the idea of a system so complex that specific weapons interact with armour in unique ways, rolls to hit enemies are modified by a variety of circumstances including the extent to which the defender is prevented from moving by objects nearby, level of surprise and preparation, etc. If you want a system where it takes five minutes to figure out what happens when a single person fires a single crossbow bolt and that is fun for you then great - but that system makes a battle with more than one person on each team be a multi hour affair. I think the general opinion of people playing fantasy RPGs is that individual battles take too long as it is and I agree with that opinion.

    I do agree that with enough layers of different sorts of protection and rules that negate those protections that a mook with a crossbow could be made to be dangerous without making most fights deadly. However, I think the cost of having those extremely complex sets of rules is too high. People playing Pathfinder with me found the challenge of figuring out whether or not an attack hit just too frustrating with the endless rounds of +1s and -1s and I agreed with them. One of the core, guiding principles of HBT is that figuring out what happens when somebody says "I attack that target over there" it should be extremely easy and quick. That does mean that mook with a crossbow is not a threat... but given the choice I definitely stand my ground on that design decision.