Combat Roleplay: The Science of Why I Can't Do Anything.
A Guide Introducing basic combat actions, and how to decide at what time actions occur.
Hello, and welcome to another guide regarding Combat within Roleplay!
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So, we start fighting, and we're ready to hit things really hard! So, we want to do something, we have to... well, do something! Now, to do something, we have to take the time to do it and have that action influence others in our area. So, how do we want to do that? Do I just type "Og attempts to club Jim, really hard!" Perhaps, but maybe Jim wants to defend. Does Jim just want to stay alive, does he want to make Og go away? Can Jim go: "Jim attempts to club Og after trying his best to stop Og's destructive actions."
Can we say Jim deserves as much credit as Og who does only one action in the same amount of time? What is time? When did time come into play? How do we even define time in roleplay?
Yeah, this is why this guide has taken me almost a month to write. This guide may touch on some pretty interesting, perhaps basic, and perhaps even some advanced topics of roleplay will be discussed. I will be writing this with the understanding that you are reading through each section sequentially. Skip at your own peril!
Firstly, I will discuss making actions in combat, some advice on how to consider actions, some considerations when plotting your course, and I will discuss how to make your actions incorporate other elements of the setting and context.
Next, I will talk about what I consider the primary flaw with how people imagine fighting and combat. By tackling this, I hope it will make everyone's pursuit of combat roleplayer better for it. I like to call it: "The Protagonist-Fight Fallacy," or "The Greatest Fallacy in Fighting Theory ."
Thirdly, I will begin discussing how time can be considered in your roleplay, with some very minimalist ideas that will make the flow of actions go smoothly. Keep in mind, that some of these things in this section are particularly subjective, they may only work in certain situations, or with a certain level of Out-of-Character communication.
Lastly, I will describe how these various ideas can be translated into different forms of combat roleplay, as outlined in my previous guide: Combat Roleplay 101.
Combat Actions: What the Heck am I Doing?
"You will perish by my hand, milord!"
When you have no idea what you're doing, but you're still confident.
This section of the guide is fairly straightforward. An action precipitates other actions, and pave the way for complex and complicated events to form. In combat, we take actions against our opponent in a direct, physical confrontation. Often this involves bludgeoning them with as much abandon as humanly possible, but there is far more to it than this. This section isn't going to be some vain attempt to catalogue every possible action and its intended consequence, such would surely lead to failure on my part.
Instead, I want to address a certain number of actions, and how they should be considered in roleplay.
The first action that I want to address is the attack. Of course, you're thinking, I swing the pointy end. Effectively, yes. You might want to be more complicated in how you're attacking, but you in-fact don't have to derail very much from the basic formula. I try to hit you. Why the hell am I going on about this? Largely because of that point I just made. Trying to hit someone is, most often, 'only' trying to hit them. This is a very limited action, and other things should be going on in a serious fight. Two cavemen aren't just going to stand still in front of each other and club each other over the head until one falls - they're going to try and club better than the other, they're going to try and avoid being clubbed...
And this brings us to our second action. Defending. This action, you may be thinking, is just as basic, and just as fundamental as making the attack? This is where I suddenly become esoteric and arcane. In my opinion, no, the defense is not a simple, single-time action. Single-time, what's that? We'll talk about that later. Suffice to say that an attack is a basic 'I try to hit you', the defense is not the same, instead it is a more complicated 'I try to not get hit'. Labeling it as defense gives us a nice overarching term, but there's so much more to it, that attempting to reconcile the entirety of defense into one lump-group is inefficient.
So, how do we want to consider our defense? What prime aspects are there in our combat to give us an immersive experience? There are many, and countless depending on your particular situation, but there are some major ones that manifest in most combat situations.
The first is distance. Yes. By not being in distance to be struck, I am safe from your weapon. If I have a spear that is nine feet long, and I can use effectively to put a good five feet between the two of us while you only have a knife - you have to pass my spear before you can hurt me. I can attack you from this distance, I can block your weapon, but you cannot strike me. Distance contributes to my defense in this way. You can think of this in common RPG and MMO terminology as your attack range.
The next is movement. The basic idea of 'oh crap, get out of the way.' If you can avoid the weapon swing, then you nullify -that- specific attack. Now, this can be tricky to roleplay without giving an air of powerplaying unless you have a good amount of experience on your belt. Why? I argue because it is both extremely effective, and because it makes the player feel like their swing just didn't do anything at all. How an experienced combat roleplayer with a love of realism (like myself) will encounter this problem, is to make the opponent's swing count - even if it didn't connect. Explain that the opponent is in an even BETTER position to hit me now that I've avoided the first shot, which is similarly a realistic situation in -most- occasions. If you have to move out of the way of the swing, typically the foe is very close, and in front of you. Making you have to move back, or to step to the side. These motions do not give you the benefit of defending through distance, and limits your ability to evade further swings. I typically, out of courtesy, try not to evade more than two swings in a row from an opponent, especially if we're at particularly close quarters. You could think of this with the common RPG and MMO terminology that I use in this post, and consider this your evade chance.
