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An Overly Long Post Talking About Combat Roleplay(TM)


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While much has been made in my other posts about power levels and interacting with other characters, the area where this can become extremely complicated is when characters actually start to fight one another. This can be done a number of ways and finding what works best not just for you but whatever sort of group you belong to ahead of time can prevent a lot of headaches. With that in mind, let's just dive right in!


Chapter 1: Freeform

This is arguably the most common form of combat you'll find in MMO roleplay. No real rules or regulations: JUST DO IT! Players take turns writing posts just like any other roleplay scenario. The primary difference is that instead of using your words to have your character use words, you are using your words for violence.


Of your options, I feel this gives the most control to players but at the cost of having no guardrails.


The biggest benefit of doing it this way is that it, theoretically, moves at the same speed as the roleplay normally would. No need to pause to check rules or roll dice. It also gives players far more freedom as to what actions and reactions best fit their character's skill level. If your character should be able to do something based on their skillset or backstory, they just can.


The biggest struggle with this method is pretty similar to roleplaying in an MMO environment as a whole: there's nothing that says a dog can't play basketball. Well, in a less joking manner, there's nothing keeping fights balanced. Even if we presume that everyone is playing by the metaphorical book with no metagaming, godmodding, or the like, it's not hard for fights to turn into, "and so I dodged it." Extreme victories or failures on an action by action basis are often far rarer. If you want your awesome heroically timed punch to land on another character thus foiling their plan, that other player needs to be willing to take that punch.


This can become a huge issue if both players are dead set on their character winning that fight. They might be willing to take a few punches, but losing? That's going to be a harder pill to swallow.

While all methods here should be considered, you should always be prepared to utilize this method even in a short brawl that only lasts a few posts. Even if you don't like the drawbacks that come with it, few things can kill the mood as quickly as having to pause some random unplanned scene because you're interacting with someone new.

So how do you do this reasonably? Well, first, everyone needs to accept that SOMEBODY is going to lose. If it's acceptable to end in a draw, great! Otherwise, you need to pause for a moment to determine either the overall outcome or figure out whatever metric you are using to determine victory. Just be wary of saying, "may the best writer win," as that can effectively turn into a small arms race where each person is trying to one up the other in ways they normally wouldn't.


Second, be willing to actually take hits. This doesn't necessarily mean every other shot taken at you is a potentially lethal one, but adding some kind of failure state into the other's attack failing can be a nice tradeoff for successfully avoiding their blow. For example, if someone swung a blade at my character, perhaps they dodge but are thrown off balance, forcing them into a roll and having to spend a moment getting back into position. A lot of this is about give and take. If your character never takes any of the swings they throw, why should they do the same for you? Unless both parties agree to a draw, you have to be willing to accept somebody is going to lose. It could be you, and that's okay. It's about the event, not the outcome.


Third, don't just view this as a moment where your character is trying to beat up someone else. Remember: Of the methods you could use, this provides you the absolute most freedom to be your bad self. Show off what your character is capable of! Show them using their head and using on the fly strategies. React with more than just grunts and growls.


Fourth, if you trust the other people involved, leaving posts open ended in some capacity even beyond leaving open if you hit or not can give other players more opportunities to write in extra flourishes with their reactions. 


And, finally, remember that all of the above applies not just to fighting other players but also enemies. When there are no players to potentially upset, it can be very tempting to just forgo everything I just said and turn your foe into paste. While satisfying, it's often not the most narratively interesting route to go down. If the means you are beating up the baddies wouldn't be a fun read if you were beating up another player's character, chances are it's not going to be as interesting for everyone else involved to just watch you beat up cardboard cutouts of your NPC nemesis.


Chapter 2: I CAST MAGIC MISSILE (Dice and/or Mechanics)

Ensuring a degree of randomness to an encounter can ensure that not only is the victor undefined, but the events of what is to come are entirely unknown. That can both be exciting and far more interesting from a narrative perspective. That is if you have the time to do it.


