Combat system that is less abstract than hit points yet is not more lethal

I have a campaign based on battles with miniatures in mind, with my players controlling the standard "heroes". It should be possible for the players to keep their characters alive through the campaign with smart tactics.

I'm interested in a combat system that is less abstract than hit points, primarily for facilitating the narration of the battle. However, I don't want this system to be necessarily more lethal than a hit point system. For example: tracking wounds would be fine, but not so much if every attack has some chance of inflicting a fatal wound. I basically don't want my players to be at the mercy of the Random Number Gods.

I'd also be interested in a system that treats attack evasion, as in dodging or parrying, with the same level of detail it treats (or doesn't treat) physical injury. A system that goes a bit beyond skill rolls and comparisons.

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There is huge variability in the lethality of hit point systems (And in fact it varies rather widely based on genre). Basically comparing the lethality of HP systems is odd because HP doesn't define lethality, the system and mechanics define it and the HP system implements it. – wax eagle Jul 19 '12 at 1:12
As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible. "New ideas" not found in a game are fine IF you have actually used them, not if you're just spitballing. – C. Ross Jul 20 '12 at 11:16

Here's a bit of a non-intuitive fit, but bear with me. Have you considered FATE?

Requirements:

• Miniature biased combat, with combat being the presumed focus of the game.
• Combat is not largely determined by luck. Dodging and parrying are an interesting part of the system.
• Less abstract damage. Every damaging blow should have a specific injury associated with it.
• System is not just skill rolls and comparisons.

Now, I'll admit right off that you've got me on that last one. FATE is built on nothing but comparing two skill rolls. But I think you'll find everything else fits just fine.

Miniature biased combat

FATE uses zones, which by default are broad, mostly cinematic ideas of space. A bathroom is probably one zone per stall, plus one main zone. A house is probably divided into a zone per room, maybe two for a large living room. Athletics (and sometimes other skills) may be rolled to move quickly from one zone to another. Other barriers may be present, like a brick wall, which would be traversed with Weapons or Might, by breaking it down. But, these zones are usually drawn on a piece of paper, or whiteboard, and players are marked with miniatures. If you really want something more traditional, there's an easy conversion. Take a typical D&D square grid. Draw darker lines in a grid that divides the normal grid into a bunch of 3x3 boxes. Treat each 3x3 box as a zone, with a barrier value of 1 or 2 biased on traversing distance. (Add special barriers as needed.) This looks and feels similar to D&D at least, with melee combat occurring in around 15 square feet, ranged combat happening at 30-45 feet, and normal movement being about 15-30 feet. Now, maybe you want some different feel from D&D, but you should be able to tweak the barrier values and distances to suit your liking.

FATE rolls are almost always [Skill]+4dF. A dF is a six sided die with two sides blank, two saying -1, and two saying +1, resulting in a range between -4 and +4, with a strong weight towards 0. (If you don't want to get special dice, just use d6s and relabel the sides.) Given that skill values are usually between 1 and 5, you can usually get a sense of how likely a large deviation from your skill is. If there's too much luck going on for you there, I'd suggest dropping a couple of dF from the usual roll, and maybe rolling 2dF. Enough for some surprises, but not too much. That said, I've never seen the normal system really screw someone over via the random number god. Certainly there is no chance of most attacks being at all fatal- You can see a fatal blow at least three or four turns in advance, assuming you're really getting your butt kicked. It takes about 30 shifts to kill a player. Even a +6 skill getting +4 every time won't kill you in less than three, and that's assuming you don't defend at all.

Dodging and parrying

Defense and damage mitigation in FATE is all about dodging and parrying. I don't think I've ever heard a player say "yeah, I'll just take the hit and soak it." When you're getting shot at (Opponent rolling 4dF + Guns, rolls +2 and has Guns +3) you roll to defend yourself. There is no static "Armor Class" but something that looks more like White Wolf's Dodge score. Lets say I roll Athletics to dive out of the way. I roll, get -1. I have a +3 to athletics, totaling a +2. I take 3 'stress' as a result, the difference between our rolls. (note: I probably also take extra 'stress' due to weapon bonuses, but I'm trying to keep things simple) Another player might defend with Guns, attempting to keep his attacker pinned down behind cover. He rolls a +3, has +4 Guns for a +7. He takes no damage- He did better than his opponent.

If you're playing a fantasy game, just change the skill names, Guns to Bows for example. Some uses of skills might make less sense (I can't imagine suppressing fire with a longbow) but this should be fairly intuitive.

Less Abstract Damage

I said above that most characters have around 30 stress worth of damage they can take. Thing is, most of that isn't raw stress- most characters have between 2 and 4 stress boxes. If you take a hit that goes off your stress boxes, you're out. This looks brutal, but it's not as bad as you'd think due to something called Consequences.

