Thursday, December 19, 2019

Combat System, Some Assembly Required

At some point, the PCs are going to fight something. While combat may or may not be a fail state, it's going to happen regardless. Traditionally, this has involved a complicated minigame with rules and procedures entirely unlike those found outside it. A move and an attack are an assumed default in most D&D-alikes. Special tricks are always a pain to adjudicate, initiative is always a hassle, and it always takes too long if it gives you very many options at all. The way many choose to play is then ultra-light and heavy on adjudication, in contrast to the method chosen by the world's largest RPG and its imitators, which are cumbersome and, well, still heavy on adjudication. Some of the more popular OSR games, like the GLOG, attempt to bridge the divide by giving PCs a limited number of options while hard-capping endless growth.

I want to try to create a set of rules for running Shadowrun using Knave, tentatively called Crave unless I can come up with something better. It wouldn't be strict by-the-book Catalyst Game Lab Shadowrun, but more a pastiche or reimagining of it, both because of the needs of the system and also because I simply don't like some of it. But to make it work would require some reworking of some basic assumptions of old school games, which typically focus on gritty early modern adventures. In that vein, here are some ideas that I've been noodling and discussing on the discord but are as yet untested. I just needed to get everything out of my head an on a sheet. Hopefully, someone else might find something useful. Some or all of this may need to work itself in any eventual hack.

Covered in this post: Intentional Surprise, Weapons, Automatic Fire, Range as Armor,  Locations and Cover, Death and Dismemberment, Stamina and Fatigue, Actions and Initiative, Stunts, Maneuvers, Unarmed Attacks, Ripostes, Monster Magnitude, and Signature Techniques

Klaus Pillon

Intentional Surprise

A fight starts when someone declares their intention to injure or kill another. Sometimes this may be done by NPCs, sometimes by players. Don't take this lightly. There are many things you can do instead of fighting and the stakes and consequences of fighting greatly exceed those of other parts of the game. Once one side states their intent to attack, they attack first followed by initiative as normal. But they must attack, no take-backs. This is your opportunity, DMs, to pepper your world with scary-seeming people who might be valuable allies...if your PCs are willing to pause their bloodlust.


Weapons damage is based on the number of hands used. 1 die of damage for one-handed weapon use and 2 dice of damage for two-handed weapon use. Note that I'm specifically referring to how many hands are used; two-weapon fighting is the same as two-handed weapons. What actually counts as a weapon is determined by the DM and the genre of play, but more permissive is more fun. What actually distinguishes individual weapons from each other is what sort of stunts they can do and something like Brendan's weapons.

Melee weapons are dependable and deadly at close range. They deal d6 damage. They are also supercharged/oddomatic: On a miss, they deal 1 damage irrespective of any damage reduction, but which can never kill or inflict serious injury. The only time they fail to do any damage is if the attack roll is a natural 1. They also prevent people from using firearms when at close range.

Firearms are deadly but challenging. They are harder to obtain, they are loud, and they may be traceable. But they deal d10 damage. That has to account for their additional challenges of range and cover in contrast to melee weapons, but if you can mitigate the cover or strike from hiding, they should be very deadly. They also can't be used if you're engaged with someone with a melee weapon. Brendan doesn't cover modern firearms in his rules, but might look something like this:

  • pistols (1-handed, short): can be used in melee combat as a stunt, concealable
  • sawed-off shotgun (1-handed, short): area, concealable
  • SMG (1-handed, medium): autofire 
  • assault rifle (2-handed, long): autofire
  • marksman rifle (2-handed, extreme): reduces range band by 1, cannot be used at close or short-range

Automatic Weapon Fire

Firearms deal damage just like any other ranged weapon. A natural 1 on an attack roll indicated a need to reload. Taking a note from thorinp at Arrogant Wizard, automatic weapons can roll any number of attack rolls, X, and for each that hits the target, +1 damage is added to the damage roll for each successful hit. But now the weapon must be reloaded after any attack roll less than X. For hit locations only consider the highest die.

Range as Armor in Modern Games

OSR type games tend to favor the medieval/early modern, where armor technology was often at an advantage to that of weapons. That's not the case in modern settings and tends to be assumed in most cyberpunk/near-future settings as well. To have guns retain their scariness, PCs need other ways to surviving firefights that don't involve nerfing damage. Taking a note from Patrick, against guns armor is based on cover and range:
  • 8 for attacks at close range, although if the target threatens with a melee weapon they cannot make an attack at this range.
  • 12 for short-range, out of reach but nearby: across the street.
  • 16 for medium range, a stone's throw away: the width of a football field.
  • 20 for long-range: the length of a football field.
  • 24 for extreme range, or the longest they might conceivably hit their target.
Note that by moving a character can close by 1 range band per round. These assume the target is taking reasonable efforts to make themselves less of a target. If they are unaware or otherwise vulnerable, reduce the difficulty by one range band (so short-range would become 8, for example).

