Ars Magica’s combat system has always been a bit of a problem. The current one doesn’t let a nudist with a sharpened stick dependably defeat a knight, or require that your character’s actions be subsumed into a small tactic unit roll, but there are obvious problems with it, and these make the game difficult to present to new players.
Many of these issues go back to how this minigame is designed. To be clear about what I mean here, regardless of whether you think Ars is about the life of a community in Mythic Europe, or the consequences of magicians using their power, there’s not a lot of role for two guys hitting each other with bits of steel. The game spends an inordinate amount of time on stating up monsters, and balancing those stats, against not a central character, like a magus, but against an average human.
To posit an axiom: you can tell if the minigame is fair by seeing how you feel when you lose. If your character dies, do you feel it was a good, or at least narratively-necessary, outcome? Ars works the fairness angle is several ways.
- You are told, over and over again, not to get attached to grogs. They are also less detailed than your companions or magi. This is so that when they die, you as a player are less upset than when, for example, your magus’s pets die.
- Your character, no matter how wounded, only every reaches a state of deep incapacitiation. In virtually all cases a player character might theoretically step in an cure you with an enormous amount of Creo vis. They never do, because Creo vis is really, really valuable, but at least you’ve been forced into making that choice as a group: the character is too expensive to save.
- You get to decide several trade-offs, in terms of how your weapons give bonuses, and what protective kit you wear.
- The process of dying takes an awful lot of dice rolls. One of the purposes of the ridiculously long combat is to make sure a single roll never kills your character.
- Everything uses the same stats. Virtually every human character is technically playable, as are most of the Magical or Faerie critters. They are built using a painfully lengthy version of the human character design mechanics.
Can we find other ways to build a fair combat minigame, to allow new players to just get in and play without having to fight through the choice paralysis of character design? Let’s see what we can steal from other game systems.
In many games of Amber, your character does not and cannot die in a single blow. That your character has been injured is a sign that something is going wrong and you should change strategies. In some online versions of the game, your character cannot die without your consent. Similarly, in Doctor Who, the highest damage level means that your character must depart the TARDIS. You choose how: you don’t need for them to die, but they are going to exit. I like these mechanics, because they let us hollow out a lot of the procedures attempting to model fairness, by just saying that regardless of the numbers, fairness is the goal.
In many games, combat is simultaneous. In Ars we have the old D&D idea that you see who goes first, then sides take turns hitting each other. This doesn’t make a lot of sense for two reasons: an Ars combat round is a minute, so the idea that someone goes first and then someone responds is a bit odd. The second is that the decisive element in the combat is generally the magus, who is going last in the round, and that means that all of the carry-on may be made moot. Why go to all the trouble of playing with all of those numbers if someone is just going to toss a fireball at the end? The way I’d get around this is to suggest that Attack and Defence aren’t separate things: just compare scores and give a bonus for surprise if that matters.
The finely balanced weapon table is meant to make your trade off different aspects of each weapon to specialise your character, so that one pick will let you be fast, and one pick will sacrifice that for more damage. The thing is, if all of them are meant to be balanced across the entire process of combat, why not just abbreviate the whole process to a single roll, and given them all the same statistics? The advantage of this is that if you swap between weapons, it doesn’t make you recalculate. Imagine a traditional joust: two knights trying to hit each other with lances, then dismount and try to hit each other with swords, and who then wrestle and try and shiv each other with daggers. In Ars that’s three different sets of fours statistics four each weapon, when really all you need to know is which knight is the better fighter, and buy how much. All the added detail numerical detail doesn’t add anything to the combat, insofar as it doesn’t swiftly solve the question of who won, what it cost, and what the game-world effects are.
So, I’d like to suggest the following system for new players.
Your character’s choices on the weapons table do not matter. All armed melee is 0/0/0/+5 which is human average. If you are fighting unarmed, your Dmg is +1. Bows are +5, but you can work that out.
The process of combat now goes like this:
Do you have surprise? (Perception or roleplay)
If you have surprise, what do you do to give you a bonus? (generally +3)
Magi begin their formulaic spells now. Players may fastcast anywhere in the round, but that loses them their formulaic for the round.
Compare combat rolls (dice + combat ability, plus any bonus from a relevant Characteristic, like Sta, Qik, Str, plus and Virtues). The dice roll is going to seem crowded out by the bonuses, but in the process of combat, it already is: it’s just hidden by splitting the bonuses off onto different rolls which all average together.
Choose if you do Damage or not. If not, you retain your advantage for next round.
There are no Soak rolls. They victor’s Advantage is just chipped down by Soak score. The Storyguide tells the player if the outcome is minor, major or incapacitating and the player narrates the attach accordingly. This can include damage, but it can also include environmental advantages of equal value (for example, breaking an enemy’s shield, pushing them over, claiming the high ground).
The next round does not have an Init roll, it just goes back to a comparison of combat rolls. One side or the other should be either hurt or building up advantage. Sensible characters react to this by changing strategy or fleeing.