Feb 11, 2012

Combat in the New World of Darkness System is Crap

I played a pick-up one-shot of World of Darkness last night with some buddies of mine last night. It was a Western thing, set in Colorado in 1883, as railroad and mining interests are moving in. We played members of a small church trying to resist the appropriation of our land by the railroad interests. I had two characters die over the course of the one shot, one very reasonably, the other less so. I don't blame the DM for the unreasonable death, I blame the rules.

My character was a guy named Jack "the Cannon" Buchanan, who was this dead-eyed killer looking to repent. He had a Blood Meridian vibe, down to having worked for John Joel Glanton hunting Apaches in Mexico. I had Firearms 4 with a specialty in pistols, a Dex of 3, and two heavy revolvers and a shotgun as my basic armament. For those of you who don't know the nWoD, this is pretty good - it means my character is a well-trained combatant who is well above-average At one point I came out of a store and faced down the sheriff and two of his deputies who demanded I throw down my guns. We rolled initiative, and one of them managed to get a shot off before my turn, but he missed. I ducked back into the storefront, up against the doorframe with my shotgun.

In nWoD, a character can attack or move in a single turn. Having played with this rule now in multiple combats under different DMs, my attitude is that it is total shit in actual play, and I'm curious how many people disregard it and allow a move and attack in the same turn? This gets even more confusing with cover. To use cover, you apply a penalty to your attack this turn in exchange for applying the same penalty to the attack of anyone else trying to shoot you.

What this meant in practice was that one of the enemy gunslingers ran up to the other side of the doorframe, and we kept on trying to figure out if me and him were swinging around the doorframe shooting one another (which would block the doorframe and prevent others from coming in, as well as putting us into melee range). What ended up happening was that while one guy and I were swinging around, another guy was able to rush in past me. The guy I'd been shooting at ended up coming in as well, so that he and I were standing about three feet away from one another shooting our guns into one another's face.

This was where the absurdity and crappy design took a turn from merely "actively hindering our ability to interpret what was going on" to "shit".

1) Shadowrun is often perceived as having an ideal called the "Two Shot Rule", which I think is very reasonable for cinematic, action games with gunplay. I'm not sure Shadowrun 4e accomplishes this, but I know nWoD doesn't, to its detriment. The "Two Shot Rule" is the idea that unarmoured combat-capable characters ought to be able to survive one hit from a gun, but be taken down by two.

I had to hit this ordinary deputy mook four times to kill him. I am rolling 9 dice per shot after the deputy's Defense is subtracted, which is about twice what most starting PCs will roll. I'm shooting him at point blank with the most powerful non-automatic handgun in the corebook, and he is not wearing armour and has Health 7, which is the human average. My rolls are fairly average - 3 points of damage, 2 points, 1 point and then 4 (which is overkill, since he only has one remaining at that point).

2) While I'm spending 4 rounds sticking my gun in this guy's face and pulling the trigger, one of the other deputies rushes in past us, gets behind the counter in the dry goods store this firefight is happening in and is angling to shoot me. He's top of the initiative order, while I'm second, so the round I drop the deputy I'm plugging away at, I'm fucked.

I can't drop prone for a small boost to defense because this costs an action and I've already shot. I can't run for cover because this is an action and I've already shot. I can't try to dodge his shots because dodging is an action and I've already shot. I can't shoot the guy, grab his slumping body and use it for cover or as a human shield because this would be an action and I've already shot. My choice was basically to shoot the deputy and get shot by the second guy while standing there like a chump, or run for cover and get shot by both of them on their turn, also like a chump.

I have yet to play a RPG where the combat system didn't ultimately revolve around its action economy. nWoD, by having such a simple action economy (do one thing a round), means that you spend most of your time helpless. You attack, you stand there. The restriction on movement especially restricts your options. For example, dodging is almost always a dumb thing to do in nWoD because it neither weakens your opponent nor removes you from the situation. You can get "dodge locked" really easily, where all you're doing is dodging and dodging and dodging while your opponent picks away at you.

For all of D&D 3.x's problems, one of the best things it did was create a standardised action economy with semi-fungible actions - the full, standard, move and free (and eventually swift) actions. This system is useful enough that since it's creation I've seen it crop up in different forms in tons of other games (Openquest uses a similar system, with a combat action, a move action and a reaction each turn as a base). Amongst other things, it means that you can both do something and move almost every turn, which allows you multiple means of changing the combat situation in a turn (one of D&D 3.x's screw-ups is that it takes this wonderful set of options and then encourages fighters to stand still round after round by making a full attack a full round action). The ability to exchange or double up on certain actions (like converting a standard action into a move action) allows for further variety.

3) Along with rubber bullets and spending most of any given combat standing around like a chump, combat options aren't particularly exciting and don't really change combat. For example, after the first deputy was dead, the second deputy shot at me and missed, while the sheriff came up behind me through the door (since I had turned to shoot the second deputy) and tried to shoot me. He rolled a dramatic failure, which meant the gun blew up in his hand and I turned and attacked him in melee.

Now, attacking someone in melee or grappling someone applies a penalty to anyone shooting into the combat, but they're low enough that they don't actually dissuade anyone from shooting into it. It's a -2 for melee, and a -4 for grappling. IIRC, grappling means you lose your defense, so the net penalty is actually only -2 or -1. The better your defense, the less reason you have to want to get into a grapple when someone is shooting you, in fact. As well, you will hit anyone else in the grapple or melee only on a dramatic failure, which is fairly rare, and basically not worth worrying about.