So what does armor do? It adds hit points. For guns to maintain their scariness, they need to be able to hurt and their ability to do so diminishes as hit points inflate. So keep relatively static hp, perhaps Constitution (Defense) plus level, and add armor hit points on top that regenerate whenever the PCs rest.

That means that standard AC for your system (10? 9? Dexterity Defense?) will be the AC against most attacks and won't change much. I might include shields here, +2 or +4 AC is a big help when everyone else is at ~AC 10. They should even grant some cover (see below) for attacks the wielder is aware of against non-firearms. I would probably use (modified by dexterity as applicable):
  • 6 target is unaware of the attack
  • 8 target aware but has no weapon in hand
  • 10 default state in combat
  • 12 target has a shield
Characters in this will be squishier and hit and get hit more often. This is intentional as fights should be short and brutal or avoided.

Jaye Kovach

Hit Locations and Cover

For cover, you need to know both what parts of the character are covered and whether or not the projectiles hit those spots. So here is a brief cover system. It assumes characters are roughly human shaped. If they aren't, I'll need to come up with their own chart, but the general pattern is: most critical places do the most damage, followed by central body, followed by usable limbs, followed by locomotive limbs.

For ranged attack, hits will be more distributed, which helpfully matches up with the larger damage die: For melee combat where arm injuries will be much more common and damage will probably be absorbed over a larger area:
  1. foot
  2. lower leg
  3. upper leg
  4. lower torso
  5. lower torso
  6. forearm
  7. upper arm
  8. chest
  9. chest
  10. head
  1. leg
  2. gut
  3. arm
  4. arm
  5. chest
  6. head
To determine the side of the body hit, look at the attack roll to see if it is even or odd. Odd attacks strike the left side of the body, even attacks the right. If the result of the attack roll hits a location that would be obscured by cover, the cover in question absorbs the blow. For example, if the character is standing at the corner of the wall, firing their rifle from their right shoulder, the left half of their body is covered and thus odd attack rolls will hit the wall instead. If they were instead laying on the ground instead of near a wall, attacks from their front would miss if it would have hit their legs.

Death and Dismemberment

The classic way is to use a death and dismemberment table for hits at 0 hp. I'm inclined to use some inspiration from Wyrdspeak's Small Cuts and The Scones Alone's Memorable Critical Damage. Note the area of the body hit on by the attack that drops them to 0. Making a saving throw against Constitution or Death. Success indicates that the character is merely critically damaged. Failure indicates that they are critically damaged and the limb in question is significantly damaged, possibly beyond repair. Fumble and it is severed/destroyed entirely. Consider what sort of weapon is being used to determine the exact damage in question.

Stamina and Fatigue

Grave, a very slick Dark Souls hack for Knave, invented this idea. Knave characters are built around their inventory. The more stuff you carry, the more cool things you can do. So balance it out so that carrying more stuff isn't always strictly better than carrying less.

The beginning of a combat encounter and not renewing until they've had a chance to catch their breath, characters have a number of stamina (tokens?) equal to their number of empty inventory slots. Grave gives a number of possible uses for stamina, but for my purposes, I'm going to limited to granting movement and acting quickly.

This would also be a good place to work in something like Michael Bacon's Conditions or my own Complications which also fight stamina for inventory slots.

Actions and Initiative

PCs get one action per turn. Most NPCs will get 1 action per turn. If you want to move and attack, spend stamina or use a stunt.

Actions are simultaneous. Everyone declares, independent and non-interfering actions are resolved, then actions that might interfere with each other. If your action absolutely must happen more quickly than the enemy's, spend stamina. Otherwise, resolve through context, stunts, or ability checks.

Limiting rounds to one action per character significantly impacts the action economy by destroying it. This change should speed up play and make combat seem "faster" by having less stuff happen each round. It works with several other elements posted here such as the stamina, maneuver, and signature technique rules. Hopefully, it helps make actions more interesting rather than the usual process of handing out additional actions.


