Thursday, July 17, 2014

Stun Based Combat

I have to remind myself over and over that many role-players hate combat.  They find it "boring" or non-essential to character-driven stories and so on.  I find that odd, because for most of my players, combat is the best part of my game.

That isn't to say it is the goal of my players to participate in combat, it is only that since combat tends to occur due to building conflicts, the outcome of the combat - as well as the moment-by-moment thrill of the die rolling - truly inspires my players and gets their blood pumping.

I know most games play a combat format that is back-and-forth and quite bland.  Without rules for position of attack and movement, combat becomes an attrition with both sides rolling dice like the card game of War, until finally someone runs out of hit points.  Since the loss of hit points in themselves don't matter - a combatant is hit for 7 of their 8 hit points and this makes no difference - then the only roll that really brings pleasure is the last one, the one that kills.

By proposing that 1 HD creatures be made up of 8hp creatures, I am increasing the attritional quality of combat, so that the killing die is suspended until the second, third or even fourth hit finally does the creature in.  If every creature takes this long, then the overall effect on the combat is to slow it down - which seems against my own principles of pushing for faster paced games.  Running a faster game is, in fact, one of the central themes of How to Run.

Thus, some of the push-back must originate with players who perceive the game doesn't need to be made longer on account of giving a few inconvenient creatures more hit points.

The original rules of AD&D, I remember, required that before each round, initiative was meant to be rolled, to see if the players went before the enemy or the enemy went before the players.  This would mean that the battle would swing in uncertain order, so that a series of rounds would give initiative to the party, then the enemy, then the enemy again, the party, the enemy, the party, the party, the party, the enemy and so on.

Unfortunately, the extra initiative roll became annoying at the start of every combat that virtually everyone adopted a straight turn based system, me-you-me-you-me-you, encouraging repetition and contributing to the overall dullness of combat.  With the increased total points incorporated in games like 4e, it was necessary to add in the 'bloodied' rule into combat to give a sense that something was being accomplished, since everyone was swinging every round regardless of how much damage they were doing or how much damage they were taking.

This was certainly something that my party and I were aware of back in '85.  I remember we were discussing some rule that someone had wrote about, that could have been in The Dragon Magazine, I don't remember.  The rule proposed was that if someone attacking did a set amount of damage in a round, this would 'stun' opponents so that they would 'miss a round' due to having taken a lot of damage.  I am not sure, now, if the article proposed that this amount be one third or one quarter the total hit points, or if the article was arguing for a set number, 10 hit points perhaps.

Either way, after a discussion that took up part of a running, my players and I at the time settled on one quarter damage being done as the minimum needed to 'stun' opponents.  That is, if your fighter has 16 hit points, and I am attacking with an orc that rolls a d6, then a roll of 4 or greater would be needed to stun you.  If you had 17 hit points, '4' wouldn't be enough, I'd need to roll a 5.  If I rolled a 3 or less, your fighter wouldn't be stunned, you would be free to attack.  If you were stunned, you wouldn't attack, you'd miss your turn while the enemy attacked again.  If you stunned the enemy, the enemy would miss a turn and YOU would attack again.

We tried it immediately, and I remember the fairly low-level party took on a giant lizard with 32 hit points.  The lizard got pretty lucky from the start, took out a couple of players and cornered this one player.  Desperate, he swung, hit and did a lot of damage - enough to stun the lizard.  He rolled again, hit, and stunned the lizard again.  Then on his third swing, he stunned the lizard a third time - and by that point the whole party was shouting at the top of their lungs in excitement.  His fourth swing killed the lizard and from that point on, no one ever wanted to go back to the original system again.

See, as the lizard's hit points were dropped, the chances of stunning the lizard improved.  A hit of 8 would stun the 32 hit point lizard, leaving it with 24 hit points.  Now it would only take six damage to stun the lizard - which would drop it to 18.  Then it would only take 5 damage to stun it, which would drop it to 13 and mean that only a 4 was needed.  And so on.

