New on Desk #70 — Fighting Magic

I’ve had a more diffuse week; hasn’t felt bad, I’ve just slept more and written less than last week. I think part of the reason has been the attention I’ve put into the on-going Coup campaign.

The linear warrior

The D&D Fighter class has a few basic features that the game, by virtue of its traditional structure, is obligated to uphold:

Simple basic class: The Fighter should be the simplest and most straightforward class to play, suitable for beginner players. This has to do with the game’s Hobbesian fantasy setting where violence is the ultimate ratio of anything and everything; it is strategically simplest to play the character who has their greatest comparative advantage in the tactically reduced pivot point of the battlefield. By having the game mechanics follow suit in simplicity, the game produces its characteristic low participation threshold where it’s OK to play simple and play simple, just encounter the monsters and bash their faces in until it’s time to retreat and count the loot.

Best at fighting: Fighting does not necessarily have to be relevant everywhere, but where violence occurs the Fighter should have the situational edge in specialization. I know that this is hard, because you want every class to “be able to contribute”, but the subjective protagonist rights of the Fighter do not care. Fighting’s his shtick.

Traditional tiering: A 1st level Fighter operates similar to a realistic professional soldier. A mid-levels (say level 4+) Fighter should be more like D’Artagnan or Batman or similar pulp hero — romanticized, but not supernatural; reliably extraordinary but not blatantly inhuman. The tradition does not grant us a legit picture of what a high-level Fighter should look like (they stop changing in the orthodox rules sets at mid-level), but I’m thinking supernatural xianxia swordsmen, basically.

I suppose we could say that not respecting these ideas means that we’re working on something other than a Fighter. Which is fine, of course, but the Fighter’s been a surprisingly sticky concept historically in D&D. It’s part of the furniture, and the theme is admittedly central to the kind of adventure fiction that D&D deals with. That mid-levels dashing fellow able to put down the mooks and climb the precipice to save the princess, whether called Conan or Flash Gordon, is core.

The Fighter class is generally easy to adapt to a campaign, it’s uncommon to see it having technical issues. Literally just positing some kind of combat effectiveness progress chart vis-a-vis the default baseline combatant is all you need. Forgetting to write up a similar chart for other classes actually just makes it work better, emphasizes the Fighter’s role at low levels. With the traditional D&D conceits of scaling hit points (Fighters usually get the mostest!) and attack bonuses (Fighters usually get the mostest!) making the class work up to mid-levels is basically a given.

However, at mid-levels a famous difficulty raises its head, the “linear warrior” conundrum: the concept of the Fighter class is to dominate the “ultima ratio” of conflict, the combat encounter, so when combat starts losing importance in the game, the importance of the Fighter starts going down as well. Gamers perceive this as the Wizard class (arguably the opposite of the Fighter in being a preparation-based problem-solver) being “quadratic” in the sense that combat encounters become ever easier for a Wizard to resolve with non-fighting methods (or alternate ways of fighting, however you want to think of it; methods that fall outside the purview of the Fighter class, certainly).

Part of the traditional conundrum is a static understanding of D&D where the game is broken in some way if level advancement changes its nature; the idea is that Fighters and the problems they solve should forever and ever be relevant to the game. I could very well see a D&D campaign where this wasn’t the case:
End the campaign around level 8.
Transition to Name Level, Fighters have plenty to do there.
Retire or retrain the Fighters for high levels.

Now, all that being said, what if I want to get over that hump and retain the Fighter at play for high levels? The traditional answer is to kinda twist high-level play around what the Fighter can do, so “high level” means that monsters are immune to magic and have lots of hit points, and the paradigm of adventure is def about fighting monsters, ’cause Fighter’s gotta fight. Lame.

I prefer the Asian fantasy superhero angle better, the kind where a high-level Fighter is, well, a superhero. I understand that people don’t always like this because it means change; Flash Gordon is no longer Flash Gordon if he can fly and shoot laser beams from his eyes, but, well, if you don’t want change then don’t level up is my thinking.

I’ve been designing the Fighter class for the Coup campaign against this theoretical background. The class starts orthodox at 1st level, very simple, but gains a few class features over the early levels that could potentially carry it through mid-levels as a relevant concern. The design flags a bit kinda intentionally at early high levels before getting to Heroic tier (at which point character class matters less in general), I don’t mind leaving the details of how to solve the linear warrior conundrum for themselves.