A character has a Mild [-2] consequence, a Moderate [-4] consequence, a Severe [-6] consequence, and an Extreme [-8] consequence. Any time when you would take stress, you can instead take a consequence to mitigate some of the stress. So, in the example above where I was getting shot for 3 stress, I could instead take a mild consequence and take 1 stress. Consequences have a short description attached to them- "Winged me" could be one, or perhaps "Twisted Ankle" caused when I stumbled dodging. The consequence can be something not directly a cause of the attack (like stumbling and hurting my ankle instead of getting shot- which makes more sense to me. You really can't get shot more than once or twice and do anything useful afterwards) but does have to express damage of some kind. Instead of a big table with possible consequences, their rank, and the results and penalties, all consequences can give a -2 penalty to you at your opponent’s convenience. This may or may not count as abstract, depending on your view- I tend to think that since most of your damage has a specific injury attached to it, it's less abstract. If you wanted however, making a table of possible consequences and the specific -2 it provides would be pretty easy. (Wounded foot, -2 to athletics. Wounded hand, - 2 to weapons. Head wound, -2 to alertness.)

System is not just skill rolls

Okay, you got me. System is nothing but skill rolls. The inclusion of FATE Points (a pretty cool part of the system for those who like narrative style play, and a very easily homebrewed away part if you want something more concrete) makes things a little more unpredictable. That said, you seldom roll against a static value- most rolls are opposed by someone. And besides, I'm kind of curious how a system with no skill rolls works. (Okay, I've played Amber. Is that what you were looking for?)

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I think I'll try out FATE. It'll take some adaptation for my campaign's setting, but I think this is doable. I might have sounded too harsh with my "not just skill rolls" requirement, though I am curious if diceless miniatures games exist at all. – Aaron Jul 19 '12 at 22:42
I've had a player have her character defend by gritting her teeth and taking the bullet to the chest, rolling with Resolve (in Diaspora). But then she had a bullet-proof vest on, and the danger was as much about the shooter forcing her to take cover as it was about getting shot. – SevenSidedDie Jul 20 '12 at 0:11
+1 Fate is on the road to systemless... – Sardathrion Jul 20 '12 at 9:16
@Aaron - there are FATE fantasy systems and settings out there to support you, too (continuing to presume fantasy genre). – gomad Jul 20 '12 at 15:15
This was written using the Dresden Files urban fantasy as a default, but I'm pretty sure there's a FATE setting for everything. If not, change the skill names, the weapons available, and what kind of stunts people have. Congratulations, you've created your own FATE setting! (True story- I once converted Dresden into cyberpunk in an afternoon.) – IgneusJotunn Jul 20 '12 at 20:26

Provided you're comfortable with a hit point-based system already, the easiest way to go might be to make some slight modifications to provide the narrative framework you seem to be looking for. Imagine something like this:

Characters have wounds, divided into 5 categories: Scratches, Painful Wounds, Impairing Wounds, Grievous Wounds, and Deadly Wounds. When damage is dealt (using your normal hit point-based damage), think in multiples of 5 (or 10 if you want to reduce lethality) - anything doing under 5 points of damage is a Scratch, Anything above 5 but under 10 is a Painful Wound, anything above 10 and below 15 is an Impairing Wound, etc.

All characters can take one of each of these, regardless of what their HP total would have been. However, for every 5 HP (this number could change depending on the number bloat in your favored HP-based system), the character gains an extra wound "box". Extra wounds are gained from the bottom up, and always thinking of a pyramid shape, meaning that you can't take more Painful Wounds than you can Scratches, nor can you take more Impairing Wounds than you can Painful Wounds. If damage is dealt and a character has no wound boxes left for that level of damage, the wound is of the next highest level. A single Deadly wound spells certain doom for the character unless immediate (and powerful!) assistance can be given.

Naturally, doing this requires some prep work, but once you have the conversion from HP to wound boxes on paper you can simply go with it on the fly. Narrative description of wounds becomes a lot simpler because the type of wound itself is telling you how serious the injury is.

If you wish to make it a bit more nuanced (though it can slow down the combat pace somewhat), you can assign combat penalties for wound levels. For example, you can say that anyone with an Impairing wound suffers a -2 penalty to all their rolls.

EXAMPLE:

Jason the Fighter has 23 HP. His conversion is as follows:

Scratches [ ] [ ] [ ]

Painful Wounds [ ] [ ]

Impairing Wounds [ ] [ ]

Grievous Wounds [ ]

The four extra boxes come from his HP (23/5 = 4.6 and discard fractions).

Anyhow, I know this isn't an entire system, but it can be a viable option for you. Final word of advice: you want to be careful with attacks that deal a lot of damage in a single hit. A D&D Warrior with 80 HP getting hit by a dragon's paw for 35 HP of damage can survive it, but under this system, 35 HP is a deadly wound, and that warrior is out for the count, regardless of how many more minor wounds he could have sustained.

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My suggestion would be to take a look at the Mechwarrior 3e rules. FASA gets very specific about ranges, hit locations/armor, and special attack varieties. It is quite easily converted to a hex map (because it is the RPG parallel to BattleTech, a huge mecha game). The down side is that there is definitely a "Random Number Gods" aspect when you start stacking difficulties. Even if your game is a Fantasy setting, this Scifi/Ultramodern one can create some foundation mechanics.

