Hurin’s recent post got me thinking about combat and general and Rolemaster’s combat in particular and how various Rolemaster products handle firearms. That (of course) led me to thinking about how I’ve revised those rules for settings outside of standard fantasy. It also got me thinking about the proposition that lots of combat mechanics equals an emphasis on combat.
Rules Light Doesn’t Mean Less Combat
First off, I don’t necessarily agree that more combat mechanics equals an emphasis on combat. My gaming experience runs along the lines of the more survivable combat is, the more likely groups are going to get into fights. Back in the day, the worst fight imaginable was two Gamma World characters going at it with clubs. You’d be there for hours. One of the lightest combat rules systems I’ve ever played was an old game called Recon, but combat in it was so lethal you avoided it if at all possible.
Most older games hit a balance, with Top Secret and Gangbusters coming in with a good split between lethality and playability. Top Secret has more developed combat rules, but that didn’t encourage fights in my experience. Both, by the way, are excellent games. I don’t recommend the later version of Top Secret, but that’s another entry.
Firearms and Rolemaster
That leads to my second fixation (some might call it a mild obsession): how Rolemaster usually treats firearms. First, the standard combat round is optimized for spell casting, which makes it too long for firearms combat. Second, I’ve never seen a Rolemaster product (including Spacemaster) that deals well with firearms damage. They either make them too weak (the old Outlaw genre book, where a buffalo rifle did less damage to AT 20 than a heavy crossbow) or come out with a ton of attack tables that don’t seem to have a basis in ballistic facts (The RMSS Weapon Law: Firearms book, which has in the neighborhood of 30 different tables but doesn’t square with actual bullet performance as far as I can determine).
The first thing I did to was shorten the combat round to two seconds. Then I reintroduced Phases. Why Phases? They force (gently) players to use tactics without realizing it. Most games I’ve played with actual deadly firearms that don’t use Phases have a high character mortality rate. Phases balance that to a degree. Fire and movement is standard training, and Phases replicate that in a fairly seamless manner.
Second, I took a serious look at damage and how to calculate it based on actual data. My starting damage baseline is simple: Concussion damage from a .45 ACP round should be able to drop a 5th level character with three shots. Don’t forget, in Rolemaster reaching zero hits means you’re unconscious, not dead. Then I worked out a formula using a bullet’s muzzle energy combined with projectile weight to model the maximum damage possible with one round (a 230 grain .45 ACP bullet maxes out at 31 points, while the massive Browning .50 does 337!). This allows me to model most weapons with a handful of tables (using the Spacemaster Mark system you can put all handguns in one table, all rifles in another, and so on). This same system works for shotguns, too.
The final step is building critical charts based on hit location. A basic point about firearms is you can aim them. Any system that doesn’t allow hit location loses a great deal of flavor (and makes skills like Sniping more or less useless or simply cosmetic). There’s still only a handful of tables (Center Mass, Limb, and Head). They still kill, but based on blood loss or shock when the character’s unconscious (although the big .50 will likely kill based on Concussion Hits alone, since most characters aren’t going to have Hits + Constitution that can sustain over 300 hits).
Obviously this system is fairly lethal. It’s also detailed. Does that mean combat’s more likely? In my experience the answer is an emphatic no, at least after the first couple of character fatalities. Once players learn that the game is “for keeps,” they are more cautious and don’t blunder into fights they can’t win. When there are fights, they enjoy the detail and smoothness of the system and don’t feel cheated when their big .44 only does 6 hits.
Remember, Rolemaster also has detailed mechanics for other activities if we choose to use them. If a GM or group emphasizes combat, there will be combat no matter how simple or complex the rules are.