An alternative to IGO UGO combat

All images in this post attained from game-icons.net

I Go, You Go

One element of D&D 5e which always left me cold was Initiative. A randomly determined but then fixed turn order for each individual participant threw an initial spanner in the pacing works and then rendered a lot of creative and narrative thinking sub-optimal.

What is the point of trying to trip your opponent if that means you can’t attack them and turn order means they stand up for little consequence because their turn is after yours? Why cast a debuff that they will have two opportunities to shrug off before any allies will have a chance to take advantage of it?

So enjoyed finding to the side-based, constantly switching turn order of older D&D editions which meant things moved a faster and with more collaboration between players. Things got faster still when I tried Into The Odd‘s auto-damage rolls.

But the whole ‘one side takes a turn, then the other’ system still feels slightly off. I understand that abstracting a fight is necessary to avoid too complicated and slow a combat procedure, but it can place too great an emphasis on turn order. One side can completely gut their enemies’ forces without taking a scratch.

It also ensures that, to better manipulate the action economy and lack of wound mechanics, the most effective method of fighting is to direct as many attacks against the same target until they’re dead, rather than fight the opponent most actively trying to kill you.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t do much to represent the chaos of combat. If anything, it reinforces the impression that one attack roll represents one swing of the sword instead of an abstract summing up of a series of feints, parries and attempts to get through an opponent’s guard.

Inspiration

Two of my favourite tabletop miniatures games are Pulp Alley and Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game (now Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game), and both use opposing rolls to resolve conflicts. Pulp Alley’s rules are great but don’t scale well beyond a handful for characters. LotR SBG also slows down a lot when dealing with massed armies, but works very well for up to 30 or so combatants. The each side is rolling a die to affect the outcome, it is much easier to picture a sequence of blows and blocks with one participant eventually coming out on top.

I wondered whether we might introduce something similar which might also bring in a more tactical emphasis on who one picks a fight with, whilst still keeping things short and sweet.

The aim is to have there be an added element which encourages characters to think beyond how much damage they can deal in a turn and instead consider their positioning in relation to everyone else. If you can confront that spellcaster, it stops them from doing anything magical this turn. A companion join could you to give a better chance of removing the caster altogether, but it would leave your ranged allies vulnerable.

Usage

For those who might wonder how this might translate to something like Basic Fantasy or Old School Essentials, I’d say add any to-hit bonus to damage instead, and convert armour class to damage reduction by dividing the difference from an unarmoured human by two, rounding down.

If you find the following a bit tricky to read from the blog, here’s how it might look on an A5 page.

This has not yet been playtested, though I hope to try it out very soon.

Tactical Combat

Turns

A combat turn consists of three stages:
• Movement & Magic
• Shooting
• Melee

Turn Order
A player and the GM both roll a d6, the player for the PCs and the GM for the NPCs. Highest roll acts first. On a draw, whoever went second last turn goes first this turn.

Turn Sequence

First one side moves, then the other. Then the first side shoots, then the other. Then both sides fight in melee.

Movement

Characters can make one significant movement and action each turn. This includes casting spells, readying to shoot or engaging an opponent in a melee fight.

If a character has been engaged in melee this turn, they cannot move or do anything other than fight in the last stage.

The archer uses their turn to move to where they can see the goblin, readying a shot.
Rather than let the shot go off, though, another goblin charges in and engages the archer in melee. The archer cannot shoot this turn since they need to deal with this new threat.

Shooting

Roll a d6 and add your attack bonus. Subtract the target’s defence to get the damage inflicted.

If you roll an unmodified 6, roll another d6 and add it to the total.

Melee

Before resolving any fights, they should be split into as many separate groups as possible. If there are multiple ways to split fights, whoever won turn order decides their configuration.

Every participant in a fight rolls a d6 and adds their attack bonus. If an unmodified 6 is rolled, add another d6. Each side takes its best result – the highest rolling side wins the fight and forces their opponent(s) back.

The victor chooses a target and subtract its defence the winning roll. The difference is damage inflicted.

The fighter and goblin make opposing rolls – the fighter rolled highest. The goblin has a defence of 1, so takes 4 damage and dies.
Three goblins surround this fighter. Two of them roll higher, but it’s only the highest roll of 8 (6 + a second d6) which is used. The fighter’s defence is 3, so they take 5 damage.
Instead of leaving the fighter alone against three opponents, the thief jumps in to balance things out, engaging two of the goblins.
The goblins got to go first this turn, so they decide how the fight is broken up. They still want to focus on the fighter, so assign two goblins to attack them while one deals with the thief. Still better odds for the fighter than before.

Large Fights

If there are a large number of low level combatants on either side fighting each other (e.g. several level 1 bandits attacking some level 2 wolves), this can be abstracted instead of working each one out.

Both sides roll a d6 for each participant and add any relevant attack bonus. The side with fewer combatants add up all their dice, and their opponents may select an equal number of their own rolls. Total up the dice and subtract the opponents’ total defence to work out how much damage to assign.

Sides may select which of their own combatants are lost. Always remove as many participants as possible.

All dice rolled at once. Since of the two sides the guards number fewest, they add together all five of their rolls for a total of 26. The goblins have a total defence of 8, so take 18 damage.
The goblins take only their five highest rolls to match the guards (including a very hard-hitting goblin rolling consecutive 6s) for a total of 32. The guards have a combined defence of 15, so take 17 damage.
Assuming guards each have 5 HP and goblins 4, then the combat takes out three guards and four goblins. Each side chooses which of their own forces are removed.

Further Thoughts

Tabletop miniatures games can take a while, even with a small force – hopefully this has simplified things further by keeping everything limited to a single die roll per participant

That last section on large battles I’m unsure about. Recently in our Barrowmaze campaign we had a fight in which players brought a small army of 12 mercenaries and 18 mind-controlled giant toads to try and tackle one particular room containing a lot of skeletons and zombies, and I was reminded of the need for something to handle large-scale conflicts. But this is very lethal.

I wonder if it might be worth having it take two turns to resolve, conjuring up an image of a whirling mass of bodies. Alternatively, we could have the side that wins turn order for that turn have the option of pairing their dice off with lower rolls on the other side, negating both rolls. The player could choose whether they wanted it to be a defensive round or a slaughter. Probably best try the simpler form first, though.

I do like that it sits fairly comfortably within Off-White Cube’s existing structure – no immediate need to change character stats or anything – so it can almost become another turn-based procedure which the GM can use if the situation calls for it. Several characters against a single large monster wouldn’t require it; there are still circumstances where the IGO UGO format works better,

As and when we do get a chance to try this out in anger, I’m sure there will be issues that crawl out of the woodwork. Such is the nature of playtesting.

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