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+1 for MW3. It's a bit on the crunchy side, but one of the more realistic systems. – sarahm Aug 4 '12 at 19:00

You can take a look to Warhammer Fantasy Role Play 2nd Edition (WFRP-2E) combat system.

WFRP-2E combat system could be more lethal to Characters who aren't trained to fight, since Characters can be commoners.

It's a d100 system.

Wounds as HP and Damage

Characters have Wounds as damage buffer, which range between about 10 and 18.

Each weapon does the same random damage d10. This damage is modified by a fixed amount accordingly to the weapon.

When you reach zero wounds you're kind of knocked out; you die if someone takes you under zero and scores a lethal Critical Hit.

A Critical Hit can lead to minor or more severe injuries. There are also rules to regulate the loss of arms/legs/eyes.

Armour, Locations and Damage Reduction

Characters reduce damage equal to their Toughness Bonus on all locations (yes, you have six locations). Then you can improve damage reduction on each location separately wearing armour.

You can aim a specific location taking a malus to hit.

Actions

In a round of combat a Character can perform Actions. In a round there's room for 2 Half Actions or one Full Action.

Dodge and Parry

Characters can try to Parry one strike per turn of combat. They are allowed to Parry if they have a weapon which confers a Free Parry or they are in Parry Stance.

Dodge is a skill which allows Characters to try to dodge one strike per turn of combat. In the ruleset not everyone has this skill.

No over-powered Two Weapon Fighting

Fighting with two weapons does not confer additional attacks. It allows Characters to choose the weapon for the subsequent hit.

Since weapons have qualities, Characters can take advantage of Two Weapon Fighting to best fit the situation without becoming a "mincer".

Fate and Fortune Points

Characters have a number of Fate Points determined at creation time. They represent Character's luck and possibility to cheat death.

A Character can use a Fate Point when he's about to die (or lose a limb). If such situation applies, the GM has to devise something to ensure Character's survival (or integrity).

When a Character spends a Fate Point, his Fate Points characteristic is decremented by one permanently.

Fortune Points are related to Fate Points, but are different.

A Character can spend a number of Fortune Points equal to his Fate Points each day.

Characters expending one Fortune Point can:

• re-roll one failed characteristic/skill test;
• gain one extra Parry or Dodge per turn;
• gain extra die on initiative roll;
• gain extra Half Action in combat;
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Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd edition is a good fit with the exception of being really lethal. Simply double the wound threshold of everybody and your job is done.

Parrying, Evasion, being smart in general is all covered and really interesting in WHFRP3. Parrying and Evasion are two actions you can play (with a small cooldown). The system also encourage creativity in the way players describe their actions. There's also an awesome stance system incredibly intuitive and descriptive.

Wounds are basically cards that you pick when you are hit and if you have a critical wound you simply flip one of the card and gain the condition described on one of those cards.

I prefer 3rd edition becaused it replaced all the tables and references by easy to track cards but a more "old school" version was released for a cheaper price where you only have to buy a hardcover book with all the rules and actions and classes.

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Hârnmaster uses a hitpoint-less system. In a nutshell, characters take injuries which degrade their skills by imposing a penalty on subsequent skill and ability checks. But they can't die from injury alone – the only way they can die (or suffer a number of other adverse effects) is by failing what is in effect a saving throw.

Hârnmaster has this set up to be fairly deadly. However, there is no reason why more generous saves couldn't be used instead. By adjusting the skill penalty per injury and save difficulties, you can fine tune to the system to whatever degree of deadliness you want.

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Hârn as written is BRUTAL... but cutting the penalties in half makes it nearly cinematic. – aramis Jul 20 '12 at 9:58

You can get a realistic system and reduce the damage or decrease the hit chance.

Sword path glory works like this Decide (or not) if you will hit with normal speed, fast speed or slow speed, this influence the damage and amount of time to hit. Decide how you will hit left to right, right to left, up to down, stabbing. this influence where you will hit Roll to see if you will hit (if the enemy is trying to parry with ashield or weapon influence the chance) If you hit roll to see where you hit Check damage Multiply by 2 or 3, based on weapon and infection Check to see if the armor will glance and reduce a little the damage. Check to see if the character will pass out or enter chock, based on current damage and part of previous damages. Check when the guy will need to roll to see if he will die. After this amount of time check to see if he survive If he survive check again to see when he will need to do check again. Also do this time check every time you take damage and some doctor heal you.

Anyway, you can get the damage you receive and reduce by some amount or reduce the chance to hit the character. Or both. Some have good points and bad points. With reducing hit chance, when your system come into effect, your character is not hit, and so char can run from battle likeif nothing happened, this is a bad point maybe. But with reducing hit chance you can keep the entire damage realism, only with smaller chance to hit.

Infection increase the damage by * 3, you can make infection damage do the usual damage and make usual damage do (usual damage/3). Or make infection do (usual damage/3) and so usual damage do (usual damage/9)

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