Monday, August 17, 2015

Framing - an alternative way to manage combat

It's nice to get comments. It let's me know you are engaged and also what you are interested in. So in the comments for my Tuesday, August 11, 2015 post max dev mentioned a forum post I'd made, here, and asked me to expand on the idea of framing as an alternate way of handling initiative in combat. So this post is for max dev.

Like a lot of systems, Honor+Intrigue uses turns with individual initiative. That works well or as well as such systems always work. One problem that some other systems don't have is based on how actions work in H+I. Let me explain a little, if you already play H+I you can skip the next couple of paragraphs.

In H+I there are three types (or levels) of characters. 
  • Pawns, which are the weakest, may take only one action each round. This may be a major action, like a punch or sword attack, or a minor action like a feint, trip, parry, or dodge. 
  • Retainers, are more powerful than pawns. They still only get one action, but they have the ability to split that action into two actions, say a sword attack and a parry. But each action has a penalty of -2. So Retainers will often take only one action to avoid the penalty.
  • Heroes and Villains, these are the most powerful characters, the players and their major opponents. Heroes and Villains work the same. Each is allowed a major and a minor action each turn. And they can split their action into two actions (with the same -2 penalty on each action). 
 As you can see, most rounds will have a couple of actions or occasionally three actions for the major characters and one or at most two actions for the two minor types of characters. This is manageable and allows for a quick resolution of each character's portion of the round. These actions are resolved in initiative order, so character with the best (highest) initiative rolls for their major action and their minor action (unless they are holding an action in reserve, say for a possible parry or dodge.

When we first started playing Honor+Intrigue, switching between characters based on initiative as H+I describes worked well for keeping the players engaged. However it had one problem. Because the action switches from one character to the next, several players complained that their recollection of the fight was very stochastic or stroboscopic and they couldn’t follow the flow of the combat.. To resolve that we ended up going back after a short fight or at stages in a longer fight and describing the flow of combat. This was a bit cumbersome, but it worked.

However, as the players increased in power they mastered actions. Sometimes multiple actions.  Mastering some actions, like Parry or Riposte gives the master an additional free action. Heroes and Villains in H+I get two actions each round: one major action (often an attack) and one minor action (like a feint or a reaction like a parry). However very experienced characters who have mastered maneuvers get more actions. So a deadly duelist like our hero, Captain-Lieutenant Gaston Thibeault fighting the villainous sword master, César de Mala Cassanha, might look like this.

Round 1
  • Gaston gets the initiative, he attacks with Bladework (his major action).
  • Cassanha parries (free action), then ripostes (free action).
  • The riposte would have barely succeeded, but Gaston dodges (his free action), then ripostes (free action).
  • Cassanha parries (his minor action).
  • Cassanha now acts. He lunges (his major action).
  • Gaston parries (his minor action) which ends the round.
WHEW! Okay, now on to round 2 which might look similar.

As you can imagine if you are playing Guy de Bourges, you might forget what happened in your last combat after listening to the long exchange between Gaston and Cassanha. Especially if Gaston was followed by a similar exchange of blows between Father Signoret and his opponent. Now this sort of very long round only happens when the PC has mastered multiple maneuvers and the opponent is a Villain who has also mastered multiple maneuvers. Which is not the usual encounter in H+I, but such encounters have happened more than a few times over the years we have played.

I wanted to find a different way of managing the combat round. That's when I happened across this an article for an entirely different game system: All for One: Régime Diabolique. I first looked at AFO for one reason, this picture from the cover of :
Displaying all-for-one 143KB.jpg
Musketeers fighting werewolves. How cool is that?

From the start of our campaign we left open the possibility of some supernatural elements. So I started looking at the rules, supplements, scenarios for All for One: Régime Diabolique for ideas ans such. Besides any game set in 17th century France is bound to have something I can use. While looking over the various downloads I found a free PDF Framing A Different Approach to Fight Scenes for Ubiquity by Alexander Zalud. I looked at it and found a possible solution to the problems we were having: Framing Combat. The next few sections (in blue) are from the free PDF Framing A Different Approach to Fight Scenes for Ubiquity. Their PDF includes an extended combat example using framing. It's worth a read and the method can be used with most systems that use a turn/initiative system. I;ll continue after you've had a look at what Mr. Zalud has to say.


