Confessions of a Melee Junkie
In my ongoing quest to find fun and satisfying LARP combat experiences, and to implement fun and satisfying LARP combat experiences, I have found two things. I really love melee combat, and running good combats is both easier and harder than it might appear. I wanted to take some time to talk about what I like from melee combat in LARPs, and how the things I have done have screwed me out of a lot of good combat experiences.
As a melee junkie, I find the straight five hit contest with another skilled fighter to be immensely compelling. Sometimes an intense fight is good because after all the stats and special skills are boiled down it essentially comes down to a five hit contest. Sometimes a fight is good because, even though I as a player character have enough defenses and staying power to outlast five hits from a particular NPC, a long recycling combat essentially boils down to a series of five hit combats where, if I lose, the resulting strain on healing resource can endanger the fight. In either case the joy comes from the mental and physical chess game of delivering hits while defending against the same. It doesn't have to be five hits; I just have to be able to, for the most part, enjoy the actual melee combat with my opponents.
One big problem with the Accelerant system and its ability to easily implement a wide variety of melee attacks with special effects is, well, its ability to easily implement a wide variety of melee attacks with special effects. Many times, and this can be a problem in my own games as well, the core combat experience is diluted or washed away by melee attacks with special called effects. In Accelerant games and other games with a rich LARP syntax it is not uncommon to add a wide variety of special called melee attacks to creatures to give them flavor. This often makes combat less interesting and less fun.
One common dilemma facing a staff member is the desire to add flavor to critters to make them feel different when fighting. The result of this is that the plot staff gives each critter type their own special attacks to add flavor and make the fight feel distinctive. My combat junkie advice is don't do this. The most compelling combat comes down to the chess game of delivering and trading hits. That itself is compelling.
Before I go ahead and give some pieces of advice for running combats for junkies like me, I want to try to explain my philosophy on the difference between Attacks to Defeat and Attacks to Pace Combat. I divide almost all attacks into one of these categories. (There are also Attacks to Show Consequence but let's skip those for now.) Attacks to Defeat are the attacks given to an NPC to allow them to defeat players who perform poorly in combat. These attacks make up the meat and potato of your fights, and in fights where there is a good ratio of player to non-player numbers and out of game skill these are probably the only attacks you really need. Attacks to Pace Combat are special attacks given to NPCs that aren't meant to defeat PCs directly, but rather to help pace the fight, make up for low NPC numbers, or make up for superior PC skill.
To illustrate with example, the iconic Attack to Pace Combat is probably "By My Voice, Agony." Accelerant games are probably not throwing this attack to directly defeat players. Instead, this is probably being used to counter PC numbers, to prevent the PCs from using a sheer rush of bodies to substitute for skilled fighting, or to provide Panic Moments to increase the desperation of the combat. While this attack can lead to PC defeat, it does so by messing with the pacing of the fight rather than defeating the PCs directly. Weapon delivered Agony effects are also often intended as Attacks to Pace Combat, although when players or creatures chain them in succession they often drift away from that role. The ability to Disengage is another example of a pacing effect. Weakness and Maim can also be used as effective pacing effects.
On the other hand, Attacks to Defeat should be designed as block or dodge type attacks that are meant to defeat the players directly. These attacks should be designed to eat away at resources that the PCs cannot refresh during the course of a particular combat, or if you like, eat away at resources that can be renewed such that if players don't perform well the incoming damage will overwhelm the ability for the PCs to refresh it. Unlike Attacks to Pace Combat, these attacks, if not countered, will cause the players to be defeated.
Having said that, let's look at initial advice on statting creatures for the combat junkie:
~ Attacks to Defeat should entirely consist of blockable melee attacks or straight packet attacks.
~ The melee based Attacks To Defeat you give creatures should overwhelmingly be straight damage.
~ If you have a good ratio of NPC to PC numbers and skill, you don't need Attacks to Pace Combat.
~ Attacks for Defeat should require three hits to be successfully delivered before a PC goes down.
One reason NERO combat worked so well early on and was extremely satisfying was that an overwhelming majority of melee attacks were straight damage and they were blockable. Not only did this mean that people could actually defend themselves, but Attacks to Defeat naturally fit into the entire system of the shared pool of hit points and healing. The basic combat rewarded player skill instead of trying to circumvent it, and the combat resolved nicely into mini-combats that boiled down to X number of hits.
Many times the lines between Attacks of Defeat and Attacks to Pace Combat become muddied. I have run combats, for example, where a large spider creature and its minions throw a lot of Poison attacks in an attempt to overwhelm the ability of the PCs to protect against Poison attacks and to Cure those attacks. Essentially the whole fight is designed with the ability to defend against and cure Poison effects as the source of attrition rather than the usual hit point and healing pools. On the flip side, I have played large creatures that swing very high damage knowing that the PCs have a large pool of available healers and, at times, healing pools that can be reset nearby. In this case my attacks are actually being used as Attacks to Pace Combat since the goal of the very high damage strikes in this instance is to knock PCs down so their line has to shift to get healers in a good position to pick them up. I have even given the PCs access to Attacks of Pacing Combat (in this case, a limited use of "By My Voice, Agony") and have watched all the tactical gymnastics implemented to use these as Attacks to Defeat.