Unlike other methods of doing combat styled roleplay, using dice and even defined mechanics can add a great degree of variety to your play. Simply picking open a door could turn into a moment of struggle for your character. Heck, it could just outright fail and force you to find another way in. The same applies to combat. This method also forces players to more carefully consider what their character most excels in which can open the door for more players to shine in any given encounter.


Using some kind of system also can be a heavy deterrent against abuse. If someone's various skills are limited by the results of a roll of the dice, it means that it becomes far harder to write your character into being the absolute center of attention without any risk. It's pretty hard to godmod when there are express rules put into place that prevent it.


There are three primary flaws to using this method however: randomness, time, and balancing.


While randomness is a benefit to this, not having rules to handle a character's skill set can make a dice's outcome head scratching. If a character's entire concept is super speed and they keep on rolling 1's and 4's on a D20 whenever they try and dodge, it's going to become more than a little frustrating. Adding modifiers to a roll to help offset that can remove this issue entirely, but without guidelines you can re-introduce some issues with freeform combat and get characters that just aren't overly bad at anything.

While introducing mechanics and rules can remove both randomness and unbalanced characters, the issue at play is time. In order to pull this off, individuals need to take time out of their lives to learn your rules and build character sheets. While that time might be temporary, systems that aim to make things fair tend to have more considerations which can just reduce the number of people that want to engage at all. Even after all of that, however, in the actual roleplay, you still have to pause between each person's turn to roll dice, get the result, and translate that result into the action. There's a reason tabletop games can run for hours at a time and still accomplish very little at the end of a session.


Which brings us to balancing. From the start, you'll have people wanting to introduce characters but finding that the limitations of whatever system you end up using don't allow them to fully represent the concept they likely came up with before they even knew your set-up existed. While less likely for lightweight rules, it becomes more and more likely the harder you work to keep everyone on the same level. What's worse is that any introduction of mechanics that allow you to improve a character's stats will inevitably mean that new players or players that just don't have as much free time will always, no matter their concept, fall behind the rest. 


While this method has its severe flaws, it can still work out great if you play your cards right.


First, (I think) you should only use complex systems with advancement and character sheets if you are going to be playing with the same group of people with minimal drop outs and new players dropping in. If you're dealing with something like a guild/super group/clan/whatever that frequently tries to recruit new players, keep your system as simple as possible without advancement. Focus less on balance and more so on accurately representing characters with added randomness.


Second, use the in game dice roller. Homecoming has added the command /roll d# that lets you roll dice in-game. No more having to try and work around a d6, we have ALL of the dice now! Speaking of, if at all possible, try and keep dice rolling to an absolute minimum. Every pause to check stats, roll dice, and determine the degree of success might be slim on their own but they easily add up.


Third, don't require dice rolls for every simple action if a character's concept is tied into it. If someone is jumping up a series of crates, simply acknowledging they have the background to do so easily is enough. You can still require a hacker to make a roll to get into a system, but asking them to roll to safely extract data could be a potentially needless hindrance.


Lastly, don't make this the ONLY way you handle roleplay events. As I said, using established mechanics can sometimes scare away new people from participating. Having this be a secondary way of interacting with the group can help ease people into how you run things and be more willing to try out your mechanics based method.

Chapter 3: Break Out the PVP

While this isn't my favorite method, it's probably the easiest to do. When a fight breaks out, everyone piles into the PVP arena and goes hog. No dice rolls, no time spent writing out posts, just good old fashion button mashing.


This method is the easiest of all methods as well as the fastest with the most clear cut results, but it can often reward players' victories for the wrong reasons.


Under the hood of any RPG is a bunch of random number calculations. In fact, some games like Baulder's Gate are literally just D&D that does all of the rolls and calculations for you. The same is true for City of Heroes albeit with different rules and systems. While swinging your axe at someone might take a minute or two to write out and even longer to suss out the results for if using dice, PVP resolves that quandary in seconds. Combine powers and you have yourself a fight! You can even intertwine roleplay discussion into it! 


