Giving mechanics a fighting chance

TL;DR – the rules I’m thinking of running with are at the end of the post. The guff in between is my convoluted thought process.

Early in my GMing career, the player characters had captured an interrogated an orc warrior. Satisfied that they wouldn’t get anything further out of him, one player declared that he would slit the orc’s throat. There was an expectant silence – would I ask for an attack roll? An initiative roll? I hesitated, because I knew the orc’s HP was way above what the character could cause, even with a critical hit? And there was a risk of him missing a bound, prone target. But, mechanically, was this not combat?

I like combat. I came to RPGs with a tabletop wargaming background, and still enjoy reading and playing out scenarios and battles. I have not, however, really been comfortable with the way that many tabletop RPGs play out in pretty much the way old computer turn-based RPGs used to: walking along normally, everyone together,  until a foe is spotted, whereupon suddenly we are in ‘combat mode’, and everyone does everything on their turn and then waits for everyone else to do their things on their respective turns.
‘Combat Mode’ then completely changes how we think about things. Play D&D 5e and you find yourself pondering the most effective use of your actions, bonus actions and reactions, all the while wondering what you might get away with as a free action. I like many aspects of 5e, and combat at lower levels is great! But it can quickly become too similar to the Fallout 1 & 2 fights whereby you change your style to squeeze as much use out of those action points as possible. It works for a single-player computer game, but in a tabletop RPG you’ve got other players getting bored.
Forget actions, sub-actions and whatnot. I want my homebrew to encourage players on their turn to just do the thing!
I like the combat systems in Knave and The Black Hack: roll a Strength check if you’re in melee, roll a Wisdom / Dexterity check if you’re making or dodging a ranged attack. The same mechanics as if you were trying to do or respond to something out of combat, the only difference being a turn order.
This also may help rectify another side effect of the ‘combat mode’ – the ‘I make a weapon attack’ playstyle. In many games, whatever you narrate yourself as doing with the dagger – be it slitting a throat, slicing a hamstring or stabbing a crotch – the effect is still a roll on the damage die and that’s it. Therefore, a player has little incentive to invest more effort into becoming their character since it will all amount to the same mechanical result. If anything, they may disadvantage themselves since they might be asked to make a roll without their attack bonus!
There are some rulesets out there which give combat-orientated characters some options. I like the ones I first saw in the No Class Hack, whereby characters could pick abilities whereby they rolled particularly well on an attack roll they could disarm the opponent or throw them off balance with a feint, but hiding these behind an ability means that otherwise perfectly capable characters in a melee can’t disarm or feint.
One way to deal with an invulnerable skeleton jelly
I want players to think creatively, and not be hamstrung by too rigid a system.
I like the Gambits mechanic, which I believe I saw in one of the Goblin Laws of Gaming offshoots (* in between writing and reviewing this, I’ve seen it in Spwack’s Die Trying ruleset), whereby a player asks for a bonus on a hit at the risk of an increased penalty if they miss. A character might try to stab an enemy in the leg to slow them down so on a hit, in addition to a damage roll, the opponent’s movement might be halved. Miss, however, and the character has left an opening – maybe they get an immediate attack against them, or they are defending the next attack at disadvantage. It’s a very simple addition to a standard task roll, gets players thinking creatively and generally takes advantage of the fact that we’re not playing a computer game with pretty limited options.
The example above alludes to another design choice: player-facing rolls. I really like the idea of the players doing as much of the rolling as possible, and for this I’m taking much inspiration from The Black Hack. An NPC’s Armour Class is derived from their Hit Die, and more specifically the difference between their Hit Die and the Character’s level. My version differs slightly in that I want to simplify things so that the NPC’s AC and attacks are one and the same: 10 + the NPC’s Level (i.e. HD). That’s the target number a character needs to beat on an Attribute roll whether they are making an attack or defending against one.

Each Character has a Damage Die, and this is modified depending on their weapon (using the dice chain d4 < d6 < d8 < d10 < d12). So if a Character’s expected combat attack involves them rolling an Attribute test and possibly a damage roll.

Rather than get players rolling an enemy’s damage inflicted upon their characters (because I ideally want to avoid any situation whereby a player has to subconsciously hope for a low die roll), I want most NPCs to have a flat damage output. The Black Hack has a table basically showing how Damage Die linked to an NPC’s HD averages out to HD + 1. So that’s my rule.

The characters have a chance to reduce this damage by rolling their Armour Chance Die (ACd), which is another bastardised blend of a mechanic, this time from The Black Hack and Macchiato Monsters. Armour gives a Character an ACd (again using the dice chain) to roll – whatever they roll is damage resisted, and is taken away from the enemy attack which can be reduced to a minimum of 1. If the roll is a 1, 2 or 3, however, the ACd is downgraded one step, and can be destroyed entirely.

This means that a character defending also involves two rolls: an Attribute test and possibly an armour roll.

All of which might suggest that character’s might not be getting all that much damage in initial combat. This should be remedied by the relatively limited health characters will be getting, and the fact that a player may want to save their ACd for their Injury roll if reduced to 0 Stamina, rather than risk it being rendered useless beforehand.

Good golly, these rules read like they’re getting out of hand. I will have to sit back and reflect, and then streamline at a later date…

So, some of the combat-related rules I’m considering are as follows (in minimal, probably unclear form):
Attribute Roll: proactive or reactive actions relating to the environment.

d20 + Attribute > Target Difficulty (usually between 15 and 20, any lower and they shouldn’t be rolling)

Contested Attribute Roll: proactive or reactive actions relating to NPCs (such as attacking and defending against attacks)

d20 + Attribute > 10 + Opponent’s Level

Attribute for melee attack / defence – Might
Attribute for ranged attack / defence – Finesse

Gambit: Negotiate with the GM before an attack or defence roll, suggesting a bonus on a success at the risk of suffering a worse penalty upon failure. Not for inflicting more damage on an enemy.

Critical Success: an unmodified roll of a 20 on a d20. The Player can narrate an extra benefit. An attack causes maximum damage on the Damage Die. If defending in melee, automatically inflict one normal hit upon your attacker.

Critical Failure: an unmodified roll of a 1 on a d20. The Character faces an extra penalty. Receive twice as much damage from an attacker or, if attacking in melee, the defender inflicts one automatic hit upon you.

Inflicting Damage: roll the appropriate Damage Die.

Unarmed – use a d4 for a Damage Die.
Light Melee Weapon – downgrade character’s Damage Die. Roll twice and take the higher if armed with one in each hand, but may not use a shield.
One-Handed Melee Weapon – roll character’s Damage Die.
Two-Handed Melee Weapon – upgrade character’s Damage Die. May not use a shield.
Ranged Weapon – roll character’s Damage Die.
Heavy Ranged Weapon – upgrade character’s Damage Die. May not move and attack in the same turn.

Receiving Damage: a standard enemy attack inflicts their Level + 1 damage. A Character may try to resist the damage with their Armour Chance Die.

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