The lizard had been hit, and because the player did good strong damage with every hit, he kept the lizard off balance and was able to defeat it.

This whole matter of keeping the enemy 'off-balance' with strong hits was a huge blessing to the excitement of my combats.  Now, if there were 6 players facing off against 18 orcs, combats didn't simply go back and forth with all the players attacking and all the orcs attacking.  Now, a certain number of orcs were always off balance and so were a certain number of players.   Neither side was able to carry on their side of the attack with a full team - and that had other interesting fallouts.

Whenever I do these combats with the online party, they move fairly slowly; I have to get everyone's orders delivered by comment, then I have to make up the whole map, run the enemy side, save it as a pdf, crop it, post it, then write out what's happened in text accurately enough that the party can make strategy.  If there are questions, they have to go through the comment system - and all this while trying to do other things, so we play 1, maybe 2 combats in a day (3 or 4 if everyone has time).

In real time at a gaming table, these combats go very fast.  My players know the movement system, they can ask questions very spontaneously, I can update the map as we go and because players are stunned, I don't have to go through every player or every enemy every round.  I may only have to ask four players what they're doing, while those that are stunned have time to think about what they'll do when they're up and active again.

If a player gets stunned a couple of times in a row, this doesn't aggravate them or make the game more boring, this scares them something seriously, as they know they're declining in hit points and that it is getting easier to stun them!  Rather than withdrawing from the combat, they become very anxious about calling out to other players to SAVE THEM.

The stunning rules means that no one on the battle field is invulnerable, even if they have 80 or 90 hit points. The party may be fighting something big, that does a lot of damage - and there are a lot of things that can do 18, 20 damage on a hit - which means that after one or two initial hits that don't stun, that second or third hit is going to start stunning the main fighter in the party.  That fighter NEEDS someone to jump in and take a hit so the fighter isn't simply pounded into the ground.  The party as a group knows they won't last very long as the one true hero that needs no one else.  That forces them to fight together, to cover each other, to make sure they're not alone against an enemy.

Even if they're not fighting something big, whatever they are fighting will notice there's one or two opponents on the field who aren't being stunned - and more and more firepower gets poured into those who are clearly the strongest enemies.  There is no longer any anonymity as far as the enemy is concerned.  The party notices that dynamic also, and they can decide either to kill off the little fellows before going after the Big one, or they can try to take him down before he does too much damage.

Finally, it really builds up a free for all battle feel.  Because a 'stun' drives you back five feet (since I use positional rules), it allows sides to breach a line, force a party off a cliff (if you're stunned 'off' a cliff, you get a dex check - fail and you fall), or back into whatever terrain may be prevalent.  This too builds up a strong 'lets-work-as-a-team' mindset, pushing parties together.  The pushing about makes for complex battle arrangements, characters who get separated or cut off, fighting that happens on every side of a character and so on.

When I the huge mass combat for the party, using these rules, the results were spectacular, keeping the party glued to the effect even though we played that one battle out for about 13 runnings all winter long.  The party could not get enough of it, and refused to stop even though I would give them the option of fast-tracking it. They WANTED to play out every round, right to the end.  The reason was the system and how it made the whole battle throb with intensity and emotion.

Next post I'm going to play with some numbers, and what this system does to the 1hp vs 8 hp supposition I've been trying to get sorted out for more than a week.  I meant to do that with this post, but I felt it would be best to spend a lot of time explaining why the stun system I employ is vastly superior to the ordinary turn-based combat I see everyone else using.


  1. Having used stun rules for a while, having first heard of them through Hackmaster, they're amazing.

    Seriously amazing.

    The post above does an excellent job describing just why: it shakes up some established notions of the game.

    Fighters can't just "tank and spank", mages get recognized for the total party threats that they are, and parties have meaningful choice even in otherwise "mundane" combats.

    Congratulations on the book being out at last, Alexis. Looking forward to tomorrow's math.

  2. I play exclusively 4E, and I wonder how adding a rule like this would change the game? I think it would make combat much deadlier, but I don't think it actually favors one side over the other.

