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.