Another component of the active defense is your guard. Your stance, your weapon placement, your armor, and all of the things that effectively let you take a hit. I lump them all together, as there are so many different types of attacks, and not all of them have to be stabbing me or smashing me. If a man gets in close, picks me up, and throws me to the ground, that attack was successful - and my helmet didn't really do anything to stop it. So, this all comes together to form a level of physical defense. My stance might protect me from certain attempts to knock me down or break my legs, but where my weapon is placed may make me able to parry against certain attacks more easily than others. My armor allows me to allow some strikes to pass, as my armor may mitigate the damage of a blow - or negate it entirely. Goodness, that's a good bit to consider, and it can take a lot of education and interest to really pin different historical stances to certain defenses. The more practical way to treat this, is to effectively decide what you are able to defend well at the present, and try and present this to your opponent. Show them that you're doing a specific action, that has specific criteria. A fair example of this might be: "Aedelric holds his round-shield far in front of him, the rim facing his opponent, setting them far apart with his sword raised into a rear guard - ready to strike." With this example, you can see that I do something specific, and so my opponent will know what to expect when they attack me. Terminology for this that exists in RPGs and MMOs might be your armor, or your physical resistance.
I would say that those encompass the major actions of defense, but, there's even more to it than that. We've only covered the attack and the defense. But, perhaps those are more encompassing than we previously though, now that we have a new way of thinking about it. An attack attempts to harm an opponent, and your defense constitutes many elements that involve you attempting to avoid all forms of harm! The only thing that might need said now, or perhaps later, is that while attacking can be a single action, you want to tailor your attack to your opponents defense, and what you're doing defensively - so it becomes a more tactical, involved decision. So, we've actually done a lot here.
I will wrap this up with one final point. Always consider context and the fight at hand individually, and that your setting can be used to help you, or hamper you. Wet, muddy ground is treacherous to fight in. A freezing chill outside may drive some fights in a different direction, and may prompt people to be hasty. A desert that parches all who walk in it but the most seasoned of nomads will make fights short and cautious, for fear of dying to the sun.
The Greatest Fallacy in Fighting Theory.
Also known as Dominator046 is a horrible movie complainer.
What many inexperienced people get wrong when trying to imagine a fight.
(I am going to preface this with the following: Not everyone makes this mistake, but a lot of people do. I find that even more people make it in roleplaying scenarios where guns are involved because some people believe guns are magical, never miss, never fail to instantly kill / incapacitate, or that operating one is instantaneous.)
So, we have this fight we gotta' go into, but we're totally prepared. We haven't been in too many fights, but man we're ready. We're pumped, we've got warmed up, we're meeting at the town square. He's going to be there, and then it's going to start. He'll probably punch, or kick, or something, I'll just get past that and start swinging. At that point I can keep him from hitting me and I'll just whoop on him until it's done.
Now, seems like a good idea? Well, actually, yeah, it could work. Someone who has a martial art focused on grappling might be able to make this work brilliantly. Though, that poses its own risks. But, this sort of basic assumption, "we'll just get past that" is a very common stance I see a lot of people take when they don't really realize what they're saying. This idea is that you can act to negate your opponents defenses, and then just move in and assault with impunity.
This is fundamentally flawed. This leads to what I call The Greatest Fallacy in Fighting Theory, or the Protagonist-Fight Fallacy. It's an innate problem with the assumption of someone not being able to attack or defend against you, which I sometimes like to paraphrase as assuming that you "get past them."
Let's take this from the top. Let's assume similar length weapons. We'll say two identical swords. Two people are facing off, man to man, straight ahead of each other. One man moves forward and attempts to strike. The other will attempt to not get hit in some way, and make a response, likely attempting to press his advantage with a counter-attack. Some people assume that the first person, being counter-attacked, doesn't really have much say in what goes on. But, they could have an entire defense planned, and use that defense, to prepare their own planned attack; perhaps even a counter-attack to the counter-attack! Well, supposing they've defended themselves and they're alive to do so, either swordsman can step out of range to hopefully regain some composure and try again safely.
This problem isn't so bad in this scenario, since we've got similar weapons. Swords. Even more than that, completely identical swords. But, let's change the context a little.