    Though a quick question: is it if 1/4th of current hp is lost in a single attack, in a single turn or in a single round?

    I think when I start my next campaign up, I'll suggest this new rule.

    I also wish rolling initiative wasn't so time-consuming, because the idea of initiative changing at the start of every round sounds excellent.

  3. James,

    I began with total aggragate damage added together done to one creature in the space of one round, but I have since moved to where a single attack must do 1/4th damage, no matter how much others have done.

    Old system:

    Against a giant lizard with 32 hit points, James does 4 damage, Issara does 3 damage and Alexis does 1 = lizard stunned.

    New system:

    Same damage - James lowers the creature to 28 hp without stunning; Issara lowers it to 25 hp without stunning; and I lower it to 24 hp without stunning. Lizard attacks.

  4. Thank you, I was guessing it was a single attack. The old system seems a bit too abusable on both sides.

    Interestingly enough, it actually goes (partially) towards solving one of 4E's biggest balance problems: several smaller attacks is significantly better than one large attack.

  5. Alexis, are there any penalties associated with being stunned, other than the loss of turn? I'm thinking of something like 3.5 named conditions that give penalties to AC, or attack.

    How does this interact with spells like Fireball? Does that stun as well? If a Fireball does 16 damage, but I save for half damage, would I still be stunned if have less than 32 HP?

  6. Discord,

    There are no additional penalties. As is, the rule balances very nicely all around.

    Any damage from any source that causes 1/4th of your present hit points stuns.

    If the fireball were 14 hp, and you saved and it only caused 7, then that would not stun you; but the 8 hp you proposed would.

  7. One of my favourite rules. Always keeps my on the edge of my seat when reading the online party adventures. It becomes a fun little exercise to figure out more or less what the remaining hp of opponents is when a stun happens.

  8. Alexis, In your experience, does a party's modus operandi change with the stun rule?
    For example, do parties rest earlier to recover hit points, because 1/4 of their hit point total is now vunerable to a single attack.
    Also, can stuns be shaken off, or removed with potions, spells, smelling salts, etc?

  9. Aradoth,

    Been a long time since I ran parties without the stun rule, but I don't think their aggressiveness suffers. I'd say it probably increases, since they know if they only have to do a quarter of the enemy's hit points to put it back on it's heels, that seems doable.

    Very, very rarely, an individual will roll a result on the character background table that they're able to ignore being stunned one time per day. The chance of getting it comes with a high constitution and luck. There are no other exceptions for players.

    Some monsters can't be stunned. Undead do not feel pain, while some non-corporeal creatures cannot feel the force of a weapon they're killed by. Some creatures, like a black pudding or a hydra, are multi-structural and can't be stunned, or one head is stunned while other heads continue to attack. Chimera are particularly nasty this way.

  10. Alexis, I was hoping you could expand a bit on your knock back rule. Especially regarding what happens if a knocked back combatant has a wall, an enemy, or an ally in the the space into which they are being knocked back into.

    Do you allow the person doing the knock back to automatically advance into the now vacated space? And is this movement free or must a move point be expended?

    Lets see if I can explain this last question correctly. Imagine 2 fighters standing side by side fighting 2 enemy fighters who are also side by side. Using x's and o'x to look something like this:


    If the bottom x gets a knock back on his o, and then advances into the vacated spot to now have:


    Do you allow the bottom x to attack the upper o with a flanking bonus? Or do you consider the fact that there is someone else there to square off against in negating a flank attack?

    I love the idea of 2 enemy lines pushing back and forth, and hoping to get full insight into the different tactical advantages that result.

    Thanks for your time.

  11. I think I did give this one a try, Harvicus. Tell me if this account of the stunning rule on the wiki is helpful.

  12. Yep, that is what I was hoping to learn. Sorry to trouble you when you already had the info out there to find. It seems I failed my research roll.

  13. Don't worry about that! I only added the additional stunning rules LAST WEEK.

    I'm so glad I did, it made it very easy to answer your question.


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