Even better, you can't really godmod when you're not the one writing out the action. 


If you were looking for someone to go into detail regarding the superiority of this method, however, I'm not that person. I can include the thoughts of people who really like it as an addendum (please comment below if you have things you want to add to this!) but as it stands, here's the reasons why I generally discourage it.


As I brought up in my write-up on figuring out power levels, in game mechanics are generally a horrible measure of a character's strength. Everyone has a different amount of time they can invest in a game and it's entirely possible to purposefully make a character concept centered around a powerset combo that hits the meta (meaning the strategy that performs better than others) perfectly. It's not at all unheard of for people looking to "win" at roleplay to make characters perfected for PVP and then demand every conflict be resolved in the PVP arena. Why? Because they know they'll win. Even if there are a small number of people who can actually functionally compete, my experience is that roleplayers don't generally tend to not build or invest a ton of time into PVP. For every one person that can go toe to toe with one of these PVP centric characters, there are dozens more who can't.


This is especially true if the person they're challenging is a powerset that would almost certainly fail at one on one PVP.


What's more, game combat is generally more limited than what can be accomplished with actually just writing it out. There's certainly going to be emotions or reactions left out between every strike and dodge. You also can't really replicate fighting dirty or using interesting tactics to overcome your foe's overwhelming strength.


That's not to say it has no place though! If you're looking for just a quick and dirty way to resolve a conflict, this is certainly an option to pursue. A few considerations before diving in though:


Be sure that your opponent is on the same playing field as you. Unless you know for certain otherwise, it's not fair to challenge another player to settle an IC dispute with PVP unless you believe the characters are of an equal standing. Someone with a fully decked out fully slotted incarnate challenging someone who just hit 50 an hour ago without any set bonuses is very likely going to dramatically favor the latter. It's a very bad look to challenge someone to a PvP resolution when basically everyone present is more than aware the outcome is already settled.

Next, consider using PvP as more of a benchmark of what happens than the be all, end all. Recapping the peaks of the fight and making what was otherwise a one sided fight far closer ICly can be a decent way of preventing the loser from looking totally hapless. Heck, you could even just make it a draw and use the outcome of the fight to figure out who's worse off.


Lastly, if someone doesn't want to PvP in order to resolve a dispute, that doesn't mean their character just ran away. If someone says no, at least make an effort to find a middle ground. Not everyone is into PvP and demanding it as your singular route to take isn't fair to everyone else.


Chapter 4: Conclusion

I won't lie that my bias was on full display on this one. In an MMO setting, I personally prefer a more freeform system. However, I did try to provide plenty of pros and cons for all three and, if nothing else, you can use this as a starting point to determine what you prefer yourself.


One major take away from all of this, however, is that if the players involved in the conflict cannot go in with the understanding that someone is going to lose? Pre-arranged or otherwise? Those players aren't really prepared to handle this kind of RP to begin with. As harsh as that is, a roleplay where someone has to be dragged to a conclusion that is arrived at fairly but is not what they prefer isn't really the kind of person that is going to enjoy this kind of roleplay unless they always come out on top.


Which is fine. The point of roleplay is to have fun. If you can't enjoy a story where you fail once in a while, there's nothing wrong with just not engaging with those kinds of stories. Likewise, if you are normally fine with losing but something (be it IC or OOC) would make something going wrong make the roleplay significantly less fun, you should probably take a step back.


Most importantly though, and I cannot stress this enough:

Do not shame other roleplayers for refusing to utilize your preferred method of combat roleplay!!!!


Agreeing on a victor and fading to black is honestly a more preferable method to forcing another person or yourself to engage in a combat form in a setting that is supposed to just be a fun escape. 


This is part of a series of tutorials regarding roleplay! You can find the full list of tutorials here!


Edited by McSpazz
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Whenever McSpazz makes a post like this, it's clearly a good day.


More seriously: while using PvP for roleplay combat may be the most dynamic approach, it does kinda suck how it limits the participants to only the handful abilities they have mechanics-wise, coupled with the obvious issue of differences between the characters' in-game power levels and their lore-wise power levels.