Having gamemastered an All for One Campaign for over a year now, I’ve seen and tried a lot of different ways to handle fights in All for One. The problem is not in the rules themselves, as they are really easy and fast, the problem is the way a fight is staged.

Ubiquity suffers from still hanging onto the Turn-Sequence. The combat-round still serves as a ‘reset-point’ in a fight, where everybody has finished their actions and another sequence begins. In Hollow Earth Expedition there’s a experimental way of a combat flow, which seems interesting but way to complicated to actually use. So, my approach is a purely cinematic one: Framing.

Every movie-scene is made out of a certain number of frames, where one or more char­acters share time on the screen. In a fight-scene with more than one important character involved, this screen-time has to be split into frames, so that the audience can follow the action going on.

Here’s a clip from the 2011 Musketeers: Look at the way the fight is presented on the screen – the action jumps from one character to another, showing a short sequence of them fighting. In some frames, there’s even more than one character present, but the focus clearly lies on one specific person. This method can be used in an RPG also, in much the same way it is used on the silver screen.

The Storyboard

First of all, we need a storyboard, something that tells us when a certain character has his moment on the screen – the order of frames, in short, Initiative. It is rolled for normally. So, we know who will be the first one on the screen (remember: this can also be a villain!) and therefore the one to start the scene. The camera focuses on him (or her) and the action begins.

Length of Actions

How much can be done in one frame? Well, it depends—it depends on what the drama dictates. Take a look at the scene from the movie again. There’s always a finished action shown – unless it is intended as a cliffhanger for the dramatic effect. When Porthos makes his mighty sweep, this is his only action for the frame, while later he is shown beating down three opponents. Athos scythes through five opponents in one frame in slow-motion!

This just isn’t possible with the standard round. Therefore, we have to break this concept. As a rule of thumb, two standard actions per frame can be used. This may be two attacks, a trick and an attack, etc. But, some cool moves and actions require more than this.

Consider the Athos example: The GM describes that there are five opponents coming at him in a loose line. The player declares, that he parries the first attack (with the Parry-talent) and beats the opponent with the hilt of his rapier. Using the forward-momentum, he wants to parry the second man, cutting him down in a riposte. As all the rolls up to this point are successful, the player asks, if he can keep up the tempo, using his momentum to cut down the next man, again being successful. With a broad grin, he asks if he could just fall into a lunge to stab the following man, rolling his dice. Finally he wants to whirl around, pushing himself off the falling man and freeing his blade for another slash to fell the fifth man.

That’s a lot of actions—consider how bogged down the whole thing would be if handled in the usual round-sequence! After the first action the other players would have their turns, breaking the flow of the action and the whole thing would result in a ‘parry-riposte-next-man’ kind of thing.

By framing the scene, Athos stays in focus until his sequence is finished, turning it into one cool movement, showing how “uber” the character is in comparison to the Cardinal’s guards.

Keeping it Unscripted

As a GM you don’t have to record hits and describe their effect—let the player describe the result he/she wants to achieve and change it according to the dice. After all, this is not a scripted fight-scene as in a movie, it has to be a little bit unpredictable to be interesting.

Example: Mdme. Ledeux wants to jump from the roof above an opponent, somersaulting in mid-air and impaling him on the landing.

Her dice (and Style Points) give her enough successes for the action to succeed, but not to kill him outright—so the thrust hits the shoulder nailing the man to the wooden wall behind him. This would end the turn—but seeing that her attack did not take her adversary out, she wants to grab the pistol in his right hand and smash it into his face. To not break the frame, the GM lets her roll for it and the frame ends with an unconscious men sliding down the blade.

Pacing the Scene

In other frames, a single action may be sufficient to keep up the pace of the scene, jumping in rapid order down the initiative-ladder. If a single stroke fells the opponent and there´s no back-up, switch frames. If the PC jumps unto another roof and looks for his comrades, switch frames.

Remember, the goal is to stage a fight-scene, not just know who dies and who lives to see another day. This is swashbuckling, where style is more important than just dis­patching an opponent—even if the actual action is gritty re­alistic, if it’s staged accordingly, it gets flashy and dramatic.

