Monday, January 16, 2017

Fast Combat Resolution for H+I

Let me preface my remarks by saying that I like the mechanics and the outcome of combat in Honor+Intrigue (H+I). A lot. It is well suited for what it was designed for – the type of swashbuckling, mostly 1-to-1 duels one sees in swashbuckling films like Robin Hood with Errol Flynn or Scaramouche with Stewart Granger. However, there is a problem I’ve noticed and it is a result of the very flexibility that makes the mechanics so good. The problem is that unless the players are adept and quick at selecting maneuvers and calculating their modifiers, at rolling the dice, and at tracking their changing Advantage and Fortune Points, the rules as written (RAW) style of combat bogs down. One solution is to have players become facile at combat, but some players find learning the system to be a chore and frankly they lack the interest to do so.

Just Switch to BoL

As an alternative I’ve thought of changing combat to the inspirational system, Barbarians of Lemuria (BoL) but there are some differences between the systems that make that less than simple. For example, in BoL characters get one action and must choose to either attack or defend in a round. In H+I Heroes (and Villains) are allowed both a major and a minor action each round which means they can attack and defend each round. However supporting characters such as Retainers and Pawns are only allowed one action each round. Games in H+I tend to feature multiple players, hence multiple heroes, but usually the heroes are opposed by a single Villain along with his Retainers and Pawns. So switching to a single action would handicap the players more than it would their opponents. 

Adding to the problem of simple switch is the fact that Heroes, Villains, and even Retainers may master maneuvers which typically gives them a bonus die for that specific maneuver. A simple BoL system would eliminate the advantage of mastered maneuvers for those characters that have them. This would handicap those characters in comparison to characters who did not master maneuvers. But the problems don’t stop there. Mastering certain minor action/reaction maneuvers such as Parry and Dodge allows the character to make an additional free action. This is a significant combat advantage which would be lost in simple switch. 

One could create a set of house rules to try to address the imbalances in a simple switch to BoL while still keeping the most of the aspects of the simpler BoL system. But to properly balance the various factors is not itself a simple task. It seems to be the equivalent of writing a new set of rules that are a hybrid of BoL and H+I. Frankly this sounds to me like too much work, especially in light of my opening remarks. 

Use H+I for Important Confrontations

Instead I propose using two separate, but related combat systems. For important confrontations I will use the existing H+I combat system with the RAW. 

So which confrontations are important? 

In simple terms, important means important to the people at the table. 

Any confrontation between a Hero and a Villain is, by definition, important. Any confrontation that the GM thinks is important is important. And any confrontation that the players, either collectively or individually think is important is important

It should be obvious why a confrontation between a Hero and a Villain is important. There may be exceptions. If there are, the GM will know it and should deal with it. Dealing with exceptions is one of the primary reasons that tabletop RPGs include a GM.

Similar it should be obvious why a confrontation that the GM thinks is important probably is important. Figuring out what is important during play is one of the primary roles of the GM. If the GM can’t or won’t figure out what’s important during play, that’s a people problem and rules aren’t going to fix that. Try talking to the GM…or try your hand at being the GM.

Let me say a few words about what the players think is important. The goal is to speed up play when the p confrontation is not one between Hero and Villain. So if the players think every combat their PC is involved in needs the full, RAW H+I combat system despite no Villain being in sight, then clearly the players don’t really agree with the notion that we should be promoting faster combat through different rules. As a GM it’s important to get general agreement with your players for the goals of play and the system to be used. If you don’t have that you have a problem that I’m not addressing here. Go fix that first.

Now even if everyone is in general agreement about the goals and the system, reasonable people may disagree about what is or isn’t important at any given point in play. So here are a few ideas for how to handle those sorts of disagreements.

Give more weight to the preferences of the players who are participating in the confrontation.

Their character(s) is involved and at risk so maybe their preference should be given greater weight. But keep in mind that RAW takes more time so if there are players who don’t have a character involved in the combat they may be forced to be idle while a time consuming combat occurs. This brings us to a counterbalancing rule.

Give more weight to the preferences of the players who aren’t participating in the combat.

As mentioned, players who aren’t involved in the confrontation may be idle and most of us come to a session with the desire to play, not just to be idle as we watch others play. Part of the reason to have a faster combat system is to decrease the amount of idle time for the GM and the players. In addition, players who aren’t directly participating may be a bit more objective in their assessment of the importance of the confrontation since they don’t have the same vested interest in seeing the confrontation take a lot of play time as might someone whose PC is participating.

But by having opposing rules that means we may have disagreement amongst the participants as to whether a confrontation is or is not important. How do we resolve that? 

Take a Vote.

One way is to resolve it the way humans often resolve things. We try to persuade others to take our side or to do what we want. Then take a vote. Show of hands, majority rules. Another way to vote is to use the Fortune Point mechanic. 

