Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Confessions of a Melee Junkie


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.


  1. Hey Rob - I couldn't agree with you more on just about every point. Reminding me of course, that I recall a bounty of excellent combats with you - PC vs PC, NPC vs PC, and PC vs NPC.



    1. It's funny, because in an early draft I was going to use your Sessuar general as one of my favorite examples of "NPCs should earn their coolness" but took it out. I was worried since many times "example" devolve into war stories and muddy the post.

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  3. Really interesting post. I like the distinction you draw between "attacks to defeat" and "attacks to pace", especially in regards to shared resources like hit points and healing. I had never thought about high damage as a *pacing* technique when healing is easy to find.

    I especially appreciate the bit about needing to use a blockable packet or melee attack when Attacking To Defeat. This is of key importance in challenging combat encounters!

    Can you elaborate on what the "5 or 10 point step back rule" for big NPCs means?

    ((this comment is by Dan Comstock, I just can't sign in with wordpress for some reason))

  4. In order to prevent high Vitality creatures from defeating PCs by wading into them while sucking damage and delivering strikes I have a rule where an NPC with high health is forced to to pause an take a step backwards with each 5 points of damage they take, or for something really nasty, with each 10 points of damage they take. I try to add this mechanic to most big creatures that go out on game.

    Have you ever seen me attack the line as something in a big costume and when large amounts of retaliatory damage hits me I rock back my shoulders and step back from the line in response to weapon and packet damage? That's usually due to a 5 or 10 point step back.

    Because both my games are in the "high level heroic" stage the amount of damage PCs can throw is large. I want creatures to be able to last through it, but I don't want an NPC to be able to hit a PC because it can essentially ignore offense entirely and just wrap shots around the PC guard. This rule is meant to prevent that.

  5. I also use a "close air support" rule for most of the big NPCs I've played or made. Never so defined as "take x steps back after y damage" but yeah, go up, hit the line a little, make a rant or display abilities that require plot engagement to remove or negate and then step back behind the line to choose another group of line fighters to interact with and then re-engage. I've been on the receiving end of the honey badger stat card many a time, with polearm guy spinning out of control for a billion massive obliterate without any line of sight beyond the text on their stat card. I think all of us who have larped in a variety of settings have seen this at one point or another in most games that we've played.

    I agree with the entirety of your post, Rob. I do think that winning by straight up damage is completely undoable in modern NERO, as is pretty much every other win condition other than crushing players with wonky stats that they can't defend against - but that's an engine limitation that is also compounded by the complete untrackably huge abundance of healing and curative effects in any modern 30+ PC nero system game.

  6. My concern with a "close air support" strategy is sometimes experienced PCs might be able to tell you aren't pressing them. I wouldn't want engagement to seem arbitrary. With the step back rule I am not swinging to other parts of the line because I am being nice or arbitrary, but rather because the PCs have made a strategic effort to big to bear enough fire power to effectively prevent me from maintaining engagement.

  7. A system that scales from level 1 to 100 and keeps it a level (meaning challenging) playing field for all is very difficult. The main problem as I see it is levels. Automatic hit-point increases, options to continue to pile on damage, to pile on more of the same duplicate take out effects, pile on more healing, more life spell type effects, etc.

    If you look at game models the one I enjoy the most is the one used by EvE Online.

    For those not familiar its a space ship game that has been around since 2003 online and within I will call it 6 months you can have enough skills to defeat almost any non-boss NPC combatant and any other player on any given sunday. Skills are fairly flat in that you can buy 5 ranks of a skill, and 5 ranks of the 'advanced' version. These ranks mostly give you the ability to either "fit" weapons/defensive systems on your ship easier, or modest (5%) increases in efficacy.

    So what is the difference between a 9 year player and a 6 month player? The 9 year player has access to more and different gear and ships, but at best they do 25% more damage or can take 25% more damage from others (of a given type of damage). Ok I maxed out lasers, I will not train missile skills. You have breadth instead of depth of skills which keeps the playing field flatter.

    The focus becomes on gear, having the rare items in your arsenal, the rare ships, and more even than that the focus on actual tactics and skill in when to fight and when to run or what to bring to a fight as you cant have every weapon/equipment system on your ship at all times.

    This translates to fantasy fairly easily and you saw it in early NERO when almost everyone was < level 10 or 15. The 2nd level player with the +5 sword was out-damaging the level 15 baron.

    Humans as a rule on a fairly level playing field when we start using tools. A kid who picks up an AK47 can kill a 20 year veteran Navy SEAL. Does the Navy SEAL have more hitpoints? Can he do more damage with his gun? no... he has actual training, skill, and smarts. He may have more gear that helps him see in the dark, acquire targets, shrug off maybe a few weapon hits but not 50 of them.

    Let people improve their skills to a point, then branch out. A Navy SEAL probably knows how to use 50 different weapons systems pretty well. Is trained in knife combat, hand to hand, pistols, rifles, demolitions, etc etc.. he is not a one-dimensional person whose training allows his M4 do more damage than the recruits M4.