The class design has remained pretty stable over the winter, but I’ve recently been working out a potential addition to what I already have. It’s a 3rd level class feature and an associated combat mechanism that might be helpful in quantifying martial feats and generally providing abstract gamey chassis for combat at mid-levels, when maneuvering in general starts detaching from realistic concerns. I write, of course, about fighting magic — a formal mechanical kungfu system.

The Aggression mechanic

Coup rules are designed to fold neatly out of the way in general, and so it is with Aggression: the combat rules work fine without it, and you can generally ignore the concept unless there are mid-level Fighters in the party. And if there are some, you can leave Aggression tracking to them. It’s intended to be sort of an “advanced” combat rule. if Coup was being published like BECMI, this would be in the Expert book.

Aggression is a points pool that characters generate during combat. The Aggression points are a dramatic representation of the addrenaline response in a crisis situation, similar to how hit point loss is a dramatic representation of danger. High Aggression is generally a good thing for Fighters, although an excess can be a problem. The intent is to use the Aggression pool as a mana pool for various effects, with the special gimmick of it being a pool that is amassed and only exists during combat; you start without, then gain some, and then expend it for special purposes.

So yeah, it’s a limit break mechanic. I think the idea is life-like enough to use in an organically realist game like this, too.

A character gains an Aggression point for each hit point of damage they suffer or inflict in melee combat. Taking injuries from magic or missile weapons counts for Aggression, but causing them does not. Some spells are melee, e.g. Burning Hands. The Aggression gain from losing HP is mandatory, while the gain from inflicting is voluntary for most (non-berserk) characters. You track your own points, the GM won’t have time to hold your hand.

Half of the Aggression pool dissipates at the end of the maneuver phase. The way this works out in Coup’s wacky combat procedure is that if a maneuver phase is interrupted by a melee, the Aggression has no chance to go down, but otherwise it takes a sharp dive. Once combat subsides or the character has an opportunity to catch their breath, the pool quickly disappears.

Gaining more Aggression than the character has HP makes them shaken. Call it a mild status effect, part of the psychological pressure of war. The effect goes away when Aggression is no longer higher than HP. A character with more Aggression than their WIS score goes into shock, a more serious status that prevents active combat. A shaken character can try to go into frenzy instead of shock, and a character going into frenzy can try to flee instead of fight. That sort of thing, get some combat psychology in there. Fighters get to add or deduct their level from the status effect limits as they please (might want to lower your personal limit to get frenzy).

Characters who can wield Aggression can expend it for effect. I’m thinking that there are a few default things you can spend these points on, and martial feats will then add to that. That’s the point of this system, really, to have a resource system for limiting cool special attacks. But it’s also good to have a few default things to do with the points. Any of these could also be martial feats if it seems they’re annoying as default options.
Postpone Effect: Like HP cancel, except the effect resolution is postponed until the next maneuver phase instead of being cancelled altogether. Costs the same, just paid in Aggression. (HP cancel is this super-universal save mechanic that I like to use to fix certain math issues in D&D; pay X HP, cancel effect.) Note that HP damage can be postponed for the equivalent amount of Aggression.
Second Wind: Maneuver phase action, spend up to [Level] Aggression to recover HP like in short rest. Note that this is the exact sort of action that, if successful, ends with Aggression dissipation.
Press the attack: Spend Aggression while declaring melee. Unless the enemy outbids, gain an extra die for your initiative roll.

Characters who cannot wield Aggression can suffer the negative effects of Aggression, but not the positive ones. Wielding Aggression is learned in some martial arts and by 3rd level Fighters. The players of such characters can, if they want to, track Aggression for others as well, and declare any negative effects. Basically, cause enemies to get shaken or go into shock. It’s sort of a game mechanical concern that can fade in or out arbitrarily depending on whether a combatant relies on it. Note that a character who can wield Aggression could in some circumstances track and use an ally’s Aggression in a constructive way.

This is both relatively complex and tightly constrained by the core design, so who knows if it goes anywhere; we’ll need to test Aggression out, see how it flows.