Stunts and Tricks

When the PCs want to do something clever that won't on its own cause damage, they can perform a stunt. If it's the only thing they are doing that round, make an attack as normal. If it hits, the effect occurs. If it's not attacking the enemy directly but merely changing the environment, it might not even require a roll, such as spending a round to carefully aim to reduce the range band. If you need to know how effective the stunt is, roll damage. The sort of tricks a weapon is capable of is up to the imagination of the players, and since anything defined as a weapon deals damage equally, you now have the excuse to make the adventuring, whip-wielding archeologist of your dreams.


PCs can take one action per round, but sometimes they might need more than that. Though they can only ever deal damage once, they might combine a move (without using stamina) or a stunt with an attack. In this case, describe the desired effect. The DM will come up with a potential consequence for failure which it many cases is an ironic turnaround. Then they roll an attack twice.

If they succeed at both, the action happens exactly as intended. If the succeed at only one of the rolls, they pick which effect to occur (hardcore mode: the defender picks). If they fail both, the consequence occurs.

Unarmed Attacks

Borrowing an idea from Josh at Rise Up Comus, unarmed attacks are always counted as maneuvers. In this case, the consequence is always "take an attack from the enemy." They deal damage like a one-handed weapon.

Riposte Number

Characters with combat training can develop skills that give them benefits when the enemy attacks. The PC notes down a number on their sheet and whenever an enemy attacks them and rolls that number, the PC gets a free stunt. If the number is right it even occurs on successful enemy attacks.

The specifics of what it affects will depend on the genre. Jedi can deflect blaster bolt with lightsabers but Shaolin monks won't be able to respond to bullets. 

Oscar 13opt


Since one of the goals is preventing hit point bloat, I need another way to represent great toughness. Brendan came up with one that also creates ins for OSR-style problem-solving play. Called Magnitude, it comes in 2 varieties that ultimately work the same way. In each case, it refers to the number of points of damage required to deal 1 point of damage to the monster. So Magnitude 4 would require 4 points of damage to deal 1 hp.

In such a system, large monsters use their hit dice as hits, so a 10 HD giant with magnitude 6 can withstand 10 six-damage plus attacks. Hits dealing less than the magnitude simply don't hurt.

Physical Magnitude comes from size since big things are simple less threatened by PC-sized weapons. You can impair physical magnitude in two ways. You can use scale magic and weapons such as explosives, cannons, or other large weapons, as well as a lot of destructive magic. Even more fun, via something Scrap Princess wrote, you can climb up the beast and stab its vulnerable parts. Each position requires a move and/or stunt to achieve and bigger monsters will have more positions.

  • Horse-sized: 2
  • Ogre-sized: 4
  • Giant-sized: 8 
  • Dragon-sized: 12

Supernatural Magnitude comes from the inherent magical features of the foe in question. It can be impaired by using weapons the foe in question is vulnerable to, or it can be mitigated by destroying the target's source of power.

  • Skeleton: 2/blunt
  • Lesser Demon: 4/silver
  • Greater Fey: 6/rusted iron
  • Lich: 10 (phylactery)

In every case, vulnerable spots, power source, scale, and vulnerability, the tool in question impairs their magnitude by half. Combining effects may also be possible, potentially impairing the monster by a factor of four or eight. The goal is that PCs seek out ways to take on large foes by figuring out their weaknesses rather than simply stacking numbers.

Signature Techniques

The coolest combat system in RPGs is from Spellbound Kingdoms and it's tempting to attempt to rip it out and repurpose it for B/X. That would be an enormous undertaking beyond the scope of this post, so instead here's something simpler and potentially suited for Knave, inspired/borrowed from Jones Smith at Was It Likely? Signature Techniques are designed to break the rules above in limited ways. Here are of some of the things above that might be affected:

  • how much damage can be done with a weapon
  • maneuvers featuring more than one attack
  • attacks that impair magnitude
  • ripostes that grant attacks or moves
  • unarmed attacks that don't require a stunt
  • actions that do more than one thing
  • stamina regeneration in combat
  • negating surprise
  • oddomatic firearm damage
They all require something to be true to be used which turns them from always-on bonuses into situational tools. Here are a few examples:

Eisenfaust: if you've parried an enemy melee attack, you can respond by attacking.
Flurry of Blows: if your last action was a successful attack, you can use a technique that is two attacks.
Dragoon Spear: if you leap upon an opponent (either through movement maneuver or stamina use), your attack impairs enemy magnitude. This is in addition to any effects from attacking an enemy's head which often already impairs it.
Gun Kata: if wielding pistols in each hand, is not treated as unarmed in close combat

Commission for the Shadowrun Living Community

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