Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Grappling (Hand to Hand combat) in Cold Iron and PC vs NPC abilities

Chris Chinn (bankuei) asked a reasonable question, does Cold Iron really need a separate grappling system. My initial answer was that it is something that is used frequently, and it presents interesting tactical challenges.

But last night I got to thinking about what the system really enables. Basically it makes two types of opponents more powerfull against typical PCs than the regular melee system does. For very large and strong creatures, it allows them to use their full strength against weaker opponents, and it allows them to use their full strength as a defense, and add their size to offense and defense. It is most useful to non-weapon using creatures (which get no benefit of strength in defense, and are penalized for size). It also allows weak creatures to gang up more easily.

The result of this is that it's almost never beneficial for PCs to be in hand to hand combat. Sure, they can play neat tricks, like have a fireball charged item, which they trigger when multiple creatures gang up. Sure, they take damage too (but they could also use fire resistance with it), but each of the bad guys takes the same damage, so in the ideal case where the PC is in hand to hand with the maximum 4 opponents, the good guys take X (or even 1/4 X with fire resistance) while the bad guys net 4 X damage (with fire resistance on the PC, this is a 1:16 damage ration - pretty darned good). A PC could even be a decent hand to hand combatant. But PCs will rarely benefit from the ganging up rule (if PCs outnumber their opposition, they are better off in melee).

This got me to thinking, to what extent is it reasonable to give creatures abilities that PCs don't get. And more importantly, to what extent is it reasonable to have extensive rule systems to govern NPC abilities.

Now it is traditional for RPGs to distinguish between PCs and NPCs, and many systems reserve abilities for NPCs. Especially D&D Fantasyesque systems. In original D&D, in fact, PCs and NPCs were created entirely differently. They used different combat charts, and their hit points and AC were derrived differently. Game systems slowly developed towards an ideal of describing PCs and NPCs in the same terms (even if they are generated differently). Cold Iron got on that bandwagon, and other than defining special abilities (breath weapons, regeneration, immunities [though there is a spell that confers the same immunity to non-magical weapons as were creatures have], etc.), monsters in Cold Iron are defined the same way as PCs are, even to the extent of having fighting and magic levels (always - as opposed to D&D 3e/3.5 where monsters have HD which are almost like levels, but not quite).

D&D 3e/3.5 is interesting to look at with an eye towards how does it work to try and make any monster available as a PC. Some monsters just will not be worth playing as a PC (non-intelligent, overly specialized, etc). But others that appear worth playing still have problems. One bizarre thing can come out of the LA/ECL system. In an attempt to balance the multi-encounter benefits of creatures special abilities, the LA system makes a creature with lots of special abilities effectively a higher level PC. On the reverse, the CR system tries to take into account the specialization of the creatures and their ease of defeating. This produces a weird effect when combined with the XP system. A starting Fire Giant PC would be ECL 19 (15 HD +4 LA). The CR of a Fire Giant is 10. A one on one fight between a Fire Giant PC and NPC would earn the PC NO XP! Despite their stats being identical (and so presumably an even fight - though granted the PC gets more magic items, but that shouldn't be so much as to render the fight trivial).

So clearly it's reasonable for there to exist NPC creatures that can't be PCs, and even reasonable for them to have special abilities not really available to PCs.

But is it reasonable to have a whole sub-system that benefits NPCs and dicks over the PCs? I think I'm coming to the conclusion that such a sub-system is not good for the game. On the other hand, it's nice to have a way to make a swarm of weaker creatures a challenge. The melee system does that to an extent, but only if the PCs can't form a defensive line.

Of course one interesting possibility would be to allow a player to play a horde of weak creatures as a PC. I suspect that wouldn't actually work well.

One thing that fueled this brainstorm is that last night, I ran two encounters featuring swamp trolls. In the past, I would have had the swamp trolls use hand to hand extensively. Last night they mostly fought in melee. And they provided a just fine melee challenge. Sure, some good rolls took some of them out quickly, but with decent numbers, they were able to do serious damage to the PCs (though they were also aided by traitorious guides the PCs had hired - but without the guides, the encounters still would have been challenging).

I also got to thinking about some related things. One is how and whether unarmed combat by PCs is ever worthwhile. I'm mostly inclined to leave it not worthwhile. Weapons were invented for a reason. I'm ok with leaving "cool unarmed combat" to heroic martial arts themed games.