Multiple PCs

All this is rather easily done with single PCs—what about two or three PCs in the same frame? Focus. The PC with the higher Initiative has the focus. Let the PC in focus start his action, let him do one or two standard-actions then switch focus onto the next in line, unless something cool just started – let the players get into the flow of the action.

Example: D’Artagnan fights off one opponent, while at his back, Athos does the same. D’Artagnan is in focus, so his action is resolved first. The attacker is dispatched, and the GM tells the player, that there’s another one coming at him, but switches focus to Athos. His actions are resolved, the attacker falls and the GM informs the player of yet another opponent coming at him. The players of D’Artagnan and Athos look at each other and declare, that both of them will spin around, thrusting at the attacker of the other one simultaneously.

Villain vs. Henchman

What’s the difference between the rows of nameless sword-fodder and a true villain? In game terms, the henchman is built as Follower and therefore has lower stats, while the villain can be built as Ally or Patron. But that’s not enough—you have to give them Style Points to make them truly en par with the PCs.

While the henchmen take the average when it comes to rolling Initiative (and therefore will in most cases be slower than the PCs), the villain even spends SP to come out on top. He wants to act, not just react to the PCs actions.

The Fight-Scene

After every player (and villain) had his turn, the new ‘storyboard’ starts. It is therefore a change from combat-round to combat-scene. This is a change of approach, not of rules. Remember, you just break the concept of combat-rounds by concentrating on the action, you don’t change the rules.

If a player wants to do a trick, he still has to change a normal attack for it and roll on an appropriate skill. He/she still has to roll his attack normally, while the de­fender rolls his defense.

There is just one thing you as GM should consider: Allowing supporting skills in combat. It makes things a lot easier to handle, when a ‘Jump-and-thrust’ is resolved by giving +2 on the attack instead of having to roll for the jump and then the thrust—and not getting anything out of it but a Style Point.

OK, its me again. The way I use framing is basically the same as Alexander suggests. 

1) I group the players based on who is near whom and what they are doing. Each group is a frame. Depending on how you conceptualize you can create frames using the story board technique Alexander mentions or if you are playing a more tactical game with minis you might do it based on which figures are close enough to interact. If you are a comics fan, think of it like one or more connected panels in a comic, e.g. D'Artagnan swings on the chandelier towards Rochefort and kicks him. Because it is an RPG, it is really D'Artagnan trying to swing towards Rochefort and kick him whether or not D'Artangan succeeds depends on how each rolls. The kick and it's resolution may be one frame. I will include all the characters that I think are likely to be able to affect a given character in the same frame or story board.

2) Roll initiative as normal. Start with the frame that has the character with the highest initiative. Run through that characters actions and those of any other characters who are part of that frame. Continue to run those characters until you reach a natural end point to the frame or until that player or players  have had so much time that you need to switch to another player to keep everyone interested and involved. When possible end when a frame or shot is complete or, failing that, on a cliff hanger, e.g. the Villain hits, end the frame before we see if the Hero parries successfully.

If you are running multiple rounds for one frame you may have the characters in this group rolling a new initiative each round. That takes a little longer, but it works better with the back and forth of actions and reactions in H+I. If it's too much trouble, it will work to can keep the same initiative throughout this frame if that's easier for your group.

3) Go to the frame that has the character with the next highest initiative and repeat as in step 2. Repeat until you have covered each of the characters involved.

4) Start over, by rolling initiative for all characters and repeat steps 1-3 above. Note that you may have different characters involved in this next set of frames you create.

I hope that makes sense. If it's not clear yet, I suggest you read through the example Alexander provides then think about how you would run that same set of actions in Honor+Intrigue or whatever system you are running as a series of frames.


  1. I came here following your link to the Blue Owl cave in our mapping discussion, but this is the thing that grabbed my attention. I think you're addressing the same issue I was addressing with the initiative system on my blog. That is, how to make combat less a series of (possibly) confusing unrelated actions and more into a flowing exchange between combatants. I'll think about this some more, in particular how it might help me with grappling rules.

  2. Hi Joe, I've only started looking at your blog, so far mostly focused on the missile range posts. I'll keep an eye out for the initiative posts as well.