Pay to Play.

H+I has Fortune Points (FPs) that work the way bennies work in lots of other systems written that were written in this century. In H+I players can spend FPs to get bonuses and favorable modifiers before a die roll, to improve die results after a roll, to invoke certain special effects, and to make limited changes or creations in the setting. I’m going to assume the reader is familiar with the concept of bennies in general and with the resource management aspects of a bennie economy. One option is to charge the player(s) for the privilege of making a confrontation without a Villain important when it otherwise would not be considered important by the other people at the table. By charging for the privilege you prevent a player from choosing to make every one of their PC’s confrontations important and thus time consuming.

So what do we do for confrontations that aren’t important?

A Different Solution: Fast Combat

Fast combat has the player describe in general terms or natural language what their character is doing including perhaps what they are trying to accomplish by doing that thing. Here are a few examples:

  • I draw my sword and fight to keep the guards from getting through the doorway.
  • I stand in front of the Prince to protect him.
  • I unsheathe my rapier and awe them with my flashy swordsmanship. I just want to keep them back and prevent them from attacking me.
  • I defend myself.
  • I (try to) cut my way through the pirate crew to reach the rudder.
  • I want to send the chandelier crashing down on their heads.
  • I shoot the coachman.
  • I leap onto the passing coach and climb inside.

why this tends to be faster

  1. The player doesn’t have to translate their actions or desires from natural language into game mechanics.
  2. The player doesn’t have to take the time to select a specific maneuver before they roll the dice.
  3. The player doesn’t have to memorize or look up and calculate modifiers for that specific action based on the appropriate Quality, Combat Ability, and/or Career.
  4. It can eliminate wait time. In traditional play, players typically wait until it is their turn to roll the dice. Some even wait for their turn to decide what their character will try to do. Because the player doesn’t have to choose a maneuver, the player can decide on an action and roll the dice before it is their turn in the initiative order thus decreasing wait time.


Some Examples

I’ll use the examples of natural language I provided above and list [in brackets] what maneuver or modifiers to use.

  • I draw my sword and fight to keep the guards from getting through the doorway. [Daring+Melee]

  • I stand in front of the Prince to protect him. [Savvy+Melee or Daring+Melee with increased risk taking damage while protecting the Prince]

  • I unsheathe my rapier and awe them with my flashy swordsmanship. I just want to keep them back and prevent them from attacking me. [Tag maneuver or simply Flair+Melee]

  • I defend myself. [Parry or Dodge maneuver]

  • I (try to) cut my way through the pirate crew to reach the rudder. [Daring+Melee or if you have a cutlass or are good at Quick Cut, Flair+Melee]

  • I want to send the chandelier crashing down on their heads. [Stunt maneuver]

  • I shoot the coachman. [Ranged Attack]  
  • I leap onto the passing coach and climb inside. [Daring + Career like Acrobat or Highwayman with a bonus die for the Boon: Born Athlete]

The goal is for the GM to quickly decide what the modifiers are to the roll. 

Now I’ll let you in on something I’ve learned from playing Honor+Intrigue. H+I is a swingy system. By swingy I mean that a greater portion of the chance of success for most characters is due to the die roll than it is to the inherent Qualities, Combat Abilities, or Careers of that character. The net bonus for most actions in H+I is usually in the range of -1 to +3. 

What this means is that for most character and for much of the time if not most of the time, if the player rolls well (9-12) they will succeed and if they roll poorly (2-5) they will fail. Their abilities have the most impact when the die roll is in the middle of the range (6-8). So when I roll for the NPCs, I will first roll the dice and only if I am unsure of the likely outcome will I bother to look up and calculate the exact bonus. My players like to calculate their bonus for an action or maneuver before they pick up or roll the dice. Part of what I am trying to do with Fast Combat is to get the players to do the same thing with their PCs that I do for the NPCs.

Here’s another thing that is a result of the both the RAW system and the swinginess of H+I combat. Much of the time it doesn’t matter exactly which maneuver the player selects. There are several reasons for this.

1. You rolled low and missed. Which maneuver you picked probably didn’t matter at all.

2. You rolled and hit, but their reaction countered your action so your exact maneuver probably didn’t matter.

3. You rolled and hit, but the defender spent FPs to improve their defense and make you miss. This is 1 above.

4. You hit, but the defender yielded advantage. But lots of attacks are countered by yielding advantage so your exact maneuver probably didn’t matter. All that mattered is that you lost advantage.

I’m going to try out the Faster Combat in my next session. I’ll let you know how it works out. 

EDIT: Here's how it worked out.

If you liked this, then you might want to check out my Fast Chase rules.


  1. Nice idea. It'll be interesting to see how it works in practice.

  2. Watch for my February 2nd post where I tell how it worked out.