    Also put the focus on items, be they temp-items, be they expire in 90 days, 1 year whatever that's a different debate. Let they find armor that lets them shrug off 3 fire attacks a day, or a +5 damage sword, or whatever. Yes I know the "now you are duplicating spells and making spellcasters worthless" card will get played. Fair enough... eliminate classes or hacky extra skill cost crap. Has that fixed the "templar" problem? lol no. Let people fully customize through a breadth of skills not a super deep skill tree. Then actual skill, training, and bringing the right equipment matters.

    Some systems address some of these issues, and I am sure there are systems that are as I describe but they are not around long enough to see how they work 5-10 years down the road at addressing the "level 100" problem.

    Just the thoughts of a madman.

    Matt Pearson

    PS: Play Airsoft.

  8. PPS: I should also mention that in the EvE model skill ranks are also mostly used to grant access to items "Item needs Missile Launcher Operation IV to use" as an example. So you can use skills as a gateway to "unlocking" items. In some cases a given item has 3-4 pre-requisite skills at certain levels.

  9. Dealing with a large diversity in character power is another topic altogether. The easiest way to deal with it is, as you alluded to, having a system where a high level character is not incredibly more powerful than a low level character. I agree that a game can have a power curve that is satisfying and still does not propel high level characters to such a place where lower level characters cannot really participate in adventures with them. I've tried to do that with Madrigal. The goal of that game is that a starting character can reasonably participate in our fights because the base damage is always uncalled damage for 1.

    If I ran a NERO chapter and had carte blanche on how to run it (as I don't know what National limitations are put on chapters) I'd probably deal with the power curve as follows.

    ~ Characters entering the chapter's area are automatically inflicted by plot effect that limits them to level 30. Players are required to have a level 30 build. When we run manifest modules not only do manifests activate but it also activates a player to their full NERO level since we want players to be able to participate in the game (at least sometimes) at full power level. I'd warn visiting players that we may or may not run manifest modules on a given event.

    ~ There is a special banner or magical item with the Duke's symbol that grants a magical damage aura to players for the event. The damage aura is a special flawed one that gives an absolute damage when used; it does not add to damage totals. Fighters swing 8's, Templars swing 5's, and rogues swing 4's but can swing 8's from behind. (I chose a lower rogue total to make up for the fact that they can grab poisons and waylay early.) This aura can never increase; if a player finds a way to swing more damage they use that damage instead.

    ~ I wouldn't put out Returns. Instead I would put a flaw on the mage's guild circle. Any Celestial spells up to and including 7th level thrown that do straight damage can be refreshed by spending 5 minutes in the circle. Likewise the healer's guild circle is also flawed; any Earth spells up to and including 7th level that are used as straight heals (Cure Light, etc.) will likewise be refreshed after 6 minutes of rest.

    This means that lower level spells that contribute to the shared resource of healing and damage can be refreshed, but casters have to consider carefully whether to use takeouts since they will lose that spell slot for the day.

    ~ Characters can choose 3 magic items at the beginning of the event. These items are linked to the character and are the only items that can be used during the event. There is a ritual that allows a new item to be linked to a character so they can use addition items. Each casting of this ritual lets the character use one additional item. Each casting of the ritual, if cast on the same character in the same event, becomes more difficult - the ritual level increases and it requires more power components.

    If a player goes on a manifest module they can use any magic item and are no longer limited to linked items for the duration of the manifest module.

    With those changes I could probably run fun field battles where everyone could participate and still give attention to higher level characters with manifest mods.

  10. Well I don't have anything to do with NERO anymore. Personally burned way too many times. But once the new business settles down I will probably making another run at LARPing as well.

    I think personal progression is important but it should be a gateway to access new abilities, power, items, etc and not an absolute measure of who is Lord Humongous. Who someone is friends with, how smart are they, and what is in their arsenal should be what is feared not their 20th death spell, or swinging 40s. Just my humble opinion.

    Matt Pearson

  11. Here is a problem I find myself facing from time to time. I want to do a small scene which includes an opponent who will challenge a PC or a very small group of PC's. I want it to be a challenging but winnable combat encounter. The problem comes in when the targeted PC's have vastly superior fighting skills than the NPC or NPC's I have available for the encounter.

    I understand the principle of sticking with blockable damage. But what if the PC is so good that I am lucky to trade strikes 4 to 1 with him. The mathematically solution would be to give myself 4 times the hit points, but that seems a little inelegant. Any thoughts on how to do it better?

    The other problem I sometimes run into is elaborately costumed villains. Sometime I indulge my crafting urge and create visually impressive constumes for monsters that end up making it difficult for the NPC to fight. Bulky costuming, limited vision, stilts, and things like that can make for a really great looking boss monsters, but I have a lot of trouble statting them so that their menace can match their looks. At most of the games I staff the top ranks of melee fighters are typically good enough that if I handicap my boss NPC even a little bit with awkward costuming it can make it nearly impossible for them to reliably connect with solid strikes.

    Again, the simple solution is tons of stats, or voice/gesture effects. Neither solution is ideal for all the reasons you discussed. Any thoughts on this?

  12. Excellent concepts. I intend to steal and use most of them! :)