Under the Hood – The Perfect Fight (Part 4: A Necessary Pain)


The Perfect Fight (Part 4: A Necessary Pain)
By The Warden

1000x558_5921_Battlefield_2d_fantasy_landscape_picture_image_digital_artPREVIOUSLY: By establishing an overall goal to challenge your players in a fight scene and by how much (i.e. rules heavy miniature combat or descriptive story-based interactions) and determining how long you want a fight to last, it all comes down to that most definitive measurement of combat production: damage.

I have an odd attachment and understanding of pain. It’s something I deal with a lot and I’ve often found it incorporating its way into my designs. At first, pain slows you down and gives you cause to surrender. It overwhelms your senses until all you can feel and think about is the pain lingering from that damned injury, consuming your every thought to the point you’d consider hacking that limb off to be free of its curse. Yet as the hours pass into days and those convert into months, you begin to accept the pain and note it as a badge of honour. You’ve learned to live with the pain and while it may return to haunt you at a most inconvenient time, your willpower grows stronger in your newfound quest to conquer your pain before it conquers you.

Pain is measured in RPGs through damage (though many games include additional rules and provisions for wounds and penalties caused by large amounts of damage, either cumulatively or individually). The more damage we bring to our enemy, the more he’s hurting until he cannot survive the pain any longer and either dies, falls unconscious, or flees the scene. Without pain, our enemies would continue fighting indefinitely until their heads were cut off and the once adjoining bodies could no longer receive orders to fight back.

How much damage we, as the central heroes, dish out weighs heavily on how we determine the success of a combat management system. Every system has its own way of handling them and there are numerous factors relevant to determining how much damage everyone can contribute to the fight, whether it’s based on your choice of weapons or the class selected at the very beginning of the campaign. Or both. Or something else entirely.

And before we get knee deep into the issue of damage’s effect on RPG combat, I want to establish the importance of keeping the discussion at its core. Meaning that argument of whether or not hit points are appropriate for one game or another is not the point. They are used for simplicity and clarity as something most gamers can relate to. Agreed?


Damage refers to the output of harm and mayhem brought on the player characters. Yes, the heroes will take some damage of their own as time goes on, but that has more bearing on the final instalment of this multiplex than today’s. Once you’ve established how easy or tricky it is for a major character to lay a beating on their enemies and how long we want this fight to last, damage becomes the dominant thought on a player’s mind.

Many games work off a precise and calculated success rate to determine the mechanics’ difficulty and duration, often resulting in the odds of your hero’s attack roll hitting their target locked in stone save for the occasional +1 or more. (This is why I’m fond of the bounded accuracy provided in D&D Next; it strips away one of the biggest illusions of level progression and keeps the math simple.) If you want your actions and dice rolls to mean something time and time again, damage is where the money’s at. Bigger weapons, higher damage dice. Need to wipe out half-a-dozen goblins with a fireball spell? Then roll lots of damage dice. With damage, more is better and is commonly the biggest exception to any game’s single die application process. By this, I mean you only roll one die to determine success or failure, yet your damage can feature two or more dice.

For the longest time, I’ve thought as damage output as a thicker illusion than attack success rates. If the game’s built to run a particular number of rounds, then its damage output must be locked into place. It may not be able to predict that my next roll will be a 6, but the mechanics have been assembled with the assumption my character will get somewhere between 5 and 8. Over time, I’ve come to forgive my ignorance for the sheer fact that I have seen fights carry on inordinately longer due to unusually low damage rolls.

It’s happened to all of us at some point and time, possibly once a session. We roll a 19 on our d20, yet damage comes in at 1 + whatever our Strength bonus provides. Bleh. Poor performance on the die roll that counts – damage – can have a dramatic impact on the fight’s progress and the curse of the bad die roll can swing across both sides of the GM’s screen. Think about it for a moment. Every class is designed to maintain balance with regards to attack bonuses and probability – everyone has a fairly decent chance of hitting their enemies equally. Where they matter is in how they affect their enemies, which refers to damage for this discussion. If you have a party filled with knife-wielders and nothing else, how much longer do you think that fight scene will run compared to one with a complete group of bastard swords or machine guns?


So how do you contain and control the damage output so that a GM’s worst nightmare doesn’t ruin the premiere of a recurring villain in the next fight? What if your entire party decides to carry laser pistols and grenade launchers? That’s why we use classes. Some games even set their damage output according solely to your choice of class, with a few extra modifiers from stats, such as the recent smash success, Dungeon World.

Different character types or classes provide a mixture of options and possibilities, particularly when it comes to damage. Some characters will specialize in combat and weaponry, dishing out extensive amounts of damage, while others highlight unique skills away from battle, such as healing or subterfuge. This is how the party balances out their damage output. Individually, one or two may be true ass-kickers. As a whole, every party of heroes should even out in their damage potential. Not everyone gets to single-handedly cleave limb from torso with every attack roll and players understand the role of roles in roleplaying games.

How many players/characters are expected in the average game? How often can your average hero successfully attack and damage a combatant? What is the highest common damage dice available to the heavy hitting characters and the lower hitting characters? How many rounds should the average fight last? Answering these questions will give you a guideline for building your opponents and establishing their duration within a fight.


In the final chapter of our 5-parter, we’ll analyze what may be the quintessential piece of the combat puzzle: are you sure your player characters will be alive when the smoke clears?

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