Combat in Against the Darkmaster

I think I should have the Against the Darkmaster (VsD) QuickStart introduce this topic:

Combat is a serious thing in Against the Darkmaster.

While characters are assumed to be heroic, even the most skillful fighter must take combat seriously because of the high chance of being wounded or killed with a single blow.

p. 37

Right. Well. Hm.

I don’t disagree that combat should be serious, even for (perhaps even especially for) heroes, but I’m not sure that the type of combat presented in VsD properly emulates the fantasy fictions that inspire VsD. Perhaps I’m off track here. I’ve already admitted that I don’t relate to the Heavy Metal ethos of the 80s, and VsD specifically points to this element as inspiration for its combat.

The combat system in VsD, with some alterations, is that of Middle-Earth Role Playing and various Rolemasters: roll d100, add Skill bonus, subtract Defensive Bonus, compare the result to the appropriate armor on a chart. The armors are the MERP armors—None, Soft Leather, Rigid Leather, Chain and Plate. Results on this table range from a miss to one of the five Criticals, renamed in VsD as Superficial, Light, Moderate, Grievous and Lethal. Okay, simple enough.

An Attack Table. The colors are neat and useful!

But, as with MERP, as with Rolemaster, conditions and qualifiers soon heap on. Does the opponent have Cover? Wait, isn’t she also on Higher Ground? Are you attacking from the Flank? Do you have to Move to get there? Are you at half Hit Points? Is that above the Max Result for your Weapon? Hey, doesn’t that do -10 against Chain?

Ugh. I know that some gamers don’t mind this kind of play at all. In fact, many prefer it. But I think that my table doesn’t like its rules to interfere with its fiction. Don’t get me wrong, these rules do make good fiction. Of course I love granularity and realism. But not when those features become a grind, not when they become fiddly. And not when they so easily can kill my PCs with one blow.

What are you saying, Gabe? Are you forgetting that this also is a game, and no challenge is entertaining if there are no stakes involved? (The voice in my head here, specifically, is Aspire2Hope’s, one that always keeps me honest.) I know, so perhaps I’m saying that the stakes are too high… Or I’m saying that the stakes are too high depending on the situation.

In the fictions inspiring VsD, main characters (our PCs) do die, but they don’t expire because of a stray shot from a Goblin. They perish plunging with the Balrog into the Abyss, they drop while defending Little People against hordes of Uruk-hai, they fail on the Field of Battle, thrown from horseback because of the malevolent terror exuding from a Nazgûl.

Outside of the basic conditions such as Stunning and Bleeding, the VsD combat rules as presented in the QS do not emulate the fictions. Again, they might reflect a Heavy Metal vibe, but arbitrary death does not signify heroic fiction. If this latter is not what VsD is after, there are ways to fix this. VsD already has given players one “character shield”: they can spend a Drive Point to lower a suffered Critical by one severity (but must abide by the new results). Here is another possibility, one admittedly inspired by other games: the character somehow survives death, but she is now Doomed (or Fey, in the Old Norse sense of the word), destined for a truly heroic death. The GM then introduces, as soon as possible, an awesomely terrifying Big Bad and tells the character that this is how he dies; how she goes about doing it is up to him, and usually she should be saving others from a seemingly invincible Presence. The player might choose to die before the GM can roll this out, determining on his own what is a fitting demise for her hero. Or—or in addition to this—most NPCs can be designated a kind of “mook” that has a max damage rating vs a PC. Or NPCs should just be easier to kill. I’m doing this already with my simplified NPC Stats that were slightly revealed last post, and most of my mookish NPCs don’t have DBs.

The easiest way to describe VsD combat as written is to share The Tactical Round Sequence.

I’m not sure how much of this is standard to most iterations of Rolemaster, so forgive me if I go on about anything obvious. I’m going to detail the features that are a bit new to me.

From the top, Assessment Phase. Basically, if the GM determines that any PC might be disoriented—due to being Stunned, taking a fall, getting ambushed, etc.—then this character must succeed at a Perception Roll to take any action without penalty. Other than this, the only thing that is new to me are the order of actions according to weapon size in the Melee Phase. I don’t think anything else should be puzzling to an RM gamer.

The same can be said for what are the three types of Actions—Full, Half and Free—and modifiers to combat that result from taking some of them. It takes time to Load weapons. Characters may use all or half of their Offensive Bonuses to Parry. A low roll could result in a Weapon Fumble. There is a long list of combat modifiers, though this is given as a separate table in the Appendix of the QS.

By now, readers won’t be surprised that I prefer to keep that list in the Appendix. I might memorize the conditions the QS specifies in its text—combat modifiers for characters who are Prone, Surprised, Stunned, Incapacitated, Held, Flanking and at the Rear. None of these are unfamiliar for RM gamers. For the rest, I would rather use the inspiration of the moment and my own “increment” method.

I’m not sure what to do about Weapon Stats, likewise in the Appendix. I think I have to use them for now. It’s important for weapons to be different from one another. I think I’ll try to push the burden of knowing these qualities onto my players.

A corresponding Critical Strike Table

4 Replies to “Combat in Against the Darkmaster”

  1. It is interesting to see that the phased round has not been abandoned although it has been rejigged from the MERP order of events.

    The problem with phased rounds, like the one above is that you can hold a gun/crossbow at someone’s head and they sprint 250′ before you can pull the trigger.

  2. Ha ha! Well, you’re not wrong, but of course this GM simply would rule that the fleeing character can try to run with an arrow in its skull as soon as it makes a move. All the Phases do take place in one Round, after all. The Phases are meant to be a guide for the micro-movements of all activity taking place more or less at the same time.

    But you encourage me to try out an AP economy. I can see my players welcoming more options within this framework, though I’m sure that modifiers will work just as well as AP. Want to get your broadsword up before that dagger? Sure, take -20.

    I like Modiphius’s 2d20 system for handling this. In the case above, the Broadsword would have Reach (let’s say 1, or maybe a +/- 10 in RM). This negatively modifies the Dagger-wielder trying to attack. But if the Dagger gets under Broadsword’s Guard (i.e., successfully hits), then the Dagger gets +10 for as long as it stays in that particular melee.

  3. I always used the phased order as a way of organising players to declare their actions first and then resolved them in the order that they would happen, by that I mean a general not a specific action. The player only needs to say I cast a spell or I move starting in this direction. MERP always did allow for conflicting actions and held actions.

    Gabe, do I take it that in VsD the idea is that the players are already heroic rather than the journeyman/tyro status of MERP/RM? I can see why death/major injury could be annoying :). I do like the use of what is essentially a fate point – very in gaming mechanic isn’t it. If I were to run a First Age campaign around the Silmarillion with all that Tolkien spun Norse/Saxon mythology I’d go for that.

  4. I think the intention of VsD is to emulate a Tolkienian high fantasy trilogy.

    I have floated by the designers the idea of creating three game “stages.” PC Levels 1-3 could entail staying close to “home,” protecting it from the growing influence of the Darkmaster. Levels 4-6+ could involve the Quest motif, long overland travel. The final Levels up through 10 would detail a great war and the ultimate defeat—at the hands of the PCs—of the Darkmaster.

    My point is that, in emulating the fictions, in none of these stages should PCs be subject to arbitrary death. Their fatalities should be thematic and purposeful. They also should provide some benefit to the surviving PCs (e.g., escape from a Balrog).

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