Freeform roleplay is what I'm most used to, but while it works fine as pure text, it also feels a bit impactless when coupled with the MMO. Can't even illustrate what you're doing because all players are invalid targets outside of PvP.

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So, this is something that @McSpazz and I have talked about at LENGTH before. I come from the generation of roleplayers that were fostered and born on forum boards, and old school chat rooms such as MIRC, and Yahoo!/MSN/Optichat. Some of those spaces still exist, while others had been dismantled for other purposes since those times. We had formulated something akin to a rough set of rules for combat for forum posting, as well as chat posting but much of it is lost to the ages (Some of it is DECADES old, mind you so we had to take into account slower connection speeds and accommodate for fair play.)


Some of these rules are based on writing speed, rather than length, but comprised as a combination between who-posts-first, to fair-play which often is discussed out-of-character and coin flipped, or die rolls are done to judge whom will be slated as the winner between the two (or more) players.


One of the first few sets of combat rules for freelance play was a 7-5-7 post style, "T-2" speed based but effective. Considered a one-liners core style to play by, this was most often seen and used in fast paced chat rooms rather than forum boards.

  • 7 to make the attack
  • 5 to connect the attack
  • 7 to complete the attack, separated in post lines.

Trouble is, most that learn this style try to force attacks, force connects and force sealing the attack and don't really take into account the opposing players style preferences initially. Sort of the spammers combat style, imho, but it was used heavily for beginners and worked for those with dial up connections and just chat room access available.

The second rule set was called paragraph, or "T-1", which starts off with semi, or full paragraph settings, descriptions of the attacks being launched, and this one is not solely based on speed, but rather detail and forethought. The way the posts are structured must allow the opponent to respond to the attack, whether it's dodge, deflect, or accept and must equal to the same amount of effect in accepted damage as the attack was launched with. These posts can be almost like reading a story unfolding right before you, so responses can often take a while and this was most commonly used in forum settings. The basics of this one is one I'm most familiar with as I still use this ruleset for my own form of roleplaying in the game. Semi albeit, but it works and folks enjoy the interactions as much as I do.

  • First post for each character must include a description, their weapon choices, and placement in the setting/location. This can also highlight their stance, posture, or other details that the player wishes to share with their opponent that are visible to the naked eye.
  • Second post generally comprises of either what triggered the combat situation, whether it's a spar, or a real reason for seeking to resolve through conflict, and the first efforts to launch an attack on the opponent players character.
  • Third post usually contains details about the attack itself, what does it do, what power is it using, if not power, is it magic what kind is it, ect ect. NEVER connect the attack as damaging however, this is something of a forbidden "Godmode" move to do in paragraph and leaving creative space for the fellow player is an act of mutual respect as players working together for a thrilling scene.
  • Fourth is generally damage taken, or dodges being action-ed, this tends to be turn based between each player, with both acknowledging the others attacks and attempts while enacting their own in return. This allows for a broad sense of collaberative play, while still in a combative situation for the scene. Disagreements do sometimes come up about details in the posts if the chatroom, or board is moving pretty fast with other users posting, so sometimes die rolls come in or coin flips to make sure both players stay on the same page with their flow of RP.

The third set, is perhaps the worst (IMHO) heavily speed based dependent, and short hand reliant, it's considered not very fun for the players that get targeted by users of this rule set, but I don't really think it gets used anymore since it's fallen so far out of disfavor in the RP communities I've been part of. It's the "T-3" speed based set, 5-3-5 and tends to welcome looser standards than the earlier two sets I mentioned.