Monday: Coup de Main #44

Back in the land of practical Coup de Main, the adventurers had prepared last time to return back to the Mist Marsh. Ever since we started traveling there it seems like that’s all we do: back and forth, two times every month in campaign time.

The players might have started feeling a pressure to do something else, as minor disturbance in player participation inspired the core group to an agile topic shift: leave the main crew to their marsh-traveling plans and set up a second party to go to Castle Greyhawk! I like that adventure, so no complaints from me.

As one of the players remarked later, the distance from Yggsburg to the Castle, once so formidable (or annoying, as they put it), really isn’t much once you calibrate for the idea that adventurers go on actual expeditions. The Castle is practically next door in comparison.

Sometimes player plans are kinda funny. Like this time, one of the players created a new character with CHA 15, so the group decided that this guy would become their hiring sergeant. The party has suffered from a chronic lack of hirelings for a long time now, having leeched Yggsburg of easy volunteers; the idea here was that the party would hire volunteers from a couple of villages on the way to the Castle.

A few minutes later, the player decides that yeah, they’re going to play a Savage/Entertainer multiclass character. An amusingly random combination, kinda unique. Doubling up on skill monkey classes like that is pretty cheap and ensures a wide array of skills. Among the character’s many amazing talents is what, almost 30% skill in speaking the Common language. They’re a tribesman of honor from the Shining Desert. We were forced to question the strategic intelligence leading the party when discovering the -8 penalty the scary barbarian took when trying to hire local farmboys to join the adventuring party.

Aside from that, hexcrawling business as usual: Ranger stuff (bringing a Ranger anywhere is fun; there seems to be a lot of Ranger-specific drama out there in the hex map), some losels (half-orc, half-orangutan) strayed far from their home in the Castle Woods… bringing the Ranger paid off big time as the party actually found an obscure Ranger trail leading through the otherwise relatively impenetrable Castle Woods.

Unless we’re horribly mistaken, the party should have camped just a few miles away from the Castle Greyhawk itself now. I have no idea if we’re just going to drop the Mist Marsh plotline, or if we’re going to play that one tomorrow, but I guess either way it’s going to be a fine adventure, so we’ll see. Maybe it really does depend on how many players we get, and the players think that it’s smarter to take a small party to the Castle.

Session #45 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 3.5., starting around 15:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

Tuesday: Coup in Sunndi #20

For our 20th session the face-to-face group celebrated with a very intensive combat session: the Basic Sunndian party, known for their generally Lawful mien, had set up a risky jaunt into the faery woods to apprehend Melchert the Chaos Cleric, a long-time campaign villain. The party knew that Melchert was visiting with dark elves who had some kind of temple or operational site in the woods, which was pretty much all they knew.

The party met some elves and gnomes on the way to the target, but ascertained these to be of the Seelie variety, so no problems in that regard. Barbariel, Keniel and Chelseniel (Barbariel’s young cousin, in case your Barbie lore failed you) seemed nice enough as elves go, though they knew nothing about Melchert’s whereabouts.

Soon after the party discovered an adventure location custom-made by myself for the day’s adventure. A hedge wall (classic fairy imagery in D&D, that) delimiting a hedge maze, some huts, herb gardening among the trees, a large tree house, and such, all scattered in the woods just enough to make for tactical maneuver space. The area was surrounded by plantings of Glownations, fae plants that provide some light in the night and warn creatures of darkness away from an elf village.

During their approach the party encountered a couple of gnomes replanting a Glownation injured during the initial scouting foray; thoroughly surprised, the gnomes failed to resist a sudden assault. The party Ranger took to the entire situation of raiding a forest village like a fish to the water, organizing a fair approximation of the My Lai incident in miniature.

The party was 1st level in the main, but they had solid tactics and luck on their side, which ended up with them surprising and killing about 40 HD worth of gnomes, elves and a mysterious case of a goat-headed man. Particularly noteworthy was that the security of the faery compound was so insufficient, and the wilderness skills of the party so on point, that they managed to surprise several waves of the faeries as they gathered to investigate the noises from the fighting. The ones that were inside the huts died with their pants down.

