Steel & Sorcery

Snakes & Ladders & Dungeons & Dragons

Snakes and ladders (S&L) is often heralded as the most 'non-game' of all board games. You roll dice, see where you land. Oh no! Back down a snake I go. Let me roll again...

The key here is that no choices are able to be made by the players. This ties into many peoples frustrations with RPG combat, with 'I attack' being clearly the most optimal choice every round.

Sure, sometimes we can have the excitement of your piece nearing the finish line on S&L, but unluckily falling down all the way back to the start. There is some drama from that happening, and there is excitement and dread as you make the roll near the end. Similarly, a stray goblin arrow 1 hit knocking out your character has the same feeling. Sometimes fun, scary, or dramatic, but we cannot have an entire system reliant on just this to provide it any 'feeling'.

Some systems resolve this by having the snakes and ladders game only last 10 minutes instead of 45, but I don't believe this is the solution. (Obvious caveat: not everyone wants the same thing out of their RPG)

However, let's just not play S&L to begin with.

What breaks the S&L mould?

RPGs do quite alot to break outside of a non-game. The most obvious one is that we play in a 'real' world. Our characters can kick buckets, throw sand, duck, weave, create traps. Often when people think of memorable gaming moments, these types of exploits bubble to the top. A RPG system needs to be able to handle this, or it risks S&L combat. Having rules that stifle this awesome creatively will lead to lame experiences, and does not make use of one of the strongest aspects of role-playing games.

The other thing RPGs do is the often included abilities, magic, or tech. Creating illusions, going invisible, teleporting, these all really help break up stale combat. Not too much more to say here, as mostly all systems do this well.

As a GM, running many enemies for an entire sessions worth of gaming can be tough, but it is as important to not let the enemies also follow the 'I attack' style of combat. Every encounter I do this check at least once to myself: Instead of attacking, can this enemy do anything with the environment, or to tangentially effect the character? These are the classics: Tackling a character to shove them off the bridge, an ogre picking up a stone, a goblin pulling down pants, etc. Some games (recently Dragonbane and the brilliant Crown & Skull) have begun to integrate this into their rules directly, with each monster having their own table of possible actions which really helps to spark this GM creativity.

Attack Styles

Over the course of the design and creation of Brimstone, highly tactical combat through a toolset available to the characters to interact with was very close to the largest goal. The end result is this:

Breaking down each option reveals the snakes and ladders busting choice that is introduced:

What does this boil down to? How can I use this?

Combat Design Heuristics

Really, the hunt for tactical combat helped me think up this list of heuristics for an RPG accommodating fun & tactically deep combat:

  1. Ensure the system handles creative character actions in a fair and permitted way. Ideally, these exploits are encouraged, and advantageous versus the 'boring' option.
  2. Abilities or any form of 'trump-card' should be present for characters.
  3. Monsters should behave in a non-S&L manner as much as the characters do. Abilities & environmental actions instead of attacks.
  4. Allow the characters to change the dials of their risk and reward at their own risk.