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.

 

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11 replies on “A simplified combat system for Ars Magica

  1. My players never fail to thwart some of the assumptions in the combat rules which you point out. For example, no matter how many times I stress grogs are disposable, players get incredibly attached to them, write long stories about them, and treat the death of a single grog as a life-changing event for their magus.

    Player characters routinely expend vast amounts of Creo vis to heal damage, This is made easier because we’re in Hibernia, which is vis-rich, but still. HBO Ars Magica ran for 50 episodes and I never once saw a magus fail to heal a grog or companion when the alternative would have been death.

    This is irrelevant, perhaps. But to get back to your article: I agree the combat system needs to be simplified.

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  2. Interesting post! I agree that combat would be improved if it was simpler (and therefore faster to play) but it is far from the most fiddly part of the system. I like the idea of simultaneous combat rather than everyone taking a turn in initiative order, which feels dreadfully contrived, but surely a combat round isn’t a minute – its six seconds in fifth edition (defined on p.172 of the core book).

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  3. This is a very interesting post, I applied lot of them (single roll, single stat, abstracted weapons…) in my own take on Ars Magica complexity.

    However it addresses only one face of the combat complexity issue : the player side. Creating foes the same way (or even with more complexity) than human player characters makes them really difficult to generate for the SG (alpha or beta). Most of this complexity is wasted : a simple combat opponent does not need it, a simple grog (even a friendly one) does not need it….

    You can abstract away foes (tested and proven over multiple campaigns, led by me or other players) :
    – they need a counter for special capacities and “hit points”, like the Might of magical creatures
    – they need a few traits with a score to oppose the PC by different means (“venomous swordmanship 7”, “never let down a friend 5”, “rust metal on sight 11”)

    Everything is else is wasted 99% of the time.

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    1. Oh, I agree. I tried to do this with Faeries (they skip all of that affinities business and they don’t need to balance) That being said the way of designing powers is precise, but really a lot more complicated than it needs to be, IMO. Demons are a lot easier than either, because you can just throw stuff in the general direction of your idea, and it’s fine.

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  4. 1) As has been pointed out already. combat round in Ars Magica 5th edition is 6 seconds, not a minute (that was AD&D). This gives us 20 round in 1 Diameter, meaning that’s usually a good duration for combat related spells other than blasts. Similarly, there is no soak roll in Ars 5th edition, only a defence roll, except for so-called non-combat damage – like most spells.

    2) You’re making a lot of assumptions, probably based on the troupe you play with. This is hard to avoid, but easy to see for others – like Jason’s group routinely healing grogs being an easy example.

    3) When introducing new people to Ars Magica – or playing with veterans who’re not so hot at memorizing rules – I’ve rarely had complaints that the combat system was too complicated. Infact, I’ve heard that less often that complaints about damage not having a seperate damage roll. Not because they wanted it, but because they were so used to it from other games. Pointing back to point 2, about assumptions based on the group you’re playing with.

    4) Do you have experience with combat systems that simply compared success level (like Pendragon, or melee in Shadowrun)? In my experience, they tend to be boring and mono-dimensional, leading to very simplistic XP placements. Which is sort of fine in Ars Magica, where combat isn’t (shouldn’t be) the focus, but makes grogs even more boring.

    %) How does this solve – or even address – your stated problem with the complaxity of character creation?

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    1. Hi, yes, I’m familiar with Pendragon. I was one of the playtesters for Saxon Shore, for example. I don’t agree that it’s damage is boring. I think it’s combat is boring because it tends to be “Everyone roll until someone crits, then the other person dies”. The damage being a single roll isn’t the problem: the dice mechanic for attacking is the problem, there.

      The point is to chip away at the complexity of the character creation one bit at a time. Having a combat modifier table for weapons is one if the subsystems which can be jettisoned. Ars finally got rid of different stats for classes of small mammal last edition (although it was a close run thing) and I see this as a similar sort of level of abstraction.

      I can see that I’m “making a lot of assumptions”. That’s necessary though, because I can’t poll people’s opinions in any statistically useful way. As to healing grogs: in setting that’s rare., and deliberately so. If it were happening in a lot of troupes, in any 6th edition, I presume healing would be made more expensive, much as Gentle Gift was made more expensive in 5th because too many people were using it in 4th.

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      1. The “Roll until someone crits” is really just the same effect. high skill wins combat. Which is realistics and makes sense, but leads to boring XP spending, because you should so obviously just focus on being good at that one thing. I didn’t actually claim (or at least mean to claim) that a seperate damage roll is a good thing, or that not having it is bad. Rather, I was trying to explain that, in my experience, if combat is purely a contest of skill (both roll, highest result wins), characters tend to end up looking very similar. As alway, this is just based on my personal experience.

        In Shadowrun, melee were “Both parties roll their dice, most successes win and damage their opponent, regardless of who attacked.” I have enough martial arts training to appreciate the realism of this. I practice in a koryu where this is fairly evident. But when gaming, it meant that nobody ever moved into close combat unless they were rather certain that they had the advantage, in a big way. Realistic perhaps, but does it make for good stories?

        Getting rid of the weapons table/the differentiation of weapons should probably be reduced just a single skill: Fighting. Then fights could be reduced to a simple opposed roll of Fighting. This would be fine by me, personally (I’m a huge fan of how the ArM5 book doesn’t have a ‘Combat’ chapter but instead has it tucked under ‘Obstacles’) but I’m not sure it appeals to a lot of players. And again, without going to that extreme, I don’t really see how it does anything much (or at all, really) to simplify character creation. Currently, it’s just looking things up in a table (simple) and adding numbers (almost as simple).

        My own troupe has never really considered combat in Ars Magica to be complicated – except for the people who forget that damage is not a seperate dice roll. Most pf them have experience with systems with much more complicated combat systems (GURPS and Pathfinder, I’m looking at you!). But many of them agree that Character creation is too complicated. So how to get at that?

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  5. A simplified character generation or combat system with crunchy & detailed magic does not make sense to me. The reduction in crunch needs to be sympathetic across all aspects of the system; and I like the crunch in the magic system. If Ars moves to go full story / abstract then I’ll likely add it back circumstantially, or stay with 5e. World of Darkness was very story and abstract in their magic and scene resolution and I missed the crunch.
    As a suggestion: troupes could apply the advancement packages and career templates (was it in the Grogs book?) to speed up generation of companions and grogs. Heck, beasts and npc magi don’t need stat blocks until they need to be returning characters, and even then only to ensure their story scope doesn’t creep the wrong way.
    Combat can also move at the speed of narration ~ if the troupe want to resolve things that way. “Take-5” speeds combat a lot, or judge likely outcomes and move on.
    Personally I sometimes really like the crunch of very detailed combat, and (sometimes) have added more moves, abilities, called shots, and pondered armour coverage and hit locations in Ars. It’s not a system I would call crunchy, more middle of the range in terms of crunch.

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    1. I don’t see why crunchy in the focus of the game, and less crunch in the periphery of the game, is so odd. Ars has this horrible habit of spawning complicated minigames, rather than working it’s core mechanic.

      For example, classic Ars didn’t really do money as treasure. I’m not sure all the work that’s fine into making that crunchy gets us closer to a great, easy to use, game of magicians and their choices.

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