This is basically the same problem Shadowrun 4e had, of penalties and bonuses accumulating that appear meaningful but actually aren't. In Shadowrun 4e, you get a -4 to your dice pool to shoot someone who has 90% cover, which might be important if combat dicepools weren't normally higher than 14 dice (especially for PCs and equivalent power NPC antagonists). Ducking behind cover doesn't actually do anything to help you, nor does almost anything else except for killing your opponent faster than he can kill you.

In nWoD, this is exacerbated by the combat economy, as I explained above. In Shadowrun, at least you can move without using an action to do it, so you might run for cover simply because it doesn't interfere with doing anything else (technically it applies another miniscule and irrelevant penalty to your massive dicepool). But in nWoD, you are making a conscious choice to screw yourself over by doing anything other than attacking. Grappling, running into melee, running for cover, none of these will actually help you, though they may appear to until you analyse how combat works.

So the resolution of this scene was that as the sheriff, my old enemy from my Apache hunting days, and I are struggling back and forth over a knife, the deputy pops up from behind the counter and simply kills me with a shot at no risk to the sheriff or himself.

While I'm using the example of this one combat, I've played in tons of other nWoD games where this sort of problem comes up. It's not about my character dying, but how boring, confusing and static the actual rules for combat are, and how they encourage boring, confusing, and static fights. Even something as simple as allowing a move and an action in the same round would improve things, though it wouldn't solve the problem of meaningless modifiers. I think after last night, I won't be playing nWoD again. It's too frustrating banging my head against the system.


  1. I think your DMs might be reading the rules quite wrong, unfortunately. In my copy of the core rules, on p164, under "movement", it pretty clearly states "Your character's Speed indicates how many yards he can travel in a single turn by walking or jogging. He can travel that many yards and still perform an action, all in the same turn. He can move and perform an action, or perform an action and then move. He cannot, however, move, perform an action, and then move again all in the same turn." It goes on to state how running counts as a full-round action, etc.

    Yes, there are a lot of things which count as an action, such as drawing weapons and so forth. The first round of combat could easily be very stationary, with multiple combatants drawing, and then firing (and those with the Quick Draw merit getting plenty of mileage out of it). But while I have my issues with the system, including the default initiative rules and turn order, one thing that I haven't run into is the "move OR attack" split.

    An aside, the first: Combat in the nWoD system is interesting, in that it can either be a dull and static confusing mess, or a cinematic whirl, depending on the mix of DM and players. One thing that I've found true regardless is that despite having a noticeable chunk of the rulebook devoted to it, combat really isn't the focus of the game or the system (something obvious in your play experiences, I know) and flows best when handled with the same kind of dramatic abstracting as the rest of the game. I also note that I think it's not a system failure for the scene to end like it did - I think it's just horribly anticlimactic for the deputy to interfere like that. Realistic, absolutely. The character acted appropriately. But the point of both western and horror movies is the drama (in this case, the question of "who's going to end up with the knife"), not always the realism.

    Aside the second: I've been blessed with a series of good DM's for nWoD, one of whom hacked the initiative system - players declared their actions, from lowest initiative to highest, and then resolved their rolls more or less simultaneously. In other words, if there was no inherent conflict between character actions, they happened at the same moment, but if someone was trying to interrupt an action, highest initiative would interrupt first (Bob and Jim trying to shoot each other? Both shoot at once, the damage result will tell who shot first/better. Bob trying to stop Jim from shooting him by shooting first? If Bob's initiative is higher, Bob gets so try). The DM in question had a list of "interrupt" modifiers that he stuck to religiously, mind you, and a brain that was able to process how the scene would play out cinematically and relay that to the players.

    Sorry to come out of nowhere and ramble at length. I suppose I'm just a fan of the system, for all its known flaws. I really do think that the system is a lot more elegant than your groups have played it out, and feel that's a shame.

    Thanks for letting me talk your ear off.

    1. No worries mate. I'm actually glad to find out we've been playing it wrong with moving and attacking, so thanks for pointing me to the reference. That would have drastically changed a number of fights we've had in the various one-shots and mini-campaigns over the past year, let alone the one last night.

      I agree with you that the focus of the game isn't really combat, and I like many other parts of the system - I find the attribute system to be one of the most clear and sensible of any game on the market. But I've also never played in a nWoD game that didn't have combat at some point (even if it was just running away from a serial killer while they tried to stab you to death), and I've been banging my head against that system quite a bit for a year or so now.

      The declare-up, resolve-down initiative system works well. I remember I used to play Mage the Ascension back in the day using that system. I agree we ought to switch over to using that instead of the current one.

      If I were to start sketching out a plan to fix what I see as the problems with the combat system, I'd probably increase some of the penalties, and add in something like Exalted's action-splitting system, though perhaps not an exact copy of it. I'd like the ability to do two or more actions at the cost of a penalty to all of them.

  2. I ran a fairly successful Mage: The Awakening game for almost a year, and I agree with you general interpretation. While your group got some rules dead wrong, the system itself is just dull. It doesn't reward good play, it rewards gathering up as much dice as possible, throwing them, and counting successes. It's frustrating how little vastly expensive stats and skills end up mattering (think of how much it costs to buy that 5th dot of an Ability, then look at how trivial modifiers are to get in a lot of cases). I'm done with the system. My players had fun, but combats were fun because we had crazy magic to contend with, not the actual dice mechanics.

    1. Yeah, these are mortals games I've been playing, and low-XP ones at that.

  3. Respectfully, I think you may have some misconceptions about how real engagements with firearms tend to work out. Considering the two shot rule, as far as simulating real gun combat, this is a terrible rule. It's pretty common for somebody to take a few bullets and live, and especially for a combatant to remain a threat. There is plenty of police body camera footage showing this very thing. Check out "why this cop carries 145 rounds" on youtube for an example of that. On the other hand I agree there are some things about this situation that could be improved, such as the way cover works.