I was also thinking about the fact that there is no magic that enhances dodge, but not other defenses (Coordination enhances Dexterity, and thus enhances all defenses, Blur affects all defenses). So a PC built around dodging (the PC with the best defense last night was the NPC halfling scout who has a very high Dexterity (+8), +2 defense for size, and a bonus to defense from swashbuckling - as a two handed weapon user, her parry will be 2+enchantment better than her dodge). If she dodges, a strong opponent can only use +6 Strength in their attack, so even when she has a +5 weapon, netting her a 7 better parry than dodge, she will still be better off dodging against many large creatures (Strength adjustment of +14 or higher). And if she's fighting two fairly strong creatures, the 2nd creature will generally be attacking her dodge (since 2nd parry is -6, so a creature with a Strength adjustment of +8 or higher - with the +5 weapon, with a +3 or lower weapon, she will always dodge). A cool benefit of being so dodge based is that there was no penalty for her turning and running (defend with dodge only), which is a good effect (the PCs best fighter on the other hand has a 13 difference between primary shield parry and dodge).

I'm interested in other folks thoughts on NPC only abilities, and rule sub-systems that will primarily be invoked by NPCs.



At 10:32 AM, January 13, 2006, Blogger Bankuei said...

Hi Frank,

There's nothing wrong with giving NPC abilities the players can't have- the point is that NPCs are supposed to provide challenges to the PCs, right? So that's how they should be built.

The NPC classes in Mastering Iron Heroes are built with this in mind- they have abilties which serve as a gestalt of feats & spells, thereby rolling general sorts of abilties into something easy for the GM to track and work with, instead of having to go through the full build of D&D options.

What you want to avoid, is giving NPCs abilties that whammy the PCs- the PCs have no defense or counter for.

A game that does this very elegantly is Tunnels & Trolls. You assign a Monster Rating which combines how much damage the monster can do and how much it can take into one number. And then you give any special abilties you want, assigning generally a difficulty to avoid/overcome, and a result. If you know the averages of your PCs, you know whether the difficulty is about right, or too high.

For Cold Iron (Trollslayer?), you might want to break out something like 5-6 adjustable abilties and tailor them accordingly. For example, "Ranged Damage" is what you would codify, and show some examples of what Ranged Damage COULD be ("Breath Weapon", "Spikes that shoot out", "Cold ray", etc.) Instead of coming with 300 powers like a GURPS thing, just put in something around 12 or less and you'll be solid.

At 12:58 PM, January 13, 2006, Blogger Frank said...

Good thoughts on abilities. Cold Iron often uses existing spells for monster abilities (for example, blur wolves have a permanent effect similar to the blur spell), which is also a fine way of doing things (and interstingly, D&D has been moving that way also - at least in a more formal way with the Spell Like Abilities). Certainly something to address in what I write up on creating monsters (and demonstrate in the example monsters provided).

The other part of this thought was about sub-systems. I need to do some deep sould searching on the hand to hand system (which just last night I realized may be based on The Fantasy Trip - I was looking at some old TFT stuff in the bookstore last night [they carry lots of used RPGs], unfortunately, not the complete system or I would have bought it]). I like using the system, but as I mentioned, it really is totally to the benefit of the monsters - and I think that goes beyond a special ability.


At 4:04 PM, January 13, 2006, Blogger Bankuei said...

From your description of it, it sounds like HTH might be one of those bunk choices- it MIGHT be used, but given the full range of options, you'd probably never use it.

Same thing happens with a lot of D&D combat options- you never use Bull Rush, Sunder, or Disarm really. They're there, they're neat and all, but the odds are so stacked against them working, and they tend to not be as effective as spending your turn trying to drop the enemy, that they never really get used.

At 4:42 PM, January 13, 2006, Blogger Frank said...

It's almost always bunk for PCs, but not necessarily for monsters.

If PCs wanted to capture someone without using the "whack him, and heal him up if you whacked him too hard" method, hand to hand would be a reasonable option (pinning someone isn't too horribly hard).

Back in college, when I used deux ex machina NPC help all the time, I had a pair of balrog NPCs (who were immune to fire, and being quite large were pretty good in hand to hand) who would come in, leap things for hand to hand, and then detonate a ground zero fireball (but if they just pummeled the opponent for a round or two, they probably would have taken it out).

So basically, what my thought is is that it's a big extra sub-system that's really only useful to the NPCs. It's a lot different from the stand up and swing at them unarmed combat, which is also mostly useless to PCs, but doesn't require a new sub-system.

So I the question I have to ask myself is if the threat of hand to hand produces interesting tactical choices for the players, that are worth an extra sub-system for (or alternatively, is there a way to make it not quite so much an extra sub-system, for example, in D20, once you get into a grapple, you can still swing normally as long as you have a light weapon).



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