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I am writing a custom PbtA hack to reboot an old play-by-post-RPG that I used to run on a lightweight, but overly random original system.

The party contains 8-9 players (which worked out before the reboot because it's asynchronous anyway), and my goal for the combat mechanics is to offer interesting choices and avoid first-turn takedowns. I've designed the combat rules around having to use suppressive fire and distractions in order to land a proper hit; and I want to make sure there's enough tactical variety in how things play out.

The combat moves relevant for this question are modified adventure fantasy reskins of Apocalypse World's battle moves (Seizy by Force, Lay down Fire, Stand Overwatch, Keep an Eye Out) plus Dungeon World's Volley. Combatants can evade predictable attacks, while suffering consequences similar to AW's harm move. Critical strikes happen whenever you meet 3 conditions out of this list, and cannot be evaded:

  • Surprise attack
  • Range advantage in melee
  • Target is under suppressive fire
  • Target is defenseless or immobilized
  • All-out attack (a melee option where the user lets down their guard in exchange)
  • (Possibly) a move that adds a critical condition to ranged overwatch attacks (for sharpshooter types)

Surprise attacks and certain splash damage cannot be evaded even on a non-critical strike.

However I'm starting to get worried that my old system's "attack, attack, attack" situation might get replaced by equally formulaic combinations of suppressive fire, all-out sneak attacks, and standing overwatch for the sneak attacker.

How do I ensure that battles will play out diversely and players will have interesting decisions to make? So far I considered protection effects like spells or cover, which can raise the critical threshold, a unique way to demoralize each enemy/group to add a critical condition, and introducing spontaneity through turn order (when the timing is inopportune for their preferred action).

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You can require tactics directly. They don't have to be mechanical accidents.

One common feature of most PbtA games is that their mechanics are heavily gated by the story. If you want your players to make tactical moves to set enemies up and then take them down, you don't need your adversaries to have hit points or a harm clock at all. You just need a checkbox that says "set up".

Fellowship is a game that uses this conceit. Weaker adversaries don't even get this checkbox, stronger adversaries are modeled as a series of elements, each of which needs to be set up and taken down. For example:

Dark Jazerain

  • Unnatural Vitality

  • Ogre Bodyguards

  • Lifedrinker, the Crimson Blade

And since there's no special "combat time", just actions people take when they have the narrative spotlight, people have free rein to use setups and takedowns "outside combat" - the ogre bodyguards can be set up by luring them away from camp and taken down by bluffing them to go on a fool's errand; the unnatural vitality probably can't be set up in combat but will need to be researched somehow to find its weakness.

Single-point versus multiple-point setup, and repetition

The reason to use single-point setup, as opposed to the multiple-point setup you've described, is so that you don't need to fall back on the same common means of setup when you're working out how PCs can set up their opponents.

If something only needs one setup, you can go pretty far afield when working out what that is. Even with a couple variants, it's easy to come up with narrative paths that can be distinct from the other things the PCs are facing.

If something needs multiple setups, and PCs are expected to hit all of them, then you need to come up with all of them, and it's hard to look at a bunch of things on the same battlefield and not wind up overlapping somewhere.

If you need just one setup, you can even say things like:

"The ogre bodyguards saw how you pulled off the hobgoblin phalanx and crushed it in a pincer attack. The same trick won't work on them."

in a way that might be tough to close off multiple required setups.

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It's all in the MC moves

As the MC in a PbtA game, you have implicit power over what tactics are tenable in any given situation. That power comes from the explicit duty to dictate the consequences on a miss. That is, when someone rolls a 6-, you make a move, as soft or hard as you like.

So if your players are pushing for the same tactics over and over, maybe that is your "soft" spot. You can easily raise the stakes by choosing to do harder moves when they miss.

The reverse is also true. If your players seem to avoid some tactics, maybe it's because the consequences are too hard. Soften your moves there, and they probably will ease into it.

A player move frames what happens on a hit. You decide what happens on a miss. Always use that fact to balance things out, and you won't have to do any pre-emptive guesswork-based delicate balancing act.

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