Now a days, there are better standards for roleplay combat, and generally accepted at that. With different methods to end the conflict on a satisfying end for both players involved. Whether it's pvp resolved, die rolls, coin flips, or something like I described above here, it's about collaborating for a story over all, and having fun doing so. If you aren't having fun, then maybe give some of the other methods a go and see if it is more fitting for your form of play. 😄


Something further I'd like to add, after the above mentions: Conflict is not always the core matter for a roleplay session, sometimes it's about character development beyond the scope of aggressive scenes and building up the emotional side of the character too. Relationship play can be fairly hard for some folks because of the possibility of blurred lines between in-character and out-of-character and it is critical to maintain clear boundaries and enforcing them. If someone isn't respecting you or your characters boundaries (Not rules, but strict boundaries of Aw fuck no, not okay material) then it might be best to avoid interacting with them. Sometimes, conflict resolution is best ended with just breaking away from that player.

Edited by Crystal Dragon
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I was discussing with McSpazz about doing a brief breakdown in a quick spar during one of the lesson nights to demonstrate how these systems and rules can still work but incorporating emotes and actions from the emote menu can add a layer of depth to the spar as well. So I might pop up to do this sometime just so show how these systems work but explain how the last one isn't really too functional for combat in RP on Mmo's.

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For my take, I'll focus more on combat roleplay style and expectation:

I'm a relative noob to RP-based battle--  I've engaged in it probably over a dozen times, but rarely with the same community members.  Each time I go in with very little understanding of what's expected of me, what conventions they might expect to use, or what the tone of the fight will be.  I usually BEG to lose initiative so I can see a few examples before providing my own. 


The first few rounds end up being a bit of a mild spar as I try to feel out my collaborator-foe's style and expectations and figure out how to match them.  I can be an outlier with my own style and expectations, and I know it.  Some people embrace the game mechanics far more than I, while I tend to use the format as a way to subvert the mechanics for a "good story" approach:

There are plenty of in-game examples where for balance purposes attacks have far less impact than narratively they should.   The minuscule per-bullet damage on even a person lacking damage resistance is a glaring example, but let's not discount how most people would fare to a fireball to the face, foot-long ice spikes impaling them, or a stone fist half the size of Mt Everest slamming into their face.  I've encountered many people that express their attacks and damage in RP in comparable terms.   I don't... or would prefer not to.   

Beyond damage, there's hit-rate.  A game is intended to not reflect reality, but instead set a good pace that balances small reward (often an enjoyable  "hit success rate" to) with a larger reward (often a "battle lasts within an enjoyable time") so damage is scaled not on reality, but on what fits this rate.   Players using the game as a reference will often expect a much higher hit-rate than I would use narratively.  i won't go into the studies showing the per-bullet hit rate of gunfight.   I'm not aiming for reality-  but for story, my tastes tend to follow cinematic fight choreography ideals as quickly summarized here, though counter to their examples, my flavor aims more toward self-deprecating humor you may see in Jackie Chan fight scenes while leaving heroes battered, limping, and cursing like a Bruce Willis fight scene.

So, between the two above, I've learned that my fight preferences is more dodge/block/deflect/miss- centric than most people... which might lead them to think I'm being unfairly OP in that regard.   They don't get much chance to see that I'd be treating any real "hit" as far more damaging because... well, I've not been hit that badly yet.   That can lead to confusion.

How to combat that?   I don't think I've found THE answer, but there are things I try:

  • If I am USING should-be-lethal attacks, I intermittently write them in a way that implies that I almost expect them to be dodged.  You’d see a spray of bullets in the direction of the enemy or a swift blind attack in their direction, taking no time to aim before dodging for cover.   I might even make note of environment elements to hint that I’m ok with hiding behind things (“ the edge of the shotgun blast splintering an overturned table between them”).  In this way, I try to communicate that I hold no objection to others who might turn my attacks into misses.
  • I try to make dodges/blocks/deflections still have a tangible impact.   A near-miss is usually very near.  The fire jet that Tabby dodged was close... so close that a chunk of fur and whisker shrivels to dust just from the superheated air when it passed by- her exposed skin instantly reddened from the burn.   It's both meant to give some taste of success   while also hinting at how seriously I'd treat a true direct hit.   I'm trying not to diminish their power, but instead show RESPECT for what I imagine that power could truly do.    
  • I overuse klutz-fu far too much.. but with some reason.  I just don't know if there are better ways.    I may dodge an attack but not "stick the landing" and instead imply that I'm vulnerable to a follow-up.   This gives an outlet to my foe-- if their style isn't meshing well with mine and they're frustrated with the constant misses, this is their chance for an attack that I'm not in a position to dodge/deflect.  I'll have to take it.   If they just want this to be over, this is their chance.    If they are enjoying the exchange, there are many reasons they could use to miss that follow-through.  Personally, getting two masters of Klutz-Fu can lead to things getting silly.  Sometimes you need a little silly.  Sometimes it may ruin the tone a storyteller's trying to set, too. Use wisely.