Now, one man has a spear, and the other has a one handed sword. We'll say it's a pretty long one, maybe a rapier. So, looking at this... the problem may now be slightly more visible. Let's say that the spearman is just standing at a ready defense, and the swordsman is the one who wants to 'just get past' the guy's defenses and beat him down. Effectively, he's in a very bad position. The swordsman has to move into the spear's range, at which point, the swordsman can only defend. The spearman can make an attack, AND take defensive actions as well. The swordsman may just anticipate 'he'll swing at me, I'll parry it, then I'll run in and hit him!' Sadly, that is wrong.
We'll say the swordsman successfully defends the first spear attack. Now, the swords man has to move in again, and make an attack against the spearman WHILE hopefully defending himself from an attack from the spearman! As, the spearman will have had the chance to prepare a defense prior, but now he can attack again, AND take further defensive precautions! This spearman could've been backpeddling, effectively putting himself out of sword's reach, or pulling his spear back to make it usable in close quarters. This isn't even the end of it. The swordsman may have the advantage now, but maybe he doesn't. Maybe the spearman pulled his spear close to make it useful at close range, or maybe the spearman back-peddled. If the swordsman wanted to break out of distance against the spear, he'd have to go back pretty far, defending while he does so, but being unable to make an attack. The spearman, again, can attack while making defensive actions.
So, we've done all this talking, but I haven't sat down and given you the definition as I see it in my personal, mental textbook.
The Protagonist-Fight Fallacy is the presumption of a target's inability to attack you, or a target's inability to defend against you, specifically with regard to the opponent being able to do more than 'just attack' or 'just defend'.
The name comes from the typical movie protagonist, who dives into the fray with multiple enemies, who typically parries a swing (most often the swing is out of range anyways), and attacks an enemy that makes NO attempt to defend itself. When imagining a fight, it's easy to assume that you'll be so fast, so cool, and so bold that your opponent just can't defend itself - except maybe the antagonist whom can actually parry attacks (most of which are out of range anyways). When we get pumped up, we think like this, but it's honestly not realistic. Fighting is more gritty, more violent, less clean. Honor in a fight doesn't really exist, personal honor does - but usually that determines when and where you fight.
So, always remember, your opponents can act in offense and defense just as much as you. In a realistic combat, you always attack and defend simultaneously, and you specialize your attack with regards to your defense - and that of your opponent.
Time-Scaling, with a Focus on Combat.
What's faster: one thing happening at once? Two things happening at once? Five? Hand-Time? Feet-Time? Body-Time? Head-Time?
"Time is a constantly changing wave of burning, cosmic destruction." - My friend, Ryan.
So, this might get interesting. Before, we talked about how actions, such as those for defense, and attacking while defending, realistically, happen at the same time. Though, this poses some additional questions. How long do they take, what windows of opportunity do they represent, is there a limit of how much time we can consume, is there even really a standard of time in this anymore? Well, these are all good points, each deserving of separate answers.
So, the idea that these actions are occurring simultaneously is a realistic one. I can walk and swing a hammer at the same time. Though, doing so in a fight may be more demanding than it sounds. I can sing while doing a backstroke too, though - I'm not sure how likely I am to do that one. There are some basic ideas about how 'fast' certain actions are compared to others, but they can depend, and be almost wholly curtailed by the context of a situation.
First up, we have different parts of our body. Based on the human physiology, certain parts move faster, or respond better than others. Some are more articulated, with thicker muscle, or some just don't need to move as much. The first thing worth noting, is that one historical fencing master named George Silver coined this idea and created times for different parts of the body. A time-of-the-hand, a time-of-the-foot, and a time-of-the-body are the most important I will address for the subject of time-scaling in roleplay.
George Silver advocates greatly (amongst other unrelated things for the purpose of this topic) that certain times of certain body parts are faster than others. These are typically true for most circumstances, and give a good way of thinking about how fast certain actions are done.
Firstly, you have time-of-the-hand. Time of the hand, however you want to say it, we'll shorten it to hand-time for reading and writing purposes, is pretty darn fast. We can move our hands, swing our swords, write our papers pretty darn fast with our hands. Lots of little parts and levers and muscles moving all over the place. Next, you have time-of-the-foot, or we'll call it Foot-Time. This is your leg, how long it takes to move your foot into a position, and how much effort it might take to fine tune the timing of your step. Time-of-the-body is next, and we have our torso to thank for much of our mobility, and how we move.