In case you’re wondering, the players started understanding at various points that the compound they were attacking was not a dark elf site. Two of nine involved PCs outright deserted in horrified disgust after the successful initial assault allowed the party to seize initiative against the hut-dwellers. Apparently unprovoked murder of gnomes and elves wasn’t for them; not surprising, humans of Sunndi are generally friendly with Seelie fae, recognizing the alliance between their peoples.

The rest of the party formed an unspoken alliance of the… I’d say one third uncaring hanger-on, one third evil and one third “well, might as well hang for a sheep as a lamb”. Their tactical problem was that they were uncertain where Melchert (whom they were still nominally looking for, alongside maintaining general operational control) might be hiding. The two most likely options seemed to be the hedge maze and the great aspen tree house, of which the party chose to investigate the latter first.

This is where their luck ran out, however; the elven princess in charge of the compound had finally realized (via empathetic grief) that they were under attack, so when the party climbed to the tree-house they were assaulted by elf-friendly hawks with unnatural flocking behavior; not very dangerous in itself, but tricky when navigating a narrow stair up a tree.

The actual decisive blow came when the party forced open the door into the tree-house, getting a Sleep spell in the face from the elven princess. A ruthless move in that anybody falling asleep on that narrow stair had a 50% chance to fall for a neat 3d6 damage on contact with the ground. The scraps of the party tried to eke out a victory with a ruthless assault after that, but with a squad of gnomes forewarned and defending their princess, they had little chance.

The NPC guide who’d talked the party into going on this rather sketchy adventure got caught in the Sleep spell, I think, and fell to his death. This was pretty ironic in that the seemingly inconsequential adventure hook vehicle was none other than Nold, the infamous Chaotic Stupid Warlock who’s been gracing the campaign since its first session. Very much of a player character, he.

Remember my topic last week, about the PvP? Well, this is how the Sunndi group rolls: Nold had earlier (quite a bit earlier at this point) gotten into a deadly rivalry with the elf Lameniel, a member of a NPC adventuring party the group met in their troglodyte venture. Egged on by a desire for revenge, Nold in consultation with Melchert his Master brewed up a plot to hire some goody two-shoes adventurers to help him assassinate Lameniel: he would lie to the adventurers about the nature of the adventure and convince them to attack the elves with him.

The fairy witches from last session were real and necessary, by the way; Nold didn’t know where Lameniel was, so he needed the wisdom of the witches… well, hags; they were Unseelie fae willing to help him here. All in all, it was quite the ploy, and it worked perfectly well, too: Nold did get his adventuring party, and got them to kill elves with him.

However, what Nold failed to account for (no wonder, his WIS was like 6 and INT 4) were the tactical particulars of the assault itself; it was pretty risky to just attack “somewhere” on account of Lameniel being there. The case happened to be (50% due to my modeling Lameniel’s behavior, 50% due to me wanting to set up a feasible adventure) that Lameniel had retreated into a “grieving retreat” after the last adventure, which is why she was at the “Dawn Grove” elf therapy community in the first place. Lameniel really was there, the party just didn’t have the luck to find them before being brought down by the defenders.

Still, it’s darkly amusing how Nold could convince an entire party of player characters to TPK themselves against an elven therapy community without much in the way of questions. As the campaign philosophy in general is that the players are responsible for investigating and selecting their adventure hooks, I imagine this particular case study will be remembered for some time.

About half of the party ended up surviving their ruthless raid on the elves, but I doubt we’ll see them again. Elves have their own ways of dealing with cruel murderers. (By which I mean, the weak-willed will be glamoured and kept in serfdom until the end of their days. Strong-willed ones will be fed to lions or some such. The fae have their own ways.)

State of the Productive Facilities

The week was a bit weird in that I didn’t get a lot done — 1k words of Muster, ding — but it didn’t feel like I was procrastinating either. Hopefully it’s not the general busy season descending on my lifestyle like a thousand biting gnats… I suppose in examination I mostly spent the week sleeping and designing combat rules and physical cultivation systems, so maybe it’s not as dire as that. I did move some furniture and change the tires on a car. I guess I was just emotionally drained after that dramatic Sunndi game or something.

2 thoughts on “New on Desk #70 — Fighting Magic”

  1. Sorry if I’ve missed this — where might one find a link to join the discord where this game occurs? I’m very curious.

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