From the above, you'd be forgiven for thinking that I play to lose. 


I joke about that myself.   Most of the techniques above put the decision on my foe/co-storyteller and it's natural that they'd want to decide to come out on top.    The same clues I drop here can often be gleaned in their writing.  They can subtly cue you in to how important "winning" is for their narrative or how important they see a "hit" being... or what they'd find damaging.   They may give you klutz-fu openings.  Look for those hints.

Sometimes hints are less-subtle.  

I'm talking about inner thoughts.   I've seen debates over whether your emotes should just describe the visible/immediate aspects of the attack or whether it's appropriate to describe thoughts and motivations of the character as you would in a storyteller's perspective.   I personally like these  narrative approaches, but I've seen considerable animosity from the "just emote what the senses can pick up" camp when that unspoken rule is broken.   Counter-arguments like, "this is a superhero game.  You could be a telepath, a blind master, or deaf, and I wouldn't know.  If I write something your character wouldn't perceive, filter it out yourself!" tend to only inflame emotions, not ease them.   I instead now  avoid writing in ways that that may show motive or thoughts unless I see it in my adversary-author do it.

But I cheat, though.   I play emotive types-the kind who are very easy to read. Tabby's thoughts for example are unconsciously conveyed through natural body language and facial expressions.  If she were a book, she'd be written at a kindergartener's reading level.   Even if you imagined to ignore the typical human-feature body language, there's a whole range of felinoid cues- ruffling/fluffing/flattening fur, animated ear position, a tail that's a near-perfect mood-barometer, whiskers twitching, involuntarily curling claws, etc.   When she TRIES to be deceptive, her tail will almost certainly give it away.   You have to try very hard to not understand her inner thoughts 😄

Rising to the Challenge

Finally, I tend to play Tabby as more of a neighborhood girl- street-level threats like those found in Kings Row through Brickstown mostly, but some look at her the character data  and the incarnate-level stuff and have critiqued that.   I, personally, tend to subtly vary her depending on the needs of a good story.   I don't play to rigourously represent a character sheet.  I play to maximize fun- everyone's fun.  Tabby may still be a street-level heroine that's destined to lose to the bigger threat (unless help shows up) but very few people enjoy just being a bully- they'd prefer a fight that implied some risks.  For this I'll have her  "dig into her reserves" or get more creative in using everything at her disposal to... while perhaps not level the playing field... it should bring meaningful value to her opponent's victory

This also helps when a foe intends to lose or be driven off.   They may not have expected me to be playing Tabby to be as fragile to their attacks or be such a less-seasoned fighter.      I'm a fan of tongue-in-cheek stories that have Squirrel Girl defeat Galacticus solo, but it's not for everyone.    At some point, losing to someone so far below you on the power scale just won't fit another's expectation.   By letting that little heroine get serious, find the resolve and the confidence and perhaps a little luck to REALLY be the opponent your foe needs, you may add to their story far more than if you stayed rigidly true to numbers you set for them.




 I'm not saying any of these are the right way to go... it's illustrating the style I've adapted to and why- but everyone has their own style, often with similar hidden meaning.  Maybe you'll see some of these cues in others.  Maybe you'll see the cues you do- or adopt some as you "negotiate" a better RP combat encounter with your co-author-foe.   


Maybe... hopefully... it'll help you find a more fun experience.


Edited by chase
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