So what is there to say about this? Well, to be brief, Hand-Time is effectively almost always faster than Foot-Time, meaning I can swing my sword faster than you can typically move into or out of range. Now you can still be pretty fast on your feet, so being prepared to step into distance, then immediately step out of distance, you might be able to do that before I can counter-attack. But, if you step into range and attack me, if I was in a good enough position with my level of skill, I could probably always make one attack at you or your weapon in that time. Body-Time is a bit more complicated, and I'm not sure I fully understand it. How long it takes your body to move, whether by the effort of the limbs, or just the torso itself, is varied. I can bend back to avoid a thrust pretty quickly, just as well as leaning to the side to avoid a cut. But moving my center of mass to another spot, or moving from one shoulder forward to the other? More time-consuming.
So, what does all this mean? More context, but also some straightforward information. You can do a lot of these actions separately. I can take a step to my left, leaning my body to the side to avoid your axe swing, while similarly preparing and making my own swing at you with my axe. These actions take a certain amount of time to do, but as long as you express them to your fellow roleplayers, it should be relatively straightforward. An experienced combat roleplayer can even leave queues in for a less experienced opponent to follow to help them in an appropriate situation.
To close this section now is a slightly confusing but cool idea, the thought you and your opponent are acting simultaneously, and the actions taking place during fights are really fast! As a bystander, or in a group fight, you should work to cooperatively act in such a way that these actions are happening over seconds most often, and fights that can be RPed to last minutes may only have lasted seconds, and a fight that lasted over an hour may have only been minutes.
Combat Time in Different Combat-Roleplay Styles?
Roll for Initiative.
Looking back to the earlier Combat Roleplay 101, we'll find the final subject of this guide. Combat roleplay can take many forms, and can be done in numerous different ways. I will discuss specifically how fights can be considered in both time, and in their actions, depending on what medium you are using.
Emote Fighting (Play to Lose / Play to Win): This one is the most intensive on your knowledge, but as such, it is the most rewarding! You can determine the tempo, the time in which your actions are taking place, with the utmost precision. Your ability to roleplay your actions relies solely on your ability to breathe life into the scenario. A deliberate step, a frenzied swing, a mad dive to get away? All are possible. When with another roleplayer you are familiar with, and can communicate with OoC if necessary, you have an excellent and enjoyable system. Similarly, how long the fight takes is determined by your established roleplay, not necessarily how much time has passed in the real world.
Player-Versus-Player Game Mechanics: This one is more difficult, but does give you some ability to potentially interpret the time it takes for a fight to last. The gameplay mechanics are often quick enough to be both reasonable and realistic. The actions your characters make in these mechanics may not be indicative of what your character would do in roleplay, but they might be, or might be 'similar enough' to be worth treating vaguely in-character. It's a fair compromise in terms of its time control and it's in-character viability, in addition to being both fun and scalable.
Roll Systems: Here we go. I'm going to be honest with you, this one is last as it is the least complimentary to realistic and immersive systems of action and time-keeping. In sequentially doing rolls for actions, you are in most cases going to marginalize the actions, and in other cases you're going to establish an unrealistic and sometimes unsatisfactory chronology. If it's my turn, and I use a spell to blast everyone way back, then it's their turn next, they get up and all attempt to run me down. I don't get a chance to run away after casting the spell - or my allies don't get a chance to close around me.
It can easily be the worst of both worlds in some scenarios, disallowing your ability to portray your character, disallowing you the credit of acting on your own behalf, and discrediting your ability to do an action in the time and place you want to do it - all in the same situation! Other times, you can make it an acceptable trade-off between time and action, depending on how you want to set it up. If you decide to roll for the success of defense against a certain difficulty (say, you have to roll higher than ten on a twenty sided dice), then you can simulate your ability to continue defending actively, while assuming all attacks are being done simultaneously. Otherwise, you could roll for the outcome of a fight before it begins at all, to allow the players an agreed upon outcome that they work towards with emotes; this is often best done between two consenting players who believe their characters are of a similar skill range. As long as there are more dice, there are perhaps new ideas for appropriate mechanics that players can come up with.
Even at its worst, dice-rolling remains easy to access, immediate ability to be scaled across groups, with difficulty that can be manipulated based on the current situation, while still allowing each character an action. So, it's not a bad system, just perhaps the least effective with regards to action and time-scaling.
And so again we have come to the end of another combat guide! Truly, we took our time to get here, didn't we? I think this guide covered some pretty in-depth topics, and required some pretty acute focus to really get a handle on. So, I commend you if you've read this far! These are things that come up in roleplaying debates across all walks of life, as we futile humans are so irrevocably bound to time.
As always, I look forward to the future with all of you roleplayers out there!
Farewell, peers and masters!