The ultimate answer to whether a creature attack is an Attack to Defeat or an Attack to Pace Combat is the intent of the designer in giving them to the creature and the execution of the combat where they are used.
Having written all that, here is some advice for running combat for combat junkies like me.
~ Melee combat is, itself, compelling.
If your goal is to entertain the combat junkie like me, you are probably over thinking the combat design. The very act of fighting is compelling. So long as you can maintain an enjoyable fight pacing and provide a lot of opportunities to engage in straight up melee combat without distractions I am probably going to have a great time.
If, on the other hand, my attempts to engage in melee combat are thwarted by "Massive" melee attacks and other effects that can't be blocked, too many packets, take outs, special delivery attacks, and other effects that don't appear to have any pacing value then I will probably have a less enjoyable time.
~ Only use special attacks if necessary for the combat design.
Each decision to give a creature a special attack should be done to create an enjoyable and challenging combat experience. Don't give your creatures random melee and packet attacks unless you have a specific design reason to do so. Don't randomly assign special attacks to try to give creatures flavor. If you need Attacks of Pacing Combat because you are short on NPCs or are faced with highly skilled PCs then that's cool. Design them that way. Just don't throw creatures into the mix with random abilities that circumvent blocking and normal melee combat unless you have a reason and need to do so.
As a corollary, if you maintain a monster book with monster statistics and you have a lot of creatures with special pacing mechanics don't have your plot staff pick creatures out of the book for flavor. Make sure each flavor of creature has a lot of options, including a base melee option with only damage, so plot people can create good fights in the flavor they need without adding unnecessary special attacks into the mix.
~ Defeat me with blockable melee attacks or packet attacks.
You want me to be challenged. I want to be challenged. You want me to feel the fear of defeat. I really hate being defeated. If you are going to defeat me, please have the decency to hit me with a legal melee attack or a packet attack. Preferably the former. Don't use "Massive" attacks, "Spell Strike" attacks, Disarms, Destroys, Reflects, By My Voice attacks, By My Gesture attacks, or any of the other myriad of plot deliveries meant for other things.
It's fine to use the other stuff to pace the combat, especially when you are low on NPCs. It's cool to use the other stuff in encounters that aren't really designed as combat encounters. If you goal is to use a gesture to stun me so you can drop me in a module building for the real fun, then that's cool. That's obviously not intended as a combat encounter. If you want to defeat me in an encounter intended to be a combat challenge, however, hit me in combat with a legal weapon or packet attack.
Now, if your champion NPC can spell strike Repel effects, or reflect Fire effects to shut down specific PC skills, or throw Shield Slams to get PCs off them when they are overwhelmed that's cool. Those attacks are not only meant as pacing mechanics, but they don't contribute directly to the attrition of the combat.
~ Learn to balance fights with straight damage.
The first thing a staff person needs to learn is how to run a fight and get across a certain pacing using only effects that contribute to or diminish the game's collective hit point and healing pool. If you cannot do this you are going to always have problems balancing fights. Yes, this can be a difficult task to balance and find the sweet spot in games with certain effects such as the exaggerated healing pool from the NERO cantrip system. In my opinion that makes it all the more important to learn to run fights this way and find the relative sweet spot of challenging a game using only damage and healing from legal weapon strikes and packet attacks.
Once a staff person can run compelling fights concentrating on damage as the main source of balance then they will have a much easier time, and be much more confident, in running a fight where takes outs, special deliveries, and other pacing mechanics are in play.
~ NPCs need to earn their coolness, too.
I know you are trying to make your latest NPC really cool. You picture Darth Vader and you don't want the players to see Rick Moranis. I get it. When it comes to combat, however, your NPCs need to earn their coolness like the players. Don't try to manufacture coolness with big stats. Give the NPC only what they need to get across the fight flavor. If the NPC fails to look cool, then let it happen. If the NPC manages to wreck the PCs with limited stats and escape or even win the day the PCs are much more likely to respect that NPC and what they are capable of.
The best way to determine if an NPC is statted too high to earn their coolness is when you see the NPC able to wade through combat delivering hits. Once an NPC can eschew active defense to find a hole in a PC's guard then they are probably statted incorrectly. (It is for this reason that I try to have a 5 or 10 point step back rule for my big NPCs.)
Somewhat off topic, if you need a way to represent some kind of overwhelming threat to the PCs (a cosmic being, a corruptor, some kind of avatar) the best way I have found to do this is create a horrible, horrible pacing mechanic that the PCs have to overcome before they can really successfully engage in combat. If the PCs have to do three modules to find a way to become immune to a Banshee Lord's death scream, for example, the NPC will probably still seem epic even if the actual fight is slightly under statted since the NPC would, on a normal day, just kill them all with By My Voice effects.